Should We Take A “Gap Year”?


Yes, a “gap year” is something we should have taken right after college, when we were in our early twenties, before we went straight into a job (Will) or to graduate school (me).  But we didn’t then.

So…the occasion for this post is that we now have an opportunity to take that “gap year”  as we approach our 50th birthdays next summer–nearly 30 years late and with some complications we need to work through.

Trying to operate rationally, I’m organizing the list of pros and cons of taking this gap year:

How are our FINANCES?  We cannot take a gap year unless we are reasonably certain that we can stop working RIGHT NOW and still be assured of a comfortable retirement.  Looking at fairly conservative figures in assuming a 3% withdrawal from our investments, are we confident that we have enough saved?  Or being even more careful, do we have 45 times our annual expenses, hoping that we live to 95 without going destitute?  (Depends–on inflation, on the solvency of Social Security, and on whether or not we want to travel and eat well.)

Because, really, there is no guarantee that Will is going to be able to find an equally well-paying JOB, ever again.  He is in “high tech,” and this industry is really for young people–as suggested by all those t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing twenty-something Silicon billionaires.  Right now, Will has his current job and still more opportunities for positions, but they probably won’t be around after he returns from a “gap year.”  Things move very fast in this field.

Without jobs, HEALTH INSURANCE is starting to take on some scary dimensions.  We were hoping to have Will’s “gap year” coincide with my academic sabbatical year.  However, I’ve already maxed out on how much on-leave insurance I am eligible for through my university.  And I just discovered that my out-of-pocket costs for continuing our health care would exceed $15,000 for the year!  Yikes!

We thought about purchasing travel insurance and LIVING ABROAD since it turns out that many companies would allow us to purchase insurance at more reasonable rates that could kick in just about anywhere, except in the U.S.  But, exciting as it sounds, living abroad obviously has its own challenges: Can we in good conscience leave our PARENTS, possibly for a whole year?  How to transport our DOG Katie abroad?  Is it getting more difficult to obtain VISAS?

And all those other nagging DOUBTS: Are we being selfish and feeling entitled?  What would happen to the workplace if everyone took a “gap year”?  Are we being childish in retreating from life’s responsibilities and wanting to “take a break” for a year?  Is this merely a form of midlife crises we’re going through?  Are we deluded in thinking that we could come back from a gap year unscathed and just bounce back into the old routine?  Is that even fair? or desirable?

These doubts are then countered by other, equally compelling QUESTIONS:

  • What if this is our last opportunity to travel about and experience a different sort of life?
  • If we don’t grab this chance now, will we regret it at 80, 70, or even 60?
  • Are we that concerned about financial security?  Haven’t we proven that we can live frugally?
  • Can’t we economize as necessary to make sure that we take advantage of this gap year opportunity–even if it turns out that we don’t come back to Will’s lucrative profession?  (After all, we do have the safety net of being able to return to my less financially rewarding job after the year off.)
  • How is waiting longer going to make it easier to leave our even older parents or transport an even older dog abroad?
  • If we get bored with our gap year or find that it wasn’t that special after all, won’t we have a better attitude towards work when we return to it later?

Right now, we’re leaning towards taking the gap year, and we have another camino in our sights.  But I suspect this to-ing and fro-ing will go on for at least another few months as we sort out details…


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Preparing to Retire Abroad Series, Part 7: Going with the Flow


When I grow up, I want to become the Postmistress of Castrojeriz, Spain.

Imagine a job where you come in Monday-Friday from 9:30-10am.  You get to enjoy a bit of “office” camaraderie, interact with a few local residents, help out struggling tourists who want to send a postcard from their Camino route, and then go home in time to have a  proper breakfast and start the day.

Of course, if you are a tourist–or, for that matter, a resident–who needs the post office to be open beyond 30 minutes in the morning, these hours could be a bit frustrating.  And–gasp!–what if you needed something  on the weekend?  Then, you might be missing the Chicago-area suburbs with their 24-hour grocery stores, Saturday hours for the post office, etc…

We have had enough adventures with European ideas of public services to know that all will not be smooth sailing if and when we finally do move there.  In fact, in just about every country we are contemplating living in, we’ve had some memorable mishap occur.  Our trick now though is to plan ahead to prevent major disruptions, go with the flow, and enjoy kindness of strangers when we come across it.


In summer of 2009, we arrived in Rome for a short jaunt before our train reservations took us to Naples (with Sorrento being our destination).  Since our red-eye flight landed in the morning, we had almost an entire day to re-acquaint ourselves with this beautiful city before moving on early next morning.  We were raring to go!

As we stood with a crowd of people on the airport terminal platform for the commuter train into town, we realized that there wasn’t as much noise as we were expecting.  Something wrong with the trains?  Surely not, since we were able to purchase our tickets without hearing any information about problems…

Of course, it turned out that the commuter rail workers were on strike.  It could be for an hour, a few hours, or the entire day.  No information about what we could do, no offers of refunds, nothing.

While the majority of the other would-be passengers waited in the hopes of further information, we decided to chalk up our losses for the train fare we’d already paid for.  Instead, we went over to the now-growing taxi queue and then asked the young couple who next joined the line if they wanted to share a cab into town with us.  They seemed even less certain about what to do, so they were glad to have us take the lead on the cab ride.


We were supposed to have three days to relax in Santiago after the conclusion of our Camino (de Santiago) walk in 2013.  It turned into five.  We were scheduled to fly from Santiago to Paris on a Wednesday, but we ended up traveling on a Friday.

We cannot really blame our low-cost European airline for the fact that French air traffic controllers decided to go on strike Wednesday and Thursday–which, by the way, are favorite striking days, as we were to find out later.  In fact, Vueling was quite accommodating and let us re-book the flight to Friday for the same price.

But, of course, that meant that we were staying in our Santiago hotel for two days longer than we planned–fortunately, easily arranged–but also that we were wasting part of the two weeks we had already paid for on our Marais apartment in Paris.

At least we had the luxury of time to be able to pick from different options about how we would handle the situation.  Other camino pilgrims in similar situations but who had tighter international flight schedules had no choice but to travel by train and rental cars for 28 hours in order to get to Paris in time for their flight back to the U.S.


Our last trip to France brought us up close and personal with (the normally very reliable) SNCF on several occasions.  We had no fewer than three fairly significant train debacles on this trip, but I’ll just go straight to the one that caused the most worry.

After traveling in a few not-so-luxuriously-appointed trains, we were really looking forward to our TGV reserved seats to depart from St. Jean de Luz around 11am.    Our plan was to enjoy our final breakfast in St. Jean de Luz, stop by their le halle market to pick up a gourmet lunch, then leisurely stroll over to the train station, plop into our plush seats in the always on-time TGV, and relax and read in comfort the 5 1/2 hour trip to Paris.

Our train reservation to Paris was for Thursday, and our flight to the U.S. was on Friday morning, so it was imperative that we get to Paris some time Thursday.  But alas, we discovered on Tuesday that SNCF had scheduled a strike for Wednesday and Thursday–Wednesday and Thursday again!–and that they would have “limited service” overall.

What is limited service?  About 50% of train service from the southwest region.  Which 50%?  Not ours.

After hours of frantic internet searching on our last days in St. Jean de Luz, it was determined that we could get on the earlier 7 o’clock train to Paris and attempt to sit in unoccupied spaces until someone with reservations for those seats kicked us out.  It didn’t sound relaxing–and it wasn’t.

Instead of our original plan, we had to wake up early, hurriedly consume pastries we bought the day before (since even bakeries don’t open before 7:30am in this resort town), rush over to the train station, hope that a Paris-bound train would in fact arrive, attempt to find seats that others already wouldn’t have a claim to.  Sadly, all that turned out to be the easy part!

Sure enough, after a couple of anxious stops, we were indeed booted out by someone who had our seats.  And, with others in our same situation, we were playing musical chairs in an increasingly crowded train–after each train stop, going back and forth between the cafe car (which also had no seats) and the train car.  Especially after having gotten up so early, 5 1/2 hours of this was exhausting and wearying.

At last, it seemed that we arrived at the last major stop before Paris.  We snagged the seats of two departing passengers, and we were hopeful that our quest for 30 minutes of unmolested rest had ended successfully.  Then, in a gesture that belied all those unfounded criticisms of the French being unfriendly (which, by the way, we’ve never experienced), a lady who was leaving said to me (roughly translated): “I’m very glad to see that you have finally found seats.  We’ve been feeling bad for you as we saw you go back and forth in this car.  I think this is the last stop, so hopefully you should be ok now.”

We were very touched by her sincerity and concern, and then promptly sank into 30 minutes of sleep once the train took off.

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Hierarchy of Retirement Hurdles


Will and I have been reading blogs, checking out books from our library, and talking with each other in preparation for our impending early semi-retirement.

We’ve had to accelerate our coming to terms with early retirement because of recent changes in work circumstances.  Long story, but there is a complicated scenario involving a possible transfer and accompanying economic and professional commitment to staying for several years after the move.  Depending on how the next few weeks go, we might be retiring one year EARLIER or a couple of years LATER than we had originally planned.

So…  Now is a really good time to take stock and really figure out how ready we are for this rather momentous move.

We know that plenty of people retired way younger than we are now, but since we started thinking seriously about early retirement fairly recently, only about 18 months ago, having that retirement date pushed FORWARD by a whole year makes it that much harder for us to contemplate.

On the other hand, since we wanted to retire in early January 2018, does pushing it BACK another year amount to a defeat of sorts?  We will both turn 50 in the summer of 2017.  It’s one thing to retire AT 50 like we planned, but does 51 (or later) not sound so good psychologically?

I’ve been thinking that there are–broadly speaking–three major hurdles we need to overcome as we consider (unexpectedly) early retirement.


If we retire before we hit 50, can we feel confident that we have enough saved to last us a 40+ year retirement?  The stock market has been very hot the last few years (aside from a blip or two), and how realistic is it to assume that we can continue to count on that sort of return on our investments?  Isn’t this all an economic bubble that will surely burst?  Possibly right after we pull the plug?

Sure, we’re healthy now, but we hear of catastrophic illnesses and accidents ALL THE TIME, not just from freak news stories but even from our close family, friends, and co-workers.  What makes us think that we can safely weather a debilitating tragedy without depleting our resources?

While we don’t want to keep repeating the ONE MORE YEAR mantra, isn’t it wise to save as much as we can, as long as we do indeed put that stick in the sand?, draw the line?, etc.


What this second hurdle amounts to is “Survivor’s Guilt.”  Sort of like: Why should we be able to leave the workforce so much earlier than others who have been working just as hard?  Do we feel a sense of entitlement, that we deserve early retirement?  (And, frankly, I’m not a big fan of people who feel entitled about anything.)

Yes, we could argue that we worked hard for the decades we were in our professions.  But really, don’t tens of millions of others, including our family and friends?

Perhaps we were more frugal about saving money and investing wisely than some?  Sure, but plenty of people didn’t have the resources–mostly, income from our professional degrees–to save money even if they counted every bean sprout they purchased (like my parents did).

And, truth be told, isn’t it at least part plain LUCK that we did as well as we did in school, in getting our jobs, in landing the right promotion, in being at the right place at the right time?

Also, let’s not forget, we are DINKs (Double Income No Kids).  Our childless state did not come about by choice, but it has been mighty convenient after-the-fact, once we started planning early retirement.  We know so many good people who feel they cannot pursue their own retirement dream when they need to save for exorbitant college tuition and the generally ridiculous cost of raising kids these days.


We’re getting more comfortable with the first two hurdles.

We think we will have enough to meet our regular spending needs and minor emergencies; and there’s not too much we can do about catastrophic life-challenges anyway that one (or ten!) more year of work might have solved.  I will still feel Retiree Guilt, but the two of us working longer and denying possible employment to other, perhaps more needy, workers will not alleviate that guilt.

But before we can ride off into the retirement sunset, hopefully in a coastal southwestern French town (photo above), we need to address the final hurdle.  If the first two retirement hurdles represent the equivalent of lower rungs on Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, then this final hurdle might be the one that equates to that top triangle, Self-Actualization.

What is our full POTENTIAL?  What were we meant to ACCOMPLISH on earth?  What makes us most FULFILLED?  How can we make our retirement years not only SATISFYING to ourselves but MEANINGFUL to the world beyond our little selves?

For good or for bad, perhaps working so hard allowed us NOT to confront some of these vexing issues.  At this point though, should we have answers to some of these questions before we cut off our apron strings to full-time employment?  Or, can we not SELF-ACTUALIZE until after we are off the work treadmill?


We haven’t cleared this final hurdle yet.  We’ve been approaching it from various angles and still trying to figure out how best to make the leap.  We’re comforted by the notion that perhaps it’s not really possible to clear this particular hurdle before we retire.

It may be the project of the rest of our lives to figure out how to achieve self-actualization DURING our retirement.



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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…to Retire?


We’re seeing the slogan everywhere.  Sometimes, the word order is different: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.  But it’s the same three words, usually accompanied by the plea to increase our recycling efforts. As in the plastic bag pictured above, the idea is that reusing a recyclable bag would reduce waste.  An excellent and noble idea!

How about we take it and apply to our FIRE efforts as well?  It seems to me that “Retire” should be the natural fourth on the list after Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.  After all, a large percentage of FIRE aspirants also care deeply about the earth’s natural resources.  (If you don’t believe me, you clearly haven’t read much Mr. Money Mustache.)

In any case, this is how I look at it:


Have I mentioned how much I am trying to declutter?  Will and I have, over our 18 years together, amassed way more stuff than we need.  If you can think of any kitchen gadget, we can produce two of them from our drawers.  Bikes?  Three.  (And note that I don’t actually even ride one–though, yes, I should…)  Clothing?  Don’t even get me started on how I have become a hoarder of skirts.

So, how are are reducing all this stuff?  I have a quarterly purge as well as monthly spot-decluttering scheduled.  We have tried flea markets to questionable success, and we’re getting better with using Craigslists to sell some items (more on that soon!).  More typically, we donate to Amvets, Salvation Army, and Goodwill.

We are also just purchasing less.  Less produce that will go to waste, less thoughtless use of earth-destroying products, fewer items of clothing than we previously believed absolutely necessary, fewer impulse trips to restaurants, more walking and biking and less driving in cars.


But, to my shame, I was very close to being a Ms Consumer last week.  I was at Costco–as I am wont to be often when I shop these days–and I noticed a pair of Lady’s Slip-On Black Skechers selling for $29.99.

Of course, shoes of any kind weren’t on my Costco list (and I have been trying to be more regimented when it comes to following these lists).  And I don’t remember previously feeling the burning need for slip-on shoes in black nylon.  But, of course, I suddenly imagined that my life would be so much easier with these shoes.  Walking Katie, for instance, would be a breeze if I could just SLIP ON these shoes instead of tying up and double-knotting (!) the laces of my running shoes.

I was just about to congratulate myself for the great good luck in coming across these shoes–well-displayed towards the front entrance–and thinking that I should go up 1/2 a size since my regular size seemed a bit snug.  Then, perhaps inconveniently, I visualized a pair of Merrells and a pair of L. L. Bean slip on shoes I had buried somewhere in my closet.  Ok, those have velcro closures and so they were not strictly as simple as these slip ons, but…

When I came home, I found both pairs in a corner of my bedroom closet, underneath a pile of backpacks that didn’t get used the last two years.  Lo and behold, they fit and were still comfortable.  And, truth to tell, the L.L. Beans were just as cute–and almost as new–as the Skechers from Costco; and the Merrells (which boasted the added benefit of having accompanied me to Capri) had superior sole construction than the pair I had almost purchased for 29.99.

So if I could just declutter a little more, then I could find to reuse items which I had long forgotten about, obviating the need to purchase new items which are sometimes less excellent replacements anyway.


We were present at a marital spat between spouses who disagreed about how strictly they should compost.  We know of other couples who frown when houseguests don’t properly recycle candy or straw wrappers.  Will and I don’t quite know for sure whether those quart soup cartons can be recycled since not all have the green triangle recycle sign printed on the bottom.  Yes, we are all on a recycling wave.

Lately, I feel chastised when I ask for printed, instead of emailed, receipts at stores.  In my defense, it’s not because I don’t care about the environment but rather that I don’t trust that the store won’t bombard me with unsolicited email offers…  But I’m sure I’ll come around to those as well.

On the bright side, my purse usually contains two collapsible bags for shopping.  Thus, when we were visiting my family in Los Angeles last year, I was able to refuse the purchase of a plastic bag at Target.  Same with grocery stores in France.  We can also get 5 to 50 cents credit at other stores.

And (as part of my decluttering efforts) recycling my students’ papers and exams after one year has significantly reduced the unsightly piles that were starting to teeter in my office.  I’m feeling freer already!


It turns out decluttering is, once again, the theme of this post.  After all, when we reduce, reuse, and recycle, we are also decluttering.  And decluttering is absolutely something we need to do in order to prepare for retirement.

But, in addition, these efforts also save money and earth’s natural resources.  So when we retire early with our savings, we hope to be able to look forward to enjoying the bounties of our planet for many decades.

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Preparing to Retire Abroad Series, Part 6: Choosing A City


Our last few visits to France have been our “reconnaissance missions” of sorts.  We have been scouting various locations that we might be interested in relocating to eventually.

While there are still more places we would like to visit–Grenoble, Perpignan, Bordeaux–we think we have a goodly list now of fairly varied locales, so here’s the beginning of our deliberations.


While it is super-duper expensive, how can one NOT include Paris on the possible list of places in France one might like to retire to?  By now, we’ve spent a total of about eight weeks there–2 full weeks after the camino, as well as a few days each on several different trips, etc.


It’s gotten to the point where we can get off of the Republique metro stop and somehow wind our way around to come back to our favorite boulangerie near Rue Charlot (best ever croissants above!) and then somehow get to a very popular creperie on Rue Vielle du Temple, and walk past Cafe Amorino (amazing gelato) to sit ourselves down in Place des Vosges.

After taking in the scenery and relaxing in possibly the most perfect little square, our itinerary takes us down to Notre Dame Cathedral, to a walk around the hordes of people waiting to get inside the cathedral (been there, done that–when it was much less crowded) and sneak behind the crowds to sit in serenity (all the more remarkable for how crazy it is on the other side!) and stare at the flying buttresses of this beautiful landmark.

Do we then want to walk down the main drag of Ile St. Louis and see if our favorite little bistro has something particularly tempting for us?  Or should we head into the BHV department store and do a little bric-a-brac shopping, Parisienne style?  Or should we go walking around the Latin Quarter and then make a stop at Shakespeare and Company, possibly the most famous bookstore in Paris (below)?


Even if we don’t end up LIVING here, Paris will figure mightily in our plans.  Wherever we do end up, we know it will be a place where we can get to Paris by train for special occasions–or just because it’s Paris.


We loved all that Sarlat had to offer, and we’re shocked to discover that the actual town is not much bigger than 10,000 or so.  It SEEMED much bigger because there were so many tourists there.  And those market days (below)!  Our own hometown is supposedly about seven times the size of Sarlat, but the French town had a metropolitan charm going for it that our more provincial-seeming, strip-mall laden, suburb does not…


Sarlat was a town that was both beautiful in and of itself and also close to so many other picturesque places.  Beynac, La Roque-Gageac, Domme, etc.  The geographical proximity was such that you could be at an intersection–or, more likely, a roundabout–and be able to see signs for several different tourist wonderlands all within just a few kilometers of each other.

Or, you could take a longish road trip (by Dordogne standards, that is) and take 20 minutes to get to Montignac for prehistoric caves at Lascaux–or, again, several other historical or cultural attractions.  If you don’t want to bother driving, why not canoe down either the Dordogne river or the Vezere?  No need to castle-hop when you can just see half a dozen in a few kilometers of peaceful rowing.


We appreciated just how country French the culinary scene in Dordogne was: duck pate, duck breast, duck confit, duck saucisson, duck gizzard…  Yes, we ate them all.  Unfortunately, we ate them all pretty much in one sitting, so we got bored with duck pretty quickly too.  So by the time we got to the Basque region, we very much welcomed their quite different cuisine, including tapas!


And did I mention that we were seaside?  So…  Seafood, seafood everywhere, and so much of it in dishes that had spices!  (We love French food, but spices are often “lacking” in their most traditional dishes.)  Mussels, clams, scallops, anchovies, sardines, octopus, squid, shrimp, langoustine, and–of course–fin fish of all sorts.  While we ate well in the Dordogne, we have to confess that the cuisine in the Basque region was more our speed.  And despite its tiny size–which made navigation quite easy once you oriented yourself properly–there was a cosmopolitan air, possibly because of it is also a tony resort town. 

And (would you believe?!) we were able to go to Spain for only 5 euros per person round trip!  We took a little bus ride from St. Jean de Luz to the border town, and then took a train into San Sebastian (below).  About an hour trip altogether, and we were in the bustling and yet pristine and elegant coastal town with more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other place in the world.  And more tapas!


So…  City, country, or coast-side?


Posted in Food, Retirement Planning, Retiring Abroad Series, Travel | Leave a comment