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Five steps toward early retirement

Retiring on the early side isn't just an internet phenomenon. There are steps you can take to make this dream a reality.

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    Snow covers mountains in this view from the Snow Lake hiking trail above Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state (Nov. 3, 2015). Retiring early can free you up to do the things that you really want to do, like traveling or hiking.
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The internet is brimming with stories of people who retired in their 30s or 40s.

If they’ve piqued your interest, you’re not alone — and you’ve probably sorted through the strategies enough to know there’s a wide range. Many are straight-up scams where someone is getting rich, but it won’t be you. Others involve complex, risky investments or multilevel marketing. (If you’re not familiar with that term, one example is that friend on Facebook who won’t stop shilling workout DVDs.)

Rarely is the suggested path one of hard work and frugal living. That’s a shame, because while most of us are likely to work well into our 60s, it is possible to retire younger. Does that mean you’ll be able to clear your desk in five or 10 years, shouting grievances on the way out the door? Maybe not. But it might mean you can work 10 or 15 fewer years than your parents did, rather than 13 years longer.

Here are five moves that will get you closer to an early retirement.

1. Cut your expenses

There’s an oft-repeated money mantra that urges living within your means. It’s wrong. If you want to save, you need to live below your means, spending significantly less than you earn.

Mr. Money Mustache, a blogger who retired at age 30, is a notable example. He says he and his wife saved two-thirds of their pay while working “standard tech-industry cubicle jobs.”

Is that extreme for most people? Yes. Did he do that before undergoing one of the most expensive lifestyle changes possible, also known as having a child? Yes. But even if you can’t put away two-thirds of your salary, there’s a good chance you can put away more than you do now.

To do that, look very closely at your spending. (It helps to use a budgeting app.) You already know you should cut out the lattes, but what else can you lose? Cable is increasingly a painless choice; here are some options for eliminating that bill while still keeping up with the Kardashians. You might also consider swapping your cell phone for a prepaid version, checking into whether you have too much car, canceling recurring subscriptions you no longer use, taking steps to lower your auto insurance costs and looking into refinancing your debt, including student loans and your mortgage.

2. Earn more money

If you can’t lower your expenses, you have to increase your income. Negotiating your salary is a good place to start, as long as you can prove yourself worthy. Here’s what to do with that raise when you get it: A recent NerdWallet analysis found that saving just half of each raise starting at age 25 could amount to more than $200,000 after 40 years, a healthy boost to any retirement fund.

Consider other options, too — namely, the side hustle. The gig economy makes this easy. If you can drive, you can Uber. If you’re not allergic to dogs, you can sit or walk them via DogVacay. You can also check whether your skills match any needs on freelance sites such as Scripted or Upwork, or if you can lend a hand to those who want to outsource their to-do list via TaskRabbit. The options here are limited only by your willingness to schlep laundry.

3. Take advantage of free money

Free money doesn’t come around often, so when it does, grab it.

The most notable form is in 401(k) matching dollars. Companies contribute an average of 4.7% of pay to these employee plans, according to a 2014 survey by the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

Let’s say you contribute 15% of your $50,000 salary to your 401(k). With that 4.7% employer match, a 7% investment return and 3% annual salary increases, you could build close to $530,000 in 20 years. The employer match would account for about $130,000 of that.

We’re talking about early retirement here, so that 20-year time horizon is appropriate. But the numbers have even more impact with a few extra years: Stretch it to 30 years, for example, and you’d have $1.3 million, more than $300,000 of which is from the employer match.

4. Invest wisely

The above examples show the importance of investing, rather than just saving: Using the same numbers but lowering the return to 1% — a pretty standard interest rate from an online savings account — cuts the accumulated amount by half.

Unfortunately, many people are missing this message: According to a BlackRock surveyfrom October 2015, Americans report having 65% of their net worth in cash, despite acknowledging that 33% is a more reasonable allocation — and some might argue even that is high. Although it’s true that money you need within three to five years shouldn’t be in the stock market, your long-term savings should be.

Selecting an asset allocation that is appropriate for your age and risk tolerance is just the first step, though. It’s also key to minimize investment expenses, which can very quickly eat into your retirement savings if left unchecked. One way to do that is by selecting low-cost index funds and ETFs over actively managed funds. Another way is to consider a robo-advisor, which will manage your investments for you — within an IRA, taxable account or, in a few cases, a 401(k) — for a fraction of the cost of a human advisor.

Robo-advisors also have a secondary benefit: They serve as a barrier between your emotions and your money. That’s particularly helpful during market conditions like we’re experiencing now, which can tempt investors to fiddle with their choices unnecessarily.

5. Minimize debt

Many early-retirement evangelists shun all debt. We’re not about that. Especially in times of low interest rates, borrowing for a home or even a car can be financially advantageous. When a good-credit borrower can get a mortgage with less than a 4% interest rate, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pull money out of the market — where you can expect returns that average 6% to 7% per year over the long term — and put it into a home (beyond, of course, a 20% down payment).

But there are caveats to that approach. For one, you want to make sure you’re not borrowing more than you can afford; the lower you keep your debt expenses, the more you’re able to stash in retirement accounts. Your total monthly debt expenses shouldn’t exceed 36% of your gross monthly income; NerdWallet’s calculator can help you determine how much house you can afford.

However, this thinking also doesn’t apply to high-interest-rate debt, most often floated on credit cards. Paying the minimum on a card with a $10,000 balance and an 18% interest rate will cost you more than $8,000 in interest. But if you invest that money instead, you could have $60,000 after 30 years at a 7% return. In other words, carrying high-interest debt over the long term is a quick way to sabotage not just an early retirement, but any retirement, period.

This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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