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How Much Savings Did I Need for a Happy Life? I Was Surprised at the Answer

A couple of weeks into my “midlife gap year,” I ran into my friend Julie Triedman in our Brooklyn, NY, neighborhood. She said she envied my brave leap, quitting my job, but that she and her husband “didn’t have enough” to do the same. She wasn’t the only person to say some version of this to me. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but found myself coming back to this question: So how much IS enough? What factors figure into that calculation? And does it all come down to money?

If you ask Google how much money you need before quitting your job, most sources say to have at least six months of necessary expenses in the bank. In her recent Young Money column, Reuters’ Lauren Young cited an expert who said a year was preferable. Me? In my entire adult life living in New York City, I’ve never come close to reaching either goal. I had just over three months’ worth of cash savings when I left my job — and that was only because I was locked down in my home, by myself, during a pandemic with my 2020 bonus and lots of free time. 

Waiting until I was 55 to leave my job did, however, mean I could tap into my 401K without penalty, which opened up a financial opportunity I wouldn’t have dreamed of when my kids, now 21 and 25, were younger. I was a stay-at-home mom when my daughter was born, 11 days after I turned 30. The periodic freelance writing work I did after that was more of a professional lifeline than a financial one; the money I made typically went no further than our babysitters’ pockets. 

I was nearing 40 when my marriage collapsed. I managed to land a great corporate gig after a decade without a full-time job, thanks in no small part to the skills I had picked up working early internet-based jobs before I had kids. When my ex-husband and I officially divorced in 2007, we had a hefty home mortgage and about $30,000 in credit card debt, both which he assumed. Having that house meant more to him than me, and the debt caused me a huge amount of anxiety and grief. So I chose instead to walk away with his then-modest 401k, a small amount of cash to get me started, and blessed freedom from debt. 

Many would view this as a terrible financial decision on my part — that house is now worth far more than my entire retirement savings — but I’ve never regretted it. I have little tolerance for financial risk, and after years of fighting about money (among other things) this decision was the foundation for a collaborative, co-parenting partnership that worked. That was, and still is, worth more to me than gold. 

I had frequently grappled with this question of “what’s enough” but, as awful as this period of my life was, it was probably the first time I felt clear about the answer: turns out, money is only part of it.

I have been lucky to avoid the kind of financial emergencies so many people face — especially many other Gen-Xers — which make these kinds of debates seem like a luxury. Leaving my job and joining The Great Resignation was the right decision for me at this time, but it took me a long time and years of fear and self-doubt to get here. 

When I asked Triedman, Director of Content at a Manhattan law firm, what she meant by not having enough to leave her job, she said at first: “I don’t know how much [money] I need to retire or how many years I need to work to live roughly at the level I’m living now,” she said, adding “There’s so much uncertainty. What if one of us, or our kids, has extraordinary healthcare needs? How do you prepare for this?” 

I shared what the financial planner I had consulted with advised, that I should have $2 million saved before retiring. Triedman acknowledged that they were actually in a strong position to meet similar goals sooner than not, between the house they had bought in the late-90s, some inheritance and savings. 

But, upon reflection, she acknowledged that she liked her work and her co-workers and that she preferred to stay in this comfortable position than ask herself existential questions.

“I feel reasonably secure in my job, but understanding what’s gonna make me happy is harder,” she said.

Another friend, Audra Jones Dosunmu, 52, was clear about what’s enough for her. For the multi-hyphenate freelance talent management/production/casting agent, she is focused on the things she can control and not worrying about what she cannot.  

‘There’s so much pressure to have all these things in place… Everything is this picture of dismay. I refuse, I decline,” says Jones Dosumnu, adding “Happiness is the one commodity we need to invest in.” For this married, homeowning mother of a 17- and 22-year-old, that means living within her means, shedding “stuff,” and supporting her Brooklyn community and other Black and Brown women, in particular. 

“I’m fortunate. I don’t have credit cards. I haven’t taken on a crazy amount of debt. I’m trying not to buy anything new unless it’s from a business I respect. I think the best investment is to invest in some property you can grow old in. And invest in your community so that it grows and stays strong and you can benefit from that as you grow older.”

For those of us with the privilege to do so, what’s “enough” can look as good or gloomy as we choose to see it. Experts can inform or overwhelm us. Our peers’ paths can inspire or discourage us. 

Now four months into my gap year, I am the happiest I’ve ever been. I volunteer, delivering food from donor businesses to community fridges and other local organizations. I am figuring out how to expand the charitable latke-making venture I started last year, and I’m close to launching a new podcast called Life Changing with Dori Fern. My funds are dwindling at a faster pace than planned, so I may need to take part-time work before I’m ready for a full-time career pivot. But while I keep one eye open to the practical, I keep the other one closed, to tune out fears and to dream of a future I can’t yet see. This for me, for now, is enough.

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