As I move closer to walking away from BigLaw, I often think: if only I knew “then” what I know now. If only I knew it was possible to retire by 50 (or even 40) if I’d started early. Luckily, I woke up at around the half-century mark and realized I don’t have to continue practicing law until I’m 65. Which is good news, seeing as BigLaw probably would have done me in, both physically and spiritually, long before then.
Now that I’m on track, I try not to spend a lot of time lamenting all the stupid shit I’ve bought over the years. All the chasing after status symbols. All the coveting of money as evidence of my success and worth as a human being. At 52, I’ve figured out that stuff, beyond the basic necessities, is fairly meaningless. But what took me so long to realize that I could live a different way, and opt out of working for the man before I’m 65?
First off, I didn’t know early retirement was possible for people like me. I didn’t begin saving earnestly for retirement until I hit 50 because I didn’t realize regular non-trust-fund people could retire before 65. My father, who started his own business in his early 40s, didn’t stop working until the last months of his life. (He died at age 83.) I figured unless you were a millionaire (and my father should have been a millionaire many times over, but he was shit with personal finance), you worked until you keeled over. Otherwise, you wound up living under a bridge. Particularly if you had no children, like me. My father also taught me that working hard is admirable, and not working hard is for losers. I’ve come to learn that working hard for yourself is vastly different than working hard for BigLaw. And that leisure is terribly underrated.
In addition to the lack of a financial role model, I’m female. As a woman, I didn’t think about the details of retirement because I never imagined it was something I would have to figure out on my own. For years I just operated on auto-pilot, assuming I would meet a man worth marrying, and we would plan retirement together. (I realize there are men out there worth marrying. But I, for reasons I have explored ad nauseam, have been more inclined toward the unworthy type, and so have remained unhitched.) In my romantic daydreams, I imagined my husband would have the financial acumen I lacked, along with a nice-sized nest egg to combine with my somewhat-meager 401(k) stash.
I, a capable intelligent woman, had resigned myself to relying on a man to take care of me in my golden years. (If only in the recesses of my mind.) Where I got this idea, I haven’t a clue. I favored Nancy Drew and cats growing up over Cinderella and Barbies. And as an adult, once I got my undergraduate degree and struck out on my own, I was not dependent on anyone, including a man. Even so, for decades, I secretly imagined my knight would come along, swoop me up onto the back of his charger, and off we’d ride into the retirement sunset. Somewhere in the Colorado mountains, perhaps.
Money smarts are not for women. Or at least not for this woman. That’s what I thought for years. It has been my experience in this culture that women are given subtle messages about money that are less than empowering. Men earn the money. Men take care of the money. Women spend the money. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about the money, darlin’. Daddy (boyfriend, husband) will take care of it.” Even though I earned my own money, I did internalize some of this message. Money is scary. Investing and financial planning are for men. Or professionals. But not mere mortal women, such as me. Until I turned 50, I was actually somewhat afraid of money. I knew nothing about investing. All I knew was I needed to contribute at least enough to my 401(k) to get the employer match, and not having any understanding of the various funds, I opted for the default fund options. Ugh. If only I knew then what I know now.
Luckily, I snapped out of it. Shortly before my 50th birthday, Life punched me in the face. “Wake the hell up, woman!” Life said. “You are in charge. No one, else. You.” Within eleven-months’ time, both my brothers and my father had died. All the male members of my family were gone. To say their deaths in quick succession was jarring to my soul is, of course, an understatement. It suddenly had occurred to me that my time here on earth, which I previously had viewed as infinite, was in fact of limited duration. Who knew? And here I was, spending my now-finite life trapped in an office doing a job that was utterly contrary to my values. All the while working for a man who was becoming, with each passing day, more and more of a douche. And I had no master escape plan.
I went from ostriching to adulting overnight. In an abrupt turnaround, I stopped blowing most of what I earn, to saving two-thirds of my income. I paid off all debt (including a long-lingering law-school student loan), other than my mortgage. (Not paying off the mortgage is by design. While I’m still working, it is more beneficial to invest the money I could use to pay down my mortgage at a greater rate of return than the 3.5 percent interest rate my mortgage carries–2.5 percent if you consider the tax deduction.) I’ve maxed out my 401(k) (including the catch-up that begins at age 50) and my health-savings account, and have swept all money left over at the end of the month into a taxable account. In two and a half years, I’ve gone from the idea I needed to find a man or work until at least the age of 65, to a plan for leaving BigLaw as early as the end of next year.
Before the universe so rudely directed me to figure this money stuff out, it never occurred to me that women could be financial wizards. I’d just keep working and earning a living (or a dying, as they say in the terrific book Your Money Or Your Life),* or I’d meet a man and leave investing and all that scary stuff up to him. Of course, that is seriously asinine thinking, in retrospect. I mean, here I am, a semi-successful lawyer making decent money, and I lacked the confidence to figure out what to do with it. I know I am not alone in this. Women have come a long way when it comes to making money. But many of us are still fearful of it. We may know how to stay out of debt. We may know how to live within our means. But I expect very few of us take it upon ourselves to learn more than the basics when it comes to personal finance. I know I didn’t. From my 20s through my 40s, money made me very anxious.
*In furtherance of my new life of frugality, I recently got a library card. This was the first book I downloaded to my Kindle via my library card.
But now, I am here to say: you can do it, ladies. Getting your financial house in order is doable. Paying down your debt is doable. Investing and saving for retirement. Totally doable. And the earlier you start, the more doable it is. Lucky for us, unlike in my mother’s day, we have the internet. There are so many terrific bloggers out there to help you on your way toward financial freedom. Here are a few of my favorites:
- For overall advice on early retirement and living within your means: Mr. Money Mustache. I stumbled upon him first and quickly found my money-legs (like sea-legs, only for money, in case you weren’t tracking).
- For investing advice: JL Collins, whose Stock Series is such a wealth of information it’s just stupid not to read it. He was the inspiration for my post on F-You Money.
- Also check out The Mad FIentist (FI stands for Financial Independence) for some excellent (and some, more advanced) strategies for retiring early. He’s also got some super-cool calculators.
- An all-time favorite early retirement blog is Living A FI, who discusses the “emotional” aspects of working the daily grind and what drives us toward early retirement. (He recently achieved his goal of early retirement on April 10 at age 38. Yippee!)
There are many more great blogs out there on personal finance and early retirement that I follow avidly. Many of them are written by men. Some of them are written by couples. None spring to mind that are written by single women. If you know of any, please direct me to them in the comments.
Recently I was driving around two managing partners of my firm after a client meeting we attended. One of them spent $2000 that day replacing the tires on his leased BMW after he got a flat on the way to the meeting. (He learned that run-flat tires are crap and that you cannot always drive on them while flat, after all.) As I drove them to the BMW dealership in my twelve-year-old Audi, the partners were discussing an acquaintance who was still living in his “starter house.” Old habits die hard, and I cringed a bit inside, knowing that I live in a “starter” condo. But then I reminded myself that, although these guys live in multi-million dollar homes, those homes come with hefty mortgages, and they will be chasing dollars to pay for those homes (and leased BMWs) for many years to come. Even if BigLawBoss, currently in his early 60s, wanted to divorce his wife and pursue his budding side-romance, he probably cannot afford to do so financially. At least not given his current lifestyle. I, on the other hand, at 52, am preparing to say, “Adios MoFo!” (This probably is the only time you will ever hear me quote Rick Perry. Although, in retrospect, I do miss him. It’s all relative, right?)