How I Walked Away From Work at Age 49

·7-min read
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early-retirement-before-50

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I loved my job as a senior admissions director at a top public university. I loved my coworkers. I even loved my boss. But I hated the stress. At 48, I had battled multiple sclerosis for more than two decades, and over time, my symptoms worsened-especially the chronic fatigue. I had long dreamed of retiring early, but the numbers just didn't add up.

For 17 years, I contributed to a state-sponsored retirement plan; however, according to the rules, I couldn't draw a monthly pension until I hit age 50 and 20 years of service. But I hadn't started saving any money until my 40s, and I'd have to work until well after 60 to qualify for an adequate pension.

At 48 and divorced, I paid a monthly mortgage and utilities for a house where I lived alone since my son had grown and left home. In addition, I frequently traded up my car and always had a payment. And then there were the other "must-haves"-regular highlights at the hair salon, new clothes, shoes, cosmetics, and lunches with friends in swanky restaurants. Things I thought I needed. But did I?

My lifestyle, I realized, had been standing in the way of my life. My true "want" list held just one thing: Retirement.

One morning on my commute to work, the song of an eastern towhee reverberated through the air: "drink your tea, drink your tea." Chipmunks scattered across the sidewalk, chasing each other into the camellia bushes. With a heavy heart, I swung open the door to the stale, windowless office building where I would spend the next eight hours hunched over a computer. What I truly craved, I realized, were the same things birds and chipmunks lived on-sunshine and fresh air.

That very day, I drew up a spreadsheet with two columns: "needs" versus "wants." Need #1: Shelter. Check. But I no longer needed my current house, which was far too big for one person. #2: Food. Another given. However, I liked to cook and could live without expensive restaurant meals. #3: Health insurance. With my illness, this was a solid requirement. Through my job, I was covered by a no-frills policy for the basics and fortunately, this would continue after retirement. #4: Transportation. Another essential. But I was six months away from paying off a perfectly good car that would serve me just fine, especially if I weren't commuting anymore. #5: Savings. Critical. I lacked a protected fund for emergencies and medical expenses beyond my insurance. I did have an IRA that I'd been contributing to for six years, but I couldn't touch these funds without a penalty.

Then I studied my "wants." And this is where a true paradigm shift occurred. Those salon appointments, luxurious cosmetics, and latest fashions were just for show, to bolster a flagging self-image and look good. My lifestyle, I realized, had been standing in the way of my life. My true "want" list held just one thing: Retirement.

When I subtracted my former "must-haves," I knew I could subsist on a third of my current income, roughly the same amount as an early pension. Next, I scribbled a to-do list to bring my dream into reality. Sell house. Pay off car. No more expensive clothes and fancy makeup. Pack your lunch.

Even with these adjustments, I'd need to knuckle down for three more years to reach the required threshold of 20 years of employment that was needed to draw a pension and officially retire. Then I remembered something: I had worked in state government for two and a half years, earlier (in my 20s) and had foolishly cashed out that retirement account. With one phone call to an expert, I learned that not only could I buy this time back, I could apply my accumulated sick leave-an entire year-to my term of service.

The combination of 17 years of current service, the 2.5 past years that I could buy back, and the additional year of sick leave meant that I would reach the 20-year employment threshold and more. Still, the pension rules said that I had to be 50 years old to retire; luckily, vacation time counted as "time worked" towards that 20 years of employment, and I had three months' worth that I had not yet used. So by starting my vacation in May, I could stop working before I turned 50 in July, collect a regular paycheck for the months of May, June, and July, and start drawing a pension when my vacation ran out in August. This meant I could possibly step away from full-time work three months before my 50th birthday.

The only hurdle? A gut-wrenching $14,000 needed to purchase that precious time. I had less than a year to buy it back before the price increased. Could I do it?

With the real estate slump, I didn't make a profit when I sold my house, but with the disappearance of the hefty mortgage, this feat equated to instant cash. My boyfriend lived an hour and a half away, and although he was happy to let me live with him, I knew I couldn't manage the 90-minute commute both ways five days each week. So I asked for permission to work from home on Wednesdays, a move that was thankfully approved.

Still, I fretted. Any unforeseen disaster would mean I'd have to dip into funds reserved for the precious $14K required for my freedom-and as it turned out, I did indeed make a trip to the emergency room for a painful kidney infection. However, for once in my life, I had enough funds in my checking account to meet my deductible. To celebrate, I canceled every single one of my credit cards. I knew it was risky, but ironically, not having the "security" of easy credit on quashed my former temptation to splurge.

As the deadline approached to raise the necessary capital, my thoughts turned to a permanent savings plan. The IRA I'd opened at age 42 now totaled $8,000. I talked to a financial advisor, and he arranged to roll it over into a managed account without penalty upon my retirement. If I left this money alone, it could double (or more) in value in the future.

The sacrifices I made during my final year of work would have tortured the old me, but these came easily as I focused on my sole "want"-retirement. With those frivolous other "wants" out of the way, I raised the money I needed in time, with no problem. My elation at officially retiring on May 12, 2017 was tempered by the sadness I felt when I hugged my coworkers goodbye. I would miss them dearly, and I knew that without the shared daily grind, our relationships would change. But we promised to stay in touch.

Overall, after I saved that $14,000 to buy back my pension time, my new frugal lifestyle saved me an additional $10K in the six months before I retired. That sum, along with my rolled-over IRA of $8,000, comprised my new savings account-which I invested with the help of a financial advisor. Now, that savings is worth over $50K. In addition to my monthly pension income of $1,700, it's not at all a struggle to maintain my simple way of living.

Once I walked away from the traditional working world, I relaxed. For the first time, I felt in control of my life and my health. A different set of "wants" piled up. I wanted to write. I wanted to teach part-time for a nonprofit. I wanted to volunteer at my church. This could be seen as "work," yes, but because it wasn't necessary for me to live, it didn't feel like work. Plus, these activities bring me joy.

I don't miss the "wants" of my past, what I thought I couldn't live without. Eventually, my boyfriend became my husband, and today, we enjoy our daily leisurely breakfast on a deck overlooking an endless forest. Today, when the towhee tells me to drink my tea, I listen.

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