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12 Takeaways From a Mini-Retirement

What happened when this man mixed a vacation with an experiment

(This article previously appeared on IntentionalRetirement.com.)
One cannot really come to appreciate one’s life, save by playing with it and hazarding it a little.”  — Jack London

Just over a month ago, my family and I packed our bags and hit the road for our first Mini-Retirement. The trip was part vacation and part experiment as I tested out some of the things that I’ve been writing about at my website, Intentional Retirement.

Before I fill you in on how it went (spoiler alert: it involves a visit to the emergency room), let me do a quick review of the “What?” and the “Why?”

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What Is a Mini-Retirement?
A mini-retirement is when you take small chunks of your retirement (say a month or two) and spread them out during your working years. That way you can do some of the things that you’ve been putting off until “Someday” while you’re still relatively young and healthy and you’ve got your kids and/or friends around to enjoy them with you.

A mini-retirement can focus on travel, hobbies or anything else you’ve wanted to do but have been putting off until retirement. For more on the concept read this: “The Case for Mini-Retirements.”

Why Take Mini-Retirements?

The reason I think you should take mini-retirements is because you only have one short, precious go-around at this life. You can either spend it dreaming about “Someday” or you can decide what you really want out of life and start taking those plans very seriously.

So how did things go on our first mini-retirement?

(MORE: 6 Ways to Make a Multigenerational Vacation Fun)

When I proposed the trip to my wife — we’d go to Ireland, England and Wales — I told her it would either be a great time as a family or the biggest mistake we ever made. Thankfully, it was 100 percent the former.

The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, and the scenery was absolutely amazing.

We hiked places like the Cliffs of Moher and the Wales Coast Path. We frequented local pubs where live music, a cold pint and friendly conversation with the locals were always on tap. We took guided tours through a few thousand years of history in places like Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Guinness Brewery and the Jameson Distillery.

Most of all, we spent four weeks of relaxing, memorable, focused time as a family.

I could go on and on about what we saw and did, but instead I thought I’d share 12 takeaways that you can use for your own life and retirement.

My 12 Takeaways From the Mini-Retirement

1. Have a quest. All told, we were gone 31 days, but the trip was much more than that. It was nine months of saving, planning, anticipation, dinnertime conversations, overcoming obstacles and figuring out logistics.

Once the planning was over, we actually got to summon a little courage, sail away from safe harbor, have interesting experiences and make memories that will last a lifetime. We were able to return home different than when we left.

In short, it wasn’t a vacation. It was a quest.

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A quest can take an ordinary month or year and turn it into something interesting, exciting and memorable. There are about 25 weeks left in 2014. What kind of quest can you dream up?

2. Count on conditions not being perfect. Had we waited for the stars to align, we never would have gone. The time never seems to be right. You could always use a little more money or a few more days at the office.

But we went anyway (non-refundable airfare and accommodations are always a good motivator) and you know what? Everything worked out great. So don’t wait for the perfect time. It will never come.

3. If it’s going to be, it’s up to me. Write that on your bathroom mirror. It might sound a little corny, but at the end of the day, it’s not your boss, your spouse, your trainer or that retirement blogger who’s going to make things happen in your life.

It’s you. Period.

No one can live your life for you. The hard work of making things happen is your responsibility and the satisfaction of a life well lived is your reward.

4. Your health is way more important than you’re making it. Almost everywhere we went, there were tour buses loaded with traditional retirees. Some of those people were spry and fit and able to get around, but many of them had visible health issues and were limited to exploring within a very short distance of the bus.

Contrast that with the couple we saw while hiking in Wales. They looked to be in their mid-70s, but you could tell that they had worked at staying fit and healthy throughout life, which is why they could head out for an all-day hike on a rugged coastline.

We can’t control everything about our health, but we can control much of it.

I came home from this trip with a renewed desire to be healthy so I can enjoy whatever years I have left to the fullest.

5. Solitude begins where the pavement ends. The Cliffs of Moher are absolutely stunning. They are sheer, 600-foot cliffs that abruptly delineate where Ireland ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins.

The parking lot was a zoo. The visitor center, too. The concrete viewing platform was pushing allowable capacity. But if you walked 50 feet (Seriously; 50 feet) away from the pavement, you pretty much had the path to yourself.

What came next was one of the most beautiful 8-mile hikes you could ever hope to take. Rolling hills. Beautiful wildflowers. Grazing sheep and horses. And mile after mile of those cliffs all to yourself.

Too often, people pull into the parking lot, get out for a quick look, check off the item on their bucket list, update their status on Facebook and then move on to the next place.

The more I travel, the more I realize that some of the best things are found away from the crowds and off the beaten path.

6. Live an extravagantly modest lifestyle. We’ve learned a few tricks for traveling on a budget over the years, but there was no getting around the fact that this trip was expensive. That’s okay though, because we’re willing to spend miserly on things that aren’t important to us so we can spend a bit more extravagantly on things that are.

I like this way of thinking because it provides you with a bigger “return on investment” for the dollars that you’re spending. You can read more about it here: “The Benefits of an Extravagantly Modest Lifestyle.”

7. Most of our excuses are bogus. People are nice pretty much everywhere; they don’t hate Americans. The food won’t make you sick. You can afford it. You have the time. The excuses we tell ourselves are usually red herrings for “I’m not making it a priority and I don’t want to put in the effort.”

Sorry if that’s blunt, but it’s true. If it’s not happening, it’s almost certainly your fault. You can make that truth sting less by deflecting the blame onto something else, but that won’t get you any closer to your ideal life.

8. Things will go wrong, but you’ll figure it out. My previous point doesn’t mean that things won’t ever go wrong. They will. I can’t think of a trip where something hasn’t gone comically wrong.

I sliced my thumb open cooking a late dinner in a small town in England and had to figure out where to go to get stitches (the emergency room). I’ve lost my credit card in Paris. I had my car break down in the middle of nowhere in El Salvador.

Yes, things will sometimes go wrong when you travel, but that’s not a reason to stay home. You’ll figure it out and move forward. It’s all part of the adventure.

9. Rent houses whenever possible. Hotels are small, cramped, impersonal and usually cost more. Houses give you a place to spread out, cook meals and do laundry. They make you feel more like you’re at home.

Not only that, they put you in a neighborhood so you can get away from the touristy places and experience the restaurants and shops that are popular with the locals. We usually rent from either Airbnb or VRBO.

10. The longer you can go, the better. All vacation days are not created equally. If you take a seven-day vacation (the typical break in the U.S.), two of those days are often spent in an airplane and two are spent either a) recovering from the airplane or b) packing up to get back on the airplane.

That leaves three actual days of vacation — three days is a weekend. So basically, our modern vacations are super-expensive, exhausting weekends.

You can remedy this by taking a two-week vacation (or three or four). When you do that, the travel days are a smaller part of the whole and you can actually enjoy your time away.

11. Go where the dollar is strong. One reason we chose our destinations was because my wife wanted to be somewhere English-speaking for our first experience with such a long trip. I doubt we could have made a worse choice when it came to expenses.

The Euro is strong against the dollar and the Pound is even stronger. Between the conversion rate, the VAT tax,and the fact that major tourist cities are expensive to begin with, we could pretty much count on everything being two to three times more expensive than at home.

It doesn’t take long when you’re spending $25 on a cheeseburger or $8 on a pint of Guinness before you decide that your next trip will be to somewhere like Ecuador or Vietnam.

12. Last but not least: Don’t wait. “I wish we had started doing these sooner” was a common refrain toward the end of the trip.

I can’t turn back the clock, but I’ll definitely make use of mini-retirements in the future.

The lesson here was not to wait. Delayed gratification is overrated.

Regardless of whether your goal is travel or something entirely different, get started on that now. Doing something you’ve always wanted to do is like planting a tree. Sure, the best time to start was 20 years ago. But the next best time to start is now.

Remember…life is short. Be Intentional.

P.S. If you want to see some pics from the trip, just visit my Instagram page.

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