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Lessons From Another ‘Faux-tirement’

A six-week break from work brings insights into retirement and life.

An illustrative image of Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning of Morningstar.

One of the key takeaways from my forthcoming book, How to Retire, is that it’s valuable to experiment before you embark on retirement. What do you want to do with your newfound free time? Do you want to relocate or stay put? Are you even ready to be retired? It’s wise to sort out those questions before you make big life changes that could be difficult to reverse.

In that spirit, I’ve been informally using my six-week sabbaticals from work—a perk offered to Morningstar employees after every four years of service—to peer into my own future and dabble in something akin to retirement for several weeks. My last sabbatical was back in 2017, and I wrote about some of my key takeaways at that time. Seven years and a global pandemic later, I was even more keenly attuned to using my recent sabbatical as a way to experiment with what retirement might feel like.

Here are some of my observations.

Lesson 1: Unscheduled Time Is an Underrated Luxury

During my normal working week, and even on the weekend, I’m often on a tight schedule. A sense of “things to do! places to be!” has permeated my psyche so much that even when I don’t have a timepiece handy, I can usually tell you what time it is within plus or minus five minutes. I’m not the most spontaneous person in the world, to put it mildly.

Being on sabbatical enabled me to slow down and amble around without that ticking clock. One day the skies opened up after I had walked to my local antiques mall without an umbrella, giving me an excuse to spend more than two glorious hours perusing vintage albums, books, and household tchotchkes. An old friend and I rattled around the Art Institute of Chicago for the better part of another day, talking, laughing, problem-solving, and admiring art all the while. When I tied with another driver at a four-way stop, I relished being the one who could wave to say, “That’s OK, you go ahead.” Clearly, unscheduled time was the biggest omission in my piece about luxury goods. Having more of it—and the serendipity that unscheduled time allows for—has to be one of the most delicious aspects of anyone’s retirement.

Lesson 2: Having a Purpose Is Crucial, Too

Yet, as much as I relished having time to wander and goof off, I also had retirement researcher Michael Finke’s voice in my head: “Relaxation is best when you’re relaxing from something.” If retirement is just like an extended weekend or vacation, you lose that sense of contrast and anticipation that made those breaks so joyful while you were working. Even more important, tackling actual jobs, especially meaningful ones, can confer a sense of purpose. We all need to believe that we’re needed on this earth. As with my last sabbatical, my best days were the ones that combined productive activities with fun and relaxation.

Thus, my continued forays into “faux-tirement” confirm that I should keep pursuing work of some kind—maybe paid, maybe unpaid—throughout my later years, even as I also allocate more time to leisure. I’m lucky that my regular job—financial education—feels inherently useful and altruistic, so I won’t have to venture too far to find activities that bring a sense of purpose. Veteran retirement columnist Scott Burns struck a chord with me when he said that doing some version of his life’s work made better use of his abilities than, say, stocking shelves in a food pantry. (Thus, he’s continuing to write his column.) But I also want to pursue some volunteer activities that put me in regular contact with human beings, so I will likely pursue both types of “work” later in life.

Lesson 3: Balance Is Hard!

As much as I tried to balance fun activities with things I wanted or needed to get done during my sabbatical—like editing a draft of my book or preparing the agenda for the upcoming Bogleheads conference—I consistently struggled with the ratios and the logistics. I’ve long been a “front-load the obligations” person, but the net effect of that orientation is that I tend to give fun and relaxation short shrift. On more than one day I found myself still working on something at 1 p.m., before I had time for a shower or lunch.

One tactic that helped was to specifically schedule my leisure activities. For example, if I had a plan to get together with a friend or had purchased movie tickets in advance, I would quit my obligations at an appropriate time. In other words, there had to be something or someone riding on the leisure for me to make time for it. If the leisure activity was open-ended or unscheduled, I was much more likely to put it on the back burner.

Lesson 4: Find Your Microjoys

Last but not least, my recent sabbatical highlighted—yet again—that it really is about the little things. While my husband and I took a lovely trip to Spain at the front end of this sabbatical—our fourth trip to one of our favorite countries—I’ll confess that I’m always just as happy at home. The key is that I can practice what I jokingly call my holy trinity: cooking, reading, and walking. A sabbatical allowed me to do all three almost every day—what a gift! And knowing that such basic, mundane activities bring me so much pleasure gives me confidence in the success of my eventual retirement, too. My happiness isn’t hinging on anything grandiose.

Of course, your daily personal joys are bound to be different, and by all means, make big plans as well as small ones. Write a novel, climb Machu Picchu, or start a foundation. But the longer I’m around, the more I’m convinced that microjoys, practiced with regularity, are just as important as showier, bucket-list-type pursuits.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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About the Author

Christine Benz

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Christine Benz is director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar, Inc. She is also the author of a new book, How to Retire: 20 Lessons for a Happy, Successful, and Wealthy Retirement (Sept. 2024, Harriman House). She co-hosts a podcast for Morningstar, The Long View, which features in-depth interviews with thought leaders in investing and personal finance.

Benz joined Morningstar in 1993. Before assuming her current role she served as a mutual fund analyst and headed up Morningstar’s team of fund researchers in the U.S. She also served as editor of Morningstar Mutual Funds and Morningstar FundInvestor.

She is a frequent public speaker and is widely quoted in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, CNBC, and PBS. In 2020, Barron’s named her to its inaugural list of the 100 most influential women in finance; she appeared on the 2021 list as well. In 2021, Barron’s named her as one of the 10 most influential women in wealth management.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian language from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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