Atiqah Nadiah Zailani
The Mini-Retirement Experiment
Retiring isn't always all it's cracked up to be. It's still pretty awesome though. Pros & Cons of the mini-retirement experiment.
Some time in 2015, I decided I would try retiring, and that 2016 will be the year of my mini-retirement.
Back in the day (and still more or less true to this day), retirement was what you got at the end of a very long career, typically when you are in your 50s or 60s. That’s when you finally have the time (and if you’ve done it right, the money as well) to do all the things you’ve been wanting to do, go to places you’ve always wanted to go, or devote time to areas in your life you’ve thus far neglected because of your career.
Nowadays, however, people no longer wait around for old age to experience what retirement is like. Gap years, sabbaticals and career breaks are becoming more common and acceptable. Author Tim Ferris even coined a term for it - “mini retirement” - and argues that instead of postponing retirement to the near end of your life (loosely speaking, as nobody really knows when one’s life will end), you should break it into smaller chunks and distribute it throughout the duration of your time on this planet.
So instead of waiting until you’re 55 for the big payout (assuming you actually manage to reach that ripe age, with all your limbs and organs intact and functioning decently), you should start on your bucket list now, while you still have youth, energy and the stupidity to bravely try new things on your side.
That made a lot of sense to me. So I decided to give it a try.
Making It Happen
I didn’t wake up one day and ‘retired’ just like that. A lot of planning and execution took place to position all the right things in the right places, and some took years to complete.
The most obvious issue when trying to retire is your finances. Retiring means not working, and not working means no income, so you either need to have substantial savings, or a source of alternative passive income, or both. You also need to be able to reasonably predict the amount of money you require to survive for a period of time, say a year, and then discipline yourself to stick with that budget for that duration.
In my case, I decided on the kind of lifestyle I wanted, and calculated how much money I would need to live it. Then I set up various systems to automatically save money, grow the money, manage the money...etc, and let the systems run in the background while I continued working and earning income for years, until I got to the point where I no longer needed to.
Altogether, it took me a little under a decade to get to the point where I could look at my excel sheets, and say: “Hey, I think I’m ready!” (and yes, if you're doing the math, I did plan this since I was in my late teens). I was finally able to ‘retire’ because of the following:
My lifestyle is fairly simple, inexpensive, and low-maintenance (if you ignore all the traveling I do, but I have a separate, dedicated piggy bank for that)
I have no debts that force me to keep working just to pay them off
I have no dependents who rely on me for food, shelter or diapers
I have been saving more than a third of my income ever since I started working back in college, and have a decent amount saved up
What I saved, I then invested, and I now earn dividends from them
Because I am a geek, I have been tracking my daily spending for almost a decade, and am able to tell you how much I paid for a haircut in 2010 and list down all the things I bought in February 2012, no joke. Because of this habit, I can predict with accuracy the amount of money I will need to be able to take off an entire year from work
Of course, this could all change in a blink of an eye - a sudden change in my lifestyle that increases my living costs, unexpected ballooning of inflation rates, a sudden market crash and a drop in my investment portfolio will all send me back into the working world, but for the time being, the numbers work out just fine.
In case this experiment flops and all else fails, I also prepared an Emergency Escape Plan: job offers lined up, as well as a list of people who will take my broke ass into their homes and feed me if necessary.
The Retirement Experience
Though I say 2016 was my mini-retirement year, in truth, it actually started in mid-2015, when I stopped working to travel the world and hit all 7 continents. But I only came home and settled into a ‘normal’ lifestyle in the beginning of 2016, so for all intents and purposes, my mini-retirement clock started then.
And it has been amazing. But also scary.
Like anything else in life, there are the pros and the cons. Here are some that I experienced in the past year or so:
Pro: Time! Freedom! I’mma take back my life!
As you can probably imagine, it’s really nice not having to go to work. I could wake up when I wanted, go anywhere I wanted anytime I wanted at a moment’s notice, and say ‘yes’ to a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have time for. A sudden impromptu trip to a waterfall in the middle of a Wednesday? Sure! Join some friends in Thailand for two weeks so we could stay in bed and watch Korean dramas together? On my way!
I no longer had to endure heavy traffic every day or big crowds on weekends, and my schedule was not crammed with endless meetings that I never liked attending anyway. I wasn’t obligated to spend 8 hours or more sitting at my desk, I had full control and discretion over how I spend my time, and there was no one telling me to be places I didn’t want to be at or to do things I didn’t want to be doing.
Con: But also too much time?
I did not anticipate this at all, but removing work from my life left a gaping emptiness that I actually struggled with. Being a workaholic, suddenly not having work can be a shock to the system, even though it is voluntary. I did have personal projects, tasks and trips planned to occupy me during my retired days, but I didn't quite realise just how much time would be freed up!
All the hours I spent preparing to go to work, commuting to and from work, and to and from one meeting to another meeting… all the time I spent on presentations and excel sheets on the computer… I no longer needed to do them, and I suddenly had all these hours in a day that I didn’t know what to do with!
Removing myself from the workplace also meant removing myself from structure. Before, my daily schedule was set by other people wanting to meet with me or who were setting deadlines for me. Entire weeks and months of my time were scheduled in advance, and all I had to do was follow it and make sure I showed up at the right place and delivered results at the right time.
Now, however, I had a completely blank slate, with no one directing me on how to use it. Like a baby newly weaned from its mother, the sudden independence took some adjusting.
Pro: Every day is a fun day!
Freed from the constraints of a work schedule and the need for a paycheque, it was time to cram my days with lots and lots of fun stuff that I used to only daydream about! Not being a fan of monotony and routine, I made sure that every day was different from the ones before - new places, new people, new things, new activities.
I did whatever tickled my fancy, and explored whatever caught my interest - architecture, family history, painting, website design, business accounting, photography, gardening, interior design, woodworking, as well as the Japanese art of flower arranging called ikebana, because why not?
Rather than living a life motivated solely by the need to earn more money, I was instead motivated by curiosity and creativity, as well as a sincere desire to use my skills for issues I cared very deeply about without really worrying whether it would be profitable or not.
Con: But also too much fun?
For all the fun I was having, and for all the novelty I was putting into my days, there was a constant underlying anxiety that haunted me. For someone who has been working and earning a paycheque since the age of 18, suddenly not having a steady paycheque coming into my bank account on a monthly basis, and not vying for coveted projects or positions got a bit weird, especially when the rest of my peers were boasting about their promotions and generous salary increments.
“Am I being irresponsible and wasting my education? Shouldn’t I be out there climbing some corporate ladder? Shouldn’t I be a 'productive' adult citizen and work like everybody else?”. I definitely went through a few ‘WTF am I doing’ moments, as well as several FOMO attacks.
Where is the lie.
It was also harder to socialise and share the fun. When I worked, I was constantly meeting new people and spending time with people (whether I wanted to or not) - there were lunches with colleagues, work events with bosses and impromptu weekend plans made together by the water cooler. Now that I wasn’t working, I had to make the extra conscious effort to put on pants and go outside to see people.
In addition, while I certainly had time and could go running off to the sunset on a Tuesday, my family and friends couldn’t, and after a while, running to the sunset by yourself gets a little old. Not many people can join me for karaoke on a Monday morning, and even less can join me for a month-long trip in India. So for all the time that I had, there were very few people to spend it with because they were all chugging to the 9-6 work schedule that I was no longer part of.
Pro: I’m different from everybody else!
One of my favourite things about retiring and taking back my time is the ability to move to a different beat, or at least a different schedule, than most people. Little things like going shopping on a weekday so I don’t have to deal with the crowds, or getting on the road when everybody else is safely tucked away in their cubicles.
Then there were also the big things, like not having to worry about the stuff most people worry about, like office politics or promotions or shrinking departmental budgets. I didn’t fret about layoffs, because there was no one to fire me.
Work was no longer obligatory, but optional - when I did feel like working, I could afford to be picky about what I chose to work on. If I found the project interesting, I’d say yes, and do my best. If it didn’t fit my priorities or travel schedule, I’d say no, and it was perfectly fine to do so. Nobody died, and I could still pay my bills the next day.
Con: But also too different?
Moving to a different beat meant you had to explain your ‘weird’ song to others, and they may not fully understand or even agree with it. “Retiring before the age of 30?? What nonsense!” “Are you just going to bum around the house then? Is that it?” “What a shame, you could’ve really gone high up the food chain and become a young CEO.” (To be fair, I had a lot of positive, encouraging reactions too from people who were more curious than judgmental)
In a world where your value is tied to your job, not having one renders you worthless - something stay-at-home mothers have been struggling with for decades. Your job makes up a significant part of your identity and self worth, and I only realised just how much when I no longer had one. When people introduce themselves to me by their jobs - “Hi I’m X, and I’m a lawyer/ manager / vice president” - I’m never quite sure how to respond. “Hi, I’m Atiqah… that’s it.”
Having removed myself from the corporate structure, the normal societal markers of success no longer applied to me. There were no quarterly performance reviews to tell me if I was on the right track, no bosses or colleagues to tell me if I’m doing something wrong, no 'titles' to help me compare my status to others, and no promotions to assure me that I am moving up the ladder in a 'satisfactory' pace. I am on my own, and I had to develop my own (arguably more authentic) judgment of my value, as well as my own standards and measures of what success means to me and how far along I am in achieving it. And honestly, I don’t always know all the answers.
I did the experiment just to see if I would like the experience - would I have a blast? or would I get bored and run out of money? does all that freedom suit me or will I be dying to get back to work? can I self-direct? or do I still need other people telling me what to do with my life and my time?
All in all, I liked being in ‘retirement’, with the occasional foray into short work-projects to keep my professional skills sharp. I managed to do a lot of things I've been wanting to do, and I developed new skills, dreamed up new dreams, and learned a lot about myself along the way that gave me more clarity on the kind of person I wanted to be.
Still, the workaholic in me keeps screaming for more, and is completely anxious at the lack of structure, and the absence of competition and professional challenges (sorry, I’m a Type A, I can’t help it!)
The pink guy is me and I am the pink guy. Source: OwlTurd
That being said, all of the cons I mentioned above are solvable, with some effort, better planning, a dose of discipline and just a bit more confidence to unapologetically live by my choices.
The real trick here is to find that balance, that elusive point of having:
“enough challenge to be interesting, enough ease to be enjoyable, enough camaraderie to be nourishing, enough solitude to be productive, enough hours at work to get the job done, enough leisure to feel refreshed, enough service to feel needed, [and] enough silliness to have fun…”*
Easier said than done, naturally, but not entirely impossible. This mini-retirement is simply another attempt in a long list of attempts to attain that sweet spot of having “enough”. Like all lifestyle changes, this too takes some getting used to, which I have no doubt I will after several more of these mini-retirements in the future!
* quote from Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, Monique Tilford, authors of Your Money or Your Life, one of the books that changed my life and how I viewed money.