Todd and Julie Nielsen, both in their early 40s, are retired.
They lead a work-free life in St. Clair County, Ill., that centers on their three children: Kayla, 14, Colin, 12, and Annika, 9. Days consist of driving the kids to school, meeting the kids for lunch, ferrying the kids to soccer and cheerleading practices, helping with homework (all three kids are on the honor roll) and enjoying unhurried, nutritious family breakfasts and dinners made from scratch.
Granted, Julie, 40, who entered the Air Force as a dental technician and rose to master sergeant before retiring after 20 years last July, and Todd, 44, an Air Force firefighter who rose to chief master sergeant before retiring after 23 years last November, have a secret economic weapon: two pensions that pay them $21,600 and $36,900 each year, not to mention mostly free medical care.
But they also sacrificed and saved for decades to realize their dream of becoming full-time parents. "In the military, one of the core values is service over self: If you put yourself first, you won't make it," explains Julie. They used the same principle in their marriage to achieve their savings goals, and last year retired with a nest egg of almost $400,000.
Aim High and Fly Right
A few months after meeting in 1988, Julie married Todd in an Air Force Base Chapel in Okinawa, Japan. (Total wedding cost: $400.) Julie embraced Todd's suggestion that they both approve any expense that cost more than $100: Brainstorming usually resulted in a way to obtain a contemplated purchase more cheaply. Their discretionary income doubled after they married, and the Nielsens salted away money aggressively.
Todd, who eventually converted their mutual funds into a stock portfolio, spent his spare time either studying for promotion or reading about investments.
Once they had children, "it was sooooo hard not to be home with them," recalls Julie. Todd kept reminding her to keep her eyes on their prize, so they could both retire early. They worked in near-perfect economic harmony, scrupulously saving anywhere from 35 to 75 percent of their income by fixing their own cars, rarely dining out or vacationing, eschewing credit cards and buying almost everything they needed from thrift shops, garage sales, eBay and base commissaries.
Happy Honda Days!
Throughout 15 moves to four different countries, Julie and Todd stuck to a parsimonious budget that nixed anniversary, Valentine's Day or birthday gifts, and fresh flowers. Todd gives bouquets every day, says Julie, in the form of cooking amazing meals and doing most of the laundry. The Nielsens' biggest conflict occurred in 1990 over an unreliable car Todd bought for $750 that Julie hated. Todd finally acquiesced to Julie's demand that they spend $15,000 on a new Honda and also reconciled himself to her one splurge: movie popcorn.
In 2000, the Nielsens purchased a custom-built house for $189,000 in a low-cost suburb of St. Louis chosen because "it's a really affordable place and the schools are good," Julie notes. Todd made chief master sergeant in 2004, but the promotion obligated him to remain in the military three more years and to do two tours in Iraq. That made retiring and rejoining his family in Illinois last year all the sweeter. He refinanced their mortgage twice in five months, which dropped their monthly payments from $1,390 to $990, and tracks their investments daily.
Julie and Todd aren't the only family members reveling in their new priorities. Family life is now a dream, confides Kayla, because her "cool" parents are available to drop off forgotten homework and shuttle her and her friends around. Best of all, the eighth-grader says, thinking of the unpredictable, and often dangerous, ex-professions of her mom and dad, "I don't have to worry about them anymore."
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