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I’ve Saved for 30 Years, Now It’s Time to Spend

A Saver Redefines Retirement with a Yearlong Around-the-World Trip

At the Itsukushima Shrine in Japan. Some people decide to borrow money from their retirement. We decided to borrow time.

I had to reach up to the counter of the teller window to make my first deposit. I distinctly recall the moment I started my savings account at the First National Bank in Okeene, Oklahoma. The teller gave me my passbook, as it was called, where she had written in pen my initial $42 deposit, spurring my initiation into the concept of personal savings. The book was tan with a faux-leathery cover — I assume to connote stability and safety — and was about the size of a credit card, with a few dozen pages for bookkeeping. The pages contained narrow rows and columns for addition and subtraction. Leaving the bank that day with my mom, I held the passbook close, long before I ever understood the concept of identify theft, assuming this book was effectively legal tender. Over the next several years I watched that account grow little by little. First through allowances and other deposits from my parents, and later through the sale of portions of wheat harvests that I and my brothers were given as part of our annual work on the family farm.

My general concept of personal finance didn’t get much more complicated than that passbook and the money I received that was noted in its grid-like pages. It was simple: Work hard at your job and you will be paid for your time. Those payments should go into the bank for necessities. The harder you work, the more you’ll be rewarded with better jobs, more money, and more savings for the future.

Surprisingly, that framework I had been taught by my parents and my community actually played out pretty much as advertised from my adolescence through my 30s. The wheat harvests would eventually be good enough to add a few four-figure additions to the ledger once my portion of the crop was sold for the year. My high school grades were good enough to get me a full scholarship to Oklahoma State University. After college, I moved to Washington, D.C., for an unpaid internship, but steadily progressed in my career with raises and increased responsibility. Looking back (and especially with the hindsight of seeing the housing bubble, job losses and the recession), I was extremely fortunate at just about every turn in my career. I had progressed to the position of senior partner at a large public relations firm, with a good salary and benefits, at a job that continued to be challenging and interesting to me.

Then six months ago I decided to do the exact opposite of everything I had been taught about personal finance and career growth. I left my stable and lucrative position with no exact plan for the next stop in my career. My wife and I decided to take a one-year retirement, quitting our jobs to spend 12 months traveling around the world. When we return, we’ll go back to work and also go back to building on what we had saved. But for this year, we’re slowly but surely eating into our savings. We had a good nest egg which we were expecting to use for a home down payment. But instead we decided a good portion of that would now go toward this experience.

I’m a planner by nature, and this journey is no exception. So we won’t be penniless when we return. In fact, we’re on a very strict budget for all aspects of our trip and we’re watching our expenses daily. It sounds exotic when we describe it as an around-the-world trip, and it is in that sense. But it’s also very middle-of-the-road travel. There are no suites, but we’re not staying in backpacker hostels either. We’re splitting our lodging between mid-priced hotels and small AirBnB’s where we can save money by cooking and doing laundry ourselves. Dining out involves a lot more delis than white tablecloths. For organized tours we splurged on just a few locations — getting multi-day guided tours for the Galapagos and Machu Picchu — but for the rest we’ve largely been acting as our own travel agents and tour guides.

Even with all the ways we’re saving, the fact is that our balance sheet has a steady stream of debits, and no credits, and that’s going to continue for 12 months. It took a very long time for me to get comfortable with that fact, especially when I think about those first $42 and all the deposits since. But I kept coming back to the same question time and again: What are you saving for? What is that vague thing called retirement, and what if you had a chance to enjoy a fraction of that retirement now, while you still are young enough to have energy and good health, but without the blessing and responsibility of children? If other people can borrow money from their retirement savings, why can’t we instead borrow time from our retirement now?

We realized that although we didn’t plan it when we started saving, that this opportunity to take a one-year retirement was just what all that saving had been designed to fund. It wasn’t a necessity, but it was an opportunity, one that we couldn’t pass up. And when the year is over, we’ll be behind in our ledgers but ahead in other ways. After 30 years of saving and one year of spending, I think it will all balance out.

Follow our journey on Facebook at Megan and Jim's One-year Retirement. And I’d love to hear your experiences traveling, and how you're saving and spending for travel, so please add to the conversation with your comments or questions below. And if you like this post, click the heart. Thanks!

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