The following is a guest post from Steph of Simplistic Steph. She is a coffee lover, crazy dog & cat mom, podcaster, and has a passion for helping people with personal finance that is unrivaled. It is a huge honor to share her unique perspective on FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early)
Move Over Joneses, There Is A New Cool Kid On The Block
Meet Mr. And Mrs. FIRE
Look out the Joneses. There is a new couple in town. They moved in a few blocks away, into the smallest house on the street, with their used Subarus, and thrift store clothes. You'll see them riding bikes to work, never going out, and declining to attend the neighborhood BBQ because that costs, gasp, money.
Meet Mr. and Mrs. FIRE. They work in engineering, tech, or finance. Their favorite thing to do is judge you for your lattes and a new car. Heck, they are blogging about you right now, while throwing in some Personal Capital and Bluehost links to make money off mocking your love of consumerism. Their salary is higher than you could ever dream of, but they'll make sure to point out it's “average”.
And if you question their lifestyle, or point out how it isn't for everyone, then Mr. and Mrs. FIRE get on the defense. They'll tell you about the few people they know who are NOT six-figure earners, who do not work in tech/banking/insert high salary job here, lighting themselves on FIRE. They try to appeal to mainstream masses but are so out of touch, it is cringe-worthy. The FIRE family is convinced everyone can achieve their status, and if you can't, it is because you're a sub-par human being.
FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The goal is to work hard, make a great salary, live on 50% or less, and invest the rest to never work again. It is about shunning consumerism, debt, the status quo, and giving Corporate America the middle finger. The core of FIRE is live on less, go against the grain, and eschew the typical American path of working 40+ years in a cubicle.
The core of FIRE is GREAT. Mr. and Mrs. FIRE buck the typical American dream of a new car every 5 years, a 3,000 sq. ft. house, and cocktails out every night. That is something we all should be doing: consuming less, saving more, and going against Corporate America. Being more conscious money is achievable, on any salary.
But retiring at 30? Is that possible on any salary?
My Problem with FIRE
I have a spreadsheet that tells me when I'll be financially independent. I make $44,000 a year, my husband makes $42,000 a year. No kids. We make great money, we're beyond lucky to have the salaries we do, and we can save about 40-45% of our salary every month. We funnel roughly $24k a year into investments. At this rate, we can retire in 20 years. At age 46. WHAT.
TWENTY YEARS. Mr. and Mrs. FIRE keep saying “Anyone can retire in ten years or less!!!!!!!!!!!” While they sit there and live on my salary, and still achieve a 70%+ saving rate. WHAT? Our numbers are assuming we never have kids, a drop in salary, or any major life event. Basically, our numbers are best-case-scenario, dreamland numbers. And our best-case scenario, dreamland numbers are 20 years away to achieve.
And what does Mr. and Mrs. FIRE tell us to do to speed this process up?
Grow Your Income
This may sound negative. Ok, it definitely sounds negative, but it is NOT possible to always increase your salary. If it was easy to make six-figures, we'd all be doing it. The FIREs say to work in a lucrative field. Great idea! My husband just pivoted into a business analyst job, and I landed a finance job. Again, refer back up to those salaries. Not lucrative. Sure, I made a 26% pay jump while jumping into my financial role, but I still am not anywhere close to six-figures.
Why don't we grow our income through side hustling? We did some math, and if we worked part-time somewhere, we'd make about $120 a week after taxes. But then we'd have no free time, spend money on gas to get there, etc. There are people out there in lucrative side hustles, great for them, but to work two jobs for the next 20 years is not sustainable.
Growing your income is possible, don't let this deter you from working towards a higher salary. BUT it is HARD. It takes a mix of a lot of hard work and a dash of luck. Some of us may never even make it to the six-figure mark, and to get told it is so easy to grow salary by people making $100k+ plus feels insulting.
Cut Back Expenses
Are there things in your budget you can and should cut back on? Probably. There are things in my budget I could definitely eliminate. I have a car payment (put down the pitchforks and torches, it is 0% interest, so it doesn't count… RIGHT?) and sometimes I purchase a latte out. There are always extras to trim from your budget.
But, in order to afford these things, I don't have cable, I keep our house super cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and we bought the cheapest place we could afford. Our mortgage is $846, including taxes and insurance. We live in Nashville, not the suburbs, but in Nashville. Mr. and Mrs. FIRE keep telling us to downsize and cut out everything. Achieving a 70% saving rate is SO easy, just cut your budget to the bone.
But you cannot cut out what you don't have.
If you're already struggling to make ends meet if you have debt up to your eyeballs that you cannot just ignore, and if you already have super cheap housing, being told to cut things out feels like a slap in the face. The mainstream Mr. and Mrs. FIRE preach they save so much by downsizing, giving up international travel (I hardly ever even leave TN and I've never once left the country, so can't cut that out), and moving to a lower cost of living area.
Talk about sounding out of touch with the typical American. A lot of us can't just up and move to a cheaper city, we need our jobs in the city. And a lot of us need a damn vehicle to get to our jobs.
The Smoke & Mirrors of FIRE
How can you achieve FIRE? The big things are to increase income and cut expenses. Earn a lot, spend a little. SUPER easy, right? All the big FIRE players make it look like ANYONE can waltz into a high paying job and cut expenses down. Those headlines are click-bait worthy. Those stories sell. “How to Live on 70% of Your Income When you Make $250k” is not a sexy headline. It ostracizes 99% of the population.
As FIRE becomes more mainstream, it has magnified how out of touch the community is. They try to relate their message to the average person, but it just comes off as elitist. Being told to cut back and increase income by someone who doesn't need a car, never dealt with student loan debt, and who have already increased income to unrealistic number isn't helping anyone.
You'll notice most FIRE enthusiasts don't share their incomes. Why? Because most (not all, there is no rule of absolute here) don't make an income anyone can relate to. A “we did it, so can you” story sells. The truth of being a high-earner and cutting out expensive travel doesn't. No wonder why the high paying engineers are the face of FIRE. They hide their incomes, all while touting their frugal lifestyle got them there, they package their success off as ANYONE can do it. And they sell off their lifestyle as the only way to go.
It's OK to Not Get Engulfed in the Flames.
Ever feel like being financially free is out of reach? Only for the rich and elite? I feel ya. Instead of being inspired by the FIRE movement, it is easy to come away feeling deflated and insulted. On a real, truly average salary (which was roughly $45,000 a year in 2017, source, amassing 25x your expenses in five to ten years to live off of for the rest of your life without working is improbable.
I'm a firm believer that everyone can do better with their finances. The FIRE movement is an extreme movement but has made being fiscally responsible more mainstream. Kudos there to it! We should all be more conscious of money, minimize debt, and save for the future. But do you have to retire decades earlier before your peers to be good at money? NO.
It doesn't make you a failure if you aren't making six-figures and saving 70% in your 20's or 30's. It is ok to work until your sixties and retire at a conventional age. You're still a money badass if you're paying off student loan or credit card debt in your 30's. And FIRE is not the only way to be content with your life and improve your finances.
Thank You, Steph for this great post!
Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.