Retired Syd left work behind at age 44

By Sheryl Smolkin

Syd Lagier and her husband Doug in Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

Hi, today we continue our series of savewithspp.com interviews with personal finance bloggers. I’m very pleased to be talking to Sydney Lagier, known as Retired Syd to readers of her blog, Retirement: A Full-Time Job.

Syd retired in 2008 at age 44, four years after her husband. Both of them are U.S. certified public accountants. She initially worked for four years in the tax division of a large accounting firm. Then she accepted a position as the comptroller in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Ten years later, she tried to nab a better work/life balance by working part-time. However, her husband’s employer went bankrupt, so she accepted a promotion to full-time CFO. Nevertheless, several years later she decided to pack it in for good.

Thanks for talking to me today, Syd.

Thank you for having me.

Q: Why did you decide to retire so early?
A: That is a really good question. Why wouldn’t someone want to retire? I just assumed everyone wanted to retire, and the only thing keeping them from retiring is not having enough money yet.

Q: So, have you worked at a paying job at all since you retired?
A: I have. About three years into my retirement, a former colleague contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a part-time CFO gig, on a contract basis. So I did and it was really fun. But I was a little bit stressed after about a year and I remembered why I wanted to retire. I wanted to own my own time, and not have to worry about somebody else’s stuff.

Q: If I’m counting correctly, you’ve been retired for about six years, is that right?
A: Yes.

Q: How have your budget and income projections held up?
A: Well, I retired in March of 2008, and the stock market was tanking. Fast forward to six years later, and it’s fine. Everything came back. It was a rocky ride, but in terms of the expense side of the equation, that turned out a lot better than I thought it would be.

My original budget for retirement turned out to be overly generous, and part of that is probably because I was so nervous watching the stock market go down. I was kind of careful the first few years. And now we’re spending still less than my original retirement budget.

Q: You can conceivably be retired for fifty years. How do you know you won’t run out of money?
A: Obviously I don’t, but it’s all about odds, and what we do every year, actually what we do every month, is my husband puts together a budget to actual, and we look at it live. If things are getting out of hand we make adjustments. If we’re ahead of schedule, we feel a little bit better, and might loosen the purse strings, so it’s kind of an ongoing process.

At the end of every year I sit down and do the next year’s budget, and see if the current assets are still projected to take us through the next fifty years, until we turn one hundred. So it’s as if I’m retiring again every year, doing the calculations again every year. So far, we’re good.

Q: Can you give me some examples of some ways you make your money go farther? How do you stay on budget?
A: I’d say almost half of our budget is discretionary items. So that’s where we make the changes when we need to. And travel is probably the biggest discretionary item, and the easiest one to pull back on. But ongoing, we do things to make travel cheaper.

We’ve been using home exchanges since I retired to do a lot of our vacations. So, we’re not paying for lodging. We also don’t pay for things that we can do ourselves anymore like house cleaning, yard work, or painting.

Q: When and why did you decide to start blogging?
A: Right when I retired — it’s a silly answer — but I wanted to seem cool. I thought it would be a hip thing to do. I just heard about it, and didn’t know much about it and I started doing it, and it was so much fun that I just stuck with it. However, it did not make me cool….

Q: It did not make you cool?
A: No, but it was very fun, so I got hooked.

Q: What topics do you write about?
A: Mostly I write about lifestyle issues. I don’t cover a lot of the financial planning aspects of retirement, although I do a few of them. I mostly talk about what it’s like to transition, what are the roadblocks, what do people have hang-ups about. And my community of blog readers chimes in and helps each other and helps me, and that’s part of the appeal.

Q: So how many hits do you typically get in a week or a month?
A: I don’t have a very large blog. I have a couple thousand subscribers, and in a month that I write a lot — it’s very sporadic — I get maybe twenty-five thousand hits. But in month where I’m hardly doing anything, it’s more like fifteen or twenty thousand.

Q: Sounds pretty good to me. What have some of your most popular blogs been about?
A: That’s one measurement that I don’t really look at. But I used to write weekly for U.S. News and World Report Blog. And the article that just took off was, “If You Want to Retire Young, Don’t Have Kids.” That one was all over the place, and I got a lot of hate mail as a result.

Q: So, what kinds of things do you do now, that you weren’t able to do before you were retired? 
A: Blogging, for one thing, and writing. And just last year I picked up piano again after a thirty-year hiatus. We do a lot more travel than when we were working. And I’ve been able to do some volunteer work.

Q: Excellent. So what do you think are some of the potential pitfalls of early retirement, or very early retirement?
A: I’m not going to be able to help you out on that one. I just can’t think of any.

Q: Then it’s going well for you.
A: Yes.

Q: Is the fact that most of your contemporaries are still working a problem?
A: No. We see our working friends when it’s convenient for them. We do a lot of things for them that make their lives easier like bringing dinner over. My husband also does a lot of fix-it projects for people when they’re at work, so it works out great for them, and it’s our way of going the extra mile to keep those friendships up.

Q: How did you save enough money to retire so early?
A: I had a great job. I was working for a venture capital firm, so I was very fortunate. I guess that’s not a great answer because some people who have great jobs don’t save enough for retirement. It’s just a personality thing. I knew really early that I wanted to try as hard as I could to retire before the age of fifty-five.

Q: If someone is contemplating early retirement, is there any rule of thumb as to how much money they need? 
A: There are a couple that I don’t like. I don’t like those rules of thumb that say, “Oh, you need seventy to eighty percent of your prior budget,” that kind of thing. Because I think that you really have to do the homework on that, to see what you do think you’re going to spend. But William Bengen’s four percent rule, is a good target.

Bengen says if you’re going to retire at the normal age of sixty-five, you need twenty-five times your spend rate. Then you look at it every year, like I do, and you can see if you’re on target. Some years you don’t pull out that much, some years you do. But it’s a great number to aim for, in my opinion.

Q: Do you have any advice for people trying to make the adjustment or transition to retirement?
A: I’d say just let it evolve naturally. A lot of people think they have to have it all worked out before they retire, and know everything they’re going to be doing. What I’ve learned is that you don’t even really know who you’re going to be after you quit your job. It’s defined you for all those years. Just relax into it and see where it takes you and I think you’ll be a lot better off.

Q: Excellent!. Thank you very much for talking to me today, Syd. 
A: Thank you.

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This is an edited transcript of an August 2014 interview with Syd Lagier. You can check out her blog Retirement: A Full-Time Job.

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