Earlier this month at the EconoMe Conference, I gave a speech where I revealed I was planning on retiring at 35 years old.
I practiced the speech many times, mostly in the sacred privacy of my shower. To be honest, I wasn’t happy with it! When I tried to talk about how and why I was going for such an early retirement age, I faltered, rambled, and went on weird tangents that had too many 1990s anime references (or not enough, depending on your perspective).
My youthful days as a theatre kid had imbued me with an unshakable certainty that there was no point in worrying about it. The show would go on. I would get up on the stage and say something, and people would clap politely when I was done. Because they always do that, even when you suck! Ah, the beauty of social contracts!
Surprisingly, the words flowed easiest when I was standing on a stage in front of a few hundred people. I could kinda see the faces of my audience through the haze of the UFO tractor beam lighting. I had the world’s best business partner on stage next to me; the front row was packed with wise and supportive personal finance industry mentors; and past them, a sea of faces belonging to people who intimately understood what I was there to say about financial freedom. Before the most welcoming and encouraging audience imaginable, my words came out effortlessly.
“Work sucks, and I hate it, so I’m not gonna do it anymore.”
I should’ve just said that and trusted this audience to fill my remaining 28 minutes with a standing ovation. Maybe wrap with some local jokes? “Thanks for attending my TedTalk. Go Cincinnati, um, Owlbears? No, no, that’s definitely a D&D monster, hold on… [checks notes] Bearcats! Go Bearcats!”
It’s true. If all goes as planned, I’m retiring at 35 years old this coming spring.
Here’s my story.
My story isn’t your story
What I’m writing today isn’t a blueprint or a guide you can follow to financial independence. It’s not some some rah-rah horseshit clickbait article about how “if I can do it, anyone can with these seven easy hacks!” (Can you hear me making a languorous jerking-off motion when I say that? Because I am, and it feels like important context.) I cannot promise my successes to anyone else. I will never package them up and sell them as such.
But we’re all born drowning in a rancid stew of pro-work propaganda. Humans are spontaneous, clever, beautiful animals—and every day, most of us wake up and press ourselves into the physically and emotionally distressing routine of financially enriching someone else.
And I don’t like that. Nope, not a fan!
In an effort to push back against it, I’m willing to share my experiences as openly and honestly as I can. If it sparks one person’s curiosity, and inspires them to walk a similar path of stability towards financial independence, that would be enough for me.
Adderall is great ‘n all, but helping people is a hell of a drug!
You’ve seen this genre of personal finance article many, many times:
- “How One Couple Paid off $80,000 of Debt in One Year!”
- “Budget Secrets This Millennial Used To Save $300,000 in Two Years!”
- “This 29 Year Old Is Planning to Retire Early With a Million Dollars—and You Won’t Believe How!”
I absolutely cannot stop myself from rolling my eyes when I see them. Because these headlines are basically spoilers.
“How One Couple Paid Off $80,000 of Debt in One Year!”
- SPOILER ALERT! Two high-earning DINKS realized they could apply the smallest modicum of financial self-control to get a one-year surplus of $80,000. They are now prepared to spend the rest of their lives patting themselves on the back for it on their YouTube channel.
“Budget Secrets This Millennial Used to Save $300,000 in Two Years!”
- SPOILER ALERT! I ran some numbers A Beautiful Mind style and determined that this guy makes at least $150,000 a year. Truly, a paragon of the frugal everyman! What a generous soul to share the closely guarded secret that making lots of money makes one financially stable!
“This 29 Year Old is Retiring Early With a Million Dollars—And You Won’t Believe How!”
- SPOILER ALERT! Mommy and daddy gave her seed money for a business, a multi-family property to “manage”, free housing, business connections, or some combination thereof. And she wants me to buy her $499 course where she explains that no, that’s totally not why, it was hard work and being a Boss Babe!
Obviously, I’m incredibly jaded about these kinds of stories.
When I was at my poorest, I felt like I had been swept out to sea by a storm I had no part in summoning. Every day was a fresh struggle to keep myself from slipping under the waves. Those stupid headlines felt like salt in my wounds. Ope! I’m mixing my metaphors here so… Salt water in my shark wounds? Yeah, that’s it!
The truth is, I’ve had a lot of advantages in life. Among them: being born white in America, to parents who highly valued educational attainment and were willing to partially subsidize its pursuit. (As many student loans as I took out, my dad took out more. Thanks, dad.) I lucked out finding a truly elite S-rank life partner. And I’m very grateful to be mostly able-bodied and kinda able-minded, if you squint.
But that’s about it?
I think I’m a pretty average representative of a lost generation. I’ve found success, though I’ve never inherited money, sold a business, gotten in early at a tech giant, married into wealth, graduated to a good job in a high-income industry, utilized family connections, or won the lottery. I don’t own rental properties, stock options, cryptocurrency, NFTs, or other fancy fake ways rich people make money.As of today, I have never been struck by a wealthy person’s car—though if anyone is interested in running an insurance scam with me, HMU, I’m open to pitches!
(And although I write a personal finance blog, please do not imagine for even one moment that it’s revenue-generating! BGR is a passion project that remains hilariously un-monetized by anyone other than our die-hardest stans on Patreon. Whom we love. Thank you.)
Nope. I’m a cog in the capitalist machine. I’ve made all of my money the old fashioned way: selling my time and bodily labor! And since that’s what most people are forced to do in this life, it’s my hope that my story of early retirement could have a few valuable insights for others.
So here it is: how I went from UM EXCUSE ME, HIGHLY BROKE to retiring at 35.
How I went from broke to retiring at 35
Ages 16-18: Fresh-faced and ready to be exploited for minimum wage
I started working when I was 16 years old. I was a summer camp counselor making $6.50/hour. To avoid paying us full-time wages, our shifts ran from 6 to 10 a.m. at one camp; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a legally distinct second camp next door; then back to the first camp from 2 to 6 p.m. I was taught to punch out early to make sure my hours never, ever passed 40 per week.
At the time, I felt so proud of myself for getting this job all on my own and saving my little savings. As an adult, that pride is tarnished with regret that no one helped me see how exploitative this arrangement truly was.
High school was not a happy time. I moved out of my mother’s house when I was 17 and lived with my high school girlfriend and her unquestioningly welcoming mother, who offered me their spare room at no charge. I tried not to eat too much of their food… but I definitely ate a lot of their food.
Ages 18-22: Retail jobs, unpaid internships, and weird opportunities
I went away to an expensive private college a thousand miles away. Not the choice I would make today, but hey—we live and learn! Plus, that’s where I met Piggy, the aforementioned bestest and most prettiest business partner in the world! (Piggy note: The mark of a good editor is when their work is so seamless and subtle as to be invisible. I guess I’m just ok.)
In college, I worked a retail job at GameStop for $9.25/hour. Lemme tell ya: listening to the spacey tingling of the Wii menu floor display for six-hour shifts felt like a new and improved version of Dripping Water Torture.
Additionally, I had an unpaid internship promising me hands-on work experience at a small business. While walking around at a career fair hosted by my college, I met a wonderfully nice and eccentric older hippie lady who owned a wedding videography company. She insisted she felt an instant psychic connection to me and wanted me to come work with her. I accepted—for who am I to refuse the call of the astral plane?
- Savings: about $3,000
Ages 22-23: Hustling hard and hating every moment of it
I graduated from college in the spring of 2009 with $40,000 in student loans. It was the beginning of the Great Recession. With a 10% unemployment rate, my peers and I were competing with much more seasoned professionals for even entry level jobs. Frankly, ghosts felt more plausible and evidence—based than the mythical “good job” I’d been promised I’d find after graduation.
My first year out of school, I made about $12,000 a year. Almost all of it came from the wedding videography studio where I’d interned. They loved me, and paid me $1,000 a month to act as their studio manager. I was the only paid employee besides the owner.
With my help, the business grew. The owner increased my pay as much as she could, until I was making double: $24,000 a year. It was going okay.
But one day, I saw something that would drive me from the industry—and haunt me for the rest of my life.
I was filming a wedding in a fantastically luxurious location. The couple stood under a beautiful archway draped in delicate white vining orchids. “Ten thousand dollars worth of ‘em,” the wedding planner whispered to me as I dutifully took glamor shots of it. “Flown in specially from Thailand!” When the ceremony was over and the guests poured outside to their cocktail hour, I stayed behind to pack up, rub my sore feet, and discreetly stuff a granola bar into my mouth. I watched a man set up a ladder under the sculptural masterpiece—and start ripping flowers down by careless fistfuls. A girl with a shop vac trailed behind him, sucking the carcasses into the infinity of nothingness.
I told my boss I loved her, and had learned so much from her business—but I couldn’t bear to live in poverty surrounded by such lavish wastefulness.
She understood. As a parting gift, she sent an email to everyone in her professional organization, offering my services as a (non-wedding) videographer and graphic designer. I started working for $20/hour for anyone who wanted me.
- Savings: about $3,000
- Debts: about -$40,000
Ages 24-25: Illness, caregiving, and poverty during my darkest days
I was now a full-time freelancer. When I had enough clients, I upped my prices to $25/hour, then $30/hour. The pay was better, but it was stomach-churningly unreliable. I earned $8,000 in one month and $80 in another.
I filled in for a friend at the last minute to record an interview with a respected cancer researcher, and worked with a small agency to adapt the footage into a video for a fundraising event. They were delighted to find an affordable and reliable young professional to do local work, so they started to call me pretty often. I think they thought I was very in-demand. In reality, they were half my income.
Around this time, my mother got sick. I moved in with her temporarily to provide care. I kept what work I could, but lost about 30% of my clients. Since I was only making about $30,000 a year, it was a devastating blow to my finances. By the time I returned, I was hemorrhaging money. To make matters worse, I took on $12,000 more debt that my mother could no longer repay. My biggest fear was that my little brother (who was still a minor) and I might lose health insurance if our mother passed away.
There was still an 8% unemployment rate, but I realized I needed a salaried job with health benefits, like now. And I was willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get one.
I built a portfolio that exaggerated my accomplishments. I name-dropped big-name clients I’d only briefly or tangentially associated with. When asked to provide references, I enlisted my best friend (an actor) to pretend to be an ecstatically happy client. And I started sending out at least one job application every goddamn day.
- Savings: none
- Retirement savings: about $600
- Debts: about -$52,000
Ages 26-27: Turning a corner with my first salaried job
I accepted the first job that was offered to me: a design assistant at a shady commercial real estate firm for an income of $32,000 a year without benefits. I worked there for two months, and kept interviewing at other places. God forgive me, I covered for my frequent phone interviews by saying they were calls with my mother’s doctors. When a better offer came through, I left my keys and a Dear John note on my boss’s desk and never added it to my resume.
My new job—my first salaried position—paid $45,000 a year and included health benefits and a retirement plan.
Do you remember the end of Kill Bill Volume 2 where The Bride, having reclaimed her precious daughter and slain the last of her enemies, sobs in relief on the floor of a hotel bathroom? It was like that! For the first time in my life, I could afford all of my basic necessities. I didn’t have to lay awake at night, staring up at the bedroom ceiling, wondering where my next check would come from.
I worked days, and continued freelancing on nights and weekends. By age 27, I’d worked my way to a net worth of zero by paying off the last of my student loans. I celebrated by giving myself permission to do two very wonderful things: stop freelancing, and marry the man I loved. He was a poor man, but he had no debts, and I wanted us to start on equal footing. We wed in the parking lot behind our apartment complex.
Professionally, the shine came off the penny when a kindhearted coworker broke down and whispered a secret into my ear: the position where I made $45,000 originally had a budget of $90,000.
I thought this company had been magnanimous to take a chance on me; but in reality, they were thrilled to find such a polished and hardworking young person who asked for so little money. I wept tears of bitter shame for allowing myself to be so undersold. Then I dried my eyes and started looking for a new job.
- Savings: about $3,000
- Retirement savings: about $12,000
- Debts: none
Age 28: Making more money, but learning Biggie had it right
I found a job at a new start-up that looked really promising. They offered me $80,000 a year plus a ton of fantastic benefits. Please know that I felt like King Midas But Even Richer living on quadruple the income I was accustomed to.
But after pride cometh the fall. The company culture at my new start-up became poisonous almost immediately. It was racist, sexist, nepotistic, and just generally sucked shit. After six months, I walked away and lit HR on fire on my way out.
Remember the kindhearted coworker who clued me in to my underpayment? She’d moved on to a new company, and when she heard I was on the market again, she asked me to follow. It was safe, boring work making $90,000 a year. I accepted immediately. Two weeks after I started, the company was acquired by a technology giant with a household name. They offered me a retention bonus to stay, because mergers suck. For my partner and I, this got our savings to the point where we were ready to start shopping for a house.
And with most of my work projects on hold, I started a little side project called Bitches Get Riches with my pal Piggy. Maybe you’ve heard of us…?
- Savings: about $60,000
- Retirement savings: about $24,000
- Debts: none
Ages 29-30: House poor, living on a single income, but loving every second
My partner and I bought a house for $300,000. (For reference, that was 15% below the median price in my area. Modest, yet normal.) When the check cleared, we only had about $800 left in the bank, lmao.
I know home ownership isn’t thrilling to everyone. But GOD, it is for me! Because I’ve known instability, it feels wonderful to build an oasis for myself and others. Sometimes, I get a call about someone who needs rescuing, and it feels so liberating to say “sure, bring ’em to my house, throw ’em on the pile!” We’ve had a lot of different people and animals call this house “home.” It’s a happy place.
That said, it did put me back in debt. And in my rush to build a home down payment, I hadn’t exactly prioritized other forms of investment like… a retirement fund.
Complicating matters, my partner decided he wanted to radically change the direction of his career. I offered to support both of us while he took a year off to learn new skills. So my husband stopped working. Thankfully, my salary was enough to cover our living expenses, including putting an extra $400/month into the mortgage. Because minimum payments are the devil.
- Savings: about $800
- Retirement savings: about $60,000
- Debts: about -$240,000
- Real estate: about $300,000
Ages 31-33: My investments actually start growing, and I’m very Shocked Pikachu about it
BIG changes happened here.
First, my partner finished his year of reskilling and entered a new career. He tripled his income to $60,000—then bounced up to $160,000! You can read about that in a lot more detail here. I’ll sum it up by saying it was WERID. I felt like I’d married a Magikarp, and woke up one morning next to a Gyrados. It was the outcome we wanted, but not the outcome we expected. Life had trained us to anticipate more setbacks. But here we were, manifesting our vision boards or whatever! The fuck?! It really works like this?!
Second, the very modest but consistent investments I’d made in my retirement accounts finally started to get off their ass and generate passive income. Not much—but they weren’t flat-lining anymore! It had nothing to do with my stock picks or mutual fund, as I’m no genius in this department (to my investments, I may as well be a neglectful mother in a Tennessee Williams play). I’d just stuck around for long enough that compound interest finally noticed me and deigned to punch my dance card.
Third, we paid off our house. Yeah—that fast! Our interest rate wasn’t huge, so we probably could’ve made more money if we’d invested it in the open market instead. But fuck that! The emotional and financial security of being debt-free and owning my home outright was worth more to me than anything.
There are some who might view even a fully-paid-off home as a liability rather than a nest egg. And I get that! Houses still come with maintenance costs and taxes and such. But I started counting my house toward my early retirement number because it feels like an asset in more ways than one. We can rent out our extra bedrooms as a source of retirement income, for example. And in this market, houses are easier than ever to liquidate.
The housing shortage also squeezed the value of our home up by 50%. I don’t feel great about earning money off the desperation of others… but do I prefer it to my old problems? Yes.
- Savings: about $3,000
- Retirement savings: about $180,000
- Debts: none
- Real estate: about $450,000
Age 34: You are here!
… But by “you,” I mean “me!”
With no mortgage payments, investments accruing interest, two very healthy incomes, and favorable luck, our savings skyrocketed. We maxed out every tax-advantaged retirement account we could, and dumped the rest into a general brokerage account.
This spring, I’ll be 35. By then, I should have a net worth of one million dollars. At that point, all I need to do is cover my family’s living expenses for a few years and wait patiently for compound interest to double it.
Because I supported my partner through phases of low and no income, he’s enthusiastically offered to do the same for me. Which means I can stop working. (More on navigating that below.)
- Savings: about $3,000
- Retirement savings: about $450,000
- Debts: none
- Real estate: about $450,000
Life after retiring at 35
Retiring all the way
Two mil is, indeed, our ultimate FIRE number. I think? Don’t quote me on that!
When we reach that mark, we will both stop working. We’re confident that’s enough to live non-extravagant yet comfortable lives, with enough money to continue to extend stability to others as needed.
Because in our original plan, I was going to quit corporate work and become an early retiree when I got the house paid off! But so many unforeseen things happened… the ‘rona, obviously! Piggy lost her job. My partner lost his job. There was just so much chaos and instability at that time, across every scale from my family up to my nation and my world. Prudence seemed wise.
But here’s the thing about prudence: it’s like a bag of chips that taste great when first opened, but gets really nasty when stale. I’m chewing on my prudence right now, and I’m tasting my own fear, and it’s gross as shit.
So it’s time to do the thing, even if the thing scares me. I’m committed to retiring at 35.
It feels weird and uncomfortable to leave all the work to my partner, even temporarily. But he’s been my biggest supporter in crafting this plan. Mr. Kitty knows better than anyone how hard I had to fight for our first million. And what it’s cost me, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
If anything, this will continue our tradition of trying to remain as equal as possible. My partner wants me to remember how to do amazing things, without pushing them through the meat grinder of monetization. Like writing this blog! Because he loves me, I get to love all of you. Isn’t it neat how that works out?
My uncomfortable future
I don’t know exactly what’s ahead, but I do know that I need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m stepping off the marked trail! There are no Ramada Inns ahead!
My biggest fear about retiring before the average retirement age is finding that I’m still fundamentally unfulfilled. Work has always been my convenient excuse to be unhappy. Because it’s always taken the best eight hours out of me. Once I stop working, I won’t have anyone to blame but myself for all the feelings I’ll feel. (Yuck. I’m an ENTJ, I haaaaate those feelings thingies!)
But luck and life are both precarious. As often as Fortune has done me dirty, she’s blessed me beyond belief. I cannot waste this opportunity to live life on my own terms, as every member of mankind deserves.
I’m moving toward a new stage of life where I will have more autonomy and discretion than ever before. I will wake each morning when I want to, and consult only myself when deciding each day’s agenda. I’m sure I will still have struggles, worries, chores, conflicts, obligations, and bills to pay—but I won’t have to sell my time and bodily labor to solve those problems anymore. Because I’ve sold quite enough.
Getting help, giving help
What will I do in retirement? Don’t worry, I’m a planner. I have a list, which I’ll definitely share at some point. But I can say definitively that guiding others through this wilderness of bullshit is at the top of it.
Earlier, I mentioned that I didn’t have a lot of life’s obvious advantages. But there is one incredible advantage I’ve always had, at every step upwards. And that is help.
- In high school, my girlfriend’s mom gave me a place to live rent-free when I needed one.
- In college, my first boss connected me with all of her industry peers to help me establish myself.
- At my first salaried job, my coworker tipped me off that I was being enormously underpaid.
- In the writing of this blog, our community of Patreon supporters has made this incredibly fulfilling hobby into a self-sustaining project. And my co-Bitch Piggy has shared my creative vision and encouraged me to pursue it full-time.
- In the future, my spouse will support our family financially while I take a chance on myself-and, weirdly, on you.
It’s easy to see why I’ve come to believe that help is the single greatest advantage a person can receive in life. Saying the right words, at the right time, to the right person can transform their lives permanently for the better.
Who wouldn’t want to do that, all the time?
So that’s my plan. I ain’t going nowhere! If anything, I’ll be even more up in your shit. And yes, when the time comes to give notice this spring, I will totally live stream my resignation for Patreon viewers, using the Mad Libs resignation letter the EconoMe audience helped me write, because…
Do y’all want more? Or less?
Phew! I can’t lie, this is an extra deodorant day for me.I’m really sweating hitting “publish” on this one.
These more personal stories are always the trickiest to write. Plus, they tend to garner hot takes from people who aren’t familiar with BGR. Or, worst of all, didn’t even read past the title! I’ve made peace with the fact that some people will ignore the context of my story—and of the breadth of topics we’ve written about here at BGR.
If it’s your first time here and you actually made it this far, congratulations! Here are some of our most foundational content to get you started on a similar path.
For the rest of our loyal readers, tell me! How’s this hitting you? Are y’all interested in hearing more about my early retirement process and post-retirement life? Or is that aspirational shit too depressing? (No judgment, hahaha—obviously my past self feels that!) Don’t leave me hanging! Let me hear your reaction in the comments below.
If you want more detailed guides about the steps I took, start here:
- The Financial Order of Operations: 10 Great Money Choices for Every Stage of Life
- A Millennial’s Guide to Growing Your Salary
- Job Hopping vs. Career Loyalty by the Numbers
If you’re recovering from a bad start, start here:
- Leaving Home Before 18: A Practical Guide for Cast-Offs, Runaways, and Everybody in Between
- How To Start at Rock Bottom: Welfare Programs and the Social Safety Net
- Ask the Bitches: Is It Too Late to Get My Financial Shit Together?
If you’re intrigued by this whole early retirement thing, start here:
- How To Save for Retirement When You Make Less Than $30,000 a Year
- Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying: Finance Philosophy Explained by The Shawshank Redemption
- Antiwork Is the New American Dream
If you need de-programming from harmful ideas about “financial success,” start here:
- The Latte Factor, Poor Shaming, and Economic Compassion
- Why Are Poor People Poor and Rich People Rich?
- The Financial Advantages of Being White