Reader Case Study: Can I Retire at 60 and Pay for My Kids’ College?

Jenny and her husband Will live in the Upper Midwest along the shores of Lake Michigan with their two children, Sam (age 16) and Alex (age 10), and their one old cat. Will is 56 and the couple always planned for him to retire at 60 and to pay for Sam and Alex’s college educations. However, now that the date is nearing, Jenny’s not sure this is actually feasible. She’d like our help checking her calculations and determining how they should allocate their resources as they–hopefully–approach retirement and paying for college. I’m doing a deep dive today into one of the most commonly asked questions:

When can I retire and not run out of money?

I’ll walk you through how to model different retirement scenarios–based on the variables of your assets, your spending, and your desired retirement age–and how to determine whether or not you’ll run out of money before you die. Today I’m employing the ultra-comprehensive, detailed FIRECalc modeling system for “when can I safely retire?” Woohoo!

What’s a Reader Case Study?

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send in requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight and feedback in the comments section.

For an example, check out the last case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.

The Goal Of Reader Case Studies

Reader Case Studies intend to highlight a diverse range of financial situations, ages, ethnicities, locations, goals, careers, incomes, family compositions and more!

The Case Study series began in 2016 and, to date, there’ve been 81 Case Studies. I’ve featured folks with annual incomes ranging from $17k to $200k+ and net worths ranging from -$300k to $2.9M+.

I’ve featured single, married, partnered, divorced, child-filled and child-free households. I’ve featured gay, straight, queer, bisexual and polyamorous people. I’ve featured women, non-binary folks and men. I’ve featured transgender and cisgender people. I’ve had cat people and dog people. I’ve featured folks from the US, Australia, Canada, England, South Africa, Spain, Finland, Germany and France. I’ve featured people with PhDs and people with high school diplomas. I’ve featured people in their early 20’s and people in their late 60’s. I’ve featured folks who live on farms and folks who live in New York City.

The goal is diversity and only YOU can help me achieve that by emailing me your story! If you haven’t seen your circumstances reflected in a Case Study, I encourage you to apply to be a Case Study participant by emailing your brief story to me at mrs@frugalwoods.com.

Reader Case Study Guidelines

I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not condemn.

There’s no room for rudeness here. The goal is to create a supportive environment where we all acknowledge we’re human, we’re flawed, but we choose to be here together, workshopping our money and our lives with positive, proactive suggestions and ideas.

A disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. 

I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.

With that I’ll let Jenny, today’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Jenny’s Story

Jenny & Will’s sweet old tabby cat.

Hello! I’m Jenny (age 50), married to Will (age 56). Will is a software engineer and I’m a stay-at-home mom. We have two kids, Sam (age 16) and Alex (age 10), who are homeschooled. We also have a lazy old cat who refuses to be schooled in any way. We reside in the Upper Midwest along the shores of Lake Michigan. We live pretty simply, enjoying time together going for hikes, collecting beach glass, gardening, playing board games, reading books, etc.

Our biggest expenses by far involve our health, due to both chronic (non-debilitating) as well as immediate medical issues. Food is our biggest line item and, despite cooking 100% at home and making almost everything from scratch, it’s a crazy high amount. Part of that is due to our insistence on buying only organic, grass-fed/finished, pastured, etc. We also spend a lot on supplements (after tracking for the last few months I’m honestly shocked by just how much!). And lately, the medical bills have been sky-high; the deductible on our health insurance is over $6,000 and we’re using our HSA as an investment vehicle so we haven’t been touching it.

What feels most pressing right now? What brings you to submit a Case Study?

As the one handling our finances, I’ve been telling Will for a while that I think he might be able to retire when he turns 60. Now that the date is drawing near, I’m freaking out a bit. I don’t see how he can stop working in just a few years.

My original target for “enough to retire on” was:

  • $1,000,000 in Will’s IRA
  • $100,000 in Will’s inherited IRA
  • $100,000 in Will’s HSA
  • $100,000 in our Roth IRAs (combined)
  • $100,000 in cash

However, we recently had to stop investing in our Roth IRAs due to ongoing medical expenses, and we don’t have any cash saved at all. I realize this last part is a problem, but somehow I just can’t seem to save an emergency fund.

In addition, our net worth has dropped since the beginning of the year, thanks to the swings in the stock market. While I knew the good stock market times wouldn’t last forever, it’s another thing to see it actually happening. I’m not one to freak out (I mostly just stop checking our investments), but with Will getting closer to retirement age, it’s something that concerns me.

College for Two Kids

frosty beach photographed by Jenny

Complicating the picture of when Will can retire is the fact that both of our kids will be college-aged in just a few years. We’d like to make sure they get through whatever advanced education they want/need with no debt. We obviously don’t have much saved to that end, so we’ll need to cash-flow it, even if it means Will works a bit longer. I’m also concerned about what we’ll do for health insurance as a family once he retires.

Finally, I should add that I’ve been making calculations based on current investment balances and contributions, using 7% as a base interest rate and adjusting each year with the new balances. I have also looked into what Social Security might offer us, though I’m not counting on it. The Open Social Security website indicates that our best strategy would be for me to file for my retirement benefit when I turn 62 and 1 month, for Will to file when he turns 70, and then for me to file for my spousal benefit at that time. The first full year that Will is 70 would result in us receiving almost $54,000 a year. But again, I’m not counting on Social Security to be available, at least not in full.

What’s the best part of your current lifestyle/routine?

The best part of our current lifestyle is having so much time together as a family. We’re all homebodies and enjoy just hanging out together.

What’s the worst part of your current lifestyle/routine?

The worst part of our current lifestyle is not having Will home all the time. His company allows him to work remotely a few days a week, but the rest of the time he needs to be in the office, which is a 45-minute commute from home. We’d prefer for him to work from home full-time, and even better, not have him beholden to a job at all. Alas, an income is still required to pay for the necessary goods and services.

Where Jenny Wants To Be in Ten Years:

Finances:

  • I would like for Will and I to have enough money saved to live off comfortably and to help our kids pay for their higher education if necessary.

Lifestyle:

  • Will would be retired and we’d be continuing to live pretty much the way we have been, without Will having to work.

Career:

  • No career! 😉

Jenny’s Finances

Income

Item Amount Notes
Will’s net income $6,491 Will’s net salary, minus health insurance, taxes and the following deductions:

HSA: $8,300 per year (Will contributes $6,350 & his employer contributes $1,950)
401k: $27,000 per year (his employer contributes $4,000 above that)
FSA: $2,850 per year (this is a limited, HSA-compatible FSA covering only dental & eye care)

Required Minimum Distribution from Will’s inherited IRA $237 This amount changes yearly (taken as a lump sum each December).
Monthly subtotal: $6,728
Annual total: $80,736

Debts: $0

Mortgage: None. Our house is paid off and valued at around $350k

Assets

Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held/Stock ticker Name of bank/brokerage Expense Ratio
Will’s 401K $658,675 VINIX Fidelity 0.035%
House (paid off) $350,000 Estimate based on comp. sales.
Will’s Inherited IRA $102,670 Required RMD every year. VBTLX & VTSAX equally Vanguard 0.05% & 0.04%
Health Savings Account $55,750 In the bank Will’s company uses. VINIX local bank 0.035%
Jenny’s Roth IRA $17,421 VTSAX Vanguard 0.04%
Will’s Roth IRA $9,408 VTSAX Vanguard 0.04%
529 (Sam) $5,412 In our state 529 program. TISPX 0.05%
529 (Alex) $5,412 In our state 529 program. TISPX 0.05%
checking $1,000 Wells Fargo
savings $500 Capital One 1%
Total: $1,206,248

Vehicles

Vehicle make, model, year Valued at Mileage Paid off?
Toyota Sienna 2006 $7,500 141,000 yes
Honda Civic 2007 $6,000 164,000 yes
Total: $13,500

Expenses

In filling out the financial spreadsheet I realized that I haven’t accounted for many expenses, mainly the maintenance and repair on our vehicles and house. Somehow we always find a way to pay for the things that come up irregularly without going into debt, but obviously living on the edge like this is not good. I think part of me knows that if we absolutely had to we could withdraw funds from the inherited IRA (and pay taxes on it) or the HSA (for medical expenses). Obviously, though, this goes against using those accounts to save for retirement! 

Item Amount Notes
groceries $2,400
medical bills $850
supplements $681
misc. household expenses $650 health & hygiene, cleaning supplies, furnace filters, light bulbs, printer ink, etc.
property taxes $544
kids’ activities/classes $400
gas/electric bill $200
gifts/holiday expenses $162 gifts, Halloween costumes/candy, Xmas tree, Xmas cards, memorial donations, etc.
water bill $117
gasoline $85
auto insurance $76 Erie Insurance
alcohol $65
internet $60
life insurance $58 Cincinnati Life
clothing $50
pet supplies $50 cat litter/food/vet visits
homeowner’s insurance $37 Erie Insurance
books $30 We utilize the library as much as possible but buy a book if the library doesn’t have it or we want to own it.
virtual exercise classes $25
New York Times subscription $20
cell service (Tello) $14
Netflix $9
landline (Ooma) $6 Kids don’t have their own cell phones so we need this for when they’re home alone.
umbrella insurance $6 Erie Insurance
Monthly subtotal: $6,595
Annual total: $79,140

Credit Cards: none

Jenny’s Questions for You:

Beach glass found by Jenny

1) Are we on track for Will to retire in four years?

2) What options do we have for helping our kids with the costs of higher education?

3) If Will is able to retire before the kids are old enough to have their own health insurance, how do we make sure they’re covered?

4) How do we save an emergency fund? I used to be so good with money, but lately I feel as though we’re drowning in expenses.

5) Am I focusing too much on retirement savings at the expense of our finances today?

Liz Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

I’m delighted to have Jenny as a Case Study today because I think her family finds themselves in a situation familiar to many: Barreling towards retirement age and college tuition at the same time. I’m thankful to all of our Case Study subjects for their honesty and transparency since these deep dives help not just the subject, but plenty of readers too! Many thanks to Jenny for joining us :).

Most of Jenny’s questions are inter-dependent, so forgive me for addressing things slightly out of order today. Let’s dive in!

Jenny’s Question #1: Are we on track for Will to retire in four years?

It depends. There are a number of factors at play here and the theme I’ll return to over and over today is the need for prioritization and organization. Jenny and Will need to identify their highest priorities and then focus their financial energies towards those ends.

The big prioritization question is:

Do they want to pay for their kids’ college or do they want Will to retire at 60?

If they’re going to pay for their kids’ college, they’ll need to change their spending and allocations.

Priority 1: Paying for College?

Sunscape photographed by Jenny

Their oldest will be off to college in about two years and they have $5,412 in his 529 (a college investment plan). This is great! Any savings are great! Any investments are great! The downside is that this won’t be nearly enough to cover four years of tuition, room, board, books, etc.

Jenny mentioned cash flowing the kids’ college education, but that’s impossible at their current spending level. Will’s annual take-home pay is $80,736 and they spend almost all of that ($79,140). In light of this, if they want to pay for their oldest’s college in full, they’ll have to:

  • Dramatically decrease their spending (and/or dramatically increase their income)
  • Select a college with affordable tuition
  • Seek out scholarships and other financial aid
  • Stop contributing to their retirement accounts

As you all know, I’m not a fan of parents not contributing to their retirement because I think it leaves parents in a precarious position. I almost never advise people to stop investing in their retirement–particularly when you have an employer-matching 401k as Will does–and it makes me uncomfortable to even write it out.

In past Case Studies, I’ve encouraged parents to think about it like this:

Would your kid rather have you pay for their college and then potentially have you rely on them financially in your old age? Or, would your kid rather take out student loans and NOT be financially responsible for you in your old age?

Will and Jenny’s position isn’t quite this diametric, but they really need to be honest about how much money they have to work with, given the fact that their oldest is fast approaching college age and their youngest is close behind.

Remember: It’s not selfish to invest for your retirement–it’s fiscally responsible.

Expenses

Sun Over Lake Michigan

A major hurdle to all of Will & Jenny’s financial goals is their spending. Jenny and Will are breaking even every month, which is a perilous position to put yourself in–especially if you don’t have to.

This isn’t a criticism of their spending, but rather an invitation for them to re-assess their longterm goals as a family and as a couple.

Unless they dramatically increase their income, this level of spending is not tenable.

I applaud Jenny for her honestly about their challenges with tracking their expenses. It takes a great deal of courage to face this and to articulate it. Nobody wants to admit fault–especially not on the internet!–so I want Jenny to understand how proud I am of her for taking this step and how difficult that is to do.

Since this seems to be a persistent issue for Jenny and Will, I encourage them to do three things right away:

  1. Sign-up for Personal Capital, which is a free, online, expense tracking system (affiliate link). I use and recommend Personal Capital, but there are other services out there if you prefer something different. The key is to find something that works for you and stick with it.
  2. Take my free Uber Frugal Month Challenge together. You can sign-up at any time and start with Day 1 of the challenge. This 31-day program guides you through the steps it takes to understand your goals, your money and the emotions around your finances.
  3. Review the below spreadsheets together and determine where they can start saving ASAP (Jenny, I’ll email this to you so you can edit as you and Will discuss).

As Jenny noted, it’s their top four expenses that are killing their budget. These “Big Four” total $4,581. Jenny and Will don’t have a mortgage, which should enable them to live on less, but these four are absolutely draining them. Let’s look at them first:

Item Amount Notes Mrs. FW’s Notes
groceries $2,400 I understand and share the desire/need to eat healthfully, but am hard-pressed to see how it needs to cost $2,400 per month. I live in a different part of the country and my kids are younger, but we spend around $600-$800 per month for a mostly organic, grass-fed, tons of fresh produce, minimal meat diet for our family of four.

Again, if this is Will & Jenny’s absolute highest priority, they will need to cut in other areas to support this amount. If Jenny’s open to considering reducing this amount, I recommend she start by reading: Our Complete Guide To Frugal, Healthy Eating.

medical bills $850 I’m confused as to why money is going into the HSA, but not being used to foot these bills? Let’s talk more about the HSA in a moment because this isn’t making sense to me (even in light of the tax advantages of investing in an HSA).
supplements $681 I’m not a health professional, so I cannot discuss the efficacy/need for supplements, but WOW is this a huge amount. It’s $8,172 per year! Again, not criticizing the choice, just highlighting that this is an outsized amount of money. Is there an opportunity for reduction here?
misc. household expenses $650 health & hygiene, cleaning supplies, furnace filters, light bulbs, printer ink, etc. This amount also blows me away. I’m not clear on how this bill can be so high alongside the astronomical groceries and supplements? This is a category to really dig into to investigate the itemization, since it’s equaling $7,800 per year.
TOTAL: $4,581

Everything else in their monthly expenses pales in comparison and totals a mere $2,014. While Will & Jenny can, and should, trim around the edges of these expenses, it’s the Big Four that are making the difference. Here’s my “trim around the edges” advice:

Item Amount Notes Mrs. FW’s Notes Suggested New Amount
property taxes $544 Fixed cost 544
kids’ activities/classes $400 Reduce/eliminate 200
gas/electric bill $200 Explore opportunities for using less 175
gifts/holiday expenses $162 gifts, Halloween costumes/candy, Xmas tree, Xmas cards, memorial donations, etc. Reduce 100
water bill $117 Explore opportunities for using less 100
gasoline $85 Fixed cost 85
auto insurance $76 Erie Insurance Shop around to see if there’s a better rate. 76
alcohol $65 Reduce/eliminate 45
internet $60 Fixed cost 60
life insurance $58 Cincinnati Life Fixed cost 58
clothing $50 Reduce/eliminate 25
pet supplies $50 cat litter/food/vet visits Fixed cost 50
homeowner’s insurance $37 Erie Insurance Shop around to see if there’s a better rate. 37
books $30 We utilize the library as much as possible but buy a book if the library doesn’t have it or we want to own it. Eliminate 0
virtual exercise classes $25 Eliminate 0
New York Times subscription $20 Eliminate 0
cell service (Tello) $14 Fixed cost. Well done on using an MVNO!!! 14
Netflix $9 Eliminate 0
landline (Ooma) $6 Kids don’t have their own cell phones so we need this for when they’re home alone. Fixed cost 6
umbrella insurance $6 Erie Insurance Fixed cost 6
Monthly subtotal: $2,014 Monthly subtotal: $1,581
Annual total: $24,168 Annual total: $18,972

Even if Jenny & Will trim all of their expenses in this category, they’re only going to save $5,196 per year. Which isn’t nothing! I’m not saying they shouldn’t save this–they should–but the eye-opener are the Big Four expenses totaling $54,972 per year.

Let me reiterate: I do not care what Will & Jenny spend their money on. I’m not judging WHAT people spend on, I’m looking at the bottom line of HOW MUCH they spend versus their income. Jenny asked for my advice and, in this case, some radical expense reduction is what needs to happen.

Let’s circle back to the retirement question:

Jenny and Will have $788,174 in all of their retirement accounts combined. Let’s see how this stacks up against the retirement rule of thumb:

Aim to save at least 1x your salary by 30, 3x by 40, 6x by 50, 8x by 60, and 10x by 67 (Fidelity).

Since Will’s 56, let’s go with 7x: $80,736 x 7 = $565,152, which indicates they are ahead of schedule. However, the issue is that if Will stops contributing to retirement in order to pay for their children’s college AND/OR to retire at 60, this amount won’t be enough to see them through old age. Time for some serious math!

How To Model When You Can Safely Retire (hint: use an online calculator!)

I ran several different mathematical models for Jenny and Will using the online FIRECalc retirement calculator (don’t worry, I didn’t try to do my own math 🤣). What I like about FIRECalc is that it allows you to input a ton of variables and model scenarios based on different future choices you could make. Bear with me, I’m going to walk you through how I navigated the calculator and what I input for each tab. My hope is that this (long-winded) explanation will enfranchise anyone reading this to perform their own “When Can I Safely Retire?” calculations. To follow along with your own numbers, go to firecalc.com.

1) I start at the “Start Here” tab and input:

  • Spending: $79,140
  • Portfolio: $788,174
  • Full Years: 30

Their portfolio is only their retirement investments ($788,174) because we can’t include any of their other assets:

  • They have to live in their house:
    • A paid-off house is a wonderful thing, but it’s not a liquid asset. If you sell your house (and don’t buy another), then you’ll have that money in cash. But until then, it’s a place to live, not a liquid asset.
  • The 529s are earmarked for their kids’ college
  • The HSA is earmarked for medical expenses
  • Their cash totals just $1,500

The variable here that Jenny and Will can most easily influence is their spending.

2) Next, I go to the “Other Income/Spending” tab and input:

  • Social Security: $54,000 (this is the amount Jenny indicated they’ll receive)
  • Starting in: 2036 (when Will turns 70, which is when Jenny indicated he’d elect to receive SS)

Will & Jenny’s Cat in a Patch of Sun

3) Next, I went to the “Not Retired” tab and input:

  • What year will you retire?: 2026 (when Will is 60)
  • How much will you add to your portfolio until then, per year? $37,350
    • $37,350 = Will’s annual contribution to his 401k ($27,000) + his employer’s contribution ($4,000) + the amount they currently contribute to their HSA ($6,350). 
    • Note: they’d have to stop contributing to their HSA in order to include the $6,350
    • If they decided to contribute more to their IRAs, they would add that amount here

4) Next, I go to the “Spending Models” tab and leave it alone, per the instructions:

If you leave this section alone, FIRECalc assumes you will continue to spend the same amount (after adjustments for inflation) every year for 30 years.

5) Next, I go to the “Your Portfolio” tab and input:

  • How much are you paying in investing fees (expense ratio)? 0.04%
    • For more on what expense ratios are and why they’re so important, check out this Case Study
  • I selected “Total Market” since Will & Jenny are invested in low-fee, total market index funds
  • Percentage of your portfolio that is in equities: 100%
    • Note: Will & Jenny are currently invested 100% in stocks (aka equities). They should research whether or not they want to diversify their their portfolio to include some lower-risk, lower-reward bonds.

6) Next, I go to the “Portfolio Changes” tab:

This is the place to input major lump sum changes (either additions or subtractions) to your portfolio. The most relevant for Jenny and Will is college tuition. Other examples: an inheritance (addition), the sale of a home (addition), the purchase of a home (subtraction).

I had to make estimations since I don’t know how much college tuition will cost for Jenny & Will’s kids. I made the wild guess that it’ll be $125,000 for each of their boys to attend four years of traditional college (a grand total of $250k for both kids). They can adjust this number when they have real data from their sons’ prospective universities.

To model paying for college:

  • I selected “Subtract a lump sum” of $125,000 in 2026 for their first child:
    • I picked 2026 because it should be roughly the mid-point of their 16-year-old’s college education
  • Then for the second child, I selected: “Subtract a lump sum” of $125,000 in 2032:
    • I picked 2032 because it should be roughly the mid-point of their 10-year-old’s college education

7) And finally…. we get RESULTS! I go to the “Investigate” tab:

Retirement Scenario #1: Retiring at 60

I want to model Will & Jenny’s likelihood of success for several different possible retirement scenarios. Here’s the link Jenny and Will should use for modeling each of these scenarios.

We’ll start with the assumptions Jenny set forth (and the variables I input as noted above):

  1. Will retires at age 60
  2. They pay for both of their children’s college educations
  3. Their annual spending and savings rates do not change

To model this, I click on the first box, which says “The success rate of your portfolio and withdrawal plans…” Then I click “Submit.”

Unfortunately, it is not good news.

The FIRECalc results state:

  • Because you indicated a future retirement date (2026), the withdrawals won’t start until that year.
  • Your contributions will continue until then.
  • The tested period is 4 years of preretirement plus 26 years of retirement, or 30 years.
  • FIRECalc looked at the 122 possible 30 year periods in the available data, starting with a portfolio of $788,174 and spending your specified amounts each year thereafter.

Here is how your portfolio would have fared in each of the 122 cycles:

  • The lowest and highest portfolio balance at the end of your retirement was $-2,339,890 to $7,662,214, with an average at the end of $2,002,135. (Note: this is looking at all the possible periods; values are in terms of the dollars as of the beginning of the retirement period for each cycle.)
  • For our purposes, failure means the portfolio was depleted before the end of the 30 years. FIRECalc found that 22 cycles failed, for a success rate of 82.0%.

In plain English, FIRECalc is telling us that if Will retires at age 60 and they pay for both of their kids’ educations and the stock market performs according to an amalgamation of 122 different historical stock market scenarios (per the market’s performance since 1871), their likelihood of NOT running out of money in retirement is only 82%. That means they have an 18% chance of going broke before they die.

This is too risky for me personally. If it were me, I would not feel comfortable pursuing a path that only has an 82% chance of success. Everyone has to determine their own risk tolerance, but I cannot advise taking this path.

Retirement Scenario #2: Delaying Retirement Age

Ok, since scenario #1 fails 18% of the time, I’m going to change some of the variables I noted above to increase Will & Jenny’s likelihood of success.

Under the “Investigate” tab, I’m going to now click the box under “Investigate delaying retirement” and input 10 years:

What happens if you retire in any of several years between now and 10 years from now?

This is exactly what it sounds like: if Will were to delay his retirement date, how likely is it that they’d run out of money?

Here are our new variables:

  • Will delays retirement
  • They pay for both of their children’s college educations
  • Their annual spending and savings rates do not change

Results of delaying Will’s retirement date

 

What we’re seeing here: if Will were to work until the year 2029, they’d have a 100% chance of success! This is great news as it would enable them to pay for both of their kids to go to college and ensure they wouldn’t run out of money in retirement. The downside is that Will would have to work until age 63. But that doesn’t seem like too bad of a trade-off to me!

The assumptions here are:

  • They do not change their spending
  • College does indeed cost $125k per child
  • They stop contributing to their HSA and instead invest that money in retirement
  • The stock market continues to perform as it has in the past
  • They continue with Will’s current 401k contributions (and his employer continues to contribute as well)
  • Their Social Security estimate of $54k annually is correct

Retirement Scenario #3: Retiring at 60, Decreasing Annual Spending

Let’s run another scenario. If the #1 priority is for Will to retire at age 60, they’ll need to change other variables in order to achieve success.

The most obvious variable they can change:

  1. Their annual spending

Back to the “Investigate” tab and this time, I go to the “Given a success rate, determine spending level for a set portfolio, or portfolio for a set spending level” section and select “Spending Level”:

Search for settings that will get a success rate of as close to 99% as possible (usually within 1%) by changing…
 Spending Level or  Starting portfolio value

Results:

A spending level of $65,063 provided a success rate of 99.2% (122 total cycles, of which 1 failed). This spending level is 8.25% of your starting portfolio. (Your spending is assumed to come from any Social Security and pensions you entered, as well as from the portfolio.)

Here’s the graph:

Results of reduced annual spending

 

Scenario #3 is also good news! If Jenny and Will are able to reduce their annual spending to $65,063, they’d have a 99.2% chance of not running out of money in retirement. At $58,557 per year, they’d have a 100% success rate.

Reducing their spending would enable them to reach their goals of:

  1. Will retiring at age 60
  2. Paying for their children’s college educations
  3. Not running out of money in retirement

Jenny’s Question #4: How do we save an emergency fund? I used to be so good with money, but lately I feel as though we’re drowning in expenses.

I agree with Jenny that this should be a top priority. They only have $1,500 in savings, which is a dangerous position. If Will were to unexpectedly lose his job, they’d only be able to cover a tiny fraction of their monthly spending.

The standard emergency fund advice is to have three to six months worth of your expenses saved in an easily-accessible checking or savings account. At their current rate of spending, that’d be $19,785 ($6,595 x 3) to $39,570 ($6,595 x 6). However, I really encourage Jenny and Will to try and reduce their monthly spending. Then, they’ll be able to target saving a smaller emergency fund.

Other Notes

1) I question the HSA decision.

I know that some folks espouse the idea of hacking an HSA because of the tax advantages, which I get. But, it’s a complicated, potentially risky thing because it has to be used for qualified medical expenses:

  • you have to be certain you’re going to spend this much in qualified medical expenses
  • you have to save all of your medical expenses receipts for decades
  • you have to hope that the laws governing HSAs don’t change

Beach photographed by Jenny

It’s not so much that this is a “bad” financial decision, it’s just kind of a quirky, secondary one that should take a back-seat to standard priorities, such as:

  1. Saving up an emergency fund
  2. Saving for retirement
  3. Saving for college

If a person has maxed out ALL other possible tax-advantaged accounts, has no debt, has an emergency fund, has a robust taxable investment account, a fully-funded retirement, etc, then the HSA hack is probably a fine thing to do. What concerns me in Jenny and Will’s case is how much money is sitting in this HSA while their other financial priorities suffer.

2) Look into getting a high-yield savings account. 

For the awesome emergency fund Will and Jenny are going to save up, they should leverage their savings by choosing a high-yield account such as the American Express Personal Savings account, which–as of this writing–earns 1.15% in interest (affiliate link).

Summary:

  1. Have a conversation about the family’s long-term financial priorities:
    • Is spending on the Big Four the #1 priority?
    • Is paying for the kids’ college the #1 priority?
    • Is Will retiring at 60 the #1 priority?
  2. Based on the outcome of that conversation, adjust your spending and savings to align with these priorities, in their order of importance.
  3. Utilize the FIRECalc to model different scenarios.
  4. Re-assess the use of the HSA as an investment vehicle. Consider instead spending it on your existing medical expenses and funnel the money you would put in the HSA into an emergency fund.
  5. Encourage oldest kid to begin researching college options, scholarships and financial aid possibilities.
  6. Sign-up for Personal Capital or some other free expense tracking service (affiliate link).
  7. Take the free Uber Frugal Month Challenge to help identify your financial goals and areas for improvement.
  8. Save up an emergency fund calibrated on your monthly spending. Look into putting this into a high-yield account, such as the American Express Personal Savings account (affiliate link).
  9. Take a deep breath and be thankful to yourself for embarking on this difficult process. I know these are hard choices to make, but you should feel confident in your ability to forge a solid financial future. Very well done!

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice do you have for Jenny? We’ll both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk.

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208 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    I love reading these so thanks for providing them!

    I just wanted to chime in on the college situation, we have 3 kids getting to that age and we have 25k for each kid. That’s all they are getting from us. However, as long as they are reasonable that should cover it for them.
    They all have quite high ACT scores, they have taken it multiple times and have purchased some supplemental study books, so they should all get pretty good academic scholarships. The middle one has quite high and is looking at a full ride pretty much to any state school.

    They are all taking or took concurrent high school credits. So they are earning college credits while in high school ( for free!). My oldest has almost 2 years of college credits just from high school.

    The older two work. The youngest one isn’t old enough to get a real job. They have money saved, which I assume will be kind of their spending money at college, or whatever they may need.

    We have community college options around here, where they could easily get their first two years if needed and we could pay out of pocket ( if no scholarships) and then save their $25k for their last two years of state school.

    Again, that combination should get all 3 of our kids through school debt free.

    • Laura says:

      One other thing related to college that a lot of people don’t know about are there are scholarships specifically for upperclassmen. I had multiple friends get scholarships only available to juniors and seniors that didn’t have much competition simply because most people don’t think about it. The university scholarship office can help you find and apply for those. I had one friend who was able to piece together enough to pay all his tuition his last two years.

      • K says:

        In our experience (3 kids through college, all entered college with college credits) students are still considered freshman and are eligible for freshman scholarships, even though they are entering with college credit-IF the college credits were earned while in high school.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, we definitely plan on having the kids utilize community college as much as possible to reduce costs!

    • Jess says:

      I am on multiple Facebook groups for parents trying to pay for college and I just want to say you have to be very discerning about which schools to apply for because many schools no longer offer merit based scholarships and the competition is quite steep.

      I see a lot of parents complaining that they’re high achieving did not recieve scholarshipe

      • Rachel says:

        That must be frustrating. Here you can go online and look up the merit-based scholarships based on ACT score, and they will give you the exact amount that your child will get. These are all public state schools.

        • Kay says:

          Rachel, what state are you in? Gathering as much information about scholarships and public state schools as I can! thanks =)

          • Beth says:

            We live in Kentucky, and all our regional state universities publicly release this chart of guaranteed academic scholarships based on ACT. Yes, the chart has gotten tougher (higher scores required) over the years.
            Also, both Univ of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (Roll Tide) and Huntsville have guaranteed out-of-state tuition scholarships for high ACT scores.
            Two of our kids went to Univ of AL, the other 3 went to KY state schools.
            Yes, it was the kids’ part-time job to study for the ACT, and take it multiple times.

            Yes, it would be great to set aside $125K for each kid’s college experience.
            That wasn’t realistic for us.
            Our kids got full tuition scholarships, and we gifted them about half of their room/board expenses.
            Three kids lived at home for some of the time, which worked well, too.

            My dh is 61yo and we’re looking forward to his retirement in the next year.
            However, we waited until our youngest child was half-way thru his college path, so we knew he could graduate with our current financial arrangement.
            I think Jenny does need to cut expenses, but they will know more as their kids get closer to college.
            It’s definitely not “choose whatever college you want”!

    • Day by day says:

      Average state uni costs in our region (living on campus, in state tuition and fees) is $150k for the four years. 25 k wouldn’t cover a full year. The one school closest to home, if they live at home, is $60k for four years in todays dollars. We haven’t assessed Community college, but depending on region, $25 k is a very low estimate for college. Your area may be different but we are planning $180k per kid “all in” without scholarships (if they get them fantastic, but we plan for worst case)

  2. Caroline Joanna Mary Bowman says:

    Interesting case study!

    If it were me, I’d drastically reduce the whole ”supplements” spend and really take solid medical advice on what is actually needed and what is in fact, um, not so much a requirement as clever marketing. I’d also look to reduce my food spend by about 20%, i.e. still have great quality food and enjoyment of same, but get a lot more frugal around what is and isn’t a luxury.

    And then I’d get that retirement date pushed to 63. I know time is priceless of course, but 63 is still plenty young enough to reasonably expect a good long retirement while still in decent health / ability to enjoy that time. I also wouldn’t be so intent on actually underwriting my kids entire college education. After any scholarships and bursaries were sought, I’d look to pay maybe 50% of the rest., or however much would be enough to mean they’d be okay with a part-time gig to supplement their studies, but not have to work full time as well as study or drown in debt. Your own retirement and financial goals should absolutely be the priority here. It’s amazing to pay for a good education and I’m all in favour, but a decent contribution towards that and a healthy retirement for yourselves is nothing to be sneezed at either.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! All the supplements are actually recommended by/vetted by our doctor, but I’m seeing her soon and will go over the list again.

      We may have to push off retirement. This deep-dive has given me a lot to think about and discuss with Will!

      • Steph says:

        As a medic, there are very few supplements I recommend. You can check your calcium intake using an online calcium calculator. Vitamin D is sensible in Northern climates. That’s about it unless other specific medical conditions. Might be worth getting an independent medical professionals to review you list.

        • Nutritionist says:

          As a registered dietician and nutrition scientist (phD, involved in updating the national nutrition recommendations in one of the major EU countries), I absolutely second this. As in ABSOLUTELY!!!

  3. Betsy says:

    One thing I think not addressed was how they would pay for health insurance in early retirement. I’m not sure which Lake Michigan state they’re in but if it’s mine, marketplace insurance can be quite expensive and not great coverage. She mentioned they have chronic conditions and high medical expenses so to me, keeping employer insurance seems worth working a few more years.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, that’s definitely something to consider.

      • Beth says:

        If your (early) retirement income (AGI) is low, you qualify for ACA subsidies. Subsidies were temporarily expanded during the COVID relief bill . . . and I’m optimistic they will extend those subsidies.

        • Beth S says:

          Adding this = The “Inflation Reduction Act” (which was passed over the weekend by Congress) officially extends these ACA subsidies.

  4. Celeste says:

    Awesome post, and a huge thank you to Jenny for sharing your story — stay strong, dig in, you got this!

  5. Lisa says:

    Could you share some of the vitamins/supplements and purposes? There may be lower cost options for the same supplements, and readers may have either data to support their use or to disprove their use. There is vast medical research of vitamins and supplements and using this could help ensure you are confident in where your money goes for this category.

    For miscellaneous household, could you share the items? Are there trends where biting a multi pack or bulk in advance would save money, like with batteries or lightbulbs?

    • Sally Mangan says:

      You mentioned what seemed like an extremely high amount for cleaning supplies, etc. Healthy, non-toxic cleaning supplies can be made a home for pennies with white vinegar and dish detergent. Recipes abound on the internet. I use them as I like the cost savings and health benefits. I am also curious why your supplement usage is so high when you seem to be eating a very healthy diet and should be getting your dietary needs covered with that. This is not criticism by any means! I am in my 70’s and spend a large amount of my income on supplements as I have health conditions that require dietary restrictions that keep me from getting the vitamins and minerals I need through my diet. Your family appears to be eating a healthy diet and you did not mention any health needs so that is why I am mentioning it.

    • Jenny says:

      Miscellaneous household includes things like a replacement printer and dehumidifier, both of which we needed in the few months that I kept track of spending. Maybe that’s why the total was so high? Basically it includes anything needed to keep the household running, except for major repairs.

  6. MJ says:

    Shouldn’t the recommended retirement amounts by age (annual salary x age) be based on gross salary – not net? It looks like Will an Jenny are putting a substantial amount into 401K, HSA, Medical and or course taxes prior to receiving their net income. If the recommended 401K savings is based on gross, not net, they would need substantially more to retire.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Correct–check out the calculations I did in the FIRECalc for how these amounts are accounted for. Specifically this section: 3) Next, I went to the “Not Retired” tab and input:…

  7. Nancy says:

    Good Morning! I’m a university instructor and the parent of a 20-year-old college student. Can I just add that often parents are overly optimistic about what ACT credits can actually do. How these credits count varies from school to school. Universities will allow them as course equivalents for some classes, but not for others. Often students bring in those ACT credits, but they only count toward general education requirements and not toward anything required for their major or degree program. While they can be useful, I honestly think ACT “oversells” their value. And for us, the cost of housing our student on campus is almost as high as tuition, especially with private landlords, or with universities selling students on their fancy meal plans, climbing walls, and other amenities.

    We’ve done a balancing act of 529 savings and cash flowing housing, but honestly, those months when we’re paying for housing are pretty lean, even with contributions from our daughter’s part-time and summer jobs And I’ve seen first-hand the burden of student debt on both students and their parents. It’s not pretty.

    If grandparents or other family members can buy I Bonds or something like that for birthday gifts, I heartily recommend that.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, we definitely plan on having the kids live at home while taking college classes!

      • Anne says:

        Keep in mind that living at home for college may not work for them. One or both may have better academic opportunities at a university further away. They may also end up feeling like they need to do the very normal and reasonable step of living elsewhere for awhile to help them forge and solidify their identity as individuals. This is often especially important to keep as an option in families that are very close.

      • Jenni says:

        I lived at home for 3 years of my 6 years that it took for me to get my engineering degree. I don’t recommend it to anyone if they are going to a university that most of the kids live on campus or near campus, not an issue in the first year or 2 at a community college. I failed out of school, had constant fights with my parents (which never happened in high school), nothing but issues. When I went away to college I became a 4.0 student and loved life again.

      • Vanessa says:

        I always recommend folks live at home during undergrad if it’s a workable situation for both student and family, so I think it’s smart for your family to consider it. I lived at home for all four years of college, and while it meant not having as easy access to certain on-campus activities (I walked/rode bus as I couldn’t afford a car and insurance), I was certainly still able to make a tight knit group of friends, many of whom I am still close with ten years later. Living at home meant my family covered my room and board, so I only needed grants, scholarships, and a part time job to cover tuition and fees.

        While I understand what people are saying regarding the need to leave home and forge their own identities, I don’t think nurturing that independence and identity can’t happen while also living at home, particularly if you’re all intentional about what that looks like. Communication was so important for us as we navigated what adulthood looked like and meant for me in the context of our relationships and responsibilities. Graduating debt free meant I had the freedom to accept the jobs I wanted post-undergrad without the weight of student debt. I’ve worked in four different countries since completing my undergrad and don’t think a few extra years living at home were in any way a detriment to my maturity, independence, or relationship with my family.

    • Nora says:

      This is the same for AP courses. I had 2 classes waived (10+ years ago) but that did not reduce my time at university/I was able to take other classes for a minor (so same cost).

    • Andrea says:

      Nancy do you mean AP credits? ACT is a test for college admission, AP classes potentially give credits. (Like you said, the AP credits are not always as helpful as you think.)

      • Jess says:

        Agreed. AP credits are often better for practicing taking college level courses but they’re not a guarantee that you’re going to get all the college credit. Dual enrollment in community college during high School is often a better investment but even still you may not transfer all the credits

        • Martha says:

          Community college professor here.Your community college should be able to tell you which4-year schools accept their credits. Our college has transfer agreements worked out with all state public schools and many local private colleges as well. The credits don’t always transfer to out-of-state or highly competitive private schools.

        • K says:

          Seconding this. The AP exam system is overrated and is a great money maker for the company that runs it but is not great for students. In my opinion, and in our experience, community college classes have a much higher chance of counting for college credit, and the college classes often require less work (AP courses can be an insane and unnecessary amount of work-it all depends on the whims of the teacher, which is never a good position to put oneself in). It’s best to check which community college classes are likely to transfer (often the general ed ones do).

    • Blair says:

      Can you clarify “ACT credits”? I teach high school and I’ve never heard of getting college credits from the ACT exam. Do you mean AP (Advanced Placement) credits? Or something else?

    • Joseph Beckenbach says:

      [Sorry if this double-posts.]

      My older daughter used CLEP and AP and college-specific tests to get credit for courses, mostly core courses. She left her frosh orientation as a rising sophomore! Three years and done! With scholarships and work-study in the mix as well, she didn’t use all we’d set aside. So the extra boosts her launch funds.

  8. Karen E says:

    Does your 16 year old have a job? If so, is he saving for college as well? Will you be giving your kids spending money in college or are they expected to pay for that from their savings? Be upfront with your kids about what you can afford to pay for college, and what part they need to pay for. Do you give your kids an allowance? Since you homeschool your kids I would think it would be hard to cut back on their activities, they need that interaction. I had always made it clear with my kids that my goal was to pay for college, except they had to pay for 10,000 of it, which they took out in financial loans. They were also responsible for their spending money. I would also analyze the food bill as well, seems really high.

  9. Meg says:

    I think you may want to look into the advantages of an HSA a bit more rather than saying they should stop contributing entirely. For now while they are under 65, yes they can only use the account for medical expenses. However, they can pull money out at any time to reimburse (if they’ve saved their medical receipts) and need to have cash. Also, once they turn 65 they can withdraw from the account for non-medical expenses without penalty. So I wouldn’t say stop contributing entirely, because they are likely treating it as an investment vehicle for the time being and will use it after age 65 for whatever they want.

    • Meg says:

      Sorry, I misspoke at the end. They can withdraw for whatever medical expenses they may have in retirement without penalty. I think this is smart for them since they have chronic health needs.

      • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

        True! My concern with the HSA is that it’s a more limited account than, say, a regular retirement vehicle or a taxable investment account. There’s nothing “wrong” with using an HSA, I just personally think it’s a more nuanced use case and shouldn’t take precedence above saving an emergency fund (in Will and Jenny’s case).

        • Leeann says:

          Once you hit age 65 (I think) you can take money out of your HSA for any reason and only pay the taxes, not the penalty.

          • Camille says:

            Meg and Leeann are correct. At 65 it’s functionally an IRA. It makes sense to consider this their emergency fund. Its easy enough to scan invoices and save them, and then use these to draw upon the money as needed. Our HSA has an investment side and a savings account side if there’s concern over the need to withdraw from an invested .

        • Kate says:

          Would it make sense to just reimburse yourself for a years worth of medical expenses from the HSA now, to have some cash? At 850×12 that’s a good cushion. I understand wanting to leave it for the future but I’d be anxious to not have *some* cash around.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, we are absolutely using the HSA as an investment vehicle. I was always under the impression that HSAs are amazing tools to use for retirement.

      If we had to we could pull a lot of money from it right now (since we’ve saved up years of receipts for medical expenses), but I was letting the fund grow instead.

      • Lisa says:

        Their primary use is for medical bills. You have lots of other accounts for investing, you should seriously consider being reimbursed for the $850 in medical expenses every month through there.

  10. Katie says:

    While I agree with Mrs. FW’s judgement on their HSA – that given their other expenses, they should probably be using this account for medical costs rather than as a retirement vehicle – I’m surprised by the argument that “you have to be certain you’re going to spend this much in qualified medical expenses” during your retirement. According to the Fidelity Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate, an average retired couple age 65 in 2022 may need approximately $315,000 saved (after tax) to cover health care expenses in retirement. Given the way things are going, that will probably only go up over time! HSA funds can be used to cover assisted living, physical therapy, and a whole bunch of other medical expenses that older adults are likely to face. It seems pretty likely that they’ll spend at least as much as they have saved in that account.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      True! My concern with the HSA is that it’s a more limited account than, say, a regular retirement vehicle or a taxable investment account. There’s nothing “wrong” with using an HSA, I just personally think it’s a more nuanced use case and shouldn’t take precedence above saving an emergency fund (in Will and Jenny’s case).

    • Mary G says:

      I’m not sure about using HSA funds to cover assisted living expenses. My impression/understanding is that you cannot do that, and those expenses are extremely high.

  11. James W Day says:

    This analysis probably covers probably 3/4’s of working Americans. This is the perfect storm of the modern age: Kids college/Retirement cash flow/Medical expenses. Medicare kicks in at 65YO… 60 is to early… try 62 or even safer 65YO. Are the supplements for longevity program , or existing medical conditions ?

    Maybe you could BOTH work PT 20 hours at a “fun” easier job. Its hard to beat remote work tho….great analysis! I don’t see how your kids at that young age and your advanced age you guys will be able to retire while they go to college. College has other expenses, also out of state schools, study abroad, food, clothes, train tickets..etc.. Our twin girls attend out of state ( at the same time!) and are sophomores. The decision was based on their majors. Its about ~36 k a year. But we and both sets of grandparents were able to bank 100k each from 1-18yo… so with a little luck they will get their BA and have no debt.. or a little overage. We told them your fam has teh BA- but any future degrees will be on you guys while working!

    • Rosalie says:

      Given the high demand for labor, I would recommend that Jenny find a job, at least part-time. A job with benefits may also enable her to contribute to her own retirement account as well as social security.

      RE college, good grades and SAT or ACT scores help, but they are not a magic bullet that will garner a full ride, for the most part. My kids both had perfect 1600 SAT scores and very high GPAs and yes, they got scholarships, but we still paid over $35K per year each for their undergraduate degrees. (It was a priority for us to get them through debt-free.)

      • James W Day says:

        Rosalie, we have similar experiences. Our girls were in a top 5 school public strath haven hs, all honors all great SAT’s , they to got scholarships and a boost for twins in school at same time.. and its still 36k for out of state! If you don’t save at 1YO and have the entire fam pitching in… well kids today will all graduate with crushing debt.

      • Julie says:

        Well, it says that she homeschools her two kids, which I did for my two boys up until last year and that is a job. A very time consuming one. I doubt she has the time for a part-time job outside of that.

  12. Sara says:

    Regarding the heavy allocation of funds into the HSA – both COBRA and Medicare coverage are currently qualified expenses under current HSA law. While I wouldn’t add more money to that pot right now, you’ll definitely be able to use it up when you turn 65.

    For the supplements, I would have your doc or a functional medicine specialist look over the list and see if there are better options that might offer broader coverage. I also have a chronic condition and need lots of supplements and my nurse was able to recommend a random multivitamin (for hair of all things!) that covered a lot of the supplements I had been taking. I spend almost a hundred a month on supplements and I thought I was the spendiest supplement person ever 🙂 I bet you can whittle yours down a bit.

    Any chance you’d be willing to work part time to help cash flow when your kids are going to college? That is our plan, if it turns out that our savings aren’t quite enough. Work 16-24 hours a week is absolutely better than the 50 we each work now. And plenty of people enjoy getting out of the house for a few hours a week and interacting with other people. Good luck! You really have lots of options.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks! I’m seeing my doctor soon and will go over our list of supplements. 🙂

      I’ve considered a part-time job, but I honestly don’t think I could handle it physically. We’ll see how things are once the kids are a bit older, though.

    • ann says:

      Sara, what is the multi you are taking for hair?

  13. Quincy says:

    I have a question–when you calculated how much money they should have saved for retirement, I noticed you just used Will’s age and income to calculate it. When it is a couple is it better to calculate for both of them? I know this is a little different because only Will is working but I was curious about this. Obviously only he is working but they are BOTH going to have to live off of the retirement so just wondering about how to account for that?

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Good question! Since Will is the only person in the household with an income, I used his salary. Since they are living off of his salary alone, that will also be their retirement model, which is why it is calibrated based on his age.

      • Quincy says:

        thanks for the response and clarification!

      • Mama Bear says:

        I use the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists to determine which vegetables I feel comfortable buying that are raised conventionally (Clean 15) and which to buy organic (Dirty Dozen). This list changes annually. For example: onions were on the dirty frozen list several years ago but now are on the Clean 15 list. This helps with my grocery budget.

  14. Quincy says:

    Another comment–Jenny, thanks for sharing your story. You all are doing a GREAT job! Here are a few of my ideas:
    -Maybe you could get a part time job at a university and get tuition discounts for your kids that way
    -Encourage your kids to go into trades–electrician, plumber, nurse. Those are usually more affordable and faster programs and pay well. Take it from me, going back to school to be a nurse after having my first undergraduate degree paid for by my parents. I feel like I wasn’t as invested in what I studied because it was paid for. If it had been me paying, I think I would have been a lot more conscientious about what I chose to study.
    -Encourage your older kid to get a part time job. That could help them contribute and also learn the value of their education
    -Work part time at a supplement store 😉 get some discounts!
    Just some ideas. You seem to have a lovely happy life and your family obviously adds tons of value, which ultimately is worth solid gold. Happy for you!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! I appreciate your input and kind thoughts!

    • Allison in Ky. says:

      Great idea about working for a university, Quincy. I’m sure it varies from school to school, but I work full-time at a state university and my son gets four free classes a year. My stepkids graduated from the same university, and at that time my husband was also working full-time at the same school so those free classes helped tremendously! Cheers for “debt-free degrees!”
      Our state (Ky.) also has the KEES scholarship, which is funded by the Ky. Lottery. It’s based on a student’s grades in high school, ACT score, etc. Not sure if there is a similar “thing” in other states, but I would have your kids apply for every possible scholarship. You never know- they could be the only one who applies! Even the little ones add up…

  15. Kristine says:

    Kudos for the savings you have so far! Something else that wasn’t brought up – could your husband go down to part time work? Possibly best of both worlds, allowing you to cash flow college and getting more time back.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Establishing an emergency fund is critical I think for a single income.I would look at decreasing the amount spent on supplements unless it is something that research has shown is actually helpful for one of your specific health problems and is recommended by a doctor or registered dietician. Consider buying a side of beef from a local farmer who pastures their cattle. Same with eggs and chickens. Grow produce next year. Unless you want to only buy organic (and cut elsewhere) consider only buying the dirty dozen. Speak to your oldest about their ideas for post secondary. It might be unobtainable to pay for 4 years at a private university and a discussion about how much you can give a year might be in order if you have told them you are paying for it all.

    • Jenny says:

      Agree that the EF is critical!

      We’re not thinking four years at a private university! We’re thinking community college, living at home, possibly going part-time at least at first. But a close look at numbers and a discussion with our oldest is a good idea. Thanks!

  17. Anne says:

    One thing that is missing from the analysis is are there more comprehensive healthcare plans available if you forego access to the HSA? With such high healthcare deductibles and copays, it is definitely worth looking into.

    Are the supplements from a functional or holistic doctor? Unless there are a huge number for each member of the family, it is hard to see how it can be quite so high. Can you reassess if all of the supplements are necessary and if there are more economical ways of getting them without sacrificing quality? Iherb has options to order high quality, reasonably priced supplements, for example. In some cases there may also be easy food substitutes (such as Brazil nuts for selenium or dried seaweed for iodine).

    • Jenny says:

      The supplements are all recommended by or vetted by our health care practitioner, and each member of the family takes at least some of them. I’m seeing our doctor soon and will go over everything again, though!

      I scour the internet to find the lowest prices and mostly buy from FullScript, which has the cheapest prices on the highest quality supplements.

      And yes to Brazil nuts! We do try to optimize food nutrients but due to various health and genetic issues food doesn’t always cover it.

  18. Christy says:

    I teach and advise community college students in another state. I concur with Nancy that students should be strategic with college credits earned while in high school.

    Many college degree programs prescribe almost all of the classes, including general education classes, that students are required to take. Students can maximize college credits taken in high school if they know what they will study in college. Otherwise, as Nancy wrote above, it is a guessing game as to whether or not the credits will “count” in a meaningful way.

    For example, I advised a student who entered my community college with 54 college credits earned while in high school. This student is studying engineering. Engineering pathways are prescribed and require sequential classes. This student completed college algebra and trigonometry while in high school and obtained college credit. And for many majors these courses will meet general education requirements. In engineering, these classed are “pre-requisite” courses to the required entry level mathematics calculus course.

    Some very strategic students dedicate their time and energy to researching and applying for scholarships. The most successful put together multiple small, locally-offered, scholarships. Typically there are not as many competing applicants.

    • Rachel says:

      But in your example, the student still “saved” money because they didn’t have to pay for those pre requisite courses in college because they already had them.

      In many states they have a prescribed undergraduate “core” and the list of general education ed type courses are the same across the board for all state public institutions. So no matter what you are going to major in, everyone has to have a Comp 1, Comp 2, Oral Communications, Art Appreciation, Health and Wellness (etc.etc.etc.). That way you know they will count.

    • Marcia says:

      I’m a dinosaur (between Jenny and her husband’s age), but I took one AP test in HS. English. I became an engineer. It actually worked in my favor, because I got two classes worth of college credit for the English AP.

      What I’ve seen is that taking AP classes in your eventual major is good at preparing you for college – but in many cases, you should probably still take the college course. Taking AP classes in your NON-major is where you can get credit that you might not have to repeat. YMMV.

      My 16 yo is taking AP classes and dual enrollment at our CC, and I doubt it will have any effect on college. We’ll still probably end up paying for everything. I don’t have a clue where he’ll go or what he’ll major in. I know that even though I got college credit for that AP test, my private university still required the same number of graduating credits, so instead of English I ended up taking extra history, plus swimming and a PE class.

  19. Shannon says:

    Since they homeschool, have they looked into non traditional options fit high school? CLEP is one option as is dual enrollment at a community College which could allow their kids to transfer to a four year university as a sophomore or junior. As someone else pointed out, not all colleges take those credits but there are a lot that do

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I’ve been looking into having our older child take a few CC classes now, but I’m not sure he’s interested in doing that just yet.

      • K says:

        We homeschooled one and had great experience with CC classes. I then “required” my other kids, who were in public school, to take at least one CC class while in high school. I thought the experience was invaluable. Even my REALLY reluctant one was glad in the end. And yes, I gave all the support needed to the reluctant one, no good would have come from it if it was a bad experience. This kid is just reluctant to try new things. The confidence this one gained from having completed a college class BEFORE they went to college was priceless.

        • Beth says:

          Same here. Dual Enrollment (some online) worked great for us.
          Our kids started the summer of their Junior Year . . . so we homeschooled with that goal of being ready for specific gen ed classes at that time.
          Our dd did all the pre-requisites for her 2 year RN program in high school, so she was ready to start nursing school in the Fall after graduation.
          A motivated teen can really accomplish a lot.
          CLEPs were not readily accepted at our CC, sadly.

  20. Joan says:

    What are ACT credits?

  21. Annie says:

    Just our own experience with a child 18 and child 16: If you want to help your kids with college, cut everything right now that you possibly can and throw it ALL into college savings after you boost your emergency fund so you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck.
    We personally are not contributing anymore to the 529 for the oldest as he needs the $ in next two years and we’ve seen half a year’s tuition evaporate this year due to stock market pain. For that child we’re putting it into a plain old bank account.)
    Here’s what we found: State schools have a ton of smart, high-scoring applicants. They don’t need our kids. Our child took the ACT multiple times and got fantastic scores and had above a 4.0 average. He did community college dual enrollment and knocked out credits that way. He had a few classes and knocked out more credits that way. At the state schools he applied to the end result would still have been $30,000-$30,000 a year. Student loans won’t cover that. He wound up applying to a small private school that offer a lot more merit aid. (Consider smaller schools, because sometimes that’s a great option. There’s such a thing as “buyer” and “seller” schools… Google it… Schools basically that need your kids and are willing to pay for good grades and schools that don’t need your kids and aren’t.)
    I’m not trying to scare you but we saw a financial advisor who said: your retirement is in decent shape. The big red flags are you want to help pay for your kids college and you don’t have near enough set aside for that.

    We never intended to pay for all of it. We hoped to help with about half and we are doing everything, including side jobs, in order to make that possible. I would really encourage you to cut expenses now and shovel that money into college accounts IF helping with that is a priority for you. One of us was a stay at home parent for many years and took a job specifically for this reason.

  22. JD says:

    I don’t know them, but I like Jenny and Will! I have a decent amount in common with then, including age and chronic health condition. However, we got our kids through college by our early 50’s, so we had a little more breathing room for retirement planning.

    I’m sure Jenny and Will are looking at any and every way to save on college expenses. I strongly encourage their kids to take a gap year and work, both to save money and to see if it helps them determine a career path. Changing majors is a huge added expense. I also encourage the kids to work part time through school. Our kids each had a prepaid tuition program helping them, but they also got scholarships, took AP courses in high school, went to community college first then transferred to university, and worked the entire time they were in school – both graduated with no debt, and while we helped them with a used vehicle and a portion of their rent, that was all we had to do. We kept contributing to our retirement the entire time.

    I have to go along with Mrs. FW on their spending. I also eat almost strictly organic, and buy my grass-fed meat and dairy from local organic farmers, but even multiplying my individual grocery bill by four to match the number of people in their family (and figuring in additional food for growing kids) I don’t pay near that much for groceries. There has to be a way to reduce that bill without sacrificing clean food. Because of my health issue, I can’t eat the usual lower-cost foods such as beans, eggs, rice and other grains and pasta, but I still pay much less per person for my groceries than their family does. Food is one of my splurges and it’s important to me, as it is to Jenny and Will, but I’d have to say I think there is a lot of room to reduce this bill along with their miscellaneous spending and supplements bills.

    I take a couple of doctor-ordered supplements myself, so I understand that. Still, I know supplements have a habit of “expanding.” You takes this for heart health, so then it seems to make sense to take this for digestive health, then bone health, then eye health, and… before you know it, you’re taking 50 capsules a day. You can guess how I know about this. I finally had to pull myself up short and take a hard look at what I needed vs. what I was taking.

    I know retirement looks so good right now, but I think Will needs to hang on another year or four. Once they get their spending settled and catch up some on the savings, then I would say retire and enjoy it!

    I appreciate the honesty of Jenny and Will and their openness and willingness to put it out there for us to see. I think they have good goals, they just need prioritization. I think seeing where their money is actually going is probably going to be super helpful for them, and I feel confident they have what it takes to make this work.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for your kind comment! I’m actually making a list of all the supplements we take right now and figuring out exactly what they cost us per day/month. I think it’s a lot lower than I put in the case study; I had been going on spending for a few months but I believe I was stocking up on many supplements and that skewed the numbers a bit.

      My two kids eat a LOT, and we also eat mostly grain-free, but you’re right in that I may be able to buckle down and get the grocery spending under control!

  23. Joan says:

    This is a case that many can relate to. I wonder what her doctor is relying on to advise this level of supplements. I would ask that question and do your own research. There is very little evidence that supplements improve health status. And the manufacture of health supplements is not well regulated. Being careful with our food intake should include being sure any supplements are required based on a deficit or specific medical condition. Then the goal is finding a low cost, safe source. I also would be sure that my doctor was not the source of the supplements or related to the distribution chain. Supplement sales of $30 billion a year are a market promoted to physicians despite little evidence of efficacy and actual evidence of harm.

    Other questions I wondered were do they garden, can the kids get jobs. If cooking from scratch I am hard pressed to understand their food budget. It is a good place to drill down into unit costs.

    Good luck

  24. Kureen says:

    We are a homeschooling family of 6 with one heading to college next month and one heading to college next year. Our kids have dual enrolled at the local community college for years. This helps lower the cost and time they will be at university. Also in our state they have been awarded full tuition scholarships for high grades. Please look into your state’s options. There are so many options out there and homeschoolers have many advantages since they have flexibility. You can also CLEP test for credits as well. All this planning saves thousands plus helps them try out some majors without any pressure!

  25. Kara says:

    As a person with chronic illness who is currently functional only to the degree that I take the right supplements, let me say that boy are they expensive, and yet the consequences of not taking them are even more so. And, formulations matter hugely. The more expensive version can mean the difference between keeping it down, and not.

    It’s complex, and tweaking the regimen can be both miserable and time-consuming. However, cycling off and back on particular supplements is really essential for me, to get data on efficacy and side effects. When I go off things and symptoms deteriorate, then I have the peace of mind that I’m getting my money’s worth.

    I also understand how important the kids’ activity fund is when you homeschool. People who public school think of it as unnecessary, but it is not.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! Yes, I definitely notice a difference when I’m off some of my supplements. I also am very picky about the quality and reputation of the products I use. That said, I’m looking at each one with fresh eyes to make sure I think they’re really necessary.

      And I realize that Mrs. FW was just doing her job when she suggested cutting some of the kids’ activities, but we’re not willing to do that. My kids thrive on those lessons and classes!

  26. Isa says:

    While I can appreciate not wanting our kids to incure debts for school, I believe in having them participate in paying the costs. It teaches them not to take for granted that everything in life will be easy and handed out to them. They could work part time once in University, apply for grants, ask family members for cash for school instead of gifts on Christmas, etc. Handling every monetary need for our kids makes them dependent and – sometimes – entitled and ungrateful later in life. Just my two cents! 🙂

    • Jenny says:

      I completely agree! I want them to get through with no debt, but that doesn’t mean we’ll hand over cash without discussion and involvement on their part.

  27. Stefanie says:

    Supplements are also near and dear to my heart. I know that beneficial supplements aren’t cheap and that they can improve the quality of life. I get some of mine through Vitamin Shoppe and I am able to save 10% on each order by using the subscription service. When I looked to see how much my discount was, I realized that my favorite (expensive) vitamins are on sale BOGO 50% off. They also regularly post coupon codes and they have an active one now, you just have to check the website. So this next subscription cycle I will be opting out of my auto delivery of that particular supplement for the multi vitamin and purchasing 2 jars with the coupons which will save me roughly $50 for the next 4 months as opposed to buying each jar separate at regular price. I also regularly get valerian extract, which helps me with sleep, anxiety, and pain management from a wonderful online company called Mountain Rose Herbs and they offer deep discounts for buying in bulk. I hope this helps with the supplement category.

    If you have found something better, PLEASE let me know as I realized from using the FIREcalc (Thanks Mrs. FW), that I need to reallocate $68 per month to investments to make my scenario 100% secure, which is all that me and my anxious self find acceptable…lol.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for commenting! I love Mountain Rose Herbs! I’ll check out Vitamin Shoppe, but I do shop around and the cheapest I’ve found our supplements is through Fullscript. I think you need to go through a health care practitioner’s “portal,” but I believe several health bloggers offer links to theirs for free. You might find that $68 savings there!

  28. Brenda says:

    I totally support eating grass fed beef and wondering if buying direct from a farmer in bulk would help. Purchasing half a cow has been a cost effective method for my family…but a deep freezer is required. Good luck!

  29. Christina says:

    Look into CLEP tests for the kids- some colleges offer a lot of credits for completing them.

  30. LB says:

    As far as the grocery bill here are some suggestions to reduce it. First, plant a large organic garden as well as fruit trees and berry bushes. It is amazing how much you can can, freeze, and dehydrate from your garden. Second, buy an entire grass fed cow from a local farmer each year as that is usually quite a discount from buying at the store weekly. Third, utililize health food buying clubs. If you ask around there should be one in your area from where you can order organic food in bulk at close to a wholesale price. Fourth, bulk shop organic pantry staples at Costco every few months. Fifth, start raising your own free range poultry for eggs and meat.

    • RQ says:

      These are great suggestions, but the “large garden” suggestion is only possible if you have the large-ish lot of land to support it. I think I recognize the area in Jenny’s pictures, and if I’m right, this area has a wide variety of lot sizes (meaning a “city lot” is a real possibility, which is definitely not able to support a large garden including trees & berries). Plus, not all cities/municipalities allow for backyard chickens.

      Just something to consider.

  31. Daisy says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story Jenny.

    Like many, I am curious about your food expenses. Would you be willing to share a little more about your food and diet?

    • Jenny says:

      We eat almost no grains or legumes, no dairy or gluten, all organic fruits/vegetables, all pastured/grass-fed/wild-caught poultry/bison/beef/lamb/salmon, eggs from free-range chickens. We do include a few pre-packaged snack foods but it’s all organic whole-ingredient products with no fillers. Lots of super high quality olive oil & coconut oil, coconut milk, organic spices & herbs.

      I am keeping better track of our spending going forward and I’ll see if the total is consistently as high as it was when I was prepping for this case study, or if I just happened to have some months of stocking up.

  32. Lucy says:

    We retired at 54, 22 years ago. One of our biggest expenses has been health insurance. Don’t be fooled by Medicare coverage. It isn’t free. For our Part B, drug plan and supplement(which covers the 20% that Medicare approves, but doesn’t pay) we pay about $10,300./year for the 2 of us. We both have the second most expensive supplement, which pays for the Medicare deductible and gives us the choice of Physicians without referral, because we both have chronic conditions. Our supplement is with AARP and we have been very happy with it. Lately we have had 4 ER visits, 2 surgeries and 4 cataracts and have been very thankful for our insurance.

  33. Neita says:

    I’d suggest another way of looking at this question is your expenses “after” retirement. 1) With chronic and current medical issues, you need to budget for out-of-pocked medical costs. Medicare and supplemental insurance plans do not cover everything. As a point of comparison, my financial advisor suggests accruing $200/month for out-of-pocket, and I have no current health issues. 2) Again referring to medical issues, depending on the nature of them, I’d suggest planning for long-term care (whether obtaining insurance, if you can; or setting aside a fund to help manage one or both of you if you need care. 3) Though you enjoy being home now, you may want to budget for fun things to do after retirement. Such as travel. What if one or both of the children move away from the home area? Go to college elsewhere? Get married and have children and live far away – you’ll be wanting to visit. So I suggest, not only looking at your current spending, but analyze how you want to live your life in the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you. That’s one reason we’re fully funding the HSA – to help us out with medical expenses in retirement.

      And I’m thinking that if the kids are out of the house and moved away, we’ll be saving what we’re now paying for their activities and food. But yes, we need to keep our options open!

      • jess says:

        In a scenario where Will retires in 4 years your youngest will not be old enough for college but in a scenario where he retires in 7 then it would make sense

  34. Celeste says:

    College tuition and financial aid offers are not always set in stone. To second what someone else said above, check out smaller/private schools and you might be surprised what they can offer you in scholarship funds to make the bottom line less than the public schools. Also, always (politely) push back on the first offer and ask for more. Explain what you were offered by another institution, explain that you’re looking to pay cash for the balance, etc., etc.

    I say this based on my own experience — I went back for an MBA during the start of the pandemic, got a decent scholarship offer, but got another $15k off the ticket price just by asking. Always worth a shot, as the answer if you don’t ask is most certainly a “no”. Working while studying is a great option too, and makes you more hirable upon graduation. Some public and private sector jobs offer tuition reimbursement programs. Every little bit helps.

  35. Kathy says:

    Jenny,
    ChooseFi has some excellent podcasts and articles about college and alternatives to college and ways to save $$$.I hope this helps you!

  36. Jessica says:

    I know others have already commented on ways to save money on groceries, supplements, etc.
    We also do organic, grass feed (and have several severe food allergies in the house) and live in Upstate NY where NOTHING is cheap and we spent less then half of your grocery costs. Ways to save that have worked for me: shopping multiple stores, every 2 weeks (depending on who has sales) I shop at Bj’s, Aldi, Walmart or Hannaford.
    We also take many supplements, we signed up for the auto ship to save 25% off the price, I just make sure that the shipments are coming when we actually need them and we are not stocking up on months of supplements that expire.
    I have a just graduated high school kiddo and she is off to our local community college in August, living at home, taking 7 classes, our out-of-pocket cost will be $459 per semester AFTER all fees and books, etc. So it is very possible for college to cost FAR less than $125,000 per child. Our daughter didn’t apply for scholarships (she refused, she didn’t really apply herself to her studies until 11th grade and her overall GPA was not as high as she had hoped)

  37. Leslie says:

    I’ve read over and over in the New York Times that studies show supplements don’t do much. Of course if you have health issues some may help and it’s up to you. But it does seem that researching info based on study may help you eliminate some of these costs. Meanwhile, I think your eldest son should be earning some money and perhaps taking a community college class (if he has an edu email address your nytimes subscription could be cut more than 50 percent. Personally, I can’t give mine up: Where else do you find factual information?) Good luck! https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/07/08/well/live/fda-supplements.html?searchResultPosition=1

    • Missy says:

      I agree, Leslie. Not that I don’t ever take supplements, but I know I’m hoping they will work even with scant evidence (or worse). I know the science is frequently not there, so I really, really try to limit my use of them. The truth is, because they are unregulated, oftentimes we as consumers can’t be guaranteed we’re taking what we think we’ve bought, the quantities are unreliable, or they are adulterated.

      But the tide is a strong force (the culture we live in, family tradition [remember Chocks? Yep, my folks poked ’em down us], and wishing). I admire and trust Consumer Reports though: https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/05/vitamins-and-supplements/index.htm I see the supplement budget as a real cost-saving opportunity for this family. I’m additionally concerned the supplements are purchased through the healthcare provider’s portal, since that might give them an unconscious bias / financial incentive in favor of them. Maybe a second opinion might provide less expensive alternatives.

  38. Audrey Churchill says:

    I used to be a financial counselor and I often told my clients that they needed to be prepared to be flexible when it comes to college for their kids. These days I also think parents should consider using community college for two years as a start for college, unless their kids are qualified enough to earn either academic or athletic scholarships, or decide to enroll in a military academy. You can save a substantial amount of money on the first 2 yrs of college, while your child takes all of their prerequisite classes and decides what they really want to continue to study to earn their final degree. Also, kids can live at home and learn other life skills, which many 18 yr olds are sorely missing these days because parents coddle their kids a little too much. Both of my kids were really intelligent, my son went on to earn a Phd but my daughter hated school and had no interest in college. Don’t plan your entire retirement around what you think your kids should do. Get them involved and require that they perform certain KPI’s in order to earn a place at a 4 yr university away from home by applying for and winning a scholarship, which then maybe match the funds they raise by studying hard, or practicing their sport to earn a place on the college team. Also, be prepared to cut expenses, downsize your expectations and live frugally, especially during bear markets. Cut back on spending, or have the kids and the spouse get part time jobs solely to contribute into the plan. When there is a plan there is a way to execute a plan. If there is not plan being ex cited, then it is not a plan, it is a pipe dream. I am retired at age 55 and I am traveling in France for 4 months on a shoestring budget. I am extremely frugal, but ai do just about everything I want to do because I have goals and I like to make sure that they happen. I don’t leave it up to luck. Luck really does not exist.

  39. Jaime says:

    There are so many great resources for earning inexpensive college credit while homeschooling. I would encourage you to look at https://homeschoolingforcollegecredit.com/ for a comprehensive look at all of the different programs available. There are also links to several active Facebook groups where families already on this path share experiences and ideas which is really helpful when you’re getting started.

  40. Michele says:

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned but that might solve two problems at once is to reimburse money from their HSA _now_ to beef up the emergency fund. At such a high medical expense rate they likely have enough receipts to add 5K or more to the emergency cash fund right now.

    Another thing: is the limited FSA getting fully utilized every year (FSA is use it or lose it)? If not, consider dropping that deduction from Will’s paycheck to get a little bit more buffer in the monthly balance sheet.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve considered taking out money from the HSA to help build an emergency fund. It’s just so hard feeling like I’m “robbing” a retirement fund! I do know that if we HAD to, we could pull that money, though.

      We do analyze the FSA on a year-by-year basis, and this year we knew we’d definitely be using it.. Good point!

      • Kate says:

        Jenny, how quickly can you get the money out of your HSA? I honestly don’t know this. I made a stupid mistake and overdrew our checking account the other day just because transferring money from an online savings took longer than expected. It made me realize I need to keep more than the $1000 cushion I have in the savings account attached to our checking. It’s worth considering how quickly you might need it, too.

        • Kate says:

          Sorry, one more thing. You can get money from the HSA, but it’s invested – so if the market keeps on heading down, you’re going to lose (some of) it. I’d be more clear about whether this is an investment or emergency fund – if it’s an investment, which it seems like it is for you, then I’d pull some out for cash right now.

        • Jenny says:

          I don’t know how quickly you can get money out of an HSA, as we’ve never done it! Maybe it depends on the bank?

          It’s definitely being used as an investment for us. Many people commenting here have mentioned that we need to be prepared for higher medical bills in retirement, which is exactly what I was using this for. That said, the first $5,000 in our HSA is actually in cash, so we could pull it out without worrying what the stock market is doing.

  41. Niecie L says:

    This is a wonderful scenario and so relevant to today’s time. I agree with others, try cutting food bill as much as possible. Since the family love organic foods and love being together consider gardening as a family.

  42. Chris says:

    The last I read you can withdraw money from an HSA also for non medical expenses, AFTER the age of 65.

    • Faith says:

      Yes you can, but you will pay taxes on them. If withdrawn to reimburse for medical purchases, there is no tax.

      I agree with several people who have suggested pulling out a significant chunk to reimburse for medical purchases now, and have an instant emergency fund.

  43. Rachel says:

    Lots of great advice here already, but my addition would be to research work from home part time jobs (admin assistant, medical billing, transcription) that you could do from home and at your own pace since it sounds like physical limitations could knock out more traditional part time options. I would also look into a part time retirement scenario for ages 63-65. It could be a good way to transition both physically and mentally. It is hard to go from full time to retired right away, so easing into it could help with your financial cushion AND the transition. My stepmom couldn’t wait to retire…not 6 months later she was consulting part time because she was bored.

  44. Shirl says:

    In regards to college. If your children are good to excellent students there are colleges out there that will give scholarships in the range of covering 35-95% of the tuition based on GPA and/or ACT/SAT test scores. As mentioned previously by a few others, smaller, less well known schools will sometimes offer better scholarships especially to out of state students.

    Have your 16 yo or you start researching colleges now. Have your 16 yo start applying for scholarships now. There are some scholarships you can apply for without having to wait until junior or senior year. Use free scholarship services. Stay away from any that want you to pay. Google is your friend.

    If your child is interested in military service apply to a Service Academy (USNA, USMA, USAFA,) or for a ROTC scholarship. There are many schools that if you attend on a ROTC scholarship the school will pay for room and board.

    Apply to several schools and compare offers and overall costs. The best offer may not be the school that offers the highest dollar amount. My son applied to lots of schools in different states. He had lots of offers to choose from. The college that offered the most scholarship funds was the most expensive of all. He selected an out of state college that offered him enough in scholarships to cover 98% of his tuition his first year and as long as he keeps his grades up will pay 95% of his tuition the other years. He also had additional one time scholarships so his first year he didn’t pay any tuition at all and his scholarships covered a small portion (less than 20%) of his room. This year he picked up a couple of other small scholarships so again tuition will be completely covered with a small portion covering room and board. Where we are room and board out of state costs less than room and board at the in state schools that would have given him free tuition.

  45. Phillip says:

    I applaud Jenny and Will for sharing their case study. I just retired a year ago( at age 62) and went through almost the exact situation. I agree with many of the comments on the food, household expenses. They do seem high and maybe using Personal Capital as Liz suggests ( I started using it several years ago due to her suggestion!) will help you track the expenses better.

    My son went to the top state school with a full ride and I still ended up paying ~ $15K a year for room and board, books and misc expenses. I funded it out of cash flow but I had more wiggle room to do that. One thing my son’s friends found is when they went to a community college for 2 years to keep costs down, only about half the credits transferred with them. Even after working with the counselors etc. They all ended up needing another year to finish up which defeated the purpose of going to the CC. Something to keep in mind.

    There were a few items that I didn’t see addressed that were huge in my retirement planning. First off what is your retirement vision? Are you planning on retiring to a new passion that can be monetized? Are you planning on traveling? I didn’t see any line item for entertainment/travel in the estimates. Will you downsize or move to a lower COL state? Until you know what you want out of retirement, understanding your spending rates will be difficult.

    Next I agree with Liz on the plan success rates. One thing these calculators don’t really show is the # of times your plan succeeded with almost no $$ left. They are also underestimating Sequence of Returns Risk. The risk that at the beginning of your retirement that a poor market, coupled with high inflation etc derails your portfolio to the point it is very difficult to recover while you are drawing from it. Like today’s situation. In addition longevity estimates will show a 50% chance one of you will live well into your 90’s. Which is not a 30 year horizon but more like 40 years for Jenny.

    One item that I found key is how to handle Long Term Care costs. In my case, because I am single I will use my home equity to fund it. In your case it may be tough to do that as one of you will still need a place to live. Those costs are not included in the heath expense estimates you will find such as the Fidelity studies.

    I am using ACA Silver Plan for my insurance at the moment. Since my income is low and mostly controllable, I qualify for subsidies. All total for health, vision and dental for my son and I, I pay ~ $250 month in premiums. Just to give you a ballpark on what is possible. My OOP expenses are low though, about $100/month.

    It takes courage to put yourself out there. You have a great head start. I wish you the best in your journey.

  46. Rory says:

    I’m still flummoxed by the amount spent on food. That’s $60 per person per day. Never heard of such a thing. Plus the supplements, that’s almost half your income. I think that is the place to cut back, not nickel and dime other stuff. Good luck

    • Jenny says:

      It’s actually $20 per person per day! ($2,400 divided by 4 people, then divided by 30 days.)

      Not saying it’s not a ridiculously high amount, though. 🙂

  47. cathy says:

    We are a family of four, and also eat almost 100% organic/natural. Others can do what they like, but this is a priority for us. We also have multiple health issues to address, including anaphylactic food allergies, so many of the foods we buy are significantly more expensive than their non-allergen-friendly counterparts. That said, it seems the amount they spend for groceries (for living in the US) is really, really high, especially considering they have a separate line item for supplements and for household cleaning products.

    Jenny, do you keep a grocery price book? If you’re not familiar with the concept, basically, you create a little notebook (a physical one or on your phone, your computer, etc) where you note the main items you purchase (and brands), the size (if it’s packaged or by the pound), and the regular price for the item at the grocery stores you either shop at or could shop at. I also note any regularly occurring sale price. This is such a great way to see if you’re really getting the best price for something. For example, if you buy a lot of organic produce, but you only shop at a traditional grocery store, you might find better prices at a store that specializes in organic since they tend to buy more of it. I’d say this is the single most useful thing I’ve ever done to keep track of our grocery expenses. The other thing that’s really helpful is to go through your grocery receipts each month, note how much you spent on food, then separate out what you purchased that was an impulse buy or strictly for convenience. I almost always find things we could have done without.

    Like a lot of folks, I first read about the price book concept in The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczn. Though a lot of her suggestions are now dated (it came out originally in the 1990s), there are still a lot of great suggestions that are not. If you’re interested, you can usually find the book(s) in the library.

    Since you use the library a lot, have you checked to see whether they offer free digital access to the New York Times? That’s how I read it. I first had to create a free NYT account. Now I just log in through my library. If you’re able to do this, you’d save almost $250/year. Also, not sure if this is possible for you, but if I check a book out of the library, then find myself rereading it or repeatedly checking it out for the information, that’s the point at which I’ll allow myself to buy it (and still try to wait for a sale). This has almost completely eliminated the purchase of books except for a couple of series that I am constantly rereading, and a handful of books by friends/family. Most information in reference books can now be accessed online.

    Best of luck to you!

    • Jenny says:

      I used to keep a price book (and I actually subscribed to The Tightwad Gazette back in the 1990s – I love Amy Dacyczyn!) and it would probably be a good idea to start it up again. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • Jess says:

        I resemble this! I used to be super focused on the big 4, but groceries keep sneaking up on me. Last month we spent 1400 for TWO PEOPLE!! We’re recommitted to healthy eating to try and feel stronger postpartum & before my husband’s 40th. I’ll be on this journey with you.

    • Rebecca Cutler says:

      If my library doesn’t have the book that I want, they will request it from another library through the inner library loan program. It is great! I am an avid reader and would spend too much on books without our library.

  48. Pixie says:

    We’re all dying to know about your food budget. Can you tell us about your family’s diet? Are you, perhaps, juicing? I’ve done this in the past and it can add up fast.

    I’ll just throw out a thought—maybe it would be worth going to a nutritionist who you trust and who knows about your health conditions and could analyze your family’s diet to see if it’s optimal. It might be worth a one time expense to save in the long run.

    You can shut down all our questions about this if you just say your food budget isn’t negotiable (I missed it if you said this already).

    • Jenny says:

      I’m still thinking about this, to be honest. I’m not sure what anyone could suggest to make me change my mind about what we’re buying.

      We eat almost completely grain-free, and absolutely no gluten, no dairy, no soy, no corn. We do buy a few pre-packaged foods, but everything has to be very clean with no wonky ingredients.

      I do a lot of reading and research into nutrition. I actually consulted a nutritionist not that long ago and I didn’t find her input very helpful.

      Oh, and no to juicing! I do sometimes make smoothies that are mostly greens. 🙂

      • Pixie says:

        Thanks for responding, Jenny!

      • cathy says:

        Jenny, does that mean you guys do eat a fair amount of beef, chicken, and fish? That would definitely account for higher grocery expenditures!

        • Jenny says:

          We do eat a fair amount of beef, chicken, and fish, all pasture-raised/wild-caught, grass-fed/etc. It’s a big part of our food budget for sure.

      • Julie says:

        I’d suggest meeting with another nutritionist. I follow a lot of food people on social media who debunk a lot of “clean eating” people (I really hate calling food clean as it implies that other food is dirty). Food science babe (not the food babe) is a great one.

        I have a chronic condition and I see a lot of others trying everything possible for better life quality. I get it. One thing that concerns me with supplements is that it looks like you are buying through a doctor’s portal? Does your doctor get financial benefit from this? I’m curious as to what supplements you are on. I had a conversation with my specialist about turmeric and he told me not to go overboard with supplements, but that it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle some on my food or drink a tea if I wanted to.

        I read the comments and it seems you are firm with a lot of your spending. Frugalwoods has always said to try something for 30 days. I think that would be a great start since you could add something back later. I’d also think about what is more important to you – current lifestyle, paying for kids’ education, or retiring early. Thanks for an interesting study.

        • Jenny says:

          I’m not buying through any one doctor’s portal. I just use the portal to buy whatever supplements we’re using. I know you don’t know me, but believe me when I say I am not influenced solely by what one person says, whether it’s some rando on the internet or my own trusted doctor.

          Right now I’m taking digestive enzymes and a gut-healing supplement (hopefully temporary but they’re helping for now), folate, magnesium, a formula for high cortisol, a probiotic, cod liver oil, fish oil, and vitamins C, B12, and B6. I had a nutrient & hormone panel done a year ago and do vitamin D testing regularly.

      • Kate says:

        When we realized my son needed to gluten free and dairy free I changed the way I cooked to include a lot of stir fries, more soups (lentil soup, minestrone, Thai rice noodle with chicken), cut carrots and celery are always on the table before and during dinner, dishes including potatoes come around often (twice baked potatoes with baked beans, crunchy smashed potatoes ….the small potatoes boiled first, drained and then smashed with the bottom of glass, drizzled with olive oil and baked till crispy), and a salad available every night and by ‘salad’ I mean lettuce with a vinaigrette made in a huge batch (olive oil to balsamic vinegar 1:2 + a huge dollop of Dijon and shaken in a jar). The thing that drives up our costs the most here is that no one likes (or can) eat the same thing so I end up with multiple meals on offer each night….not always but it feels like it.

        • Kate says:

          I was about to add that we have also started having steel cut oats for breakfast and on a busy, early morning will make overnight oats in the refrigerator but I’m realizing that perhaps you all are not just eating gluten-free but grain free might mean no oats or rice either?

          • Jenny says:

            Yep, we eat almost completely grain-free, so no oats, and rice only occasionally (if we have a curry or something to put on top).

      • Anne says:

        Oh, is this AIP diet? I’ve done that before (have reincorporated some more foods now), and it is certainly more expensive. I don’t have stores with the super specialty prepared foods like cassava pasta near me, which made it extra difficult. What helped me keep costs reasonable was leaning into the “regular” foods that are AIP compliant, like a lot of roasted root vegetables for starch/carbs and coconut milk. A silver lining is that since you have fewer ingredients to eat (like can only cook with 2-3 types of oil) it could be easier to avoid impulse buying. I also got a bit burned out on the tons of super fancy complicated AIP recipes online, so now I mostly cook the kinds of things I would normally, but with swapping out the oils, coconut for cream/milk, coconut aminos for soy, etc. a piece of chicken with a bunch of roasted vegetables or a vegetable soup made with coconut cream are AIP compliant, easy, and filling, but are the same cost as a normal organic diet.

        • Kate says:

          I had look up the AIP diet since I hadn’t heard of it but it looks like it could also work for us since it helps reduce inflammation linked to autoimmune issues. My son has had gastro issues (primarily chronic constipation) since birth and the gluten-free and dairy-free plus starting to run regularly seems to have alleviated most of his issues. Meanwhile, I have an autoimmune issue for which I was eating a low oxalate diet fairly stringently for several years and then my symptoms improved so much that I have started to slowly eat pretty much everything again and it seems fine.

          • Anne says:

            AIP is typically something you do for a relatively short period of time (like 3 weeks), and then slowly reincorporate some of the foods that you had cut out. Its biggest value is in teaching you what things you have been eating cause bad reactions in you, and what foods that could be issues for other are actually pretty fine for your body. No two people are the same, so you learn what things you really need to eliminate, and what things that are “trendy” to eliminate, or are identified by a nutritionalist as likely to cause problems, are actually ok for you. It helps you develop a happy medium where you eliminate what you have to, but not what is unnecessary.

        • Jenny says:

          It’s not the AIP, though we’ve done that short-term to try to get on top of some health issues. It’s similar but much less restrictive.

  49. Claire says:

    Have you looked at the USDA cost of food plan data to benchmark your food spending? For example, a family of 4 with a 10 year old son and a 16 year old son on the “moderate” food plan (second highest plan) would spend $1,322 a month. That would represent $13,000 a year in savings if you were able to bring the food costs down to that level. My family benchmarks our spending to the “thrifty” plan (lowest cost) and while it’s not particularly glamorous it does really help keep our food costs in budget.

  50. LongTime Frugal says:

    The Lake MI state in which they reside definitely impacts the cost of goods – closer to the “end of the line” = more expensive. Unless the law has changed (don’t think so but bears a double check), they can reimburse themselves for past expenses at any point in time. Meaning if $10K spent out of pocket, reimburse $10K and into savings.
    FSAs have been allowed to roll over these Covid years but I expect that to end soon. I did not see an FSA balance – is all spent every year?

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, the FSA is spent every year in full.

      • Sam says:

        Do you get dental or vision coverage through Will’s job? $2850 seems like a high amount to be paying for those services, unless of course you needed a dental procedure this past year. If it’s vision that is costing a lot, might be worth it to check out discount websites like Zenni or Eye Buy Direct.

        Also, I know that the upper Midwest often has a very short growing season due to the cooler climate (my brother in law lives in the UP) but might it be worth exploring whether you have any farms nearby that offer CSAs? Farms are not always certified organic (due to the financial/logistical constraints of the Organic industry) but many follow the same growing practices of using no pesticides, crop rotation, etc. I’ve found that by choosing carefully and being willing to be flexible with meal planning that a CSA can be a great cost savings and very healthy. Could be another good homeschool project – menu planning with that week’s CSA!

        • Jenny says:

          We evaluate whether we’ll need the FSA on a yearly basis. This year included orthodontia, which more than wiped out that $2850!

          Yes, we love CSAs!

  51. Beth says:

    Quick intro: I stay home right now and we homeschool. Our oldest is 9 and we have four boys. I have a BSN and my husband has a Master’s degree. Our families were very pro college/university. We are not so convinced for the next generation. We graduated basically debt free and are glad to have our degrees but many of our peers and younger either went deep in debt, got stupid degrees, or both. I’m planning to encourage my kids to look long and hard at apprenticeships and alternative education and job options. Not that they can’t get a college degree but that there may be better options.
    My family homeschooled. My brother taught himself coding in highschool. He dropped out of college because he wasn’t learning enough to be worth the cost. He taught himself, got a job, and now makes a very nice income. His friend did the same. He is now working for a company that is paying him to finish his engineering degree. He already knows and does the job, the company just wants him to have the title.
    I loved the flexibility to work while homeschooling as a teen. I got interesting jobs that gave me good skills (business and office.) I saved for college through highschool. My parents and grandparents helped some but I worked through college. It wasn’t easy but I definitely felt ownership for my degree and my expenses. I took a loan from family for my last semester. But since I got a degree with good job prospects I had my loan paid off in less than a year.
    It really is good for young adults to be financially responsible for their education and especially their other expenses. No one died eating ramen through college ;). If the college option is so expensive that major sacrifice is needed on the part of the parents (no savings) or major debt is incurred then find a different option.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for commenting! When I first contacted Mrs. FW I mentioned that we’d like to help our kids as much as possible with whatever higher education they want to pursue. Somehow it morphed into “completely paying for our kids’ entire four-year educations at a mainstream university.”

      I very much agree with you that the world is changing and my kids may not need or want a traditional degree. I can see both of them pursuing alternative paths to their future careers.

  52. Mary says:

    Interesting case study. While reading, I just kept saying to myself the standard advice: Kids can borrow money for college. Their parents can’t borrow money for retirement. I agree with above comments: kids (and we have two in college) need to have some skin in the game. It shouldn’t be handed to them. Life doesn’t work that way. We as the parents don’t pay all of it outright. Both ours take out financial aid, and work part-time, and we contribute.

    In cutting down in your four top areas, remember that the easiest area to cut costs is in your grocery bill. You have to be stringent in comparing prices but it can be done, and you still eat well. I have cut our grocery costs for years. Scratch cooking at home is cheaper as well. I only take one otc supplement so, I don’t do the supplement thing. That cost seems really, really high and is it all really necessary or marketing? Misc. household costs, what are they? There are always ways to cut here as well. Cut out paper products (except for toilet paper) and use cloth rags that can be washed and reused. I buy one roll of paper towels and make it last, using it really only for cat mishaps. Cleaning and other household supplies can always be found cheaper or homemade with natural products. As noted above, The Tightwad Gazette books changed my life in the 1990s and by utilizing tips like those in the books, I cut our living costs as much as I possibly could while raising our kids and we lived on one income. Now we live in a paid-off home (for six years now), my husband took early retirement three years ago at age 63 because we have adequate retirement funds, I work for our medical/dental benefits, and our two kids are in college.

    Good luck to you! Keep at it. You can make it.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! I want to clarify something about the “misc. household expenses category,” since other people have mentioned it being so high as well. This includes new air filter parts, printer ink, replacement smoke detectors, batteries, knife sharpening, water filter replacement parts, printer paper, and a bunch of stuff I’m probably forgetting. Cleaning supplies make up almost none of that amount! Maybe we just had a few spendiier months when I was keeping track for this case study?

      • K says:

        Just in case it helps someone, the Red Cross will bring and install as many smoke detectors as you need-completely free. There are no income requirements. It can be a rental or an owned home. It is an awesome service!

  53. Beth says:

    One other thought. This is a very personal question so please understand that I don’t mean to offend. Are you experiencing elevated anxiety because of health insecurity? Similarly, I have friends that have very profitable jobs but she is always anxious about money because of financial security problems as a child. Is it possible that there is some of that going on with your health problems? My mother in law has an autoimmune disorder that means she has to be careful with what she eats. But she is frequently trying a new diet or supplement or lifestyle change and she is very worried about her weight. She says it’s because of the autoimmune disorder but my husband remembers her being overly concerned about her weight when he was a kid (before she developed the disorder). From what he can see it seems like she has a lot of anxiety that stems from growing up in an emotionally abusive home that is expressing itself in an over concern about her physical condition.
    Especially in the age of the internet it’s easy for us to want to find the “one more thing” that will help us feel better but that can get expensive and create an anxiety cycle that doesn’t help our health.
    Again, don’t take offense. I just wondered based on your food expenses. One question that might help is whether your family is on board with your food choices. Do your boys and husband appreciate the diet or are they wishing it was different? For example, I’m pretty sure my husband could eat more healthily. But when I’ve tried to be careful to fix things that are exactly what he needs after a week or two he cheats and gets his own snacks or stops at McDonald’s. So we’ve tried to meet in the middle. He makes an effort not to cheat and I fix food that I know he’ll enjoy even though it’s not always the absolute healthiest option. It’s still way better than McDonald’s. And I’m not spending all this extra effort and expense with my cooking only to have him cheat because he’s not committed.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi Beth, I can tell that your comment is coming from a place of compassion and I really appreciate your thoughts. I am an anxious person in general and I wouldn’t be surprised if my focus on my health is part of that. This is definitely something to think about, though I can see improvements in my and my family’s health when we eat a certain way (and a backward side when we don’t), so it’s tough to sort through.

      My family is 100% on board with how we eat. They have felt the difference when they consume gluten or dairy or junk food. My husband in particular is extremely supportive and often tells me that my research and effort have made his life so much better.

      • Beth says:

        That’s great that your family is on board! My son is learning to fix lunches and I think I’m going to make lunch meal planning and grocery list building part of his fourth grade homeschool program. And I had a thought: what if you put your 16 year old in charge of the food? Not necessarily cooking all of it but the planning and budgeting part. Tell him whatever he saves off of the $2400/mo he can split the difference with you. So he can save for a car or whatever (college?) and you’ll also get some of the savings. It would be a good math/health sciences project. And may help him figure out how much of the current food lifestyle he wants to and can afford to carry into his adult life. It would help him think about what’s most important: organic, but not necessarily grain free? Almost vegetarian to save money on meat? Skip the organic except for specific foods and meat? Most young adults will not be able to afford a diet as clean as yours. It might help him to research and make his own decisions about what is the most important thing. Obviously, there’d have to be some ground rules (organic is non negotiable in your house, for example ) but he might be able to come up with some good solutions.

        • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

          This is a great idea, Beth! My mother-in-law taught her kids to cook by putting them in charge of dinner for the entire family once per week during the summers (once they were circa middle school aged). They had to menu plan, shop, prep, cook and serve the meal. The result? My husband is an AMAZING cook! We plan to do this with our kids once they’re old enough.

          • Marie says:

            I’m a single parent who had to put my kids on to dinner making 2 yrs ago due to a health issue I had. We started out during the summer, so it was easy for them to see why (me working full time, them on vacation). They took turns doing dinner twice a week, and we keep doing this today, so I only cook 3 days a week. The start was not always easy, me picking tricky recipes didn’t help (always need to fight that perfectionism). But little by little, we made it work, and the pride they feel in managing this by themselves is not a small thing. My sons were 15 and 19 when we started, today the older will only ask if there’s anything special to use up first, then picks the recipe and cooks. We have a setup for setting the table and cleaning up afterwards, so everyone is part of “dinner work”. I am proud to have managed to turn that tricky situation that in the long term will give huge benefits to the partners they will meet, and the kids they will hopefully raise.

  54. Nancy says:

    Jenny, no judgment here. I’m curious to know if all of your family members have the same allergic/health symptoms. Is it necessary for all four of you to eat dairy-free, gluten-free, etc.? Naturally it complicates things a bit to have more than one menu option, but if it were possible to save some $$$ that way it would be a valuable home-school exercise to have the children assist with such planning, marketing, and prep.

    I work in a food service establishment and we are greatly assisted by our student employees that are home-schooled as they have more flexibility to work daytime hours. That’s always a possibility for jobs for the guys as they get into the upper high school grades.

    And, never underestimate what medical costs will be as you age. It won’t stay the same for the next 30 years, or even the next ten. Do what you have to do now to anticipate those needs down the road, especially if the retirement plans works out to happen before the Medicare age (or if you adults have the chronic health issues). We didn’t, and it is the main reason why I will never be able to retire (my husband was forced to retire early, due to an unexpected medical condition we never anticipated). Knowledge is power, and so is anticipation of the possible worst-case scenario.

    I appreciate your attitude and willingness to accept some possibly hard decision-making ahead. As always, Mrs. FW’s advice is really sound. Good luck to your family in the days ahead!

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, Nancy! We have overlapping health issues, but the differences aren’t really enough to impact grocery costs.

      Yes, I’m aware of medical costs increasing, which is why I’m fully funding our HSA. I’m so sorry about your husband’s medical condition and the impact it’s had on your needing to work. There are no guarantees, are there? ((HUGS)) to you.

  55. Bailey says:

    Hi Jenny-
    I think you’ve gotten enough advice but I want to praise your attitude to college with community college, living at home, etc. I think one of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me was when I asked “if I got in to an Ivy League school, would you help pay for it?” And my dad said “nope! You are going wherever it’s free!” So I attended a nearby, high quality state school on a full ride (with enough left over after books and fees that they actually gave me extra cash every semester), lived at home, worked on campus and graduated with $10k in the bank. I had a career I loved and am now 32 and living my dream of being a stay at home mom, which would not have been possible if I had student loans to work through. I don’t feel like I missed out at all by not going to a fancy school or by living at home. I saw some friends whose parents placed a lot of value on the glory of sending their kids to a prestigious school- not so much for the kids benefit as for their own satisfaction. I’m grateful that my parents gave me the advice they did and valued affordability over ego.

  56. Erin says:

    I work in health insurance and I would NOT retire until you can get Medicare, if you have health conditions. It’s too risky. I have seen this sink too many people. Health care is only going to get more expensive with Covid, delayed care and labor shortages. Even if he works to pay for health care, you would be better off.

  57. Amy says:

    What an interesting and informative case study!

    One thing I noticed is that Will’s income is well below typical market value for software engineers. Given that these positions are often fully remote, I wonder if he has considered interviewing for other, fully remote positions? It’s a lot of work to manage a job search, but it could pay off with a 50% or more raise!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks! He has thought about looking into other, fully remote, positions, but he really loves his job. I believe his income is the norm for our area and what he does. But it is something to consider!

  58. Robin says:

    I would take a look at their long-term career path plans and the expenses of getting there compared to the anticipated potential income. No reason to save money on a less expensive undergrad if it will cost them a scholarship to a great grad school in their field. Similarly, if a school is more expensive but has a great reputation in a field, they might end up paying a bit more over 4 years but then make up the difference in the first few years of work. In many fields, a masters is now expected right out of the gate.

    If your sons have medical conditions that will be costly for them in life, I’d have some intentional conversations about pursuing careers that will offer quality health insurance.

    I know a family that has their kids do career testing around age 16 to help them discern a field to enter that fits both their interests/gifts and their desired lifestyle. Following a dream career path can feel frustrating if you realize your unspoken dream is to raise a family or travel but the “dream career” doesn’t come with a pay check able to cover that.

    All of the above is financial because it determines the what/where of their higher ed…. It’s increasingly not just about having a degree, but having the right degree and connections with the right institutions to begin to build the life you want!

  59. Jo says:

    Another thought struck me about researching food costs and supplements. Why not have your oldest child research both topics as an educational endeavor. Nutrition, organic foods, supplements, body chemistry have been widely studied. They could approach it as one who takes supplements but now is asked to fully understand what they do, how and why. Who benefits? How? Homeschooling gives a chance to research topics in depth. The economics of the organic food and supplement industries are fascinating as is the research on how they impact our bodies.

  60. Reid says:

    This was a great case study. Thanks to Jenny and Will for participating. I wanted to comment on a couple of things that really stuck out to me and offer some suggestions for the near term. My biggest concern for Jenny and Will is the lack of an emergency fund, especially given that both of their cars are 15+ years old (and Michigan weather can be very hard on cars!). I think tweaking spending and starting to build up an emergency fund should be the very top priority. It’s going to be nearly impossible to help at all for college without any buffer to help with unexpected family expenses. If something does come up before that emergency fund can be established, it does look like there are a couple of options. One idea would be to open up a Home Equity Line of Credit, just to have it available for an emergency. Another would be to tap into the principal of one or both Roth IRA’s. I think I’m correct to say that there are no penalties to withdrawing from a Roth before retirement age as long as you’re only taking from the principal. Neither of these suggestions is ideal, but emergencies do happen, and I don’t see any extra money to handle them, except for medical emergencies, which could clearly be covered by their very healthy HSA account. And while we’re on the topic of the HSA, I couldn’t agree more with Mrs. F’s suggestion to stop contributing to the HSA and use that money to establish an emergency fund.

    • caryatis says:

      I also think they should be budgeting for a couple of new cars in the near future. Especially with two kids who are going to want more independence, in an area where I’m guessing there’s not a lot of transit or walkability.

      • Allison in Ky. says:

        Yes, I agree! Their current cars would be great hand-me-down cars for their kids, but if I were them I would be saving furiously for new(er) cars for the two parents. My son is in college and is driving my ’09 Camry (bought used by me in 2012 and driven by me for six years until he inherited it and I upgraded myself to a newer Rav 4).

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, all good points! Our main goal right now is to try to lower expenses and start contributing to an emergency fund. We’re going to leave the money in the HSA and Roth IRAs right now, but if an emergency arises we know we could pull from there.

      And I’m aware that our vehicles are old. We don’t drive them a ton, so I hope at least one of them will hang on for a while longer. We could definitely get by with only one vehicle and that’s the plan for after Will retires, whenever that may be.

  61. Kate stephens says:

    Well done doing so well financially and building a strong family. You seem really close which is awesome! I am no expert and am a Mom of a 9 yr old and the breadwinner so here are the things I would do . I would keep the kids activities, Netflix and New York times (I have those and love them!). Food budget seems a place you could at least cut in half and then redirect this money to saving an emergency fund. We eat really well, mostly organic, shop at the farmers market and my daughter and I are veggie and my partner is a carnivore and spend about 900 a month (we all eat a lot!). The supplement bill is really high and I suspect this is really important to you and if this is the case it would be good to look for ways to save here. I think with these things you can put some daylight between your monthly costs and income without impacting your daily life and joy too much and redirect these funds to an emergency fund then college savings. Good luck!

  62. Linda says:

    I was in the position of paying for marketplace health insurance for 3 years before I qualified for Medicare. It was extremely expensive with a high deductible so please research and consider how long, and how much, coverage will be for you and your sons after Will retires. Medicare covers the individual and not the family.

  63. Kimberly in California says:

    I didn’t read all 100+ replies, so please forgive me if I repeat something that was already said. Your family sounds much like mine — homeschooled kids, SAHM, simple living, strong family that enjoys being together.

    We are in our 50s with college kids and the desire for early retirement. One thing we’ve considered is the availability of health insurance for our children. We actually have the retirement year goal set for when our youngest turns 26 and can’t be on DH’s employer insurance any longer. That’s right before DH turns 58. It’s possible both children will find good employment immediately after college, but they could also graduate into a recession with limited jobs or go on to grad school. We don’t pay premiums (very lucky!) so this is something DH feels like he can do for them. Yes, there are times when he’d rather be retired NOW, but we are cash flowing college anyway, and then want to do some house improvements in preparation for retirement.

    Ou plan was community college + state school. Our oldest ended up transferring to an out-of-state university, which wasn’t the plan we started out with, but we decided the opportunity was worth it. My point is, you just never know. I will say having a high GPA out of community college made both of our kids eligible for maximum academic merit scholarships. ACT and SAT have no bearing on community college here, and since was always the plan they didn’t even take them (homeschooled). I’m not on board with the inherent racism and economic bias involved in using those tests for college admissions. I’m really glad we stuck with community college as a non-negotiable, as both kids changed their majors after they took some classes. CC is a low-risk way for young adults to explore what they might want to major in.

    I empathize with the grocery spending, as we too prioritize organic and grass-fed/pastured foods. Although inflation has greatly increased food costs, I find that making nearly everything from scratch I can still keep the grocery bill lower. I focus on less expensive meats like grass-fed and finished ground beef (usually $6/# or less), grass-fed and finished beef liver ($6/#), grass-fed and finished Polish sausages (on sale they are about $5/#), organic whole chicken (unfortunately up to $4.50/# now), and then some grass-fed/finished roasts or steaks, some pastured pork or lamb, and some wild caught fish, as the budget allows. I focus on in-season and basic produce as they are usually less expensive, such as carrots, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, zucchini, broccoli, peppers, apples, bananas, melons (in summer), etc. I also check the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists, and I buy frozen organic produce at Costco (frozen organic strawberries from Costco are cheaper and better quality than most fresh organic strawberries in the stores near me). I buy organic grain to grind and make our bread and other baked goods. It’s really astounding the difference in price to make a sourdough sandwich loaf vs. buying it! I grind popcorn to make cornmeal mush. I buy store brand when I can, such as Costco or Aldi grass-fed butter, Costco organic eggs (I no longer have a local egg source), Sprouts grass-fed milk, etc. I make broth from the whole chicken carcass. I save all animal fats to use for cooking. I do make some compromises, such as buying organic chicken and eggs rather than pastured, as I don’t believe the benefits are all that different and want to focus on grass-fed and finished beef. I will say that it’s more expensive with our college aged kids living here, as they are no longer on board with zero processed convenience foods, and while I buy the groceries, I’m no longer on board with cooking every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for them. So I buy cereal and snacks for them, which I don’t do for DH and I.

    I can’t really speak to the supplements, other than it usually depends what kind of healthy care provider you choose as to the number and type of supplements recommended. I know chiropractors and functional medicine doctors tend to really recommend supplements. There is a burgeoning movement for pro-metabolic eating (not dieting!) / pro-nourished eating which is coming back from about 20 years ago, and there is a real focus now on getting micronutrients from food. I do supplement magnesium because I’m allergic to most legumes, nuts, and seeds, and I take quercetin for a chronic health condition. But I pulled myself back from the supplement rabbit hole because I’ve come to realize that food and lifestyle are the biggest contributors to health. I now prioritize getting outside daily (several times a day and at least one long stretch of time), getting sunshine in the eyes without glasses to block the visible light, reducing stress (both physical and emotional), gentle movement like walking and stretching plus lifestyle exercise (my idea of lifting heavy things is carrying loads of wet laundry out to the clothesline or hefting bags of grain), prioritizing connection and community, getting into nature weekly, having fun, and other very human activities that our current culture doesn’t support. Unfortunately our culture preys on fears and always wants to sell us something.

  64. Richard Quinn says:

    My constructive criticism based on 12 years retired and 50 years managing retirement plans and planning programs mostly never sees the light of day, but here goes one more time.

    This couple is living in a dream world and right on the edge financially with hardly realistic goals. Based on their story and spending patterns today I think it nearly impossible for them to change their ways, but change they must. Retiring early puts them at greater risk. How can they even think of retiring at age 60? Doesn’t spending $8,000 a year on supplements tell your there is something wrong, not to mention the food bill.

    Nice fluffy encouraging words aren’t going to help this couple, they need a good dose of the truth and reality.

  65. K says:

    Marcus (Goldman Sachs) offers 1.2% interest for a high yield savings account. Better than the 1.15% of the American Express one mentioned above.

  66. eric says:

    RIchard Quinn i love your comments almost every time and seek them out in the long list of comments.

    this is a quirky suggestion and sorry if someone else slipped it in…can u get a job working for vitamin shop? you seem like an absolute expert on the topic and a very discerning user. i glanced at their website and they give a 40% discount on their product line for employees and you could supplement college/other expenses. not sure if they have online positions as consultant but i would be shocked if working in supplement industry was not viable given your expertise and commitment to the regime.

  67. Christy says:

    Congratulation for being great savers!
    I would slash the food, supplements, household supplies, and alcohol bills by half and work a part-time job before taking away my kids activities. Don’t discount the importance of their development during high school to focus only on college savings. I teach at risk teenagers. Almost none of them come from families that can afford sports, music, lessons, etc. and I find it one of the great injustices of life. Children and teenagers grow and learn so much from pursuing their interests, practicing a skill, being on a team, mentoring younger kids in the activity and so much more.

  68. Matt says:

    Do you have options in terms of health insurance plans? Since your medical bills are high, you might be better off choosing a lower deductible plan that would cover more of that $850 per month even if it means you can’t contribute to an HSA. I love an HSA as much as the next person but it becomes less enticing and eventually a net negative when you have high medical bills. You still have room to contribute to your Roth IRAs for retirement.

    • Jenny says:

      The large health care expenses are hopefully only for this year, and some of them aren’t covered by traditional insurance. But I appreciate the suggestion, as I like to consider every angle!

  69. Sadie says:

    I work as a manager on the design side with many software engineers (UX/user experience), and didn’t believe it until I lived it, how underpaid I was, and am thinking Will is as well. My first employer was the government which gave 10% less to non-HCOL places. My second employer was a private company that similarily cut 10% for non-HCOL places (but a much higher salary). Now, I earn over $250k with colleague’s Will’s age (and we hire our software engineers at a much higher salary), and would highly recommend he apply for government software engineer roles for security (if he is a high enough GS, it will be much higher than he is currently making and 100% remote) or a private, big, company that is remote first. As someone who has worked 100% remote for the last 7 years, it is possible. And as someone who made sub-$100k for too many years, Will, get your money!

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! I will forward your comment to Will. He *did* just get a huge raise after I submitted our case study, which will help a lot!

  70. Heather says:

    Hi. We are similar ages with 3 teens who are also homeschooled. Our oldest will attend the local community college this fall as a freshman. The plan is for her to complete the first 2 years there, then transfer to an in state public university. Our second is only 2 years away from college. We have spent a lot of money over the years for classes at our local homeschool co op. I know some homeschooling families get by with never paying for out of home instruction, but we could not adequately teach algebra and chemistry and those types of classes. So, I totally understand you having that expense in your budget.

    We are a family of 5, and I can’t imagine spending anywhere near $2400 a month on groceries. We eat all meals at home and cook from scratch. We eat tons of fresh produce. I cook simple home cooked meals that don’t require expensive ingredients. If we eat desserts, my kids make them homemade. We spend roughly $700-800 per month on just food, and I don’t think we are as frugal as we could be. Healthy eating doesn’t need to be expensive. Whole foods are the cheapest foods to buy. But I know special foods can add up quickly.

    My husband and I take a few supplements. Vitamin C and D and such. Most of the time I forget to take mine! The kids don’t take anything. We are rarely sick, and avoid going to the doctor if at all possible. From past experience, frequent doctor visits can lead you down a rabbit hole. We are blessed to have no chronic health conditions. I’m sorry that you and your family have health concerns, and I know that is a personal issue, but I would make darn sure all those supplements are actually doing what you think they are doing for your health. Can you just take a few key ones, and eliminate the others?

    I would prioritize saving up some cash to buy a new car. Your cars will likely need to be replaced soon.

    As far as college, I would start talking to your son now about expectations. Thinking outside the box is a wonderful plan. College doesn’t have to mean taking on a burden of loans. There are so many options now. Our local community college now offers two bachelor degree options. They can get a 4 year degree right there while living at home. I told my kids that college will look a lot different for them than it did for my husband and me. But that’s okay. The end goal is still the same, even if the journey is different.

  71. Jarvis L. says:

    Dear Ms. FW,

    As always, thanks for your great analysis, and also thanks to Jenny for being a “case study”–sounds like they are a nice family and are in pretty good shape.

    I’d like to pose a question. You warned Jenny that you did not have good news, because her current trajectory had only an 82% chance of working, and made some great suggestions for her to reduce that risk. You called this an “18% chance of going broke before she dies.” But isn’t that assuming that Jenny will not monitor her financial trajectory and adjust course at all? I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption–Jenny is clearly savvy and willing to make changes or she would not be here doing this!

    Assuming she is willing to make course corrections, I actually think she can live with her current trajectory, especially since she and her husband are guaranteed $54k/yr from Social Security, which is a strong safety net! That income may be below their current spending, but $54k + house paid off = not a bad living for most people, especially once children move out. She can monitor her situation and, as long as she is on track for the 82%, great, no changes. If she is not on track, *then* she can make cuts. (You can model something like this with FIRECalc using the “Percentage of Remaining Portfolio” option under “spending models”, and you can set a minimum spending threshold there too. But it’s not exactly what I’m suggesting here.)

    Furthermore, since that 18% is largely caused by sequence of returns risk, Jenny will likely know soon (within 5-10 yrs) if she is on track on or not. And that lines up about with when her husband wants to retire in 4 yrs! So it seems to me one option would be, stay on this present course, and in 4 yrs if there has been good investment growth then maybe she is just good to go with this trajectory. But if not, maybe husband can work a little longer or they can cut spending then. (She can also rerun these calculations then with the benefit of more information to decide.)

    None of this takes away from your great advice! All of which would help make Jenny more secure and has principles we can all use. But I think I’m just suggesting 1) failure in these models isn’t necessarily impoverishment assuming you are willing to adapt and 2) for people who are somewhat less risk-averse and are willing to adapt, sometimes the riskier path has benefits too. Ultimately it’s up to Jenny and if that’s her, maybe you actually do have good news now!

    Fwiw, were I in Jenny’s position I would probably take your advice (in fact, maybe all of your advice of being more frugal *and* or working longer), but I also think that people sometimes get a little too scared in weighing these decisions. Maybe we need a personal finance version of Marcus Aurelius’s quote, “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

    Finally, credit where due, I’m channeling some thoughts I had a while ago reading some articles on Mr. Money Mustache’s blog. His blog and yours are my go-to blogs in personal finance!
    https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2022/07/18/never-run-out-of-money/
    https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/05/29/how-much-do-i-need-for-retirement/
    https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2018/11/29/how-to-retire-forever-on-a-fixed-chunk-of-money/

    Thank you!

    P.S. fellow commenters, love the ideas on college savings and community college, always good options to consider.

  72. Dr G says:

    Thank you for sharing another great reader case study and to Jenny for participating! Jenny, you and your husband are doing so many things right and it’s so helpful to read suggestions for how we can all improve.
    As a physician, I’d be wary of any other healthcare practitioner (that term makes me shudder btw!) recommending that many supplements. I don’t give out medical advice on the internet but I will say that if you are buying it from that person/practice, please be even more cautious. There are very few supplements that are proven to have benefit and many that can be harmful. While there are definitely vitamins and supplements out there with proven benefits, even if you and your entire family took every single one, I can’t imagine how it would cost this much.
    Bravo for feeding your family so well! Maybe consider a garden to supplement your food budget? Can you cut back on meat? (That is usually the culprit in high food budgets.)
    If reducing the supplement, food and household budgets doesn’t pan out, would you consider a rewards credit card? With the right card, you could save up to 5% of the cost for these line items.

    For college, many people don’t have 529 savings. My parents didn’t and relied on income and home equity to pay for 3 private school educations. I wouldn’t recommend it if you plan to retire your husband early or even on time. They even let me cast aside a free ride to a small private university that I didn’t like because it was too small. (D’oh.) The smartest economic decision for most is 2 years of community college (for which there are often scholarships!) and transfer to a state university for years 3 and 4. Save more by living at home throughout or becoming an RA. My bf turned down an Ivy for free tuition x 4 years at his state school and graduated with no debt. SMART.

    Best of luck and thank you for sharing your story!

  73. Marie-Josée says:

    Thanks for sharing your story with us Jenny and bravo for all of the savings you have accumulated so far. Your family life appears so loving and fulfillind. Bravo on that as well.

    As an N.D., I wholly support your food choices and supplement regime. I know that a personally talored food plan that takes into consideration individual intolerances, allergies and metabolic health are life altering for many patients. Supplements are sometimes essential, like vitamin D3 for nordic folks and really helpful for many accute and chronic conditions. Hopefully they can be phased out, but sometimes removing them from the treatment plan isn’t possible.

    Many chronic conditions are simply dreadful, leaving patients with horrible fatigue, pain and limitations. Medications prescribed often have terrible side effects with patients having to decide between terrible options. Sometimes, medications simply don’t work. These are often the patients who are highly motivated to try lifestyle changes and supplements to try to control symptoms, achieve remission. For many patients, simply being able to reduce the dose of medications while remaining symptom free is a big win and worth the expense in food, supplements and other supporting treatments that make a difference in their quality of life.

    I

  74. Shey says:

    Hi Jenny, I think this experience has definitely opened your eyes to some potential money-savings. I firmly believe you will begin on a new path to accomplish most of your goals. I love reading how other people are performing. Please continue to encourage your kids to pursue college, regardless of your financial situation. I think there is a big shift coming in that direction, and you want them to be ready for their own future.

  75. Andrea says:

    Did I miss it – where are taxes and medical insurance in the post-retirement budget?

  76. Cubert says:

    We’re fortunate to have started 529 plans for our twins the year they were born. Even more fortunate that they inherited some cash from their grandfather last year. Although both kids will be able to afford just about any in-state public university in 10 years’ time, our expectation was to split the total with them. 50-50.
    Bigger picture, I’m not 100% sold that a four year degree is as important or will be as important in 10 years.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sold on that, either. I don’t know what my kids will want to do when they’re grown, but the world is changing so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t need a traditional four-year degree to be successful.

  77. Lisa says:

    What about increasing overall income? There is no better time than now to find a fully remote job with flexible hours. With the older of the two children being done with home schooling in the near future this may be the perfect time for Jenny to re-enter the work force. It would allow her to save an emergency fund quicker and help contribute to college costs.

  78. Jenny says:

    Thank you to everyone who has commented so far! And thank you to Mrs. FW for her thoughtful, well-researched post. All of you have given me and Will a lot to consider and work on. I will update in a few months to let you know how it’s going!

  79. JIM says:

    This is a post near and dear to my heart, as WIll and I are close in age. My thought is retiring at 60 may lead Will to be a bit bored. Perhaps he should start a small side gig, to work on for the next 4 years, which may lead to a second career if he wants it to. It will allow him to leave at 60, but making just a little on the side will provide a cushion.

  80. Kajsa says:

    How nice you seem to be doing, I’m envious of the paid of house and ability to homeschool, though I probably wouldn’t have the patience for the latter, haha. As a 1:swedish and 2:doctor, the amount going to supplements seems extraordinary. Here, generally only specific groups are regarded as needing supplements -vitamin D for kids under two, folic acid for pregnant up tp 12 weeks, occationally iron for menstruating women (only if deficient), calcium+D-vit for the elderly and a few extra supplements for the coeliac intolerants. Either how, no one i heard of gets it to add up to more than 15 dollars/month. Taking supplements you dont specifically need is regarded (in Sweden) as potentially dangerous (overdosing, masking an underlying disease) and/or as if you have been acively sold this by a person/pyramid sceme/advertisement. Just some thoughts from a different continent. Take care!

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