As a teen, Army veteran Julie Bradley learned firsthand about financial insecurity. Her father, a WWII veteran, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor; her parents filed for bankruptcy and divorce; and her mother ultimately left.
That's not the kind of background that sets you up for a life of financial success. Yet while most Americans are saddled with debt, Bradley did the seemingly impossible, teaching herself to be a financial wizard and building a lifestyle that allowed her to retire at 40, sail the world and spend her time volunteering internationally on humanitarian missions with the American Red Cross.
Bradley’s first book, Escape from the Ordinary, an Amazon best-seller, chronicles her epic adventures achieving her dream of sailing around the world. A sequel, Crossing Pirate Waters, is due in the summer of 2019. She spoke to Military.com about how she managed to realize such an exciting future after the military.
"I was a broken teenager when I walked into the recruiter's office, took the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] and enlisted as an E1, 98G, Russian Voice Interceptor," Bradley said.
Bradley spent the next several years transcribing Russian at the field station in Augsburg, Germany, where she realized she wanted to do more with her career than just sit at a desk.
So she came up with a new plan: stay in the Army in a different career field, then retire after 20 years and live off her military pension and the interest from her savings nest egg.
She applied to officer candidates school and was accepted. She then spent the rest of her 20-year career on a "seesaw between civilian-clothes assignments" using her Russian language skills, she said. She also did a tour as a company commander of a training company at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and Brigade S2 in the 2nd Infantry Division. In her last three years of her career, she distinguished herself when she was given a joint assignment as a Nuclear Weapons Inspector with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Russia.
"At 30, I married Glen, a former Army officer who got out after Vietnam to work as a government civilian engineer," Bradley said. "He understood my commitment to the Army and brought an even bigger idea to our relationship: retire early and sail around the world."
But plenty of people stay in the military for 20 years without living a civilian life of leisure and adventure after retirement. So how did she buck the norm and turn a fairly normal military career into a chance to live her dreams? Here's her advice.
Begin with the End in Mind
Bradley said that the first step toward financial independence is the same as the first step in conducting a military operation: visualize your end goal and work backwards.
They made a plan leaning on the same procedure used to conduct any military operation - plan, prepare, execute, assess. They lived off of Glen's income and directed all of her salary to their savings, which grew and grew in a diversified portfolio thanks to the magic of compound interest.
The Secret Sauce: Visualize the Life You Want After Retirement
Military couples know the difficulty of being separated for great periods of time by deployments, but Bradley and Glen weathered challenges with the same powerful tool that they used for their retirement plans: visualization.
"No matter where I was stationed or deployed -- the DMZ in Korea, Bosnia, conducting nuclear weapons inspections in Russia in subzero temperatures -- every night I visualized what I called 'a perfect day on the boat,'" Bradley said. "I fell asleep imagining myself on the deck of a sailboat anchored in clear turquoise water or flying under sail with dolphins off the bow."
Bradley said that focusing on the end goal -- what it felt like and what it looked like -- kept her on course and inspired her to live frugally.
"When I joined the Army as a teenager, I never could have imagined how wonderful my life would turn out," Bradley said. "I owe the Army so much for all it has given me and for giving me the stamina I needed along the way."
Bradley retired from the military, and, true to her vision, spent the next year with Glen sailing the world with dolphins off the bow while dodging pirates and the occasional breakdown.
While sailing might not be the post-retirement vision for most veterans, Bradley said a vision is still required to achieve your financial goals and allow you to live the lifestyle you dream.
"Whatever your own post-retirement dreams, try out the visualization and let it empower your actions," Bradley said. "Not only will you realize your plans faster, you get to live it in your mind, starting today. Enjoy your journey!"
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