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There are only 3 things you need to focus on if you want to retire early

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woman smiling

(If it's important, you'll make it happen.Luba Kozorezova/Strelka Institute/Flickr)

  • Many people want to retire early, but few are taking the steps to get there.

  • Early retirement only requires three things: earning, saving, and investing.

  • The key to reaching your early retirement goal is making those three things a priority.

Millennials aren't known for following the rules, especially when it comes to money matters.

In addition to straying from traditional banks and putting off homeownership, nearly two-thirds are hoping to quit their job and retire before age 65, according to a poll from our partner, MSN.

But early retirement may be a pipe dream for many. That same poll found nearly half of millennials are saving 5% or less of their income — far less than is needed to enjoy a 40-plus year retirement.

Chad Carson, a 37-year-old real estate investor, is spending a year in Ecuador with his wife and two daughters living entirely off of passive income — he calls it a "mini-retirement."

In a post he wrote on the personal-finance blog Budgets are Sexy, Carson explained that his "messy, mistake-ridden climb towards early retirement" taught him there are only three things anyone who's trying to become financially independent needs to focus on — and yes, that includes saving.

Here they are:

1. Build a strong source of regular income

If you don't have a way to earn money, there's no chance you're going to build wealth. The first step to financial independence is finding a regular source of income so that you are able to save and invest.

For most people, this means holding down a 9-to-5 desk job, for better or for worse.

Carson's "regular income" came from real estate properties he bought for a low price, fixed up, and flipped for a profit with his business partner. To many people, this may seem risky. After all, there's no guaranteed paycheck. Eventually, Carson had steady income flowing in from renters.

2. Save a large portion of that income

Once you have regular income, the key is not to spend it all. Learning how to live below your means when you're young will benefit you for the rest of your life.

First, take advantage of one of the easiest ways to save money: Sign up for your employer's 401(k) plan. Contributions are automatic, meaning the money is taken out before you even see it. The effort is minimal, but the eventual payoff can be huge.

You can also save money on the front-end by reducing your housing expenses so that they equal no more than 30% of your income. Carson used "house-hacking" and "live-and-flips" to live cheaply and make money at the same time.

Or you can try your hand at the "starve and stack" method: instead of subsisting on dual incomes, you and your partner limit your total spending to an amount that can be covered with just one income. Then, between the two of you, save an amount equal to 100% — or as close to that mark as you can get — of the other income. This will set you up early on with a cushy nest egg to invest.

3. Invest the savings in assets that will grow or at least not lose value

Saving a lot of money is nice, but where you put that savings can make all the difference in your path to early retirement.

Carson's investment of choice is real estate, an asset that he says generates passive income without much overhead. It's a good strategy, since he bought the 90 properties he now owns with the intention of renting them out, rather than living in them and paying the mortgage himself.

If you're not interested in real estate, the stock market is a great place to put your money — and it's not as risky as you may think. In fact, there's almost no chance a young investor will lose money in the stock market over a 40-year period.

"The beginning of any path towards financial freedom starts by deciding it's important," he wrote. "Then, with a combination of persistence, frugality, and trusted investing tools like real estate or other favorites (like stock index investing), you can reach amazing heights in your finances and your life."

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