16 Habits That Helped Me Retire Wealthy

This post was written by long time reader Robert Britton as part of our retirement series.  Today is Robert’s last day of work – congratulations!

Life feels long.  This article gives a very brief synopsis of most of mine; and then lists a few habits that helped me along the way.

I’ve never understood why people want to retire.  If you find something you love to do, just keep on doing it!  Later I realized that loving the occupation does not answer the question of what else you might love.

Related: My thoughts on early retirement

Career Aspirations

Well I started out in life intending to be a preacher, although I was continually distracted by the love of science and logic.  Eventually this dichotomy led to me chucking my ministerial aspirations and starting a job as a computer operator.

Bottom line: my career started very late at about age 26 – not a robust financial start.

Not long after, I wrote an aptitude test and was trained by a large life insurance company to be a computer programmer. This led to a variety of positions and ultimately a long career consulting from client-to-client as a database architect.

The contracts and employment stints tended to be under a year, and my longest gig anywhere was not much over 2 years.

The life insurance experience and their education programs led me to realize that life insurance is important; but that it should only be bought as term insurance.

A Messy Divorce

Another formative influence on me was an incredibly nasty divorce starting at age 35 and ending almost 20 years later after two full trials of two and three weeks – and 70 other court motions.

I estimate that in the worst 10-year period I paid an average of $1,000 per month to my lawyers, and I was not always able to work due to emotional stress.  Custody trials can do that to you, and worse, but it’s very hard not to love your children deeply and want the best for them.

In the end I raised my three children as a single parent with no help of any kind from my ex-wife.  For many years I was even paying child support when they lived with me.

Related: The Effect Of Serendipity On Retirement

By age 39 I was in debt by about $40,000 with no assets and no house.  I borrowed money from my tiny RRSP and bought a small townhouse which changed little in value for almost 10 years.

Cycling Adventures

I developed a love for bicycling and bicycle touring.  Most of my vacations have been on bicycle, sometimes after a plane ride first.  Each of my children in their mid-teens was treated to thousands of kilometers of cycling in summer vacation.

This of course is nice for fitness and costs a fraction of what most people consider standard vacations.

For example, in 1999 I rode from Amsterdam to Stonehenge and back with my 16-year-old daughter – nearly 2,000 kilometers in three weeks.  The total cost including airfare was well under $3,000 and a richer experience would be difficult to devise (although my daughter was not quite as amused as I that the French took us as a man with a younger wife).

RelatedHow This Couple Spends Retirement Travelling

Planning For Retirement

Somewhere in all this I realized that one day I would need to retire – as in, live on my savings – and “unfortunately” my recent ancestors almost all lived into their 90’s.

With the huge financial drain that seemed never-ending I figured I’d have to address my retirement budget by tuning my wants.  Now I love few things as much as a bicycle ride, a walk in the woods, or a good book that teaches me something.

Free tuition, available in some cases to seniors, is right up my alley and may lie ahead.  I’ve sampled many luxuries but deliberately aimed to love the finer things in life, like nature, the movement of my body, and the thoughts in my brain.

Some Things That Helped Me Retire Wealthy:

1. My rule of corollaries: If I can’t do something, chances are I can find something else that’s rewarding.  When I could not locate my children for a time I was free to travel on business and pick up career depth like never before.

2. I enjoyed seeking personal health and fitness.  My favourite organ, the brain, needs the body working as well as possible.  One day this body will really be whipped into shape!

3. I worked the brain.  I had a mentally-demanding job.  Moreover, little helps a career, or financial planning, like a developed mind.  When not actually learning the tricks of my trade, I tried to learn a language, do cryptic crosswords, read something in Scientific American that baffled me, or anything else I found very hard.

4. I am addicted to buying – a shopaholic if you will.  This started around 1999 and I am not quite cured.  If I find myself with a few thousand dollars to spare I tend to blow it until it hurts.  Mostly on dividend-paying stocks I hold for way too long.  It’s amazing how this works over time even when some go bust.  Why buy a fancy TV when there is a stock I don’t own?

5. I largely avoided mutual funds.  If I liked their ideas then I just bought the stocks the funds bought – but usually didn’t bail out as quickly.  Why on earth pay them 2.5% for usually marginal returns?

6. I did not put my whole nest egg into housing, but for Pete’s sake it’s a deal!  Housing provides accommodation, tends to rise in value over the long term, and is tax free asset accumulation.  It’s also a type of forced savings.

7. I avoided bank accounts, savings or chequing.  I had part of my mortgage as a line of credit and used that as my chequing and savings account.  When my paycheck went in I was saving at the mortgage rate, with no taxes, and when I needed money there were never any fees.

Related: Is Manulife One Worth A Look?

8. I didn’t fall for many trends.  I’m very technical by profession – I’ve developed computer apps for almost 40 years.  Geeks like me never bought trendy expensive computers – they are just overpriced sets of components that other people sell for half the price (albeit a little less pretty).

Ditto the phones.  I don’t actually need a smartphone, and certainly not an $800 one.  Especially from companies that tell you beauty is outdated six months later.  If a company can succeed at this consistently, buy their stock not their product.

I finally got a trendy smartphone because of a fantastic discount (under half price) on the job at a phone company.  Three months later people were lining up overnight to replace that model – oddly, two years later mine still works fine.

9. As a self-employed consultant, I lived on 40 percent of my gross income.  The remainder was for taxes or stayed in my “other RRSP” – my company assets.  I did not take vacations as a given and a right – I had many years with none.

I never did the Florida or Caribbean thing, even though everyone around me did.  The main cost of vacation is time away from the office, unpaid, so when I did it I made sure it mattered.

10. I rode my bicycle to work most of the year, at least if was under 25km.  Everything about this improved my life and finances.

11. Single parenting can get you down, especially as a man.  The system doesn’t like us at all.  Maybe I should have re-married – I didn’t try that but it may have made life a lot easier financially and otherwise.  On the other hand there are benefits in the solitary life.  I think I can plot a long range plan either way if need be.

12. I separated retirement planning and planning the ability to retire.  I found it very useful to have a financial target for when I would be able to retire, even when I didn’t think I would ever want to.

13. I thought.  What did people do alone in their cars or walking down the street before smart phones were invented?  They were alone in thought!  I made thinking my normal routine.

When I would leave on my commute I often planned what to ponder in silence en route.  “I will now think about the merits of not selling off company assets in retirement until necessary, but just take the dividends it receives”, or, “Do I have enough risk in my stock portfolio – should I take on something paying 8.5 percent dividends or a nuclear or solar stock – or should I stay more conservative”.  “Should I start taking CPP as soon as I qualify?

I think about other things too, but this is a financial blog.  Why make myself a slave to communications at the expense of my thinking time?  My own thoughts are my priority and they pay dividends.

14. My favourite market summary is the fear/greed index on CNN.  I love it, not because of its accuracy, and it certainly gives no clear tips and no Canadian content, however it reminds me that the stock market is driven by emotions.  If I’m having the same emotions at decision time, what are my odds of beating the market?

15. I’ve never cheated on any taxes.  I didn’t want CRA to be looking over my shoulder.  This includes border taxes.  By the way, I’ve never crossed the border just to shop – I want my community and my government to benefit from what I buy.  Go Canada!

16. I did mostly my own work on investing.  I tend to be suspicious of financial advisors since they mostly work on commission.  Most advice columns only touch on some things that will help. They often make assumptions like the following, none of which apply to me personally:

  • you have a pension to think about
  • you are married
  • you know your current income, so you can, for example, calculate 70 percent of it
  • you have a TV
  • you don’t have to debate at what age your company should stop paying you a full CPP-covered salary, or whether to withdraw from your RRSP first to save the 10 percent CPP tax
  • you actually know what you’ll do if you sell your expensive home to downsize
  • you know how much you’ll need to live on in retirement (here’s a handy guide)
  • you like to have a lot of cash instruments such as GIC’s and savings accounts

Final thoughts

I still love designing databases – it requires thought and creativity.  But activities like yoga, learning to sculpt stone, managing a forest, and learning Mandarin or Spanish seem both interesting and extremely difficult.

Related: How I Plan To Be Financially Free By 40

I’m 60 and a half.  I’ve been able to retire for a while now.  Today I will leave technology behind and do some of these other things.  I may just ride my bicycle to Texas from Toronto next month.  If not, I will look for another way to ponder next steps while getting a little fitter.


35 Responses to 16 Habits That Helped Me Retire Wealthy

  1. Hannah says:

    Congratulations. It has been ten weeks for me since I retired. The smile on your face will not go away. The sense of “lightness” when you wake up is wonderful. The day is yours. Do what you love.

  2. “My own thoughts are my priority and they pay dividends.”

    Nice :)

    Congratulations Robert and well done.

    We’ve all had up and downs in life but it sure sounds like you’ve enjoyed the ride. Now get on that bike and see where the road takes you…

    Enjoy, you’ve earned it.
    Mark

    • Robert says:

      Thanks, Mark’

      I do enjoy the ride. No matter the ups and downs, they are all history now and made me who I am, with which I am content.

  3. Echo says:

    Robert, thanks for sharing your story with us. You’ve had quite the journey and I’m sure you’ll enjoy retirement.

    PS – I hope you get to leave work early today :)

    • Robert says:

      Thanks for the opportunity Robb, and for making me wealthy in the title – I would never have thought to call myself that! LOL!

      I’m still on my client’s nickel – nothing to do here but I’ll stay until the joyful last billable minute if required.

  4. joey says:

    Thanks for sharing! It’s great to see such a down to earth and relatable view…

  5. fiscally fit says:

    Quite the journey. I agree strongly with some of your decisions and advice, and disagree wholeheartedly with other parts. Just goes to show you that there is no right or wrong, just what works best for yourself!

    • Robert says:

      Frankly, between the different slices of history we occupy, and our differences in life situations and events, I’d be a bit shocked if everything here rang true for another. And as you might imagine, I had to leave out a few details here!

  6. Ben says:

    Way to go Dad! So proud of you and all you’ve accomplished!

  7. Gen-X guy says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. It really helps some of us reinforce the good things we may have heard or read, and still have not yet put into practice. Example: this week my retirement adviser showed us a chart that illustrated just how significant a 2% higher return will be on our retirement savings, then recommended a mutual fund with a 3.5% MER!!! I know I should drop mutual funds, just need to take the step. Thanks again.

    • Robert says:

      Well if you are young you can afford a few missteps, but its true those MERs can kill long term. You could just buy in the top 10 holdings of your current mutual fund as a “baby step”

  8. Dan says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey. We all go through ups and downs but it sounds like you’ve come out on top. Congrats – you’ve earned it

  9. Catherine says:

    Robert, it sounds as if there is still some of that latent preacher in you. You have the ability to inspire, grounded in ethical principles.

  10. Jim says:

    The Bike is the always the answer no matter what else is happening. Some days the wind is with you some days against but just keep on peddling!!!

  11. jay says:

    Well done…I did the same @50 now 7yrs in not looking back,but stopped biking !!! Very high chance of being hit by a car.

  12. Anton Ivanov says:

    What a moving story and one that also contains very useful insights into investing and overcoming challenges. I think everybody’s path in life is different, but anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to.

  13. Dunny says:

    My daily 1-1/2 hour walk on the beach is my thinking time. No radio, phone, Tv, or computer. I think about my finances, my travel plans, and people in my life and come with great ideas.

  14. Dave says:

    Robert,all the gushing praise has me gagging just a littlr bit! You’ve been fortunate my friend and a little humility wouldn’t come amiss here.

    Not everyone has been able to emulate your relatively easy ride, or follow some of your reccommendations, not by a long chalk.

    Try giving this advice to a single mother of two, for example. See what I mean?

    • Robb Engen says:

      @Dave – it takes a lot of guts to share your life story online (mistakes and all). Perhaps you’d like to share yours with us?

    • Robert says:

      Hi Dave. As a single sole-support father of 3, I actually was thinking of no target group more than the single parent. The little of my life shared here may evoke images of an easy ride to you, and certainly there is always a worse story of woe – but I can only share mine.

  15. ADRIAN GORDON says:

    Well said !!
    Refreshing to see common sense applied to a persons individual life travels.

    mmm…1st time on line commenting, so your observations/musings were noteworthy

    Travel Well…Slainte

  16. Loved reading your life story. Full of so much wisdom and life experience. Hope younger readers will pay attention! Happy Retirement!

  17. Joyce Picco says:

    What an inspiring story you tell! (Maybe you’ll write a full book one day…?) No doubt you have great strength of character and were true to yourself throughout your life choices. You sound like your wisdom has shown you that the ups in life are wonderful, but it’s the downs that forge us and can bring us to appreciate the ups so much more. The downs also help us to become empathetic to others and this too makes for a better life. May the winds blow from behind and carry you to satisfying destinations for a long time to come.

  18. Joyce Picco says:

    In response to Dave’s comment: I am a single mother with a very difficult past life (cannot go into details here, but I lived abroad and was in extreme financial distress for a couple of years and this taught me how to live in a frugal manner which helped me to get out of a bad situation which was not of my making (other than the fact that I was an enabler to my husband at the time). I never resorted to welfare, but lived within my VERY limited budget and worked my butt off to try to make ends meet and not get my hydro cut! It took about another decade for me to slowly climb out of a mess, but I did it. The main obstacle for people caught in major financial turmoil is their inability to see the options open to them. There are always possibilities but we can get locked into despair…that’s where faith and hope and action-taking can bring about life-saving changes.

  19. Robert Britton says:

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful response Joyce. It seems that you have a story too. A blog is not the place for depth and detail – it was a bit challenging to summarize to this level. I guess my reward was having the editor declare me wealthy in the title, something I have never thought to say of myself.

  20. Wow!

    What a great life, and what a wonderful attitude. Congratulations on what sounds to be a splendid and well-deserved retirement.

    So much compelling content, it’s too hard to pick one thing to comment on, but I found your using your home equity line of credit for expenses most intriguing. It makes sense, especially given today’s low interest rates, and it’s relatively safe since it’s secured by your primary residence. I’ll have to look into that more deeply. Thanks for the tip!

    • Robert says:

      Thanks, Jack.

      You have to do your own math – I did much of it when rates were more like 9%. I saved a ton of money based on how I ran it and avoided completely dead money in a chequing account to maintain a minumum requirement.

      It also saved me at a time when I would borrow money from my company for short periods – in effect it saved 9% tax free while in there. That borrow from your company loophole got plugged to some degree after a while.

      I have no mortgage now except my line of credit which I keep a tad under zero and totally use as a free chequing account. No charges ever and credit there if I ever need to dip again.

  21. Very inspiring and well written, thank you Robert and I hope you are enjoying your well deserved retirement. I can certainly relate on many levels; I myself am a single father and have chosen to go it alone raising my daughter for the last 16 years (she’s now 21). My plan is to “retire” at 50 (~2 years) and although I will not be financially “rich” by some standards, I certainly feel I will be “retiring wealthy” based on the quality of life, past experiences that have made me who I am today, and the wonderful people in my life. And I expect my wealth to continue to grow, even if my investments start to deplete. Best of luck to you!

    • Robert says:

      Le’s see I have 3 kids and it took me to 60. I Guess it’s 5 years extra per child lol. I love your summarized philosophy here. I only became “rich” thanks to the editor – I think of it more as “with adequate means”

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