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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.