IN COLLEGE, I WAS the kid who swore he would never get married and never have children. A year later, I was engaged. Two years later, I was married. Three years later, I had a newborn.
And three decades later, I’m 55 years old, with a daughter who will turn 30 later this year.
I have no regrets about having children so young. Far from it. It does mean I missed out on the romancing, bar-hopping, commitment-free years that many in their 20s enjoy. But in return for that sacrifice, I have had my reward over the past four years—a period I’ve come to think of as my second childhood.
Because I was thrust so quickly into the adult world, I was compelled to get serious about money at a relatively early age. I paid off my credit card debt from college, started saving regularly for retirement, bought a house, took on freelance work whenever I could, wrote books at the weekend, and began socking away money for my own children’s college.
By age 51, my two kids had their bachelor’s, my nest egg was large enough for a comfortable retirement and I had lost all enthusiasm for my job at Citigroup, so I quit.
Today, I think of myself as semi-retired: My various ventures earn me roughly a third of what I made as Director of Financial Education for Citi’s U.S. wealth management business and, indeed, I spend modestly more than I earn.
Yet I have never worked harder. Over the past four years, I’ve tackled all manner of projects. In addition to launching this website, I have authored four books, joined the investment committee and advisory board of Creative Planning, given speeches, worked on a concept for a personal finance app, consulted for Wall Street firms, taught a college course on personal finance for two semesters, written a regular column for first The Wall Street Journal and then Financial Planning magazine, and penned freelance articles.
When I left Citi, I didn’t expect to be so busy, but I have no regrets. I have viewed the past four years as my chance to try new things without worrying about what they paid me, and I’ve wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
What have I learned along the way? Five lessons come to mind—and I think they have implications for others venturing into retirement or semi-retirement.
1. It’s hard to know what will make you happy. I enjoy giving speeches and talking to folks about their finances, so I figured I’d love teaching. I was wrong. I expected great things of my students, but most seemed to expect very little of themselves—and I had neither the patience nor the teaching skills needed to bridge that gap.
2. There’s great pleasure in working hard at something you’re passionate about. I have the financial wherewithal to ditch my various projects and retreat to the couch, but I have no desire. Even in my semi-retirement, I get enormous satisfaction from wrestling with financial questions and writing projects.
3. I wish it were otherwise, but I find it isn’t quite enough to help others and do work I consider important. I still enjoy the extra validation that comes with making money and hearing applause. These things aren’t as important to me as they once were, but I can’t shake them entirely.
4. When you’re always home, it’s hard to leave it all behind. Entire days can pass without me going outside, especially during winter. The gym is downstairs, my laptop offers seductively easy access to work and to the larger world, and life’s necessities—food, booze, toothpaste and toilet paper—can all be delivered.
Problem is, remaining rooted in one spot makes it difficult to escape worries and work pressures. Lately, I have been trying to get out of the apartment more, if only for a brief walk, but I’m not as good about it as I should be.
5. The markets look riskier when you aren’t regularly adding new savings to your portfolio. I have always invested heavily in the stock market, and still do. But now that I’m more likely to pull money from my portfolio than add to it, I’m less sanguine about the possibility of a large stock market decline.
As a gut check, I use the strategy I recommend to others: Occasionally, I will take my portfolio and assume the stock portion loses 35%, which is the typical decline during a bear market. I’ll then look at the resulting hit to my overall portfolio’s value and ask myself, “Would you be okay with that?” As the market has climbed over the past year, I’ve found myself answering “no”—and that’s prompted me to ease up somewhat on stocks.