Lorna - A Childfree Portrait of Accidental FIRE

Aug 28 / Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP®

This story is one of 26 portraits in my book "Portraits of Childfree Wealth".

52 years old, Female, Widowed, Massachusetts
Master’s in Computer Science

Lorna came to the U.S. from Scotland approximately 25 years ago. She has gone from growing up in the lower working class to retiring last year at age 51. She has faced multiple sclerosis and lost her wife, and yet still achieved great things in that time. She is Childfree, stayed out of debt, invested early, and is living her best life. She did not follow a complex financial plan but just did the right things at each turn. Lorna is a portrait of “accidental” FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early).

Lorna did not make a big decision to be Childfree:

“I didn’t decide. I never had any desire for children growing up. My relatives were always like, ‘oh, it will change when you get married.’ So I was like, let me see… Nope. Then when I discovered that I was gay, I was like, well, that makes it even easier. Doesn’t it?”

Lorna sees freedom as the most significant benefit to being Childfree:

“Just the freedom to, to spend doing what you want when you want. You get to focus on yourself. I read the Pope’s article the other day about how we’re all selfish. And I was like, yes, coming from you [the Pope] who’s Childfree, but okay. I mean, you do get to be selfish.”

Lorna also sees the financial benefits of being Childfree. She looks at her friends and sees how much they spend on school and sports and can’t help but see the financial impact. Then again, it is different now than when she was raised in Scotland. In comparison to parents traveling all the time to see games and tournaments. Lorna shared:

“I think my Mum came to my sports day at school once in my entire time at school.”

Being Childfree has allowed Lorna to be financially free, but she still worries:

“I am financially free now, but there’s that weight [finances] at the back of my mind. I look at the net worth statement, then I’m like, hmm, but what if it just goes to zero tomorrow for some reason?”

Lorna would love to upgrade from her Kia Sportage to a BMW or Jaguar, but she is very practical:

“A car is a depreciating asset. As much as I like cars, at the end of the day, after the first couple of months that you’ve had it, it’s just a car.”

At some point, Lorna will move back to Scotland to be with her family but may end up splitting her time between the U.S. and Scotland. Her dog (a boxer/beagle mix) is keeping her here now, but also, it is just nicer weather here and not always gray.

“I’ve been here 25 years now, and when I go back to visit [Scotland], it’s nice. But can I deal with the gray sky all the time? I didn’t realize how depressing it was until I came here. I was driving to work every day, and the blue sky and blue water made me happy.”

It is not a question of if Lorna moves back, but when:

“I definitely want to get back there [Scotland] before I’m 70 just because I’m not impressed with the healthcare over here [in the U.S.].”

Healthcare is important to Lorna. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at age 27, before she transferred to the U.S., and that has shaped her life in many ways:

“When I was 27, I was diagnosed with MS. And that was a big thing for me. But, they [doctors] can’t predict what it’s going to be like. So, you don’t know. I might be in a wheelchair in five years’ time. So, you pretty much try to do as much as you can when you can.”

Lorna would love to get a big motorcycle:

“None of that Harley-Davidson crap, I want a Japanese ZXR.”

However, she is practical to the core, and practicality wins in most cases. One of her fears or anxieties in retirement is that she may become too cheap with herself. She worries about running out of money and being too frugal when there is no need to be:

“So it’s like I have to push myself not to be quite practical all the time.”

I did push her a bit and ask about what her last “non-practical” spending was, but she couldn’t think of anything off the top of her head (but that may be due to COVID-19). The last thing she did for fun was going to a movie theater.

Lorna didn’t have a plan to retire early. She did not enjoy work and did not like the stress. Lorna looks at it this way:

“I’m 52 and retired last year at 51. I was like, okay, I’ve saved enough money. And this should last me the rest of my life as long as no comets are hitting the ground… I do want to do something more. I didn’t want to have that work stress. But at the same time, I was like, well, I’m retired, and I can always volunteer. But I don’t want to be tied down to go somewhere every week. There are almost too many choices now.”

When Lorna first went to a financial advisor, she was told she might be able to retire at 55, and she was excited, but that was 20 years ago. When she got married and went to an advisor together with her wife, it was a different picture:

“I got married, and my wife was, she was a little older than me. She was nine years older. But she was the same as me. She came from a poor background, and she was a saver as well. So when we finally went to a financial advisor where we did our money jointly, we were surprised and like, whoa, we’re rich!”

There was a big disconnect between Lorna and her wife on when to retire. Her wife wanted to retire at 70, and Lorna was looking more at 50. Lorna suggested that her wife could keep working until 70 to get health insurance, but that did not work out. Lorna lost her wife three years ago, days before her 60th birthday. Losing her wife helped Lorna look at work differently:

“I was like, this is all pointless, this working stuff. I did think it was funny that your whole life someone’s told you; It’s time to go to school. It’s time to get a job. It’s time to go up the ladder. But there’s nobody that comes along and says, it’s time to retire. So I discovered the FIRE movement and figured it out for myself. But then I had to run the numbers by someone else. ‘Cause I was like, is this some hocus-pocus, or is this real?”

Lorna’s largest hesitation in moving to retirement was health insurance. So she did a bit of research on those who have done FIRE and what they do for insurance. Lorna found that she could be on an ACA (Affordable Care Act) plan and that she could retire:

“Especially with the MS. I know I’m on meds that are expensive. And then I have my neurologist, and I have to get MRIs. Those aren’t cheap if you don’t have insurance. I just looked at the statement of benefits for my plan. I had some MRIs that would have cost me $5,000, but then the insurance knocked that down well over half. So in the end, I have a $15 copay, YEAH!”

Lorna has been doing well and hasn’t had a flare-up in over 10 years. She focuses on her health in her retirement:

“I have learned to cook healthy meals. I joined the gym. I have a personal trainer, and I work out in one form or another every day. The dog enjoys it because he goes for more walks.”

Lorna is also learning more about investing and taxes. Although she is trying not to worry about her finances as much:

“I’m trying to stop looking at the stock market every day. I’ve got enough cash to do me a good few years now. So I don’t need to worry about what’s going on in the stock market.”

Lorna’s financial plan wasn’t much of a plan and was definitely not a FIRE plan. It was more a reflection of how she grew up and wanted things to be different. As Lorna puts it, her mom was a single mom “before it became almost trendy”, and they struggled. Growing up, it was evident that they were very working class. The kids on the other side of the road lived in a new development and had new bikes. Lorna’s bike got her where she needed to go, but it wasn’t anything fancy or new. Lorna shared:

“I worked from the age of 15 at part-time jobs. Our household income was so low that the government paid for my college tuition and travel expenses.”

Watching her mom struggle with a low-income job, loans, and trying to avoid debt, helped shape Lorna:

“I didn’t want a ’woman’s job’ because I could see nurses, teachers, secretaries, they didn’t get paid a lot. Men got paid much more money. Like engineers, executives, they get big salaries. I was like, okay, I want to be an engineer because that’s where the money is… It was funny; they were doing a push for women into engineering when I left school. So I studied electronic engineering. And I was the only girl in the whole year at the college. I switched to IT courses after a couple of years, and there were more females in classes then.”

The one thing Lorna always knew she wanted financially was no debt:

“I never really wanted debt… I came over to the U.S. with two bags and about $10,000 of debt. And the first year, I paid off that $10,000 debt. I had saved up enough money to buy out the car lease. I was debt-free, YEAH! Then I saved what was my lease payment so that with my next car, I could buy it in cash.”

Besides having a mortgage for some time, Lorna has been debt-free for the past 25 years. When she first transferred to the U.S., they told her about a 401(k) account, and she wasn’t interested. Lorna became interested when she heard there was free money with it (the employer match), which introduced her to the stock market. She reflects that many of her friends in the U.K. are not investing, as it is not something they are exposed to. Lorna then went on to see Suze Orman talking on PBS about Roth IRAs, and that also sounded like a good idea. At her core, Lorna is a saver:

“I was always very aware of lifestyle inflation. When I first came over, I rented rooms and stuff, and that’s fine. I was more than happy to deprive myself of some of the luxuries if it meant that I could save and have stability.”

Lorna was saving more for stability than for retirement:

“I guess MS forced me [to focus on stability] in some ways. I didn’t know how long I might be able to work. So it was like, okay, save as much as you can because you just don’t know. I could have a flare-up and might end up in a wheelchair or might lose my eyesight or something, but it never happened. I remember when I first got diagnosed, and the HR woman at work in England said, ‘you know, you can go on disability.’ So then I looked into disability work benefits, and I was like, ugh. And then I looked at disabled housing, and I was like, oh my God, this is just depressing. It was just that, like, there was no future. So yeah. I was run, run, in the other direction as fast as you can.”

I asked Lorna what Childfree Wealth means to her:

“It means estate planning is a hell of a lot harder. It also means there’s no part of it that is about leaving a legacy or having to help out the grandkids or any of that.”

Lorna wants to give her money to people who need it but is still working on her charitable giving. She does not see herself like Oprah giving to everyone or like “real rich people” giving away money. Right now, Lorna just doesn’t see herself as rich (even though, by many measures, she is). Lorna dreams about maybe just giving her money to a friendly cashier helping her at the store, and I’m not going to be surprised if she does.