It all started with rerun of "Magnum PI." That's what Houston tax attorney David Shoemaker was watching one night in bed in his early 30s. "In the show, someone asked Magnum why he quit the Navy Seals to become a private eye in Hawaii," he says. "He said, 'I was 33 and had never been 23.' And I thought, 'That's me.'"
Shoemaker, now 50, says he grew up in a trailer park in Appalachia and worked his way through University of Texas law school, followed by dawn-to-dusk hours in a Houston law firm. At 33, he asked to switch to a part-time schedule, and the next year started his own small firm with two partners who shared his world view. By keeping his business and personal overhead low, the partners can each take 12 weeks of vacation a year.
"Winston Churchill once said that anyone who lives within their means lacks imagination," Shoemaker says. "My view is that anyone who works until they're 70 lacks imagination."
Nearly 40% of professional men work 50 hours a week or more, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.
It also found that, in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 more hours each week than they did in 1979. The popularity of bestsellers such as "The Four-Hour Work Week" suggests that more than a few people would trade a "traditional" retirement – with no work when they're in their 60s and 70s -- for more leisure today.
It's not easy, as Shoemaker can attest. He is self-employed and single, with no children. But his approach may inspire others who want to step off the treadmill. Here's how he made it work:
Axe the Biggest Costs
Shoemaker slashed his two largest expenses -- housing and transportation – by renting an apartment within walking distance of his office. "There's no lawn, no maintenance -- there's nothing to it," he says. "I've got an Olympic-sized pool and jogging trail, tennis courts and a workout facility, all included."
Another crucial factor to Shoemaker's success: He kept his educational costs low. He was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania law school, but would have had to borrow more than $80,000 to attend.Instead, he chose a less prestigious -- but well-regarded -- institution that offered him a full scholarship. That decision allowed him to begin building up a rainy-day fund immediately. He now maintains a year's worth of living expenses for emergencies.
Meanwhile, the partners at his firm keep their administrative costs low by dividing up those tasks and taking care of everything from bookkeeping to billing themselves. "We don't waste a lot of time in partner meetings," he says.
Choose Your Job Wisely
Shoemaker says he was partly inspired to be a tax attorney when he was working as a teenager in a lumber mill, where one of his co-workers got caught in some equipment and died.
"I thought a tax attorney was the safest job in the world," he says. "It also meant I'd always be able to make a good living. I wanted to be a comedian, but I don't like smoky rooms and late nights. You can also pursue that passion and starve."
Twelve weeks off a year give him plenty of time to follow his bliss. "You can put up with anything if you have this much time off," he says.
Moving from Pennsylvania to Texas, Shoemaker enjoyed an outsider's perspective. "When you come from someplace else you evaluate things on different level," he says. "The lawyers in my old firm knew they wanted to work downtown and have a corner office and live in a certain neighborhood on a certain square-foot lot, whereas to me it doesn't mean anything. I had no preconceived notion of success.It's a big advantage when you're not trying to compete with some benchmark."
Shoemaker's most recent travels have taken him to Bend, Ore; Napa Valley in California; Hawaii and Glacier National Park in Montana, where he took a guided, seven-day hike with a 40-pound backpack. He asked about the age of the oldest certified guide on the mountain. The answer: 52. "You can't do these things when you get older," he says. "We were halfway finished with the hike and three of the six people beside me turned back."
With the time on his hands now, Shoemaker says he isn't likely to ever take a traditional retirement as long as he can still work. "What can't you do in 12 weeks vacation that you can do in unlimited time?"
For more ideas on trading retirement for more time off now, visit the Center for the New American Dream.