Everybody has this same image burned into their heads on what retirement is and supposed to be. It’s that lovely image of a deserted beach, the ocean in the background and two lounge chairs in the foreground. Take a good look at the image because that’s all it is: an image. Not everyone can achieve this retirement dream. I did. And I still do. But it’s not an easy goal to ascertain. Or maintain. Thus starts my early retirement memoir of how I came to make my daydreams come true.
From the moment I was born, when my brain was first able to structure complete sentences and I had the ability to daydream, all I ever wanted to do was retire. Why, you may ask, would a young child think of such a thing? Because I’m what the French call a ‘Flaneur‘. A flaneur is someone who is very cool, very aloof and spends his or her life observing others in an urban society. I grew up seeing my father work tirelessly day after day after day so that he could earn money. Big, big money. My mother was the same. Both my parents were self employed, ran a sweat shop filled with plastic injection machines cranking out little ophthalmic parts that eventually transformed the optical world. And their wallets.
You remember that one word advice in the movie, ‘The Graduate‘ given to Ben by a next door neighbor? “PLASTICS.” Well my parents devised a way to recreate a metal ophthalmic part in plastic, sold it for pennies (actually 10 cents apiece rather than $5 for it’s metal counterpart) and became multimillionaires after a few years of brutally hard work.
There was no heat in the winter in their sweat shop but the hot fumes off the injection molding machines kept all the workers cozy. The summers, however, were a different story. It was brutally, agonizingly hot there because there were no air conditioners. I never went to summer camp like most children. I never attended any after school programs. Nope. I had no childhood. How could I? I had to be in my parents factory each day after I got out of school and I had to work for them every summer. My parents paid me minimum wage, which back then was $1.75 an hour BUT they kept my income deposited in some minor’s account. I never saw that money. I do remember, however, one occurrence when I was a senior in high school and I wanted to hire a friend’s band to play at my graduation party. Their fee was $70. I withdrew that money out of my savings account, of which my mother quickly absconded. My friends band played for free anyway.
I refer to myself as a flaneur because I am constantly observing how other people live. I am constantly making mental notes. After I graduated high school, I got my first job outside of my parents factory working for Merrill Lynch (an investment firm) on Wall Street in New York City. I earned $2.00 an hour for a gross total of $86.54 a week. I made a friend at work who was going to college in the fall. So was I, but I didn’t tell my boss because he paid me twenty five cents an hour more than my college friend. The boss knew the college kid would be gone in September and me, as a full time employee would continue working there.
One morning, my friend and I arrived at work exactly at 9:05AM. We were five minutes late. My friend got fired. I didn’t. I remember exactly what went through my mind: how could anyone live a life this way? Can you imagine losing a job, losing money and the means to earn a living and pay your bills only to be fired because you got in to work five minutes late? We all took public transportation back then. We didn’t have cell phones or access to pay phones to contact the boss to tell him/her we’d be late. HOW IN GOD’S NAME CAN A HUMAN BEING LIVE LIKE THIS? I thought.
Thus at the age of 18 I swore to concoct a way that I’d never have to work again or depend on ‘the man’ for the food on my table, the roof over my head, the car I would drive or for any other life necessity. I was never giving anyone that dominance over my life and my livelihood.
I’ve had a lot of jobs since my high school days at Merrill Lynch. I wanted to be a graphic designer because I’m very good with art and conceptual ideas. I really wanted to go into advertising since I can sell anybody anything through my art. My parents would have none of it. They said there was no money to be made in graphic design. They forced me to go to a school specializing in Ophthalmic Dispensing. I failed miserably BUT I did manage to get my degree. I never passed the license bar but I did work several years as an Ophthalmic Assistant (those are the people who put the frames on and off your face and take measurements). All of this is moot because eventually computers took over the field and eliminated human beings.
So, my next big gig was working in the computer field. I’m self taught. I did take a few quick classes. Back in the late 1980s computers were breaking through into the finance world. I became a glorified bookkeeper, computer literate and eventually a Budget Administrator for a multi-million dollar, prestigious law firm. For the girl who couldn’t do math, I was now handling an $8 million dollar account. Quite successfully, I might add. Money management, I learned, is an art. Not a science. So, I got my creative art side finally together and I charted out my own course in life.
Back in college, many of my fellow students would summer out in The Hamptons, Long Island, New York. It was super wealthy out there, and again, as a flaneur, I spent most of my days observing, learning and daydreaming. I remember one afternoon driving along Ocean Drive in Southampton, looking at all the glorious mansions and promising myself that one day I would be living there. As college kids, my girlfriends and I pulled our money together and rented a summer share house in Hampton Bays. As soon as my mother found out about it, she called the real estate agent, told them I was under the age of 21, which made my signed contract null and void. The agent refunded my share back to me. My mother also took away my car to make sure I wasn’t able to drive the two hours it took to get out to The Hamptons over the summer.
Ten years after this incident, my mother died. In her will she left me one of the rental properties she owned. My father, however, refused to turn over the deed to me. One of my mother’s brothers was a lawyer. A simple phone call to him, telling him what my dad was doing, got me the deed to the rental property within days. I sold the rental property for $160,000 in 1985 and guess what I did with the money? I bought myself a simple, yet elegant home in The Hamptons for only $135,000. I paid cash for the house. I moved my new husband (I divorced my first husband right after I inherited the money) and my two daughters out to The Hamptons and never gave a thought about my mother ever again.
Today, that Hamptons home is worth over $1,250,000. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you want to look at it) I sold that home sixteen years after I purchased it. I had already amassed so much equity in 2001 that I was finally able to retire, full time, at the age of fifty. I haven’t worked for anyone since.
I remember succinctly when I was back working for the law firm, one of the senior partners had asked me if I ever gave thought to my retirement and if so, how did I envision my retirement? I thought about his question and responded that I loved New York, I loved the beaches in the Hamptons but I also loved the mountains of upstate New York. I also loved wintering in Florida, at the beach because winters in NY can be quite cold.
I’m happy to say that here I am, seventy years old, with twenty retirement years successfully tucked under my belt with nary a job prospect in sight and I have accomplished my daydream goal my ex-boss attorney and I had once talked about: I live mainly in the mountains in upstate New York on an 3.5 acre estate. I summer on the beaches of Newport RI and I winter on the Atlantic ocean side tony town of Vero Beach. My daydream came true.
How did I accomplish all of this? What was my plan? How did I manage? How do I pay all my bills? How did I cover medical insurance for myself for fifteen years before Medicare set in? How did I pay for my two daughters college? When I sold my Hampton home back in 2001, I had enough equity to buy the land (in a very wealthy neighborhood) custom build a home on it, pay off ALL of my debts (and swear I’d never go into debt ever again) buy hubby and I two smallish cars and set up a smallish retirement fund individually for the both of us.
Sounds easy right? Did we live happily ever after ? Not always. At times, it has been a nightmare. Woman makes plan. God laughs at her. And laugh God did. The only thing that kept me going was my final determination that I was NEVER going to work for anyone or anything (including myself) ever again. I was going to stay retired against all odds. In 2001 we got hit with the Dot Com disaster and I lost my 4 year, super successful computer business (thus one of the many reasons why I sold my Hamptons home). I literally had NO income coming in. Hubby became unemployed for 2.5 years. The housing collapse of 2008 hit us as well, but not as bad as others. The only reason why we weren’t destroyed this time around in 2008 was because we had successfully retired debt free. No mortgage. No car loans. No credit cards. No money, either. My FICO score was zero. I was still four years away from collecting Social Security at 62.
Want to know more? How did I manage to stay retired and solvent at the same time? Stay tuned. I’m just getting started. As a flaneur, I was an observer. I watched others rise from the ashes. Now, it was my turn.
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