My grandma’s secret to a comfortable retirement for the past 22 years

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  • My grandmother, Ellen Young, has been comfortably retired for 22 years. She retired with a pension, but she also saved throughout her life to enjoy her golden years.
  • My grandma’s No. 1 rule for retirement saving: Factor your retirement into every single financial decision you make.
  • She and my grandfather lived frugally throughout their lives and made sure their mortgage was paid off long before they retired.
  • Use Blooom to analyze your 401(k) today and see how you can grow your retirement savings »

Born in 1988, I came of age during the Great Recession. I watched as the systems my parents and grandparents relied on — like job security and pension plans — morphed into mythology. I’ve always understood Social Security and Medicare as forms of political currency, not long-term solutions I can count on in old age. I’m a card-carrying member of the gig economy, more comfortable working for now, not for later. The very idea of “retirement” terrifies me.

But like all millennials, I’m aging. My back twinges after an afternoon spent working in the yard, fine lines are forming around my eyes, and the inevitable truth is upon me: Working until I die is not a viable option. 

Like many people, one of the reasons retirement has felt so impossible for me is my lack of a roadmap. My grandparents had pensions, which is something I won’t have. But as I look at their financially secure and abundant retirement years, I realize pensions can’t possibly tell the whole story.

My grandpa was a warehouse worker and my grandma was a nurse. They must have done something to prepare for retirement to wind up as comfortable as they did, and maybe it’s something I can emulate. 

The first principle of my grandparents’ retirement

My grandpa passed away in 2006 and my grandma, Ellen Young, is now 84. I recently sat down with her to ask, “How in the world have you managed to live off your retirement savings for over 22 years?”

Her answer was both scarier and more accessible than a simple pension plan. According to my grandma, the key is to factor your retirement into every single financial decision you make. This is daunting, but she assures me, “It all adds up.”

For her and my grandpa, this kind of thinking began in 1960, their first year of marriage. As my grandma remembers it, my 30-year-old grandpa “would have retired right then if he could have.” 

My grandma married my grandpa at the age of 24; she had already been working as an RN for three years. She didn’t choose nursing for the retirement benefits, but my grandpa certainly chose his job as a factory worker based on the promise of being able to retire early. 

This is an example of how important it is to factor your retirement into all your decisions. While few companies offer pensions these days, most salaried positions offer retirement packages. A far-off future may not seem nearly as significant as immediate job satisfaction, but while your career is a large portion of your life, if you’re lucky, your retirement years will be as well.

Selecting a job with a clear-cut retirement plan isn’t the only choice my grandparents made with retirement in mind, however. They factored their golden years into every choice they made, big or small. “I’ve always been frugal, only shopping sale items, and saving every spare cent.” For my grandma, the single most effective savings come from avoiding interest-bearing loans all together. 

They paid off their mortgage early

My grandparents bought their first home in 1962. And while they purchased an older home sitting on 40 acres for the jaw-dropping low price of $5,500, it cost them every penny they had. Always thrifty, my grandma refused to pay a penny more to drill a well or build her dream house until they had saved enough to qualify for a small mortgage with a low interest rate. It took three years, and even when they were ready to build a brand new house on their property, my grandma, with her eye always on retirement, kept her vision modest.

Understanding that this was the most important purchase she would ever make, my grandma’s financial strategizing didn’t end there. Over the years, she made as many extra payments on the mortgage as she could to pay down the principal. There were two layers to this retirement strategy: First, by paying down the principal as quickly as possible, she saved thousands of dollars on interest. And second, by eliminating debt, she alleviated her future retired self from making sizeable monthly payments.

Saving for retirement, as my grandma pointed out,…

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