Monday—It's hard to believe that this is my last week at work. In fact, it all feels a little unreal...as if I'm a ghost in my own department, observing but not affecting anything. I've been written out of any future project plans, of course; there's no point in involving me when everybody knows I'm not going to be here. I feel free—or perhaps more accurately, I feel disconnected—yet there's still a touch of guilt when I see close friends slaving away at projects to which I was once a contributor.
Ding! A company email pops up in my in-box. It says "Mark your calendars for next all-staff meeting, Wednesday, April 13." Guess I can delete that one. Five more days and I'll be gone, and this company will trudge onward without me. My departure will make little difference to the company, but oh! it makes a huge difference to me! No more paychecks, for one thing. After this Friday I'm on my own. And saying goodbye to all the people I've worked with and chatted with daily over the past sixteen years...that'll be tough.
Sixteen years of working on research projects that mostly never made it out the door: the American Sign Language multimedia projects, the talking graphics tablet for blind people...oddly enough, I don't care. They paid me, I did the work, and it doesn't matter to me now whether they used my ideas or squandered them. This part of my life is over, or will be in a few days.
It's been a good place to work; I can look out my office window and see the woods across the road where I often walk at lunchtime. But soon I'll be staying in woods like that, in Gertie, doing whatever I want to do. I've done it before, of course, on vacation for a week or two. Somehow, though, it's hard to imagine complete, open-ended freedom to go where I want and do what I want.
How did I get here? How is it that I'm retiring at age fifty five, when I never thought I'd be able to retire at all? Well, that's a story I suppose I ought to tell, if only for somebody else who might be in the same boat I was in five or six years ago.
The "Die at your desk" plan
About ten years ago my company put on a retirement seminar that convinced me there was no way I'd ever be able to retire. It was a very good, comprehensive presentation: they had a woman from the HR department, a pension plan representative and a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration. I took copious notes and brought away a sheaf of handouts. What I learned was that I should plan on using a combination of savings, Social Security and pension to replace at least 80-90% of my current salary...and to that end, I should not even think about retiring unless I had at least $800,000 in the bank.
Now, at this point in my life I had $2,000 in the bank and owed $16,000 in credit card debt. It was obvious that I could no more contemplate retirement than I could plan a trip to the moon. I was going to work until I dropped. So I stopped thinking about retirement, because it was obviously just not going to happen.
And that's how things were for the next five years or so...until I got Gertie. Oh, I paid off the credit cards and started putting more money in the bank, but that $800,000 figure was always there, looming like a high stone wall between me and any thought of retirement. When friends asked whether I had a retirement plan, I joked that I was on the "die at your desk" plan.
But one friend—Gertie's former owner, Judie—suggested that I look closely at what I really needed in order to live, and think creatively about ways to reduce my living expenses. When I did, it began to dawn on me that if I took a few simple steps (mainly getting out of expensive central New Jersey), I didn't need anywhere near 80% of my salary; in fact, I figured I could get by on about 30%. The key assumptions were that I'd sell my condo, get out from under the mortgage, taxes and condo fees, and live full-time in my motorhome.
That still isn't going to be easy, since my pension—a laughable $964 a month, or just under $12,000 a year—will only be about 15% of what I was earning. I'll have to bring in another $12,000 or more in order to make ends meet. My freelance businesses—graphics and technical writing—will be the keys to survival...at least until Social Security kicks in, seven years down the road. Actually, I'm not doing badly on that score: I'm already making about $10,000 a year freelancing in my spare time, and once my time is my own, I can increase that.
This, then, is what retirement means to me. It's not going to be a "sit around fishing and playing cards" affair. But I wouldn't want that anyway—I always have more projects in my head than I have time to work on! No, I'll still be working (though not as hard!)—but on my own terms. I'll be creating graphics or writing user manuals at my dinette table, while the panorama of mountains or forest or desert fills Gertie's big windows. I'll watch the sun rise and set and the clouds blow across the sky. I'll stop and go for a walk, take pictures of a chipmunk or a collared lizard by the trail, and post them on this website.