Planning, and lots of it, is required to leave work before official retirement age.
Cecile and George Harrington of Massachusetts did it. Mark and Laurie Walker of Illinois did it. And so did Darrell and Donna Fagala in Texas. They all retired early — before age 60.
And you can too, but only if you're willing, pardon the expression, to work at it.
As with most journeys, retiring early starts with a few simple steps, the most important being this: You have to calculate – there's no getting around it, really – how much you'll need to fund your lifestyle for as long as you (and your partner) will live. This won't be easy because you don't know just how long that will be.
But what you do know is this: Retiring early means calculating more years into the equation — say, 30 instead of 20. For the average American household, that could mean saving an extra $400,000 or so on top of what you might already need for a traditional retirement plan.
Once you know your "number," there are only two other steps to commit to memory: Start saving and stop spending. Put another way: Live not just within your means, but well below, says Rick Miller, president of Sensible Financial Planning in Waltham, Mass.
That's what the Fagalas did. "My wife and I both had the same goal of retiring with enough money saved to live the lifestyle that we had become accustomed to," says Darrell Fagala, who retired in 2013 at age 58 from his job at ExxonMobil Chemical.
Even someone with a high-level career needs to heed this advice. "We were both raised to work, to save, to share, to spend conservatively," says Laurie Walker, who retired at age 59 as CEO of Skip-a-Long Child Development Services in Moline, Ill. "And so in our marriage, there was mutual agreement to live a modest lifestyle."
The save more/spend less bromides represent the biggest part of being able to call it quits while others have to keep toiling. But there are other instructions to follow in the "retire early owner's manual":
Find work with good benefits. "The second most important thing we did (after saving) was worked for a company that had an excellent 401(k) matching program and the choice of a lump-sum pension or monthly pension program," Darrell Fagala says.
Be a prudent investor. Yes, some people retire early because they struck it rich with this or that investment, but most average folks who want to retire early need only invest wisely and strike that delicate balance between risk and return. "We feel the biggest concern is the one that most early retirees never consider," says Aaron Coates, a certified financial planner with Valeo Financial Advisors in Indianapolis. "The increase in (retirement) time — even five years — exponentially increases the likelihood of unfavorable events impacting their retirement savings during the critical early years."
Others also fear the consequences of investing gone wrong. "The big risk of retiring so early is unexpectedly bad investment results or unexpected large expenses," says Miller.
So ... diversify your accounts. Investing wisely means not being too agreesive in your retirement accounts but also not putting all your eggs into those accounts. "Many savers/investors pile every penny they can into 401(k) plans and IRAs," says Joe Pitzl, managing partner of Pitzl Financial in Arden Hills, Minn. But those accounts have age restrictions for penalty-free withdrawals. "If you want to retire at 50 or 55, this can create some issues accessing the dollars you need to live on."
Cover health costs. When crunching the numbers to see if you can retire early, don't forget to include what your health care might cost in retirement. According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the average retiree household spends $5,118 per year out of pocket on health care. But if you retire early, you may not be eligible for Medicare and will likely have to pay for more expensive private health insurance, says Don St. Clair, a certified financial planner in Roseville, Calif.
The good news is the Affordable Care Act provides new insurance options not previously available to early retirees. "Still, many will find the unsubsidized world of individual insurance a significant hurdle in terms of managing health care costs before age 65," says St. Clair.
Experts suggest budgeting at least $11,000 per year for health care. If you don't spend it all, you'll have more money to go toward travel and spoiling your grandchildren.
Talk to your loved ones. Folks contemplating retirement often overlook how their change affects their partner and family relationships, says "Individuals (need) to take time to 'really talk' with their partners and close family members about what their plans might be, what expectations, goals, and fears they have, and how they might manage new roles and responsibilities," says Joann Montepare, the director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies in Newton, Mass.
Also, consider hiring a financial adviser if only to double check your numbers. "My biggest fear about retiring early was being financially sound for the long haul," says Darrell Fagala. "One thing we did to validate the possibility of retiring was to check with our financial adviser."
Do you really want to retire? Long before you pull the trigger, ask whether you might want to take a sabbatical or just scale back instead of retiring full-time. Many folks retire because they are "wiped out from trying to keep up with the 40-year-olds," says Coates. "They find they really wanted a sabbatical or less hours. If we can find a way to keep one foot in the door for the first 12 months at work to explore this, that is the ideal situation."
Retire to something. Don't forget to address what you'll do and who you'll be in retirement. What passions will you pursue? What's on your bucket list? "Be sure that you have something to retire to," says Pitzl. "And that better be something other than golf or fishing."
Cecile Harrington of West Roxbury, Mass., who retired from her career as an accountant in 2012 at age 55, now works as a volunteer for ReServe in Boston, a non-profit that matches retired professionals age 55 and older with non-profit organizations that need their expertise.
Plan on having fears. Retiring early and worry-free aren't always uttered in the same breath. Mark Walker, for instance, fears the possibility of becoming sick and disabled, as well as changes in the political landscape. "I fear that politicians will take from those who chose to save," he says. And Laurie Walker fears not feeling relevant, as well as not being stimulated, engaged, challenged, interested, and interesting.
Keep an open mind. One minute you've retired early and the next, well, your best-laid plans have fallen through. You got bored. Or maybe your household suffered a shock: the death of a spouse or loved one, or some other life-changing event.
"I suggest folks keep an open mind moving forward," says Montepare. "We all know life can be a winding road through all aspects of the journey."
Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, contributes regularly to USA WEEKEND, USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch and teaches at Boston University.