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RETIRING EARLY: QUIT WITH TIME ON YOUR SIDE

Want to retire early? So does everybody else. In the 1950s, the median retirement age was 67; now it's roughly 61, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here's what you have to do: save buckets of money, cut spending and learn the tax laws and how to invest wisely. It can be done. Ask John Greaney, who quit his Exxon engineering job nine years ago at 39 and spends most of his time golfing and encouraging other dropouts via the Retire Early Web site (retireearlyhomepage.com). His tips:

Be realistic. If you retire young, your budget will probably include new cars and maybe even college for kids (though it's no coincidence that most early retirees are childless). Plan to cut expenses by living in a smaller home in a low-tax state and by enjoying all the free things that retirement has to offer.

Save big. How big? There's a great calculator at early-retirement.org/fire that will help put a number on your dream. But there's a very simple rule for guesstimating. Once you figure out your annual income needs, multiply by 26. That's the size of the nest egg that, invested wisely, should feed you forever.

Tap your money early. And pay no penalties. Usually when you pull money out of an IRA or 401(k) before you turn 59-1/2, there's a 10 percent penalty. But there's a wrinkle in tax-code provision 72(t) that allows you to start penalty-free withdrawals at any age, as long as the amount is calculated to last a lifetime. Find out all about it, and calculate amounts you can withdraw at 72t.net.

Let Social Security work for you. You can start taking benefits once you turn 62; the monthly checks will be smaller than if you wait a few years, but, according to actuarial tables, you're likely to stay ahead until some time in your 80s. When you turn 65, you can earn some extra money (writing your memoirs? selling on eBay? greeting at Wal-Mart?) and not have to give up a penny in benefits. Then you can sit back and think about Alan Greenspan and his dire predictions. He's 78 and still slogging in every day.

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