When I Decided to Retire Early

Stephen Covey famously teaches, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you need to begin with the end in mind. By this, he means that we are most likely to achieve our aims when we know what we are aiming for.  Two years ago, if anyone had asked me where I would be in five, ten or twenty years, I’m sure I wouldn’t have known how to answer. I wasn’t comfortable with that. I felt that having sixty or more years of life ahead of me, I should really have a plan that amounts to more than the default: work, eat, sleep… repeat. Isn’t there more to life than that?

Life is what we make of it. I suspect that many people, like me two years ago, don’t begin to realize the degree of control they have over their own destiny. We can live our lives on someone else’s terms: get an education that leads to a job, get a job that leads to a promotion, take on debt, increase our lifestyle expense and not get out of the rat race until we’re too old to contribute any longer (at least, that was the original intent of “retirement”). Or, we can determine our own purpose, and work to reach it. I wish I could say that my life’s purpose struck me like a revelation, but that wouldn’t be true.

My wife and I, after we were married, but before having kids, lived in Taiwan for two years. I took Chinese language and culture classes to complete my university degree and taught English part time. My wife taught at a preschool full-time. It was not always easy, but we really enjoyed it. We moved back to Calgary and settled down, bought a house, had kids and I started working full-time. After a few years, when my wife saw me casting about for a goal to work towards, she asked, “Why don’t we move to Hong Kong?” (More on this in a later post.) She offered that she could go back to school to become a teacher, after our kids were all in school. If I could earn and save enough, we could live on one teacher’s salary in Hong Kong and our retirement savings could continue to grow at home, until we were ready to come home. We thought we could do this by 2019, when I would turn 42.

Everything didn’t just fall into place at once; we spent a lot of time thinking about our plans. We talked with my wife’s family. We looked into the requirements to become a teacher. We learned about the international schools in Hong Kong. We planned and calculated how much money we spend now and how much we would need to save by 2019 to have enough to come back and retire in Canada. The more we talked, the more excited I got. I thought that maybe we could even be ready by 2016.

The more we planned and prepared, the more things came together. I work with my father as a financial advisor, and he’s planning to retire in four or five years. He’s preparing to work with a successor who can take over the business. When I finally felt comfortable sharing our plans with my family (it came as quite a shock), my dad felt that he could take over my business and allow his successor to buy it all. We will then be able to pay off all our debt and have enough income from our investments to fund our living expenses. Separately, I found that I’m very interested in education, and would like to go back to school with my wife to become a teacher. We learned that international schools require two years of teaching experience, and there’s a possibility of doing student teaching, and getting those two years of experience in Macau (near Hong Kong). If everything works out, I’ll retire in 2012, go to school for 18 months, and be in Macau in January 2014.

Two years ago, I had no definite plans. Today, I have a specific set of events planned for my near future. It keeps me focused and motivated on doing whatever it takes to make what I want of my life. It may not work out exactly as I’ve envisioned, but early retirement makes it easier for me to remain excited about my life.