The number one thing I did correctly IMHO in my retirement “planning” was deciding to change and become debt free. That meant we had to downsize our lives and live smaller. This was a conscious effort that took me and my husband many, many years to accomplish. For us, we just couldn’t reduce our lifestyle overnight. It took us a few painful years of sacrifice and going without.
I realized in 2001-2002 that having debt (mortgage, car loans, charge cards) meant that my lifestyle was just a ‘rented’ one. Technically I didn’t own anything. The bank did. And if you miss a monthly payment, for whatever reason, you learn quickly how unimportant your lifestyle truly is.
In 2001, I was 50 years old. I sold our marital home of 16 years and had enough equity to rebuild a smaller, downsized home for cash. This was the first part of my retirement planning: to live mortgage free. I also had enough money left over to buy out one of our leased vehicles and maintain another second car, debt free. DH and I rented a farm-house (@$1000 a month) while we waited for our modular home (less expensive than a stick-built house) to be built. We had relocated to a less expensive area in our home state (less taxes, less fees, less cost of living expenses) which was another challenge we had to over come.
My husband was out of work for two and a half years. I worked part-time to get some income but we also drained my husband’s 401K retirement account in order to survive. I knew we could never make up the difference so I decided we would have to learn how to live on just our social security checks when we retired (we both officially took early retirement at 62 because we needed the money). I calculated we would approximately receive $2,500 a month in our retirement. It was a very painful process to learn how to live on that amount after we had been living on $5,600 a month (in 2001 dollars).
It meant we could no longer shop retail. Most of our purchases were made at either Goodwill or a thrift shop. No more new clothes. Our food budget was discounted. We learned to eat day-old food products and canned beans. We had to learn how to do things ourselves (DIY) such as car repairs, home repairs, cleaning and maintaining our home etc. Thankfully, when DH and I were gainfully employed we had taken all of our lifelong dream vacations (Europe & the Caribbean). Part of the downsizing meant the only way we could vacation, with the kids, was to camp. In the summers I would rent a pop-up camper for two months @$500 for the season. The first time we did this, my husband was in disbelief. He kept saying “I can’t believe you did this to me.”
Our friends and family criticized us. A lot. They kept telling us to take out a mortgage and stop our suffering. We wouldn’t budge. We were determined to live our lives debt free. This was unheard of back in 2002-2003. Everyone was heavily in debt but after what DH and I had experienced (and how the banks treated us) we hunkered down even more.
Nick eventually found a job and he eventually started another 401K retirement savings plan. Unfortunately, along the way he developed Lyme Disease which affected both his brain and his heart, so Nick can no longer hold down a full time job. To say we’ve been through some tough times would be an understatement. In the interim, Nick received a notice from his previous long term employer (Disney) that he was eligible for a pension. Rather than wait for his full retirement age, we took the pension immediately at 50% less than full value. Why? Because we needed the money.
One thing in retirement that you just can’t calculate is your health. Nick and I both have health issues. That is why we both took our social security money at 62. Combined with the pension and the interest we earn on investments we now have a three-legged retirement income of approximately $3200 to $3600 a month. Thankfully, we learned how to live on $2,500 a month, so the added income is a welcome bonus. Living debt free paid off well for us. We still shop at Goodwill. We still shop at discounted food stores and we still camp on our vacations (but we have a smallish RV now). We’re still mortgage and car loan debt free. We do have charge cards now but we use them as a tool instead of a crutch.
Our preparation into full retirement was a long and enlightening journey. I understand now the benefits of the sacrifices we made along the way. Many of the plans I concocted fell through. We had to learn to quickly adjust, take a step back and find another path for us to travel through the retirement haze. My prayer is that the Good Lord will give Nick and I many good years in retirement as we continue along on our journey.