Those of us in our prime earning years have had it rough: A housing-market crash, a Great Recession, a historic pandemic. Retirement—period—might strike you as a laughable fantasy at this point. But what if we told you that not only could you retire…but you could pull off this feat ahead of schedule?

But how?

The bad news: Skipping the avocado toast once a week isn’t going to cut it. The good news: Levi Kary, one of our trust officers, has some answers to common questions about early retirement that can set you up for success in your golden years.

Long story short: It’s time to get squirrely.

What are some small things I can do right now to help me retire early? 

First, it’s important to get yourself into the right mindset: the way of the squirrel. The squirrel, as you know, is a relentless gatherer and hoarder. The furry little guy’s life depends on how much he can sock away while the sun is shining. Well, the quality and duration of your retirement depend upon how much you can be like the squirrel.

Think of your career as the growing season and retirement as a long winter. Your retirement account is a hollow tree waiting for a payload of nuts. If you want to be able to stop gathering nuts before the leaves change, and the chill hits the air, squirrel away those nuts and do it now. It might feel overwhelming, but there are some things you can do to help yourself, and the good news is that you probably won’t even notice them.

“The first small decision typically comes biweekly with your paycheck,” said Levi. “From day one in your first job, you should be putting enough away in your company’s 401k to get the employer match. I would then on an annual basis, with each raise, increase your deferral amount by at least 1% until you’re maxed out.”

After that point, Levi suggests socking money way into an IRA. You might have to make small budget cuts in other places, but there can be no victory without sacrifice.

Should I ever withdraw my retirement funds early?

What are you, nuts? See what we did there? What do you think would happen if that squirrel went on a Fourth-of-July binge and emptied out his tree? What would November look like? Squirrels who ransack their stashes…they don’t make it. In other words, it’s typically not a good idea to raid your retirement account unless you absolutely have to. First off, you can make more money in the future, but you can never get that time back (or the money you made during those years). Second, in most cases, early withdrawal triggers penalties that you’ll need to pay to access the funds.

While it may be tempting—even necessary—to yank your 401k funds for a down payment on a house, Levi says the best thing to do is leave it where it is. Remember, you have an ally that the squirrel will never have. Your stash will grow from interest.

“It’s really important that those funds are left to grow,” said Levi. “Compound interest is your best friend!”

How much money do I need to retire early?

What kind of lifestyle are you looking for? If you want to leave your native habitat to kick back for a few decades on the French Riviera, your answer will differ from that of a simple squirrel who’s planning to reside in Tea, South Dakota.

Levi says a safe rule of thumb is to guestimate what your annual budget will be in retirement, adjust that number for inflation and multiply the figure by 45.  He also suggests meeting with a professional to discuss your options early on.

“I would encourage anyone who’s planning for retirement to meet with a qualified financial advisor who can work through these steps in greater detail and do some more technical analysis to help them establish and meet their goals.”

How does my overall debt profile affect my chances of early retirement?

OK, so this is where the squirrel metaphor kind of falls apart, but stick with us because this is important. In general, keeping your overall debt levels low is a vital step toward early retirement, since any dollars that aren’t going out the door for essentials should be headed toward your 401k or IRA. That said, Levi emphasizes that some kinds of debt are necessary—even good—when you consider the bigger picture of building wealth.

“Student loans and mortgages are great examples of this,” he noted. “Going to college or tech school can significantly increase your earning potential, allowing you to earn and save more money over your working life.”

Purchasing a home with a mortgage is typically also a smart way to acquire good debt since owning property builds equity and net worth. Bottom line: You want to avoid high-interest credit card debt. It doesn’t build equity or wealth—and it can take years to pay off if you’re not careful. Eliminating this type of debt is often a good first step toward reaching your retirement goals.

What is the one thing I should remember for my early retirement goals?

The way of the squirrel isn’t easy, but it is simple. Start early. Save as much as you can. Max out your savings for as long as you can. Leave it alone.

Levi says it’s also important to get good advice along the way.

“The more money you put away early in your career, the easier it’s going to be to reach those retirement goals,” he said. “Also, meet with a qualified financial planner on an annual basis to help you establish and meet short term savings goals that will help you meet your long-term goal of retiring early.”

Go forth and gather! Autumn is in the air.

To set up an appointment to talk through your retirement options with one of our financial pros, give us a call at (605) 352-9122 or email Levi at LKary@abt.bank.

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