To retire with $1 million used to be aspirational — and enviable. Today, however, that is the minimum goal for many people seeking a comfortable retirement.
In “Here’s What a $1 Million Retirement Looks Like in America,” The Wall Street Journal profiles four retirement success stories that reveal the importance of careful spending, setting goals, minding one’s health, enjoying travel, reveling in grandchildren and, if possible, continuing to earning an income.
When Ira Clement’s mother died less than 48 hours after retiring in 2002, she rolled back her own retirement date by 20 years to her mid-40s.
Doing away with or minimizing all of one’s debt factors into each plan. So has inflation, causing many retirees to curb even simple frills, like home grocery delivery. A few have moved away from urban areas to less expensive areas of the country with lower real estate taxes, and outdoors or coastal appeal.
The lucky ones have pensions, fairly generous Social Security benefits, know how to invest wisely and continue to save. One, a former university president, only began saving for retirement with purpose in her 50s, and another, a former airline pilot, was laid off from a six-figure job after 9/11.
48-Hour Wake-Up Call
Ira Clement, who has $1.6 million in savings and investments and who lives on income of $50,000 a year, retired at the age of 46, a few years after her mother died less than 48 hours after she herself retired in 2002.
The tax attorney and certified public accountant had planned to work into her 60s but decided to take just two years off after her mother’s passing, to rethink her life.
Those two years turned into 15 for the now 60-year-old, who has been fruitfully investing her money and traveling the world in the years since.
“My mother raised me to feel comfortable taking chances,” says the Cliffside Park, N.J., resident, who’s been to Sicily, Croatia and Slovenia. More impressively, Clement had $1.1 million when she retired — now built up to $1.6 million through sound investments.
Clement says a big part of her success is having moved $500,000 of her investments out of the stock and bond markets, into certificates of deposit. She also is very careful about her spending.
In between travel, Clement pores through travel books for inspiration. When she does venture forth, she uses credit card and hotel points to lower airfare and lodging, and prefers vacation rentals and local hotels to international chains.
Single, Clement relies on photography that she chronicles on Instagram, for company on her world travels.
“I would be bored it I didn’t have this hobby as part of my travel, and that focus means I am much more comfortable traveling alone,” she says.
Drawing on Financial Training
William and Debbie McKinney say the best thing they have done since retiring was not trading stocks — but ZIP Codes.
The couple, both 71, who have a $1 million retirement nest egg, moved from West Nyack, N.Y., to a $1.4 million house they built in 2017 in Newport, N.C., with direct water views.
The couple pays $3,000 a year in property taxes, down from $15,000, and $250 a month for utilities, half of what it cost up north.
William McKinney, a former finance executive at a New York jewelry company, was forced into retirement in 2008 when his employer filed for bankruptcy. He was able to stay on with the firm for two years as a consultant and then found a six-month gig as an insurance, stock and annuity salesman on commission.
That training is what has enabled McKinney to day trade the savings he and his wife, a former daycare teacher, had built up.
Ever since the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates earlier this year, McKinney has moved $700,000 of the couple’s portfolio out of bonds into stocks, which he monitors most weekdays by poring over financial news and the markets.
When McKinney is not taking care of his investments, he is scuba diving and, with his wife, enjoying his three grandchildren who live nearby.
An active retiree, William McKinney takes them fishing and challenges them to games of tennis.
The couple is fortunate enough to also receive a nearly $1,000 monthly pension and $4,500 in Social Security. They live on $1,500 to $3,000 a month and have no debt, including no mortgage.
Unforeseen Health Problems
Jeff and Deborah Goldman, who have $1.6 million saved and spend an average of $62,000 a year, have had their share of unexpected setbacks.
“We thought about retirement quite a bit,” says Jeff Goldman, 65, a former U.S. Air Force pilot. “We had a list of places we wanted to see together.”
An injury and an illness have kept the Mesquite, Nev., couple mostly homebound. “I have good days and bad days, and sometimes I don’t do much, either,” the former pilot says.
The couple also experienced a financial setback when the airline Goldman had joined after retiring from the military laid him off following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I had never been forcibly unemployed in my life,” he says. “There’s no way to plan for losing a six-figure job.”
Facing the sudden “shock,” Jeff Goldman liquidated his retirement savings account, even though it meant paying the 10% early withdrawal penalty, and began working with a financial adviser.
“You have to challenge yourself and not let the fear of the unknown paralyze you.”
He was also fortunate enough for the airline to rehire him in 2008, where he maxed out his 401(k) savings at around $35,000 a year, including his employer’s contribution.
Only a year later, though, Deborah Goldman was diagnosed with kidney and liver failure, forcing him to scale back his hours. Then, in 2010, he hurt his neck and had to go on disability.
In August, Jeff Goldman turned 65, which meant that his disability benefit ended. That reduced the couple’s annual income from $110,000 to $62,000.
Today, they have a $1,200 monthly mortgage on their home. After paying that and bills for groceries, utilities and medical costs, including unexpected dental procedures, the Goldmans have about $500 a month left over.
With inflation yet another challenge to contend with, Goldman says: “We are economizing wherever we can.”
A Mid-50s Enlightenment
Connie Gores, a 68-year-old retired university president, has $1.1 million in savings and investments. Like the other retirees in the expose, she spends $50,000 to $60,000 a year.
But Gores says she would not even be in such a good position had it not been for a financial adviser she encountered in her mid 50s who looked over her $250,000 in total retirement savings, to his, and her, great surprise.
The adviser told Gores that if she did not start saving more, she’d end up with only Social Security benefits to live on. That’s when she upped her game and started socking away 26% of her $250,000 income.
One of the lucky ones, in terms of health and job opportunities, Gores works 15 to 20 hours a work as an executive coach and consultant making $2,500 a month. She receives another $2,500 a month from Social Security.
A divorced mother of two and grandmother of three, the former educator says her primary goal in retirement is to serve others. She baby-sits her grandchildren 10 hours a week and volunteers in her granddaughter’s second-grade classroom. She belongs to a few charitable boards and participates in a book club.
Gores recently enrolled in salsa and belly-dancing classes.
Summing up the experience of each of these cheerful retirees, she says of their golden years, “You have to challenge yourself and not let the fear of the unknown paralyze you.”
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