Late Bloomer

Oh, to be free like the butterfly

Oh, to be free like the butterfly

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.

Epilogue

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?)

About Unconfirmed Bachelorette

Unconfirmed Bachelorette, a/k/a Ella, is a 50-something-year-old lawyer who wishes fervently she could retire from the practice of law and write full time. Never-married-childfree Ella resides in Austin, Texas with her three fluffy black rescue cats.
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33 Responses to Late Bloomer

  1. rivieradinah says:

    This is so great for so many reasons. First, and most importantly, it’s wonderful to hear that you’ve been able to design your Exit Strategy. Awe. Some. 🙂 I love everything you said about the messages women get about money. It’s all so true. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I realized I wanted to be the breadwinner, the one saying, “don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.” It’s weird, this role-reversal I’ve designed in my own life. I like it. Thanks for all the great book references too…I’m saving this post! I’d say you’re pretty handily kicking ass and taking names. ❤

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  2. Glad to see you and read your news. So great! I was just wondering about you yesterday. *smile*

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  3. me-fixing-me says:

    thanks for this article. being in a similar situation as you (single, cat, alcohol free and mainly a late bloomer :-)) I am looking into my finances too. can you be so kind to name the title of that book you downloaded? (it just points to Overdrive for me)

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  4. ainsobriety says:

    I know we could make changes and get ourselves better set financially.
    We spend too much.

    Hubby and I are 43 and 44. At 55 we can both retire with lucrative pensions.
    That used to be my yardstick. But that’s a long time….

    I like my job. For now I’m accepting it as away to support my kids habits and to further my yoga training and therapy.
    But I’m going to start reviewing our bills.

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    • Lucky you like your job! But ten-plus years is a long time. Once I hit 50, it was like I hit a wall with respect to work. I want to be free while I still have my physical health. And the only thing in my life that truly makes me want to pour wine down my throat is my job. I have learned that cutting spending is the easiest route to financial freedom. Mr. Money Mustache has some great ideas on that.

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  5. gertmcqueen says:

    wonderful! better late than never! so true…it’s never too late to ‘get with the program’ any one can do it even if you have started ‘late’, I did and I have ‘enough and more’ and just love my retirement!
    good luck! and keep on saving, before you know it, you too will be retired from Big Law

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  6. Very resourceful piece. I read one from you a while ago and downloaded mint.com and never looked back at it. Smh. I report to a *dou…* too. Motivated me to book a session with a career coach this Monday. Revisiting mint is in the plans too. Oh, good message for people who worry its too late to start. I have two kids in college; it’s challenging.

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  7. Carol says:

    I was almost in tears as I read this post. Except for the “big law” job, this was me, right down to the knight in shining armour fantasy! I was finally at the financial “punch in the face” (as Mr. M.M. says) at 50, what a liberating milestone. I have forwarded your post onto my sons who are fans of Mr. M.M. You are an inspiration. Take good care.

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  8. ninamishkin says:

    Two questions I’m sure you’ve thought of, although you don’t discuss them: What do you calculate you will need to live on, taking the rate of inflation into account, once you are “free?” And how long do you hope to live?

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    • Nina, I use this calculator: http://www.firecalc.com/. I’ve done many different scenarios using the calculator, and when I hit the sustainable magic number giving me a 100% success rate (overkill, I’m sure), I’m free. I’ve checked off the box that asks it to consider inflation based on the CPI. I’m shooting for 90, but based on all my scenarios, it would keep me going beyond that. My various calculations have included starting off at about $40k (more than what I’ve been spending the past couple of years), and then increasing a bit later on as my account balance builds up. Once my mortgage is paid off, that gives me a nice little injection. And then social security hopefully will kick in. When I hit my late 70s, I do another increase to assume $95k (again, choosing the inflation option), which would be very nice assisted living digs and personal items, using my mother’s current costs as a guideline. Hopefully I won’t need this option, but it’s built in. As is an injection for the sale of my home at the same time. If only I knew my expiration date, I could be sure to spend it all before I go.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Love this post so much! And (shhhhh!) don’t tell anyone that our blog is written by a woman, albeit a married one. 🙂 Love how you’ve empowered yourself and how you’re spreading the word about it. And definitely love how quickly you’re turning things around — going from not knowing about early retirement to pulling the trigger in just a few short years! It’s wonderful. It’s definitely easy to feel frustrated about not knowing things sooner (we would be retired already if we knew sooner!), but it’s better late than never. Good for you for forging your own path!

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    • Thank you! Yes, we could be living like your east coast friends. (Loved that post. That could have been me. That sort of was me.) The realization that you can keep going indefinitely with the magic 4% rule–that’s the light-bulb moment. Realizing stuff doesn’t bring happiness also was key. I’m so glad I questioned those financial sites that tell us we can’t retire on even $1 million.

      Your secret is mine. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Leigh says:

    What a great post!

    My blog is entirely written by a woman and I’m not married 🙂 I’m actually better at managing my money than many men are. I have no interest in picking stocks or spending on the latest gadgets. I’m so happy you found firecalc! I love that one. I also like this one: http://www.i-orp.com/

    My mom has regularly told me I don’t need to worry about retirement in my twenties as I have plenty of time for that. I call pshaw on that because compound interest makes your twenties (if you have the income) an amazing time to save for retirement.

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  11. Well done. It is difficult running to catch up with money sense which no one bothered to teach ( at least I grew up with saving for future, budgets, and paying off debts as fast as possible…but there’s so much else to learn). My daughter is in much better shape and quite astute as far as money goes – and knows how to seek out experts /compare experts if she feel she needs input.
    All those expensive houses and lifestyles? Buy it now and get in debt with stress or make do with a goal and be free later

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    • It sounds like you had a very good head start. I grew up with the message from my father to work hard and stay out of debt. And to spend, spend, spend. My mother sent the opposite message: hoard every penny (and lots of useless junk, just in case). They were never in debt (other than mortgages), but my dad loved to spend rather than save: houses and boats and vacations. I suppose he saw his business as an endless spigot of flowing cash and never imagined both his sons would die when he did. And so the business would die with him, along with my mother’s security. Luckily, we’re keeping it afloat and she has enough coming in to cover her expenses, once we’ve gotten rid of the money pit of home ownership (on top of her assisted living expenses).

      Your daughter is lucky to have been under your tutelage. It sure makes it easier to get through life when you have a good foundation early on. After a rocky start, my cats are pretty frugal these days. They used to always want the latest toy when they had a pile already they never used. Obviously they learned well from me. (Good thing I never had actual children.)

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  12. mrscomo says:

    This is an excellent post, Gert! How refreshing to read about your struggle and your fight to take control of your financial (and therefore, professional) life. I am married, and while I make my own money, I do find that I rely on my husband to take care of the disposable income investing…I think I might change that around here. Given how you were raised independent, it is odd where you got your visions of relying on the man to make the financial decisions – I suspect that way of thinking, like being thin is the only way to be – is just subconsciously imbedded in society; gender role biases are a bitch! Good for you for breaking the mold. I don’t know what your post- BigLaw plans are, but one thing I picked up on from your blog post – there aren’t any good financial guide books out there written by women. Well, you’re a writer and you’re a woman, so why not think about filling that void? Suzy Orman can’t be/shouldn’t be the only female voice out there for attaining financial independence!!

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    • Thank you very much, Mrs. Como! Your idea of a financial guidebook is an interesting one. Perhaps a money memoir/financial guide. As for taking over some of the control of the investing from your husband, that might feel terrifically empowering. I say, go for it!

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  13. Good for you, to decide your timetable and budget. After watching friends and family spending every cent on lavish lifestyles, we felt kind of smug knowing our modest living was going to allow us to retire in our 50s. I started working with an executive coach the year before I gave my 6 month notice, and she really helped me with the planning and stress associated with that last year. And the stress can sometimes be overwhelming. You see the goal, but the daily grind can sometimes push you over the edge. Yoga and meditation helped, but not enough. Take care of yourself in this next 12 months and stick to your goals!

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    • Thank you, Colleen! It is satisfying that cutting back on consumerism allows us to walk away from the grind. As things get closer, I start to get a little anxious. “One More Year” syndrome is making an appearance. A coach is an interesting idea. And, I need more meditation. And yoga.

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      • And start a hobby of some sort. Think about what you will want to do to grow when you quit the Legal Grind. Is it photography? Pottery? Music? Weaving? Start thinking about it now, and maybe dabble a bit. I started out with coloring books, and it not only got me through the last months, but really solidified my desire to paint. One newly retired friend is taking music composition and theory classes at her local JC. Another friend is a couple of years out from retirement, but is already taking photography classes. Start wrapping your head around what you will want to do NOW, and your transition will be easier. Might also take down some of your stress.

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        • Yes! I’ve got a list started (photography, cycling, writing, hiking, birding, blogging), and expect it will grow. Pottery is a good one. I have coloring books that I’ve been neglecting. I do see that as a springboard to more creativity. Painting, so neat for you! There’s so much to learn!

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