This is the third post in a series called Saving With Purpose: Living a More Intentional Financial Life. In this series, I plan to highlight a number of specific savings goals my family has identified we would like to achieve over the next few decades.
Any post about saving for early retirement should first define the author’s meaning of “early” and “retirement.” Combined, these words are typically understood to mean walking away from paid employment earlier than the traditional retirement age. I guess I agree with that broad definition, but I’d like to take the definition a little further before getting into the actual numbers.
What Does Early Retirement Mean To Me?
The older I get, the more my definition of retirement changes. When I was young, I envisioned retirement as a time of leisure, where older people traveled to exotic locations, took cruises, and when they weren’t traveling, played golf, went fishing, and generally enjoyed a life of leisure.
Of course, now that I’m older, I recognize this is not how the average retiree’s years are spent. Unfortunately, thanks to the Great Recession of 2008, many soon-to-be retirees saw half of their retirement saving disappear. This has lead many retirees to hang on to their jobs, or return to other types of jobs (often times lower paying) than the careers they had for most of their adult lives. This is a sad reality for many, and a cautionary tale for the rest of us.
For me, early retirement is all about options. Living without the worry of needing to work a traditional 8-5 job frees up many opportunities for more worthwhile ways to spend time. For us, that means doing some travel and doing more things with our time to make a difference in the lives of others, particularly young people. We married young, had kids young, and skipped over the period in our lives where we would be able to do these types of things, so we’d like to recapture a bit of that after the corporate grind is completed.
Saving For Each Phase of Retirement
Uncle Sam has dictated retirement for many people to mean age 59 1/2 (the age you can tap most retirement accounts without penalty), or 62 (if you plan on receiving early benefits from social security). Personally, I use neither of these age milestones as a guide, and plan to save in such a manner that I can experience freedom from paid, full-time employment long before reaching 59 1/2.
To identify the types of savings we’ll need to have in place to meet our own milestones, it’s best to work backwards from the next upcoming event. In this case, let’s start with early retirement at 47 years-old, some 15 years away.
Phase I: Early Retirement on Taxable (and Tax Free) Savings
Over the next 15 years my wife and I plan to maximize both our Roth IRA accounts, and my 401(k) through my employer. Using the current maximum contribution levels for Roth IRAs, this would provide $150,000 in contributions. Remember, Roth IRA contributions may be withdrawn at any time, without tax or penalty. Assuming we plan to live on about $50,000 a year, this would only last 3 years, barely getting us to 50 years-old.
A better plan would be to use taxable savings to bridge the 12-year gap between 47 and 59 1/2 (the age we can begin to withdraw from retirement accounts). We’d only need about $600,000 in savings outside of retirement accounts to pull this off. Only. I laughed at myself after writing that.
Pretty tough to carve out $600k in savings in the next 15 years (even earning a modest 6.5%) while maxing out retirement accounts, funding college savings, and meeting our previously mentioned short-to-medium range savings goals. Not like we have an extra $25,000 a year sitting around to invest.
So the numbers appear unattainable, but the exercise was still worthwhile. It provides us with some real feedback for the variables we set, and we can now tweak those inputs to determine the impact. For instance, if we delayed early retirement just three years to age 50, we’d have another $30,000 in Roth IRA contributions. Our taxable nest egg required to fund the gap from 50 to 59 1/2 would drop to $500,000, and since we’d have a little longer to save, we would only have to divert $1,200 a month to taxable savings. The $1,200 a month figure sounds eerily similar to an average mortgage payment, doesn’t it?
When you break the numbers down this way, two things become apparent. First, early retirement is not just a pipe dream, if you are a disciplined saver and avoid debt. Second, I sure wish I had started this plan 10 years ago!
Up next – Retirement Savings Phase II: Drawing from the Nest Egg