What If You Can’t Retire Yet?

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Can I Retire Yet? It is pretty safe to assume that if you are reading this blog you have an interest in answering that question. There are common themes that cause people to start asking.

man looking at computer screen distraught because he can't retire yet

Many of us feel the tension of never having enough time for the things we want to do while working. We burn out from constant demands of high stress careers. Life events, both positive and negative, cause us to examine whether we are spending life the way we truly want.

The question may have been thrust upon you by an employer who decided that your services were no longer required. Or maybe health issues forced you out of the workforce earlier than expected, or are making life unbearable while working.

You may badly want to retire. Yet when you face financial reality, the answer to the retirement question is a clear no.

For others, the answer is unclear. You need to estimate health care expenses, your life span, taxes, future investment returns, interest rates, and inflation over decades to make an informed retirement decision. But none of these factors is knowable with certainty.

Miscalculation in any of these areas can cause drastically divergent retirement outcomes. The longer the retirement horizon, the greater the impact of even small miscalculations. This can cause people to become trapped with stress, anxiety, and fear.

Many of you either cannot retire yet or aren’t sure whether or not you can. So where do you go from here? Can this be a good thing?

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Not long after beginning my career, I started to burn out. I started flirting with the idea of early retirement, but didn’t consider it a realistic possibility.

In early fall 2012, my cousin passed away in her early 40’s after losing a battle with cancer. A month later, my daughter was born. These events, occurring in such proximity, shook me to my core. They made me question what really was important in life.

Related: Taking Stock of Your Life and Finances

I became acutely aware that I was not spending my time the way I wanted. I began getting serious about retirement planning, more sure than ever that early retirement was what I wanted.

Reality set in soon. A quick analysis of our finances made me realize that retirement was not possible without drastically altering our lifestyle or taking on massive financial risk. Neither was a desirable alternative.

This was initially depressing. I felt trapped and wanted out of the life I was living, but didn’t see a way.

Sometimes You Get What You Need

I continued to save aggressively and read everything I could about retirement planning. My initial strategy was to accelerate the early retirement process. As my learning continued, I began to see many challenges inherent in traditional retirement.

Traditional retirement is not the panacea for life’s problems I originally envisioned. The idea of living life constrained to a budget was unappealing. I also realized that I was running away from things I didn’t like in life without any idea where I was actually going.

In retrospect, not being able to retire — as I so badly wanted — was a good thing. It gave me what I needed — time to ask better questions and seek better alternatives. This allowed me to improve my life while designing a more desirable long-term future. I encourage you to do the same.

What Do You Really Want?

A great place to start your retirement planning is to set aside some time to think about what you really want in life. It can be valuable to journal or discuss this with trusted advisors.

I thought I wanted retirement. After digging deeper below the surface, I found I wanted much more than traditional retirement could provide.

A desire to regain control of my time is what initially drove me to seek early retirement. I wanted freedom to spend time on the things I found most important without being constrained by someone else’s schedule. This didn’t seem possible while practicing physical therapy. I also wanted to be done with the ever growing administrative demands of my job. To these ends retirement seemed, and still is, very desirable. However, time and freedom are not the only things I value.

Happiness is about living life in alignment with your personal values. I also value financial prosperity, serving and helping others, personal growth and development, and accomplishing personal goals. These values are  all compatible with work. Some are actually more elusive if you limit yourself to a traditional retirement, defined as not working at all.

Related: Becoming a Beginner in Retirement

Once you are clear on what you want out of life, you can start taking immediate action towards those ends. You don’t have to wait until retirement.

Progressive Freedom

It is easy to think of work and retirement as a dichotomy. You are working or you are retired. Life is rarely this black and white.

You do not need to be fully financially independent and ready to retire to start improving your lifestyle. Once you gain clarity on what you want and set aside self-limiting beliefs, you can begin to pursue change immediately.

Related: Not Going Back to Work

Improve Your Work Conditions

If you are not in financial position to leave work permanently, start by looking for ways to optimize your working conditions. This can include working less. Examples can be negotiating increased vacation time, a sabbatical, or going part-time. You can also look for ways to eliminate parts of your job you find undesirable.

Conventional wisdom says this is pie in the sky thinking. In reality, this may be far easier than you think. If you have worked hard in your career while also working on your personal finances, you’ve given yourself great leverage to negotiate.

An employer may find it easier and more profitable to make concessions to keep a valuable worker than to have to replace them. As you progress toward financial independence, you can negotiate from a position of power if you are willing and able to walk away.

In my final years at my job, I was able to stop the portion of my job that required me to work evenings and weekends. I also negotiated away pay raises for additional vacation time. My wife had a similar experience after deciding she never wanted to return to full-time work after having our daughter. She negotiated to work part-time, from home, and with a flexible schedule.

Phased/Transitional Retirement

Those in a two-income situation have another option for flexibility. Rather than syncing your retirement process, one partner can retire or start cutting back sooner. This is another strategy we employed, giving us a more desirable lifestyle and allowing us to ease into retirement.

After giving birth to our daughter, my wife returned to work part-time while I continued full-time. Because she worked less hours and had no commute, she agreed to take on the lion’s share of the housework. While we were both still busier than we would have liked, this extra time drastically improved our lifestyle while we were both still working.

I retired from my job in December 2017, but my wife continues to work in her part-time position. Our roles at home have shifted with me taking on the bulk of the household chores. She has more time and less stress while incrementally cutting down her work hours.

This helped us get past the fear of making a big change. We’ve also benefitted from her continued income and ability to get affordable health insurance. This allows us to live a far better lifestyle with little financial stress.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Retiring Before Your Spouse

Non-Traditional Retirement

I often beat the drum about redefining retirement. I am certainly not alone in sharing this message.

AARP developed the Life Reimagined program to help people navigate the many challenges associated with traditional retirement. There is also Encore.org, an organization dedicated to helping people with the financial and emotional challenges of traditional retirement by finding meaningful second act careers.

Michael Kitces writes about the three types of retirement; traditional retirement, semi-retirement, and temporary retirement/sabbaticals. Kitces notes the growing popularity of alternative approaches to retirement. His article also cited a statistic that only half of retirees plan to not work again.

On this blog, Darrow presented his retirement flexibility scale for choosing your safe withdrawal rate to help make the retirement decision. Several of the factors that would allow you to retire earlier and more securely include having the ability to return to your career, a skill that would allow you to make $1,000-2,000/month, or your willingness to do a service-sector job.

It is easy to say non-traditional retirement is “not really retiring”. I would argue that everything goes back to determining what you truly want. If your goal is to never work again, choose traditional retirement. However, if you really want to design your ideal lifestyle, have both abundance and security, and do it quickly; then you’ll need to be more flexible and creative.

Falling into the all or nothing thinking of traditional retirement can be stressful to those that cannot retire and can trap those on the fence. Being willing to simply look at the problem through a different lens can expose different options.

Don’t Fret!

We all came to this blog looking to answer the question Can I Retire Yet? Invariably, the answer will at times be no. For others, you simply aren’t sure.

You cannot magically change your current financial reality. There is also no way to  be certain when trying to predict factors that will influence your retirement outcome.

You still have options. Figure out what you really want, start working towards those ends immediately, then try to look at the problem from different viewpoints. You may find that what you really want is closer than you first thought.

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to chris@caniretireyet.com. Financial planning inquiries can be sent to chris@abundowealth.com]

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  1. “If you have worked hard in your career while also working on your personal finances, you’ve given yourself great leverage to negotiate.”

    Very true, and this is what worked for me. I went to my employer last summer and expressed my desire to go part time. And that included giving up my role as a Senior Director since for me part time meant 20 hours a week, not 32. They worked with me to make it happen.

    I’m convinced it worked out only because I gave my heart and soul to the job and career for 22 years. if you make yourself invaluable and carefully choose your bosses, it’s likely you’ll be treated fairly and valued.

    1. Agree 100% AF. When I wrote my post about our plans for getting healthcare I described my wife’s work situation (part-time, work from home, location independent, flexible schedule, provides health care for our family) and several people wrote e-mails that seemed skeptical and asked how you find a job like that. The truthful answer is that you don’t. No one will advertise or offer that. You get it by being an excellent employee who has value that they can’t find elsewhere and then having the confidence to negotiate for what you want. Not everyone can create that exact situation (for example me as a physical therapist), but within the constraints of what your job demands allow, the only thing stopping you from asking for what you want is you. If you are a valuable employee you have great power to negotiate. Just make sure that you are as valuable as you think you are or it could go the other way!

  2. Keep beating that redefining retirement drum, Chris! It’s a great message in general, but it’s particularly helpful in the early retirement/financial independence communities.

    The ultimate goal for me is living a fulfilling life for as long as I’m here. Like you, normal work situations clearly didn’t allow me to live that fulfilled life. But the idea that the peak of the mountain, full financial independence is the only way to scratch that itch isn’t true. There are so many intermediate steps along the way. For me it’s been mini-retirement/sabbaticals, semi-retirement, and shifting a lot of my entrepreneurial energy to new projects.

    Keep the great posts coming!

    1. Thanks Chad.

      Your story is extremely inspiring to me and a model that I strive to emulate. Seeing the many amazing things you are doing with your family while running and expanding a business from across the globe shows what is possible when you lose the limiting beliefs that many of us have.

  3. Yes on creating leverage in negotiations with your employer. My employer suggested that we explore a part time schedule after I asked for this on several occasions in the past. This happened due to my flexibility in work schedule. I filled a hole in the hospital schedule by voluntarily working all weekends. I am not sure that it’s a long term solution but it is a wonderful thing to be able to consider it! I was planning on leaving my position and either finding another part time job or changing fields due to a few reasons this year. The PT possibility and staying where I am alleviates one big factor that has decreased my job satisfaction, however. Working weekends eliminates all the mind numbing meetings and most of the ridiculous politics in my organizations. I am currently weighing my options but am thankful that I was able to make the most out of working a schedule most would find unacceptable and turn it to my advantage and my employer’s advantage too. It may “buy” me a few more years in the workforce and the ability to increased my retirement savings while giving me the freedom I need to enjoy owning almost all of my time.

    1. Yes 1000X. Flexibility is extremely valuable. Seeing the needs of others and being able to meet those need while finding ways to match it up to your personal needs/wants gives you a chance to charge a premium while doing less work. Great example of what I’m getting at in this post.

  4. Fortunately, my wife works in healthcare where good part-time work with benefits (health insurance) is a possibility. My job in tech (product management) is most always full time or contractor work if you can find it. Also, technology changes fast so if you’re not all-in, your skills and knowledge can become obsolete fairly quickly. So for me, quitting full-time will likely mean a “2nd career” or some type of traditional retirement. When I soon leave the workforce, our situation sounds similar to Chris’s. Glad to see this model is working for him.

    1. Glad you could draw that parallel Phillip. It is hard to get people to see the many possibilities that match up to their own personal wants, needs, strengths, weaknesses, abilities, etc when writing for a broad audience. However, that ability to apply traditional concepts of personal finance and retirement planning to your individual situation is where you can drastically change the retirement equation vs. being stuck in fear.

      1. I am now a subscriber of the “quiet quitting” movement whereas I am doing what I think is just enough to keep my job, not care about promotions or “visibility” and trying to remain 100% telecommute. I tend to personal affairs (like watching my kid’s afternoon soccer match) as a priority and push work to the next day vs working late except in very rare situations. So far, making those adjustments has resulted in me still working full time even though the numbers say we should be ok for me to retire. I’m still in the “one more year syndrome” but that’s ok.

  5. When I decided to leave the constraints of a corporate job over 18 years ago, I did not have much a plan other than having set aside enough money to last for at least a year. Fortunately, I understand finances, being an accountant, and had been investing in the stock market and saving money from salary for many years.

    I told my friends at work that I was “retiring”. My intention was to find more meaningful work and to have a more flexible schedule. The whole idea of FIRE was unknown. Needless to say, my friends and family thought I was going down a scary path. It wasn’t that I intended to never work. It’s just choosing to work as opposed to having to work.

    The biggest hurdle is health insurance. That me is the wild card. I am not married which has added to my creativity to be covered. I have taken consulting jobs, worked P/T at Trader Joe’s, negotiated with a small non-profit where I worked to offer me insurance, and now through the ACA.

    1. Agree Diane that in many ways what each of us has done looks like traditional entrepreneurship as much as it looks like retirement from the outside. However, I think there is a big difference when you come at it from a different mindset of not needing to make money so we have the freedom to choose the highest ROI in terms of fulfillment and impact rather than trying to make the most money. There is also a freedom to fail in a particular endeavor without it cascading into general financial failure. Those are big distinctions.

      Also agree that health insurance is the biggest challenge and we likewise feel that the key is creativity and flexibility as I wrote about here: https://www.caniretireyet.com/flexible-health-insurance-early-retirement/

  6. Another believer! I was a technician for 10 years and then climbed through the management roles to Sr. Manager. Total of 45 years in the technology. Next month I will start part-time back as a technician. I have some skills I need to brush up on and maybe a training class but I have a strong desire to work and this is what I know and love. We agreed at part-time and plenty of time off – yes, w/o pay for some of it but the time is the important aspect. I want to spend the time with my grandkids that I don’t think I did so well at with my own.

    1. Glad to see that you are choosing flexibility and making the time for the things most important in your life rather than chasing the biggest paycheck. Best of luck in your new role.

  7. Once again, Great write up Chris.

    So refreshing to come across a financial independence writer with an open minded approach so similar to mine.

    I felt very relieved once I figured out that early “traditional” retirement was not my only option. Actually leaving full time work and moving to part time work was instrumental in that discovery. I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. The question of having enough to retire was no longer a burden.

    As of right now, I can see myself doing part time work indefinitely. It feels like a good balance of work and getting other things done in life. I have also developed a sense of “I can do anything I want.” Who knows what doors will open now that I have given myself a little room to explore.

    1. Thanks Skip. This really is a simple concept (like so many things that we write about) yet conventional ways of thinking become so engrained that it is not easy to see them.

      I totally relate to what you say about finding balance and being able to work indefinitely. An idea that I latched onto when frustrated by thinking about the challenges of traditional retirement was to start building a life I never wanted to retire from.

  8. Does earnings from investments such as dividends considered a part of the 3 or 4% withdrawal rate? I have $1.5M in taxable accounts and it throws off $25000 in dividends, thus would 4% withdrawal be $60k or $85k (25k plus 4% of $1.5M)?

  9. Don’t think you can retire? Try figuring out what you actually need. Income less taxes, less retirement savings, less mortgage (maybe), less work costs, less children expense, less .. It is probably much less than you think.
    Then try to figure out what you have. Social Security probably covers much more than you think.
    Yes there are still a great many unknowns but retirement is probably not the unattainable goal that many believe.

  10. Hi Chris,

    Great read! Very appropriate in today’s world of worker shortage, the great resignation, the blurring of work/life balance with remote work, etc. Do people want retirement, or just more meaningful and less overbearing work?

    I’m FI and faced this question myself recently and found I wanted a less stressful job more than I wanted full retirement. I left for a different company for the same pay and a sweet signing bonus, and have no work stress and much more work-life balance.

    Really appreciate your breakdown of options to live a more fulfilling life other than full retirement. The idea of a staggered retirement with a spouse is one that especially resonates with me and one that I will likely follow at some point in the future.

    Its easy to assume full retirement is what you want when you are stressed and the goal is so far away.

    For those newly FI or near FI, the retire early part loses its unicorn appeal when it’s finally real, especially if both spouses have a different sense of purpose about their work.

    You laid out some sensible approaches to restructure where work fits into our lives that can apply to people at many stages of their FI journey.

  11. I would think the very word “Retirement” should be retired! It incorrectly frames the questions around what the next phase of a persons life should be. During the middle-ages, one definition was “to leave the workplace and go to bed.” In 1933 unemployment was raging consequently one of the original reasons for the creation of SS was to move older workers out so that younger workers could take their place. Thus the seeds of age discrimination were sown. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that “retirement” in its current meaning came into common usage. 401k’s didn’t exist until 1979 and IRA’s not until 1997. Is it any wonder people are struggling with the very idea of what “retirement” means much less how to attain it?

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