What exactly is an early retirement? After twenty years serving in the military retirement is an option. Most who take it quickly pursue a civilian career. Many believe a retirement before age 62, the birthday at which reduced Social Security benefits are available is early. Retiring on only the age 62 Social Security benefit without a pension or substantial savings would likely be living below the poverty level. Others believe retiring before Medicare eligibility at age 65 is early. Anything prior to age 65 leaves most with an unaffordable bill for private health insurance; granted, there are folks who are disabled or fortunate enough to have their employer continue health insurance for their families but in general most pre-65 retirees are stuck with the bill.
There is a current trend where younger people in their 30s and 40s save some money, quit their jobs and claim early retirement victory. While the underlying message of saving early for retirement is a positive one, there is a troubling aspect to these stories. I have read many of the stories over the years and was even envious of some. I would ask myself, ‘how did these people do it—retire so early in life?’ In studying their stories I found common denominators.
Early retirees, and by early I mean couples in their 30s and 40s, tended to have one or more common characteristics. Sure, one of those present in all was the strong desire to be free. Free from a boss and company responsibilities. Free to travel when and where they wanted. Free from the chains binding them to the office cubicles. Yet most of us have those feelings and are unable to act on them. What is unique with the early retirees is in general they have no children. Beyond being childless they tend to have had fairly highly compensated professional positions in large corporations. When I read about a young investment banker who ‘retired’ at 30-something to pursue a life traveling the country in an RV, I dismiss the story without much thought. Sure, if you can make three or four hundred thousand a year or even a million in some cases as a young Harvard educated investment banker, most certainly you could save substantial amounts over a dozen years and afford to chuck the job and responsibilities, buy an RV and travel the country. Is that really early retirement or is it a career break—a sabbatical of sorts?
Most of us didn’t graduate from Ivy League business schools and will be lucky to earn over a hundred grand a year even once. Not to mention if the average guy chucks his career, it’s game over and he will likely never work in the field again. Not true for the Harvard alumnus, chances are good after he tires of traveling in an RV and missing out on the big city fun someone will toss him a life line and he will be right back on the money train. Forget what your mommy told you, we’re not all winners and life isn’t always fair.
Where does that leave us? By us I mean the bulk of the adult labor force raising or planning to raise families and making average or below average incomes. For one it should leave us with a taste of reality, the reality that with a kid or two, retiring in our 30s or 40s is off the table. That’s not to say we won’t ever have an opportunity to save up and take six or eight months off to travel the world between jobs. The reality is when the fun is over it will be back to work. For how long you may ask? I’d say at least an extra twenty years. Most women have had their children by 40 and most kids are pretty much raised by age 22. That makes something between sixty and sixty-five as a reasonable target for most of us. There are no short cuts, you’ll need to save instead of spend for roughly forty years to grab the early retirement prize. That’s pretty much the model I followed. I’ll talk about the path I took in my next post.