You might think of early retirement as something reserved for the lucky few, but the truth is, it's open to almost anyone -- as long as you follow the five steps listed below. Starting as soon as possible is key, so if you're serious about retiring early, make sure you're giving yourself the best possible shot.
1. Create a retirement plan
You should never retire early unless you're confident that you have enough money to last you the rest of your life. That confidence only comes from developing a retirement plan and meeting its goals. Start by deciding what early retirement means to you. Then, subtract this age from your estimated life expectancy to get an approximate length for your retirement. Understand that you might need to revise this if you find out your initial estimate is unachievable.
Total up your estimated annual expenses in retirement and multiply it by the number of years of your retirement, adding 3% annually for inflation. You can do this on your own, but a retirement calculator makes it much easier. It can also calculate your annual investment rate of return. Use 5% or 6% to be conservative, though your money may grow more quickly than this. Finally, subtract from your total estimated retirement costs any money you expect from Social Security, a 401(k) match, or a pension to estimate how much you should save per month, and overall, to hit your goal.
2. Live below your means
We'd all like to have our cake and eat it too, but this isn't feasible for most people interested in an early retirement. Saving enough money to exit the workforce early usually means going without some things while you're younger. That doesn't mean you have to give up everything fun, but you should prioritize saving ahead of discretionary spending to keep you on track for your goals.
Create a budget for yourself including all of your monthly expenses. Figure out how much you have left over after paying your bills and hitting your savings goals. This is the money you can spend on other things, if you choose. Look through your budget for areas you can cut back spending, too, like canceling a gym membership you're not using or making coffee at home instead of buying one at the coffee shop. Put this extra money toward savings if you want to retire even sooner.
3. Seek out ways to boost your income
If you're unable to save as much as you'd like and you cannot trim back your budget any further, think about increasing your income. There are several ways you can approach this. You could work overtime if your job allows it. You could also negotiate a raise, seek out employment with a different company in your field, or switch fields altogether.
Side hustles are also becoming increasingly popular. They give you the flexibility to work when and how you want to and some of them could even turn into full-time jobs if you put enough effort into them. But if you go this route, remember to set aside taxes every month and pay them in quarterly installments to avoid running into trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.
4. Pay off debt
Debt impedes your ability to save for retirement, so you should prioritize paying down your liabilities in conjunction with saving for retirement. Those with high-interest debt, like credit card debt, may want to pay it down before they begin saving for retirement. That's because the high interest rates you're paying on your debt could cost you more than your retirement savings are earning over the same period.
Make a list of all your debts and record the outstanding balance and interest rate. You must make the minimum payment on all your debts to avoid late fees, but you should place any extra money you have on the debt with the highest interest rate first if you'd like to pay the least overall. When you're finally debt-free, you can put all that extra money you now have toward your retirement.
5. Invest as much as you can
Contribute as much as you can to your retirement accounts each year first and foremost. You're allowed to contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) in 2020 and $6,000 to an IRA. Adults 50 and older may contribute up to $26,000 and $7,000, respectively. Maxing out your retirement accounts every year is a good first step if you hope to retire early.
Those who plan to retire before 59 1/2 should also have some money in a taxable brokerage account. With few exceptions, you cannot withdraw money from your retirement accounts until 59 1/2 without paying a penalty, so you need an alternative source of savings to cover you until then. Taxable brokerage accounts don't offer the same tax benefits as retirement accounts, but they give you complete freedom to invest your money how you choose and to withdraw it whenever you want.
Follow the five above steps to the best of your ability and re-evaluate your retirement plan once per year to make sure you're still on track. If you're not, see if you can save a little more or delay retirement until you have enough money. If you find you're ahead of schedule, you might even be able to retire earlier than you expected.