Welcome to the new retirement. It’s about having the freedom to decide when and how you want to take a break from work — to rest, recharge or start a new adventure — no matter your age. In our Redefining Retirement series, you’ll learn how real people are living their lives to the fullest, and the steps they took to get there.
Here, one woman shares how she’s managed to stretch her one-year sabbatical to 11 years, all while seeing the world and paying down her debt.
When I was in my mid-40s, I took what I thought would be a one-year sabbatical from my career as a political consultant in California to run for public office. That one year has now stretched to 11.
At that time, I worked on statewide campaigns focusing on issues like consumer rights, women’s rights and environmental protection, speaking as a guest on talk shows and participating in debates on the radio. It was incredibly rewarding work, but people kept urging me to run for office. So in 2006, I decided to finally go for it.
I ran for state assembly in Santa Monica and lost badly, coming in fourth in the primary out of five candidates. It was devastating. I had dreamed about being a politician since I was 17. Running for office was one of the best things I’d ever done, but it was exhausting, and I didn’t feel ready to get back into political consulting. I needed to regroup.
That’s when I realized what I wanted to do. Back in 2003, I had visited Iraq as part of a women’s delegation to hear about Iraqi women’s experiences during times of war and sanctions. Seeing the struggles and courage of the women there was partially what motivated me to run — I wanted to have a bigger voice so that I could make a difference, not only for residents of California but also for people around the world.
Now that I was at a turning point, I wanted to write a book about my experiences there — which unexpectedly started my near-decade-long journey living abroad.
“I think a lot of people believe that freedom is having a certain amount of money in the bank. But I don’t think freedom has a number attached to it. I think it’s a feeling and a mindset.”
BECOMING A PROFESSIONAL HOUSE SITTER
When I finished my campaign I was $90,000 in debt because I had funded part of the campaign myself and wasn’t working while running for office. I had no idea how I was going to pay off that much debt. On top of that, my mortgage was an albatross: I owed $4,000 a month for my tiny home in Santa Monica. Initially, I thought I would have to sell the house just to stay afloat — until it occurred to me that it was an asset I could use to my advantage.
I crunched some numbers and figured out that I could rent out my house for enough to cover the mortgage, and have some extra to live off and help pay down debt. But that plan would only be workable if I lived elsewhere for free. I did a few fellowships at writers’ colonies, but those were hard to come by. That’s when my career as a house sitter began.
I thought it would be hard to find people who needed house sitters, but there are actually about 50 websites that connect homeowners with people who want to house sit; I personally like TrustedHousesitters, Nomador and HouseSit Match. I’ve been a full-time house sitter now since 2009, and it’s taken me all over the world: England, Germany, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Japan, Singapore, Mexico, Senegal, Malawi, Mozambique and China, to name a few. And I’ll soon be on my way to Hanoi, Vietnam, to house sit there during the Lunar New Year.
Sometimes I’m simply watching the house, but other times I also look after family pets. While I don’t get paid to house sit because it would affect my visa, I do get the luxury of living for free in amazing locales. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been able to see so many places and experience such different cultures. My nomadic lifestyle helped me to finally pay off all my debt in 2010, and I’ve been able to make some extra money writing about my travels. Plus, I’ve had the time to write two books: “Living Large in Limbo,” about my time in Iraq, and “How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips From the Housesit Diva,” with tips for those who want to do what I’m doing.
Every day, I get a couple of emails from homeowners looking for someone they can trust to stay in their homes or watch their pets, so I will continue to do this for as long as I can — especially because money is no longer a point of stress for me.
My new lifestyle gave me the chance to rebuild and heal after my election loss, and I can see now, in hindsight, that it helped me realize I simply don’t need as much to live on as I previously thought. I think a lot of people believe that freedom is having a certain amount of money in the bank. They fixate on that number and only plan to do the things they love after they’ve reached that goal. But I don’t think freedom has a number attached to it. I think it’s a feeling and a mindset: You either worry about money, or you don’t. I choose not to worry.