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Traveling the World, One Year at a Time

If Early Retirement Calls, Are You Ready?

By Al Race

[Editor’s Note. This is the first installment in a series of articles from Al Race that will chronicle the whys and hows of traveling the world in retirement on a limited budget.]

If you could live in a different country every year, for the whole year, where would you go? What would your Top Ten list be?

That’s a question we’ve been asking friends—and ourselves—ever since my wife, Rachel, and I decided in our early fifties that we wanted to do just that for the first ten years of our retirement. We called it our “Ten Year Plan.” Some of our friends couldn’t imagine taking that kind of leap; others enthusiastically told us about their favorite places in the world:  Tuscany; Southern France; New Zealand; Bhutan.

So we started our list. More importantly, we began to think more about the criteria for choosing a place where you’d want to live, not just visit. And how to get the right mix over ten years: city vs. rural, beach vs. mountains, expensive vs. cheap, English-speaking vs. not. The more we talked about it, the more we realized how much there was to consider!

Of course, my planned retirement age of 65 seemed so far off as to make this just a fun hypothetical game. But as the years ticked by, it started to become more real. Ten years to go. Five years to go. Can we really do this? What do we need to do to be ready?

Then COVID-19 came to town. During the summer of 2020, my employer, a major university, offered a pandemic-related retirement incentive to staff of a certain age and longevity—including me. Suddenly retirement was no longer a hypothetical game; it was a decision I needed to make now! It was three years earlier than I had planned, and it was irrevocable. Sign that paper, and we’re taking the leap.

Planning and Pivoting

If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that things can change in an instant. In March, our plan was to sell our house, downsize, and move into the city. Our four kids had all moved out: marriage, California, New Mexico, and one “digital nomad” who could work from anywhere in the world. Once they had all left the nest, we worked with a financial planner to get a better sense of how to invest the proceeds of our house, whether to buy or rent when we did, and when we could afford to retire.

Al and Rachel testing the retirement waters in Croatia in 2018

COVID changed those plans too—we took the house off the market, now happy to have the extra room for working at home. Suddenly, we were faced with the prospect that work could be over if we wanted it to be—and could afford it. We ran our numbers a dozen times and tried to consider everything. The lock-down was making world travel impossible, but for how long? We saw how video calls could keep friends and family together, but would that be enough? Staring at the signature line of that retirement offer made us get real about what would be involved in launching our Ten Year Plan.

  • First, we had to assume that we’ll be allowed to travel across borders and will feel safe meeting new people. But what if we’re wrong? My retirement date would be June 2021. If we can’t travel by then, will we regret having quit our jobs?  Our answer: no. With vaccines coming, we are hopeful, but if not, we’ll figure out a Plan B.
  • Second, with two years’ less income and savings, we will need to economize. That means researching cost-of-living expenses before putting a pin on a map. Many places will actually cost less than we’re spending now; some may be a bit more. We may need to earn some money while we’re on the road—so, for example, my wife (a teacher) decided to get a license to teach English as a Second Language, just in case.
  • Third, there’s family and friends. Our parents are in their 80s and 90s; still in good health, thankfully, but that’s not guaranteed. Maybe grandchildren will enter the picture and exert a gravitational pull we can’t predict. We can’t plan for these changes, but we can plan to return for regular visits with our parents and have video calls with everyone. We’ll need to be flexible about whatever life throws at us and our loved ones, but most importantly, we hope to choose destinations that family and friends want to visit!

Why Not Just Travel?

We had always been enthusiastic vacation travelers. But one- and two-week trips—great as they are—just don’t give you a chance to get the rhythm of a place.  We want to experience the dry season and the wet season, the local celebrations and traditions, the fresh foods at local markets, the quirks and secret spots that only time reveals. That’s what shapes the flow of daily life; that’s what shapes how people relate to their world. If you only visit a place at one time of year, your picture is incomplete.

There are plenty of reasons tourists don’t go places in the off-season: stores and restaurants closed, activities unavailable, weather that isn’t perfect. But many locals prefer their paradise when the tourists go home. They are connected to that place in a way visitors cannot be. They understand the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs, the character of the place, in good weather and bad.

That’s why we chose a year. And we decided we could probably do it well during the ten most healthy, active years we have left. After that, health, family, abilities, money, and many other factors will determine what comes next—we may miss home, or we may have fallen in love with one of the ten places and want to retire there permanently. But for the first ten—which might now be twelve?—years, we want much more than just “travel.”

We want to see and know other parts of the world in a way that’s just not possible when you have jobs, kids in school, and a house to return to. It’s not about luxury, and it’s not about deprivation. It’s about being there, growing and learning, and appreciating and respecting other cultures.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for…

Look around your house: How much could you fit in a few suitcases? For this to work, we’ll have to do more than downsize. We have to zero-size There’s no rental storage space that makes economic sense for 10-12 years. Much simpler and cheaper to just re-outfit our new abodes when and where we need to. But that means getting rid of everything that can be replaced—and even some things that can’t—and doing it now.

We do have a small, bare-bones family cabin by a lake where we can leave a few small but meaningful items. Otherwise, literally everything must go. Old photos must be scanned. CD collections must be digitized.  A few family treasures must be distributed to children who can take them. Otherwise, we have to decide: Is this something we will carry through life or can it be replaced? Has it brought us happiness but its time has passed? All the decisions that people make in their latest years—or we are forced to make for a parent after their death—we are making now, before retirement.

As difficult as some of these decisions have been, we are here to tell you there is an incredible feeling of lightness as the accumulated stuff leaves our house. Each object we let go of brings us one step closer to a freedom we haven’t known for decades—or maybe ever.

The Decision

If you haven’t guessed, we said yes. Actually, we said YES! Turns out, the offer was just the push we needed. It gave us a key financial boost and forced us to make a decision about what’s most important right now. And, no matter how much we enjoy our jobs, two more years of the daily grind waiting for everything to be perfect was not it. We’ve got plans, exciting plans, and we do not want to wait too long!

We have spent the middle third of our lives dedicated to raising kids, earning a living, and acquiring the things that fill humans’ nests. This last third is just right for our next great adventure. Our family is excited for us, too. We’ll sell our house this spring, retire in June, spend the summer in Maine getting ready, visit our parents in September, and then… it’s time to fly.

About the writer

Al Race has spent most of his career focused on children, education, and communication. Seeing more of the world and living simply have been on his mind since he was a teenager. He is looking forward to his first summer of not working since he was 13 (Bucket Age 64!). 

The idea of retiring to a different country every year is:

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Gerry Cobb
Gerry Cobb
2 years ago

LOVE the blog, Al, and can’t wait to hear more as you move ahead. I am right there with you!