Susan Emmerson still remembers the day she turned in her beeper and walked away from her career as an ear, nose and throat surgeon: October 8, 2004. She was 47 years old.
She’d been planning this early exit ever since she first picked up a scalpel. While Emmerson enjoyed practicing medicine, her first love was art. Yet her parents discouraged her from a career as an artist, saying she’d never find work.
“I came up with the plan that I would practice medicine and save my money, with the idea that I would retire early, live off my savings, go to art school and be an artist for the rest of my life,” she says.
Today, Emmerson, now 60 and widowed, lives in Boston and makes drawings, paintings and sculptures inspired by the human body, and in particular the internal organs. She sells a couple pieces a year and lives primarily off her savings and rental income from farmland she owns in Illinois.
“I didn’t ever question my decision,” she says. “So many of my fellow physicians told me how jealous they were, and I told them, ‘you can do this.’”
Emmerson shares the steps she followed to make early retirement and second act a reality.
Do the math
Emmerson worked in a small medical practice in Bloomington, Illinois. She was the primary breadwinner for her family, which included her husband and two young sons. Each month, she socked away $4,000 in four different low-cost indexed mutual funds.
When her sons were born in 1993 and 1996, she put $9,000 into a college savings account for each. That was the cost of tuition and fees at an in-state school at the time. She didn’t contribute anything further, but the funds captured the big market gains of the 1990s and didn’t suffer too much in the subsequent tech crash; both children had six figure accounts waiting for them when they were ready for college.
To determine how much money she would need to retire early, Emmerson closely tracked the family’s spending. She calculated their monthly expenses—about $5,000 a month in 2002 dollars—and knew she’d approached the finish line when her investments started throwing off that amount of monthly income. In addition to her investments, she had bought farmland that generated rental income.
Today, she lives within her means. “I have no debt,” Emmerson says. “That’s my strict rule: if I can’t afford it, I won’t buy it.”
Emmerson often took evening art classes when she worked in medicine, either at a local community college or at nearby Illinois State University, where she later enrolled in 2002 and pursued a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
She dialed back her work to three days a week and scheduled her surgeries around her classes. She spread her coursework over seven years and earned her degree in 2009. “I was definitely on the slow track,” she says. Taking her time made sense when she had small children and a demanding job.
But her enjoyment of her classes confirmed for Emmerson that she wanted to practice art full-time. Her husband supported her plans, which didn’t change after he died of a sudden heart attack at age 47, when their boys were 10 and 13.
Today, the few pieces of artwork she sells a year go for between $300 and $2,000 and are sold through a gallery she belongs to. Emmerson plans to expand her sales activities this year and hopes to feature her work on 1stdibs.com, a web site that sells work from multiple galleries.
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Embrace new places
When her younger son left home for college in 2015, Emmerson says, she was left with, “this big empty house.”
She had become familiar with Boston several years earlier, when she earned a commuting Master of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Boston (now called the Lesley University College of Art and Design). She had friends from the program who lived in the city. So two years ago, Emmerson decide to trade the wide-open spaces of the Midwest for East Coast city living. She sold her home and bought a two-bedroom condo in Boston. “I just fell in love with living on a coast,” she says. “It’s nice to experience a different lifestyle and situation.”
She enjoys going to book talks at the Harvard bookstore, and popping into museums whenever she wants. She is also a member of two co-op galleries, where she works for about six hours a month in return for a place to show her work and an operational say in the galleries. Her sons, 24 and 21, enjoy visiting their mom in her new city.
It’s never too late to follow your passion, she says: “Whatever you want to do, there’s some way to make it work.”