The Great Debate: Go Part-time Now or Retire Early

lalomanu beach

Pictured above: Lalomanu Beach, Samoa.

With our second little angel arriving soon, I’ve got family on the mind.

Both my wife and I 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.

But the winds of change are blowing, and Mr. Stork’s imminent arrival means it is time to reconsider the status quo.

One of the biggest choices any young family struggles with is whether one or both parents will work. This decision is 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.)

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. Parents eventually figure out what works once the little humans arrive, and more than one option is almost always in play.

Full-time Frank versus Part-time Pete

At this point in our lives and careers, I see two options. Our “roads diverging in a yellow wood” are:

  • Both continue to work full-time, and fully retire earlier


  • Switch now to part-time (one or both of us), and fully retire later

The pros and cons of each side are embodied in my potential future selves: Full-time Frank and Part-time* Pete.

*For the purposes of this exercise, part-time means about 50% time, but the exact percentage is not critical.

1. Money

First, we should address the pink elephant in the conversation: Frank will earn more money than Pete. Frank will also work fewer years before retirement. I trust you follow my complex analysis thus far.

Others have delved deeply into the comparative numbers of full-time and part-time work, and how they relate to retirement savings. After reviewing a few of these exercises, the salient impressions I get are:

  1. It will take Pete about twice as long to hit his retirement nest egg “number” compared to Frank
  2. For both Frank and Pete, investment returns play a substantial role in the time needed to reach that number—perhaps more of a role than the actual amount saved or years worked

Generally, I take a big-picture approach to my finances, so I’ll let others fiddle with the numbers. Certainly running different scenarios can be useful, but of one thing I am certain: the future is uncertain.

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

woman with many babies
The more the merrier!

Becoming a part-time Pete would mean more time spent with my little angel(s). First, let’s examine what full-time Frank’s days look like now.

After arriving home between 5:30-6pm, the next hour is spent greeting his son (wrestling is involved lately at our house), chatting with the babysitter, feeding and walking the dog (barking and lunging at squirrels is usually involved), and preparing/eating dinner. Then he has about 30-45 minutes before the bedtime routine starts.

Days like this make it tempting to quit tomorrow and go to the zoo with junior! But let’s think through this first.

Quality time is key and usually fun for everyone. But according to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (and, frankly, common sense), kids also need time without human helicopters overhead:

Some play must remain entirely child driven, with parents either not present or as passive observers, because play builds some of the individual assets children need to develop and remain resilient. — PEDIATRICS Vol. 119 No. 1 January 01, 2007

Exactly how much time children need to spend throwing rocks at each other versus “helping” mom make butternut squash risotto is unclear.

Interestingly, a 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. That is, if you believe parenting has any effect on a child’s outcome whatsoever.

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

What about “me” time, or as those without children call it, “time”? I’m talking about time to exercise, meditate, walk, read, garden, day drink, or chat with the lawn service people in your neighborhood.

Or time to swim with monkeys.

Pete would obviously have more free time at the outset. However, keep in mind that half-time can mean working 2 week 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, will be dancing out the door while Pete still has years left to work. Frank must 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 (including yours truly) 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.

Job burnout, especially among physicians, is a big problem. For Pete, simply spending fewer hours at work can mitigate burnout; it may be frustrating and hectic for Pete today 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 few days to grind off the rust when returning from a long break. Pete may feel rusty all the time! Frank’s constant presence can also result in a better handle on office politics and stronger relationships with work colleagues.


The verdict

  • Full-time Frank
    • Wins: 1 (money)
    • Ties: 2 (time, job satisfaction)
  • Part-time Pete
    • Wins: 1 (children)
    • Ties: 2 (time, job satisfaction)

Overall, we have a tie!

OK, OK, I’m not going to leave it at that. Certainly each issue is not as simple as I presented here, and in our case we have the added possibilities of one or both parents going part-time.

Our current plan is for me to continue working full-time, and my wife return to work 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. We also plan to reassess the situation periodically and decide if it still works.

How to you calculate your “score”? Do you plan to follow the path of Pete or Frank, or something else? Please comment below!

12 Replies to “The Great Debate: Go Part-time Now or Retire Early”

  1. Thanks for the post. I’m going through a similar analysis in my head right now. This was helpful to separate out the various aspects. I’m enjoying your blog so far.

    1. Hi Wealthy Doc,

      I think most doctors who have at least some handle on their own finances go though this type of analysis at a certain stage of their careers. Some docs, God bless em, actually want to continue full time work until they have a foot in the grave, and more power to them. I am in the former camp.

      My sincere thanks for stopping by.

      Take care,
      Dr. C

  2. I’m happy to fiddle with the numbers; you’ve done some solid analysis on the other aspects.

    Choosing to have the lower-earning spouse go part-time (which I believe you have done) has a less drastic effect on the home finances. If the doc earning $400k goes part time, and the doc making $200k works full time, the household income is now $400k. Vice versa, and you’ve got a household income of $500k.

    We’ve essentially been a one-income household from the get-go, which is why I waited until I felt we were comfortably financially independent before considering part-time. As of now, I’ve got four months of full time work remaining in my career.


    1. Congrats on your impending part-timedness! Dare I expect even more published content from you after that?

      Your analysis of our part-time situation is spot on, although Mrs. Dr. Curious will be working more than half time. Another wrinkle I didn’t mention here is that we are considering hiring a nanny (a topic for the future perhaps). Long story short, it would make life so much simpler. We shall see.

      Thanks again for stopping by, and many, many thanks for the mention on The Sunday Best!
      Dr. C

  3. Once I have paid off my school (and maybe my house but that is more intimidating) then I am going part time. I can go down to 60% and remain fully vested in both pension, 401K match, and insurance. I think working 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off or even half days every week day I have to work (8:30 to 12:30) is not bad. Call remains the same and always painful, but if I go part time we can higher another Cardiologist! Less call = happier dad and doctor!

    1. That’s awesome you have a pension with your practice. Is it a cash balance plan, or something else? You will have a nice balance going into retirement with a 401k, pension, and eventually social security.

      I don’t envy your call! I do have a fair amount of evenings and overnights, but it’s in-house call, so I’m either working or I’m off. Pager call in residency used to drive me nuts. Some of my surgery friends still have pagers and the sound gives me PTSD!

      Dr. C

  4. I frame this as front-loading your career vs smoothing the ride with mini-retirements. I would totally choose the latter if I could figure out how to make it work (i.e. what I really want is 4 week blocks of free time to get away or focus on something substantial). An extra day or two here and there spread out doesn’t help me that much. Locums or telerads could be the answer, but I’m not confident on the long-term (10 years) viability of either.

    1. It is challenging to find big chunks of free time (1-2 months) in almost any job, unless you were to take something like a year-long sabbatical. Those are rare in the private practice world, but may be possible in academic medicine.

      I feel like I’m racing against time to hit early retirement before my kids get too busy with school and extracurriculars (and before they despise me as teenagers), so I can take some extended trips with them. It would be possible with the right part-time situation as well.

      Thanks again!
      Dr. C

  5. RadOnculous says: Reply

    Great post and blog. I think our lives are on nearly the same path currently. Here’s my 2 cents on the issue:
    I think the line between full and part time is more blurry than most physicians define it. For example, most of us have partners that make more money when we take time away, so it could be easy to take a half day, multiple halfs days or a full day off each week. This could be done intermittently such as when kids are off for summer, around long holidays, when burnout is coming, wanting to train for an iron man, day drink with my neighbor Dr. Curious, sand and refinish all of my outdoor furniture, maximize summer days off in a locale with a bad winter (geographic arbitrage at work for me), etc. Resuming the full work schedule when needed. It’s “PRN part-time”. This is what I’ve been planning to test the part-time waters before I even contemplate early retirement. My wife and I will be financially independent in then next 5-8 years easy but I’m more worried about idle hands and the devils workshop in early retirement than the actual nuts and bolts of “can I actually do it”. So for me, I need a litmus test for a few years before I just take all the FIRE/early retirement doc blogs seriously.

    1. You are welcome to come day drinking any time. I find it pairs well with golf.

      I think a “practice retirement” is a great idea. It’s one thing to think and write about FIRE, but it’s quite another to live it for a while. Something like selling call shifts or taking more vacation for less money would be possible in most groups, especially in private practice.

      Maybe you need to start a blog as an early retirement hobby 🙂

      Take care, and thanks so much for stopping by!
      Dr. C

      1. The starting a blog thing has been on my mind. Thanks for the encouragement. Just had baby number 2 though so, as you know, little time crunch. But hey, also got a new doc starting here soon and I have a permanent half day starting so why not?
        I look forward to your future posts.

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