Dec. 6, 2019
Though he's not fully retired, James R. has enough retirement experience to know what worked for him — and what he wishes he could do differently.
James, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy, has been retired for five years and now teaches online part time for a university after retiring from a career as a professor at universities across the Midwest and Texas. He and his wife live together in Minnesota.
He said that if he could turn back time, he'd have three pieces of advice for his younger self: Max out your retirement accounts, live a simple life, and prioritize talking to your partner about money.
1. Start saving early, and save more
By the time James retired, he'd been saving for a while. He had enough saved that he felt he could live comfortably even without his part-time teaching gig, but he said there can always be room to improve.
"The No. 1 thing I'd tell myself would be to put money in early and don't go with the minimum," James said.
To max out an IRA in 2019, you'd have to contribute $6,000 during the year ($7,000 if you're 50 or older). To max out a 401(k), you'd have to contribute $19,000 ($25,000 if you're 50 or older).
Note that if you do have an employer-sponsored 401(k) with a company "match" — in which the employer matches your contribution up to a set percentage of your salary or a dollar amount — experts recommend contributing at least enough to take advantage. Because retirement accounts are invested, money saved earlier in life has more time to grow.
David Fisher, another retiree, previously told Business Insider for our Real Retirement series that he wished he'd put more money away. After contributing to his retirement account and not paying much attention to it until 20 years before he retired, he wished he could tell himself to "invest as early as you can, and put away whatever you can afford," he said.
2. Start living simply
James has never been one to spend or have more than he needs, he said.
"American culture is frenetic, and it's consumer-oriented," he said. "Think twice about whether or not you really want to be that person. If you can deviate from it, it makes life in retirement a whole lot easier."
In his retirement experience, he's found that buying less and living within his means has helped him to live on just his part-time income.
Living above your means can be hard — and carrying a credit-card balance is often a sign that's happening. The next generation approaching retirement, Gen X, is starting to feel just how much credit-card debt could affect their retirement. As Business Insider's Hillary Hoffower reported, a recent survey found that about 54% of Gen Xers had credit-card debt and 64% of them were stressed about it.
James' advice is to "be frugal, don't buy much on impulse, and don't fill your house with junk," he said. To him, the best way to stay out of debt is to start living with less.
3. Start talking about money with your partner
James said that he and his wife should have started having money conversations sooner. In retirement, it's critical to be on the same page about money in your relationship.
"I'd tell my 35-year-old self to not neglect that discussion about money," he said.
"Make sure that both people are being reasonable and compromising. No two people are exactly alike on how much each month to spend and how much debt they're comfortable with," he continued. "I can't have it all in my way, and the partner can't have it all their way."
It's something that still comes up in his relationship. While James retired five years ago, his wife is working and bringing home paychecks, while he's live off savings and his part-time income. He said he found that talking about money could help them both compromise and be comfortable with their spending; in his experience, however, it's something that never goes away.