In 2002, Al Brody retired early at the age of 43. Before personal finance made its way into the blogosphere, without finance-related apps that so many of us use today to help us save, this Air Force Lieutenant Colonel called it quits to pursue a life of freedom and happiness. And a ton of cycling.
This article contains a couple affiliate links. Using those links throws a few quarters in my pocket at no additional cost to you. Here’s my disclosure.
I met Al on Facebook in the comments section of an article that was shared about our story. He was one of the few people who actually acknowledged that early retirement – even at my age – is possible. He said that he retired early too, nearly 15 years ago. I knew I had to talk to this guy.
Here’s a quick summary of how Al transformed his life at such a young age and before a lot of the online resources we have today:
- He has hobbies, and tons of ’em
- He’s lived relatively debt-free for the majority of his life
- He invested in traditional and ROTH IRAs
- He lives small; real small
He’s not only an Air Force guy, he is also an extreme cyclist. In fact, Al has biked across the state of Iowa 21 times as part of a seven-day event known as RAGBRAI, or “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa”. In the largest recreational biking event in the world, riders cycle 468 miles (on average) in an eastward direction across the state.
That sounds fun but super exhausting. I hope they have comfortable seats!
“I am seldom a spectator,” Al told me. He bikes, paddles, rows and boats across the United States on roads, lakes, rivers and oceans. “I ride unicycles, bicycles, trikes, quads, on all sorts of terrain,” he said. If anyone thinks early retirees get bored during retirement, talk to Al.
How do Al and his wife of 36+ years afford to travel enough to take part in these adventures? They live in a 137 square foot Airstream and park in military campgrounds across the nation (sometimes known as “FamCamps”), which are typically well-maintained. The FamCamp here at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ is impeccable, BTW.
“We consider the contiguous 48 our neighborhood.”
I asked Al what books or other resources he used during his accumulation phase of his life, and he pointed me to Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robins. I’ve read the book and it’s definitely one of my favorites. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Millionaire Next Door, a book that proves millionaires don’t necessarily look like millionaires. You don’t need to look and dress like a millionaire to be one.
Alright, let’s talk finances. He’s naturally frugal. And, he hates debt.
Retired from the Air Force, Al brings in $54,000 a year in retirement from the military – a nice chunk of change to live on, and easily enough to fulfill most people’s needs (and then some). In his mid-20s, his MBA was completely paid off along with his mobile home and used car he bought for $1,000 using cash.
At retirement, his $300,000 home was paid off. Both of his used cars were paid in full. He put his daughter through college, who now lives debt-free.
Moral of this story: Debts kill your chances of retiring early. In fact, Al told me that his #1 tip for those who want to retire early is about delaying your first car purpose. “Delay buying your first car for a year. It will teach you to live with less and enable you to start saving.”
And, I’d also suggest buying your cars used rather than new. Let someone else pay for the depreciation.
Like us, he keeps his money simple. About $800,000 of his money sits in stable, dividend-paying stocks. Much of his IRA investments are in mutual funds. Al admits he could probably squeeze a little more of a return out of his money if he wanted to, but “it would not matter to my life”.
One of my big questions was why. Why retire early? His answer was as powerful as it was moving. “When I was eight my 18-year-old brother was killed in a car crash. I learned then that life was precious and short. I loved my career in the USAF.” That’s a hell of a reason, and a story I hear a lot when I ask the question of why. Tragedies force us to take stock of what’s truly important in our lives. We reprioritize our lives accordingly.
Sadly, it sometimes takes a tragedy for that to happen.
Lastly, I asked Al if he thinks early retirement has become easier or tougher since he retired back in 2002. I loved his answer:
“Most people are house poor. Once you buy into a big house you are chained into being an endless consumer. This becomes blazingly apparent when you downsize into an RV. You realize how much stuff you’ve amassed and how little all that stuff did to improve your quality of life.”
Thanks for your time, Al! I loved his story because it’s another example of someone who took control of their life and made it happen. In this case, it was before a lot of the online resources we have today. He’s always been frugal, and he hates debt – those are two qualities that easily add up to financial independence and, in the case of Al Brody, early retirement.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.