It was a late January morning in 2009. My wife and I were on the phone with our financial planner when she asked a question that absolutely floored us.
"You've done a great job saving! My question is," she said, "what do you guys really want from life?"
Silence. We weren't prepared for such a question from a "finance" person. It created an unease that lingered for months. It wasn't that we didn't know the answer, but that we hadn't even asked that question in years.
Coming out of college, my wife and I were both excited to be teachers. She started out in a tiny village in Lesotho then moved to Washington D.C.; I cut my teeth at an inner-city D.C. school that had extremely long hours for teachers and students alike.
There were times in our six years of teaching we genuinely enjoyed what we were doing. But we were so busy that we never stood back to reevaluate where we were or what we wanted.
Mini-retirement: the birth of an idea
It was around the same time that someone pointed me toward Timothy Ferriss' best-seller The Four Hour Work Week. There were lots of tips in the book, some helpful, some not.
But the idea that stuck was of a mini-retirement. J.D. Roth -- founder of the Get Rich Slowly blog -- tried to capture Ferriss' idea, saying: "[I]nstead of deferring retirement to the end of our careers, we would be happier, more fulfilled, and more productive if we instead took 'mini-retirements' throughout our lives."
What, exactly, is a mini-retirement? In a sense, it's a break from the life you've been living. You (and a spouse and/or children) take three to six months to travel, pursue a passion, and just shake things up in general. The idea is that this intentional break can let core inner pursuits come to the surface and help direct you where to go next in life.
Mini-retirements can be hard mental and spiritual work
When my wife and I quit our jobs, we decided we wanted to travel. We chose Costa Rica, found a place to live on Craigslist for six months, and we were off!
But we didn't end up in an idyllic beach town. Chance would have it that our rental was in the tiny mountain village of Atenas -- which has some expats, but almost all in their 70s and 80s.
The mini-retirement wasn't a cakewalk by any means. Our first night there, without knowing a soul for literally thousands of miles, we seriously considered the possibility we had made an enormous mistake. And while my wife was able to ease into a routine of artwork that spoke to her, I felt empty and alone.
This isn't abnormal, as blogger Tina Su captures better than I can the surprising ruts one can hit when they take a mini-retirement. Eventually, we worked through these ruts.
The lasting lessons
The end realization of our mini-retirement was clear: we weren't the same people we were in college, and that was OK. We didn't need anything extraordinary or over-the-top accomplishments in order to be happy. In fact, the most important benefit of the mini-retirement was getting to know ourselves on a deeper level.
That knowledge became the centerpiece for constructing our lives when we came back. My wife was fulfilled when she had time, usually alone time, to create things. I was happiest when I had the ability to be a part of larger communities that mattered to me.
When we came back to the states, we tried to build a life around these principles, instead of making our life fit around our jobs. It'll always be a work in progress, but it's very hard to imagine what things would be like now without our mini-retirement.
I would be remiss if I didn't let you know how the mini-retirement changed our financial lives as well.
The most important difference is that we simply stopped buying "stuff." We still can't believe how much we have even four years after relocating to Wisconsin -- my home state. The addition of a daughter only added to this problem, and we are forever begging family and friends to stop buying gifts for us around the holidays. From our experience, it just exhausts us.
We also found that many of the things that make us happiest don't come from consuming, but from finding ways to express ourselves, or to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
These may seem like simple realizations, but they were easy to forget in the nonstop action that living in D.C. provided.
In the end, these add up to much lower expenses on our part, more savings if we ever need them, and, in general, more space for what "feeds" us. Just as importantly, when it comes to retirement planning, our reduced spending makes our "retirement number" much lower than it would have otherwise been.
Of course, a mini-retirement may not be practical for everyone, for more reasons than I can list here. But I would wager that for more people than you might think, it is altogether possible; I encourage them to consider the benefits thoroughly before writing the idea off.