As kids, we're all taught some basic rules to keep us on the straight and narrow: Don't chew gum in class. Don't put the cat in the dryer. And, of course, don't cut in line.

This last rule is perpetuated in the "corporate ladder." You start at the bottom and work your way up -- no skipping rungs. And no retiring early -- retirement comes only after three or four decades of service.

But more and more, this rule is being broken. Corporations themselves are agents of change here: Highly profitable companies like Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and IBM (NYSE:IBM) are freezing or scaling back pensions, reducing the incentive for long-timers.

But many people are freeing themselves from the nine-to-five grind. No waiting in line to be granted leave at 62. Some folks are making their own rules.

Getting from point A to point B
The best early-retirement lesson I've learned came not too long ago, when I said farewell to a coworker. My friend (I'll call him "Pete") was in his early 40s and had about 15 years with the company. But rather than moving to a new job, Pete was retiring.

Even more amazingly, at his farewell party his longtime boss half-joked about Pete being the second employee he had lost to retirement. Only a few years before, another of his underlings -- this one in his late 30s -- had retired to Hawaii (not exactly the land of low-cost living).

Obviously, this turned a lot of heads, especially with the company long-timers. How could these guys save enough money on their modest corporate salaries to leave their poor boss behind? Did they win the lottery? Inherit the rich aunt's estate?

Nope. No spectacular stock picks or financial windfalls either -- just a little creativity and a little planning.

These guys were creative in that they didn't just use the conventional retirement tools such as a 401(k). Pete turned his hobby of fixing houses into a second stream of income. By the time he retired, he owned several properties that brought in substantial cash flow from renters. The other closet retiree also had a second hobby-turned-business that he could operate after hours with his spouse. (Incidentally, I read about these techniques to augment income -- and many others -- in the Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter. Viewing them all is as simple as clicking here for a free trial.)

But the more important aspect in both cases was planning -- starting down these alternate paths early in their careers.

Being early beats being good
To drive home the point, let's look at an example: You've worked for 10 years already and want to retire in 2016, only a decade from now. In one scenario, let's say you were a Pete and planned early, socking money away regularly as soon as you started working. In the other scenario, you're more like Pete's boss, who delayed planning for retirement.

If you were like Pete, you stowed away $5,000 of your worker-bee salary each year from the beginning. Let's say someone like Pete's boss delayed saving a portion of his larger salary -- say $6,000 a year -- until five years later.

To add a little twist, we'll include another variable -- investments that yield different results. In the first scenario, you plunk your money into a low-cost, low-commission exchange-traded fund (ETF) like SPDRs (AMEX:SPY), which currently sports an expense ratio of 0.11%. SPDRs will track the S&P 500, which has historically returned an average of 10% annually. In the second, you work for a stable company that offers employee stock option programs: General Electric (NYSE:GE) or Home Depot (NYSE:HD). For the sake of the illustration, let's assume your company stock slightly lags the S&P 500, returning 8.5% annually. (Yes, this is hypothetical -- General Electric and Home Depot have returned 12.3% and 15.6%, respectively, over the past 10 years.) In the last scenario, you decide to go a safer route and stash your cash in gold -- made easy for today's investor with one-click-away ETFs like streetTRACKSGold (NYSE:GLD). While streetTRACKS Gold has given investors 18% in its first year of existence, let's assume the gold investment will yield 7% annually over the long haul.

Without further ado, here's how our two characters would make out after 20 years of corporate drudgery:

Pete

Pete's Boss

Total Invested:

$100,000

$90,000

Value in 2016:

Index investment making 10%

$315,013

$209,698

Company stock making 8.5%

$262,445

$183,792

Gold making 7%

$219,326

$161,328



In this scenario, an early Pete can pick the worst investment but still make out better than a procrastinating boss, even when his boss lands the best returns. Stalling on saving for retirement because you don't know where best to invest is a foolish excuse that will cost you. Regardless of whether you aim to retire in 14 years or 40 years, saving now often trumps market prowess.

Get an early jump
Want more ideas? How about working part-time in retirement making fishing poles and selling them on eBay? Or teaching classes aboard Carnival cruise ships on tropical stints? Whether you invest in real estate and retire on rental income or work two jobs now to sock away enough money to retire in Hawaii, it's your choice.

Regardless of your individual path to retirement, the most important part is to start now. Nifty tools to help you get started or up the retirement ante (such as the DirectAdvice Planning Tool) are included in the Rule Your Retirement service. Chief retirement guru Robert Brokamp focuses not only on ideas to help you find high-yield investments, but also on resources to ensure your retirement fits both your finances and your lifestyle. Click here to learn more. Tell your boss, too.

Fool contributor Dave Mock follows all the rules, including disclosure . He owns no shares of companies mentioned here. A longtime Fool, he is also author of The Qualcomm Equation . Home Depot is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick, and eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.