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Want an easy retirement? Be debt-free, according to this semi-retiree

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  • James R. retired from a career as a college professor at age 59 and a half with no debt. For him, being debt-free has always been a lifestyle. 
  • On a business trip with colleagues when he was about 50, he realized just how rare it is to be debt-free, and how hard retirement can be with debt in the picture. 
  • Business Insider is looking for retirement stories to feature in our Real Retirement series. If you're in or nearing retirement and want to share, email [email protected]
  • Read more personal finance coverage. 

Retiree James R., who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy, considers debt to be the "golden handcuffs" that lock you into an expensive life — and compromise your retirement.

That's why he eliminated all of his debt before he retired five years ago, at age 59.

"I was on a business trip about eight or nine years before I retired," the college professor told Business Insider. "We were talking about money, just the way people do. I just casually mentioned that we have no debt, our expenditures are low. I told them, 'There are no golden handcuffs on me, I can retire whenever I want.'"

"All the people around me, their eyes bugged out," he continued. "I think it never occurred to them that it was possible to have life without golden handcuffs, and without debt."

Being debt-free was a 'normal' part of his lifestyle

Not being chained to a mortgage, car payment, or credit card payment made his retirement easy, he said. Even at 50, he already felt prepared.

"We were already debt-free, that was normal for us," James said. He and his wife, also a university faculty member, have never rented a home. They've bought several properties throughout the years — including duplexes, condos, and even once a four-bedroom house — throughout the midwest and Texas. The two paid off their last mortgage 25 years ago, and haven't had a mortgage on their home since. "We decided to do that so that our monthly expenses would be less," he said, adding that due to the equity they'd built in homes over the years, they were able to pay off their most recent home in about a year. 

James, who retired from a career as a professor at various universities in the midwest and Texas, now works part-time in retirement, teaching college classes online.

Buying little and saving a lot has always been a part of his lifestyle — it's always been intuitive to him to save rather than spend, and live a simple life. "A minimalist attitude really does help one have the right habits they're going to need when they get to retirement," he said. 

Transitioning into retirement "didn't require any major adjustments because my normal life accommodated this change without difficulty," James said. "When the clock ticked down to 59 and a half, I was 10 years in at work. That was enough to get an additional monthly check from the organization I worked for," he continued. "That was the logical time to go."

Debt makes it hard to retire — and hard to save

For those in their 50s today and approaching retirement, it's all-too-common to be juggling debt, and lagging behind in retirement savings as a result. Based on a study conducted by Insider and Morning Consult, Business Insider's Tanza Loudenback reports that Gen Xers, defined as ages 38 to 53, are burdened with the most credit card debt and 70% are still paying on mortgages, the most of any generation. Given these issues, it's no surprise that Gen X is lagging behind in retirement savings — half don't even have a retirement account, Loudenback reports.  

Data from credit reporting company Experian shows that Gen Xers carry more debt than any other generation, and the average Gen Xer with debt is facing about $139,000 worth of debt. And, data from Charles Schwab shows that 42% of Gen X is more concerned with paying off debt than saving for retirement.

Many of the retirees who have spoken with Business Insider about their retirement experience report that paying off debt was helpful. David Fisher, 65, told Business Insider that paying off his mortgage and other outstanding debts was a big goal of his. Others like Joe and Karen Stermitz decided to get rid of their mortgage all together by selling their home, and opted for a life on the road.

However they choose to do it, all these retirees have something in common: They want to be debt-free. 

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