There once was a dude from the southeast who thought that life could be broken down into a few simple constructs: get a job, buy stuff, retire and die. Yep, that dude was me. Early retirement? Not in the cards. 401k retirement plan? Sure, but only the minimum. Retirement was the furthest thing from my mind. After all, I had stuff to pay for!
From a young age, I was off to a great start. This is my story, a look into my life as a very standardized American with first world “white people problems”, and how I managed to escape that wretched cycle of waste. Are you ready? Let’s go.
The year was 2004, and I scored a good, high-paying job right out of college. On top of the world, I quickly slipped into a careless life of spend some, save less – the typical American lifestyle. In fact, I sunk half my first year’s salary into a 1999 Corvette convertible (yes, “America’s sports car”) the first year out of college – I bought it used, but it was still a car that I didn’t need. Unfortunately, “need” had nothing to do with it.
Each day I went to work to bring home the almighty paycheck, and proceeded to dump about $25,000 into upgrades for that car. We’re talking a supercharger, full long tube headers, red calipers, race camshaft, loud catback exhaust – the whole 9 yards. I drove one of the loudest and fastest cars around.
That car was sweet. It felt good.
The Corvette was nice. But man, that Dodge Viper might actually be nicer. Wouldn’t it be awesome to cruise around in one of those? How about both a Viper and a BMW 750 so I can choose whether I want speed or luxury? Everyone would think that I’m super successful! The spiral was forming.
I then started the crazy lifestyle of eating out, a LOT. I’m talking about lunch and dinner every day. Every. Damn. Day. Not a day went by that I wasn’t standing in line at the local Chipotle, or sitting down to a lovely dinner at Chilis or some other steakhouse in town. Between $20 and $80, daily, money out the door.
That was the life, or so I thought. A fast car, delicious food every day without the responsibility of preparation or cleanup and a high paying job. Oh, and let’s estimate about 50 pounds of additional unhealthy fat around my waist to boot.
Hell, who needs retirement?
It doesn’t stop there. About 7 years ago I moved out to the southwest and straight into the suburbs. My commute was about 40 minutes each way, but who cares? I have a Corvette and a Cadillac STS hand-me-down from my family. I could manage it. I make good money, and gas prices aren’t so bad. Let’s do it!
Then, a serious problem arose. You see, my STS was a ’97, and she was getting quite old. Sure, it still drove just fine, but I needed (yes, “NEEDED”) something newer. A few weeks down the road I came rolling into my driveway with a brand new Cadillac CTS. A $40k car and a 40 minute commute from the suburbs into work? No sweat, I can afford it! This is America, damn it.
I was a true American and living a life of excess. But even with all my “stuff”, I had nothing to show for it. I saved only the bare minimum for retirement. I was setting myself up to work for the rest of my life. I suppose that I was planning on using my Social Security to retire on, and whatever else I happened to let slip through my grasp in paltry voluntary savings would serve as a bonus. Yay!
When was retirement for me? I don’t know, maybe around 70. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about it.
Then, something happened. Something profound that would fundamentally change my life. I suddenly realized what true happiness was all about.
Once my 30s reared its ugly head, I began reflecting on my “stuff”, and I asked some questions who’s answers I was particularly afraid of. What was all this stuff for? Is it making my life any better? So what if I’m rolling down the street in the fastest car in a 50-square mile radius. And, who wants to waste nearly two hours of their life, every day, driving to and from work? This was crazy!
Around the same time, I began reading investment blogs (hat tip: Mr Money Mustache) and learned how frighteningly easy it is to create a retirement plan that prioritizes true happiness out of life. The more I read, the more convinced I became that the way that I was living was, to say the least, destroying my future.
I was killing my future self. I was prolonging the drudgery of a 9 to 5 job and nearly solidifying my dismal fate of working until 65 or 70.
There came a day where I finally said to myself: Screw this, I’m done.
My retirement Renaissance
I maxed out my retirement contributions. I got married to my beautiful wife who, like me, wants to retire before we hit 36 (that’s next year!). Instead of playing fast and loose with hundreds of thousands of combined dollars every year from our salaries, we sock her’s away completely and live entirely off of mine and still save a good portion of mine.
We aren’t perfect. In fact, we’re far from it. But, life does not demand perfection. Nobody needs to be perfect to retire early and enjoy their formidable and active years doing whatever it is that they truly enjoy.
I, for one, know that sitting in front of a computer screen all day is not my idea of lifetime happiness. Now, I no longer work for the spendable cash, but for the benefit of our futures. I don’t care about promotions. I don’t care about company politics or getting “face time” in front of the right folks. This only sets people up for more work, longer hours and fewer relaxation days.
I turn down more jobs now than I ever imagined I would years ago. I’m not looking for a lifetime of stress and responsibility in business. Not any more. In fact, I quit my job as a Director of Information Technology at a not-for-profit last year, where my commute was about 30 minutes each way.
I found a job where I can work from home, completely eliminating the hours of driving time typical of years passed. I get up in the morning and wander over to my workstation and put in a day’s work, then immediately start enjoying my time once work is through. No drive home. No stressful commute. No $40/week gas bills.
I appreciate what makes me happy in life. Like a punch in the face, my life has been transformed into one that makes the best out of virtually any situation, and I no longer stress over things that I cannot control.
Spending 10 hours a day at work to impress some boss? Nope.
Tacking on miles to my car every damn day commuting to and from work? Nope.
Spending $200 a week on restaurant food? Nope.
This is my story.
Steve is a 37-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.