For our ancient ancestors fire meant life, but it was difficult to create and even harder to maintain. In today’s world, FIRE can be equally as elusive, but we are not talking about building a literal fire for food and warmth. We are of course talking about the term "FIRE" (Financial Independence / Retiring Early).
[Side Note: Allison and I were even featured! You can read about us in this CNBC article. (It was weird waking up to find our faces at the top of a nation-wide article about FIRE.)]
We started noticing the FIRE movement getting hot (no pun intended) this September in Orlando. At FinCon18, we met newbies striving to achieve FIRE, famous bloggers discussing it in panels, and filmmakers hyping the release of a FIRE documentary.
Suze Threw Cold Water on the FIRE Movement
Unfortunately, not all of the press has been positive. You may have heard Suze Orman’s recent rant about the FIRE movement. She said, “I hate it” and argued that people who are striving for FIRE aren’t saving nearly enough: “you need at least $5 million, $6 million...really you might need $10 million.”
Why would you need such a large amount, you may ask? For one, she says you may experience any number of catastrophes:
“...everything was going great for somebody and then, you know, they were in an accident. They were riding a horse. They got thrown off. They were in a car, and a pole goes through the front of the car... They get hit by a bus walking down the street... and on, and on and on.”
Orman also describes the feeling of being bored or unfulfilled in retirement and wanting to go back to work:
“I had a great time for three years. I learned how to fish. I learned how to win tournaments. I learned how to be the captain on my boat. And all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there's still stuff for me to do.’”
The 3 Reasons People Don’t Try to Achieve FIRE
So, what are we to make of Suze’s tirade about FIRE? Should you avoid trying to achieve FIRE, because one day you might fall off a horse or get hit by a bus and lose all your money? Or should you keep working forever, because the alternative is that you might get bored playing cards or fishing from your yacht?
While I don't agree with everything Suzy has to say, there are certainly reasons why people may be intimidated by the idea of FIRE. I believe it comes down to these three factors:
- It’s Hard
- It’s Risky
- It’s Not the Norm
Let’s look at these a little more closely...
Let’s be honest — if it were easy to achieve FIRE, then everyone would do it! The fact is it requires knowledge of investing, mastery of your finances, and a lot of discipline.
A) Knowledge of Investing
You need to have a good understanding of three things: 1) how to invest, 2) what to invest in, and 3) how much money you need to live on.
How to invest: Smart investing involves utilizing concepts like automatic investing, dollar cost averaging, and asset diversification. You should also understand how compound interest works and how the stock market behaves over time.
What to invest in: It’s also important to figure out which specific financial vehicles to invest in. The strategy we have always used is to invest in either low-cost index funds (like an S&P fund), a total stock market fund (e.g. Vanguard’s VTSAX), or a Target Retirement Fund that provides a mix of US and International stocks and bonds (the allocation ratio is based on the year you plan on retiring).
[Tip: As soon as possible, set up a 401(k) or IRA (traditional or Roth, depending on your financial circumstances) and schedule part of your paycheck to be automatically invested each pay period. This will provide you with a “set it and forget it” investing strategy using pre-tax dollars.]
How much money you need: This is the age-old question, and the “rule of thumb” is to have at least 25x your yearly expenses. In one area where we agree with Suze, we personally recommend that you save 30x or more to be safe. You can read more about this rule and determine where you are in our post Where Are You on the Path to FI?
B) Mastery of Finances
Achieving FIRE requires you to be able to take control and master these four aspects of your finances: Your Debt, Your Expenses, Your Income, and Your Investments.
Debt -- You definitely won’t be able to FIRE if you are saddled with high-interest debt. Try to pay down this debt as quickly as possible, especially credit cards, student loans, and car loans. Mortgages can be an acceptable debt to keep open (due to low interest rates and tax deductions), but ideally you want to create a plan to become mortgage-free so that you have one less bill to deal with (see how paying off our mortgage accelerated our FIRE by 9 years).
Expenses -- It is very difficult to FIRE if your expenses are too high. To FIRE, you’ll have to figure out how to live within your means. Start becoming more frugal. Look for ways to save money by doing things yourself, buying in bulk, and getting things secondhand. One criticism of people who are trying to achieve FIRE is that they are TOO frugal and are living lives of deprivation; by all means, go ahead and treat yourself to an expensive dinner to celebrate an achievement, just don’t do it every night.
[NOTE: We personally know people who make mid 6-figure salaries and can’t get ahead, because they spend all the money they make. I’m not making a judgment call, but I’m just saying it will be a lot harder to achieve FIRE that way.]
Income -- Another way to accelerate your path to FIRE is to find ways to increase the amount of money you have coming in. Negotiate a raise at work. Apply for a P/T or contract job on the weekend. Create a side hustle with Lyft, Wag, Airbnb, or any of the other myriad options out there.
Investments -- Use the strategies we discussed earlier to start investing in the stock market as soon as you can, so you can take advantage of compounding over time. After you max out your retirement accounts, start investing in taxable accounts, and then diversify even more: Real Estate, commodities, side businesses, etc.
[Tip: For information and advice in mastering all four of these financial concepts, check out our online courses on our Academy Page]
You have to be able to do all of the hard things we just discussed for (potentially) many years, during the good times and the bad times, keeping your eye on the ultimate goal -- FIRE.
When the markets are down, you can’t panic, get discouraged, and sell off your investments at a loss. When the markets are up, you can’t get too excited and try to invest in a get-rich-quick scheme (cough, cryptocurrency, cough). When the latest iPhone comes out, don't wait in line overnight to be one of the first people to get it (but if you do, for goodness’ sake, get a screen protector and protect your expensive purchase!).
Remember what your goals are, your steps to get there, and stick to the plan. Understand that it’s a long game, and you just have to stay the course! As the British said back in the 1930s, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
In my opinion, you have to take two major risks to achieve FIRE: 1) monetary investments (stocks, real estate, etc); and 2) knowing when to take the leap (quitting your job).
A) Risky Investments
You have to be willing to make some risky investments. Now, we’re not talking about things like cryptocurrency, penny stocks, or your crazy uncle’s commercial property in a Florida swamp.
What we’re talking about are investing in equities (i.e. the stock market) or real estate (whether it’s your personal home, or rental/commercial property). These investments are considered risky because there are no guarantees of return. We know that historically the US stock market has returned 10% on average, but do we know for certain that that will continue? No, of course not. Can we make an educated guess that over time (decades, not years), being invested in the market will provide a better return than not investing? Yes, we can.
Many people are afraid to invest in the stock market, especially if they got burned during the Great Recession in 2008–2009. That’s understandable (and several of our relatives were spooked away), but you have to take a much longer viewpoint. Allison and I were fortunate to survive through two big market crashes and bear markets. Had we not stuck it out, we never would have been able to FIRE in our early 40s.
Just know that it’s going to be tough to build enough assets if you’re only putting your money into a savings account at today’s interest rates (or under your mattress).
B) When To Take the Leap
The second risk is having the courage to leave your full-time job. We know it’s not easy to say goodbye to a regular income and benefits. But if your goal is to retire early, then you have to pull the plug at some point.
The key is knowing when you are ready to the fly the coop is to do the math and work through all the calculations to ensure you have enough saved up to cover your expenses. Once you’ve saved at least 30x your yearly expenses and have mastered the four financial disciplines (debt, income, expenses, and investing), then you should feel comfortable going for it!
For more help on know when to take the leap, check out our 10-Point Checklist for Early Retirement.
It’s Not the Norm
Most people don’t understand how or why someone would want to retire early. We’ve been conditioned our entire lives to work, work, work until we’re at least 65 years of age (in fact, many retirement calculators won’t let you put in a lower age). And even then, some people don’t feel right leaving the workforce. They worry that they will be bored or run out of money.
Again, I’m not passing any judgment on anyone who wants to keep working. But if you have any interest in becoming financially independent and retiring early, then you have to break away from the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with leaving the workplace early.
This is one of the biggest challenges actually, and one that we still work on ourselves even after almost 4 years of hitting FIRE. You basically have to create a new identity for yourself that’s not tied to your workplace and job title. But once you do that, it’s actually quite liberating.
If you want an idea of what it’s like explaining to people that you achieved FIRE, read our 8 Priceless Reactions to Retiring Early.
Not everyone will be able to FIRE. In fact, I’d say the vast majority of us would have a very difficult time given the three reasons above.
If you listen to the skeptics, like Suze Orman, they will tell you that you can’t achieve FIRE or that you shouldn’t even try to achieve FIRE. Don’t believe them.
If you can overcome those three obstacles to achieving FIRE (and really, anyone can), I promise you that you’ll discover a new life and a new world that will make you glad you made the effort!