Not one of those early retirement people? Don’t beat yourself up.
“Millennials are the first generation to shun traditional retirement and seek financial freedom instead—when income from savings is enough to cover expenses, and working becomes a choice, often long before the age of 65. Becoming financially independent and retiring early, a process known as FIRE, can be achieved at any income level by saving a high percentage of your salary, or cutting your expenses—or both.”
Let’s be honest: We’ve all fantasized about early retirement. After all, who doesn’t want more time to spend with loved ones and see the world, to basically have our time be our own? It’s certainly sexier than working in a cubicle and making small talk by the water cooler for the next few decades (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
But the reality is, in an economy where 66% of young Americans have nothing saved whatsoever for retirement, the dream of FIRE (financial independence and early retirement) is out of reach for many, if not most. If you dig, you’ll find that oftentimes people who succeed at FIRE have fortunate circumstances that make supersaving a possibility to begin with: no chronic health issues, few expensive family obligations, and middle-class or higher salaries.
It’s easy to feel like a financial failure when the internet is flooded with celebratory profiles of people who lived happily on a shoestring budget for a decade or so and then enjoyed financial freedom at the same ripe young age you were when you maxed out your last credit card or emptied your savings account.
I’m here to tell you that that is okay to be far, far away (I’m talking light years) from FIRE. As I’ve said before, personal finance is just that—personal. That means everyone’s journey is going to be different, and the conditions that made it possible for that 28-year-old to retire with $2.25 million are not necessarily going to be relevant—or even imaginable—for you. (Saving that much is known in the community as a “Fat FIRE,” by the way.)
That being said, there are still lessons to learn from the FIRE movement. In fact, some of the central tenets of FIRE are key to living a financially healthy life for all: smart budgeting, making cost-conscious decisions, and investing wisely. Here are some FIRE commandments that we can all get behind—at our own pace.
Save, save, save.
FIRE-ers strive to save 50% or more of their income. For others, that percentage will likely be a lot lower. Regardless of how much you can afford to save, the key is to automate. Siphon off a share of each paycheck—I recommend 10% to 15% to start—into a combination of your 401(k) or IRA and a high-yield savings account. Setting and forgetting is the easiest way to save your money.
Index funds or bust.
The FIRE community loves index funds, and for good reason. They are low-cost, passively managed to track the broader stock market, and historically shown to grow your money faster than any savings account. They also perform just as well as—if not better than—professionally managed mutual funds that charge high fees. You absolutely cannot FIRE without index funds, and I venture to say that you cannot be a smart investor without them either. As early retirement aficionados have long known, they’re the secret to superboosting your money.
Trim the fat.
One common thread in all early retirement stories: extreme dedication to frugality. That means an extraordinary ability to withstand the pull of lifestyle inflation—especially as your savings builds. You might haul all your groceries by bike to save on gas while your friends drive fancy SUVs or have their groceries delivered. Cutting costs in Herculean ways won’t work for everyone, but many of the basics apply to all: comparison-shop, be mindful of spending, and don’t keep up with the Joneses. That might mean you cook at home more often, drive a used car, or check out a DIY book from the library and replace that chipped, ugly kitchen counter yourself. The key here is to be more conscious of your spending habits and understand wants vs. needs.
At the end of the day, there’s no shame in realizing that early retirement just might not be in the works for you. As long as you continue building smart money habits now and contribute regularly to your retirement fund—be it a 401(k), an IRA, or both—there will still be plenty of roses left to smell when you retire, even if it’s not in your 30s or 40s.