How One Woman Retired at 60 and Traveled the World

By Alaina Tweddale on 22 June 2015 0 comments

More than half of Americans are worried they won't have enough money to retire, according to a recent Gallup poll. Despite the dismal statistics, there are retirees today who live comfortably on their savings and live lifestyles that many would envy.

Take Joe Stewart, for example, who retired early at age 60 and, in the last year alone, has used her newfound freedom to travel to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and Puerto Vallarta. (She has a few more trips on her horizon, too!) According to Stewart, she never had a terribly high income. She started working when she was 16 and, at the height of her income earning years, brought in $60,000 per year. To get where she is today, she started saving early, made frugal life choices, and made the most of what she had.

How did Stewart get to this sweet spot in life and, more importantly, how can the rest of us emulate her success?

Work Hard, Invest Early

Stewart started working when she was 16 years old and put herself through college with the help of a small scholarship. "I never had a lot of money," she says, when discussing that she never felt the need to live an extravagant lifestyle. "I don't spend money on expensive shoes. I shop at Ross and TJ Maxx. I always look great but I don't spend a lot of money on junk."

Instead of splurging on high-end goods, Stewart instead focused from an early age on long-term investing and saving strategies. For those looking to build a solid retirement foundation, her footprint may be one worth following. (See also: 9 Things People Who Retire Early Do)

Open an IRA and Buy a House (And Pay it Off)

In the early 1980s, Stewart and her now ex-husband started funding their individual retirement accounts and consistently maxed out their annual contribution limits. (See also: 10 Easy Ways to Supercharge Your Retirement)

Stewart and her ex-husband bought their first house in 1983. "We didn't spend a lot of money," she says. "Instead we put money into our house." They paid off the original house, bought a bigger home, and gradually increased their monthly payments.

"We paid off a $100,000 loan in six years," she says, "even though we didn't make a lot of money." Stewart describes their careers as administrative in nature. In their two peak earning years, they reached the six figure mark collectively, but they spent many years below that level. (See also: 6 Great Reasons for Paying Off the Mortgage on Your Home)

Invest

Stewart was fortunate to receive corporate stock through a former employer, The Limited (L Brands). "I'll admit I didn't have the foresight to buy the stock when I was working there," she says, explaining that it was offered as a benefit through her corporate retirement plan.

"In 1984 I owned $40,000 worth of the stock. That was a lot of money!" she admits. "In 1985, it was the best performing stock on the market. With that money I paid off our first house, paid for two college degrees, bought all our cars, took two trips to Europe, and remodeled our bathroom."

"I still have [some of] the stock," she says. "That's the power of investing over time." Although, Stewart admits she was lucky it was such a strong performing stock. "Friends will tell me they're afraid to lose money in the stock market. I say they're losing money by not being in the stock market! I lost $100,000 one year," she says, but even so, her investment is still going strong. (See also: 8 Cheap, Easy, and Not-So-Obvious Ways to Invest in a Company's Stock)

Although widely popular today, 401(k) plans weren't readily available to many employees until the early 1990s. In 1992, Stewart opened a plan through her employer, contributed 10% of her income, and gradually increased her contribution amount from there. (See also: 5 Dumb 401(k) Mistakes Smart People Make)

Fund a Health Savings Account (HSA)

Stewart opened an HSA about two years ago and has been fully funding it ever since. She can use her HSA funds to help mitigate health care expenses as she ages.

Keep Expenses Low

Before she retired, Stewart earned about $60,000 per year. Of that, she saved about $800 per month plus her 401(k) and HSA contributions. Today her spending is at the same level as it was pre-retirement, but she's no longer saving.

Stewart knows there's a certain freedom that comes when you're not beholden to your debts. "My car is paid for, my home is paid for. My only expenses are utilities, living expenses, condo fees, and travel," she says. (See also: 73 Easy Ways to Save Money Today)

Don't Sweat Life's Road Blocks

Despite careful planning, life doesn't always unfold as planned. Stewart and her husband divorced in 2004. Conventional wisdom maintains that divorce can cause financial mayhem. Stewart is proof that it doesn't have to. "We split our finances 50/50," she says. "I took the equity from our paid off house and put it down on a condo and then paid that off within four years. The key for me was to be debt free."

Stewart also didn't ask for alimony, even though her ex-husband's income was higher. "Freedom has always been more important to me than money," she says.

Finally, Do What You Love

Stewart is so adept at keeping expenses low that her only real budget buster is travel. To compensate for the expense, she launched a small side freelance writing business. She earns about $10,000 per year, which is enough to cover the costs of her trips.

"My priority is to travel," she says. "I pick up writing jobs here and there but I turn down administrative work and long-term projects." Maintaining flexibility and freedom are more important to Stewart than bringing home a higher income. (See also: 11 Things Scientists Say Will Boost Your Happiness Today)

As Stewart shows, one doesn't have to be financially wealthy to build a happy retirement. Plan early, make wise choices, and be consistent: those are the keys to her retirement success.

What are you doing to prepare for retirement?

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