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Is early retirement only for the rich?

Is early retirement only possible for the lucky few, those who earn the big bucks? It’s true that a good salary helps, but it’s still possible to retire early even without that - Adventurous early retirement is a case in point.


Early retirement isn't the right choice for everyone, but for those who are interested in it, I'd go as far to say that it's possible for the majority rather than the minority. So, if early retirement isn’t only for the high earners, how do "normal" people get to retire early?


Defining early retirement

Most countries have some sort of State or social security pension scheme. My view is that early retirement is any age less than when an entitlement to full State/social security pension would become due.


A list of retirement age by country shows most are in the 62-67 age range, with a concentration around 65-67 years. So if you retire even a year or two before this age, then that's early retirement. I know that we read about people retiring in their forties, but that's not very normal, and it probably shouldn't be our baseline.


That's one big reason why I say early retirement is within the grasp of so many people if they want it, because retire just one year ahead of the normal state/social security pension age and you can genuinely say that you retired early.


One year might not seem like much, for example, aged 66 instead of 67. But viewed in terms of the number of years you might live post retirement and it starts to look much more significant.


Looking at the fifty longest living countries, the majority have a life expectancy in the 80-84 year range (this is an average of males and females). For this post, I'm going to say that normal retirement age is 67 years and average life expectancy is 84 years, so if we work to normal retirement age, we'd have an average of 17 years of retirement life.


We might further split that 17 years of retirement life into the more and less active parts. I'm not pretending there's science to this, but if we cut that figure in half, roughly 8 years might be more active, up to age 75 or so. To be honest, that sounds optimistic to me. I hope and plan to be active when I'm 75 (and older), but realistically it's going to be much less active than I am today.


That's a lot of words and a fair few numbers too. Summarised in a table, we might say:

So, retiring early by one year (aged 66) increases the time spent in post retirement life by 6% and your more active post retirement life by 13%. That's not insignificant!


Retiring at age 60 increases the amount of post retirement life by 41% and your more active post retirement life expectancy by 88%. That's very significant!


And if retiring at 55, post retirement life goes up 71% compared to normal aged retirement, and the more active years increases by a whopping 150%.


What does this have to do with the question "is early retirement only for the rich"? The message I'm trying to get across is that retiring what seems to be a relatively small number of years before normal retirement age is a big thing. Say just 3 years early can give an increase of 18% in the number of years spent in retirement and 38% in the number of more active years you have to enjoy. Retiring 3 years early feels like it might be achievable to more than only the rich.


So, to the friend who recently told me that he was going to test the waters of early retirement, but at 55 he wasn't sure that term can apply anymore. It 💯 percent applies. Based on the averages, he's about to increase his post retirement years by 71% and his more active post retirement years by 150%. That seems pretty huge to me!


We also have to talk costs

OK, so if you're rich, the cost conversation might be easier or it might not even have to happen at all. But that doesn't mean it's impossible for the rest of us - there's normally something that we can focus on to change the sums.


By keeping costs under control pre-retirement, we can save more money and more quickly reach a point where early retirement becomes an option. And once retired, keeping retirement costs under control means that the amount of savings/investments required for early retirement is lower. This might seem more difficult in the current climate where inflation is increasing, but there's normally some areas that we can look at.


Back in 2018, I took time to look at where we might be spending unnecessarily and was surprised at some of the savings we were able to make:


  1. We found annual savings of £4,471/€5,295/$5,557 by changing our TV and mobile phone packages, switching to a lower cost supermarket and using a shopping list, taking the time to shop around for our car insurance, considering indirect rather than direct flights, changing utility provider, not accepting the first quote for repairs, using a gift list, and being thoughtful with spending/pausing before buying.

  2. In addition, going from a two car family to a one car family saved another £3,900/€4,619/$4,848 a year.

And my quality of life did not decrease at all through the changes made to deliver these savings.


My bet is that, if we look at our costs, the majority of us can identify some areas where savings could be made. It's simply a case of putting some time aside to look at them, like properly looking at them(!) and following through to put the identified changes into practice.


Then it's a matter of investing the extra money from these savings. Over the years they'll grow and benefit from the magic of compounding, so the sooner it's done, the more compounding magic you get. It might not be enough to allow you to retire in your forties, but I wouldn't be surprised that, for the majority, it lets you retire a year early, maybe three years, perhaps even more. And as we saw above, that is genuine early retirement, and adds a surprising percentage of time to your retirement life.

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Good point about the % increase. Even 3 years early gives you so much more time. The time is more valuable as well. When you're young, you can do more activities.

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Yeah, I was surprised at how big the percentages were even retiring just a few years before state/social security dates. The other thing that hit me was that if I retired at 67, after only 8 years I'd be 75! A reminder of why I'm so pleased to haven taken an alternative route.

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Fire And Wide
Fire And Wide
May 02, 2022

You'll be unsurprised to know it was this kind of thinking that was a big driver behind our own early retirement. There's so many things we want to try that are just easier to do so whilst younger and supposedly fitter... Great post - love it.


And if curious - the hiking route we're on is simply awesome.....think you guys would love it!

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Haha, unsurprised indeed!🤣 I'm looking forward to reading about the hike in an upcoming post. I've never done anything like that, but I suspect it would be something I'd enjoy. I'm not so sure what Sally's view would be - I'll have to test the waters with her🤔

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I agree with this. I usually advised my clients to save a little more for retirement. Some of them did it and after making changes reported that it wasn't that hard. I was often surprised who did and who did not follow my advice. I had some high earning clients who said they just couldn't save a single thing right now, and some lower earning clients who were able to save a lot.

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How interesting to hear your real life feedback from the inside. There's a saying "there's nowt as queer as folk", and I think you're anecdote proves that's true!

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Nice post.

IMO, a better discriminant may be the McCawber principle.

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Your comments often test me (a good thing), but I've now been on Google and looked up the reference. True words. I guess what makes the journey to FIRE a little more complex is that it's spending less than one could now in order to get something in the future. Connecting the two time zones is easier for some than others.

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Thought provoking and clearly articulated, I might share this with some of my ex colleagues who are still toiling away! Thank you for another interesting blog post David.

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Thanks for the feedback, Peter, always gratefully received. As I say, early retirement isn't for everyone, but I do think it is better if it is a decision made in a rational way.

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