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6 Ways to Land Your Dream Job in Retirement

Line up family support. Get help from the experts. Expect surprises. And don't forget to have fun.

One retiree profiled here is fulfilling a longtime goal. Several others are taking a hobby to a new level. Still others are starting a business or enjoying an engaging, part-time job. Whatever the gig, these people have found pastimes that not only deliver a paycheck (or the promise of it) but also are downright fun.

Retirement can be an ideal time to pursue your dream and thrive. Think about it: You've had years to build savings and home equity, establish a credit history, and nurture social and professional networks -- all of which can be key to launching a business or a new career. Starting at 62, you also have access to Social Security benefits if you need them (although full retirement age is currently 66), and you may have income from a pension or a still-working spouse. Plus, you're rich in the one asset that full-time workers lack: time. "At this stage of life, you can really be in control," says Jeff Bucher, a registered investment adviser in Perrysburg, Ohio, who specializes in retirement planning. "Now is the time to branch out."

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Here's how several post-careerists pulled off their dream jobs.

Build Something Big

Ephraim King, 65, retired from his job as a senior manager at the Environmental Protection Agency four years ago. His initial plan: hike the Appalachian Trail and then return home to Takoma Park, Md., to work as a consultant on clean water, his area of expertise. The hike, which took five and a half months, went fine, but consulting proved to be as stressful as his career job. After a few months, he announced to his wife, Carol Lindeman, "That's it. I'm done."

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His neighbor, Stephen Brown, 63, had already retired from his job at a family-owned printing company. Having spent his early career in construction and working as a carpenter, he was a natural to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity; he enlisted King, who had spent years rehabbing his own home, to do the same. The two worked on several projects for the home-building nonprofit.

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When those projects ended, they decided to go into the home-rehab business on their own. "Both of us really enjoy the complexity and variety a large house project offers," says King. "It's not just painting or sanding a floor; it's everything coming together." King and Brown each tapped home equity to come up with about $390,000 (split evenly) to buy, fix up and then sell a small, three-bedroom home in nearby Hyattsville. The house, a foreclosure, needed to be totally gutted.

King and Brown took on the project partly as a pastime, but they treated the business side seriously, hiring a business lawyer and forming a limited liability corporation to protect their assets. Both men were mindful that they were tapping family resources. "The money we're using isn't coming out of nowhere," says King. "We're fortunate that we have spouses who understand what we're doing and are supportive."

Playing the role of owner, general contractor and worker requires setting priorities, says Brown. "You learn a lot of lessons about sequence. The guy can't wire the walls if you haven't put them up." The pair have also had to get up to speed on new standards for safety and energy efficiency. Despite their best efforts, says Brown, they've had to redo some work. Then there's their own, uh, aging infrastructure. "It's easy to say 'I can do this and this and this,' but I'm in my sixties. I can't do as much as when I was younger," says Brown.

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The best part? Working alongside the subcontractors. "It's fun. You meet great people. They're good at what they do," says King. As for the dollar payoff, their expectations are modest, at least for this go-round. "Our purpose is to work through the learning curve and to break even," says King.

Create New Works of Art

When Deborah Nolan, 68, retired eight years ago from her job as a New Jersey deputy attorney general, she couldn't wait to pursue her longtime avocation -- writing -- full-time. Nolan had been meeting with a group of fellow writers for almost 30 years and had already written a young-adult novel, which she stashed in a desk drawer. Her focus now: writing romance suspense novels.

Nolan had always enjoyed reading the genre, and "I wanted to write what I like," she says. She also realized that her chances of succeeding were better with romance than with other types of fiction. "The romance-writer community is very welcoming, and the conferences are fabulous. Everyone is willing to talk to you and be helpful. It's much easier to find an editor and get your foot in the door."

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Nolan's plan to write full-time didn't pan out, however. "I'm too social to be writing every single day. It's not my personality," she says. At loose ends, she took part-time work as a family court lawyer in upstate New York, where she and her husband, Frank, have a weekend home. (The couple also have an apartment in Manhattan.) She settled on a routine of appearing in court a few days a month and writing two days a week.

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That combination was serendipitous: "The stimulation of being in court helped my writing," she says. It also provided fodder for her novels, whose protagonists are female lawyers. Nolan's first romance novel, Suddenly Lily, was published by Avalon in 2009, followed by Conflict of Interest in 2011 and Second Act for Carrie Armstrong (published by Desert Breeze Publishing) in 2014.

Nolan doesn't have to make a living at her dream gig. She collects a pension as well as Social Security benefits, and she has the post-careerist's dream asset: a working spouse. (Frank is a partner in a law firm.) Her first check, from Avalon, was a modest $500 when she submitted the manuscript; she received another $500 when it was published. But bigger checks started rolling in after Amazon purchased Avalon in 2012. Last year, Nolan made more than $10,000 in royalties. As far as she's concerned, that qualifies as a happy ending (and maybe a promising prequel). "I like to write anyway," says Nolan, who is working on a sequel to Suddenly Lily. "Making some money at it is really nice."

Develop a Product

Dave and Pam Barret, of Temecula, Calif., were still working as educators -- he as a special education teacher, she as an educational consultant -- when they came up with the idea of creating and selling a board game about the U.S. Constitution. They had found games to be good teaching tools and had already devised several of their own. "We thought, When we retire, let's put our games out there," says Dave.

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They learned that developing a board game is no stroll along Boardwalk. They spent a year researching and brainstorming questions and answers about the Constitution as well as distractor answers -- those that are incorrect but not obviously so. They wove elements of chance into the game, so the history buffs wouldn't always win, and they took pains to write clear directions. Then they invited players of all ages to try out their masterwork. Says Dave: "We had people in different rooms of our house playing different versions of our game. We wanted to know: Is it fun? Are you learning? That was really important to us: making learning fun."

They also enlisted experts, including mentors from Score to help with their business plan; a graphic designer to create a prototype of the game; and a team of lawyers to help them get a copyright, a design patent and four trademarks. A local printer produced the first run of 2,500 games. Their initial costs totaled about $70,000, which they charged to credit cards after finding that local banks were unwilling to lend money to untested entrepreneurs.

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The financial risk paid off: The Constitution Quest Game, $50 at www.cognitivesquare.com, has racked up more than $700,000 in sales, allowing the Barrets to retire from their career jobs. The couple fields about 100 orders a day. Their five grown children and two older grandchildren occasionally pitch in to get the orders out.

One lesson they learned from Score early on: "Don't let the business run you," says Pam. The couple close up shop at noon so they can also appreciate the relaxing side of retirement. "We want to see the grandchildren and enjoy life," she says.

Go Back to School

John Graves was 22 when he was accepted to the University of Michigan Law School, in 1968. At age 63, he dug out his acceptance letter and enrolled in the law school full-time.

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Graves, now 70, had planned to postpone law school for just a few years while he scraped together the money to cover tuition. As a stopgap, he accepted a teaching job, and he ended up staying in the profession, earning a PhD in education. He later became a school superintendent, most recently in Jackson, Mich.

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Graves knew he could always enroll in the law school, thanks to an unusual promise extended to applicants accepted during the Vietnam War era. "Because of all the people getting drafted, Michigan had a policy of issuing a letter saying we were admitted to any future class," says Graves. Although he was happy in his career, he never quite gave up the law school dream. "My wife, Marjory, and I would have a conversation about that letter quite often," he says. In 2008, Graves attended a concert in Ann Arbor, where the law school is located, and realized he still felt a pang. The next Monday, "I called the law school and said, 'I have this letter.' "

Michigan honored its commitment, but John and Marjory still had to decide whether they could finance both retirement and law school. "I looked at our financial situation and asked myself, If I never earned a cent as an attorney, would this still work?" he says. He concluded that his pension and Social Security would help cover the couple's retirement expenses; they paid the tuition with a home-equity line of credit on their paid-up house. Graves later took advantage of a 50% discount on tuition for people 65 and over. He turned 65 in time to get the discount for the last two semesters.

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With Marjory's encouragement, John moved to student digs in Ann Arbor, commuting the nearly 40 miles to Jackson on weekends. "It made it a better experience. I got to be immersed in something I was really interested in," he says. He graduated from law school in 2011 and now provides part-time legal services to his former school district. He enjoys the work but considers going to law school the real dream gig. "Every class was interesting. I met people who had done a lot of things I hadn't done." And he had one big advantage over his much-younger classmates. "For me, getting to school at 7 a.m. was no big deal."

Graves also treasures having shared the experience with Marjory, who died recently. "It was a change of pace in our marriage but also invigorating. Law school was very much something we did."

Share Your Expertise

After spending 25 years as a product developer for Nike, in the Portland, Ore., area, Brad Long was eager to spend retirement enjoying the beauty and bounty of the Northwest. He also wanted to introduce other people to the area's charms. Those interests led to his current job, promoting and leading wine tours of the Willamette Valley, near his home in Portland. "I'm very proud of this area for its environment, people and entrepreneurial spirit," he says. "Plus, I like wine."

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Long, 60, landed the part-time work at EverGreen Escapes, a Seattle-based company with an office in Portland. Now he leads three to five tours a month; he also works on commission for the company, selling tour packages to people visiting the Portland area. Although the company offers other tours, he mostly focuses on wineries in the Willamette Valley, which specialize in pinot noir. "The Willamette Valley is a lot like the Bordeaux region of France, which is why the pinot noir grows so well here," he says.

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To prepare for his job as an "escape artist" (the name given the tour guides), Long shadowed other guides, researched local wine lore and did his own field research, hopping on his bike to visit nearby wineries. As an oenophile, soaking up information wasn't difficult. "When you talk to the people who work at the wineries and tasting bars, you learn a lot," he says. Recently, he enrolled in a course in natural resources management at Oregon State University to obtain a Master Naturalist certification and broaden his knowledge of the natural history and resources of the state. "I hope to use this knowledge in my tours," he says.

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Using a Mercedes van, Long picks up clients at their hotel and escorts them on the 45-minute drive to wine country, explaining the history and viticulture of the region and stopping at several of the nearly 400 vineyards in the area.

Like all of the retirees profiled here, Long has other sources of income. He received a generous severance package from Nike, and his wife, Trudy Ludwig, is a successful author of children's books. "The new income is part of our total income, but we don't rely on it. If there are periods when we don't have the income, we're okay," says Long. Still, he is also setting up shop as a footwear product consultant, partly to keep his foot in that door and also as a hedge against Portland's rainy season, which puts a damper on tourism for about half of the year.

Work at a Favorite Store

Alvin Famber gets paid to discuss home projects, take classes on home projects, give advice on home projects and sell the materials for home projects. His dream-come-true retirement job: selling tools, washers and widgets at Home Depot.

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Famber, of Canton, Ga., spent his preretirement career in information technology, working mostly for Fortune 500 companies. He retired in 2012 to care for his ailing mother; a year or so later, after her health improved, he applied for work at the big-box store. Getting to hang out at his longtime haunt was part of the appeal, he says. "I always really liked Home Depot."

Famber started as a cashier and moved to the hardware section. To make the move, he was required to get certification for that department within six months, a process that involves taking online classes and being assessed by a supervisor in the department aisle. "You have to be prepared as a sales associate to give advice to the customers and show them what they need," says Famber. He has since become certified in plumbing and hopes to score his electrical certification by next spring. He currently works about 26 hours a week.

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For Famber, 64, the Home Depot paycheck is nice but not necessary: He collects Social Security benefits and also has an annuity, as well as savings in a 401(k) and an IRA. Still, the extra income comes in handy for his must-have items, such as parts for the 1953 Packard Clipper he's restoring and the new vanity for his bathroom renovation. "Most of my work income goes back to Home Depot," he says.

Even better than the money, he says, is instant access to expertise. "My pipes burst last winter. Instead of hiring a plumber, I got the parts and did it myself. I got directions from the manager in the plumbing department." Home Depot managers have the expertise to act as contractors, and professional contractors who buy at Home Depot weigh in on projects as well. "We have great relationships; we share knowledge," Famber says.

Then there are the customers, who are as happy to talk shop as Famber is. "Our customers spend a lot of time here." Helping to get them to the next level (or the right pipe wrench) is the best part of the job, he says. "It's very rewarding."

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