Dear Penny: I’m a Single Mom Making $60K a Year. How Can I Retire at 45?

A woman sits with two children.
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Dear Penny,

I turn 32 this month. I have about $20,000 in savings and $20,000 in my 401(k). 

I want to be financially independent and retire once I turn 45. What would you recommend for me to do now to retire in the next 13 years? My salary is $60,000 a year, and I’m a single mom to two little ones.

-A.

Dear A.,

Let me tell you the story of a couple I’ll call Joe and Jane.

Joe and Jane worked 15-hour days at jobs they hated. Then Joe and Jane had an epiphany: Their jobs were costing them their health and happiness.

So Joe and Jane sacrificed. They lived in a tiny home. They grew their own vegetables. They even gave up Netflix!

Now Joe and Jane are 30-something-year-old retirees who travel the country in their RV while blogging about how anyone can do the same with enough discipline.

If only the world had more bloggers like the fictional Joe and Jane. I jest.

What’s often missing from the narrative: Many of the Joes and Janes earned six-figure salaries at those jobs they hated. Many are DINKs (dual income, no kids). And an awful lot of these “early retirees” we hear about earn significant money by blogging or publishing e-books about being early retirees.

So what can a single middle-class person like you or me take away from Joe and Jane’s story? Not much, I’m afraid. 

Think about your question in another way: What you’re asking is how you can save enough in the next 13 years to survive for the 40 to 50 years or more you could expect to spend in retirement if you left the workforce at 45.

Many proponents of the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) say you’ve reached financial independence — defined as the point when you have enough savings, investments and passive income to pay your expenses for the rest of your life without a traditional job — when you’ve amassed about 25 times your annual expenses.

If you’re coupled and you each net $100,000 a year, the math works out. By living frugally, you could live on 25% of your combined earnings and sock away the other 75%, which still gives you $50,000 a year to live on. For every year of work, you’d save three years’ worth of expenses.

But surviving on such a small sliver of a $60,000 income when you’re providing for two kids? It’s just not realistic.

Riley Adams, a CPA and personal finance blogger who frequently writes about financial independence at youngandtheinvested.com, told me that for a single middle-class person with dependents, the math is more likely to work out if you pursue financial independence and early retirement in your 50s. 

“To get there, however, requires considerable sacrifice by maintaining a high savings rate (30%+), allowing enough time for investment returns to compound, and also being smart about the investments you make,” he wrote in an email.

If you can’t stand the idea of working for another 20 years or more, try separating your goals of financial independence and early retirement.

Many people who have achieved financial independence aren’t retired. What financial independence gives you, Adams said, is the ability to follow your passions and work a job you love even if it doesn’t pay well, along with flexibility. 

“In many cases, financial independence is not strictly about retiring early, but more about living the life you want and on your terms,” he said.

Consider what work would look like for you if you had financial independence but didn’t retire at 45. Would you pursue an entirely different field of work? Would you have more freedom to travel? Or maybe it would simply mean fewer hours and less stress.

You may be able to identify changes that will make your working years more satisfying — and that’s important, because the years between now and your retirement matter too. 

For example, if you’re seeking greater flexibility, you might set a shorter-term goal of finding a job you can do remotely. Or maybe it means at some point taking on a side hustle you find meaningful that could eventually replace your full-time gig.

Just know that retiring at 45 is unrealistic for the vast majority of Americans. And it sounds like you’re doing just fine. You have a healthy salary and savings account. You’re starting to build a nest egg. 

You have financial stability, and that’s something to be proud of — even if financial independence and retirement are further away than you’d like.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. Send her your questions about retirement to [email protected]