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:
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.
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.