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Updated Jan 17, 2024

The Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) Movement Explained

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Siri Hedreen, Contributing Writer

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After graduating with a master’s degree in computer science at age 24, Jeremy Schneider turned down a job offer from Microsoft to work on his own company, RentLinx. Surviving on nothing but a credit card, he amassed $12,000 in debt.

But after a few years of bootstrapping it, by age 30, Schneider was turning a profit with his company and paying himself a business owner salary of $36,000, the lowest at the company. Schneider was frugal, investing $5,000 of his salary in a Roth IRA – enough to retire at 52. 

By 34, he sold the company for seven figures, and by 36, he retired with $3 million in the bank, only 12 years into his career.

“Today I flip houses, coach beach volleyball, work on [Personal Finance Club], do photography and travel,” Schneider wrote in a blog post about his retirement. 

Schneider is an adherent of the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement, which preaches aggressive saving and investing today to facilitate retiring years or even decades early. We’ll explore the FIRE movement and its upsides and downsides to help professionals decide if it’s the right course of action for them.

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What is the Financial Independence, Retire Early movement?

FIRE stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early. The movement prioritizes funding retirement in order to stop working years or even decades earlier than the typical retirement age.

To “FIRE” is to believe in delayed gratification; the goal is to work hard and live below your means until you save enough to retire while maintaining a reasonable lifestyle. In other words, you can live nearly paycheck to paycheck, putting away very little in savings until you retire in your 70s, or you can concentrate your hard work and sacrifice early on to live off interest for the rest of your life.

FIRE has been discussed for years in Reddit forums and personal finance blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, but it didn’t hit mainstream consciousness until a 2018 New York Times article. Since then, many books and internet resources have emerged for people considering the FIRE lifestyle.

Not everyone has to be a software engineer like Schneider to make it work. With a combination of early-and-often investment and extreme penny-pinching, some adherents have retired by their 30s on a five-figure salary.

Who started the FIRE movement?

The roots of the FIRE movement can be traced back to Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, who wrote the book Your Money or Your Life in 1992. Robin and Dominguez advocated spending retirement years enjoying hobbies, family and friends instead of working into your 60s to continue earning money.

While the idea originated in the early ’90s, it took more than two decades to catch on with people looking for alternatives to the traditional retirement timeline.

How does the FIRE movement work?

The FIRE movement focuses primarily on financial independence and living the life you want to lead. To achieve this, FIRE movement adherents cut down on expenses while finding ways to increase their current income, whether through smart investing or starting new ventures that generate passive income.

Aggressive saving and investing are the cores of the FIRE movement. Many looking to achieve FIRE put away around 50% of their income, but up to 75% may be necessary, depending on your goals. The ultimate goal is to save enough money to draw 4% of the funds each year. When you reach that number, you have achieved financial independence and can retire early.

To generate passive income, consider online business ideas like creating an e-commerce store, getting into affiliate marketing or developing a mobile app.

What are the variations of the FIRE movement?

Not everyone takes such a zealous approach to retiring early. Some FIRE adherents have a taste for the finer things in life, and spinoff movements cater to varying levels of commitment. 

  • Fat FIRE focuses on building a larger nest egg for retirement. Its adherents wish to live an upper-middle-class lifestyle upon retirement and therefore save more aggressively.
  • Lean FIRE is for those who want to tackle financial independence from a frugal angle, choosing minimalist or anti-consumer lifestyles to achieve their goal.
  • Barista FIRE is for those who plan to keep working while retired to maintain healthcare benefits.
  • Coast FIRE means you invest enough money early enough to generate the income necessary to retire. This involves saving money that continues to collect interest or returns, growing on its own without your needing to work.

How much do you need to retire early?

Reddit’s Financial Independence forums tout the 4% rule. This refers to the “safe withdrawal rate” from your savings – an amount large enough to live on but small enough that you can safely assume your portfolio will continue to grow, based on historical stock market returns.

For the oft-cited retirement goal of $1 million, this means annual expenses amounting to $40,000 for the household – not exactly a lavish lifestyle, but, for FIRE proponents, well worth the leisure time.  

Of course, a sudden windfall or massive return on investment can speed things up, making it easy to discount a story like Schneider’s. Still, with a $36,000 salary and the same spending habits, Schneider estimates he would’ve hit self-made millionaire status in his early 50s even without the sale of his company.

“I chose the entrepreneur track, but if I wanted to FIRE on that day-job salary, I probably would have picked up a side hustle of some sort, thrown all of that income at investing and retired in my 40s,” he said.

That’s not to say it’s easy.

“I fully acknowledge I had a huge amount of privilege and unfair advantages,” Schneider said. “Graduating from college debt-free, thanks mostly to my parents, is something that was simply gifted to me … living below my means and buying and holding index funds didn’t get me here alone.”

If you find yourself pinched for cash, avoid the temptation to borrow against your 401(k) or other retirement funds to ensure your future financial well-being.

FIRE comes at a cost

Though the FIRE movement may be appealing, it’s not for everyone. Realistically, it’s accessible only to those with the skills and opportunities to earn enough to move beyond living paycheck to paycheck. 

FIRE also involves making difficult choices and prioritizing tomorrow’s happiness over today’s. “Work very hard at something you hate, for the money, and save a tremendous amount, giving up most pleasures so that you can live modestly and do what you want later in life,” one reader commented on a New York Times article about the FIRE movement. “Why don’t you just live modestly and do what you want from the beginning?” 

This trade-off is particularly stark, given that American life expectancies are declining, so FIRE adherents may be postponing life’s pleasures in vain.

Is FIRE the ultimate work-life balance hack?

FIRE may be just another way of thinking about improving work-life balance: Prioritize work in the early years so that everything else can take precedence later. “I like my co-workers, and I like what I do,” said another New York Times commenter, “but I can’t wait to hit my FIRE number and say farewell. Life is short. Give me one minute, and I can give you 20 things I’d rather be doing than working.” 

FIRE can also give people the financial independence to do work they actually enjoy, whether or not it’s paid.

Another way to think about FIRE is optimizing personal happiness. “The thing that makes me happy is freedom,” Schneider said. “I can do what I want with my time. Travel when I want. Help people. Work on what I want. Do something that makes a difference. If owning a home is what would really make me happy, then I might choose differently.”

Is FIRE right for entrepreneurs?

Many people become entrepreneurs to have more control over their time or make more money than they would in a 9-to-5 job. For this reason, there is some natural overlap between entrepreneurs and potential FIRE adherents. 

However, cutting expenses to the bone is not always a smart growth strategy, so the goals of retiring early and growing a successful business may be in tension. Additionally, many Americans want to start a business after retiring

Entrepreneurs should consider the big picture, taking into account their business goals and personal goals – and how those goals interact – before diving into FIRE. If entrepreneurs choose to pursue FIRE, they must invest wisely and implement retirement savings strategies for business owners to protect themselves.

Did You Know?Did you know
Many retiring baby boomers are anxious about surviving financially in their post-retirement lives. Many plan to keep working at least part time after retiring from their careers.

FIRE is a deeply personal choice

Ultimately, pursuing FIRE is a profoundly personal decision. For those who can pull it off, a successfully executed FIRE strategy may unlock an extended period of relaxation and personal fulfillment, but it also may mean trading stress today for a retirement that isn’t as long or as fun as initially hoped. Only the individual can decide if these trade-offs are worth it.

Ross Mudrick and Stella Morrison contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Siri Hedreen, Contributing Writer
Siri Hedreen is a graduate of King’s College London, where she wrote for Roar News, London Student and Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. Find her on Twitter @sirihedreen.
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