Let’s start by setting the scene. How did your retirement come about?
Before the pandemic, I was starting to feel like it might be time for me to leave, but in my university job there were two conditions for full retirement from the system - you had to be in for 20 years, and you had to be 55. I didn’t think I was going to make it to 55. I was feeling so burned out. So, my husband and I started looking at our financial situation more seriously about 10 years ago, and we did a lot of reading up on the financial independence movement. At that time, we started utilizing all the retirement tools at our disposal. I worked at a state institution, so I had access to a 403(b) — which is like a 401(k) — and a 457. I also knew I wanted to leave the workplace in good shape, though. In the academic world, hiring tends to happen on an annual basis, so I wanted to make sure my department could replace me when I left. I talked to my department chair about a year prior to retiring to ensure he could acquire a replacement. While you must be 55 to officially retire, I resigned — which for all intents and purposes was retiring — at the age of 50.
What does retirement look like for you these days? Is it different from what you might have expected?
My husband is still working, but during the pandemic he got a fully remote job, so he’s at home. I still have two kids at home, too - a young adult child and a high school aged child. I had always taught year-round, picked up extra classes, taught full-time summer school. This is the first summer I’ve had fully at home with them, and it’s been great.
I’ve also picked up a fair amount of volunteering. We got a bird during the pandemic, and I became involved in parrot rescue and fostering. I really like to garden, so I got involved in the community garden in our town where we harvest what we grow and take it to a food pantry. I also got involved in a program a friend of mine started where we pick up leftover food from elementary schools and take it to food pantries.
How did you prepare to cover your expenses in retirement?
The most important thing we did was to start figuring out where all our money was, and what the rules would be regarding what you withdraw from and when. We also figured out how much we would need to spend per month. A lot of people think you need millions to retire, but we’re not wealthy people. We make sure we can live on my husband’s salary, and what we have banked away will sit there until he retires. Then we’ll start drawing from it. Health insurance was a big deal, though. We are now on my husband’s plan, which is okay, but we had exceptional health insurance through the university. If I had stayed on until 55, I would have kept it. But my adult child who lives at home needed more from me, and I was stressed out all the time from working. We decided it was more important for my mental health and our family for me to retire than for us to keep that insurance or become bazillionaires.
What has surprised you most about retirement, whether money-related or otherwise?
I’m a numbers person, and we did a lot of calculations before I retired, but I’m still surprised how stressful it is to only see one salary coming into our accounts. We had never lived paycheck to paycheck, and still don’t, but we live on his salary alone, and we aren’t saving a ton anymore, so that’s a little weird. To calm my nerves, I’ve taken control of the budgeting. My husband used to do our daily budgeting while I was more big picture, but it makes me feel better to know exactly where we are financially. We spend far less monthly than we thought we would. The other thing that’s surprised me is that I feel no less busy. I think everyone I’ve talked to who is retired says the same thing: “How did I have a job and do all these other things?”
Another big surprise is how little I care about the work world I left. I was a good professor. I was productive, chaired the department, ran curriculum overhauls. I can’t believe how easily I’ve gone from being fully invested to feeling very little connection to my prior work.
What would you have told your younger self about life in retirement?
It’s hard to find time to assess your own financial situation when you’re working and living your life. I wish I had done that younger. We’re fortunate to have been employed and set aside a fair amount of money in the last 10 or so years, but if we had done it earlier, that would have been even better. We also upsized our house at one point. I wish we hadn’t done that. We ended up moving back to a smaller house, anyway.
What advice would you give others who are currently preparing for retirement?
When you’re young, your focus is on finding the right job and enjoying it. You just never know when that day will come that you’ll decide it’s time to leave. I think for that reason, being as prepared as possible is a good thing. I was in a career where I was tenured and had quite a bit of job security. Other fields might not have that. So, for those who don’t, keep in mind that nothing is a given. Being in good shape financially when you’re young is particularly important.
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