Many workers look forward to retirement and all that it symbolizes -- a permanent break from the daily grind and the ability to pursue hobbies without restraint. But while plenty of working folks have pretty much resigned themselves to retiring in their late 60s or 70s, most Americans would rather call it quits much earlier. In fact, the ideal retirement age for U.S. workers today is 58 1/2, according to a new study by GOBankingRates. Whether that's realistic, however, is another story.

The challenges of early retirement

Though retiring at any age means moving from a steady paycheck to a fixed income, there are certain challenges that come with retiring at the relatively young age of 58 1/2. For one thing, savings housed in a traditional IRA or 401(k) cannot be withdrawn without penalty prior to age 59 1/2. To retire a year earlier than that, therefore, hinges on having enough savings in a traditional bank or brokerage account to cover the bills until retirement funds can be tapped.

Middle-aged man relaxing by a lake.


Then again, a large number of workers today won't get much from their IRAs or 401(k)s in retirement if they don't ramp up their savings efforts. An estimated 42% of working-age adults have less than $10,000 in long-term savings, which is hardly enough to have an impact during retirement, regardless of what age it starts at.

Then there's Social Security to think about. Eligible seniors are allowed to start claiming benefits as early as age 62, which means that folks who retire at 58 1/2 can't access those benefits for a solid 3.5 years. Furthermore, filing at 62 means doing so ahead of full retirement age, and that's a dangerous move that could result in a permanent reduction in benefits -- something that's apt to hurt seniors who don't have much in the way of savings.

Finally, there's healthcare to think about. Medicare eligibility doesn't kick in until age 65, so retiring 6.5 years earlier means having to absorb the cost of health insurance independently.

Plan ahead to retire early

If your goal is really to retire early, then there are steps you can take to make that happen, the most important of which is to save consistently beginning at an early age. If you were to start setting aside $600 a month at age 23 1/2 and continue through 58 1/2, you'd wind up with close to $1 million if your investments were to generate an average annual 7% return during that period. And since that 7% is a few percentage points below the stock market's average, it's certainly doable over a 35-year time frame.

That said, you'd also need to store some savings in a nontraditional retirement plan to gain penalty-free access to that money at age 58 1/2. But if you save in a Roth IRA, for example, or put some of your money into a traditional brokerage account, you can grow wealth and have easier access to your money later in life.

Don't rush into retirement

Although retiring early has its benefits, it can be challenging not just from a financial perspective, but a mental one as well. Going from full-time work to an unstructured schedule can result in a fair share of emotional upheaval, so much so that the risk of depression increases exponentially once retirement kicks in.

If you're eager to retire at 58 1/2, or thereabouts, because you're worried that you won't have enough time to fulfill your goals if you wait, consider that Americans are living longer these days, with 1 in 4 65-year-olds living past age 90 and 1 in 10 living past 95. Therefore, you might find that retiring in your 60s gives you the best of both worlds -- access to the money, benefits, and resources you need to stay afloat financially and enough time to do the things you've always wanted.