Gary Gardelli chose his career path at age 4. "I had a little red fire engine with push pedals and a bell," says Gardelli, now 55, "and that's pretty much when I decided what I wanted to do." In junior high school, he realized an added benefit to being a firefighter: the pension. And then there's the job security. Economies boom and wane, but protection from fires is a basic, universal need.
At age 20, Gardelli studied fire departments in the Denver area, including their benefits and retirement plans. He picked suburban Bancroft as a place to live and work and attended college for two years while waiting to be accepted for training.
Then he stayed put for 31 years and seven months. "It was better than I ever thought it could be," says Gardelli, who turned down managerial promotions so he could keep fighting fires. "I liked being one of the guys in the trenches. I made lieutenant, and that's where I stayed."
For most of his working years, Gardelli knew exactly when he would retire November 2006 because that's when a lump-sum pension payout would amount to $1 million. He decided to take the lump sum because the lifetime-payment option offered skimpy survivor benefits to his wife, Cindy, in the event that he died first. "This way," he says, "it's all hers."
Managing $1 million is a big responsibility, especially when you retire at age 54 and want the money to last for perhaps 40 years. Gardelli already had experience investing Cindy's retirement-plan rollover when she left firefighting eight years ago. Plus, he amassed about $100,000 in his employer-matched 401(a) plan, a tax-deferred plan for public-sector employees.
Gardelli worked with a financial planner to invest the money, gradually putting it in a diversified portfolio, composed mostly of stock funds, and keeping some in a guaranteed account that earns about 5 percent. "I'm taking it slow and easy," he says.
Even as millionaires, he and Cindy still look for ways to save money. "We play lots of golf, ride the motorcycle, goof off," says Gary, who saves about $5,000 in annual golf-course fees by working six hours a week as a golf-course marshal. Cindy works two days a week in a veterinary clinic, which provides them with free care for their three fox terriers and Chihuahua. Says Gary, "We're having so much fun."KipTip: Plan for the very long term. Gary Gardelli waited two years to get the job he wanted and more than 30 years for the payoff.
Kimberly Lankford is a contributing editor to Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].