“Damn the submarine. We’re the men of the Merchant Marine!” That singsong phrase woke me up every morning for seven months on my first ship, the SS San Francisco. I went to sea after graduating from college. For four years, I worked on ships, mostly tankers, steaming through the Suez and Panama canals, past the Rock of Gibraltar at midnight under a full moon, stopping in ports like Athens, Dubai, and Yokosuka. A number of my peers had similar adventures after college, including leading wilderness trips, tending bar, teaching English overseas and traveling around Europe picking up odd jobs. Ah, those were adventurous days before the desire for a career and family responsibilities took over.
Peter Millon is living the adventure, too—in his Unretirement, at age 69. Last year, he spent about 70 days skiing the slopes in Park City, Utah, when he wasn’t working four days a week for Rennstall World Class Ski Preparation, repairing skis and waxing skis for racers. Essentially, he split his retirement time 50/50: working half-time and pursuing his passion the other half. In the off-season, Millon plays golf with his oldest son who lives in Salt Lake, fishes and takes target practice. Not bad.
Leading a Wealthy Life
A wealthy industrialist? A Wall Street master of the universe? A high-tech titan of business? Hardly. Millon isn’t wealthy, but he leads a wealthy life. “Do something you love, something for you,” he says. “Don’t do it for anyone else.”
Millon began his career working at a small ski maker in St. Peter, Minn. He then spent decades as a technical director at Salomon North America and its various competitors. During the real estate bubble years, Millon was selling high end appliances for the home, living in a townhouse in Massachusetts. Business tanked when the bubble burst, and he took advantage of an early retirement package. Three years ago, he sold the townhouse and moved to Utah where he was known in the ski community, picking up a condo on the cheap. These days, Millon lives comfortably off Social Security, some investments and the income from his part-time job.
The ‘World’s Oldest Intern’
John Kerr is living the 50/50 life in his Unretirement, too, working as park ranger in Yellowstone between May and September. He didn’t plan on becoming a ranger, though. Kerr had a four-decade career at WGBH as a marketing and fund raising executive, retiring at 65. “It took the shock of the change to rattle my bones a bit,” says John Kerr. “I had way too much energy and experience to sit around.”
His exploration took him out to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Kerr has a small condo. While walking around Bozeman, Mont., he saw a sign for the Yellowstone National Foundation, which supports Yellowstone National Park. He walked in unannounced and from an off-hand remark during a conversation with the organization’s head, he learned it had an internship opening. Kerr applied and for the next year he was “world’s oldest intern,” talking to visitors about wolves.
Kerr became a Yellowstone ranger five months a year for the next nine years, living close to Jackson in the winters and using his time off to visit family. Now 76, he recently moved back to New England to be near family. Still, he expects next season he’ll return to Yellowstone. “It has been a great adventure,” he says.
Advice for Your Unretirement
When I asked Kerr and Millon what advice they’d give to others in their 60s and 70s eager for adventure, Kerr emphasized the importance of an open mind. “You have to have your eyes open and your ears flapping,” he chuckled. Millon suggested drawing on the relationships you’ve made over the years and the skills you’ve developed without trying to compete for the kind of job you had earlier in your career.
What I took away from both men is that the financial penalty of working fewer hours and doing more of what you love can be much less than you might think.
“The key is that when your interests align with your work, there is nothing from which to retire,” says Ross Levin, a certified financial planner and head of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn. “We save money to ultimately create a lifestyle. If that lifestyle doesn’t need much money, then we need to save less.”
Think of it this way, says Levin: You earn $10,000 a year in your fulfilling work on a ski slope or in national park or down in the Florida Keys. That’s the equivalent of having $250,000 in investment assets, assuming the 4% withdrawal rule (a standard guideline for safely taking money out of retirement savings). A $20,000 income is the equivalent of $500,000 in assets, and so on.
Much of the conversation about prospects in the traditional retirement years often forgets how creative people are at coming up with solutions. Many Unretirees I’ve interviewed over the years have found they made significant cuts in expenses without slashing their standard of living.
So, if your career didn’t leave you with the kind of portfolio that pushes you into the ranks of the wealthy, that doesn’t mean you can’t construct a comparable lifestyle. The question is: What’s your adventure?
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace and author of the new book Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Tell him about your experiences so he can address your questions in future columns. Send your queries to him at email@example.com. His twitter address is @cfarrellecon.
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