Long Time Leaving

Ken Cutler

AFTER MY FIRST TWO years of studying electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, I got an internship at Frito-Lay working at its research headquarters in Irving, Texas, far from my New Jersey home. I was paid handsomely, treated well, had access to state-of-the-art computer equipment—and was miserable.

Some of that stemmed from spending the summer away from friends and family. But I was also having a career crisis even before my career began.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to work as an engineer for the next 40 years. I felt the stellar internship I’d scored was the best situation I could hope for in engineering, yet here I was profoundly unhappy. My grades were pretty good but I knew the dreaded junior year in engineering was almost upon me and my grade point average (GPA) was sure to suffer. I got the idea that I should explore becoming a doctor while my grades were still high enough for medical school admission.

I ended up cutting my three-month internship short by a month. A small liberal arts college with a high medical school acceptance rate told me over the phone that it would take me. My parents were a little stunned by this radical change, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

My pre-medical studies didn’t work out. Although I had a 4.0 GPA in my first semester at the new college, I had to drop organic chemistry because the workload proved too much for me. By the end of the semester, I was barely functional due to stress and anxiety, and I knew a career in medicine wasn’t for me. My second semester at the school was a disaster. I dropped all but three classes and was no longer even classified as a fulltime student. I was a college junior without a clue.

For a brief time, I thought about becoming a math teacher, but concluded that wasn’t right for me, either. Eventually, having failed to come up with a better alternative, I decided to return to Virginia Tech to complete my engineering degree. At least I’d be able to support myself as an engineer, I reasoned. I finished my degree and took a job at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania.

When I first started working at Peach Bottom, I carpooled with an engineer who was stressed by his job. On the drive to the plant, he’d say things like “28 years until I can retire.” That’s an awfully long time to be unhappy. A few years later, he made a career change and left the company.

Throughout my career, I’ve thought about retirement. Early on, I didn’t understand pensions. I thought the concept of a pension was that, if you put in enough years, you’d continue getting your full salary after you stopped working. The first time I saw my pension statement, a couple of years into my job, I realized that wasn’t the case at all.

In my 20s and 30s, retirement was far in the future, and I had more pressing concerns, such as job security and taking care of my family. At 29, I married Lisa and it was only then that I started saving a significant portion of my salary in the company’s 401(k) plan. When I was 32, I was offered a voluntary separation severance payment based on my salary and years of service. The amount was $30,000, which would be equal to a little over $60,000 in today’s dollars. I would also have been allowed to keep my pension, which would be worth a little under $300 a month when I turned 55. A few of my colleagues took the package, which was offered to all of the company’s nuclear workers, but I wasn’t tempted.

My career progressed, and my responsibilities increased in my late 30s and 40s. Although retirement was in the back of my mind, my real concern was financial independence. These were years in which I contributed substantial sums to the 401(k) while simultaneously saving money for my children’s eventual college education. But retirement would periodically be thrust back into my consciousness. The company regularly offered early retirement packages to employees 50 or older during the 1990s and early 2000s. I figured my turn would come if I could hold out until age 50.

Around 2001, I was forced to think about retirement again when the company offered the option to convert to a cash-balance pension. By this time, I had 16 years of service. It was a period of change in the industry and, even though I hoped to end my career at Peach Bottom, I didn’t know if forces beyond my control would prevent that.

I gave up my traditional pension in favor of a cash-balance pension with an opening credit of around $135,000—a decision I discussed at length in an earlier article. In retrospect, I would have done better staying with the traditional pension, because my career with the company lasted 38 years. But at the time, there was no way of knowing that.

I’d clocked 30 years at the plant by the time I turned 53. Around that time, I suffered long periods of weariness. I felt like I just wanted to be done. On the whiteboard in my office, I scrawled a retirement target date aligned with my 55th birthday. At that age, I’d be entitled to reduced retirement health insurance benefits, so that seemed like a good goal to reach for.

I created various spreadsheets covering my retirement plan. For a number of years, I tracked all our expenses in one of those spreadsheets, so I’d have a handle on how much Lisa and I spent and where the money went. Along with the various finance-oriented spreadsheets, I added pages to help me brainstorm activities in retirement. One spreadsheet is solely dedicated to identifying the many parks and nature preserves in my area available for hiking. Whenever an idea about something I’d like to do in retirement popped into my head, I’d add it to the appropriate spreadsheet.

When I turned 55, I knew retirement was an option, which was psychologically freeing. I still had one year of my son’s college expenses to pay for, so it seemed prudent to stick around for another year. Also, I was enjoying my job more than I had a few years earlier.

Five months after I turned 55, I was able to shift into a newly formed group that focused on large capital projects, and my job satisfaction increased even more. I enjoyed my work and the team I was on, so I kept at it. I set a new target to retire at age 59. A few months before my 59th birthday, my manager recommended me for a promotion to senior staff engineer, which was the highest rung on the company’s technical career ladder. Once again, I put my retirement plans on hold.

I retired Sept. 5 of this year, right after Labor Day. There were financial reasons for my decision. But more important, after 38 years at one place, it felt like the right time to start a new chapter. I took off most of this past summer, winding down my considerable store of vacation days. It’s been fun getting into a completely different routine, one that has involved more time with family, more time in local parks, a bit of travel, and a reactivated library card. I also used some of my newly found free time to start writing for a website called HumbleDollar. You may have heard of it.

Earlier, I wrote a HumbleDollar piece about a magazine article that for almost three decades has influenced my thinking about retirement. If you read that piece, you probably won’t be surprised that, after retiring, I’ve accepted another position. I don’t want to say too much about it, since it’s just beginning, but I will say it is part-time, fully remote and in my area of expertise.

I enjoy mentoring the next generation of nuclear power engineers and being able to share knowledge I’ve gained over the decades. My new position should allow me to continue doing that. It’s funny. A guy who almost gave up on his engineering career before it even started has turned into a guy who, almost 40 years later, just can’t seem to give it up. As with many of life’s journeys, you just never know what lies ahead until you arrive.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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