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Setting Out To Defy The Odds: David Mathews and Eddie Vandermark

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Is early retirement an achievable goal in the 21st century? The naysayers point to risky markets, scarce pensions, longer lives and unpredictable career paths. David Mathews and his partner, Eddie Vandermark, are determined to prove them wrong.

The couple, both 33 years old, want to retire in 20 years, leaving most of their 50s -- and all of their 60s, 70s and beyond -- to roam the country. Mathews, a training manager for a large telecommunications company, and Vandermark, who works for a medical supplier, have been socking away as much as possible in 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). They’re also trying to eliminate debt and cut costs.

Mathews, who lives just north of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, spoke to Bloomberg’s Ben Steverman about the couple’s evolving plans. Below are edited excerpts:

When I first met Eddie, when we were 24, I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Retire.” So retiring early has always been in the back of our minds. In the last six months we’ve started laying down some serious plans.

Our goal is to retire by our 53rd birthdays. To see if that was possible, I put together this crazy monstrosity of a spreadsheet. It was important to resist the temptation to look at the best-case scenario -- I looked at average inflation and a below-average rate of return on investments.

I was lucky in that I started my 401(k) when I was 25. So that’s grown. It’s not huge, but it’s getting us out of the gate a little faster. The big question is what to do between ages 53 and 59½, which is when you can take money out of your Roth, 401(k) and IRA without penalties. When I started at the company I’m with now, I was fortunate that it was the last year they offered a traditional pension. That’s part of bridging the gap of seven years.

I’ve had a fortunate career in that I’ve moved up fairly rapidly and I make decent money. We have two incomes and no children, so we don’t have colleges to pay for.

One option we have is to continue moving up the corporate ladder. The downside to that is that we’d have to move to major city hubs -- like Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Dallas or Seattle --which are all fairly expensive.

The other option, the one we’re actually leaning toward, is to stay in the same categories of jobs but find ones that would give us the flexibility to move to a less expensive area, maybe someplace rural.

We live near Wilton Manors, Florida, which is gay central. But we don’t go out much to bars or fancy restaurants. If we were to move to a place that had a significantly lower cost of living, we could throw more money into retirement. We could also gain by selling our house, which we bought last year at the bottom of the bottom of the market. Prices here are starting to rise at an almost scary pace. Because we live a mile and a half from the ocean, we could buy a comparable house at literally half the price elsewhere.

Before moving, our goal is to live more frugally. We need to rein in debt. In addition to a mortgage, we have a little left on a student loan and a little credit card debt. We’ve also borrowed for toys -- an RV and our cars -- and that’s the kind of debt we definitely don’t want. Once we get all that paid off, that frees up easily $2,000 a month.

We like our jobs, but we’re looking forward to not being completely tied to them. We envision buying a nice RV and nice truck and, for a good chunk of the year, touring the country. We might find ways of making extra income from our hobbies, though we’re not planning on that.

We go to this one campground a lot. There are people there in their early to mid-50s who are retired. That’s what got us thinking maybe we can do this. Over cocktails or a game of cards or dominoes, we’d ask, “How were you able to retire?”

They’ve all given different answers, but the consistent theme is that they have streams of income, whether it’s from investments or rental properties. We asked, “How do you live frugally in the retirement years and still enjoy life?” That has helped us focus, and figure out what’s realistic and what’s a pipe dream.

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