Some Things We Did Right

I’m still somewhat amazed at times at what Brett and I have accomplished on a not very big income, and the life we enjoy now. It wasn’t that long ago we thought Brett would be working into his 80s, and worrying about how we’d get the girls through college. We certainly never thought we’d be enjoying the good life in Hawaii or that we’d be able to travel and see the world (and never thought we’d be affected by anything like COVID either).

Looking back, it’s easy to see all of the things we did wrong. We spent when we should have saved. We almost always carried some debt, whether that was a car payment or a mortgage or consumer debt. We should have saved more, although there were times when that was impossible even when both of us were working. In retrospect we can see we did make the right choices in four critical areas and at four critical times, sometimes inadvertently, all of which have helped lead to the life we have now. We have more than most and less than many, but we are enjoying the comfortable retirement we once thought we’d never have.

Although it wasn’t obvious at the time, below are the four things in our lives that made a difference:

Senior Chief Petty Officer Brett, about a year before retirement from the navy at age 42.
  • Staying in the navy. Brett ended up serving 22 years in the navy, but while he was in, retiring from the service was never a sure thing. It was a good life, but a hard life too, with lots of moves and deployments, and lots of time spent away and apart from each other and family. We used to joke that the first thing he had to do at each new duty station was turn in a list of all family birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates so they could make sure he would be deployed at those times. Brett did his service enlistment by enlistment. However, because we eventually made the choice to stay for retirement, we have had a guaranteed income every month for as long as Brett’s alive, and equally good, outstanding health insurance for life as well (that will continue even if I outlive Brett). That monthly income has made sure our rent or mortgage has been covered ever since he left the navy, and we’ve never had to worry about health care. We never thought about what it would be like not to have those things while he was on active duty, but we are grateful every day now that we stuck with it to retire.
  • Sticking it out at a miserable job. Brett spent his last 14 years before retirement working for a great company, at a job he mostly loved. He worked with and for people he enjoyed. However, he went through a really bad stretch of two years when he worked under the Manager from Hell. Miserable can’t begin to describe that period of time. The manager was the one who abruptly ended Brett”s overtime, causing his income to drop by a third and sending us spiraling into debt (the work never away either; it just kept piling up because he couldn’t keep up with it). Things got to the point where I begged him to quit because the girls and I couldn’t take his misery any more. He did look for, interview for, and was offered other employment during this time, but none of these employers offered anywhere near the benefits he received from the company, so he stayed while other co-workers, equally miserable under the awful manager, headed for other employment. The manager was eventually demoted, and Brett was subsequently offered his dream position within the company with a boost in pay for his final two years before retirement. Because he stayed, Brett was able to beef up his 401K before retirement and he also receives a small but steady pension, a benefit I will continue to receive if I outlive Brett.
The cheap house
  • Buying a cheap house. When we bought our second home in Portland over 16 years ago, we decided to buy the nicest but cheapest house we could find that was convenient to the girls’ schools. The house we ended up purchasing fit the bill perfectly. It was new construction with simple, inexpensive finishes but a fantastic floor plan that was walking distance from the girls’ elementary school. However, it was located in a neighborhood that had friends and family wondering whether we had lost our minds because the neighborhood’s nickname was “Felony Flats.”. Almost to a person we were asked, “Why did you buy here?” and told we “could have done so much better.” But guess what? Our low mortgage payment helped us pay off our debt when times got tough. The house not only held its value, but increased enough that even following the burst of housing bubble we ended up making a small profit. In the nine years we lived in that house the neighborhood became a desirable location within Portland with the elementary school located across the street earning awards and developing a waiting list to get in. We could have afforded a much larger mortgage in a different neighborhood at the time we bought our house, but seven years after its sale I am still so thankful we bought that cheap house, and shudder to think about how things might have turned out if we hadn’t.
The girls
  • Adopting our daughters. One of the biggest reason we carried debt into our 50s and beyond is because we adopted not once but three times, beginning in our mid-40s. We knew with each adoption that we were spending or taking away from our retirement and future financial security, but we also knew it was the right thing for us to do, no matter the cost. Neither Brett nor I have ever regretted for a moment what we spent to bring our girls home and raise them, but we knew there was a chance we would maybe have to work nearly into our 80s because of our choices. However, unbeknownst to us, because we turned out to have dependents under the age of 18, Brett was eligible to receive extra Social Security benefits for the girls which along with our debt elimination made it possible for him to retire at age 63. By the time YaYu finally aged out, I was eligible for my Social Security and a lump-sum pension payment from Oregon. While we would most likely be enjoying an even more comfortable retirement if we had not adopted, we can’t imagine our lives without our daughters, and adding them to our family when we did surprisingly ended up providing us the opportunity to retire earlier than expected rather than face long-term financial hardship.

Brett and I made many bad financial choices and mistakes along the way to retirement. A few times it seemed we had done nothing but the wrong thing, and would pay dearly for it later. Now we can see we actually did the important things right, even though we usually couldn’t see it or imagine it at the time, things that are now providing us financial security, allowing us to make dreams come true, and providing a comfortable life as we age.


8 thoughts on “Some Things We Did Right

  1. Lovely words Laura. Sometimes we need to step away from all the negative and focus on the positive and in your case the things you got right are probably the most important. My husband had a similar difficult work situation as Brett. We were only discussing it earlier this evening as I was relaying to my hubby how much I admired his resilience and mental toughness in going to a work situation day after day where his life was made a total misery by his manager. Our initial goal was for him to get through his initial year so he would not have to pay back his signing bonus. He made it to that target and managed to stick it out another 3 years after getting a different manager. For the life of us we can not work out why some people seem to revel in their power to diminish others.


    1. One of Brett’s qualities (to me) is his ability to stay with things and see them accomplished. I’m still kind of amazed that we all got through that period with the horrid manager, but it paid dividends in the end. The manager was a very nice person and very good at her particular skill set, but had absolutely no experience working with others let alone leading others, and we still shake our heads at how long the company kept her in that position. They were losing quality people right and left for over a year before someone finally figured out what was going on. The manager continued on with the company, did her job well, but was no longer allowed to direct anyone at anything.


  2. I admire people who are proactive about their retirement plans. I don’t know what prompted me to invest in the pension plan 40 yrs ago when I started working. It was optional back then. I know women in their late 60’s who didn’t and today they are still working in a health care system that seems more demanding than ever. Goal -setting seems to be the key even when that retirement goal won’t come to fruition for decades. Health care benefits are so important as well, probably more so in the US. I’ve often thought that nurses should have the best extended health benefits that continue in retirement, not the worst. You and Brett have done well.


    1. Brett and I knew nothing about retiring or planning for it. We got no guidance from our families, or the navy either while Brett was in. Nothing about saving, investing, etc. – nothing. And, we made so little money in the navy for so long and it seemed every gain we made was wiped out every time we changed duty stations. I think many of the expenses we faced then are now covered for service members, thank goodness. We seriously thought about leaving at the end of every enlistment, but now see that staying in for retirement was the best thing we could have ever done. But we were frankly lucky. By the time Brett got to his post-navy job we knew better but the adoptions impacted us as well as our getting into deep debt. Things turned out well, but again, I think we have been very lucky. We learned a lot of good lessons along the way.


  3. We, too, were able to enter retirement with no debt and are so thankful we could do that! After we no longer needed to live a reasonable distance from our jobs, we sold our larger house that we’d lived in for 20+ years and downsized to a smaller house (for which we were able to pay cash) in a smaller city with a lower cost of living. I also went to several classes on various topics of retirement which gave us some insights on ways we could plan better and get the most from our retirement income.
    By the way – this has nothing to do with the current topic – I saw a “house hunter” show on TV that was set in Kauai and I was amazed by the beauty of the island. It was not at all what I imagined as the stereotypical Hawaii. Gorgeous!


    1. Beyond Brett’s military retirement, not having any debt was the biggest factor for us in being able to retire and has made a huge difference in what we’ve been able to do since. I know some would scoff at our simple lifestyle these days, but it’s perfect for us. The older we get the less we need or want.

      Kaua’i is by far the most beautiful place we have ever lived. We were just talking yesterday about how green it is here year-round, and how lush (it really is nearly a jungle in places. It has everything we wanted in a location other than high prices: mountains, ocean, and lots of trees and green things.


  4. I think stick-with-it-ness is an important skill. Sticking with a job you don’t like. Sticking to a plan. Like Brett did with the navy and horrid manager. They’re is much I do not like about my job – same for Mr S. But the regular income and benefits will make future us happy.

    As to kids – the balance sheet is isn’t worth looking at. What a bonus that having your three girls speeded retirement!


    1. It is so difficult sometimes when you’re in the middle of an awful work situation to weigh all the factors and try and figure out whether it makes more sense to stay or leave. For us it was never the income, but the benefits that both the navy and the subsequent job offered that kept Brett going, and they both have paid off in retirement. But we got very, very close to the quitting line several times – it got that bad.

      We honestly did not know about the extra Social Security payments until a little over a year before Brett actually retired. Friends who had also adopted found out about it and passed the information on. We met with a counselor at the SS office and were surprised to learn what we would receive, and that it would make the ability to retire a reality.

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