Jackie Cummings Koski has been a member of her local investment club for 11 years and is now on the board of directors — but when she first started out, she had little money to her name and no clear path to financial freedom.
Divorce inspired this woman to learn about money and she retired early
Koski joined the club so that she could improve her knowledge about investing, but it was also where she was able to openly talk about her divorce and find meaningful ways to provide security — for herself and her young daughter. Each fellow member became something of a mentor to her, and the discussions were inviting. “It was all very uplifting,” she said.
Joining the investment club, along with following a budget and spending well under her means, has made the former saleswoman financially independent. In the last 11 years, the single mother has gone from $20,000 in her 401(k) at the time of her divorce to $1.3 million, and she’s now a financial counselor to others. She reached financial independence at 46, and retired three years later.
Mentorships, whether one-on-one or in a group, can be crucial to achieving goals. Connecting on a personal level helps. When Koski works with her clients, including high-school students and those in underserved populations, she talks about growing up in rural poverty, with a single father who had a sixth-grade education and was raising six children.
“All of those things play into how hard it was in the very beginning,” she said. “Going from poverty to financially independent — that’s a path that most people I’m working with can get and connect with.”
The FIRE movement, short for “financial independence, retire early,” has no shortage of inspiring stories about people who cut their spending in half, downsized their homes or took on numerous jobs to save as much as possible. But not everyone can follow that path. Some FIRE bloggers may also not be aware of the subtle advantages they had growing up, such as starting out in a middle-class family or living in an area with public transportation to get to the library or a job.
Koski has followed a few of the mainstays of the FIRE movement, however, such as slashing spending and investing much of the rest. As a sales representative at LexisNexis, her salary varied from year to year with an average of about $80,000, but she spent between $40,000 to $45,000 a year and put the rest away.
The early retiree pointed out that this wouldn’t be possible everywhere — she lives in Ohio, where home prices are not nearly as high as some major hubs like New York City or San Francisco — so her mortgage, taxes and insurance amounted to about $1,000 a month. Still, she was careful with her money. She’d buy a luxury vehicle, but one that was three to five years old and with a price tag half of what it was when it was new. She worked only a few miles away from home, so gas wasn’t a huge budget item. She didn’t deprive herself of spending on food, and would go out to eat for lunch or dinner.
“I didn’t design my life to live off of $45,000,” she said. “I backed into it and discovered that my expenses were $45,000.” At the same time, she was maxing out all of her investment accounts, including her 401(k), individual retirement account and a Health Savings Account.
Immersing yourself in an environment that supports the same values and goals is important. Koski was the first in her family to graduate college, and didn’t have many sources for advice about finances when she was starting out — so she figured it out on her own. “By changing my environment, I was exposed to different things,” she said.
The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to worsen future retirement security, and in some cases has already deteriorated Americans’ current well-being, but people may be able to use this time to learn more about money and their own personal finances, Koski said. People can turn to the internet, books or maybe even an investing club (socially distanced, of course) to learn more about saving, budgets, investing and personal finance topics.
Savers can also use this time to reflect on what’s working financially, what isn’t, what goals they’d like to achieve and dig into why they behave the way they do with their money. Breaking down what it would take to reach that goal is an eye-opener. For example, Koski tells students and aspiring investors that saving $50 a week for 40 years can get someone to $1 million.
“You’re not going to be saving or investing unless in your mind you believe it will make a difference,” she said. “It may take a while to really get your head around things like me, but it happens, and when it does, it is very, very powerful.”