My Good Fortune

Kristine Hayes

I RETIRED ON MAY 27, 2022, which was my 55th birthday. I chose my birthday because it was the earliest date I could leave my job and still be eligible to receive the early retiree health-care benefit offered by my employer.

Mentally, I was ready to go. I’d been employed at a small liberal arts college for 24 years. I’d been there long enough to see an almost complete turnover of the faculty and staff in my department. I struggled to find purpose in my work. I felt out of touch with most of my coworkers. I had grown weary of various pandemic-related restrictions and protocols that had dominated campus life for more than two years.

Financially, I felt unsure about leaving behind my $75,000-a-year salary. I had been working fulltime since I was in my mid-20s. For 30 years, I’d been accustomed to getting a regular paycheck, paid time-off and a variety of other work-related benefits. I wasn’t sure how my husband and I would cope living solely on his retirement income.

A year later, I feel more comfortable with our financial situation.

On the day I left my job behind, I started a two-day road trip from Portland, Oregon, to Phoenix. My husband was already living in the home we’d purchased in a Phoenix suburb in 2019. The trip gave me plenty of time to contemplate how I was able to turn my dream of retiring at age 55 into reality. In the HumbleDollar book, My Money Journey, I describe the frugality that was necessary to retire at a relatively young age. But I also realize that luck—and timing—have played a significant role in my financial success.

I graduated without student debt. When I went to college in the late 1980s, it wasn’t difficult to graduate debt-free. By attending public colleges, earning scholarships and working part-time, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree without taking out any loans.

I was steadily employed for 30 years. I feel fortunate I made the choice to work in academia at a time when enrollment at higher education institutions was steadily increasing. Working at colleges and universities meant earning a modest salary. But it also meant never being subjected to lay-offs, downsizing or other staff reduction strategies.

I received generous benefits from my employers. While employed at my first job, I became vested in a lucrative pension. Two years after I quit, the pension benefits were significantly reduced. Being vested allowed me to keep my money in the original plan.

I had similar luck with my final employer. Five years after I started my college job, the retiree health-care benefit I’m now receiving was discontinued. I was still eligible to receive it by maintaining my fulltime work status for more than 20 years. Both my pension and health coverage are lifetime benefits, so they could help me financially for the next 30-plus years.

The real estate market has been good to me. All three of the homes I purchased during my working years appreciated while I was living in them. But it was the third home I owned that proved to me just how much luck and timing can positively affect a person’s financial success.

I bought my third home in 2018, shortly before getting remarried. I knew purchasing a house four years before I was hoping to retire was a gamble. It was possible I might not recoup my down payment—much less make a profit—by buying and selling in such a short time frame. To make matters worse, I was a buyer at a time when the market clearly favored sellers.

During the first 18 months my husband and I lived in the house, its estimated value didn’t change. Various online real estate websites suggested it would sell for the same or slightly less than the $375,000 I’d paid. I knew that, by the time a real-estate agent’s commission was subtracted, I could end up losing a fair amount of money when it came time to sell.

By late 2020, it was clear the property market was changing. Homes in our Portland suburb were selling within days of being listed. Prices seemed to be heading upward. For the first time, I believed there was a chance I’d break even when it came time to sell.

In September 2021, my mother sold her house. She lived less than a mile from my husband and me. My mom’s home was almost identical in size and style to ours. When the real estate agent suggested she list it for $500,000, I was skeptical. But when her house ended up selling for some $65,000 over the asking price, I became a believer. With my target retirement date of May 2022 in sight, I could only hope the housing market wouldn’t crash before I could take advantage.

In February 2022, my husband and I put our house on the market. Within 48 hours, we accepted an all-cash offer of $600,000. In addition, the buyer waived all of the inspections and allowed us to stay in the home rent-free until we needed to move out. Walking away with more than $250,000 in cash, just weeks before I retired, removed some of the anxiety I’d been feeling about leaving a regular paycheck behind.

My husband and I pulled the plug on a business opportunity in the nick of time. Shortly after moving to Arizona, we contemplated opening a dog training business. Both of us have been lifelong dog owners. We’ve trained our own dogs in a variety of sports. We thought it would be fun and profitable to open a dog training center in our community.

We found a small retail space that was available to lease. We started planning renovations, applying for permits and purchasing equipment. But when it came time to sign the lease, we balked. The terms would require us to make a 36-month commitment. We’d be responsible for much of the maintenance on the space. We calculated the overall cost of running the business for three years would be well over $100,000.

The day before we were set to sign the lease, we changed our business strategy. Rather than renting a space, we decided to offer in-home dog training lessons. We were able to get the business up and running for less than $2,500.

Forgoing that original business plan may be the single best financial decision I’ve ever been a part of. It’s clear my husband and I both overestimated the need and desire of people in our community for dog training. After almost a year of offering our services, we’re barely making a profit.

I’ll never know what my financial life would look like today if any one, or all, of the above life events had played out differently. Perhaps I’d be wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Or maybe I’d be broke and forced to work for another decade or more. For now, I’m content with exactly what I have.

Kristine Hayes Nibler retired in 2022, and she and her husband now live in Arizona. She enjoys spending her time reading, writing and training their four dogsCheck out Kristine’s earlier articles.

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