A single mom who retired at 49 with $1.3 million says she took 6 simple steps to reach her goal

  • Single mom Jackie Cummings Koski set her sights on early retirement in her mid-40s.
  • By 49, her net worth was $1.3 million — enough to retire comfortably and live on for years to come.
  • She reached her goal by keeping her living costs low, boosting her income, and learning to invest.

When you think of a person who reached early retirement, the image of a 20-something who made a high salary by working in tech might come to mind. They might’ve hit that ambitious financial goal and left the workplace earlier than most folks by either investing in a handful of real estate properties or growing a side business. 

That wasn’t the case for Jackie Cummings Koski. She decided to pursue FI/RE (financial independence, retire early) in her mid-40s. Fast forward five years later, and in 2019, she had a net worth of $1.3 million at the age of 49 — enough to leave her full-time job. Here’s how she did it. 

1. She figured out her early retirement number

One of the most powerful things Koski has ever done with her finances is to create a net worth statement. “Once you know where you’re starting, you can move the needle in the right direction,” says Koski, who is a financial literacy advocate and author of the book “Money Letters 2 My Daughter.” 

In 2013, Koski began tracking her net worth. She tallied up her income, expenses, savings, and investments. To her surprise, she had $500,000 in net worth. When she decided to pursue FI/RE in 2014, her net worth had grown to nearly $600,000. 

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Average 401(k) balance

She used the 4% rule to figure out how much she needed to save; the 4% rule is a popular retirement rule that states you can safely withdraw 4% of your retirement fund in your first year after you retire. You can then take out the same amount each year (adjusted for inflation) for 25 years without depleting your funds. 

She figured out that she would need a $1 million net worth to live off of $40,000 a year in retirement. She did some simple calculations, and realized that if she continued to invest and save for retirement, in about five years’ time she would no longer need to rely on a paycheck.  

2. She maxed out her tax-advantaged accounts 

Koski managed to hit $1.3 million net worth at 49 primarily from maxing out her employer-sponsored 401(k), Roth IRA, and HSA since 2009. She worked a corporate job as an account executive for a well-known global data company for 20 years. She also had different roles where she managed accounts for clients in the legal services industry and also in government.

Koski’s average income for the last 10 years before she reached financial independence was $80,000. Her income was made up of a base salary and commissions, with her lowest annual income at $65,000 and the highest at $95,000. 

3. She lived in an area with a lower cost of living 

While Koski primarily focused on investing and her increasing earning potential and didn’t meticulously budget, she also kept her annual living expenses to between $40,000 and $45,000 a year. She managed to do it while raising a daughter on her own. 

She kept her housing costs down by living in Southwest Ohio, where the cost of living is lower than other parts of the US. Her monthly mortgage payment, which included the principal, interest, taxes, and insurance, was $800. 

Koski made the conscious choice to not pay off her mortgage early because her interest rate was locked in at a low 3%. When she retired at 49, she had $70,000 left on her mortgage. She currently has $58,000 left on her mortgage, and her home is valued at $215,000. Koski also kept her transportation expenses down by buying pre-owned cars when they’d be sold at 50% off the original price tag, and keeping each car for up to eight years.  

4. She boosted her financial know-how

Koski got into the habit of saving in high school when she got her first job. Raised by a single parent in a family of six kids, Koski describes growing up very poor. “I didn’t have any kind of a safety net if something went wrong, so I felt like it was all on me,” says Koski. To make sure she had enough for a rainy day, she squirreled away a little of her paycheck each week into a savings account.

To boost her financial education, she listened to podcasts and read well-regarded personal finance books and blogs. When it came to investing, she knew next to nothing. She was also a bit intimidated by the idea of investing. That changed when she joined a local stock investment club in 2008. It was supported by a nonprofit organization called BetterInvesting.org. 

With a focus on education and community, Koski absorbed all she could from fellow members. “Having this outlet for my interest in investing really helped me to understand the stock market rather than fear it,” says Koski. That’s when she started maxing out on her 401(k), Roth IRA, and HSA.

5. She focused on her financial ‘superpowers’ 

“I’m much better at investing and income than budgeting,” says Koski. “So I focused on maxing out my retirement accounts and earning.” Koski recommends that anyone who aspires to achieve FI/RE find what she calls your “superpower.”

“What’s the one thing that you’re really good at and really love?” says Koski. In Koski’s case, she combined living in a part of the country with a low cost of living, keeping her transportation costs down, and optimizing her taxes, company benefits, and HSA, to reach financial independence. “A side business or real estate are two ways to do that, but there are so many other ways,” she says. 

6. She had something to look forward to in retirement

The first year after she retired, she boosted her net worth. Koski made $5,000 from offering financial workshops and presentations, and also earned money from her stock investments. 

She decided to devote her time in retirement to financial coaching and pursuing a Master’s degree in personal finance planning and financial therapy at Kansas State University. She’s tapping into $30,000 of 529 college savings money that her daughter didn’t end up needing for her higher education. 

By making the most of her income from a traditional corporate job and maximizing benefits and tax-advantaged accounts that were available to her, Koski was able to reach financial independence. “I figured if I could do this after starting with nothing, it was my duty to share what I’ve learned with others,” says Koski. “It is now my life’s work and I finally get to follow my dream of creating a financially literate society. And that is something I never want to retire from.”

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