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"We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful." - Warren Buffett, business magnate (1930 - )
A woman I met while traveling this fall gave me living proof that you still can retire early.
In her mid-50s, she had left behind a successful career in marketing a year earlier and said she was enjoying every minute of her freedom or as she called it, her “financial independence.”
How did she do it, I asked, as we strolled along Camino de Santiago with our tour group in Spain.
“I realized at an early age that I didn’t want to end up like a lot of girls I knew… out of high school with a baby, in debt with no future,” she said.
At age 13, she began asking her parents about saving money, going to college and getting ahead.
“It really wasn’t that hard…I just stayed focused, saved and invested. I wanted to retire early. Over 25 years of working, I made it happen.”
Listening to her, I heard three key points:
She started early.
She saved, and more importantly invested her savings in stocks and stock funds.
And she was careful about her spending and taking on debt.
She likely has a portfolio worth several million dollars. (I didn't ask). Her investment returns are spinning off enough income that she can afford to travel, manage her money, pay taxes and not worry about running short of cash. She’s starting to investigate nonprofit work as a way to diversify her life.
You might say that this woman is exceptional. How many 13-year-olds do you know who are thinking about their long-term financial futures? Instead of being a victim of circumstance, she set out early to take charge of her life. At 55, she has choices for what comes next.
Let’s start with her focus.
Starting early with saving and investing goals is key. The more time you have to reinvest earnings the more you benefit from the miracle of compound interest in the form of dividend-paying stocks and mutual funds.
For instance, if you invest $600 a month starting at age 25 with an 8 percent annual return, at 65 you will have a nest egg of $1.24 million. That’s inside a tax-deferred investment account. If you invest at a higher rate and start earlier, the outcome will be even more rewarding and you may be able to leave a job sooner.
Investing aggressively also is key. Your money must go into an aggressive stock growth fund, preferably an index fund with low or non-existent fund management fees. On average the American stock market has increased in value 8 to 12 percent a year for 50 years. It doesn’t matter which political party is in charge. You just must believe in the American economy and American ingenuity and the rule of law regarding market transparency and management. The federal Security & Exchange Commission is there for a reason…to keep people honest.Coincidentally, one of my favorite financial columnists, Michelle Singletary, wrote on this topic for the Washington Post recently. She talks about the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early). These people hope to achieve their goal of leaving the regular workforce in their 30s by "living on far less than you are earning, then investing what you don't spend."
Singletary sees that as doable by living on less and controlling expenses. "They cut their expenses to the bare bones, saved and invested well enough that they could tell their employers, "Peace out. I'm done."
Women friends of mine tell me that they are afraid of stocks, afraid of losing money and have stayed on the sidelines when it comes to stock market investing. You will never retire early with that risk-adverse thinking. In fact, you might not be able to retire at all.
The other factor for my traveling friend was smart spending. She lived conservatively. Don’t let your debt get out of control. Don’t buy more house or car than you can afford. Pay off credit card debt every month. Don’t live it up now but pay for it later. Saving and aggressively investing for the long-term will get you where you want to go.
Marketwatch.com writer Andrea Coombes offers a five-step plan for finding “financial independence,” early: Reduce spending and put more aside from the start. Do that by figuring out where your money is going. Invest your savings in low-cost index mutual funds along with a few blue-chip dividend-paying stocks. Keep your housing costs down now, and in retirement.
Make sure your health care costs are manageable by using a high deductible health plan. Factor in taxes…federal, state and local. If you are younger than 59 ½, you will pay a 10 percent penalty on withdrawals from a 401(k). Talk to a CPA tax expert about ways to avoid penalties and keep taxes low.
My view: Stay the course. Don’t let month-to-month or even year-to-year markets swings rattle your resolve. Save and invest for the long-term. Remember Warren Buffet’s rule to “Never invest in a business you cannot understand” or his other rule, “Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years.”
How about investment guru Peter Lynch’s rule: “Time is on your side when you own shares in superior companies” or “Average investors can become experts in their own field and can pick winning stocks as effectively as Wall Street professionals by doing just a little research.”
As for my woman friend --- She started early, got an education, made some money, saved and invested it and retired early. It CAN be done.
I meet women all the time who face job and money transitions and who want to do them right. It’s about building confidence and taking charge of the future. This is your money, take charge of it. No one cares more than you do.
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