Early Retirement, No FIRE

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silhouette of a man with a camera on tripod

The FIRE movement has been getting a lot of attention lately, and it makes people dream of early retirement–much earlier than the current full retirement age of 66. It so happens that my husband retired early at age 40. Let me share with you how that worked out.

Working up to it.

My husband worked a few jobs as a teen, in a tannery and a foundry, among other things.  But then he enlisted in the Army at 17 and became a helicopter mechanic.  And off to the war he went.  After two tours, he got out and attended school for heating and air conditioning.  But his first family was growing and he needed a secure income, so it was back into the Army, this time for intelligence work.  By the time he got done with that he’d logged ten years in green.  About that time we got together.

Back to school he went, this time for electronics.  While working he built heat pumps and did maintenance for a resort hotel.  After graduating he got hired at Michelin America’s research and development operation in South Carolina, where he worked for ten years on a fascinating array of equipment.  He became very good at instrumentation electronics.

But American management had crept into the venerable European company and the pressure began for him to “move up.”  It was not good enough to be the best technician he could be; he was supposed to become a supervisor.  Having already had a taste of that in the Army, he decided to quit instead and move.

Early retirement.

The idea wasn’t exactly bright.  I was just out of college and he wanted to move to northern New England to be near his parents, who were getting old.  He figured we could buy a place with something he could do built in, such as maybe a machine shop.  And I could get a job easily to support us.  Somehow, spurred on by the need for an adventure, I managed to agree.  With some inherited money, his 401(k), and by selling our house, we thought we could do it.

So we bought a house in rural Vermont with a hydroelectric generation station, both built out of odds and ends, and I started job hunting.  He got a part-time job right away at a TV and appliance shop.   We ran our hydroelectric station, pulling it apart and doing maintenance every summer, making money spring and fall, and keeping it all from freezing up in winter.

A year and a half later I got a part-time job helping people with mental disabilities keep their health insurance and Social Security income.  That eventually grew to full-time, and by 1999 I was a supervisor of case management in our area.  But it paid like a nonprofit, so not a lot.  Meanwhile, my husband eased out of the TV business, but would help people he knew with consumer electronics out of his shop down in the cellar.


In 1996 my husband’s father died, and we found we could not  break even with the hydroelectric business any more.  The state had regulated the price we got downward and it no longer covered the extensive rebuilds we needed every summer to keep going.  So we shut it down.  He became depressed and had a heart attack the next year, while we were gutting the kitchen.  Working on that was healing for him, though.

My husband tried to go back to work occasionally.  He lasted one day after a trial at a window factory, but he couldn’t stand the place.  For a couple of months he worked at a residence for developmentally delayed men, but found he physically could not keep up.  The years of heavy work on the hydro had finished off his back.  Fortunately, we were married and both insured by now through my job.

A new phase

My husband has an abiding interest in photography.  With a Minolta electronic camera and his pickup truck  he set out to capture scenic views.  With the help of friends,  he found some gorgeous locations.  He put some pictures in local shows and on consignment with a friend’s store.  Some sold.  But the business end of it didn’t interest him.

Along came the Internet and he, always interested in computers, dove right in and got involved in discussion groups.  He also took on a place on the local library board and learned about networking from the IT guy at the school, who also handled the library’s little setup.  Soon we had multiple computers at home to work from, not just the one he built.  We graduated from dial-up to satellite internet and now to a radio in a tree that links us by relay to fiber optics.

My husband does half the housework and cooks me wonderful breakfasts on weekends.  He makes bread and many other baked goods.  He keeps up the yard in summer and clears most of the snow in winter.  In addition he maintains the equipment for that work, the car and the truck somewhat, and the various systems in the house.  And he’s not really physically up to it, because after a half-day physical labor he is recuperating for two.

Setbacks and changes

When I got cancer and had to go to radiation every weekday for a month to a facility an hour and a quarter away, my husband drove me.  He wouldn’t let me drive.  It turned into some nice together time, actually.  He was scared to death but he didn’t let it stop him.

My husband turned 62 and went on Social Security, which took some financial pressure off me as sole provider.  We’d had to refinance the house to replace vehicles, the roof, and the septic system.  So it was good to have the extra income, even if it wasn’t $1000 a month.  Because of his 22 years of very spotty and short-term jobs, he just didn’t have points enough for more.

In the next few years my husband lost two cousins with whom he grew up, and because they were his age, he became gloomier about his own prospects.  His doctors try to put him on medications but the side effects end up compounding problems for him.  He was on medication for acid reflux for years and only recently found out he has osteoporosis from it.  And that’s just one medication.

To amuse himself, my husband reads news on the Internet and comments on some of it.  His mind is very logical and analytical so he enjoys solving the world’s problems, though he isn’t above punning.  He also enjoys shooting and fishing, both of which we can do on our property.

Financial fallout

My husband’s Social Security is minimal despite the nearly 25 years of employment and the backbreaking seven years of self-employment.  He did get vested for a small pension from Michelin.  It’s the way Social Security works, and low income that doesn’t add to retirement savings, that can leave early retirers short.

When I retire we will have my IRA from the eighties, my 403(b) from the nineties on, and my low-wage Social Security as well as his check.  There will be no more inheritances.  We will have to ratchet back on lifestyle and I expect to be selling stuff off and working from home.

But living with early retirement has taught us both how to be frugal and roll with things.  We like where we are.  Downsizing will occupy us part-time for quite a while.  And since we are of modest means, we don’t expect much.  I think we’ll be OK.

For more about my related plan to retire at 65, click here.


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