This 72-Year-Old is Retiring the Right Way …

I'm in awe of my 72-year-old parents who completely succeeded in retiring the right way. They saved only for 20 years and travel around the globe now.

The coolest retirement everMy 72-year-old dad just announced that he’s learning to drive a stick-shift. Why? Because he wants to drive – instead of relying on taxis or buses – when he travels to countries that only have manual transmissions.

And he goes to a lot of other countries. Last year he and my 72-year-old mom flew to Russia. “Why Russia?,” I asked my parents. “Because we’ve never seen it,” they replied.

When they returned, they bought a ticket to Brazil. This year, they invited me to join them in Iceland.

My parents, in short, have the coolest retirement ever. And what’s crazy is that they didn’t start saving for retirement until their 40s. That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that if you don’t start saving for retirement by age 25, you’re totally screwed.

Path to the Coolest Retirement Ever

My parents arrived penniless in the United States when they were in their mid-30s. They came from Nepal, a country where plenty of people make less than $1 a day, and a “good salary” is the equivalent of $200 – $500 U.S. dollars per month. That money stretches a lot further in Nepal, to be fair, but it certainly didn’t help them out when they landed on the “shores” (the tarmac) of Pennsylvania.

My dad got his first “real” job at age 40, earning $20,000 per year, living in Ohio. His car broke down as he drove to his first day on the job. My mom worked in the Sears credit department for two years, then stayed at home to raise me.

Neither of them knew much about stocks or investing. They stuck with mutual funds. They tried managing a 4-unit apartment building, but sold it when they realized they didn’t want to call plumbers and install doors. They didn’t flip houses during the bubble or cash out in some tech-startup IPO.

Yet by the time they both turned 60, only 20 years after they began working, they were ready to retire. They probably could have done it sooner if they weren’t raising little ol’ me.

And they don’t have some meager eating-TV-dinners type of retirement. They have a lets-fly-to-Bali type of retirement.

“Have you tried the eye tracking on the new Samsung Galaxy S4?,” my dad asked me the last time I went to his house.

“What’s eye tracking?” I replied.

He shook his head woefully. “You’re so behind the times.” Then he showed me his new MacBook Air.

They have zero personal debt. They paid off their mortgage within 7 or 8 years. They’ve never taken out a car loan and they’ve never carried a credit card balance.

When I called them a few months ago to see if they wanted to meet for dinner, they replied, “Sorry, we have concert tickets for tonight.”

Concert tickets? Granted, it was for a classical Indian musician, which makes it a little more normal. I guess. At least they’re not partying with Pink Floyd.

“How about tomorrow?” I asked.

“We’re having dinner with the neighbors.”

“Day after tomorrow?”

“We’re busy.”

I finally managed to get them to pencil me in for a Tuesday night. My parents have a social life that could put any twentysomething to shame.

They visited Bali a few months ago. They traveled alone to Myanmar (Burma) after I raved about how much I loved it. They visited me in Spain, Cambodia, Vietnam and New Zealand during my two-year backpacking stint.

Just Begin

There are two points I want to make with this story. The first is a message of hope to all of you who didn’t start saving for retirement in your early twenties. Most financial advice says that Armageddon will fall upon you if you get a late start. Don’t panic. You still have time. You’ll still be okay.

Yes, it’s true: The younger you are when you start saving for retirement, the better. And you’ll never be younger than you are today. That’s why you should start now.

But don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t start early. Just begin.

Two Decades of Work, Lifetime of Leisure

My second message is that conventional wisdom, which states that it takes 40+ years to adequately save for retirement, might be overblown. My parents retired after only 20 years while operating a one-income household (working dad, stay-at-home mom).

As you might guess, they weren’t buying tech gadgets and flying to Iceland during those years. Their 40s were much more frugal. We shopped at TJ Maxx, avoided restaurants, and drove a 15-year-old car.

“Why would I want to live like that, just so I can have a bunch of money when I’m 70?”

First, because 70 is the new 50. (Yeah, I said it.) When you’re 70, you’re still pretty darn young. You’re young enough to download video game apps onto your new iPad, stay out late at concerts and drive a stick-shift. You’re probably not chugging beer out of a funnel anymore, but otherwise you’re still raging strong.

Second, because peace-of-mind is worth a lot. You don’t want to be a 70-year-old stress case.

Finally, because we never felt deprived. We went to sleep every night with full bellies and a warm house. I went to a good school. What else did we need?

Yes, you should still enjoy today. Don’t get so obsessed with retirement that you forget the present moment. Travel when you’re young AND when you’re old. The world will change a lot in the next few decades. You’ll get to watch it happen.

But don’t forget that packing your lunch to work, brewing your own coffee, driving an old car – that’s not really a sacrifice, is it? Not compared to what you’ll gain.


  1. says

    That’s a great story. It sounds like they’re doing it up right while hopefully keeping an eye on the future as the money they have will need to last them for another couple of decades.

  2. says

    Your parents are awesome. You are right the key is to just begin. I’m still in debt, but slowly and being more smart with my spending I’m hoping to be out of debt within the next year.

  3. says

    You should go to Iceland! We went during the Christmas season and had a blast! They really get into their holidays. Of course, when there’s only about 5 hours of sun a day, you need a reason to keep yourself happy.

    Seriously, your parents’ story is just another example of why the doom-and-gloom victim mentalists are dead wrong. Hard work + smart decisions + realistic expectations = getting what you want.

  4. says

    Your blog is rapidly becoming my absolute favorite PF blog, and I read a lot of them. This post is fantastic… I started saving for retirement in my early 20’s, but only enough to get my employer’s matching contribution and not a penny more. I save a lot more now at age 33, but I’ve felt a lot of regret about not saving more sooner. This post made me feel less guilty and a lot less like I’m hopelessly behind. Hooray!

    • says

      @Angela — Thank you! At 33, you’ve got years (and years and years) ahead of you, which you can spend creating the most awesome lifestyle you’ve ever wanted. You’re definitely NOT hopelessly behind … in fact, I’m betting that relative to many of your peers, you’re ahead of the game. :-)

  5. says

    Although my Dad died when I was 12 years old, my parents were pretty well set for life. They went through The Great Depression relatively unscathed perhaps effortlessly. They semi retired in their 60s, but sty busy. They were able to do that by living frugally through out their lives. My Mom lived to a few weeks short of 99 years old comfortably.

  6. says

    LOOOOVED this post! You sound like a family of exceptional people with a flare for experiential living and learning. May your travels always be interesting and your camera’s aim be true!

  7. says

    I’m all for frugality. However, I think the concept glosses over what people spend money on and get into debt for. I’m reminded of this today, as a friend posted about dental work. Driving an old car? Packing lunches? You’re right – not a sacrifice. Walking around with teeth missing? Sacrifice. And one that a whole lot of people are not going to make.

  8. says

    Thanks so much for sharing this article. I’m 53 and started retirement savings late. It can be discouraging to always read about starting young. I’ve been working hard, trying to catch up and it blesses me whenever I read something that inspires and encourages me in my journey. God bless

    • says

      @El — I’m so glad to hear that you’re working hard towards saving for retirement. Don’t worry … I think the financial press does a terrible job at reassuring people that even if you started late, it’s okay, because you can still have an awesome retirement. And with some careful planning, I’m sure that you will!

  9. says

    Thanks for sharing this! As I stare down the end of my 30’s in mere days, it is good to see that “all is not lost” simply because of my age. There’s no age requirement for building income streams and saving!!

  10. says

    I didn’t know you were Indian. (Is that how you say it?)

    My wife’s parents came here from Cuba after Castro took over the country. The father worked also for ~ 20-25 years with Sears selling furniture. Mother became a part time college professor.

    They put their son through med school and took trips to Europe.

    I just read a book about a guy from India who writes about becoming a millionaire in 14 years. Frugality, hard work. And he didn’t trust the stock market.

    • says

      @Mike — Good for your wife’s parents for coming to the U.S.! This is a fantastic country full of opportunity. I’m Nepalese (or Nepali — both terms are correct) and a big fan of becoming a millionaire by upping your earnings. I do believe in the stock market with regards to buying index funds for the long-term; I don’t believe in active day trading.

  11. says

    I want to be just like your parents. We are starting “late” after spending many years getting a PhD (him) and having 3 babies (me/us). We have debt and we are in our mid thirties. We sometimes feel a bit…deflated? Like we are the hamster running on the wheel and going nowhere. You have rejuvenated my desire to keep driving our 11 year old van, and keep living frugally. Thank you!

  12. says

    Wow – this is, in my opinion, your best post yet! Thank you!

    I’m 43 and have *some* retirement savings, but when I read of others who are in their 20s and already have as much as I do in pensions, and I read other info from ‘experts’ telling me I need more, more MORE in my retirement fund or I’ll have a pitiful retirement existence, it distresses me.

    Reading this post is like a shot of relief! It makes me feel more optimistic, even though when I bought my flat I paid 1 1/2 times what the same property went for 10 years before.

    My parents raised 4 children, mostly on 1 income. My Dad worked in, and then owned, the family’s business (a toy shop – not great when there’s a recession) from age 15 to retirement. We didn’t have new clothes, days out, or anything expensive when I was a child. My parents are in their mid-70s now and have retired to the country and, like yours, are visiting the countries they never got to visit when they were working. They’ve started going on cruises! My Dad’s new hobby is shopping! (And they’re never in when I call!)

    I have absolutely *no* idea how they did it – other than hard work, sacrifice of luxuries (which, really, they’d never had, and so didnt miss – they grew up during WWII), and discipline.

    I’m so happy that they’re getting to enjoy their retirement, and I totally believe it’s really down to what *you* preach here: don’t spend money on things that don’t matter, so you can enjoy spending on things that do :-)

    • says

      Beth, you hit the nail on the head!! Money management all comes down to your goals and values. Instead of spending mindlessly on stuff that doesn’t matter, direct your money EXACTLY where you want it to go: retirement, travel, and whatever else you value most. Who cares if you have to sacrifice so-called “luxuries” — like you said, you can’t miss what you never had!

  13. says

    I get the email subscription and I think this is my favorite post of all time. I think those who read are very into travel, retiring early, and investment rentals, so hitting 2 out of 3 made me read this one twice.

    Gives everyone a little hope who are in the process or a little behind on the retirement plan.

    I write a blog for fun and maybe money one day and in honor of this post, I’m going to talk specifically about this one, loved it! Thank you.

  14. says

    Thanks for the reminder of why I pay so much attention to this stuff. Sometimes all the spreadsheets can take a toll and make you forget your end game.

  15. says

    I left an earlier message saying how much I enjoyed the post and really applies to those who want to travel and retire by enjoying it all the way through.

    My plan is to dedicate a post to this very topic and link and reference some of the great items discussed here. Here’s to hoping this one makes it through.

    • says

      @Finance and Fitness — I’ll look for your other one! I have to manually “approve” comments from first-time commenters (or from commenters that my blogging platform doesn’t recognize), so sometimes it takes a couple days. Thanks for being persistent … and I’m glad that you liked the post so much!!

  16. says

    Seems like your parents are having a great time. I think the no debt is key. You really don’t need to have as much as some people think especially if your car and mortgage are paid off. Travel is fun and kudos to your dad for learning how to drive a manual transmission.

  17. says

    Your parents sound awesome! I can see myself doing all those things in my 70s (sans the stick-shift thing — I can already do that). 😀

  18. says

    Please let me pass on a bit of wisdom (sheesh, I feel so old writing that! {wink}). I’m 57 with minimal retirement preparations (just some old IRA money from my youth; amazingly locked into a 6% CD till next year!). My “retirement” (right now) is the small manufacturing company I inherited, and I hope will continue to provide. Your blog entry gives me hope and motivation where I’ve been feeling pretty hopeless. My husband of 17 years died two years ago, and left me with a big debt ($50k) and no money — but thankfully, I’m (now) able to run the company and am paying down the debt. (But that’s not the wisdom — although we tried to prepare our lives for possible tragedy and we missed some huge things… but that’s for another blog entry!)

    The amazing thing I DO HAVE — and cannot ever lose — is my memories of our cruises, our trips across country to see family, our (8-yrs-long) “every Friday lunch at the Japanese steak house” (and how the staff gathered around and supported me when he died!).

    Would I have rather been left with no debt? Silly question. But — would I rather have been left with no debt but also no amazing memories of our trips and friends and fun and time away from the daily grind with the man of my heart, the center of my life?! NOT FOR ANYTHING!

    I always remember losing a good bit of respect for Suze Orman when a woman wrote in and said she’d inherited $10k from a relative, and she wanted to put $5k into retirement savings and spend the rest on a cruise. Suze said it was a bad idea, and to put the whole thing into retirement, that “she could cruise with her husband when they retired.”

    Alas, that is SO not guaranteed!

    I’m not suggesting jeopardizing your financial life — but don’t become so focused on ‘frugality and savings’ that you lose something worth SO MUCH MORE! I have pictures I can pore over of Michael and me in Iceland, in London, in the Caribbean, in the Med, in Alaska.

    I mentioned we were married for 17 years? One cruise a year, no other vacations (except trips on frequent flyer miles to see my family). Our only ‘dining out’ was our every Friday lunch. Yes, it was $50 a week — but it was also our *only* dining out, and $50 a week would not provide us with retirement! It would and did provide us with great pleasure, and me with great memories.

    Just started reading your blog, and am enjoying it!

  19. says

    Great points. It always amazes me that some folks can make a great salary for 40 years or more and have little or nothing to show for it. You can have great memories today as well without spending a fortune on it. For us, camping, picnics and swimming with the kids provide the same quality family experiences as taking an expensive cruise.

  20. says

    This is a great post! It open our eyes to the fact that it’s still possible to retire with not only monetary health, but also physical health when we’re older! Many of us still have time to do what your parents have done — but it takes discipline and patience.

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