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Maybe You're Thinking About Retirement Wrong (& Why 'Mini-Retirement' Is Worth Considering)

three people holding coffee mugs in the South African savannah
On safari in South Africa for my Mom's 70th

Do you plan to work yourself to the bone, scrimping and saving till you’re 65 and then stop working forever and ever, amen? Never working another day in your life, just … watching soap operas and speed walking around the mall? Now, I’m not going to shame anyone who goes that route, but when I talk to my coaching clients about retirement, they usually don't see that for themselves, so I like to introduce them to a slightly less traditional approach to retirement.

I like to propose that we think of our lives and career paths in more of a fits and starts strategy by introducing the idea of a mini-retirement. (I expand on this in episode five of my podcast!)

A new way to think about retirement

If working in “fits and starts” sounds strange to you, think about how often we see parents take a break from full-time work to raise kids. Once the kids have become more independent, they work through those years in order to educate their children and then hope to retire at a “typical” age. But what about those of us who don’t have kids and thus don't have that kind of socially acceptable excuse to take time off? In case you need it, here’s your reminder: You don't need to have kids to take time off when you’re still feeling physically great. Maybe it's six months or three months or three years, but I think these mini-retirements should really be a bigger part of the financial planning conversation.

I mean, if you really think about it, we all know people who live this way. Think about the people who never really get into a career and instead maybe job hop around in service industry jobs. Or I dated a guy back in my 20’s who was working a more traditional career in his 30’s when he decided he didn’t want to take that path. So he quit and went to work at a running store and became a marathon training coach who reffed high school basketball games in the winter for extra money. His parents thought he was a total derelict to leave behind his college education and one of my friends even chastised me for dating him because he “didn’t have a 401k.” But I always kind of admired his willingness to challenge the prevailing thought of what made a “good life” and instead just decided to live his life all the time rather than saving it for the future. He’s 60 now and he’s still reffing games and he’s still happy and has no regrets.

So many people I talk to have the same experience I’ve had: we did what we were “supposed to do” by getting the best grades, going to a good college and graduating with a decent degree that would help us to find a well-paying job with upward career potential - we were basically coached by our families, who had the best intentions for us, to maximize our personal earning potential so that we would be less likely to experience the financial stress that our parents had when we were kids. To do this, we tend to buy into the idea that we need to work, work, work and then we can enjoy life later.

Then we’re assailed with the reminders on Instagram that tomorrow isn’t promised, make the most of today – see the sights, do all of the things, but make it look pretty, right?

Here’s the part where you might need to open your mind a little bit: I think it’s possible to do both. As long as you’re not totally committed to the idea that the only life path for you is education, job, partner, kids, house, raise kids, retire, it’s possible to have a rewarding career and also enjoy some time just living in the interim. (As a side note, many of my coaching clients are people who fall outside the framework of “heterosexual married couple with 2.5 kids and a big house in the ‘burbs, looking to make + save as much money as possible” framework. If that’s you, let’s talk!)

Now whenever I bring this up at cocktail parties, I'm always challenged with how hard it is to break back in if you “lose momentum” in your career, and that's a very real argument. But what if, instead of going from 50 hours a week at a salaried job, you went to 30 hours a week of consulting? Or 20 hours a week at a less-demanding-but-still-in-your-field job? Even just temporarily?

What taking a “mini retirement” has looked like for me

A few years ago, I was at (what most would consider) the height of my career. I was doing a great job, really killing it in my role, and I was also experiencing major health issues that were directly tied to working so hard. I was also sick of having someone else dictate my schedule. So I tapped out. I said, “I'm not going to do this anymore. For now.” But I also didn’t just burn the whole thing down. I treated it more like a retirement by giving my employer almost two months notice and being very clear that I was leaving not because I was going to another job, but because I just … needed to not work for someone else for awhile.

But I wasn’t tapping out with the aim of never working again, I just wanted to have complete control over my time for a while. And because I’d been pretty diligent about saving for the future over the first 20-ish years of my career and we don’t have kids, I only really needed to worry about how I would pay my own expenses for the time I wasn’t earning income. It wasn’t such a financially devastating move to just… pause.

How I could afford a “mini-retirement”

Before I put in my notice, I ran the numbers and found that I averaged about $3,300 a month in spending between my contributions to the household expenses and my own discretionary spending.

I figured if I had at least $40k in savings and left my retirement investments just riding in the market, I could take a year or two to be a stay-at-home cat mom. (I will acknowledge right here that being married to a partner with steady income helped with this, but it’s still possible without that aspect) I planned this career break for over a year – I took steps to ensure I maxed out my work bonus and saved every penny of it. I was a little less loose with my spending while I was preparing to leave because I knew I couldn’t really cut the paycheck off til my savings was at that $40k mark. That would give me a solid year to chill, or at least six months if I thought it would take six months to ramp back up to earning money again.

And the thing is, because I was very open about my intention of just stepping away for a bit, the opportunities to earn money have been there – my network knows my skills and I was clear that I was open to creative ways to contribute without being traditionally employed. So I’ve been able to piece together a decent income throughout the almost three years since I left my job.

For example, I’ve written over a dozen personal finance articles for the Journal of Accountancy while also enjoying multiple paid speaking gigs that included some fun travel. In addition, I’ve been able to do some really cool consulting work in the workplace financial wellness space, such as helping to create the first iteration of a certification course that NCAA athletes can take to help them make the most of the new earnings opportunities they have around the use of their name, image or likeness.

In the meantime, I’ve also done some life stuff that I couldn’t have done while working full time for someone else. I’ve traveled and moved across the country and spent time with my parents. I’ve mastered the art of sitting with a cat on my lap and not feeling like I should be doing something more productive. I’ve also become a really great napper. Man, I just love the indulgence of a great afternoon nap!

Kelley napping with a cat's paw sticking out from under the blanket
Note the cat paw...

After almost three years of mini-retirement, the savings that I set aside were starting to run low, so I got back to amping up my income and working more of a full-time schedule. For someone else, that might look like getting back on the job market. For me, it was picking up some consulting contract work, becoming a member of the Calm talent team, refining my coaching offering to add ongoing coaching and continuing to put myself out there for paid speaking gigs.

How to shift your mindset around taking a “mini-retirement”

If all this sounds intriguing, I want you to know that you don't have to completely step out of your career to quit your job and take a break.

I’m not encouraging anyone to throw their career in the toilet and burn it down to take a mid-career break, but I’d like more people to explore the idea that you don't necessarily have to stay in the same grind that you’re currently in for a solid 40 years before you can enjoy your life and your savings. What if you spread those 40 years of working out over your entire life span rather than cramming it all into your prime years? Who says it has to be that way anymore?

So if you’re someone who is stressed because you feel like you’ve been doing all the things you’re “supposed to do” because the world told you that these are the ingredients to a “fulfilling life” and you haven’t been able to prioritize saving enough to retire at 65, don’t stress. Retiring that young is an outdated idea due to our expanded lifespans anyway.

Rather than tacking on 30 more years at the end of our life and not working at all during that last third of life, let’s use that expanded life span to spread our work out – no need to rush the career ascension to happen so early, no need to sacrifice your 40’s and 50’s working all the time so you can save more in order to NOT work in your 70’s and 80’s. And who knows? By taking better care of our bodies and minds now, we can also expand our health span so that we don't spend our final years just going to the doctor. Take time while you’re still physically spry, while you still WANT to hike and bike and fly across the world and try different foods and experience different cultures. I’m not saying you won’t want to do those things when you’re 80, but ask any 80-year-old and they’ll say they wish they’d done that stuff when they were younger. Take the pressure off yourself to cram your best working years into your best living years and consider planning to work later in your life.

Of course, this approach to retirement might not resonate with you and it won’t apply to a lot of people, professions or life circumstances, but if you’re someone who is feeling stressed about not having a lot saved or life milestones are taking longer than you thought they would, consider this idea. We weren’t meant to spend the last 3rd of our lives playing golf and watching Law & Order reruns EXCLUSIVELY. (although I fully support making time to watch Law & Order or my favorite, Jeopardy! on a daily basis, if that's your jam, I just don't think anyone aspires to that as their ONLY retirement activity) Take the pressure off yourself to maximize your saving and your earning and get creative about how you might maximize your living right now.

P.S. Want to hear more about this? Listen to episode five of my podcast. And if you want help planning a mini-retirement of your own, I have a handful of 1:1 coaching spots available!


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