Mike (59) and Kelly (58) Strzelecki retired from the federal government on March 31, 2021. It was the culmination of a plan that began more than 30 years ago when they met on the MARC train commuting to Washington D.C.
Mike worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Kelly worked for the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. By working for the federal government, they knew could retire with a pension and health insurance when they turned 56 years old and had 30 years of service. So, they decided to leave when they were both eligible.
Mike and Kelly had long been outside enthusiasts, but the long commute between Baltimore and Washington made it challenging to find time to pursue all their varied interests. “In D.C., I think retirement is more dictated by the commute than the job. People get tired of the commute,” Mike said.
In addition to the commute, Mike had personal experience about missed opportunities in retirement. His father passed away when he was 56. “My dad had big plans in retirement and then he passed away and he couldn’t do them,” Mike said. “We thought, we can’t do that.”
With their plan in place, Mike and Kelly knew they could retire early and spend even more time doing what they love—being out in nature.
“Every morning I get up a pack a backpack,” Mike said. What’s in the backpack depends on the plans for the day. Plans might include a simple walk, a hike, kayaking or fly-fishing. They have also recently taken up disc golf, which they play at McKeldin Park as well as other local areas.
However, their favorite outside activity is birding.
Birding is different from birdwatching in the “birders” actually go out looking for specific birds. They do their research and observe the bird’s behaviors and migratory patterns. “It’s about immersing yourself in the lifestyle of the bird,” Mike said.
“There’s more intention to it than birdwatching,” Kelly said.
Extensive travelers, many of their trips revolve around birding. Their next trip is to Bombay Hook in Delaware. “It’s a good birding spot,” Mike said. There are all different types of raptors, hawks and eagles, avocets and shorebirds.
Closer to home, Patapsco State Park, Mike and Kelly found a nest with two baby owls. They were able to find the nest because of their familiarity with bird calls. “We could hear the babies crying for their mom,” Kelly said.
Being retired, Mike and Kelly were able to visit the site and record the owls’ progression every day over the course of 10 days. “Part of the beauty of retirement is the owl thing. It gives us time during the week when no one is around to actually observed them,” Mike said. “We can take our time to focus on things,” Mike said. “If we were still working, we never would have been able to do that,” Mike said.
As part of their passion for birding, Mike has started taking pictures. He purchased a new camera, NIKON Cool Pic, as part of his retirement gift. He takes close up, detailed shots of the birds they see. He captured pictures of the baby owls as well as pictures of puffins they saw during their recent trip to Iceland.
Enjoying Everyday Life
Mike and Kelly are enjoying their new lifestyle. “Every day I got up at 4:40. Not getting up at 4:40 is heavenly,” Mike said. Although for Mike, sleeping in is 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.
Kelly also loves sleeping in, but wakes up about 9:00 a.m. now that she’s retired. They enjoy leisurely time in the morning and have even trained their dog Trek to go get the newspaper so they can relax.
“You have time to enjoy things rather than just trying to fit them in,” Mike said. “I’m getting back to doing things I had a passion for, but I haven’t had the time for.” For Mike that includes fly-fishing and writing.
For Kelly, formerly an agricultural economist, she has picked up an additional hobby of raising monarch butterflies.
Kelly has been raising butterflies with mixed success. “You raise them by finding them as caterpillars and putting them in box with fresh milkweed,” Kelly said. It can be particularly challenging because you have to keep changing the milkweed in the box. She said that although she has had some success, she is afraid some of the milkweed had become contaminated with pesticides causing some of her monarchs to die. Still, she is enjoying the process and has even convinced some of her friends to raise their own monarchs.
“In October, 10s of thousands of monarch butterflies congregate in Cape May, New Jersey and then they migrate en mass,” Mike said. Mike and Kelly have a trip planned to watch the migration.
Kelly has also been busy in moving her mother from New Mexico to a local Senior Living Community. She said she isn’t sure how she would have handled the move if she had been working full-time.
Kelly is also involved with volunteer work through the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle and says she plans to get involved with other groups and pursue additional volunteer opportunities.
Putting Their Financial House in Order
Before retiring, Mike and Kelly made sure they had finances in place. In addition to ensuring that they were both eligible to receive a pension, they paid off their mortgage and put their two children through college. “We’d done the major financial things, so we thought we should be ok,” Kelly said.
They had also spent their married life putting money away in investments and watching their spending. “We’ve lived a very modest lifestyle,” Mike said.
He told a story about an experiment people do with children, where they tell children they can have one marshmallow now, but if they wait, they can have two marshmallows. “We are two marshmallow people, “Mike said.
He added they have deferred some of their enjoyment so they can have more fun now. “It’s the life decisions you make along the way,” Mike said.
Advice to Others
“The transition to retirement is going to be harder for someone who is defined by their job,” Mike said. He was not defined by his job, but he knows others who are. His advice is that if you’re thinking about retiring, start getting involved with activities and other social groups before you retire.
Kelly’s advice, “Start young and make a plan. That makes it possible. Otherwise, you’re just playing catch up the whole time.” They have already given their children this same advice.
For now, Mike and Kelly are looking forward to enjoying the Fall and Winter months.
“It’s so nice that the kids have gone back to school so we don’t have to share the park with them,” Kelly says with a laugh. “Now it’s ours again.”
January through March is a great time to go birding and they spend more time doing that as other options such as kayaking are less available.
They also have so trips planned. They are headed to the Outer Banks, the Finger Lakes and even New York. Plus, they have birding trips planned as well.
“We call our house base camp. Living here is so convenient. We’re 3-hours from cities, beaches mountains that we can do as a day trip,” Mike said.
Kelly and Mike love having time to slow down and spend time doing things together even if it’s as simple as having a cup of tea or reading a book.
”I love getting back to things I have a passion for, but didn’t have time for. A lot of people have a lot of things they could enjoy in retirement, if they could just relax and slow down,” Mike said.
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