April 22, 2015

I'm Miserable At My Job. Should I Retire Early?

Help Me, Rhonda

At 60 years old, I am desperate to stop working after 17 years on the job. And I mean a job, not a career. Lots of people work much longer than 17 years, I know, and God bless them for that, but I have had enough. Our children are grown and out of the house, and my husband tells me we can afford for me to retire. But I can't seem to make a decision.

My 401k is not great, but it's respectable, and I have some other savings as well. Those are more than enough to carry me through to age 62, when I could start collecting Social Security. They could even take me to age 65, and a higher Social Security benefit. It had been my intention to work until age 62, now only 15 months away, so I could collect Social Security as soon as I retired. I could do that, I guess, but the thought of continuing to work is demoralizing for me. Besides taking up time, my job also takes up so much energy that I don't want to do anything on the weekends. Some weekends I never leave the house. Things I used to love doing won't even get me out.

Part of my indecision is that my current salary is quite generous, especially in this area. It seems downright stupid to give it up. I am not entirely debt-free, with a few thousand dollars due on a loan. Yes, yes, I know I should get it paid off before I stop working.

Part of me wants to jump ship tomorrow, and part of me knows better. I know I need a plan, but I just can't seem to make one. I just keep dragging off to work every day feeling miserable. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Help!

Desperate to Love my Life Again


I hear how desperate you are, Desperate, and I sympathize. Work can be crushing, particularly if you don’t enjoy it. First, I don’t think it’s stupid to walk away from a job with a high salary that’s making you unhappy. You’re selling your time to your employer, and there comes a point when your time is worth more than any amount they could pay you. Additionally, a generous salary is no good to you if you don’t have the time, energy or capacity to enjoy it.

A freeing truth is that, above subsistence level, it doesn’t matter what your salary is. Let me say that again: It doesn’t matter what your salary is. The key is to spend less than you earn. There was a time when you earned significantly less than you do now, and you lived on that. If you can return to that (or ideally a lower) level of spending, then you no longer need your current salary. One of the best blogs on money, enjoying your life and retiring is Ridiculous name, I know, but good content.

Here’s what I suggest: Get a calendar and pick a date. I suggest a date exactly one year from today, but if that’s too far away, make it six months away. That’s the day you stop work. Mark it on your calendar. It’s non-negotiable. No matter what, you’re done with this job 365 days (or six months) from now. That’s your light at the end of the tunnel.

Now you will spend the next year preparing for that. Start now: Adjust your finances as though you’ve stopped working. Your next one or two or 10 paychecks, however many it takes, go to paying off your last bit of debt. Other than that, all bills and spending come from your husband’s income—it’s not time to use retirement accounts or savings, yet. Once your debt is paid off, your entire paycheck goes into your retirement accounts and savings. Remember, you’re living like you’re not earning a paycheck. The purpose of this is twofold—to boost your savings, yes, but most important, to give you practice living on a reduced income.

Social Security alone won’t be enough for you to live on; your plan cannot be to spend your savings between now and age 65, then live on SS. Your plan needs to be to spend as little as you possibly can while enjoying your life, so you aren’t forced back to work by worries about money. Often, people who are unhappy with work or some other aspect of their lives use expensive habits—indiscriminate spending, costly travel, alcohol, etc.—to soothe those unhappy feelings. If that’s a pattern you’ve developed, you’ll need to be aware of it and work to dismantle it so you don’t burn through your savings too soon.

So far, we’ve focused on how to change your work situation, a change I think is warranted. You don’t need to spend much more time in a job that’s making you unhappy. But based on what you’ve said, I don’t think your job is the only thing that’s making you unhappy. You talk about having difficulty making a decision, being too burnt out to leave the house some weekends and not getting enjoyment from things you once loved. I am emphatically not a medical professional, but I think you might benefit from working with a therapist and/or seeing someone about symptoms of depression. Start doing that while you have employer-sponsored health care. Consider it part of your preparation for retirement; you’ll need to be healthy to enjoy your new free time.

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