“One cannot really come to appreciate one’s life, save by playing with it and hazarding it a little.” ~ Jack London
Just over a month ago we packed our bags and hit the road for Mini-Retirement #1. The trip was part vacation and part experiment as I tested out some of the things that I’ve been writing about here at Intentional Retirement.
Before I fill you in on how it went (spoiler alert: it involves a visit to the emergency room), let’s do a quick review of the “What?” and “Why?”
What is a mini-retirement?
A mini-retirement is when you take small chunks of your retirement (say a month or two) and spread them out during your working years. That way you can do some of the things that you’ve been putting off until “Someday” while you’re still relatively young and healthy and you’ve got your kids and/or friends around to enjoy them with you. A mini-retirement can focus on travel, hobbies, or anything else you’ve wanted to do but have been putting off until retirement. For more on the concept read this: The Case for Mini-Retirements.
Because you only have one short, precious go-around at this life. You can either spend it dreaming about “Someday” or you can decide what you really want out of life and start taking those plans very seriously.
How did things go?
When I first proposed the trip to my wife I told her it would either be a great time as a family or the biggest mistake we ever made. Thankfully, it was 100 percent the former. The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, and the scenery was absolutely amazing. We hiked places like the Cliffs of Moher and the Wales Coast Path. We frequented local pubs where live music, a cold pint, and friendly conversation with the locals were always on tap. We took guided tours through a few thousand years of history in places like Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Guinness Brewery, and the Jameson Distillery. Most of all, we spent four weeks of relaxing, memorable, focused time as a family. I could go on and on about what we saw and did, but instead I thought I’d share a few takeaways from the trip that you can use for your own life and retirement.
Have a quest. All told, we were gone 31 days, but the trip was much more than that. It was 9 months of saving, planning, anticipation, dinnertime conversations, overcoming obstacles and figuring out logistics. And once the planning was over we actually got to summon a little courage and sail away from safe harbor. We got to have interesting experiences and make memories that will last a lifetime. We got to return home different than when we left. In short, it wasn’t a vacation. It was a quest. A quest can take an ordinary month or year and turn it into something interesting, exciting and memorable. There are about 25 weeks left in 2014. What kind of quest can you dream up?
The conditions are never perfect. Had we waited for the stars to align perfectly, we never would have gone. The time never seems to be right. You could always use a little more money or a few more days at the office. But we went anyway (non-refundable airfare and accommodations are always a good motivator) and you know what? Everything worked out great. So don’t wait for the perfect time. It will never come.
If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. Write that on your bathroom mirror. It might sound a little corny, but at the end of the day, it’s not your boss, your spouse, your trainer, or that retirement blogger who are going to make things happen in your life. It’s you. Period. No one can live your life for you. The hard work of making things happen is your responsibility and the satisfaction of a life well lived is your reward.
Your health is WAY more important than you’re making it. Almost everywhere we went there were tour buses loaded with traditional retirees. Some of those people were spry and fit and able to get around, but many of them had visible health issues and were limited to exploring within a very short distance of the bus. Contrast that with the couple we saw while hiking in Wales. They looked to be in their mid-70s, but you could tell that they had worked at staying fit and healthy throughout life, which is why they could head out for an all day hike on a rugged coastline. We can’t control everything about our health, but we can control much of it. I came home from this trip with a renewed desire to be healthy so I can enjoy whatever years I have left to the full.
Solitude begins where the pavement ends. The Cliffs of Moher are absolutely stunning. They are sheer, 600-foot cliffs that abruptly delineate where Ireland ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins. The parking lot was a zoo. The visitor center too. The concrete viewing platform was pushing allowable capacity. But if you walked 50 feet (Seriously. 50 feet.) away from the pavement, you pretty much had the path to yourself. What came next was one of the most beautiful 8-mile hikes you could ever hope to take. Rolling hills. Beautiful wildflowers. Grazing sheep and horses. And mile after mile of those cliffs all to yourself. Too often people pull into the parking lot, get out for a quick look, check off the item on their bucket list, update their status on Facebook, and then move on to the next place. The more I travel, the more I realize that some of the best things are found away from the crowds and off the beaten path.
Live an extravagantly modest lifestyle. We’ve learned a few tricks for traveling on a budget over the years, but there was no getting around the fact that this trip was expensive. That’s ok though, because we’re willing to spend miserly on things that aren’t important to us so we can spend a bit more extravagantly on things that are. I like this way of thinking because it provides you with a bigger “return on investment” for the dollars that you’re spending. You can read more about it here: The benefits of an extravagantly modest lifestyle.
Most of our excuses are bogus. People are nice pretty much everywhere. They don’t hate Americans. The food won’t make you sick. You can afford it. You have the time. The excuses we tell ourselves are usually red herrings for “I’m not making it a priority and I don’t want to put in the effort.” Sorry if that’s blunt, but it’s true. If it’s not happening, it’s almost certainly your fault. You can make that truth sting less by deflecting the blame onto something else, but that won’t get you any closer to your ideal life.
Things will go wrong, but you’ll figure it out. My previous point doesn’t mean that things won’t ever go wrong. They will. I can’t think of a trip where something hasn’t gone comically wrong. I sliced my thumb open cooking a late dinner in a small town in England and had to figure out where to go to get stitches. I lost my credit card in Paris. I had my car break down in the middle of nowhere in El Salvador. Yes, things will sometimes go wrong when you travel, but that’s not a reason to stay home. You’ll figure it out and move forward. It’s all part of the adventure.
Rent houses whenever possible (they’re usually cheaper and better than hotels). Hotels are small, cramped and impersonal. Houses give you a place to spread out. They give you a place to cook meals and do laundry. They make you feel more like you’re at home. Not only that, but they put you in a neighborhood so you can get away from the touristy places and experience the restaurants and shops popular with the locals. We usually rent from either Airbnb or VRBO.
The longer you can go, the better. All vacation days are not created equally. Modern travel can be challenging. Navigating airport security and then spending the day in Peasant Class on a cramped airplane can be exhausting. If you take a seven day vacation (the typical break in the U.S.), two of those days are spent in the aforementioned airplane and two of those days are spent either a) recovering from the airplane or b) packing up to get back on the airplane. That leaves 3 actual days of vacation. 3 days is a weekend. So basically, our modern vacations are super expensive, exhausting weekends. You can remedy this by taking a two week vacation (or three or four). When you do that, the travel days are a smaller part of the whole and you can actually enjoy your time away.
Go where the dollar is strong. One reason we chose Ireland and England was because my wife wanted to be somewhere English speaking for our first experience with such a long trip. I doubt we could have made a worse choice when it came to expenses. The Euro is strong against the dollar and the Pound is even stronger. Between the conversion rate, the VAT tax, and the fact that major tourist cities are expensive to begin with, we could pretty much count on everything being 2-3 times more expensive than at home. It doesn’t take long when you’re spending $25 on a cheeseburger or $8 on a pint of Guinness before you decide that your next trip will be to somewhere like Ecuador or Vietnam.
Last, but not least: Don’t wait. “I wish we had started doing these sooner” was a common refrain toward the end of the trip. I can’t turn back the clock, but I’ll definitely make use of mini-retirements in the future. The lesson here was not to wait. Delayed gratification is overrated. Regardless of whether your goal is travel or something entirely different, get started on that now. Doing something that you’ve always wanted to do is like planting a tree. Sure, the best time to start was 20 years ago. But the next best time to start is now.
Thanks for following along with this little adventure. I hope you found something useful or encouraging for your own life. Also, thanks for being patient while I took a break from writing during the trip. I’ll get back to my normal posting schedule now that I’m back. And remember…
Life is short. Be Intentional.
P.S. If you want to see some pics from the trip, just visit my Instagram page.
As many of you know, I took a bit of a risk recently and committed to taking a mini-retirement sometime before the end of next year. I say “risk” because I hadn’t talked to either my wife or my boss before I wrote this post, but sometimes ready, fire, aim is the best approach.
Since then, we’ve spent many nights at the dinner table discussing the how, where and when (and if!) of mini-retirement numero uno. Early on, those discussions revolved around convincing my wife why a month in a foreign land was a higher priority than that kitchen remodel that she’s been wanting. She loves to travel as much as I do, however, so the discussion quickly shifted to “where are we going?”
For this first adventure, she thought it would be a good idea to go somewhere English speaking. Language hasn’t been a huge barrier on previous trips (although China was a bit of a challenge), but since we’re going for a month and we’re taking our daughter with us, minimizing potential stressors seemed like a good idea.
After throwing out a variety of options, we quickly settled on Ireland and England. I’ve always wanted to visit the land of Guinness and my wife has always wanted to visit an area of England called the Cotswolds.
The Planning Process
Step 1 was doing some research. We stopped by the bookstore and picked up travel guides for both countries as well as Lonely Planet City Guides for Dublin and London. We started going through the guides and listing out things we wanted to see and do in each place. That gave us a good idea of what our trip itinerary would look like, so we started looking for places to stay in each destination.
I’m not a huge fan of staying in hotels on longer trips. Not only are they expensive, but they don’t give you much of a local flavor for where you’re visiting. If we’re staying for more than a few days, I prefer to rent a small house or apartment. There are only three of us in my family, so it doesn’t need to be anything large or extravagant.
I typically use a site called Vacation Rental by Owner, but for this trip I also used a site called Airbnb as well as a company that specializes in renting cottages in the Cotswolds. So far we’ve booked a small cottage in the Cotswolds for two weeks, a cool old barn that’s been converted into a house in Ireland, and a hotel in Western Ireland because we’ll only be there a few days. No turning back now! We still need to get places in London and Dublin, but because those are large cities, there are plenty of options.
I haven’t booked the airfare yet, but I’ve been using the Kayak App to track two different options. Option 1 is buying an open-jaw ticket that goes from Omaha, to Dublin, to London, to Omaha. An open-jaw ticket is where you leave from a different city than you originally arrived. Option 2 is to just buy a round trip ticket to Ireland and then either use our British Airways points or low cost carrier Ryanair to book a round trip between Dublin and London. I’m leaning toward Option 2 because it’s about $500 cheaper per ticket, which translates to $1,500 for the three of us. I’ll probably pull the trigger on that soon.
We’ll need a car for part of the time in each country, so I reserved (and prepaid because it’s cheaper) for those as well. I typically use Avis. They have a program called Avis Preferred that costs nothing, but saves a huge amount of time and hassle. If you sign up, it allows you to bypass the rental counter (i.e. Dante’s 5th circle of hell) and go directly to your car.
What I’ve Learned
So that’s where we’re at so far. Here are a few takeaways from the process:
1) I was reminded again about the importance of deciding. Big goals can be challenging, scary, complicated and overwhelming. Because of that, it’s often tough to get started. Once you commit to do something however, the tough part is over. The rest is just logistics.
2) Planning early has allowed us to digest the expenses over time. I’ve mentioned before that we are by no means a wealthy family. We live on a single income and have what I have referred to before as an extravagantly modest lifestyle. We spend on key things that are important to us (e.g. travel), but keep a tight rein on the rest of the budget. Starting this process early has allowed us to pay for things like housing, transportation and plane tickets as we go rather than buying all those things at once and then facing a huge credit card bill.
3) There are some amazing tools available to travelers. I mentioned some of the sites I use for booking as well as travel apps that I’m fond of, but that’s just scratching the surface. Researching and planning a trip has never been easier.
4) I have some great readers! I’ve heard from quite a few of you who are putting the mini-retirement concept into practice in your own lives. Keep at it and let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help.
How about you? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Don’t save the best for last. Get started now. Feel free to share your plans in the comments section and we can be cheering you on.
I hope you’re warm wherever you are. It’s a beautiful negative 3 degrees in Omaha this morning. If I hadn’t already committed all of my vacation time in 2014 to this other trip, I’d be researching an island getaway right now. Have a great weekend!
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road
July has been a quiet month here at Intentional Retirement because I’m spending much of it on the road. We just returned from a family trip to Colorado (3 cheers for archery, rock climbing, hiking, horse back riding, zip lining and white water rafting) and in a few days we’re leaving for a swing through the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Vancouver and Whistler) to visit friends and cross a few more things off my 50-by-50 List. We’ll return to “regularly scheduled programming” in August.
In the meantime, I hope you’re filling your own days with fun and adventure. Remember one of the key tenets here at IR: Don’t wait for “Someday” to start living the life you truly want to live. Decide what you want out of life and then take those plans very seriously. Here are a few posts from the archives to help drive that point home:
To paraphrase Twain, at the end of life you’ll be much more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did. Do everything you can to make sure that list of regrets is short.
Have a great week!
It may seem counterintuitive, but spending your money can help you be a better saver. Let me show you what I mean.
How successful would Olympians be if the Olympics were held every 40 years instead of every 4? Not very, right? Most athletes would burn out long before they made it to the actual competition. That’s because it’s impossible to always be in “preparation” mode without experiencing some sort of “payoff.” For athletes, the training and sacrifice needs to be counterbalanced by cheering crowds and medal stands.
Relating that to retirement planning, it’s tough to sacrifice, save and be disciplined with your planning decade after decade without having some sort of payoff along the way. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Americans work longer and take fewer vacation days than almost any other developed country and we’re also woefully underprepared for retirement. We’re asking people to be all wind up and no pitch.
Taking a break can remind you why you’re saving in the first place. After spending a little time at the beach or touring around Europe you might find yourself saying “I could get used to this.” When you get a taste of the reward, you’ll probably be more likely to put in the effort.
So take that vacation. Have a little fun and enjoy life now. It will probably give you the incentive you need to save for the long haul.
Incidentally, I try to eat my own cooking here at IR. The photo in today’s post is the sunrise in the Cayman Islands last week. I finished up the test I mentioned in the last post (I passed!) and got on a plane the next day for a trip with some friends. After a week of 80 degree weather, sand volleyball and scuba, one of the first things I did when I got back was to increase my 401(k) contributions. 🙂
Have a great week!
I received an email the other day from a friend who had just finished reading an article of mine in the newspaper. His email said:
“I awoke this morning feeling at peace with my future; thinking I had everything under control and that my family’s needs were completely taken care of. Then I read your article. I broke out into a frantic sweat and [expletive deleted] my pants. Thanks a lot for the reality check. Much like the rest of America I prefer to operate in a delusional universe where I don’t need to think about those things.”
I’m not going to lie to you; I laughed pretty hard at that. But his point was a good one. Sometimes the coverage devoted to retirement planning can seem kind of negative (either by design to draw attention or simply because the reader feels convicted).
Because of that, it’s easy to lose site of all the things that are right with the world, great about retirement and amazing about the opportunities available to each of us. So as penance to my friend and as a reminder to us all, I give you some reasons to look at the glass as half full.
Peace, love and understanding
According to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, we’re living during the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. Yes, we still have wars (I suspect those will always be with us), but the average number of violent deaths per 100,000 people has dropped from 15 percent during prehistoric times, to 3 percent during the 20th century, to a fraction of 1 percent now. True, I have sometimes felt nervous on the subway when traveling in a strange city, but at least I don’t have to worry about being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum or being used in an elaborate human sacrifice to appease the volcano god.
Medicine and life expectancy
I take Lipitor to lower my cholesterol and reduce my risk of heart disease. My sister had a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit in her neck, but after treatment she has been cancer free for years. My grandfather was cutting firewood when a tree fell on him and shattered his hip. His doctors replaced it with a new one made out of titanium and he’s been getting around great for the last decade. Modern medicine has been enormously successful at increasing both the quantity and quality of our lives. As life expectancy has increased, retirement has changed dramatically. Rather than being a time to wind down, it is now viewed as a new chapter in life that is active and can last for decades. Be thankful for your health and use all that extra time wisely.
If asked, I would have to put my iPad in the same category as such worthwhile inventions as the wheel, penicillin and the printing press. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but you get my point: Technology is pretty remarkable. More than just cool, however, it is useful and helps us live fuller, more productive lives. It’s hard to imagine life without things like computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, digital cameras, ATM machines, MRIs, global positioning satellites, iPads, iPods, Kindles, and cloud computing. The other night our daughter was using FaceTime to video chat with her grandparents in Alaska. That’s the kind of invention that was imagined for the 23rd century in old Star Trek episodes! After looking at how technology has advanced in the last 30 years, imagine what the next 30 years will look like (especially since the pace of advancement is accelerating). It should be pretty amazing.
All that technology has greatly expanded our avenues for learning. Gone are the days when you need to spend $100,000 and four years of your life just to learn about something you’re interested in. With iTunesU you can sit in on history classes at Oxford or take photography classes from National Geographic (all free). Search engines like Google can answer any question you put to it. You can bring subjects into focus with Squidoo. Wikipedia can give you a basic understanding of almost anything. You can take guitar lessons on You Tube, learn to simplify your life on Zen Habits, or learn how to mix a martini like James Bond (or any number of other things) on Expert Enough. With so many resources, it’s easy to channel your inner Jefferson and make learning a broad and lifelong endeavor.
Yes, there are negatives to sites like Facebook and Twitter, but used properly they do an amazing job at connecting you to the people you care about. Social interaction is a critical element to human happiness and we have more ways than ever to experience community and connect with friends and family.
Even with everything that is right with the world, there is still a lot that is wrong. Thankfully, there are some amazing people trying to do something about that and they’re looking for people like you and me to jump in and help. Charity is no longer limited to just writing a check or dropping a few bucks in the offering plate. Volunteering locally or getting involved with organizations like charity: water, International Justice Mission, and World Vision allow us to reach beyond ourselves and do work that not only helps others, but gives us a deep sense of satisfaction, fulfillment and purpose.
Traveling the world
There hasn’t been a more exciting time in travel since Kitty Hawk. The triumvirate of jetliners, online travel resources, and countries clamoring for tourist dollars have combined to make global travel accessible to almost anyone. A hundred years ago, most people lived their entire lives within walking distance of their house. Now you can hop on a plane and be hiking in the Andes or walking down the Champs Elysees by breakfast. For a little inspiration visit Everything Everywhere or Lonely Planet. And don’t let money hold you back. There are sites like travelhacking.org that can teach you how to search out deals and rack up frequent flyer miles. Then you can spend those miles on a round-the-world plane ticket and take off in search of adventure. As Saint Augustine said, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Well, there you have it. While certainly not a complete list, I’ve given you a few reasons to look on the bright side. Sure, there are still a lot of people unemployed, the housing market is still a mess and the stock market is just as bipolar as ever, but resist the temptation to focus on the negative. It sounds trite, but you only live once. None of us should let fear and uncertainty keep us from pursuing our dreams or living a rewarding and meaningful life. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, don’t die with your music still inside you. Look at the glass as half full and live a life you can be proud of.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week!
In case you missed anything, below is a list of articles published at Intentional Retirement during the month of November. We’re heading into the home stretch of 2011. Touch base if I there’s ever anything I can do to help you out.
Thanks for reading!