Jackie Cummings Koski tells PEOPLE she retired at the same age her father was when he died of colon cancer
Throughout most of her marriage, Jackie Cummings Koski let her husband handle their finances. He paid the bills, bought the savings bond for their daughter’s college education, and initiated refinancing their home.
Koski tells PEOPLE she didn’t ask any questions about the interest rate or the terms — she just signed the paperwork.
When the couple got divorced in 2004, she had about $20,000 in her 401K and she noticed his account had $120,000. Her ex wasn’t trying to hide the money, half of which she received in the divorce, she says.
“I just didn’t know and I never asked,” Koski explains. “Shame on me.”
Seeing the discrepancy in how much they had each saved toward retirement was a wake-up call. She decided it was time that she stopped being afraid of investing and took control of her personal finances.
“That was an eye opener,” she says. “That made me realize, ‘I need to figure this stuff out.’”
Koski joined an investment club that met once a month. She started maxing out her 401K and Roth IRA contributions and opened a health savings account, commonly called HSA.
She was on a course to retire from her job as an account manager for LexisNexis around 55. But about five years ago, she read about the FIRE movement.
“There’s been a massive movement sweeping the country called FIRE — financial independence, retire early,” says Jean Chatzky, the 55-year-old CEO of HERMONEY.com. “The people who are involved in it have made the choice — and it is a choice — to bank a huge portion of their income so that sooner, rather than later, they can choose to take on the work they want to take on or not. It’s really a matter of priorities.”
Following FIRE principles, Koski looked at how much she was spending every month and multiplied it by 25. The goal is to invest money and live off about 4 percent a year, Chatzky says.
Koski did the math and realized she needed about $1 million to retire early. Even though she never made a six-figure salary, Koski says she hit the goal faster than she expected.
“I think I was, like, 46. And I’m still thinking in my head, ‘There’s no way. I can’t just not work. I can’t retire, I’m too young.’ I’m running the numbers all kinds of different ways,” Koski says.
Still, she kept working and saving.
“I had that one-more-year syndrome. I kept saying, ‘One more year. I’m going to stash up my money a little bit more, and get my investments looking good,’” she says. “Finally, my 50th birthday was looking around the corner and I said, ‘I want to do this in my 40s.’”
When Koski gave her boss notice, he hugged her and told her he was very happy for her.
“A lot of times, with the FIRE community, they all hate their bosses, and they hate their job. And I get disenchanted when I hear that,” Koski says. “I feel like we can all win. I gave my company 21 years and they served me well.”
On Dec. 6 — four days before her 50th birthday — Koski officially retired. She says it was the same age her father was when he died of colon cancer.
Koski’s father was a single dad with a sixth-grade education who worked in a factory. He raised his children in a two-bedroom house down a dirt road in Aiken, South Carolina. He died during Koski’s senior year of high school.
In college, Koski worked two jobs at a Walmart and a sub shop. She didn’t have time to focus on school and now admits she’s ashamed of her college GPA. As a result, she always dreamed of going back to school and jumping into her studies with gusto.
On Jan. 5, she started an online master’s degree program in personal financial planning and financial therapy at Kansas State University. Her goal is to graduate with a 4.0 GPA — and then teach others about personal finance.
When Koski’s daughter Amber was a high school senior, Koski self-published a book, Money Letters to My Daughter, and gave it to her.
“Teenagers, they don’t listen a lot. And they don’t want to listen to parents,” she says. “I learned a ton from the time I got divorced. I wanted to share it with her. I didn’t want it to be lost.”
Amber is now a 24-year-old graphic designer. She keeps a copy of her mom’s book in her bedroom — and she’s already investing and planning to retire early, just like her mom.
“I know I’ll get where she’s at — because she did,” Amber says. “I definitely don’t want to be in the corporate world longer than I have to be.”