At 35, I retired from full-time work. Now, I spend my days pursuing things that make me happy, not answering to bosses, filling out time cards or sitting on conference calls. Those days are behind me – long behind me.
I go to the gym in the morning to stay fit. I nap when I feel like I need one. If it’s a nice day outside, I spend more time soaking up all that beautiful vitamin D. Whatever I want to do, I do it.
And I’m thirty-freaking-five (okay, I’m 36 now!). Here’s how I did it.
How to retire early: At 35?
It’s easy to sit here and type a bunch of shit into the computer about “making smarter decisions” or something like that, but that stuff doesn’t make it any easier for many to relate to. Yes, I made choices in my life that enabled this kind of insanely early retirement, but that’s not a good answer.
How about these?
I had a good upbringing
Some of us don’t have this luxury, but I do. I came from a loving family who supported me during my childhood and beyond. I didn’t feel deprived of things, and I definitely never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from.
I also had exposure to sound financial principles from an early age. My parents made me keep a budget sheet in high school to track my expenses. Although I made plenty of mistakes, I had enough financial knowledge to recover from them later in life.
I was also taught to say please and thank you.
I hold the door for people behind me. I feel like shit when I make a mistake that affects someone else. I was taught right from wrong; to never rely on other people to provide for me; to blame myself when things go badly, not others; to never expect a free lunch.
Some of us are set up in life better than others but don’t use that as an excuse to give up. Here’s what I think of the whole privilege debate in early retirement.
I chose a high paying career field
Though I argue that saving is more important than income, there’s no question that my level of income was a critical element in me retiring this early. But, one doesn’t need a high salary to retire early.
I graduated college with a degree in Information Technology, which turned out to be the perfect blend of hard-core technical mumbo-jumbo that you might get in a computer science program as well as the softer side of business management. My true passion was photography, but I chose a program with a higher earnings potential. I didn’t love IT, but I could stand it. An art degree was out of the question.
My career in Information Technology helped a lot.
I didn’t attend some prestigious or expensive college, either. I went to the University of Tennessee for a year, then transferred out to a small private school in Colorado – that most people have never heard of – to pursue a degree program in Information Technology (which UT did not offer). In case you’re wondering, it was Colorado Technical University.
My folks paid for my entire education, which means I had no debt as I joined the working world. I fixed that little no-debt “problem” soon after, however.
I enjoyed financial stupidity early in life
Right out of college, I blew a half year’s salary (around $25k) to buy a Corvette convertible. Naturally, I took out a loan to buy the car, which effectively introduced a debt that replaced what would have been my student loans. I proceeded to plunk another $25,000 into the car in upgrades. I also bought almost any piece of camera equipment that I wanted (to include several thousand dollar camera bodies).
I dined out a TON. When I moved in with a roommate a year after graduating from college, we went out to eat for lunch and dinner every day. Literally every day.
As a recent college grad living on his own, I dropped thousands of dollars on stupid stuff. Luckily, that phase in my life is over, and I got it out of my system early. Early retirees don’t make these kinds of stupid financial mistakes any longer. Leave your childhood behind. Learn from your mistakes.
Don’t make the same mistakes over and over and blame society.
I quit buying stupid stuff
Eventually, I realized that everything I bought added weeks and months to my working life. Cars and motorcycles. Expensive food. Homes in the suburbs. You know, those things that I deserved because I was a high-paid cog in the information technology wheel. Cogs deserve the best.
Landfill-bound stuff provides no value in our lives. We buy them to feel temporary happiness, then we move on to the next thing. In the good ol’ US of A, nothing is ever “enough”. We always want more. Magazines control fashion trends. Commercials influence our buying practices more than we care to admit. We believe stuff makes us look more successful.
The longer we believe the hype, the longer we’re stuck in an office.
I paid myself first and invested everything I could
I always had a 401k at work, but until my wife and I decided that early retirement was in our future, I had only contributed the company match, which was around 4%. While that’s better than nothing, I was far from reaching my investment potential.
Several years before retiring early, both my wife and I maxed out our 401ks. And our Roth IRAs. And, we saved about 70% of our take home salaries (including retirement account savings). After maxing the retirement accounts, we threw money into a Vanguard Brokerage account. We started our emergency fund that now contains over three years living expenses.
We also paid ourselves first, which is a super important principle to make sure that you’re funding your retirement first and foremost – every paycheck.
I stopped caring what other people think
In 2010 I bought a Cadillac CTS because I liked the idea of driving around in a Cadillac. Clearly, at one point in the not-so-distant past, I cared a great deal about what other people thought of me. As a result, I spent whatever money I thought was necessary to build (concoct?) the perfect image of myself…an image that I wanted other people to see and draw instant ill-informed conclusions by. “Wow, that guy must be rich”.
Don’t let other people control your buying choices.
One day, I stopped giving a shit. I stopped caring what other people – people I’ve never met and will probably never see again – thought of me or my possessions. I realized that by focusing on what other people thought of me, I put myself at a disadvantage. I began to make better financial choices because I put myself first, not others. That sounds selfish to write (and probably to read as well), but it’s the truth. I spent far too little time reflecting and too much time caring about how I look.
Words to live by: Nobody cares more about you than…you.
I ditched ESPN…and lived!
Once upon a time, I believed that I couldn’t live without ESPN. It provided an outlet for sports. I HAD to have it. I couldn’t possibly live or be nearly as happy without it.
Then one day we ditched cable – miraculously, I didn’t keel over. I lived through it all. In fact, I’m still alive today. Amazing what breathing can do.
For me, it was ESPN. For you, it might be something else. Or a collection of things. Things that you can’t possibly give up because you think they provide life-giving sustenance. The truth is unless that thing is a pace-maker, it probably isn’t keeping you alive. But, it may very well drain your pocketbook.
How important are your “things”? Are they worth another month, year or decade working in corporate America? I loved watching ESPN, but sorry man, you’re out. I prefer freedom.
How to retire early: Want it more than almost anything else
- I wanted to retire more than I wanted that BMW 750
- I wanted to retire more than I wanted yearly cell phone upgrades
- I wanted to retire more than I wanted cable or satellite television
- I wanted to retire more than I wanted a new computer
- I wanted to retire more than I wanted a huge house
I wanted to retire more than I wanted stuff.
This article was originally published on January 18th, 2017. It has been fully revised to include more accurate details on everything.
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.