Investing Specialists

What I Learned From My 'Faux-tirement'

Christine Benz

Christine Fahlund, who retired from her position as T. Rowe Price's retirement-planning guru a few years ago, often liked to say that pre-retirees should "trial-run" their retirements. 

Would traveling around the country in an RV be as fun as they had imagined, for example, or would day after day of close proximity to their spouse start to get old? An extended road trip could yield valuable intelligence. Meanwhile, renting a condo in a warm location for a month could help a pre-retiree determine whether she'd be too lonesome for family and friends if she moved away; such a finding would be valuable before she sold her home up north.

I'm not ready to retire any time soon, but my recent sabbatical from Morningstar--a six-week break totally free from work obligations, available to Morningstar's U.S. employees every four years--gave me a chance to noodle on what retirement would feel like for me. Of course, there were some crucial differences relative to an actual retirement: I continued to get paid (nice work if you can get it!), and I knew I was going back to my job when my six weeks were up. In addition, my husband and I took a trip for a couple of weeks, so my true "faux-tirement" observation period was really just a month. But after years of researching and writing about the financial side of retirement, my break gave me a sense of the lifestyle aspect of not working.

Here are some of my key takeaways.

1. My powers of concentration improved.
Juggling work and family obligations means many of us are multitasking most of the time, me included. But one of the great revelations of my "faux-tirement" was what a luxury it is to be single-minded about various tasks, even mundane ones. Whether I was organizing files in my basement or planting a pot of annuals, I was able to do a better job and enjoy it more than I could under my normal, multitasking conditions. My challenge, now that I'm back at work, is to try to maintain that sort of focus. I realized I'm not really gaining anything, and I'm certainly losing peace of mind, by jumping forward to the next thing before I've finished the job at hand.

2. My to-do list wasn't all that long after all.
As sabbatical dawned, I had a long list of projects that I hoped to accomplish--tasks like settling the final details of my mom's estate, organizing files on my computer, and figuring out what to do with all of my photos, digital and otherwise. But while my to-do list was daunting, I found that I knocked off most of those tasks in short order. If I were embarking on my actual retirement, I might be asking myself, "Is that all there is?" We're all different, of course, but the experience underscored that I don't want to spend my retirement years attending exclusively to my own to-dos (and there may not be that many, anyway). I suspect I'll need more of a sense of purpose on an ongoing basis, probably community-service work, a part-time job, or both.  

3. The balanced days were the best days.
In a related vein, I found that I enjoyed my days the most when I combined doing something fun or leisurely with knocking off some bothersome task that had been hanging over my head. Just as we workers enjoy the weekends most when they've been preceded by a particularly tough workweek, my free time was more enjoyable when I had a sense of having accomplished something beforehand. To help keep myself on track and maintain a sense of balance during my time off, I maintained to-do lists for each day, just as I do when I'm working.

4. I missed my work "family." 
This one will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked in an office or in close proximity to others. Bonds form. You know about each other’s families, TV viewing habits, and favorite products at Costco. You celebrate each other's birthdays and mourn the loss of loved ones; you know when someone's child is under the weather. You laugh--a lot. Is it any wonder I missed my work family while I was away, given what a big part of my daily life they are? (Missing colleagues was a unifying theme among the various retirees we asked to reflect on their retirement experiences for this video round table, too.) Even if I made a point to schedule regular lunches with my former colleagues in retirement--and I know I would--I would still miss the natural give and take of the workplace.

5. I had to monitor my media consumption.
I love news of all kinds, and especially the tragicomedy that is the U.S. political scene. But the opportunity to pop on the TV during the day drove home just how same-y the news flow can be, at least on the major cable networks, with constant rehashing and parsing of the news du jour. It was easy to get sucked into the Twitter vortex.

On the other hand, my consumption of other media types increased during my time away. It was a great luxury to have the time to read about subjects online and in the newspaper that in the past I would have skimmed over--the political and economic scene in a country that I know nothing about, for example, or the history of DDT. I also upped my intake of podcasts; I continue to be amazed at the breadth and quality of podcast series available, and the format lends itself perfectly to car trips and long walks. At the same time, I was mindful of the fact that selecting only those media that jibe with my interests and biases puts me in a bit of an echo chamber; I run the risk of shutting out viewpoints that run contrary to my own. I also had to remind myself that silence--or music--is sometimes more necessary than taking in additional information. After replaying a podcast discussion of the conflict in Syria for the third time, and zoning out each time, I decided it was time to unplug for a while.

6. It was a bit easier to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Many retirees say having time to prepare food at home has prompted healthier eating habits than when they were working, and it also saved them money. I didn't detect big changes in my eating (or spending) patterns. I typically make time to cook while I'm working and did so on sabbatical, too. One difference, however, was that I felt less urgency to plan dinners for a whole week at a time, as I typically do while I'm working. Instead, I could decide that morning what we'd have for dinner that night, then shop for the ingredients in my copious spare time. I'm pretty sure we drank more wine.

On the other hand, being able to allocate an even greater share of my day to exercise, on my own schedule, was one of the great joys of sabbatical. I walked absolutely everywhere--my one-day record was 16,500 steps--thinking things over and listening to podcasts all the while. People who retire in good health and are able to stay active are a lucky lot.

7. My wardrobe changed.
In a related vein, my "faux-tirement" brought a change in my clothing habits, which would likely have implications for my clothes-buying were I actually retired. My workout and yard work clothes were in heavy rotation; I found I needed more such items, especially for warm weather, than I actually had. On the other hand, I found that my supply of dress-up clothes was crazily vast relative to my needs and lifestyle. No surprises there, really, but I expect a similar pattern in retirement would lead to changes in my shopping habits.   

8. My spending was a mixed bag. 
Because I've focused so much on the financial side of retirement in my work, I was keen to see if my spending habits differed significantly during my break from when I'm working. I detected a mixed picture. On the one hand, not working gave me more time to engage in pleasurable activities that don't cost anything--walking, reading, and gardening, for example. And because I was more relaxed overall, I felt less of a need to treat myself for little goodies that might help get me through the working week--an afternoon Starbucks, for example, or little splurges at the Sephora or Zara in my office building. On the other hand, having more time brought more shopping opportunities--I could readily pop by Target after having lunch with a friend, for example. (It could have been a coincidence, but most of my purchases were home-related--perhaps because I was spending more time there?) On the spending front, I'd call it a draw.

9. Home projects were a nuisance.
In the category of "first world problems," I found myself a little annoyed by having workers around the house while I was on my break. As it happened, we were having the exterior of our house painted during my time off, and I felt a little self-conscious about my seemingly aimless schedule--long morning walks and periodic trips out of the house to have lunch with friends. Takeaway: I'd tackle any big, foreseeable home-improvement jobs before my actual retirement starts, because I relish my privacy while I'm at home.  

10. I got to take the long view.
Finally, having extra time on my hands gave me the opportunity to take the long view on things, to think big thoughts and open my heart a little bit. I thought about growing wealth inequality, the why of opioid addiction and despair. I wondered why so many people drive cars in my neighborhood when they could just as easily walk or ride their bikes instead. I felt--even more intensely than I usually do--about how grateful I am for my departed parents and my whole beautiful extended family. I decided my husband and I should get ourselves to Asia soon, and take some more road trips. I reconsidered a grudge I had been holding against a loved one and decided to let it go. I actually think I might have gotten a little bit wiser. Such moments, I suspect, are among the greatest joys of actually being retired. I'm grateful to have had a few.