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For most people, their career path is very simple. They go to college, find a job after graduating, and slowly but consistently work their way up the career ladder over the course of the next 30 or so years. Then, usually by the time they are in their 60s, they are able to retire. This is the conventional career route that has been a staple of society for decades; but it’s a route that a group of people are now challenging.
FIRE stands for “financial independence, retire early”. The driving force behind the idea is that retirement is not something that people should have to wait until their 60s to achieve; instead, people focusing on FIRE look to retire as soon as possible, with some achieving this goal in their 30s (though between 40 and 50 is more standard).
Frugality is a big part of the FIRE lifestyle; in many ways, the movement is strongly related to anti-consumerism, and people choosing to spend more time enjoying the simpler things in life rather than working in order to spend.
How is FIRE possible?
There are a few additional considerations anyone contemplating FIRE will need to keep in mind - which we will discuss in more depth soon - but the core essentials are aggressive saving and investment. People looking to achieve FIRE will spend as little of their income as possible - saving 75% of income is far from uncommon - and will instead choose to invest. Over time, the combination of savings and compounded interest from investments results in people having a large enough sum of money to retire and be able to live on the income from investments alone, rather than relying on a salary.
How much is considered sufficient to retire on?
Most people aiming for FIRE aim to save 25 times their anticipated annual living expenses. So, if you were to estimate that you would need to spend $60,000 per year, then you would need to save $1,500,000. The x25 rule is thought to be sufficient to allow people to withdraw 4% from their savings to meet their living costs during their retirement.
Is it really possible to save that much money?
While the idea of setting so much money aside may initially seem outlandish, it is a goal that many people are able to reach. Admittedly it’s not a short-term goal - without a lottery win or two, no one is going to achieve FIRE in just a few years - but if you’d like to retire earlier than expected, then it can be done.
How can you get started on the path to FIRE?
The path to FIRE will always be slightly different for every person who chooses to walk it, as everyone starts from different financial positions and with slightly different goals in terms of how much they want to be able to save. However, the general steps needed to reach FIRE are as follows:
#1 - Cost cutting
Cost cutting is crucially important to those looking to pursue FIRE for two reasons. Firstly, FIRE requires a much higher savings rate than the 5-10% of income that most people aim for, so outgoings will have to reduce to allow this to be possible. Secondly, when actually retired, living a low-cost, frugal lifestyle is incredibly important to ensuring funds are sustainable, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit as soon as possible.
You will therefore need to go through all of your expenses and see where you can cut back. Be stringent here: anything but essentials should at least be considered for cutting if you’re dedicated to reaching FIRE. For areas of your budget that cannot be cut entirely - such as groceries, insurance payments, and so on - look for ways to reduce the amount you spend instead.
#2 - Debt repayment
FIRE requires people to save and invest as much of their income as they possibly can, while spending as little as possible - a situation that is difficult if you are carrying credit card or student loan debt. These debts will continue to accrue interest for as long as they are outstanding, which means that there’s more money being spent servicing debt than there is being saved into a potential retirement pot - which is obviously less than ideal.
As a result, the extra funds found after cost cutting should be put towards clearing debt rather than saving for retirement; by doing this, potentially hundreds (or even thousands, depending on the size of the debt) of dollars in interest can be saved and diverted to an early retirement fund instead.
#3 - Mortgage repayment
Owning a property is outright is an important part of FIRE, as having to pay a mortgage (or, worse still, rent to a landlord) will inevitably deplete savings significantly and reduce the amount available to live on when retired. As a result, ensuring that your mortgage is paid off should be your next focus when you have cleared all debts; there are various methods available when it comes to paying off a mortgage, so explore these and decide which will work best for you.
#4 - Investing
With your mortgage paid off, you can now consider your investment options. Within the FIRE community, low-cost index funds are perhaps the most popular, but experiences and preferences do vary, so it’s advisable to seek the assistance of a financial advisor who can help decide which investments are the right choice for your specific goals.
A quick note: Above, we have suggested that mortgage repayment and then investment is the best choice for those looking to achieve FIRE - but this is a hotly-debated topic within the FIRE community.
Some people believe that investments and mortgage payments should be done at the same time (so interest can be earned on investments during the mortgage repayment), while others say, as we have, it’s best to focus all funds in paying off your mortgage first so that this important step can be achieved as soon as possible.
The decision, however, is entirely yours: if you would like to split your focus, choosing to invest and pay off your mortgage at the same time, then you can do so - the route to FIRE is different for everyone, so go with what you believe to best the best course of action for you. No two routes to FIRE are the same!
Common questions people ask about FIRE
FIRE is such an unusual idea that it is natural people may have further questions about how it works, so below we’ve sought to answer the most commonly-asked questions...
#1 - Is it possible to retire early and still pay college tuition for my children?
Yes, but it’s complicated; there’s a helpful guide here that parents should find useful when deciding how to factor college tuition into their FIRE plans.
#2 - Is FIRE for me if I love my job and don’t want to stop working?
Absolutely! Many people who reach FIRE continue to work even when, mathematically speaking, they do not absolutely need to. The goal of FIRE is to simply have the financial independence to choose to work, rather than having to work out of financial necessity.
#3 - Is property ownership an essential for FIRE?
Realistically, yes - even if you would like to live a nomadic lifestyle (such as travelling the country in an RV) post-retirement. Property is an excellent investment, so even if you’re not intending to live in your current home when you’re retired, it will still be a valuable asset and can contribute to your income if you choose to, for example, rent the property out while you explore the world.
#4 - Should I try to increase my income in order to reach my goal faster?
Yes, doing so can be beneficial and is a common choice for many people focused on FIRE. It is usually preferable to try and increase your hours/wage in your day job rather than embarking on a potentially-unreliable side hustle, though you can give this a try if you would prefer to do so and have the time available.
#5 - What happens to early retirees if the market crashes?
As we have discussed, FIRE is highly dependent on investments - but, of course, the market can go up as well as down, which could spell trouble for those who are solely reliant on investments for income. This concern is one of the reasons why working with a financial advisor is so important; they will help to diversify risk and ensure that funds are stable even in the event of a market crash. In addition, keeping some savings in cash (as in a high-interest standard savings account; not storing literal cash) can be a good way of protecting against market downswings.
The FIRE movement definitely goes against convention, but can be an incredibly positive step for those who choose to commit to it. We hope the above has provided food for thought and, if you decide FIRE is the right choice for you and your family, we hope the journey is as smooth as it can possibly be.