I can’t retire until I am 70. Or I will work until I die. That is what I used to tell myself. I hated my job. There was a time whenI loved it with a passion. But the work culture had grown increasingly toxic. Most days I knew, without a doubt, the path I was on would kill me. I was in a prison of my own making. And yet… I quit my job, we sold our house, gave away our possessions and moved to the beach. We escaped. This is our story so far.
Two years ago we were walking the beach with my daughter, when she stopped and said to my wife, “I can really see you and dad moving here… it is so relaxing, so beautiful.” We laughed, “If only!” But then we thought and dreamed. Slowly, “If only!” gave way to “What if?” Was it possible?
The pull of a hope for a life better lived, the push of escaping a work hell fused with an urgency sparked by the sudden cancer death of my formerly extraordinarily healthy brother. Blaring the question, “Could this happen?”
Every article I read, every financial planner said, “Don’t do it!”
“You must work longer! Work till you are 65, 67… or 70.”
I was turning 60 in April of 2018, early retirement was technically a possibility. A small pension. Medical would be mostly covered until turning 65 with a special supplement from my company. But… our mortgage was not paid off. Our retirement savings was only a few hundred thousand dollars. Selling our house, buying something at the beach, and living off so little seemed impossible. Raising and educating four kids, moving many times across the country, and living fairly well had left us ill prepared.
So the advice was unanimous — -> don’t even think about doing it.
Of course financial advisors want you to maximize your money. Work longer. Save more. But they don’t live your life. They don’t balance your limited time on earth with money. Time is not money. Money cannot buy you more time. They will always tell you to keep trading your time for money. Until you are dead. Or close to it.
And they will fear monger. Relentlessly.
I won’t repeat the never ending whine of financial advisor advice. You can read different versions everywhere. Believe. Follow it. But for many, this advice is a death sentence. My job was slowly sucking the life from me. I wanted out. I needed out.
But was there a way?
“We must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you must look at it in a different way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try. Dare to strike out and find new ground.” -Dead Poets Society
What if we dramatically changed the way we live? Ditch the 4,000 square foot house and three car garage. Live in a 2 bedroom condo or apartment? Change our lifestyle? Simplify, declutter… become minimalists?
Our kids were grown and gone. Maintaining the house had become a pain… and expensive. When we looked at the space my wife and I actually used every day, we realized our living space had effectively shrunk to the equivalent of a 2 bedroom condo. All the other space was just maintenance.
We could be happy… actually happier with just two bedrooms. Especially near the beach.
Selling the house and living in an apartment is a game changer. Short term investing the equity and bleeding it down over time fully covers rent until Social Security retirement (66 and 8 months for us). Suddenly living on a small pension was easy. Rent fully covered. No mortgage, no maintenance costs (averaging $4K per year), no property taxes (another $4K). And much lower income taxes, both federal and state. Doable.
But what about the longer term? The steady state after Social Security kicks in? I ran the numbers. At our normal full retirement we’d still have the pension. For 35 years I had maxed out SS contributions every year. Plus, my wife’s 50% spousal benefit. All adding up to an easy six figure per year retirement. Without touching our smallish 401K (which will be converted to a Roth IRA while our income tax rate is minimal the next few years). Then I layered in all the subtractions… no house maintenance, no property taxes, lower income taxes, no more retirement savings contributions. Adjusted medical expenses. Oh, and yes, life insurance in case I died first.
Living at the beach in an upscale two bedroom. Our plan became not only doable, but comfortable. Easy… even if I never made a dime writing.
My wife was firmly supportive. Not everyone has a spouse willing to uproot their life with such a dramatic transformation. We spent weeks debating and analyzing the financials… what are we missing? Financially, it held together. Selling the house and moving to Michigan was a leap of faith. Can we really be happy in an apartment after all these years? Decluttering, simplification. Giving away almost everything. Had we lost out minds?
We embarked on another trip to Michigan. Found a fantastic new community being built. We were all in.
The plan needed to come together. My business was in the process of being sold. If it sold too quickly, the early retirement pension would not be available. The house needed to sell quickly. There was an overwhelming amount of possessions to sort and jettison. Accumulated over 35 years, moved from house to house as I changed jobs. Full of memories. This difficult process fell mostly to my wife as I began to close out of work.
I bought michigandreams.com and began a daily 200 day blog countdown. We were doing this publicly. May 1st, 2018… we would be in Michigan. I told my boss at about day 175. He didn’t believe me. I pointed to my blog, “Read it. I am leaving.” He still didn’t believe.
My countdown blog was simple. Almost stream of consciousness. Every day, even living in my “work hell”, I wanted to get back in the habit of journaling. Writing something every day. My blog was a good new habit. Upon arriving in Michigan, I planned to write my first book.
The 200 days zoomed by with the whirlwind of preparation. One by one, pieces fell into place. The sale of the business was delayed by several months. I was able to leave under the old company. The house sold with only a few weeks left in the countdown. My heroic wife battled through decades of “stuff”.
April 28th, 2018. There I was, standing in front of the apartment complex. Alone, running ahead of the movers, while my wife cleared the house. A chilly, windy Michigan day. Yes, the second guessing crept into my mind, “What have we done?”
Our goal was to be at the beach by May 1st. We made it. On the beach, my wife and I sighed together. Exhausted, but stress free. The calming sound of the waves. All doubt had vanished.
The end of the second summer of living in Grand Haven, Michigan. The financial plan remains solid. We have a sustained happiness level that is simply amazing. A strong love for the community, beaches, shopping, restaurants, and ability to make fantastic short trips around western Michigan.
We successfully decluttered and are progressing with our minimalist living. Every day, I love the clean counters, organized drawers, nearly blank walls. A living space that takes only minutes to keep clean. It is soothing to have eliminated the visual clutter from our lives.
Finding your beach after a long day at work is pure stress relief. Visiting a beach most mornings, when you had zero stress to begin with, is otherworldly. Ever changing beaches, never the same, in good weather and not so good weather… our paradise.
Two failures come to mind. I had expected to greatly enhance my physical fitness after escaping the stress of work. This has not happened. It need to happen soon.
I have not completed my book. It was naive to believe I would write it in a year. I was not ready after decades in corporate finance. Now, I read every day. Write every day. And enjoy life with my wife every day. The book will be finished one day. Maybe this winter. Maybe not. No need to stress.
The blueprint? We did this, you can too… No!
If you are young, and made it all the way thru this… think. We are fortunate to have pension income. You probably won’t. So it is up to you to save. I calculate the present value of my pensions to be worth north of a million. Plus the few hundred thousand in additional savings we did manage to do on our own.
Have a plan to save and invest some serious money. Then combined with Social Security (Yes, it will still exist) and you’ll be ok.
It is tough to save money. Especially raising kids. But find a way. The earlier you start, the better. Think about becoming a minimalist. Be better than I was. Don’t buy junk. Save that money. Embrace minimalism. You’ll be happier now without things you don’t really need. And happier and wealthier later.
Are you happy and you know it? Clap your hands and work, work work till you are 70. Or older. If you can. But have a plan if you can’t. Life happenes.
Miserable? Like I was? Or just dreaming of escape? Maybe you can. Analyze all your options. Think differently. Is it possible your time is more valuable than money?