The great dilemma: Go part-time now or retire early?

Early retirement is a hot topic these days, particularly in the field of medicine. It is associated with the concept of financial independence, and together they are known by the acronym FIRE (financial independence and retiring early). In essence, FIRE means having enough saved that you can live off your investments, and no longer need to work for a salary. While FIRE is not for everyone, it is something my wife and I hope to attain someday.

Dual-physician families can be especially challenged by the time demands of busy medical practices. Both my wife (pediatrics) and I (radiology) work full-time. Life is busy but not too insane: a majority of days we work 8-5, but there are occasional mornings, afternoons or even full days off scattered throughout each of our schedules. We also employ a babysitter in the form of Mr. D — a retired CPA and neighbor who got bored in retirement. He picks up our son from daycare saving us 45 minutes of travel time each day.

One of the biggest choices any young family struggles with is whether one or both parents will work. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2016), both parents work in 61% of married-couple families and one parent works in 36% of these families. Employment decisions are often made with an eye toward balancing desired income and time spent with children. Who doesn’t want to spend more time with their children, right? (OK, smart alecks, you can put your hands down.)

Most parents simply figure out what works once the little humans arrive, and more than one option is almost always in play. For us, the imminent arrival of our second child means it is time to reconsider the status quo. I see two options at this point in our careers: we both continue to work full-time, and fully retire earlier; or we switch now to part-time (one or both of us), and fully retire later. Below I argue the pros and cons of each side, embodied in my potential future selves: Full-time Frank and Part-time Pete.

1. Money

Clearly, full-time Frank will earn more money than Part-time Pete, and Frank will need to work fewer years before retirement. However, compensation of full-time and part-time work can vary substantially among practices and specialties, and a half-time schedule does not necessarily mean saving exactly half the amount of retirement savings.

Assuming Pete works half-time, it will take him about twice as long to hit his retirement “nest egg” number compared to Frank. (By nest egg number, I mean the total retirement savings needed to fully retire.) However, for both Frank and Pete, investment returns can play a substantial role in the time needed to reach their target number — perhaps more of a role than the actual amount saved or years worked.

One can find many retirement calculators to play with different savings numbers and annual investment returns, but there will always be a degree of uncertainty in the growth of one’s nest egg. As a working assumption, we could say Pete — starting the moment he switches to part-time — will need to work twice as long as Frank to attain his retirement nest egg.


2. Children

Let’s begin by going through a typical day for full-time Frank.

Quality time is key and usually fun for everyone. But according to most experts (and, frankly, common sense), kids also need time without human helicopters overhead. Exactly how much time children need to spend throwing rocks at each other versus “helping” mom make butternut squash risotto is unclear.

Interestingly, at least one recent study evaluating children’s academic performance, emotional well-being, and behavior suggested that time spent with adolescents (ages 12-17) is more important than an equivalent time spent with children (ages 3-11). The time spent with adolescents need not be large: the average was 6 hours/week.

Regardless of how you approach the precious hours spent with your kids, working part-time affords the option to spend more time with them. That can’t be a bad thing.


3. Time

Pete would obviously have more free time at the outset. However, keep in mind that half-time can mean working two weeks per month, or working 2.5 days per week; whether or not Pete is happy with the arrangement depends on how well his desired schedule meshes with the needs of his employer.

Frank, though he will continue working full-time, for now, he will be dancing out the door while Pete still has years left to work. Frank must also consider how much free time he needs to remain content during the intervening years before his earlier exit.


4. Job satisfaction

This two-word phrase may be an oxymoron to some, but others honestly enjoy their work. Most people derive a sense of purpose and sometimes joy from their jobs but, given a choice, would rather not be restricted by a regular work schedule.

Part-time Pete works less overall, but may or may not have greater control over his schedule. In fact, some part-timers are forced to fill in gaps left by full-timers, resulting in a more restricted schedule for someone like Pete. On the other hand, simply spending fewer hours at work can mitigate job burnout. It may be a frustrating and hectic day for Pete but, heck, he’s going on a river float all day tomorrow! Relief in the form of time off is always just around the corner.

Frank seems to get the short end of the stick here, but not necessarily. Working regularly keeps mental and physical gears well-oiled; I certainly need a day to shake off the rust when returning from a long break. Pete may feel rusty on a fairly regular basis. Additionally, Frank’s more constant presence can result in a better handle on office politics and stronger relationships with work colleagues.


The verdict

If you kept score, you will notice that the overall result was an unsatisfying tie. This was intentional, as families don’t really “win” or “lose” when making these types of decisions. Certainly, each issue is not as simple as I presented here, and with some families (including my own) there are the added permutations of each parent working full-time, part-time or not at all.

Our current plan is for me to continue full-time, and my wife return part-time after her maternity leave. If this setup works going forward, it will probably delay our full retirement by a few years, but will mean a less hectic day-to-day schedule in the meantime. Like any family, we figured out what works for us and will continue on that path until the time comes to make a change.

“Dr. Curious” is a radiologist who blogs at My Curiosity Lab.

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