Or, How We Got To Where We Are Now.
I never had any sort of idea for the longest time what retirement should or would be like, and certainly never thought ours would turn out the way it has. Brett’s and my path to retirement never followed any sort of regular route, but sort of got made up along the way. Brett retired from the navy following 22 years of service, when he was 42, and continued working after that for another 21 years. I finished my degree (after having to borrow a ton of money) in my 40s, and then also went to work as an ESL instructor. Just to keep things interesting though, during our mid- to late-40s we adopted three beautiful daughters, and I left regular employment in 2006 to stay home and care for them (for months afterwards I never could figure out where I had found the time for my job). Retirement seemed to always be the last thing on our minds, pushed to a back burner and mostly forgotten, and by the time we were in our 60s, and following a major economic setback, we gave up thinking we would ever be able to fully retire. Brett was convinced he would continue to work into his 80s.
Brett and I have never followed what many would call a “normal” pathway through life anyway, and our journey to where we are now was certainly no different. We had one child in our twenties and then adopted three more when our peers were thinking more about their IRAs and an empty nest. We spent the first 15 years of our marriage with Brett in the navy and all that entailed, including moving every two and a half years. The cost for many of those moves came out of our own pockets making saving for the future difficult. Military salaries were low, and it seemed we were always paying off the cost of the last move and trying to save for the next one. Brett’s service was done one enlistment at a time until we finally decided at around the 15-year mark that maybe we should stay to collect the retirement (the best financial decision we ever made). Owning a home was a pipe dream back then, an impossibility, not just because of the frequent moves but because of the extremely high interest rates in the 1980s. A house was just flat-out unaffordable for us, especially when it would have to be sold in a couple of years. Brett retired from the navy during the recession of the early 90s but went back to school, earned a degree, found work, and in 1995 we purchased our first home. With the addition of the girls to our family our focus (and our budgets) turned to raising them. Retirement was still out there but not something we gave a whole lot of thought as there always seemed to be more pressing and immediate concerns.
I’ve often called us “accidental retirees.” While Brett receives a monthly retirement check (and good healthcare benefits) from his military service, the amount has never been enough to live on, especially not with a family. Brett was hired by a company in 1997 that offered a defined pension and he became vested. Sadly, that plan was closed soon after and before he had time to accrue much into the account, but it provides us a small amount of income every month (“milk money”). We also knew that our Social Security benefits would provide another source of income, but even with all three streams it would not be enough that we could ever quit working entirely, especially not with three children at home. The accidental part of our retirement came when the SSA informed us that because the girls would be minor dependents (under 18), in addition to his regular Social Security payments Brett would qualify to receive additional family benefits. This was a huge surprise to us, but we we added up the numbers and along with eliminating our debt figured that Brett could afford to retire in 2013, at age 63. We decided that I would “officially” retire when I reached 64 and start drawing my Social Security once our youngest had aged out of the family benefit.
I’ve often said that many if not most would be surprised at the amount of our retirement income, that even with three streams it’s less than most might imagine. However, Brett and I have always had the ability to make things happen with a smaller income. Have we made mistakes and done stupid things along the way? OMG, yes!!! But we learned from those mistakes: to take our time, save what we can whenever we can, plan and set goals, focus on what’s truly important (needs vs. wants), and leverage debt when necessary. We’ve never been afraid of change or a challenge, of doing things differently, or waiting rather than having to have or do something right away. We’ve learned to be creative savers even when it seemed like there was nothing to save, and practiced frugality before we even knew what that meant. We’ve carried debt over the years but much prefer not having any, and we refuse to judge those who do have it, even in retirement.
Looking back, it sometimes amazes me to think of all we’ve accomplished over the years and that we arrived at where we are now. With the girls grown and on their own, we’re enjoying a comfortable retirement, one we never could have imagined a decade ago. My mother used to tell me “you have to have money to dream.” I disagreed with her: dreams are free, but you often need money to make them come true. However, once you commit to a dream and make a plan, you can and usually will figure out the money part.
The road to retirement is different for everyone, and how we got to where we are now is certainly not any sort of blueprint for others to follow. Our story is ours alone. I offer no advice about how to have a great retirement except to pass along what I’ve learned: 1) Know what you need and what you want and then set your priorities and go for it. 2) Do what works for you and do it in a way that makes sense to you; forget about what others think or what they have. 3) Don’t expect perfection or a straight line. 4) Sometimes what seems like a not so great choice or decision at the time can affect your future in surprisingly positive ways. 5) There’s a big difference between fantasies and dreams. 6) Adjust your dreams as necessary, but never stop having them. 7) It’s your story to write.