Dreaming of an early retirement but think you’ll never be able to save the amount of money that retirement calculators say you’ll need in order to retire? As with many financial goals, your ability to retire early may not be entirely based on how much income you make, or how well-versed you are in topics like finance or investing.

You may have more control than you realize over whether your retirement goals are attainable, based on the financial choices you make early in your career.

Consider these four steps that may contribute to a person’s ability to retire when and how they want.

1. Make Early Retirement Your Top Priority

“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while,” writes Gretchen Rubin, a writer who examines human nature. This concept can be applied to your ability to reach any major goal that requires commitment and discipline, turning the dream of early retirement into reality may be no different. “The key to retiring is habit,” says Scott Eichler, investment advisor at Newport Advisors and author of Don’t Play Chicken With Your Nest Egg. “If you adopt good financial habits early, you may retire early. However, most of us adopt bad financial habits early and, by extension, delay our retirements.”

If you’re guilty of some “bad” financial habits like carrying a large, interest-bearing credit card balance or not knowing where your money goes each month, those actions could affect your ability to retire. If you’re serious about early retirement, make the decision to cultivate healthy financial habits that support that goal. Typically, this could mean many years of delaying a certain amount of gratification in exchange for a potentially larger payoff down the road. From the seemingly insignificant purchases, like upgrading your summer wardrobe, to the major ones, like buying a new car when your clunker is still running, every financial choice you make should support your goal of early retirement.

2. Save and Invest Consistently

Have you postponed saving or investing your money because you never seem to have enough money to spare, once you’ve accounted for other expenses? Maybe you’re not sure where you should save or invest your cash, so you opt to do nothing. Time, consistency and investing properly based on your goals and risk tolerance are all important factors that can help you grow a retirement nest egg.

Eichler notes that the sooner you can develop the mindset that what you make is notwhat you spend, the better equipped you’ll be to set out on a path that could eventually lead to early retirement. “Learning to save and invest is the foundation of success. This habit blossoms into the other categories,” he says.

Most of his clients who have been able to retire early, Eichler says, have a company pension that helped them become retirement-ready, but he also notes that the fact that they began working toward retirement early in life was key. “They were, in essence, forced to adopt good habits early. In other words, the entity that employed them saved money on their behalf,” explains Eichler.

3. Determine What Debt May Work to Your Advantage

Randy Kurtz, chief investment officer at Betavisor, says to separate your debt into two categories: bad debt and useful debt. “Bad debt is high rate, amortizing debt. The most common form of this is standard credit card debt. Most people are best off by paying off their credit card debt as fast as they can,” says Kurtz. By contrast, he says a mortgage loan can be useful debt for some people — particularly if it’s the only path to home ownership, offers a low interest rate and creates tax advantages (because some mortgage interest may be tax deductible).

For homeowners who stand to amass a lot of equity in their home, for example, Kurtz says long-term mortgage debt can make financial sense. Consider this example of how a mortgage loan impacts the financial reality of two couples who both purchased a home for $150,000, 30 years ago:

  • Couple 1: Fully paid off their mortgage to be debt-free. They own a home that might be worth $500,000 today — but now they may need to spend some of that $500,000 to fund their retirement.
  • Couple 2: Saved money into their 401(k) accounts for 30 years, instead of paying off their mortgage loan early. They have the money they need for retirement and still can tap into the value they have accumulated in their home in retirement, if needed.

“You want to choose the right debt and debt level for your particular financial situation. It is wrong to assume you are always better off being debt-free,” says Kurtz.

In addition to categorizing what type of debt you have, the amount you take on needs to be appropriate to your income and expenses, while allowing you the financial flexibility to save and invest consistently. For many, that may mean buying a home that’s far less expensive than what a mortgage loan officer’s calculations say they’re approved to borrow. In fact, in the paper Debt and Financial Vulnerability on the Verge of Retirement, researchers found that groups of people they’ve studied who are nearing retirement today face more financial insecurity than groups they’ve studied in the past, and say it’s “mostly due to having purchased more expensive homes, with smaller down payments.”

Calculate the Costs of the Retirement You Want

“Without understanding your current cash flow, including your living expenses, savings rate and debt obligations, it’s practically impossible to determine if [early] retirement is a possibility,” says John Caserta, chartered financial consultant and managing director at Caserta & de Jongh, LLC. “Beyond these quantifiable topics, it’s equally important to consider the qualitative aspects of retirement. What does retirement really look like in terms of working, traveling, spending time with family or even pursuing hobbies?”

For example, you may intend to travel the world in retirement. If so, your cost of living expectations (and the amount of money you need to have saved to cover them) should reflect that. Or, if you intend to retire from a full-time job early, but will continue to generate income through the gig economy, passive income streams or ownership of a business, then you will likely have a different set of numbers.

There’s no single “right” way to spend your retirement — but you need to know what retirement lifestyle you’d like to have so that you can plan for the costs accordingly.

The sooner you think through these issues — to help determine both what you want retirement to look like and what level of funding will be required — the sooner you can put your early retirement savings plan into motion.

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