We turned left off the main road, taking our camper van along a dirt track for about half a mile. The road climbed before it dropped to a beach along Bahía Concepción, on the east side of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. I saw about two-dozen vehicles parked along the sand, just 15 feet from the lapping water of the bay. Some of the campers had been there for months. They belonged to Canadian and American snowbirds seeking a small, quiet community of like-minded travelers.
I spent about a week getting to know this eclectic group. Nobody looked wealthy. But after a few conversations, I realized some were millionaires. Others had retired, or semi-retired, many years before conventional wisdom says they should.
“Pull up a chair,” invited 34-year old Brittany Wittig, as she sat beside her partner, Tom Small. We settled into an easy conversation as a large pelican splashed into the water and came up with a fish. We spent a week on this blissful beach – swimming, kayaking, watching dolphins swim. My wife joined a pliable group of women in their sixties. They were doing yoga on their paddleboards.
We hiked, took trips into the nearby town of Mulegé, and we spent a lot of time talking.
A few years previous, Brittany had been working 60 hours a week at her dog-training business in Los Angeles. Tom was a firefighter. But they wanted to spend more time together and perhaps retire early.
“My parents were obsessed about their socio-economic status,” says Brittany. “My mom, especially, always talked about the things she wanted to do. But she never had a chance to do any of those things. She died of cancer before she was old enough to retire.”
Brittany, however, says her mother gave her one parting gift. “She gave me perspective. I learned what not to do and I learned that life can be short.” What happened next isn’t a how-to manual for those that want to retire early. But it works for Brittany and Tom. They sold most of their possessions and moved into a 21-foot 1989 Toyota Dolphin motorhome. “We found it near San Francisco,” says Tom. “We paid $9,500 and it had just 30,000 miles on it.”
The couple earns about $2000 a month. Tom collects a small firefighter’s pension. Brittany earns money from her blog, therollingpack.com. She writes about the couple’s life on the road. “It’s more of a hobby than a job,” she says, “because I don’t have to show up at an office or meet anyone else’s deadlines.” But she says her income, from affiliate links, is growing almost every month.
Brittany and Tom live about six months a year on different Mexican beaches. Some of the beaches are free. Other campsites, like the one on Bahía Concepción, cost about $6 a night. They bought travel insurance from worldnomads.com. It covers emergency medical care and theft. It costs a paltry $116 a month. “Obamacare covers us for medical in the U.S.,” says Brittany. But it carries a $7000 deductible.”
I figured they were dreamers, living paycheck to paycheck without a plan for their future. But, when Brittany and Tom reach a more traditional retirement age, they might have far more money than the typical retired household.
Statistica publishes savings rates for U.S. households. They estimated that Americans saved 5.4 percent of their income in 2016. The U.S. Consensus Bureau says the typical U.S. household earns about $57,617. This amounts to annual savings of about $3,111 a year. Brittany and Tom save almost twice that much. They invest $6000 annually into a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds.
Fifty-five year old Heidi Pesterfield is another part-time resident on that beach. The freelance journalist earned her first $100 as a 12-year old, selling a story to The National Enquirer. And no, it wasn’t about a three-headed alien drinking beer with Elvis. “I sent them a story about the first woman police chief in Echo, Oregon,” she says. They rewrote the story. But Heidi was hooked after she cashed that first check.
She continued to write. In 1985, she earned a degree in journalism. Heidi also developed a life-long passion for rock climbing. In 2007, she published the second edition of her book, Traditional Lead Climbing. In 2015, she kissed the rat race good-bye. “I knew I could semi-retire in paradise,” she says, “by thinking outside the box and keeping my costs of living low.” Heidi bought a small Casita trailer to live in. The single woman spends just $13,000 a year. “I live in some of the most beautiful places in the world,” she says. She spends about six months a year on the water in Baja. She lives the other six months on National Forest land and BLM land in the Eastern Sierras.
As a finance writer, I’ve published plenty of stories about sound retirement strategies. Most recently, I wrote about deferring Social Security. By doing so, most retirees will reap more retirement income. But depending on your view, there might be a higher price to pay. Life can be short. We might not need as much money as we think. My new friends, down in Baja, might nod their heads in agreement–as they paddle their kayaks towards the sunrise.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas