The Claudios: A plan for all seasons
New York transplants to the Gulf Coast, Jeff and Leonora's retirement strategy pays off early.
By Christian Zappone, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - "No one looks after your money like you do," says Jeff Claudio of Crestview, Fla. And few have been so successful at looking after their money as Jeff and wife Leonora.

When the couple moved to Florida in the early 1980s, they were "dirt poor," says Jeff. "We had decent jobs but no savings."

Jeff and Leonora Claudio
Jeff and Leonora Claudio

Today, they have a growing stash, as well as a bold goal to amass $2 million in savings within the next 15 years.

Both Jeff and Leonora, 49 and 52, are registered nurses with advanced credentials. Jeff is a certified paramedic with training in trauma, cardiac and respiratory diseases. Leonora is a Certified Medical/Surgical nurse and state certified nurse educator.

In May, Jeff joined Leonora at the North Okaloosa Medical Center in Crestview as director of the emergency department. Leonora has worked there for years, most recently as the facility's director of education. Together, they earn more than $130,000 a year.

That's good income for that area, but the Claudios also stretch it further than most would.

"We are quite frugal in our daily lives. We work hard, waste little and live by the golden rule of never making impulse purchases. We think long and hard about spending potential retirement dollars."

The couple have begun to max out their 401(k)s and IRAs and sock away another $12,000 a year in taxable mutual funds. So far, they've amassed about $170,000 for retirement. They also keep $25,000 in a money market account as an emergency fund.

Plus real estate...

Those savings are on top of the two homes they own and one they're building.

They bought the land for the first house, and then built on it in 1984. They financed the 1,100 square foot home in cash. "All of our money went into a pot - a general house fund" said Jeff.

The house is thirty miles away from Crestview in the country.

"Coming from New York, we always wanted a home in the country." But eventually, the commute grew tiresome. They currently rent it out to Jeff's brother for a modest amount.

In 1996, they bought their second home in Crestview near work, in which they live with Leonora's aging mother. With a mortgage balance of $77,000 and "a nice big chunk of equity" totaling $225,000 "we plan to pay off this note in much less than the 10 years we originally forecasted," said Jeff.

Plus, the hospital's proximity and Jeff's job change now lets them both save on gas expenses and time behind the wheel. In addition, the Claudios hope to sell the house to a locally-employed doctor when they retire.

The couple views many of their financial moves for their short and long-term benefit. Take for, instance, their third piece of real estate: a retirement home they're building in their spare time. Since hurricanes are a fact a life in Florida and are projected to get worse, the couple is constructing a steel and concrete hurricane-proof home. The Claudios are funding the project with cash.

Even the decision to enter the medical field was based on the couples' desire to secure high paying, dependable work.

The couple moved to Florida from Long Island in 1982 working for an electronics firm that did business with the Department of Defense. Once the threat of base closures and lay-offs in the early 1990s affected their employment outlook, Jeff and Leonora decided their next career would be in a profession insulated from fluctuations in the job market. Hence, medicine.

They went back to school for their nursing degrees (paying cash of course) and graduated in 1996.

"My life is one big plan," says Jeff.

But it's a plan that includes his family. In addition to Leonora's aging mother who they care for, Jeff's mother lives around the corner and they check in on her frequently as well.

Jeff says it was the difficult financial position his mother and his mother-in-law found themselves in after their husbands passed away, that spurred him to become such a rigorous financial planner. "They were left with nothing," he says.

But the couple doesn't simply work and save. They have numerous "water toys" to enjoy in their free time including a 30-foot cabin cruiser, a 28 foot pontoon boat, a bass boat, as well as jet skis. Living near the Gulf of Mexico, local lakes and bayous gives them many options for recreation.

The also enjoy exploring the area in a 37-foot motor home. As for the other "toys" Jeff and Leonora use in their free time, they include a VTX1800C cruising bike, a Cadillac, A Dodge Ram truck, A Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford SUV. "All paid off," says Jeff.

"I've turned a lot of friends onto savings. A lot of them come to me like a guru for advice."

Jeff laughs at the notion of him being a "guru" but few would dismiss the rewards of his planning.


See how an Army couple is on track to a comfortable, early retirement Top of page

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