Psst, I make money on some of the links in this post at no cost to you. It keeps the lights on around here.
Okay, so this post is not about pants or flames. This post is about financial independence and retiring early, or FIRE.
I’ve wanted to retire early ever since I heard the phrase “early retirement.” For others in the FIRE community, this phrase carries so much meaning and hope. For people unfamiliar with the term, it’s confusing.
“What do you mean, ‘retire early?’ What are you gonna do, quit your job at age fifty? And then what?”
“I am financially independent. I pay all of my own bills and don’t rely on anyone else’s money. All adults are financially independent!”
I think a lot of this confusion comes from the fact that FIRE is not a mainstream idea. Our society is capitalist and consumerist by nature. Unfortunately, that consumerism comes loaded with the burden of debt and a mountain of unnecessary possessions.
I know from experience; when I was sad or stressed out during college, I would buy jewelry online. Did it make me feel better? For five minutes, and then the sadness would come back. Buying things won’t make you happier over time, but the commercials on TV want you to believe otherwise.
How often do you think about your happiness? What is true happiness? What would make you happier than anything in the world?
Answers like, “A new car,” or “A PS4!” won’t get you anywhere. The desire for more possessions is a coping mechanism—the truth is that buying things does not make you any happier than you were without them. So clear the desire for more things from your mind.
Think about how you define true happiness.
Happiness, for me, comes from two things: time and family. Time is so precious, and as humans we have a finite amount of time on this Earth. Family is the most important thing in the world. Why do I dedicate so much time and energy working on something that isn’t making me happier? I realized FIRE is the best approach to be truly happy and carefree. After all, I only get one life and I’d like to enjoy it.
The Meaning of Financial Independence
Financial independence is the crucial series of steps to achieve early retirement. Being financially independent doesn’t just mean that you’re able to make money and pay your own bills, although that is a crucial component.
Financial independence means:
- You have no debts. This includes student loans, car loans, credit card debt, or a mortgage. Debt elimination is the first step to financial independence. After all, how can you save cash when you’re up to your eyeballs in debt?
- You have passive income. This is income you acquire on a regular basis with little to no effort. The most common form of passive income for FIRE followers is investing, but I’ve heard of people getting good results with rental properties as well.
- You live beneath your means. This is why it’s so important to live frugally. If you save more money than you spend, you are living within your means—and this goes for all income levels. Once you’re able to eliminate debt, build up your savings, and build an investment portfolio, you’re on the road to being financially independent.
Again, this is a highly personal journey and it depends on a lot of factors, but the path to financial independence usually follows a pattern.
First, you pay off all debts (yes, all of them!).
Second, you build an emergency fund for three to six months of expenses.
Third, you invest and diversify in different accounts, including Roth IRAs, 401ks, mutual funds, etc.
Fourth, you allow these investments to grow into streams of passive income, continuing to save and invest.
Fifth, you have enough liquid cash to quit your day job and live off the passive income.
Sixth, find a nice beach and relax; you did it.
It sounds easy to put all of this into a six-step process, but most Americans work nearly all their lives and retire at age 60+. If financial independence were so easy, less people would be toiling away to earn a small cushion of financial security near the end of their lives. Even after you’ve discovered FIRE, it can take years to achieve true financial independence. We estimate that we will be financially independent in 15 years—when we’re in our forties! If you look at it that way, it’s easy to be intimidated by all of that work just to retire in 10-15 years. But you know what’s worse than that? Working for the man for an additional 25 years on top of that 15 years.
In essence, financial independence gives you the freedom to be happy. So what do you do during your “happily ever after?” You retire early.
What it Means to Retire Early
What do you think of when you hear the word “retired?” Beach condos. Crossword puzzles. Time with the grandchildren. Knitting. Playing bridge—even though most people don’t know what bridge is. Dentures. Gardening.
I’m sure you could think of plenty less-than-interesting images of what old people do when they don’t have to work. But guess what? Retirement is not just for the elderly. Who says you have to be 60+ to be retired? I’m talking to you, AARP! Once you’ve achieved financial independence, you can retire early.
That doesn’t mean retired people don’t work. Some people can be retired and have part-time jobs, either to supplement their income or because they find the jobs to be fulfilling. Some people find income streams working online or freelancing doing something they love. The point is, even though someone is “retired,” they can still have a job. They’re doing something they love; money is not the issue. They work because they want to. Their job or lack of a job no longer defines them.
A lot of people get freaked out by early retirement. “You mean… I don’t need to work? That’s great! … Wait… What do I do now?”
That’s the unfortunate side effect of working a day job your entire life. Most people don’t figure out what makes them happy before they retire. I’m still trying to figure it out myself; it’s not an easy thing to do. If you aren’t sure what early retirement would look like, that’s okay. This is the time to try new things. Windsurfing? Sure, why not, I don’t have a job to go to!
We all want freedom, but once we have it, it’s a big thing that we don’t know how to handle. It’s crazy to be that in control of your life, and we’re not always prepared to handle that kind of responsibility. Just because we’re afraid of the future, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for freedom. Life isn’t perfect, and freedom has its challenges, but I guarantee it’s better than feeling like a slave your entire life.
Set Yourself on FIRE
I like the acronym FIRE. It makes the financial independence and retiring early process seem badass and urgent, which it is. It’s been such a life-changing and informative process, and I encourage all of you to catch the FIRE. I’ve never been more satisfied with my life, my job, and my relationships than I have during the journey to early retirement. New ideas can seem scary at first, but FIRE is always worth a try if you’re done with the 9-to-5 rat race.
How would you spend your early retirement?