Sarah Landrum
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What if you could retire in a heartbeat? What would your retirement plan look like? Would you sip margaritas in the Caribbean or retire in another country, such as Italy or Bali? Do you want to start a small bed-and-breakfast retreat for the artistic community?

Retirement plans look different for everyone, and there's no right age or huge financial number you must achieve — aside from being able to support yourself.

Early retirement feels like an elusive dream for most Americans, but it is within your reach — give up the 9-to-5 rat race and embrace freedom in your life do what you please when you want. All you need to do is take it step by step.

"How did I retire from my corporate job, financially independent, at age 50?" asks Eldorado Canyon of Can I Reitre Yet. "I’d like to say it was all hard work, skill, and perfect timing. It’s true that I worked many long hours at the start of my career. And I also managed to find professional situations where I could profit from my organizational and writing skills. My timing, however, was lousy on some notable occasions! But, ultimately, 'I' am not the whole story. When I reflect on my life so far, it is clear that the kindness, generosity, and wisdom of others, figures large."

He says values, love, thrift, timing, work, consistency, sacrifice, patience and lessons helped him achieve early retirement. Here are some of the lessons he'd learned on success:

  • "Do what you love. You simply can’t be successful without passion and hard work. And that comes naturally when you enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it at the start of your career, then try something else. If you don’t enjoy it later in your career, then weigh carefully the costs and benefits of leaving versus staying, for a while."
  • "When you are the recipient of great generosity, make the most of it. Say “thank you” and move ahead. Do not turn away good fortune out of misdirected humility or independence. Life will surely deal you other obstacles down the road. And you will need all the good fortune and fortitude you have accumulated to overcome them.
  • "Follow a simple formula for building wealth: live on less than you make, and invest the balance wisely. That is the path most of us need to pursue. How much you make begins with your education, but over time will be more a function of your work ethic, communication and people skills. How much it costs you to live, is largely a function of personality: what do you truly need to be happy? The basics of wise investing can be learned in a few days, and refined in a few years. Do it yourself and keep it simple: buy only what you understand. Keep costs low. Diversify."
  • "Lastly and perhaps most importantly: Don’t sacrifice today for tomorrow. As worthy and important as your financial or career goals may be, don’t sacrifice your quality of life for them, especially when it involves other people. The future may never come, and certainly won’t come in the way you imagine. But the present will surely become the past, soon. Don’t forgo opportunities, such as being with your loved ones as they grow, that will never come again."

He's not the only one to achieve success early on either. After seven years of working at an investment firm in New York City, a woman who goes by the pen name J.P. Livingston on her blog The Money Habit had built a $2.25 million nest egg, enough to quit her job and retire at age 28. Today, she earns over $100,000 a month blogging from an RV.

"I really do believe that early retirement, or financial independence at an early age, is an option for so many more people than believe it is an option for," she told CNBC Make It.

On her blog, she shares her "quick start guide to early retirement," which she believes many people can follow to achieve what she did.

"Even if you have the best investment strategy in the world that yields five percent more a year than other strategies, you won't see a huge impact if you only have $10 in savings to put to work in it," she says of savings being an important part of retiring early. "Focusing on big ticket items can get you to perhaps a 20 to 30 percent savings rate, but the rest of your progress will likely be made up by small enchancements," like canceling underused memberships, cutting back on impulse purchases and avoiding late fees.

But saving money alone doesn't get you rich, but investing can. As Livingston explains: "At some point, your money pile grows to a size where focusing on growing your nest egg will have a much more material impact to your net wealth than further reductions on your spending."

A recurring theme among early retirees like Canyon and Livingston is that, even if they are traveling the world, their lifestyle is simple.

"If they own a car, it’s just one, and it’s far from new," adds Andrea Coombes of Market Watch. "(Your car costs more than you may realize. Early retirees often talk about car costs and the importance of reducing them. If your car costs $500 a month for loan payment and insurance, that adds up to $6,000 a year. If you assume a federal and state tax bill of 30 percent, you have to earn about $8,600 a year just to pay for your car — and that’s not even counting gas and maintenance costs)."

Coombes talks about another early retiree couple, Skip and Gaby Yetter, who quit full-time work in their early 50s and blog at TheMeanderthals.com while working with a U.S.-based financial adviser as they travel the world.

"But they, too, say that their early retirement, which included selling their three-bedroom, waterfront home in Marblehead, Mass., north of Boston, has fostered an awareness of just how consumer-focused they’d been," she explains. And they told readers of their book, Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure, that, as they rid their lives of accumulated things, they began to realize how much happiness they found in living simply.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than saving up and just doing it. Here are six steps to help you achieve what Canyon, Livingston and the Yetters did.

Step 1: Decide Your Retirement Values

For many, early retirement now equates to financial freedom and flexibility to pursue the things many always dreamed of in younger years. Those dreams weren't in reach previously, but retirement brings a golden age of potential in which you have more time and finances to shoot for the stars. Those stars don't have to be big or far away at all. Everyone's dreams are as unique as they are individually.

Decide your retirement values now to have a goal to aim for. Do you most value family, travel or education? Do you want to continue your education or work longer, but in a more relaxed field?

Consider if you want to continue the lifestyle you're living now. Do you want more, or can you live on less? You'll save for that factor, too. 

Step 2: Know What You Need to Save, Strategize and Begin

Do you have a specific age in mind? Your lifestyle and retirement values also have numbers to maintain annually if you want to keep them within reach. Use a retirement calculator to judge what you'll need to save and the number you'll reach based on variables such as net worth, household income and annual retirement savings.

Say you're 35 now and want to retire at 55, and you've saved $100,000 so far on a $50,000 income. You plan to put away 25 percent of your income, but discover you'll run out of money by age 70 since you didn't consider Social Security, even though you'll have saved $901,582. Account for Social Security: When you include your nonworking spouse, you raise your Social Security benefits by 1.5 times your benefit individually. That's a major boost for your retirement plan. Now, what if you took on a second job or found a better-paying one?

Find out where your money goes now. Get a copy of your credit reports from all three agencies for free through Free Annual Report, and obtain current bills and bank statements. Use your banking app to maintain a budget, but pen-and-paper strategizing is always helpful. In an empty notebook, make a list of your debts and what you owe. Take notes of your spending habits on coffee, cigarettes and fast food purchases.

Do you notice any habits or extras you can cut back on? Don't be afraid to cut cable or shop around for better deals. Reduce spending now to put more into your savings account over the next few years. Pay down your debt first, and always place a set sum away in your retirement accounts, even if it's small at first.

Step 3: Monitor and Diversify Your Retirement Portfolio

What type of retirement plan do you have now? Is it a traditional 401(k) or IRA, or do you have a Roth IRA or SEP IRA?  It's also normal to have more than one retirement account. A Roth IRA grows tax-free, but you may only contribute up to $5,500 annually if under age 50. So, if you have a side gig, it might be worth considering opening a SEP IRA to put aside additional self-employment retirement funds.

Does your employer make matching contributions to your retirement account? Do not miss out on this free money, if so.

While cutting back on spending is important for early retirees, investing in a more diversified portfolio matters, too — focusing on low-cost index types of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Mutual funds allow you to pay one low fee without racking up commission fees and reduce your risk. A financial planner can help determine the best investment options for you.

ETFs also offer a low cost and commission-free alternative with diversified, preselected stock and bond options. Various companies provide these sorts of collections, but if you're new to investing and want a more hands-off approach, you may try robo-advisors such as Betterment or Wealthfront. These options will rebalance your portfolio for you, starting at perhaps 90 percent in stocks and 10 percent bonds the younger you are and growing more conservative as you age, depending on your end-goal early retirement date.

 Step 4: Know Where You'll Live and What It'll Cost

Aside from keeping costs low now, you'll also want to calculate your living expenses and keep housing costs low when you retire. Do you plan to reside in the United States? If so, aim to pay off your mortgage quickly. It’s one of the top financial burdens you'll face, presenting an obstacle to putting more money aside.

The relation of what you spend versus what your income is becomes intrinsic to your retirement goal, but if you can afford the mortgage after early retirement, your need for worry decreases. It's still a good goal to have in place since carrying the burden of debt into retirement affects your health and other goals.

You may not plan to live in the same place. In that case, selling your house provides physical freedom and a large amount of money to purchase a smaller home elsewhere, travel and stow away extra cash into your retirement plan. You may decide to live the digital nomad life, working as a medical transcriptionist or housesitter as you travel the world. Housesitting websites, like Mind My House and Trusted Housesitters, match sitters with homes to live in rent-free while maintaining the household lightly and sometimes looking after pets.

Considering an alternative nomad lifestyle or residing in another country may allow you to live on less, but remember if you work outside of the United States, you still have to pay taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Know where you'll live and what that'll cost, if at least a ballpark figure.

 Step 5: Keep Quality Health Care Updated


Depending on your age and situation, individual and family health care costs will vary. On average, a couple can expect to pay $275,000 in health care during retirement years if retiring at age 65, but if you decide to retire earlier, the costs can increase. Options to deal with this issue include investigating quotes from the private insurance marketplace, exploring coverage options through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or being added to your spouse’s employer-sponsored health plan.

You could consider a private option or go with a spouse's employer-sponsored plan and use the ACA as a backup option. If you plan to travel, you need to also consider a traveler’s insurance policy applicable in the areas you'll travel to and know the coverage inside and out. In some countries where health care is less expensive, it may not hurt your budget to pay out of pocket. It's wise to look into these considerations early and keep quality health care updated as you age.

Get into healthy routines now to limit your risks of cancer and heart disease. Get enough sleep and exercise. The healthier life you lead now means an extended one to enjoy in your early retirement years.

Step 6: Get Your Taxes in Order

Do you owe any back taxes? Get a payment arrangement together to be in good favor with the IRS for the future as you go into early retirement. You don't want to get hit later with an audit.

That said, when saving for early retirement, work taxes into your estimated savings. Your taxable income may come at you left and right, depending on the sources — don't forget capital gains on distributions from brokerage accounts, IRAs and 401(k)s.

Avoid tax penalties from early withdrawals, or factor them in and plan to pay. What will your estimated annual tax bill cost? Get familiar with the 72(t) rule, in which this IRS section allows for penalty-free withdrawals from your retirement accounts before the required age of 59.5 under specific circumstances. Consult with an accountant to plan accordingly.

Also, Social Security benefits may reduce temporarily if you continue to work, even part time, after you take your official retirement. Those benefits become taxable if your retirement income exceeds a particular amount.

Early retirement isn't a pipe dream — it's achievable by following these six steps. Know what your retirement values are, where your money goes and where it needs to go to achieve your early retirement goal. Get your spending, retirement accounts, health care and taxes in order and strategize for the future. The golden years are yours to seize.

With all that said, working longer does have its benefits, too. In fact, health insurance can be significantly expensive when you're no longer part of a group plan. Half of all wannabe retirees say that keeping health insurance or other benefits is a major reason they continue to work.

Likewisse, there's a financial risk that comes with retiring — and your tolerance for it is important, both emotionally and financially.

"Can you stomach a few recessions?" Craig G. Bolanos, Jr., CMFC, AIF, a Founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Wealth Management Group, LLC, asked Reader's Digest. That's because, the longer you're retired, the greater chance there is that you'll end up cycling through at least one market downturn. "Be honest with yourself as to whether or not you (and your portfolio) can stomach a few recessions throughout a longer retirement," Bolanos advises.

That's not the only risk.

"If you retire in your 40s, you could have another 40 years ahead of you to live off your savings," Matt Hylland, Financial Adviser with Hylland Capital Management also told Reader's Digest. "Even with modest inflation, you have to expect your purchasing power to erode over time." even with modest inflation, your original purchasing power erodes."

"Those who are honest with themselves have a much better chance at having a successful retirement lifestyle," agreed Warren A Ward, CFP, of WWA Planning & Investments.

And, then, of course, there's the element of uncertainty.

"There is always an element of uncertainty in financial planning at any stage of life," explains Coombes. "For example, you could lose your job or face a debilitating illness. So, like any other financial planning, it’s necessary to embrace a little uncertainty. Another example: you don’t know how long you’ll live, and thus it’s impossible to say how long your savings need to last. A number of early retirees interviewed by MarketWatch rely at least to some extent on the 'four percent rule:' In your first year of retirement, you withdraw four percent of your total savings; in each succeeding year, you withdraw the same dollar amount, plus inflation."

So you can save more on your expenses, invest smarter and work harder to retire earlier, but just know that there are some risks and uncertainties involved. If you're mindful of all of it, you'll do just fine and on your way to being financially independent!

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