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An Early Start

Judy Brassaw

WHEN I WAS AGE SEVEN or eight, I had a glass piggybank where I saved all the small change that came my way. I loved the sight of all this money that I could save or spend as I pleased.  

One day, my mom needed to go to the grocery store for some bread and found she didn’t have enough cash. She asked to borrow from my almost-full bank. I gave the money to her, after securing a promise that she’d pay it back. She did so. That experience taught me that having some savings could come in handy. 

Indeed, I was an avid saver from the time I started getting a paycheck. My first job was during high school, when I was a part-time admissions clerk at a hospital. After community college, I became a dental assistant, which was my first fulltime job. For a few years, I had a number of temporary administrative jobs, as I explored work outside of dentistry. But I went back to being a dental assistant in 1976. That helped me to survive financially during my 1978 divorce from my first husband.

In the mid-1970s, banks started offering IRAs, and it seemed like the perfect vehicle for setting aside funds for my future self. Almost every year after that, I made sure to contribute the maximum amount allowed. 

After I met my second—and last—husband, we bought a 68-foot sailboat, which we lived on for the first few years of our marriage. In 1986, we decided to take the boat on what turned out to be an 18-month trip to Mexico. That meant we didn’t work for a long stretch, but the experiences we had were so memorable that I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. 

By the time we returned to the U.S., we were broke and had to go back to work. I started reading up on investing, and that’s when I realized that we had to save a hefty sum to supplement Social Security. I started tracking my expenses in a small notebook and created a budget for myself. After I went to work as a fiscal analyst and administrator for California State University, Long Beach, I got even more serious about saving.  

Meanwhile, beginning in 1988, my husband and I started investing in rental real estate in northwest Montana. At the time, my husband was an avid skier, and the town we visited had—and still has—a wonderful ski resort. During his 30s, before I met him, he decided to take some extended time off to be a “ski bum.” But even as a ski bum, he noticed the crucial role played by rental properties in the many ski towns he visited across the western U.S. 

After we started acquiring Montana rental properties, we made the drive—and occasional flight—from California every six to eight weeks to check on our properties and to make periodic repairs. It was time-consuming, but we looked at these trips as necessary for our future retirement.  

I ended up retiring early, at age 50, when we moved to Montana fulltime to look after the real estate. Fifteen years later, at age 65, I took a serious look at my retirement stash and was pleasantly surprised by my account balances. TIAA-CREF, the company that oversaw the university’s employee retirement funds, does a great job of offering a variety of investment vehicles, including both stock funds and stable-value funds. That year, I annuitized all my TIAA-CREF funds, turning them into a monthly payment that I’ll receive for the rest of my life.  

I waited until age 70 to claim Social Security based on my own earnings record, after enjoying my spousal benefit for a few years. This option—getting spousal benefits first and then a benefit based on your own earnings record—is, unfortunately, no longer available to retirees.  

We started selling off some of the rental real estate several years ago, though we still own six rental units. My husband was getting tired of dealing with the work involved. He also had some health issues. That was a reminder that we’d bought the properties for our “golden” years and—surprise, surprise—we were now there. 

Even though I never made a lot of money during my working years, the fact that I started saving so young meant I got a lot of help from compounding. Now, at age 74, I think the most important thing I can tell young people is to start saving early and then leave your money to grow. When you reach retirement, you’ll thank your younger self.  

Born and raised in Southern California, Judy Brassaw and her husband moved to Montana two decades ago. Now a semi-retired property manager, Judy enjoys tending to her flowers, reading and bird watching near Flathead Lake. 

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