In 2006 I’d just begun an MBA program and I was working part-time as a Graduate Research Assistant. Those two activities filled my weekday mornings and afternoons but during the evenings and on weekends I also worked as a server at an upscale Southern restaurant. This period of my life shaped not only my work ethic today but my outlook on life as I developed several relationships with people I otherwise wouldn’t have met.
At this stage of my hospitality career, I’d cooked for and served government leaders, A-list celebrities, religious leaders, CEOs, leaders of national community service organizations and even British royalty. But by far, my most treasured moments were those spent in the company of “regular people” who were living quiet extraordinary lives. I still have relationships with them today and thanks to facebook, it’s easy to keep up with them. Janet is one of those people. She’s a joy to be around and credits her financial habits for the wonderful lifestyle she enjoys today.
Janet and her life partner Joe were regulars at the restaurant and oftentimes made a point to request to sit in my section. If you ever saw them together, then you would understand immediately why I have deep levels of respect and admiration for them. On the outside looking in, they represent everything I want to be when I am in my golden years. They are fun, funny, healthy, active, in love, well-travel and not afraid to have another round of drinks if that’s what the night called for. At the time, I assumed that in order to live their lifestyle, money was not an obstacle and while I didn’t have details, I knew that they were never boastful, arrogant or pretentious about their wealth.
Honestly, it didn’t matter if they were rich or not. It didn’t matter that I was young, black, a server at their local restaurant and a student. It also didn’t matter that they were older, first and second generation Greek-and Sicilian American and retired. We connected on a personal level over a shared interest of good wine, good food, and an appreciation for a life-well-lived.
When we launched our blog last year, Janet was one of the first people to congratulate me on our endeavor and gave us her stamp of approval noting that what we were doing was EXACTLY what she did and one of the reasons why she is able to live the life she’s living. Her remark gave us even more validation that we were on the right path.
Recently, we caught up and she shared more of her background with me so I didn’t have to keep filling in the gaps with my imagination. She shared memories about her childhood, how her Dad worked 7 days a week, how it all played a role in her perspective on money today and how that perspective has changed over time. We spoke about how important it is to choose the right partner, living within your means, saving consistently through the tough times and her experience with pay inequality in the 1970s.
Like me, she is no financial expert and was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She began saving 3% of her salary in her company’s newly introduced 401K program when she was making just $10K a year and as her salary grew, so did her savings. Eventually she maxed out at 15% (over 15 years) which in her later years was significant. Keep in mind, they have no children so their savings strategy does not focus on savings related to parenthood. She eventually made more money but continued to live in the same condo for 22 years resisting the urge to “upgrade her lifestyle”. Both Janet and Joe’s residences were paid off before retirement.
Because of this, she was able to retire early at the age of 53 and has been living the good life with Joe ever since. A personal goal for her given their age difference.
They frequently eat out at popular restaurants, visit family whenever they want to and travel extensively by all measures. Just flipping through some of her photos, you can see them enjoying the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis of Athens in Greece, New York City, the California Redwoods, beautiful beaches and celebrating milestones on cruises. Basically, her life is a Google images search for “happily retired” but to us, she is the epitome of what it means to be both rich and regular.
Ahead of our conversation, I asked her a handful of questions about money and the role it played in her life. Naturally, answering these questions triggered memories, stories and even some uncomfortable moments. Here are a few “pearls of wisdom” from Janet.
P.S. I apologize for some of the background noise.
Motivations to retire early, goal-setting and the trade-offs she made along the way
Total compensation and not chasing a salary
Being a women in the workplace and pay inequality
Closing thoughts and reflections on her early retirement journey
There are too many lessons to list them all but here are three from our chat that I believe are critical-
- Sometimes, things are really as simple as they sound. Save more, spend less, choose a partner with aligned goals and let the markets do the rest. That’s what we’re doing and that’s what Janet did. Now, she spends more per year than her ending salary after working 30+ years (approx $85K). Goals.
- Stop leaving money on the table. Far too often, people accept being paid less than their peers though they do the same or more work. That money [lost] adds up over time and if you continue to allow it to happen, [especially today] you have no one to blame but yourself.
- The small tradeoffs today will pay off ten-fold in the future. After hearing her closing remarks, we had a brief discussion about what she meant by “it pays off ten-fold”. While she didn’t share exact numbers, for obvious reasons, she verified that she far exceeded her savings goals beyond her wildest imagination. In other words, stay the course, trust the math and remain patient. It will all pay off in the end.