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How to Retire By 40 According to People Who Have Done It

Before the FIRE ("financial independence, retire early") movement invaded the U.S., before there were iPhones, before there was even the internet (gasp!), Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired at the ripe ages of 38. Now entering their 29th year of retirement, the Kaderlis have more money than ever.

"For us it was a bit of a leap of faith because we didn't have anybody to mentor us or to follow," says Billy Kaderli, who was the vice president of investments and a branch manager at Dean Witter Reynolds before retiring in 1991. "Today there's so many more apps and online calculators to help you with your finances that it's gotten much easier to retire early." Their blog, RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, includes links to over 100 financial tools and calculators on its "preferred links" page.

While early retirement may be easier today than in the 90s, "easy" it is not. To retire by 40, you need to be prepared to make sacrifices today that will allow you to provide for your future. And even then, that future likely won't be shrouded in luxury.

FIRE early retirement isn't about accumulating mass wealth. It's about "buying back your time," Akaisha Kaderli says. If you want your time back, here are tips on how to retire by 40, according to people who have made it happen.

How to retire by 40:

-- Choose if you'll LeanFIRE or FatFIRE

-- Calculate how much you need to save to retire

-- Save 50 percent or more of your salary

-- Avoid lifestyle creep

-- Invest aggressively and economically

-- Have a contingency plan

LeanFIRE Versus FatFIRE

The first step to retiring by 40 is choosing your FIRE style. There are two forms of FIRE early retirement: LeanFIRE focuses on keeping retirement expenses low (according to the LeanFIRE Reddit community that's under $40,000 per year) so you can retire with less savings.

FatFIRE, on the other hand, is for early retirees who want a more cush retirement lifestyle (think an annual expense budget of $150,000 and up), and are willing to save up to provide for it.

"LeanFIRE types would benefit more from setting up side hustle income streams before retirement," says LeanFIRE-ee Steve Adcock, who retired at 35 and now helps others do the same on ThinkSaveRetire.com.

[See: 9 Dividend ETFs for Reliable Retirement Income.]

But while the larger financial cushion of FatFIRE means you're less likely to need supplemental income in retirement, you may have a higher hill to climb pre-retirement to build up your savings.

How Much Do I Need to Retire by 40?

Two factors go into how much you need to retire early: your anticipated annual retirement expenses and the percentage of your portfolio those expenses make up.

According to the Trinity Study, retirees can withdraw up to 4 percent (adjusted for inflation) each year in retirement without depleting their portfolio over a 30-year period. If you're planning to retire by 40, however, you may be looking at a lot more than 30 years of retirement.

To compensate for a longer retirement, some early retirees target a 3 percent withdrawal rate. Erin Brand, wealth strategist at PNC Wealth Management, suggests going even more conservative with a 2 percent annual withdrawal rate.

The Kaderlis withdraw 1 to 2 percent on average each year and have successfully grown their portfolio throughout retirement.

To calculate how much you need to retire, take your anticipated annual expenses and divide it by your target withdrawal rate. For example, if you plan to spend $50,000 per year in retirement and want to withdraw 2 percent, you'd need $50,000 divided by 0.02, or $2.5 million to retire.

Save 50 Percent of Your Salary or More

Early retirees face a unique challenge to saving for retirement: Salaries for most college graduates peak in their 40s. If you retire at 40, you'll be handicapping your savings by not contributing to your retirement accounts during your peak earning years.

If your employer provided a 401(k) match or pension, "the earlier you retire, the more of that you're giving up," too, Brand says.

Retiring at 40 also leaves you without access to Social Security or Medicare for 12 to 15 years into retirement, leaving you with one less source of retirement income and one more bill to foot.

And when you do reach full retirement age, your Social Security benefit will be reduced due to your lower average earnings. Billy Kaderli recommends creating a My Social Security account at ssa.gov to compare how much retiring early will reduce your Social Security benefit.

All these savings hurdles mean early retirees need to be saving 50 percent or more of their salaries each year. "It sounds hard and initially it is," Adcock says, "but when you look at what you're spending on, so much of it is stuff you either don't need or don't use."

The last couple years before retirement, he and his wife saved 70 percent of their income.

To ramp up savings, "attack the biggest expenses first: housing, cars and food," says Chris Mamula, who retired at age 41 after burning out in his career as a physical therapist. He now shares his FIRE retirement wisdom on CanIRetireYet.com. "By optimizing those areas (of your budget), you can develop a high savings rate."

Avoid Lifestyle Creep

Essential to keeping your expenses down, and by extension your savings rate up, is keeping your lifestyle in check. Most people let their lifestyles and spending be defined by their income. If they earn $70,000, they spend $70,000. And when they get a $5,000 raise, they find $5,000 worth of additional things to spend it on.

"Once you inflate your lifestyle it's hard to go back," Mamula says. "Dissociate spending and earning. What you need to live has nothing to with what you earn."

He and his wife (neither of whom ever made a six-figure salary) always lived off of only one salary and "never felt like we were sacrificing."

[See: 7 Ways to Retire Without Social Security.]

"Lifestyle creep is very deceiving because you don't know it's happening until it gets to be too much," Adcock says. If you want to retire early, you need to be living well below your means and investing every bonus and raise.

How to Invest to Retire by 40

Investing is essential to retiring by 40. Early retirees need the compound long-term growth investments provide. Without it, they're likely to run out of money in retirement, or never reach their retirement savings goals.

In general, be as aggressive with your investments as you can tolerate. A "50-50, stock-to-bond portfolio probably won't work because you have such a long timeframe and need to account for inflation," Mamula says.

That said, "the most important thing is that you don't panic" and pull out of the market, he adds. If you can't tolerate the choppiness of a 100 percent equity portfolio, don't use one.

This highlights an important facet of early retirement: It's not for the risk-averse. The stock market may average 7 to 8 percent after inflation, but "it doesn't go up in a straight line," Billy Kaderli says. To accommodate for this, he tells early retirees to keep a couple years' worth of expenses in cash so you don't have to sell in a down market.

The Kaderlis had their entire portfolio in Vanguard's S&P 500 fund (ticker: VFINX) when they retired. Today, at 66 years of age, they've shifted to a 60-40 stock-bond/cash allocation, but the majority remains in either the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF ( VTI) or the SPDR S&P 500 ETF ( SPY).

The key is to start investing as early as possible. The longer you give your investments to grow, the more likely they are to match the stock market's long-term average return. Looking back, the Kaderlis both they wish they'd started investing earlier.

Minimize Your Investment Expenses

Investing is another area to pay close attention to cost. Every dollar that goes toward investment fees is a dollar not being used to grow your retirement savings.

If your mutual funds charge a 1 percent expense ratio and your financial advisor charges an additional 1 percent, you're already spending 2 percent per year on investment fees alone, Mamula says. Going back to the 4 percent rule, "if you have to pay 2 percent just to manage your money, you're down to only 2 percent" left to spend in retirement.

If you're investing in passive index funds, aim to keep your expense ratios at 0.1 percent or lower. Of course, the lower the better.

Have a Contingency Plan

Perhaps the best thing you can do for your early retirement is to have a contingency plan. Mamula is maintaining his physical therapy license so he can go back to work temporarily if needed. Their house is also a prime AirBnB venue.

Adcock and his wife built flexibility into their retirement budget by keeping discretionary spending their largest expense. "Initially you might think we're just wasting money on things we don't need but the benefit of increasing your discretionary money is you could also cut that stuff back when you have to," he says.

The Kaderlis minimize expenses by living in areas with low costs of living like Mesa, Arizona, and Lake Chapala, Mexico, their current balmy residence. While they've also monetized their blog, it's really a labor of love. "If we stopped it tomorrow, it wouldn't affect our lifestyle one bit," Billy says.

[See: 6 Strategies to Avoid Working in Retirement.]

You can't control all the risks associated with early retirement, "but what you can control is having a plan," Brand says. To this end, she recommends all future retirees -- of the FIRE and conventional variety -- speak with a financial advisor to stress test their portfolio against various scenarios.

"Once you pull the switch (on retirement), there's no going back," she says.

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