Starting Late, But Retiring Early: A Case Study

If you’re struggling from a late start in saving for retirement, you’re in for a special treat today.  A real-life case study of Susan and Norman, a couple who recovered from a late start in saving for retirement and, a short 12 years later, are going to be retiring early.  It’s a great story and offers hope to anyone who is worried about being behind in your retirement savings.

Susan and Norman started late but will be retiring early. Here's how they did it. A Case Study in #RetirementRecovery. Click To Tweet

You’ll hear the story in their own words, with some commentary from me on the lessons we can learn.  It’s an inspirational story and offers tips we can all apply as we work toward achieving our retirement dreams.

Late Start in saving for retirement

 


Our Story:

We met on November 3, 2007 while on a backpacking trip with a local singles hiking club. Norm was 46 and Susan was 42 when we met. We moved in together in March 2008, and had a busy first year:

  • Spring 2008: Susan sold her house
  • May 2008:  We Got Engaged!
  • June 2008:  Susan graduates from college
  • September 2008:  We Got Married!!
How to recover from a late start in retirement savings
Norm & Susan

What a year! We had no extra money, but we managed to pay for our small wedding by being frugal. We had no idea what the next 10 years would hold. We didn’t set out to retire early, we just wanted to be financially stable and not be in debt.

Fritz:  Frugal from the start of their relationship!  If you’ve had a late start in saving for retirement, you’ve got to ramp up the frugality if you want a realistic chance to retire. 

The economy was tanking in 2008 and Norman’s business was suffering. The business was down 80% over what it had been doing at its best. The year after we got married Norman took a managerial position in retail and continued to keep his business going by working both jobs. That was a hard year- newlyweds never seeing each other and growing a huge garden.

Fritz:  Notice how Norman didn’t sit idly by as their business dropped?  He picked up a second job.  They planted a garden.  Side hustles are a great way to close the gap if you’re starting late in saving for retirement.

The pressure of holding down two jobs didn’t come without some cost. Norm was worn out all the time and had some health issues. We later learned that he had a tumor in his spine that was causing his issues that had to be surgically removed.  The doctors first thought he had ALS – we were so thankful it was a tumor!  Seeking balance, Norm decided to discontinue the second job, but his year of sacrifice was the turning point from a late start in saving for retirement to a dedicated focus on doing what had to be done. Norm continued to focus on growing his business year over year, and selling the enhanced business became part of our retirement plan in 2019.


A Late Start In Saving For Retirement:

We were in our mid-40’s and had a Net Worth of less than $100,000.  We were clearly one of those couples who was facing a late start in saving for retirement.

Susan had a 401k that was worth $45k, a small Roth IRA worth ~$9k, and the sale of the house brought $34k. We also had $18k in student loans and a daughter in college and paying tuition that was not covered by scholarships.

Norm did not have a 401k or any savings. A daughter in college. A house with a mortgage.

Fritz:  The average Net Worth for folks in their 40’s is $288k according to this article (Median is $60k).  Susan and Norm started at a level BELOW the average, and yet are retiring in their 50’s!  Impressive feat.

Susan & Norm had a below average Net Worth in their 40's, yet are retiring in their 50's. Impressive feat. How did they do it? Click To Tweet

How We Changed Our Situation

Phase 1:  Increased Income, Paid Off Debt

Susan took a sales position that paid salary, bonuses, commissions, and residuals (for life). Sounds great and it was. Slowly month after month commission checks grew, residual checks grew and every penny was used to:

  • Paid off all debt except for the mortgage.
  • Pay off Susan’s 2002 Toyota Corolla
  • Paid off Susan’s student loans
  • Paid tuition for daughters
  • Set aside wedding money for both daughters
  • Saved an emergency fund of $10k.

We used points from credit card use as well as the Presidents Club sales incentives trips Susan earned as our vacations. Norm would join Susan’s work travel as a getaway also.

This was also our coupon clipping phase. Couponing really helped us save money. We did this for a number of years until our time became more valuable than the time it took to clip coupons.

We also had periodic no spend months.  We did that maybe 3 times, but wow what an eye opener that was!

As their income increased, they had a laser focus on paying off debt and building an emergency fund. #LateStartRetiredEarly Click To Tweet

We also gardened at Norman’s parents’ house. His dad would plow up a huge area for us to grow vegetables: Tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, peas, garlic, squash, cantaloupe, etc. We canned or froze what we could not eat to preserve it for the fall and winter months. Sounds ideal and it is, but it’s a lot of hard work. Working full time and tending a garden is no joke. We still grow a large garden and preserve what we can.

Norman is an avid hunter and supplies most of the meat we eat. He also does all the processing of the meat at home which saves money, but more-so it allows him the ability to handle and process the meat as he wants to optimize the flavor of the meat. Norm has always been able to hunt on land where he is not paying a club fee which also helps save money.

Fritz:  Notice the laser focus in Phase I?  If you want to catch up from a late start in saving for retirement, you need to get focused.  Really, really focused. 


Phase 2:  We feel poor.

We downsized to a smaller less expensive home ($165k) with a little over an acre of land. The downside was the house needed a renovation as nothing had been done to it since it was built. We used the money from the sale of Susan’s house for a deposit and started renovating. The upside was we now had our own land to garden on.

We did most of the work ourselves or from people Norman knew in construction. As the economy had tanked many people Norm knows were looking for side jobs to keep going.

Because of the downturn in the economy, we were unable to sell our other home for a profit so we rented it. We held onto that house for 5 years until the market had come back enough to get some money out of it.

We put every spare penny into renovating the home to be our “forever” home. In hindsight, we wish we hadn’t done that as now we’re not so sure we will stay here. After the renovation, every penny and I am being very serious here…. every penny went to pay off the house. We were making more money than we had in our lives, but because we had a goal of paying off the house, all the money went to the house. For 5 years we lived like this.

Fritz:  Sounds like “Forced Scarcity” to me, one of the Top 5 Secrets To Retire Early!  5 Years of a very strong commitment. Well done. 

During this time we did not go on vacations (unless rewards points could cover the expense) or go out to eat (even now we only eat out once per week, and we don’t drink Starbucks!), didn’t have cable (still don’t), continued to grown a garden, have fruit trees and pastured chickens and so on. It may sound miserable to some people, but we really made it work for us. We would invite friends to our house for dinner, go to free outdoor concerts and we hiked a lot.

Susan read the blog Cash Cow Couple and learned about Personal Capital and Wealthfront. We moved some small IRAs to Wealthfront to save on fees.

We started tracking all of our financial accounts in Personal Capital. It was fun to watch the changes. In 5 years the house was paid off and the real fun began. Susan started to max out her 401k, and once we learned that Norm could also have a 401(k) as a self-employed entrepreneur, we opened a 401k for him and started maxing it out as well.

Fritz:  Are you keeping track of all this?  Wow!  Impressive focus.  That’s why they’re going to be retiring soon! (Though I am crushed that they read Cash Cow Couple instead of The Retirement Manifesto!  Smiles).


Blood Mountain, GA

Phase 3 – Debt Free, Savings On A Roll

Things were good, we had no debt so our savings really started growing fast. It is amazing when you live below your means how quickly money adds up. One of the financial planners we worked with at the time had to sit me down one day and stress that I really needed to upgrade my vehicle. I was still driving the 2002 Corolla…. so I bought a new/used vehicle. Norm continued to use the Corolla to drive for work (to save on fuel costs) and he did for 2 more years, after which we sold the Corolla and applied the $2k received into savings.

We steadily saved money and continued living our lives as we had. There was no point in changing how we lived our lives just because we finally had money we could spend.

Fritz:  Avoiding Lifestyle Inflation is a key to getting yourself on a good trajectory for retirement.  A 2002 Corolla?  A great example of Stealth Wealth!  

That changed when Susan had a business trip near the beach and we decided to stay the weekend at Navarre Beach, one of the nicest beaches in Florida. We met a couple who had just bought a place near the beach and that got us interested in buying a beachfront condo. We looked at all available condos and found one for sale by owner. A few days later we were under contract to buy the condo. At the time, we only thought of it as an investment where the renters would help us pay it off. We never dreamed at the time that it would become a source of income for our retirement. From the first day, the condo was earning money!


Phase 4 – Building Income Streams

After reading the book “You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think” by Wes Moss, Norm realized that we already had some streams of income in place and it was a matter of adding to those streams. We kept this philosophy in our minds as we started thinking of other ways to earn a passive income in retirement.

Now that we had the condo, we started to pay it down pretty quickly. We started an account for the condo money to keep it separate from the other and used the money it generated to pay HOA, insurance, assessments etc. We had property managers for 3 years and now we do all the bookings ourselves. It has saved us 22% fees and it’s a lot of fun!

This past year, we bought another condo in the same complex for cash. It was at this time that we felt we should talk with a new financial advisor. We consulted with Chris Burns from More Than Money. He has helped us understand if the way we wanted to live in retirement was sustainable on our savings and helped us developed a plan to reach our retirement goal.


Phase 5 – Preparing For Retirement

We worked with our advisor to review our finances, budget, how we want to live in retirement and to understand if we would have enough money to retire and when. Due to the condos which both make a profit and Norman selling his business we have decided to pull the trigger and retire in the spring of 2019.

Norman has found a buyer for his business and will retire at the end of April 2019. Monthly payments from the sale of the business (over the next 10 years) will provide an income stream to help fund our first decade of retirement. Susan is retiring at the end of February 2019. She is still benefiting from the “residuals for life” portion of the comp plan although the residuals are dwindling. For now, we will have 4 streams of income that put us above our monthly spending budget. We are hoping to be like Norm’s parents and be able to save money even in retirement.  Our plan is to leave all investments alone and only use the streams of income until SS kicks in.

Our retirement plans include buying a 5th wheel and traveling to the majority of National Parks, we want to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim, a trip to Ireland is in the works as are many trips to visit family and friends. We still don’t know if or when we will sell our primary residence. We certainly don’t have everything figured out, but we do know our money is sound.

Fritz:  Susan, congratulations on your retirement at the end of this month!  We’re looking forward to hearing about your RV adventures after Norman joins you in retirement in April!  Congratulations on reaching The Starting Line, your best years are ahead of you!

Traveling in a 5th wheel in retirement
Yellowstone National Park

A Few Closing Thoughts

A point we’d like to get across is that we didn’t set out to retire early. We started down this journey due to being stressed at not having any retirement funds.  We just focused on saving as much as possible, not realizing that a short 11 years later we’d be in a position to retire in our 50’s.

It was a great realization when we were told by a professional that we had the means to retire with the lifestyle we chose.  While the decade of focus was intense, the reality of our situation today has made it all worthwhile.

In spite of having a late start in saving for retirement, we’re going to be retiring early.


Conclusion

I hope Susan and Norman’s story was as inspirational for you as it was for me.  Nothing beats a “real life” story of someone who had a late start in saving for retirement, yet recognized the reality of their situation and made the changes required to get themselves on track.  Theirs is a story that proves it can be done, just like Betty & Gordon (see It’s Never Too Late To Start Saving For Retirement).

If you’ve had a late start in saving for retirement, realize it’s not too late. Others have been in your shoes. Take time to listen and learn from their stories.  Apply the same techniques, and you CAN recover from your late start.

They started late, but they made it to retirement in their 50's! Congratulations, Susan and Norman. Well Done!! Click To Tweet

Who knows, you may even end up writing a story on my blog, and inspiring me so much that I chase you down to buy you lunch.  My wife and I had lunch with Susan and Norman last week.  They’re good folks, and the excitement for the upcoming retirement was contagious.  They may have had a late start in saving for retirement, but they’ve made it to retirement in their 50’s! We’re looking forward to spending some time with them in retirement.  I think I’ve talked them into joining the Benton MacKaye Hiking Club, and expect we’ll be doing some hikes together in retirement.  Small world, right?


Lunch w Susan & Norman – Feb 2019

PS – You may be interested in the “Back Story” to this post.  Below is a comment that Susan left on my post “8 Lessons We Can All Learn From FIRE” (yellow highlight added by me). I was intrigued by her story and sent her an e-mail asking if she’d be willing to be a Case Study.  She and Norman graciously agreed, and you’ve all been the beneficiaries.  Looking back at her comment now, it’s a perfect summary of this Case Study, and worth a read for a quick summary of the steps they took to save their retirement.  Impressive story, from some very nice folks.

28 comments

    1. Thanks, DDD. I like how Susan & Norman leveraged the various aspects together (side hustles, increased income, low expenses, rental property), and I’m happy that they’ve demonstrated that, even if folks have a late start, there is hope for an early retirement!

    2. Hi Dads Dollar
      Norman and I did not set out to have a condo help pay for retirement. We loved that area, and it was so depressed when we started looking that it was a natural fit for us. Thankfully, it’s turned into a source of income. I wish you the best in planning for retirement.

    1. Hi- One day that we were on the beach we met “Donna and Vinny” a couple from Indiana who told us they found a “place” not on the beach for $46K! I was so excited and wanted to find a “place” for that amount too. Norm assured me. It was NOT on the beach and was probably a trailer for that price, but it got us thinking and looking for a place. We found our condo for sale but owner on Craig’slist! We were under contact a few days later. It was a Blessing.

    1. Speaking of fitness…. that’s my #1 goal. I’ve been tethered to a desk for so long that it’s unhealthy. A 20 something recently told me sitting is the new “smoking”. What an eye opening statement this was from someone more than 1/2 my age!

  1. Great story Susan and Norman, rim to rim on the Grand Canyon is doable, my wife and I made it in just under nine hours, a little over 24 miles but many thousands of vertical feet as well. I would only try to do that in one day if you are in marathon trained condition, I’d rate it as somewhat harder than finishing most marathons. Or if you can get into Phantom Ranch, booked a year and a half ahead, then you can spend the night at the bottom and hike out the next day, or a few days later. It is very hard to do in one day and the helicopter trip if you collapse on the way out is about $3000! Also depending when you do it dress layered because we went from sub freezing to very hot in about three hours.

    1. Hi- we are planning on take 3 nights to finish rim to rim because we want to ENJOY it. We both like you to look around, explore and see the light on the rocks throughout the day and evening. We don’t plan to do it in a day as we will miss too much of the experience and beauty. Best- susan and Norman

  2. Great for them!! Nice article, it shows that when you have a partner that shares common goals, almost anything can happen. I wish I could get that out of mine.

    1. No doubt about it, Rick, planning for retirement is easier when done as a team. Take your wife out for a nice dinner, try to find a new way to approach the topic. Try focusing on your mutual dreams for retirement, rather than the financial stuff. It’s important for both of you, and I wish you the best of luck!

    2. Hi Rick-
      Unfortunately, Norm and I both had partners that were not aligned perviously. And I’ll stress, before we ever met so that no one gets the wrong idea. We met, and laid down our personal believes and needs as we realized we had chemistry. Susan had been divorced fot 10 years and Norm for 3 before we met. It was just dumb luck that we met and we pre aligned.

  3. So much of the FI community focuses on younger people. Yet retiring in your fifties is a rare thing. Doing it from a late start is so much harder still. It is thrilling to me to read their story and have it as a link for friends and family in my (age 59) circle of acquaintances. Just knowing that something can be done helps others to realize that they can do it too. Thanks for a great real-life example.

  4. Glad I saved early in life. I don’t have to go through this kind of saving and scrounging. To me this is poverty. Been saving and invest as long as I can remember. Dividends are KING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Retiring at the end of this year. 60 years old with an income of about $250,000. Adios working world!

    1. Hi John- no matter how you do it, or what age, to retire young is a feat. Yes, we scrounged and saved and lived like we were poor and we wouldn’t change a thing. We went from -$0 to $++++++++++ in no time. Anyone can do it if they want to. We told our story to encourage people and lift them up. Anyone at any time can change their circumstance if they want to. All the best- Susan and Norman

  5. There are some parallels in their story to ours, although it might be arguable to many that we retired early. The first thing I will say I was never frugal, neither was my wife and we still aren’t-that was our choice and so perhaps we are retiring a bit later because of it. What I did change was foolish spending and piling credit card and expensive car payments on top of a pile of student loans so that I was still paying off debt in my 40’s. Basically, I finally learned the lesson of “When you are in a hole stop digging”. I got far more disciplined. I started paying off the debt and when that was paid off, added every raise to my 401(k) contribution annually, eventually stuffing it and IRAs with catch-up contributions. I also worked extremely hard in a corporate job for many years, travelling all over the world and making nice bonuses. I also got a promotion where I had an executive comp plan that allowed more income to be deferred. My wife had better habits than but her job was not as high paying. We met in 2005, I sold my house in 2007, we got married in 2008, sold her house in 2009 and bought a house together in 2009 also. She retired in 2017 at 58, we paid off our house and I retired last year at 61, when I also sold a rental house after the market had fully covered, which will help the retirement funding. So hard work was a theme and I corrected poor habits. And also like Norm and Susan, we have a financial planner who has been extremely helpful and are planning to do the National Parks-we did 10 last year and on our way this month to do more. Good luck to all. It can be done.

    1. So glad to know you made it!! It’s a fun journey, don’t you think. We have so much to learn on this ride. Enjoy your retirement. Cheers!

  6. Thanks for sharing! We can relate, as we got married in our 40s in 2002 and had a net worth of roughly $20K (lots of consumer debt, but equity in our condo). In 2003 we de-moronified ourselves and reached FI in 14 years.

    Power to the people who are getting FI in their 50s!

  7. Inspirational story! It common and easy to get a late start on retirement saving and motivational for the masses of us to hear such a vivid late start recovery story! My wife and I are late starters and plan to retire “on time” in 10 years on a glide path exit from our careers to the next chapter of passion projects and travel. Maybe you’ll give us the courage to share our path to recovery too.:)

    1. We would love to read your story. We all have one and you never know what will be the inspiration for another person to realize they too can retire early.
      All the Best-
      S&N

  8. Susan and Norm,
    Congratulations! And thank you for sharing your inspirational story.
    Enjoy a beautiful retirement on your own terms!

  9. Susan and Norm;
    Thank you for sharing your story and how you made it to retire early. Most everyone who has traveled down this road has a unique story and I really enjoy hearing / reading how people made their dreams come true. I am hopeful to meet you on a hike in the future and hear mire of your story and what you have planned to do in these coming years. May you enjoy every day in your retirement years!!

  10. Hi Fritz,
    I particularly liked this post as a lot of Susan and Norm’s story is similar to ours. Dan and I met when we were in our late 30’s and each going through divorce. While it left us with children (5 between us) and financial obligations, it left us with little else. Between then and now we have raised all the kids who are now independent, bought and sold 3 houses and 2 investment properties, paid off my student loan debt from my Masters program, helped send 3 kids to college, retired all of our debt except a VERY small mortgage on our NH house, purchased a home outright in FL for snowbirding, and funded a decent 403b account matched with some money in the bank as well. It was helpful that, as teachers, we were contributing to a pension right along. All of this combined to make retirement possible for Dan at 57 and me at 60. I still don’t know really how we did it as Dan was contributing a full 1/3 of his income in child support until almost the day he retired and my ex husband contributed very little. I can say that we drove our cars into the ground and never went out to eat and watched every single penny. Buying our sailboat after 9/11 was the most impulsive thing that we did, yet it became our vacation home and vehicle for many adventures and has added such value to our lives.

    1. Wow! That’s a great story and happy ending. I can envision you sailing off into a beautiful sunset. (I’m thinking Key West) 😊

  11. Congratulations to Susan and Norm. That’s a great story. It’s really never too late to start. Great job increasing your income and living within your means.
    Lots of people spend more when they make more, it’s difficult to avoid that trap. I love your story. Enjoy your last few months of work! 😉

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