In the wake of hilarious-yet-terrifying millennial retirement plans trending online, personal finance has remained in the social spotlight into the new decade, with rapidly growing movements like FIRE at the forefront. The red-hot topic, which stands for “Financial Independence Retire Early,” revolves around saving fast and investing often so that its members— in their 40s and even 30s—are able to quit their jobs, achieve financial freedom, and retire well before the typical 60-something.
Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? The FIRE movement has garnered cosigns and criticism from financial advisors, money coaches, finance reporters, bloggers, and influencers over the last few years, even making its way into the Times Style section. But as golden as early retirement may seem, FIRE also has its drawbacks. Here’s everything you need to know before embarking on your own race to retirement:
FIRE movement: How to start
The first step is to keep in mind that retirement is a number, not an age. Once you’ve set your retirement goal (for reference, financial advisors recommend banking 25-30 times your annual expenses) and chosen an investment account, you start setting aside funds. But the FIRE movement takes this adage and ignites it, forming a new wave of aggressive retirement planning that involves saving anywhere from 50% to 70% of your income.
Yes, you read that right. Being on FIRE means stowing away more than half of your take-home pay, which requires next-level dedication and discipline. This often manifests as frugality—so that you can build a cushioned nest egg ASAP. It can also mean starting a side hustle to increase your earnings and digging through hours of savings and investment research to snag the highest gains.
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“This movement is very DIY. You can come up with ways around your financial challenges—you have to devise a plan and you need to understand the mechanics of living off your assets,” says FIRE YouTuber and blogger Amon Browning of Our Rich Journey. “You have to know how to get to your number and then how you’re gonna live thereafter. At the end of the day, it’s our money and we want to manage it ourselves.”
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Dedication carries over to another essential tenant of FIRE: The “4% Rule”—that is, you must effectively stow away enough cash to later draw on just 4% of that sum every year during retirement.. and still afford your lifestyle. Some serious calculating is also required to ensure your portfolio will sustain itself in dividends and returns over time. Translation: the FIRE path is not for the faint of heart.
Keeping the Flames Lit
Aside from investing wisely, success with FIRE comes from strict budgeting. The crux of this savings scheme—constantly paring down and cutting corners whenever possible—means that many FIRE followers have dropped expenses like flies. Despite earning six-figure salaries, some have gone so far as to cut off all cable services, eat slow-cooker meals, and repair their own shoes. This “extreme frugality” garnered attention from outlets like the Wall Street Journal and, of course, the NY Post had a field day sensationalizing it. But hardcore saving is, in fact, only a sliver of this hefty financial feat.
For Shang Savedra, self-made millionaire and money coach, FIRE is about empowerment. “Much of consumerism today is filling a psychological or emotional need, but you can break the cycle. You have to make your end goal so worthwhile that it trumps whatever happiness comes from spending,” she says. “I do believe most people can become financially free and retire on their own terms.”
Savedra, who achieved financial independence at 31, has been around finance for most of her life. An engagement manager at an international consulting firm who studied economics at Harvard and entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago, she shares expert tips and personal epiphanies through microblogging on Save My Cents. FIRE has helped her fund an entire year of maternity leave for herself and begin building a multi-million dollar scholarship fund.
Even with her money-minded background, Savedra struggled at the start of her FIRE journey. “The first year was ridiculously difficult,” she says. “I had major cases of FOMO, all my friends wanted to go out, I lived in a cheap apartment, and I’d cry lugging my laundry to the laundromat in the freezing cold. I focused so much on what I could not have.”
But she felt a shift after a national park visit. “I realized I could be completely content with much less, without that dopamine hit,” she said. From that point forward, she made incremental changes in her habits and routine to save extra cash: cooking at home instead of eating out, hosting friends instead of getting drinks, scaling down to a highly interchangeable “capsule wardrobe,” picking up freebies from Buy Nothing groups on Facebook, racking up and tracking points to travel cheap, the list goes on.
Of course, frugality is just one side to aggressive-saving coin. Many FIRE followers run a side hustle or take on second jobs to reach their goals, including Our Rich Journey bloggers Amon and Christina Browning, who sought out extra sources of income wherever possible.
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The duo scoured real estate listings and invested in properties that had been on the market for a while, later updating and furnishing them with discounted marble countertops and showroom living room sets from the final sale section at IKEA. They invested in index funds. Amon would also clock in shifts with Uber and Lyft, taking advantage of signup bonuses. They’ve even upcycled wooden pallets into chic bookshelves and wine cabinets to turn profit. “When you’re on this journey, you’re more attuned to opportunity,” Amon says. “And we got very intentional about how we were doing things.”
The couple created a targeted 10-year plan to retire early from their nine-to-five government jobs, with milestones to track and celebrate along the way. “It was never a sacrifice but a shift in mindset,” Christina says. “We have a goal, now how are we going to get there? We have to be unique, go against the flow, and think about things differently. But you have to decide your own journey, and how long are you going to give yourself to get there.”
Lisa Harrison of Mad Money Monster tried FIRE for four years before ditching the movement. In order to save for a house, she and her husband followed along with the extreme budgeting, clothes-buying bans, and bare bones cellular plans. They quit eating out, gave up cable, and even resoled their own shoes.
“FIRE is trying to work for 10 years to pay yourself for 50 or more,” says Gideon Drucker, author and certified financial planner at Drucker Wealth Management. “It’s not impossible but it’s pretty tough. It becomes such an off-sphere way to live life, like a diet where you can’t eat literally anything.”
Harrison definitely felt the effects. “Deprivation is romanticized in the FIRE community,” she says. “And a lot of the messaging pushes non-practical advice: You should be biking to work everyday and turning all your hobbies into side hustles.”
She says the shiny allure of FIRE made her resent her job unnecessarily. So, after holding out as long as she could and chronicling the fiery experience on her finance blog, Harrison decided to switch gears once again. “I realized that I actually really liked my career and coworkers, that I get to work in my field of study and get paid good money to do it, with excellent benefits for my family,” she says. “To walk away from that early would be selfish, and without reassurance.”
Instead, she has decided to pursue financial independence and continue saving more moderately. “It might be nothing to someone else, but I like watching HGTV and ordering pizza,” she says. “We can back off a bit and still reach our goal within the next five years.”
Is FIRE right for you?
“Many people try FIRE without being as thoughtful as they need to be,” says Greg Klingler, director of wealth for the Government Employees’ Benefit Association. “When you pull the career plug at 35, 40, or even 50 years old, what assumptions are you making about your future?”
At the end of the day, personal finance is exactly that: personal—to your needs, goals, and current situation. “Small changes add up and make a big impact over time,” Drucker reminds. “When you start living a more conscientious lifestyle, when you’re more aware of how you’re spending money and where it’s going, it’s almost magical.”
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