To Retire Early, Focus on Just One Thing

Financial Planning, Investing, Retirement Planning
how to retire early

We all know what it takes to be able to afford to leave the workforce early: Save like mad, dramatically cut your spending, invest with abandon and don’t let anyone — including yourself — skim money from your savings along the way.

The hardest part is staying strong on all of those financial fronts at all times. But that may not be necessary.

If you’re willing to focus on achieving extreme results in just one area, you could cut years — decades, even — from the 9-to-5 life. Here are three scenarios to consider.

1. Saving a lot more than 10%

Let’s start with the standard advice: Save between 10% and 15% of your income for retirement and every time you get a raise, increase your savings by that amount. That’s great for someone aiming to have enough in their accounts to cover their future income needs with their investments by their mid- to late 60s.

Accelerated retirement plans call for more aggressive action. Following the standard “save 10%” advice adds up to $246,000 after 15 years, assuming a $100,000 yearly income and earning an average annual return of 6%. Increase your savings rate to 20% and you’ll have nearly double that amount. Thank you, compound interest!

Saving one-third or more of income isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. You may already have had practice if you’ve ever aggressively paid off debts, saved for a down payment on a home or gotten by on a single salary when a partner isn’t bringing in income.

Applying that same concentrated rigor to pursue a goal that adds money to the positive side of the balance sheet uses the same financial muscles. Even being an extreme saver for just a little while can move the retirement goalpost significantly closer.

2. Making your starter home your forever home

For some, whittling down every expense to the bare minimum would turn those years leading up to financial freedom into a miserable slog. If that’s you, go ahead and enjoy your avocado toast breakfast and Monday morning lattes. Instead, sweat the really big stuff, such as the biggest purchase you’ve likely ever made: your home.

We’re not talking about some real estate magic or renting out extra rooms. The trick? Avoiding lifestyle inflation. Instead of being tempted by open houses in fancier neighborhoods featuring homes with extra rooms and more curb appeal (because you’ll be able to afford it eventually as you progress in your career, right?), stay put.

Then apply banker math to your housing costs. For example, if you’d qualify for loan payments of 30% of your household income, start making those payments on your existing mortgage. On a $200,000 home with mortgage payment of less than $1,000 a month, a couple who brings in $100,000 a year and increases their payment to $2,500 a month would pay off that mortgage in eight years.

Imagine the freedom of wiping that payment from your monthly list of obligations. When a home becomes a fully owned castle, it requires a lot less paycheck to manage.

3. Protecting your portfolio — even from yourself

In your investment accounts, it really pays to sweat the small stuff. Overlooking a few small leaks — a 1% investment fee here, 0.5% there — can sink those early retirement plans.

It’s not simply that every dollar lost to fees is money that you’ll never recoup. It’s also one less dollar that will compound and grow. And, boy, does it add up in lost money over time.

Investment fees aren’t the only source of money leaks. Raiding your retirement accounts early for a loan or to access cash not only takes that money out of commission (missed investment growth and compounding) but often comes with early withdrawal fees and taxes. The biggest mistake to avoid is cashing out an old 401(k) account instead of doing an IRA rollover.

Check for any leaks in your investment accounts at least once a year. (Here’s a rundown of costly investment fees and how to patch them.)

Track your progress

What does early retirement mean for you? Maybe it’s not going off the employment grid entirely. Perhaps it’s part-time work, slowing down enough to take several long sabbaticals or the freedom to pursue a passion project for pay — or not.

Now, how big a nest egg do you need to make it happen? Considering how much income you’ll need every year, how much you’ve saved and your age, how close are you?

That last one’s a loaded question, but NerdWallet’s retirement calculator breaks it down into a single monthly savings target.

Don’t be overwhelmed: Nothing inspires action like mapping out the steps you could take to achieve your dream. Adjust the numbers and play what-if scenarios. How many decades would staying in a smaller home whittle from your retirement date? How about slashing investment fees or saving half of your salary to build up a sustainable long-term portfolio?

Find out exactly how a few adjustments in your saving, spending and investing can help you retire early.

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