For many Americans, the idea of an early retirement is pure fantasy — many surveys suggest that a good portion of us are convinced we’ll never be able to retire at all. But what if retirement saving isn’t quite as insurmountable an obstacle as you think?
The idea that retirement — even early retirement — is within anyone’s grasp is a big part of the appeal of a popular personal-finance blog called “Mr. Money Mustache,” written by a 39-year-old man named Pete, who lives with his wife and 8-year-old son in Longmont, Colo. (The blog recently had 417,000 monthly unique visitors, and has had a total of 4 million unique visitors since it launched in April 2011.)
Pete, who prefers not to divulge his last name to protect his family’s privacy, retired when he was just 30. His wife retired with him, and for the past nine years they’ve been stay-at-home parents. Their investment income supports their lifestyle, but they also work when they want, on their own terms.
One secret to their success? They live on very little for a family of three: about $25,000 a year. They own a car, but mostly bike. Dining out is an occasional luxury. And shopping for stuff? That’s best avoided. But their philosophy goes beyond mere scrimping, says Mr. Money Mustache. It’s about enjoying life with less.
MarketWatch asked Mr. Money Mustache about his philosophy on spending, how he retired early, and his take on retirement planning. Our Q&A is below. And if you’re wondering about the name? “Mr. Money Mustache is meant to be a bit of a character — a financial superhero,” Pete said. “He’s me, but a slightly bossier and more opinionated version of me. I find that people gladly obey the commandments of Mr. Money Mustache, even while they would scoff if plain old Pete, the former software engineer, stepped up and started giving them advice.”
How old were you when you decided to try to retire early, and how long did it take you to get to the point where you could retire?
It was a gradual process. I brought some frugal instincts along with me from childhood, so I always tended to save a bit of money rather than spending it all. My wife has been a pretty reasonable spender since the time we met, as well. So I graduated from college in 1997, we eventually moved in together, and, after several years of full-time work, some cash was starting to build up in our investment accounts, and we wondered if there was something useful we could do with it.
Sometime around 2002, we decided we wanted to be parents eventually, and that it would be great if we could retire from our relatively demanding careers in the tech industry before any babies came along. This really increased our motivation to spend less and invest more, and we cranked things up. At the end of 2005, our savings were sufficient to generate passive income that we could theoretically live off forever, so we quit the regular jobs and have been winging it ever since. And we now have an amazing 8-year-old-boy.
How did you decide how much money was enough to retire?
Based on a long-lasting hobby of reading books on stock investing, I realized that you can generally count on your nest egg to deliver a 4% return over most of a lifetime, with a good chance of it never running out. In other words, you need about 25 times your annual spending to retire. So we tracked our spending and our net worth, and when we hit the magic number we declared ourselves “retired.”
(For more on Mr. Money Mustache’s take on the 4% rule here, read this blog post.)
Did you have a written retirement plan in place early on, or more of a ballpark figure you were trying to save up?
We did most of the saving before we knew all that much about early retirement. But once the picture became a bit clearer, we had a clearer goal. For the last few years, the mantra was “$600,000 in investments, plus a paid-off house.” This is enough to generate $24,000 of spending money, which goes quite far if you have no rent or mortgage to pay.
How important is it for people to have a written retirement plan, in your opinion?
It doesn’t matter to me if it’s written, verbal or mental. But I do encourage people to open their minds to how real and possible an early retirement can be. It isn’t a vague, fluffy concept like, “someday,” “never” or “when I’m 65.” Retirement (or financial independence) simply means that you have your living expenses covered by nonwork income. In the worst case, this requires 25 to 30 times your annual spending, socked away into investments. If you’re eligible for a pension or Social Security, it’s even easier.
Do you work with a financial planner or manage your finances on your own?
I have always enjoyed managing my own finances. On the blog, I maintain a good-natured battle with the financial-planning industry in general, because they focus too much on retiring at a very old age with many millions in savings — just so you can continue to spend $100,000 a year until you die. It is much more efficient to get a handle on your materialism and spending so you can live more happily on a fraction of that amount, which can shave 20 years or more from the time you need to keep commuting in to that office.
How crucial is it, in your opinion, for people to have a monthly or annual spending plan or budget?
This really depends on your personality type. I’ve never had a spending plan or a budget at any point in my own life. Instead, it was a simple set of values to apply just before I make any purchase or commit to any expense: “Is this the best possible use for this chunk of money, if my goal is creating lifelong happiness for myself?”
Since I valued freedom and financial strength, this automatically ruled out quite a few purchases. For example, as a young man I was a major car enthusiast. But I didn’t run out to borrow money to buy an Acura NSX, because I valued having that money for other things more than I valued a fancy car. Nowadays I can finally afford a car like that without even borrowing, but I am happy to discover that the desire has disappeared.
Some people might think so much cost-cutting is akin to living like Scrooge and not having any fun. How would you respond to that?
If you tell yourself that is how it will be, then you will create your own truth and life will not be fun. But if you understand the fundamentals of what it means to be a happy person, you realize that buying more stuff for yourself has no relationship at all to how happy you are. These fundamentals include things like close relationships with other people, health, rewarding work, a chance to be creative and help others.
Work on those things and you’ll start living a much better life immediately, and soon wonder where the odd compulsion to own a yacht with a submarine came from in your old self.
Surveys suggest there are a lot of people out there who are worried about retiring, who don’t have enough money saved, who feel like they may never retire. Can you offer people in that situation any words of advice in terms of how to turn their situation around?
The quickest way to turn things around is to realize that you are in much more control than you realize. The time to reach retirement depends on only one thing: your savings rate as a percentage of your take-home pay. And this depends entirely on how much you spend. So the moment you can learn to live a less expensive life, suddenly the clouds clear up and the financial picture brightens considerably.
Andrea Coombes is a personal-finance writer and editor in San Francisco. She's on Twitter @andreacoombes. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.