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Why You May Be Pursuing FIRE
“You’re not the boss of me!”
You can almost see the defiant 5-year-old trying to establish his independence.
You can probably still feel that way deep inside where your childhood self lives. Especially when your boss tells you to…
- stay late on an evening where you set a date with your significant other
- come in on the weekend when you really needed to unwind
- “Get me a coffee, sweetheart” when that’s not part of your job description
I used to have a supervisor who would say to us…
- “Evenings and vacations are for secretaries!”
- “Working evenings and weekends [without any overtime pay, of course] is for your benefit, letting you get your job done!”
- “Meetings are no excuse for not getting your job done on time!” This while setting up the 12th multi-hour meeting of the week.
When you experience this sort of thing daily, it becomes crystal clear that something has to change, and if it happened the following day it wouldn’t be quite soon enough.
You start fantasizing about firing your boss.
The term FIRE, standing for Financial Independence, Retire Early, starts taking on a second, more viscerally satisfying meaning.
What It Takes to Retire or Become Financially Independent
In “How Soon Can You Reach Your Personal FIRE Point?” I present a matrix that tells you how many years it will take for you to become financially independent, based on the fraction of your income that you save, and the fraction of your income you want to live on in retirement. Here are some examples:
- You save 10% of income and want to replace 90% of your income in retirement: 51 years
- Your saving rate is 20% and you want to replace 80% of your income in retirement: 38 years
- You save 30% of income and want to replace 70% of your income in retirement: 30 years
- Your saving rate is 50% of income and you want to replace 50% of your income in retirement: 19 years
- You save 75% of income and want to replace 30% of your income in retirement: 10 years
As you can see, if you haven’t yet saved much for retirement, firing your boss tomorrow isn’t in the cards. In fact, you’d have to become ultra-frugal for years and years, if not decades.
Is the Cost of FIRE too High for You?
As stories shared online show, there are real-life costs for being frugal enough to retire super-early. People report turning down close friends’ wedding invitations, skipping date nights, not going on vacation, etc. Others put off plans of buying a home, or in extreme cases even having children.
To increase their income instead of just cutting spending, FIRE adherents often take up a side hustle, such as:
- Taking on gigs on Upwork, Fiverr, or similar sites
- Driving for Uber or other ride-sharing companies
- Renting out rooms in their house on AirBnB
- House-hacking by buying a multi-family home, living in one unit and renting out the others.
What these people often don’t realize is that these side hustles and gigs are really another job. One requiring you to deal with some awful clients, where you need to learn to market and compete. In many online gigs, your competitors may live in cheaper countries, so they keep underbidding you.
In general, cutting decades off your FIRE journey requires that you give up enjoying life now for a long time. Realizing it isn’t worth it, many throw in the towel after months or years of misery and stress.
Make Your Pursuit of FIRE Sustainable
If you’re like most people, denying yourself everything that makes life enjoyable for years isn’t sustainable. Similarly, working 70+ hours a week isn’t sustainable for years and decades. This even if you’re well compensated, let alone when starting a side hustle without much to show for it.
So, does that mean your quest for FIRE is doomed?
Here’s what you should do.
I. Ask yourself what are your top priorities in life
If your top priority is becoming a couch potato as soon as possible.
- Research the least expensive place you can live that sort of life
- Figure out the minimum possible amount you need to save to finance that sort of low-cost “retirement”
- Resolve to truly give up everything else in service of that future. This might include sharing a home with housemates to reduce your housing costs, giving up vacations and eating out, and moving someplace where you don’t need to own a car.
If instead, your top priority is making a difference in the world without being trapped in a job that holds no meaning for you:
- Brainstorm how to change your career path so you can become that person now
- Get whatever training you need to be effective in that chosen path
- Be relentless in networking with people who are already doing it, so you can change course without having to give up an income-producing job or business
II. Ask yourself what you’re willing to give up to achieve FIRE
If you know yourself to be one of the few who truly can commit to ultra-frugality along with the likely result that most of your relationships will wither away, go for it.
- Use my FIRE matrix to figure out how much you need to save and how much you can live on in retirement given the number of years you’re willing to suffer now
- Automate your savings and invest those saved amounts as aggressively as possible
- Find free or extremely cheap ways of having at least some fun in your current life
If you know that you’re not willing to put most of your relationships and life on pause and on the line, be more strategic.
- Decide on a maximal savings rate you’d be willing to live with for many years
- Figure out the fraction of your current income you’d be willing to live on in retirement
- Subtract from that the fraction of your current income that 77% of promised Social Security benefits will trim
- Use my FIRE matrix to figure out how many years you’d need to work given the above numbers
- Figure out how much extra you’d need to cover for your Social Security benefits from when you plan to retire until you can claim them
III. Ask yourself what side hustle you’d enjoy enough that it wouldn’t feel like extra work
In “Shhhh… The Dirty Little Secret about Money,” I talk about a few possible side hustles.
- Monetizing your knowledge
- Buying rental property
- Creating a product that you can easily and quickly get to market
- Buying and selling stuff you know about
There are of course other options, including Uber, AirBnB, and various freelancing websites.
- Would one of these work for you? If not, think of something else. Consider that you’re already living on your current income, so bringing in more will make it easier to save more.
- How many hours would you be willing and able to spend on this side hustle before it becomes unsustainable?
- What would you need to make per hour to make FIRE come close enough?
The Bottom Line
The best way to make your pursuit of FIRE sustainable is to:
- Figure out your true priorities in life
- Figure out the kind of person you want to be and become that person now – you don’t have to wait until you’re financially independent
- Align your choices with your priorities and the person you want to be – this includes where and how you live, what you spend on and how much, and adding only the sort of side hustle that wouldn’t feel like just more work.
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About the Author
My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.