The FIRE movement is incredibly popular. I follow many blogs who implement this idea, and it is part of what got me excited about finances.
Hell, I retired at 35. I live and breathe this stuff.
I first encountered the movement with articles on Mr. Money Mustache a while ago.
At the time, I didn’t know they were implementing FIRE, but I was intrigued by the ideas in the content. And working in information technology, I knew I had the salary for it.
It seemed revolutionary! How could these people cut expenses AND pursue happiness at the same time? I thought spending more money equaled happiness?
Could people realistically retire from their full-time jobs in their 30’s? How was this even possible? What were they doing with their time?
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What is FIRE?
The term FIRE means “Financial Independence Retire Early”. The idea is that you save as much as possible to be able to quit your full-time job. How exactly FIRE looks and is attained varies from person to person.
People have practiced a version of FIRE for a long time. But before the internet, they were living in separate bubbles. When the web took off, FIRE blogs started appearing and becoming more popular. We began to see different perspectives. The rise of Jack Bogle and index fund investing gave fuel to the movement.
Below I try to summarize the main points “most” FIRE supporters would agree with:
- Save 40%-70% of your after-tax income (we saved 70%).
- Quit your full-time job after ten years or so, usually in your 30’s or 40’s. Few have achieved this in their 20’s.
- Learning to avoid revolving credit card debt.
- The focus is on the short-term sacrifice to achieve the goal as fast as possible, which usually means being frugal and reducing expenses.
- Pay off your mortgage, or end up downsizing to a smaller/cheaper house.
- Invest in low-fee investments, like index funds.
- Drive used cars, and if possible downsize to one or zero cars.
- Many use the 4% rule to determine when they can retire. The idea is that pulling out 4% per year from your investment “should” mean your investments continue to grow and you don’t need to live off of the principle. So having $1,000,000 invested, you could live off of $40,000/year.
- Many blogs are trying to re-wire the standard definition of FIRE by focusing on financial independence.
- Having financial independence is usually defined as having a net worth of 25x your expenses.
- The definition of “retirement” is used loosely. The goal is not necessarily to quit your job but having the flexibility in how/when you work.
- Increasing income helps to achieve financial independence faster.
- It is about hacking life to pursue your goals.
What I Like About FIRE
Frugality doesn’t equal deprivation.
If something gives you true value, it is worth the cost. Everything else can and should be cut from our expenses. If we are cutting so much that we don’t enjoy living, we are missing the point, which becomes more complicated if you have a partner because you will need to be on the same page with what is acceptable. Otherwise, arguments around money will be a common occurrence.
When we are used to spending money without much thought, it can be shocking to see how much money we waste. Especially if our family income is in the six-figure range, we should be able to save a lot of money. Having an accurate budget to understand how you are spending your money, and see what you can cut, is vital to success.
As consumers, we have a lot of options on how to spend our money. The secret is to figure out what is worth the extra cost, and where it makes sense to save money. Ultimately you want to be more mindful of your spending, to pursue what matters most to you.
Financial independence is color blind
One of my favorite parts about the pursuit of financial independence is that anybody can do it. Regardless of color, nationality or ethnicity, the pursuit of huge goals, like financial independence, is within the great majority of us.
At its core, the pursuit of financial independence (and maybe even early retirement) is nothing more than a desire to achieve whatever those things mean to us.
If you are living in the first world, you’ve probably observed that financial independence is achievable by so many people from all different walks of life.
No race, gender or ethnicity has a monopoly on financial independence, and the more exposed we become to this way of life (especially off of the Internet), the more we realize just how many people are taking full control over their lives.
Over the course of my travels, I’ve spoken with all kinds of people — white and black, men and women, kids and no kids, who have realized that the traditional idea of the “American Dream” is rapidly changing — at least for them.
Working 10-hour days no longer seems like the thing to do to get ahead. Earning tons of money is no longer the be-all-end-all of what makes people genuinely happy. Things are fundamentally changing, and that’s good.
Life is short, as they say. And, I agree. It is short.
And, most of us won’t lie on our death beds at the end and wish that we spent more time in an office. That’s not reality.
Thinking about the Future
How our future could look, and what we would do if we had an abundance of free time, is healthy. This idea transcends any specific goal of FIRE. Pursuing FIRE because you hate your job is not going to get you to a spot where you enjoy retiring early. We should figure out what makes us happy first, and use that as motivation for what we want to pursue. Otherwise, we are aiming for the wind and destination is not going to be very enjoyable.
The diversity in how people are implementing FIRE shows that there is not one size that fits everyone. We are all at different stages, and figuring out what options we have to achieve what we want is the only way we can make it work.
Debt is Evil
I love how the FIRE movement is passionate about avoiding debt at all costs, including getting rid of your home mortgage. When you have large credit card balances, you are paying massive amounts on interest charges, and it usually is an indicator that you are spending more than you make.
Most people who have large amounts of credit card debt are also not saving. That was the case for most of my adult. The desire to pay off credit cards always exceeded my desire to save money, which makes sense, since the interest rate is much more than I could make on my investments. I found that having excessive debt consistently made me miserable.
Most FIRE implementers do not claim you should avoid using credit cards. Most think they are a great tool to earn extra rewards on our spending. But they advocate we should pay off the balance every month and spend far less than we make.
Most of us can save more money than we think
Unless you have a mortgage that you can’t afford or other costly financial circumstances, you should be able to save a significant amount of money towards your future. And we can think about ways we can earn more money.
It is about optimizing the time we have to work in a job, to make as much money as we can. When we have our goals and desires figured out, we pursue every possible avenue to achieve that goal as quickly as possible.
Focussing on income also challenges us to figure out ways we can earn passive income, which is valuable in providing income streams outside of our job, and to increase our overall cash flow, which opens up our options when retirement approaches.
Focus on Happiness
The goal is to figure out what makes you happy. And often that doesn’t mean “more.” Happiness looks different for everyone, but when I realize that always having the latest electronics will not ever make me happy, but also add a lot of credit card debt, I can easily cut that out of my life. Spending less money on things that don’t add to your life is a win for everyone.
As Mr. Money Mustache puts it in this article, in regards to the goal of FIRE:
“Complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, energetic, happiest and most generous version of You that you can possibly be.”
Many sources are trying to convince us if we purchase that item, it will make us happy. Or this piece of electronics is what we need. But these people don’t want to make us happy, because if we are happy, we might spend less money. They only care about you purchasing their product. It is a fight against hyper-consumerism.
What I Don’t Like About FIRE
My goal is not to be extra critical about the FIRE community. It is really to share some of the frustrations I’ve encountered reading articles.
Some of Us Can’t Relate
When you have a ton of credit card debt and are reading a blog post in how they are investing $10k+/mo towards retirement, it can feel like the author is living on a different planet. It is like they assume that everyone has been making smart financial decisions. Feeling like you are way behind where you “should be” can be depressing.
Most of us are not in our early 20’s, where we have a lot of time for smart financial decisions to pay off. When you are playing catch up, it can be difficult to make up for lost time. Being in my mid-30’s and finally getting debt free puts me in a much different spot than most FIRE bloggers.
My primary goal is to break the bad financial habits I’ve developed over the years and work towards what matters most. I want people to realize there is always hope in turning things around.
Not all blogs live in fantasy land, but it seems common to read “I always have been good at saving money.” But what about the rest of us?
A lot of popular FIRE blogs are making tons of money
When you are making massive amounts of money from a blog, it is easy to see how they could quit their day job. Now granted, a lot of these blogs didn’t become massive money machines overnight. It just seems like their lives would be different if they quit their jobs and didn’t have an enormous income stream from their blog.
The good news is there are a lot of financial blogs, covering different perspectives on FIRE. Whether that is focusing on paying off debt, investing in the stock market, or paying off your mortgage, you can find content that speaks to you.
I would love to be able to earn income from Money Stir. But my current focus is to become debt free, create an emergency fund and start investing without having an income stream from my blog.
Who sincerely wants to live off of $40k per year?
Maybe it is just me, but living off of $40k/year doesn’t seem appealing. At least, that's what I used to think.
It is possible we could make this work with some changes, but it is not the scenario I dream about during retirement. I want more flexibility to spend and give more. Not having a mortgage payment would help lower expenses, but even then I think shooting for living off of $80k per year is more realistic for us.
I’m pleased to see that not all FIRE blogs push for learning to live on that level of income.
The focus seems to be on financial independence. I'm glad to see some blogs are not trying to live on this income level, and are focused on increasing cash flow.
The problem becomes less about reducing spending, to increasing income and pursuing the best version of yourself.
It is about balance: figuring out how you can make more money and what expenses are worth cutting. Financial independence means I can loosen up our budget to do things we couldn’t enjoy as much before financial freedom. And there is not one right answer for everyone. Only you can decide what works best for you.
What if you don’t hate your job?
It seems some financial blogs focus on getting to a spot where you can stop working a job you hate. They want to get out of there as soon as possible.
The good news is there are many people out there who can relate and who share their story.
The goal is not to quit your job, but more on achieving financial independence, which might mean working at your current job until 65. Or, even if you like your job, you may want more flexibility with your time.
If you do hate your job, it is better to think about how you can make money doing something you enjoy.
But we need to realize there is probably not any job we will love 100% of the time. Sometimes the stress of my job gets to me, but overall I find my day-to-day work life enjoyable, and I get a lot of benefits where I work.
We all will be spending our time doing something, even during retirement.
The question is, what would I want to do when I don’t have to work for money?
The FIRE movement is hugely positive, as it challenges us to get rid of financial waste to pursue our dreams. It calls us to get into the nitty-gritty of our daily lives to figure out where we are not getting true value.
More money will not make us happier, but making smarter financial decisions on how we spend money and time will.
It can be hard to get excited about the future when we are not in our early 20’s, making a substantial income, or have massive credit card debt. I’m delighted to see a lot of financial blogs tackling these problems when most of us are not in the best financial position.
There is no rule on how you need to spend and save money. You need to think about what will work best for you, and how you want to reach your goals. Don’t feel like you have to follow precisely what other people are doing.
Do I consider myself a FIRE blogger? Probably not, mainly because retiring in my early/mid 50’s is not “retiring early.” But we do share similar ideas. Getting rid of debt, increasing income and pursuing happiness.
Steve Adcock is an early retiree who writes about mental toughness, financial independence and how to get the most out of your life and career. As a regular contributor to The Ladders, CBS MarketWatch and CNBC, Adcock maintains a rare and exclusive voice as a career expert, consistently offering actionable counseling to thousands of readers who want to level-up their lives, careers, and freedom. Adcock's main areas of coverage include money, personal finance, lifestyle, and digital nomad advice. Steve lives in a 100% off-grid solar home in the middle of the Arizona desert and writes on his own website at SteveAdcock.us.