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Private sector/no pension FIRE success stories
Old 02-18-2009, 09:10 AM   #1
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Private sector/no pension FIRE success stories

It seems that most of the people who are introducing themselves recently (and much of the talk from people hoping to retire soon) are coming from public sector employees relying heavily on pension income.

I certainly wish them all well, but I think it feels a little demoralizing to those of us who work in the private sector right about now. Our job security is crap (unless we work in a few specific fields), our 401Ks and IRAs -- likely our only hope for FIRE -- are deep into the tank and little or no pensions are coming, combining to make retirement feel like more of an impossibility than ever in my adult life.

So what I'd like to do is open a thread for those who are FIREd (or those very well on track to be FIREd) from the private sector and with little or no pension. What did you do? How did your portfolio reach critical mass to allow it to happen? How are/were you dealing with health insurance (since we're also less likely to have it covered in retirement)? What setbacks did you have along the way, and how did you overcome them? And do you have any words of wisdom for those of us feeling like private sector retirement (at least for the pensionless) is becoming an impossibility?

I need a pep talk. I'm feeling like this quest is useless. I need to hear some success stories.
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Old 02-18-2009, 09:59 AM   #2
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I retired 2.5 years ago at 48 from a programming career consisting of 4 jobs (4y, 14y, 1y, 8y). Knowing my own limitations, I turned down all promotions and finished as a bottom-level peon. This minimized my stress and allowed me to enjoy most of my career, much of the time doing jobs I could do in my sleep.

I maxed out my 401k and IRAs, plus saved a little more post-tax. When I retired my net worth was 80% IRA, 12% non-IRA, 8% paid off 1/2 house. Almost always kept all money in stocks - mutual funds while in 401ks, then individual stocks once rolled over to IRAs. Bought my health insurance at Costco.

I really had no significant setbacks. I got my divorce out the way decades ago when it was cheap. I had a total of 2 weeks of unemployment in 27 years - I often felt my job was in danger, but other jobs were always easy to find. I celebrated reaching FI in 2004 by paying off my mortgage early, reducing stress further.

My decision to remain a bottom-level peon was one key. Except for a brief spate of paid OT early in my career, I worked a flat 40 hours, usually about 6am-2pm. My coworkers on the management track worked into the evenings, mostly making about the same as me. This kept my stress level WAY down. While some bosses objected, only once (the 1y job) did I end up needing to change companies as a result.

LBYM was of course also important. Learning how to invest was the final key. If I had kept everything in MMFs I would still be working today. Keeping the money in stocks was critical. Learning not to worry about day-to-day or year-to-year fluctuations was another key stress reducer.

The end (retirement) came pretty suddenly. Portfolio values had exploded for 7 years (2 years past becoming FI) and my nice relaxing work enviroment suddenly turned ugly. This made it easy to walk away.
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Old 02-18-2009, 09:59 AM   #3
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Originally Posted by ziggy29 View Post
So what I'd like to do is open a thread for those who are FIREd (or those very well on track to be FIREd) from the private sector and with little or no pension. What did you do?
Focused on the basics - LBYM (within reason), invested in a balanced portfolio, paid off the mortgage early, and tried to set a realistic FIRE target. I knew paying for college for two kids wouldn't allow us to FIRE until we were 55 or older and adjusted my expectations accordingly.

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How did your portfolio reach critical mass to allow it to happen?
Time in the market rather than market timing. I was 31 when I began to get serious about investing, but once I started doing so I stuck with the plan (max out 401k, etc.) for 27 years until retiring at age 58. Maintained a 70/30 AA during most of my working years, moving to 60/40 by the time I retired.

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How are/were you dealing with health insurance (since we're also less likely to have it covered in retirement)?
18 months on COBRA after retiring, then $5,000 deductible individual policies. DW's is through the state high risk pool due to pre-existing conditions. Current annual premium cost is approaching $10k.

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What setbacks did you have along the way, and how did you overcome them?
Salary freeze, job demotion, demotivation, market crashes, the usual stuff that happens over a working career. I didn't really overcome any of them, I just kept going...

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And do you have any words of wisdom for those of us feeling like private sector retirement (at least for the pensionless) is becoming an impossibility?
Who knows what the future holds? The next boom could never happen, could be a decade or more away, or could begin later this year. You can give up on the idea of early retirement as an impossibile goal and live only for today (please invite me to the party), redouble your efforts to FIRE ASAP by living the life of a miser, or find some middle ground. I chose what was behind door number three and after four years of retirement, have no regrets.

One more word of encouragement - you could get hit by a truck tomorrow and all your worries will have been wasted...
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Old 02-18-2009, 10:04 AM   #4
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Ziggy, here's my story -- I hope it turns out to be a success I'm retiring April 10, just short of my 58th birthday. No pension (other than SS), just personal savings. Last August, when I committed to this retirement date, with a pretty generous retirement budget, FIRECalc told me I had it made.

I've been saving hard my whole life. I opened my first IRA in the 70's, I've been contributing to a 403(b) since I was 30 -- at the maximum allowed for a number of years now. I work in higher ed where generous employer contributions are not uncommon. My employer's contribution was about 5% when I started and is now almost 10%. As a side note employee participation was mandatory starting at age 30 which I believe has helped a lot of my fellow employees be better prepared for retirement than average.

My investments are down about 25% from August.

My employer allows retirees to stay in the group health plan, with the retiree paying 100% of the premium. Currently this is $530/month for my single coverage.

My house is paid off, and it will suit me fine in retirement. Insurance and property tax add up to about $1300/year.

I've trimmed my retirement budget by about 15%, but it's still a comfortable (for me) $40,000, not counting income taxes.

I'm planning for 30 years in retirement, although it's unlikely I'll make it that long.

I'm single, no kids, no great desire to leave anybody anything, so I can tolerate more risk in my retirement plan than a lot of other folks. If I'm wrong I'm the only one to suffer.

I have enough in money market accounts and CDs to live on for five years. I'm hoping that's enough time to allow the equity funds I own to recover.

I have enough in assets to live on until I'm 70 even if they don't appreciate in value. At 70 SS would be enough for me to live on. I think of SS as my longevity insurance.

That's the plan. While I don't think it's guaranteed, I like the odds.

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Old 02-18-2009, 10:20 AM   #5
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My house is paid off, and it will suit me fine in retirement. Insurance and property tax add up to about $1300/year.


I have enough in assets to live on until I'm 70 even if they don't appreciate in value. At 70 SS would be enough for me to live on. I think of SS as my longevity insurance.
That's a great way to look at SS. With a paid off house and the maximum amount on SS, one would likely be safe from spending the last 20 years of life having Alpo for dinner in a 30 year old trailer.
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Old 02-18-2009, 01:35 PM   #6
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Ziggy-

What are your options for getting a job in your field with a pension
or a larger employer contribution to your retirement plan?

Pensions essentially amount to half priced annuities, right?

Is it not worth it in your case to pursue a job with a pension?

-LB
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Old 02-18-2009, 01:50 PM   #7
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More questions for Ziggy - - in other posts today, I noticed you said you are only 43 years old, last year had over $500K in your 401K, and would have lost 28% in the decline but due to contributions only lost (I think it was) 19%. That would give you a 401K balance of over $405K today.

Could be worse, y'know?

What kind of lifestyle do you lead? Do you need a big budget? How big is your house, and is it paid off? Any money in taxable? If not, why not?

I *don't* mean to be prying so don't feel you have to answer these questions. I am just thinking that maybe you are feeling depressed about what could have been, when what you actually have accomplished at age 43 is not insubstantial, and in time could provide a retirement that might not be all that bad.
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Old 02-18-2009, 02:01 PM   #8
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More questions for Ziggy - - in other posts today, I noticed you said you are only 43 years old, last year had over $500K in your 401K, and lost 28% in the decline but due to contributions only lost (I think it was) 19%. That would give you a 401K balance of over $405K today.
Not quite. I had about $520K in all my retirement accounts at the peak -- not just my 401K. My current 401K was only about 1/3 of my total in retirement accounts to start 2008 (it started at $176K and ended at about $142K). Most of the rest was in a rollover IRA from a previous employer's 401K that tanked by 35%. Overall the current value of all retirement savings is about $345K. Beats a sharp stick in the eye, but it's a major step back from where I thought I was going to be. FIREcalc tells me to work six more years compared to where I was two years ago...

We'll probably have a much better retirement than most people in my situation, mostly because (a) we downsized to a paid-off house and (b) I've been saving for retirement like hell since I was 23. As it looks like now, depending on what the market does, I might be able to get out at 62 if I take SS early (assuming that's still an option in 19 years). At least barring the second coming of the 1983-99 bull market, anyway.

I just want to hear stories to convince me this can still be done...
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Old 02-18-2009, 02:21 PM   #9
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Overall the current value of all retirement savings is about $345K. Beats a sharp stick in the eye, but it's a major step back from where I thought I was going to be.
True, but really it is a substantial accomplishment given that we are in the mother of all bear markets, and you STILL have that much in retirement savings. I know that 43 probably seems old from where you sit, but from here (60) you seem like a young go-getter who is doing remarkably well.

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We'll probably have a much better retirement than most people in my situation, mostly because (a) we downsized to a paid-off house and (b) I've been saving for retirement like hell since I was 23.
Yes, you see? It's wonderful that you have a downsized paid-off house. Since it is paid off, you'll be able to save all that mortgage/rent money and start loading up your taxable as well as your retirement accounts.

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As it looks like now, depending on what the market does, I might be able to get out at 62 if I take SS early (assuming that's still an option in 19 years). At least barring the second coming of the 1983-99 bull market, anyway.
I am sure you will be able to get out in your early 50's, unless you are more of a high roller than I thought. Just keep doing the delayed gratification thing and putting the excess into taxable. If you could live on $25,000 of today's dollars over and above your (paid off) house, at a 4% SWR all you would need is another $280K plus inflation. You'll be making a lot of that coming out of this recession, at some point. The 401K max is $16.5K and the Roth max is $6K, so that is $22.5K. In 10 years, that would be $225K, so all your portfolio has to do is keep up with inflation and add ($280K-$255K) = $55K. If you are saving in taxable too, you'll get there faster.

(I wouldn't count on SS, though it is hard to know what will happen with it.)

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I just want to hear stories to convince me this can still be done...
Well, I don't have one but I think you are being awfully hard on yourself, and I'm sorry you feel so discouraged. I couldn't keep from commenting.
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Old 02-18-2009, 02:31 PM   #10
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I'm pretty frustrated by the crash. Had my plans, pretty conservative at that. Set some vague dates and those are history. But I have a couple of great advantages: like the job, still have a nice nestegg even after the mauling. Just not enough to stay on track.

For me that means working longer, and the question du jour is whether to do that in my current high-paying bigshot job for a shorter period, or to make a move to a more relaxed, part-time (maybe half time) job that I'd have to stick with longer. Uncharacteristically, I've decided to approach that issue passively, and see what comes along - ambivalence mode.

No answers, just a reaction from the one-foot-in-the water crowd (age 60).

I'm glad this happened just before I ESR'd rather than just after.
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Old 02-18-2009, 02:31 PM   #11
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I need a pep talk. I'm feeling like this quest is useless. I need to hear some success stories.
Sorry Ziggy. Too busy trying to rearrange chairs on the Titanic.

Next time, will you please listen to those little voices in your head?

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Old 02-18-2009, 02:37 PM   #12
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How did your portfolio reach critical mass to allow it to happen?
We worked and shoved all the money we could into our retirement accounts. We are conservative, so our AA has been 50/50. The only debt we ever had was a mortgage and we paid it off early. We never relied on my salary, so less stuff was purchased and more money was saved.
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How are/were you dealing with health insurance (since we're also less likely to have it covered in retirement)?
Health insurance will be subsidized by MegaCorp. We will be receiving a pension from MegaCorp that is non cola...this will basically pay for the insurance premiums. However there is no guarantee that this will not stop at some point in the future.
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What setbacks did you have along the way, and how did you overcome them?
Job loss. Then got a job and stuck with it to the bitter end. Even though there was a lot of crap to deal with, we had a goal in mind and did not let the bs ruin our plan.
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And do you have any words of wisdom for those of us feeling like private sector retirement (at least for the pensionless) is becoming an impossibility?
Work, save as much as you can, set a goal and stick to it. If there is any advantage not having a pension or health benefits, it's you will know exactly what you need to do in order to have a successful retirement. For those of us that count and depend on these benefits, to an extent, this dependency can be dangerous. Nothing (in our case) is guaranteed.

Last but not least, buy a toy every once in a while to reward yourself. You can't buy yesterday.

(oh and a smilie to make you grin)
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Old 02-18-2009, 02:49 PM   #13
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I'm glad this happened just before I ESR'd rather than just after.
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But see? You already ARE ESR'd, by 10%, anyway.
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Old 02-18-2009, 03:23 PM   #14
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But see? You already ARE ESR'd, by 10%, anyway.
Good point and, if I do say so, it was a very good move. That extra nonworking time has made it a lot easier to see kids and take some play-time off. I do pay my dues when I get back to work, but well worth the price.
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Old 02-18-2009, 03:43 PM   #15
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Ziggy ,
After having read most of your posts I assumed you were late 50's so I was shocked to find out you are 43 . Your investments will come back and somehow you will be able to retire . Right now you need to enjoy the life you have now and step away from CNN . The money will come back but the time you lost in worry will not .
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Old 02-18-2009, 03:49 PM   #16
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Rental property.
Turning 60 this year, and while property selling so we can bail out is a bit of a problem, the income from same would pay for our annual needs + management - just have to convince myself to accept the inefficiency of management (Pay a plumber to replace a toilet supply line? Wait a week after moveout to have it clean & ready to go again? - pfft - my problem is managing a day or two between tenants so the carpet can dry). The rentals acted like a third job that paid really well, 1/2 taxable each year and 1/2 tax deferred in appreciation.

Got lucky with the right woman. (fairly often actually )

Speaking of luck: was born male, tall, w/ a deep voice, American, not deformed, hideous, or stupid. Haven't had any catastrophic health issues. Luck.

Didn't have kids.

Buying when everyone was selling, from '85 to 2001, was a big help - kind of like today's property market, only the interest was a bunch higher.

Health insurance is through the gal's work - they pay most of hers and we pay all of mine. When she no longer works there we'll be doing the Cobra thing followed by a few years of spendy insurance till medicare time.

Pension - none. SSI for me? doodly squat. Outlook; barring overthrow of the county, rent control, nationalization of all property, etc. , pretty rosy.
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Old 02-18-2009, 04:48 PM   #17
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When saving up cash how much is enough?
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Old 02-18-2009, 05:09 PM   #18
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Ziggy,
I'd like to downplay your perception of pensions and their contribution to ER. Not everyone with a pension is getting a sizable amount (i.e., me). In my case, I have a mortgage and the pension pays the mortgage and property taxes, so the pension is about 35% of my expenses.

That's the equivalent of no pension and paid off house, and about $3000 extra a year.

So I retired at 59 and am living on my personal savings until Social Security kicks in. My personal savings was not $1 Million and after last fall it was 20% less than when I stopped working in July, but there is enough there.

At age 52, I didn't think I could retire before age 62 (and early social security), however, being in the market at a 70% stock allocation helped, as did LBYM, and saving every bonus payment, when it showed up.

You aren't knocking your head against the wall. It is doable, just make sure you are in the market at a reasonable asset allocation and let time do its work on Mr. Market. Also, to make your journey to early retirement bearable, make sure you are employed in a firm where you enjoy the work and value the company.

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Old 02-18-2009, 05:11 PM   #19
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When saving up cash how much is enough?
Enough that you never run out should do it.
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Old 02-18-2009, 05:15 PM   #20
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When saving up cash how much is enough?
How much do you need?

(Sorry, for the flip response -- it's out of my system now).

But seriously, how much do you need? FIRECALC can help you determine that. So can ORP (www.i-orp.com). There are several calculators that can help you set your savings goals: See the LINKS section here (top of the page),

or here: http://www.early-retirement.org/link...elinks.php?c=3

Rita
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