MONEY

How I Retired Early

Meet more than a dozen retirees who got a head start on their golden years — and learn the secrets of how they did it.

  • Moved to a cheaper area

    Weary of Chicago winters and 60-hour workweeks, Sheri and Bill Pyle dreamed of spending their days in warmer climes. She managed the accounting department for a food manufacturer; he worked at a family-owned heating and plumbing firm.

    “We wanted to quit while we’re still young enough to enjoy our lives and give back,” says Sheri.

    So they sold their three-bedroom Cape Cod outside Chicago for $185,000, paid cash for a $128,000 four-bedroom ranch in Tennessee, retired a home equity line and car loan, and added $30,000 to their savings.

    Related: When can I retire?

    And though their income is less than 40% of the $126,000 they used to earn, their cost of living is so low that they can get by on their Social Security. Their property taxes plummeted from $7,000 to $500 a year. Milder winters mean their heating bills are a third of what they used to pay.

    “We could never have done it if we stayed in Chicago,” says Sheri.

  • Power saved in his 50s

    Calvin Lawrence was able to retire from his job as executive director at Corinthian College in Chesapeake, Va., four years ago, even though he hadn’t gotten serious about retirement planning until age 50.

    At that point, he had about $200,000 set aside. With his two children out of college, tuition and other child-care bills were gone. And a promotion had boosted his pay by $20,000.

    He made $110,000 a year, but “I lived like I earned $50,000,” says Lawrence, now 63. “I found that I don’t need to spend a whole lot of money to be happy.”

    Related: How should I start saving for retirement?

    The result: He built his savings to $800,000. Since retiring, the biggest surprise has been how much his expenses have dropped, even the little things: “The last time I took something to the dry cleaner was a year ago,” he says.

    But he still has fun. He spends time with his kids and grandkids, visits family around the country, and works out three times a week at the local Y. “I’ve never been happier.”

  • Created a side business

    Before retiring, Susan Morgan Hoth was a high school teacher working with kids with learning disabilities. Drawing on her undergraduate degree in art education, Hoth got interested in fabric design and began painting silk scarves over the summer.

    “I wanted to paint something that could be used, not stuck on a wall,” she says. As she approached retirement, she started selling her scarves online through sites like Etsy, where craft makers and artists market their work.

    “I maxed out on teaching and wanted to focus on my passions,” says Hoth.

    Her business nets about $4,000 a year, supplementing her pension. Now 64, Hoth uses the extra income to travel, treat herself to little luxuries, and even help out friends in financial need. “It helps me afford things I would not spend money on otherwise,” she says.

  • Became a landlord

    Rental income is what made it possible for Kevin Howard, 57, to leave his full-time job as a procurement manager for Boeing two years ago.

    In the mid-1980s he began rehabbing and renting out houses. The properties — three in Seattle and one in his former hometown of Houston — provide half his annual $140,000 income (the rest is a pension and savings). Still, “I don’t want to fix plumbing as I get older,” he says. He plans to sell his Houston house soon and the others within five years.

    Now, instead of working on aerospace projects, Howard is learning to play the standing bass. He’s clocked 14,000 miles in 26 states on his motorcycle, and takes his VW Vanagon camper to blues festivals.

    “I worked for 30 years,” Howard says. “I want another 30 years doing the things I want to do.”

  • Made a mid-course correction

    When Gundy and Karen Gunderson retired in 2007, the Seattle couple bought a home in a gated country-club community in Las Vegas. But they were surprised at how quickly the costs added up.

    Gundy, 66, a former commercial airline pilot, and Karen, 67, a homemaker, estimate they were spending $1,000 a month on dues for the private golf course, tennis and fitness classes, the club’s restaurant minimum, and maintenance on their pool and lawn.

    “We ran the numbers and knew we had to make an adjustment if we wanted our money to last,” says Gundy.

    Related: How much will I need for retirement?

    So this year they downsized a second time, to a Henderson, Nev., retirement community overlooking two public golf courses. Now all they pay is a $93 monthly association fee.

    The only thing they miss? “Our friends across the street,” says Karen.

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