Employers have long bemoaned the influx of disaffected millennial and Gen Z workers, complaining that they are “lazy” and “entitled.” Now some of those workers are turning that stereotype on its head — by buckling down, putting in long hours, and pinching pennies with a goal of leaving full-time employment entirely.
The approach, known as Financial Independence Retire Early, or FIRE, has been spreading, well, like wildfire over the past decade through blogs, podcasts, social media, and various lifestyle communities that congregate in online forums. There is even a dating app catering specifically to FIRE followers.
The objective is to achieve financial independence long before middle age. Mainly by minimizing personal spending through aggressive frugality and saving and maximizing income through investments, FIRE followers work to build up the kind of assets that will earn them enough passive income to ensure them a comfortable retirement as early as their 30s.
One of the inspirations for this movement is financial writer Vicki Robin, who—together with her friend, former Wall Street financial analyst Joe Dominguez, and financial blogger, Peter Adeney, better known as “Mr. Money Mustache”—co-wrote the 1992 bestseller Your Money or Your Life. Both in that original version and in a revised and updated edition published in 2018, the book recommends an approach to restraining spending based on understanding what you really need to support the kind of lifestyle that’ll help you live well.
The premise is simple: Save money diligently and invest it intelligently, and once the interest accrued by your portfolio outmatches your expense, you’ll have reached the “crossover point.” You’ll be able to retire comfortably and securely—while you’re still young, healthy, and energetic enough to make the most of it.
We talked to several young people who’ve embraced the FIRE ethos to find out how they came to it, what approaches they’ve taken to it, and how it’s affected their lives.
Kiersten Saunders, 37
Atlanta-based entrepreneur Kiersten Saunders and her husband Julien both run the financial media company Rich and Regular and work as Money Editors for Success magazine. Saunders says she learned about FIRE from her husband while they were still dating. The idea of early retirement didn’t appeal to her at first because she anticipated that her original approach to her personal finances, a focus on earning and spending, would stay viable throughout her career.
Saunders told us she’s always been good at making money and assumed she could always earn to cancel out any problematic spending habits she might have. She says she didn’t realize the impact that things such as becoming a parent and changes in her mental health would have on her work and income flows. “I underestimated how much my energy and enthusiasm about work would change as I grew older,” Saunders says.
It didn’t help that Saunders didn’t grow up with any alternatives to look up to. She says her parents both worked in more than 40-year-long careers, right up until they reached the standard retirement age. Her other relatives didn't even retire, but were forced to quit by employer policies or extenuating circumstances such as various health problems. None of her role models set the example of opting out of the workforce early. This upbringing made her think of retirement as something far off in the future, which in turn made her somewhat complacent: “I was not focused on investing for retirement outside of my 401k because I assumed I had lots of time.”
Houston-born and Atlanta-raised, Saunders says she paid for college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill partly by working and partly with financial help from her parents. She left her corporate career in the retail and hospitality industry in February 2020 to pursue entrepreneurship full-time. Unlike a lot of self-employed people, Kiersten says she hopped off the corporate ladder not because she disliked working for “The Man,” but rather, because it dawned on her that it wasn’t the pathway to building the kind of wealth she aspired to earn. She does, however, love being her own boss: “There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.”
Saunders declined to share her household’s income and net worth, but told us that their personal wealth is primarily tied up in their business ventures, stocks, and real estate investments. She says their current monthly expenses are between $6,000 and $7,000 due to the cost of daycare for their one small child and helping pay her mother-in-law's rent. Saunders and Julien don't have a specific dollar amount that they’re trying to save for retirement, but she says they’ll consider themselves completely financially independent when their savings are somewhere in the range of $1.-$1.8 million. They’ve given up on sticking to a specific target date, because her household income fluctuates somewhat due to the fact that she and her husband are self-employed.
When asked whether she and Julien have had any difficulty or run into any setbacks in applying the principles of FIRE, Saunders said they haven't really experienced any downsides per se—but she says that's because “We don't view FIRE principles as gospel. We treat it like a buffet, and only pick the parts that are aligned to the lifestyle we want.”
Saunders says she finds the FIRE approach more realistic than relying on things like corporate or public pensions for a secure retirement. Bolstering her family’s financial autonomy means she and her husband will be better positioned to handle any of the future challenges that may arise—both the foreseeable (e.g. climate change or public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic) and the unforeseeable.
We asked Saunders how her friends and family have reacted to her joining the FIRE movement. She told us their interest in it has spiked since the onset of the pandemic and the other “shenanigans,” as she calls them, of the year 2020. “Quarantine gave everybody a practice run to experience a simpler life and really evaluate what matters and what's at stake,” she says.
Looking forward, Saunders says she plans to spend her retirement doing whatever work she considers meaningful on her timetable. “My endgame is to have a portfolio of businesses that I own and to continue to contribute to my community in a meaningful way.”
Jeremy Jacobson, 47
Jeremy Jacobson and his wife, Taiwan-born Winnie Tseng (aged 42 years), work together to maintain his blog, called “Go Curry Cracker!” According to the blog itself, its title comes from a rallying cry that the couple used during their honeymoon journey, a camping and hiking trip on The Wonderland Trail that surrounds Washington State’s Mt. Rainier. That motto—based on one of the kinds of lightweight snacks they packed for food—helped keep them going on the grueling march across multiple types of rugged terrain, through mosquitoes, rain, and other obstacles and challenges.
Go Curry Cracker is essentially a blog about the couple’s lifestyle of permanent travel; Jacobson is the blog’s writer while Tseng handles the photography. They have two children, six-year-old Julian and one-year-old Jaiden. As the blog explains, they’ve managed to save a large percentage of their income by living in a modest apartment in an old building, home-cooking instead of eating out, walking and biking instead of driving, and learning new DIY skills instead of buying products and services.
Jacobson and Tseng also learned the art of investing, turning their savings into a respectable stream of income. This lifestyle has enabled them to retire early and devote the lion’s share of their time to traveling the world with their kids. “Instead of 2 weeks of vacation a year,” says their blog, “we have 52.”
So how did this wandering couple make a living before they adopted this nomadic lifestyle? The couple both worked in the technology field; he was an engineer while Tseng worked in project management. He says the FIRE movement hadn’t really taken off yet when he and Tseng started, so they just “figured it out.”
Jacobson told us that he was first bitten by the FIRE bug when he went on his first vacation as an adult. He’d been working more than 60-hour weeks for 5 to 6 years in an effort to pay off his student loans as quickly as possible. After spending several weeks lounging on a beach, going scuba diving, and eating jumbo shrimp, he says, “I started to wonder what it would take to do this permanently.”
The couple’s main goal was to establish an investment portfolio that would support the kind of lifestyle they wanted to live—a house, a couple of cars, fun vacations, kids...in short, the American Dream. They traveled full-time for a few years before having their two sons. Jacobson says they recently bought a house that they’ll use as their home base until the kids graduate from high school.
During the decade or so that the pair spent living frugally and saving radically, their average salary was in the neighborhood of $135,000. They saved roughly 70% of their after-tax income, spending only about $20,000 a year. For example, Jacobson says not owning a car saved them a pretty penny; his main mode of transport for several years was a bicycle he bought on Craigslist for $50, which he says he eventually sold for $60.
They then spent the opening phase of their early retirement traveling almost full time for several years: “When our eldest son was 3 years old, he had already been to 36 countries.” Interestingly, Jacobson says full-time globetrotting didn’t cost his family all that much; he says they spent about $40,000 a year living comfortably in locales such as Mexico, Thailand, and Guatemala. Journeying across Europe, of course, was a pricier proposition, setting the couple back by around $100,000 annually.
But how did the family meet its health care needs while doing all that traveling? Thanks to Tseng’s background, they enjoyed coverage through Taiwan’s health care system while visiting there. Indeed, the couple traveled to Taiwan to have their kids, paying around $10,000 to have each child through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Based on the testimonies of friends who paid about $40,000 for the same results in the States, Jacobson estimates their approach saved the family about $60,000.
Jacobson says this medical tourism strategy can be made to work for many people if they can just cut their ties to a particular location, even if it’s just for a vacation. He cites the example of root canals, which he says can be gotten cheaply and at a high level of quality in Mexico. However, they’re currently in the process of moving back to the US, where they’ll be dealing with the same healthcare issues as any other similarly situated Americans.
On average, however, Jacobson says he and Tseng spent about $75,000 a year. (To put that figure in perspective, he estimates that living this same lifestyle as other people’s employees would have required them to earn about $210,000 per year.) When the family isn’t on the road, they have time to pursue some of the simple pleasures of life. Jacobson is an avid outdoorsman, doing a lot of biking and swimming with plans to take up more frequent skiing; Tseng has honed her painting and baking skills; and the pair get to spend a lot of quality time with their boys.
Perhaps the main challenge the couple ran into on their quest to save was—unsurprisingly—the market meltdown of 2008, which set them back by about $400,000. “That was fun,” Jacobson remarks wryly. On the whole, though, the couple didn't really encounter anything they couldn't handle. “If you can stay healthy and employed,” Jacobson concludes, “the process of building wealth is fairly simple. Just bumpy.”
We asked Jacobson what about this lifestyle he found more or less appealing than continuing down a traditional career path. He told us candidly: “If I could have done 6 months of work and 6 months of travel per year, I would probably still be working; but it is all or nothing, so we chose nothing. Now that we are on the other side, there is no way we could go back—we just don't have the time to fit a job into our lives.”
Jacobson says he and Tseng both grew up in low-income households, so simply having regular meals and working heat in the winter is a source of enormous satisfaction by itself. He also says growing up in humble circumstances made it relatively easy to stick to the frugal techniques that made that possible: “Delayed gratification is easy after deprivation.”
Jacobson learned one clear lesson from his upbringing: Debt is no bueno. “I knew lots of people who were constantly struggling because of debt, even losing houses when things didn't work out. So I made paying off my student loans a top priority—just continuing to live like a college student for a few years longer than my peers so I could unload that burden.”
Once the couple was debt-free, they were free to spend more on some nice things—a nicer house, more travel, a quality bicycle, etc.—but they continued to save most of their income. “Now,” he says, “our normal life is mostly indistinguishable from other people our age. The difference is we don't have to work to sustain it.”
Darcy (her real name is Amy, but she doesn’t reveal her full name online) is a marketing manager in Boston and the owner of the “We Want Guac” blog, where she offers other young people advice on how to achieve financial independence and retire early. A college graduate with two degrees, Darcy says her family covered one-third of her college expenses, with the other two thirds covered by a scholarship, grants, government loans, other financial aid, and some of her own earned income. This financing enabled her to graduate with zero debt in 2016.
Darcy says she originally never expected to be debt free at such a young age. She calls 2016 her “year of fear”: unable to land an entry-level job at that time, she was quickly running out of funds. That autumn, she stumbled upon the term “financial independence” while reading a personal finance blog. The more she read about the topic, the more she began to immerse herself in FIRE ideas, and the more she understood how to make money truly work for her. Darcy says FIRE principles were a huge departure from her past ways of managing her money, which was a frequent source of anxiety throughout her upbringing. Now, five years after learning about the movement, “There is absolutely zero anxiety in my life when it comes to finances, and I could not be more grateful for it.”
Currently, Darcy says she earns a pre-tax monthly salary of roughly $7,750 as a marketing manager, with a monthly budget of just under $2,500. That budget includes her rent, groceries, her phone bill, about $250 that goes towards occasionally eating out, hanging out with friends, and other miscellaneous activities. Thanks to her high- paying job, limiting her spending, and learning how to invest, Darcy says she’s reached a current net worth of $250,000—at the age of 27.
Darcy says she anticipates reaching full financially independence in another decade or so. Whether she’ll actually retire then is a bridge that she says she’ll cross when she gets to it: “I really enjoy my current team and my current role in the company, so if that's still the case when I am 35, I'm probably not going to just walk away from it the next day.” To Darcy, FIRE is above all about choice and freedom: having more options and being able to choose one’s life trajectory without professional constraints getting in the way. “In a world of capitalism and consumerism,” she remarks, “where money is often the sole determinant of how good your life will be...being able to take your job out of that decision making is so radical.”
What Darcy likes best about the FIRE movement is how accessible it makes financial information, education, and support. She says a major reason for her success is that the FIRE principles and of maximizing earnings and living frugally were easy to find in online communities, where the techniques were explained to her in a format that was easy to understand. FIRE ideas are widely available online on blogs and in podcasts and YouTube videos, so they can be absorbed by virtually anyone, whether or not you're an avid reader (like Darcy is).
Darcy started her blog partly so she could contribute to that web of sources of financial advice—taking the wisdom from which she’s benefited and paying it forward to other young professionals who are just beginning their careers. One of her main advisees is her own younger brother, who turns 19 this year and is entering his freshman year of college. Darcy says she’s eagerly filled him in about everything she’s learned from FIRE, such as how to open an investment account. As a result, her brother is now investing and even earning a good return; he even has plans to launch a startup and has his own financial plan for his future.
Looking ahead, Darcy says she’s still completely confident in the viability of FIRE and is in it for the long haul. She credits the movement for enabling the lifestyle she enjoys now: she has a two-bedroom apartment to herself, no car payment, and no credit card debt. She counts other members of the FIRE movement among her closest friends. And she says she’s thankful that she’s been able to optimize her future and achieve such wealth in an ethical manner after only five years.