THE FINAL SAY
Why a growing group of millennials are trying to retire in their 30s.
by Jane Harkness
In previous decades, retiring seemed like a given for the middle class: after decades of 40-hour work weeks, quite possibly with the same employer, you’d have a pension, a hefty savings account, and most importantly, a sense of security in your golden years. But nowadays, the conversation around retirement is becoming more complicated—some wonder if they can realistically achieve it, while others are completely restructuring their lives in their 20s and 30s in order to reach that milestone well before turning 65.
Nearly a fifth of all Americans worry that they won’t be able to retire at all. In the wake of the global recession, many people never saw their financial situations truly recover, and millennials in particular expect to retire later than past generations. Despite the precarious economic situation, an unlikely idea has gained traction over the past few years: FIRE, which stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The overarching goal? Reduce your expenses, increase your income, invest wisely, and clock out for the final time one, two, or even three decades earlier than most.
Media coverage of the FIRE community typically focuses on men, like Mr. Money Mustache, a former software engineer who retired at 30 and became an early face of the movement. The world of personal finance is still often viewed as a man’s domain, but carefully planning for retirement is even more crucial for women, who live longer than men on average and are more likely to worry that they have insufficient funds for retirement. Today, there are plenty of women in the FIRE community who are working to ensure that they will not only have enough to retire comfortably, they plan to do it well ahead of schedule.
“My main goal has always been to do what I love without having to worry about money,” says the blogger behind Financial Mechanic. She’s a software engineer who is aiming to retire by 32. “Unfortunately, the things I love to do, from writing to art to rock climbing, aren't easy to monetize. I want to maximize the amount of time I have in my life to do these things, so I'm front-loading the work.”
“My mom retired at 55, and my grandparents retired from the military at 50. So retiring by at least 55 was always my goal because that's what I saw my family do,” says the woman behind the blog A Purple Life. “It was actually my partner that introduced me to the idea that I could retire even earlier.” She currently works in advertising, and she’s on track to retire in 2020 by the age of 30.
Ali and Alison Walker, who retired in 2018 at 44 and 54 respectively and now run the blog All Options Considered, were also interested in retiring early because of their older relatives’ experiences. Ali’s grandparents struggled with health issues that prevented them from enjoying their retirement together at 65, and although Alison’s father retired earlier at 55, his post-retirement plans were also limited by medical conditions.
“Our goal was to retire at the same time and spend our days together. There are no guarantees in life,” say the Walkers. “From the beginning of our relationship, we were always planning for the future and learning how to be more focused on enjoying today.”
A common motivation for those who plan to retire early? Their frustration with today’s “hustle” culture.
“We were both working 60+ hour weeks and spending too many weekends working,” say the Walkers. Ali worked in marketing and business development, while Alison worked for a graphic arts company. “Ali had a job that required a lot of travel, and she had her laptop in front of her nose around the clock. We got to the point where every time we drove somewhere, she had her laptop going in the passenger seat.”
While worker productivity has soared over the past few decades, average overall wages have essentially stagnated since the 1970s. And the same technology that made it possible for us to work more efficiently and gave rise to entirely new industries also made it harder for us to disconnect from work altogether. After all, if we’re always available, what’s stopping our bosses from sending an urgent, late night email or a client from calling us at dinnertime? We’re putting in more effort and getting less out of it, and the vague feeling that the boundary between our personal and professional lives has been blurred beyond recognition makes it increasingly difficult to maintain the ever elusive “work/life balance." It’s no wonder that some people are looking to simply get the “work” part over with as early as possible and then spend an extra couple decades solely focusing on, well, life.
“I kept telling myself I just needed to find my ideal job, and I wouldn't mind working for another 30+ years,” says A Purple Life. “But then I got that job, and I still didn't feel the fulfillment people told me I should. I was burnt out on corporate culture and didn't want to wait 30+ years to have my ideal life, so I needed a new plan.”
It’s worth noting that FIRE doesn’t always mean giving up on working altogether—it might just mean working differently. For the Walkers, who are currently traveling the world, everyday is “like Saturday.” But for others, the choice to retire early is less about “retiring” and more about taking control of their time, perhaps to engage in work that feels more meaningful. For many people in the FIRE community, the “financial independence” half of the equation is crucial—they may not strictly retire, per se, but they can work on what they want, as much or as little as they want.
“I have always wanted to be an author, so I would dedicate more of my time to writing in retirement,” says Financial Mechanic. “I don't plan to stop ‘working’ because I think work is fundamental to how we identify our purpose. It's just that I want to work for myself, not on anyone else's schedule.” For Financial Mechanic and others in the FIRE community, having full control of your time by your late 30s or early 40s is worth the extra planning and saving required to prepare for early retirement, rather than trying to split their time between work and hobbies until their sixties.
All of these women made some lifestyle changes that have helped them on the path to FIRE: Purple Life ended up moving from New York City to Seattle, where she could enjoy a lower cost of living, Financial Mechanic sold her car after moving to Portland, and the Walkers sold two properties they owned and moved into a smaller condo. Some people in the FIRE community may take more extreme measures, but none of these women have expressed regrets about saving aggressively, investing, and reducing their monthly expenses.
“Saving for FIRE isn't a sacrifice. It has its own reward: a feeling of security, and a dream for the future,” says Financial Mechanic.
When it comes to personal finance, what constitutes a “sacrifice” will differ for everyone, and a choice that would burden some could be a fair trade-off for others. If your quality of life and professional prospects vastly improved by moving to a city you love with a higher cost of living, you may feel that leaving is out of the question. But if you’ve been itching for a change, and the idea of relocating somewhere cheaper excites you, moving might be a smart financial decision and a much-needed fresh start. If you have access to a reliable public transport system, selling your car could be an obvious way to reduce your monthly budget, but if the closest bus stop is miles from your house, those car insurance payments are probably a necessity.
Just like any other lofty financial goal, FIRE isn’t accessible to everyone. In the end, it’s all about what you save--but the more you make, the easier it is to save. With a low enough salary, saving half your income and living off the rest is completely unfeasible. Major, non-negotiable expenses, such as financially supporting children or other family members, or paying for healthcare for a disability or chronic illness, could also put FIRE out of reach despite a high income.
And even for people with the means to achieve it, FIRE isn’t a panacea. Tanja Hester, who runs the blog Our Next Life and retired at 38 after a career in political consulting, is one of the most prominent female figures in the FIRE community. Despite reaching her goal, she admits that her life is far from perfect and the future of health insurance in America is still a primary concern for her.
This is the inherent challenge in exploring any specific approach to personal finance—an infinite number of factors can affect someone’s personal situation, and economic fluctuations, like a rise or fall in housing prices, a recession, or shifting employment rates also have an impact. And overall, growing up in poverty can pose financial obstacles well into adulthood. Recommending a single strategy as a prescription for the financial woes of the wider population is simply impossible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investigating the “how” and “why” behind a particular choice.
The growing interest in early retirement is another movement that plainly reveals the frustration with the working world today. Even people in lucrative industries with solid benefits, who feel that they “should” love their jobs, are often unsatisfied and unfulfilled in their roles. Retiring early involves challenges of its own, and it’s far from the norm, but some will happily take on those challenges if it means exiting the workforce early.
Perhaps the most important lesson we can glean from proponents of this lifestyle is that in the end, the most valuable thing that we can trade a paycheck for might be time, and ultimately, the ability to have the final say on how we spend it.
Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her writing has been published on Thought Catalog, Student Universe, Pink Pangea, and more.