I enjoy reading older books about early retirement; I seek to learn from their experiences, but I also look for ways in that their perspective is colored by their own time period. For instance, a book written in the 80s1 – an era of high inflation – would likely assumed that interest rates would be moderately high forever, at least in the 5% range. The tendency to extend recent trends into the future is unavoidable, and something you should consider when reading or making forecasts today.
This is a review of How To Retire Early and Live Well With Less Than A Million Dollars by Gillette Edmunds, a book published in 2000 that was recommended to me by a reader. Edmunds was a former tax attorney and financial journalist who retired in 1981 at age 29.
Unreasonably High Expected Returns
Remember that for both the 1980s and the 1990s, the average annualized total return of the S&P 500 for both decades was around 18% a year. Imagine two decades of such returns, all before the dot-com bust and the housing bust. Edmunds retiring in 1981 turned out to be some of the luckiest timing possible. As a result, a major criticism of this book is the continued expectation of high stock returns going forward. The quoted excerpts below are taken verbatim from the book:
- Can you retire today? His answer is that “most middle-class Americans, including me, could live comfortably on the investment returns from $500,000.” Perhaps, but with currently-accepted safe withdrawal rates of 3-4%, this would only create $15,000 to $20,000 a year in income. Instead, the book promotes withdrawals rate of 8-10%, which would have left many nest eggs completely wiped out from 2000 to 2010.
- “An average, educated, experienced investor can reasonably expect to make 10% a year for life.”
- “Anyone should be able to produce a 7.75% return.”
I bet these assumptions sounded reasonable, perhaps even conservative, in 2000 but they are just bad jokes today.
Owning Non-Correlated Asset Classes
Edmunds tells us not to time the markets, ride out temporary market drops, and to maintain low investment costs. He advises you to hold a variety of “non-correlated” asset classes such as:
- Real Estate
- Foreign Stocks
- US Large Stocks
- US Small Stocks
- Emerging Markets Stocks
Edmunds believes that these asset classes are on different business cycles. When one is going up, the other is going down. However, I don’t like the term “non-correlated”, as very few asset classes have negative correlations these days. Low or minimally correlated is a better term. As we saw in the recent financial crisis, when the poo hits the fan correlations can go back to 1 (everything goes down together). However, I agree with the general asset allocation advice of holding different asset classes with minimal correlations. He counts as an early proponent of not holding too much in US stocks (no more than 1/3rd of total portfolio), and an equal amount in foreign stocks (also use for 1/3rd of your portfolio).
I did have an issue with the lack of supporting evidence as to why these assets and not others, as we only get weak arguments like “after owning bonds for about five years, I realized that a portfolio of five different high-return asset classes that excluded bonds had both high predictability and high returns”. I’m sorry, but making a conclusion to stop holding bonds after 5 years of data is just plain bad advice and makes him come off as egotistical.
He ends the book with a philosophical epilogue with the usual “money isn’t everything, enjoy life with family and friends” material. I don’t mean to belittle the importance of this factor, just that I didn’t really learn anything new from it. He does come off as well-intentioned and talks about the effect of his divorce. Despite its flaws, I found this book worth the read as it encompasses the overall philosophy of one person who had been successfully retired for 20 years. Just remember he had a very strong tailwind of high returns, and adjust your own expectations accordingly.
Other “early retirement” books that I’ve reviewed: