Clinical Career

You Don’t Have To Retire At 65


Who Said You Have To Retire At 65?


A while ago I was having a google chat conversation with my good friend from high school and I was talking about wanting to retire early and how I feel like I finally figured out how to do it. He asked why I wanted to retire early and I had one of those cartoon moments where I shake my head go “whaaaaat??” He went on to explain that he had no desire to retire early, he liked working. I sort of left it at that and now I have learned that some people have no desire to retire early.

Since that conversation I have had similar dialogues with others who also claim that they wouldn’t want to retire early. I then ask them what they would do if they had $10 million dollars gifted to them and often times they start by saying that they would take some time off of work. And maybe they would never come back to medicine but that they wouldn’t want to lose their skills. (it’s really interesting to observe as their thought process evolves). They would open a business, they would travel for a few years, they would pursue singing or acting.

I titled this post “You Don’t have to Retire at 65” because even though early retirement has gained slight momentum in some careers (entrepreneurs, engineers) it seems to be quite foreign to doctors. It might have something to do with the fact that docs spend many years learning their skill so naturally it’s much harder to give it up.

Let’s Define Retirement

No, it doesn’t mean consuming sugary alcoholic drinks starting at noon by a lake or on the beach. It doesn’t mean having more free time than you know what to do with. It doesn’t mean giving up your skills or even your work-drive. It doesn’t even mean losing your income, either. Retirement means no longer having to depend on employment income to permanently sustain your desired lifestyle.

65+ And Retired, <65 and Retired

When a 67-year-old person states that they are retired even if they are working a part-time job or having income from a side business generally we don’t question them. We might think that they are the youthful sort that just likes to stay active through a job. As a society we accept the term retirement readily in someone 65 years and older because we know if nothing else they will get social security income if they are US citizen.

If a doctor aged 70 told us that he was retired but they worked an urgent care shift 1-2x per month to keep up their skills and also volunteered at a local free clinic or overseas then we would still accept the fact that they were retired. In comparison, if a 35-year-old doctor told us that she is retired and still worked a few shifts here and there and volunteered then there would usually be some comment like “Well, you’re not really retired if you still work.”

Retirement Discrimination

I look at my own mother who is retired and living off of her social security. She is more active than she was before helping my sister raise her 2 kids. This is the job of a full-time nanny of course. But, is she retired? She doesn’t get paid though my sister does pay some of her gas expenses and pays for some of her groceries.

So, back to the title… 65 is the age that social security kicks in, it’s the age that most of the tax-deferred accounts can be accessed without a 10-20% penalty. It’s the age that you get medicare in the US. It’s also the age that many pensions (defined benefit plans) begin their payout. Historically it has also been the age when most persons became too weak to continue working. It also took approximately 6 decades of work to save enough that the person could live off of before they died. Since the working-years to years-left-to-live ratio was high back then, age 65 was the logical time to retire.

Low Income vs. High Income Earners

Even in this economy and with current life expectancies, those having very small income may need to work well into their later decades before being able to live off of their savings. This doesn’t hold true for high income earners. By now I would guess that I have grossed over $2 million of income. Most of this I earned in the past 5 years.

Basic Living Expenses Aren’t Dependent On Your Income

The great thing about living and living expenses is that at the very core it takes the same amount of money to live a comfortable life. I use the world comfortable in relation to how humans live all over the world and not just in Los Angeles or Portland or even the US. Clean food, a safe living environment and some money to socialize with friends.

In the groceries category, you are more than welcome to pay $3 for an Asian Pear, $150 for a few ounces of caviar and $375 for a bottle of wine. But in order to keep your body going you will likely need the same number of calories as 99% of the world’s population. And the cost per calorie is fairly standard depending on whether you are eating healthy or unhealthy. You can feast like a King/Queen with $500/mo spent on groceries.

Housing will be somewhere in the $1-6 per square foot if you choose to rent. For those who wish to buy you are looking at $50-1000 per square foot. On the lower end of the spectrum there are still plenty of neighborhoods left to live in that provide safety and comfort.

Entertainment can be meeting friends for coffee or going for hikes and picnicking in the park. It can also be taking a private jet plane to the Fiji Islands with a private chef. One of my friends enjoys this kind of vacation several times a year with her family. But she also claims that the best vacation she ever took was a medical mission trip for 2 weeks in Africa where the accommodations weren’t quite as nice.

Even the wealthiest persons listed on Forbes top 10 lists will only need the basic of the above mentioned resources to live a comfortable life. Of course I’m not saying that you should give up your cell phone, your home internet, your car or to squish your travel bug. Instead, I want to just make you aware that if you wanted to no longer depend on your job as your means for sustaining your expenses you could do so.

Either you can work your tail off and continue with a doctor’s lifestyle and retire in your 50’s. Or you could work a standard schedule, cut back on your expenses and easily retire in your early to mid 40’s. Or you could pick up some extra shifts, aggressively pay down your debt, decrease your expenses and invest/save all disposable income and therefore retire in your mid to late 30’s.

Realize that you wouldn’t be the first to do so. Other physicians have done it without winning the lottery, without help from parents, without a sizable inheritance and without living like paupers.


How do you personally define early retirement?

What are you willing to sacrifice in order to not have to work a full-time job?

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