How To Retire Early Without Being A Millionaire

There was a moment, about a week after starting my first entry-level job out of college, when I realized I wanted out. Not a vacation, not funemployment: done forever. I had gotten off the train and was walking to my car through a sprawling suburban parking lot, on the tail end of the miserable hour-plus commute I had back then, and the thought came to me, “Is this it? I’m an adult now, and I do this, traipse back and forth to a boring job, again and again, until I’m 65?” I threw my hands up in infomercial style and exclaimed to no one in particular, “There’s got to be a better way!”

I consider myself lucky to have come across the concept of early retirement about two years ago. The gist of it is simple: save half or more of your income, invest in low-cost index funds, and within 10-20 years you’ll be able to live off those investments forever. After that, well, you do whatever you want. Alluring options include but are not limited to: traveling, volunteering, developing hobbies, visiting friends, raising a family, or even continuing to work, at a highly fulfilling but low-paying job.

Seeing no better options for escaping the office, I decided to give it a shot. It would not get me out immediately, but the thought of shaving my career by two thirds was motivation enough.

Getting started, there was one catch: I get paid bullshit. Meanwhile, the bulk of the early retirement success stories are engineers, bankers, and IT folks, people who can hop out of college and right into jobs paying $70k+. If I was going to get my savings rate near the 50% mark, I needed to seriously level-up my finance game.

Spoilers: it worked. Or rather, it is working. The math says I’ll be able to quit for good shortly after I turn 40, about fourteen years from now.

Let’s talk numbers. I’ve had the same entry-level job since I graduated college four years ago and got onto the early retirement track almost exactly halfway into that. Out of my roughly $30k take-home pay, I managed to stash away $9,000 across my first two years. Over the second two, I managed to ramp that up to $26,000.

$26,000 is admittedly small potatoes when compared to the half-million or more most people need to retire. When it comes to early retirement on small incomes, starting when you’re young is critical. Given enough time, compound interest will take over and do all the heavy lifting. For instance, somebody stashing $1,000 a month for 20 years hits the $500k mark at the same time as somebody saving $3,000 a month who starts 10 years later.*

Of course it’s one thing to speak of saving half your entry-level income and another to do it. I’ve always been frugal, but I was content as long as something went into savings each month. That doesn’t cut it on the early retirement timeline. To get there I had to look at each of my expenses and reinvent them as efficiently as possible without sacrificing my quality of life.

The bulk of it, as it’s been said a thousand times, is the big three: housing, transportation, and food/alcohol. It’s boring but it’s true. The difference between an early retiree and the average twenty-something, it turns out, is not much more than a long car commute and a strong brunch habit. So yes, biking and used cars are essential. As is living with roommates, cooking at home, and drinking anywhere you can imagine that isn’t a bar.

But we need to go deeper. I’ve come to realize that after taking a close look at any recurring expense, it’s hard to find one that can’t be chopped in half or more. Some of these include:

  • Cell phone: $85/mo plan dropped to a $30/mo prepaid plan. This includes nearly unlimited everything, and could go as low as $10 if I wanted to give up data.
  • Utilities: Turning heat and AC off at night and when nobody’s home can reduce usage by half or more, and was a major improvement over my old “set it and forget it” ways.
  • Gym: Biking is all the cardio I need; add in a set of home barbells and I could cancel my gym membership entirely.
  • Health insurance: Being generally healthy, I moved to a high-deductible HSA plan through my job for this year. In an admittedly bizarre set of circumstances, this will not only completely eliminate my old $1,315 annual premium but actually result in them paying me $175.** Thanks Obama?
  • Travel: Saving half my income doesn’t mean travel is off the table. It means travel has to be done during off-peak times, far from tourism hubs, and involve sleeping on more sofas.

The total time commitment more closely resembles a hobby than any kind of extreme budgeting, and it is certainly fun in its own weird way. It just so happens that, in the long run, this hobby produces truckloads of time and money rather than consuming them. Certainly everybody’s circumstances are different, but escape is possible for almost anyone with an eye for efficiency and enough disdain for crappy jobs to leave them behind forever.

 

*Assuming a stock/bond portfolio with a 6.5% rate of return after inflation.

**I actually pay a $1,025 premium throughout the year, but my employer contributes $1,000 to my HSA account. The last bit comes from an incentive from the health insurance company where we get a $200 discount for jumping through some pretty simple hoops.

 

Zack Shapiro hopes to one day move into an Icelandic volcano and take up supervillainy. In the meantime he lives in Philadelphia and can be reached at shapiro.zack@gmail.com.

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