“I think we are at or near peak FIRE” – J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly
He then postulated that when the next market crash comes, and we know it will (and we did see a drop of about 20% in the US stock market since then), a lot of people who thought they had achieved financial independence would realize they are not actually FI.
J.D. was the moderator of FIRE panel at a national financial media conference that included Pete of Mr. Money Mustache, Jillian from Montana Money Adventures, Carl a.k.a. Mr. 1500, and me. He asked us what we thought about “peak FIRE” and whether the FIRE movement would prove to be a bust with the next bear market.
Both Pete and I addressed the latter question and we both agreed that unless we see a crash like this country’s never seen before, a normal correction or even a nasty bear market is not going to take our financial independence away.
We didn’t, however, adequately address the first part of J.D.’s question. Have we seen peak FIRE?
I don’t believe we have and I’m not sure we ever will. The acronym and the media mentions may get less play in the coming years, but saving a substantial portion of your income to facilitate living the life you want is not a new concept or a passing fad.
FIRE is dead. Long live FIRE!
The FIRE Movement in the Mainstream Media
You can hardly throw a stick at Business Insider, Marketwatch, or Yahoo without hitting another story about some yahoo retiring early. The New York Times, New Yorker, Kiplinger’s, and The Wall Street Journal have also gotten in on the act.
Every week there’s another story about the FIRE movement, and there is no shortage of FIRE bloggers eager to share their story with national media outlets to bring a little more exposure to their own blogs and to the concept and community at large.
In addition to the free publicity, the articles also serve to educate the uninitiated on the basics of financial independence and to make people really, really angry.
You’ll see it in the comments sections. When the featured person’s habits and worldview don’t jive with those of the reader, vitriol is spewed and misconceptions abound. I don’t know what motivates people to make these hateful comments, but their words are often flavored by some combination of disbelief, envy, and personal regret.
I can imagine it’s unpleasant to see millennials and young Gen-Xers traveling the world if you’ve put yourself in a position that demands you spend decades more doing a job you don’t love. Rather than get inspired, some get angry. I get it.
The FIRE Movement in the Tributaries
If large media companies are “mainstream,” the rest of the media we consume is something else. We’re operating in some sort of sidestream or tributary flow.
The people who spend more time in the tributaries are a friendlier lot. They’ve inspired individuals who are planning and forging their own paths to financial independence.
If you prefer the spoken word to the written word, you’ve got options. Most personal finance podcasts touch on FIRE concepts often and feature the topic occasionally. There are several popular podcasts that focus largely or exclusively on FIRE, including:
Do you prefer curling up with a good paperback book? Your options are growing by the week. Your Money or Your Life was updated, and The Simple Path to Wealth has been the book of choice for many recent FIRE seekers.
Scott Rieckens released Playing with FIRE, a book that chronicles his journey from financial naivete to FIRE devotee. David Sawyer published the 375-page RESET, a take on financial independence and F.U. money from across the pond.
We also have Grant Sabatier’s hardcover, Financial Freedom, Tanja Hester’s Work Optional, Kristy Shen and Bryce Lueng’s Quit Like a Millionaire, and Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence.
The FIRE Movement is Spreading like…
Well, you know.
Retirement wasn’t a common concept until the 20th century. The life expectancy of a typical human didn’t allow for it.
Social Security was introduced into U.S. law in 1935 and the first articles on early retirement appeared shortly thereafter in the 1940s and 1950s. The Early Retirement Dude has summarized the FIRE movement’s history in some detail.
The FIRE spread to me via Mr. Money Mustache, and I soon latched on to a number of other earlyish FIRE blogs, including the Mad Fientist, Root of Good, Go Curry Cracker, Living A FI, Financial Samurai, 1500 Days, Think Save Retire, and Retire by 40.
The FIRE discussions are not limited to blogs and podcasts. For every person creating online content, there are thousands of people using the same principles to accelerate their timelines to financial freedom.
You can find them, along with some great FIRE-related conversations in numerous online forums, including:
All this talk online inevitably leads to talk offline. In break rooms and on bar stools, at the gym, and on the phone, FIRE is spreading by word of mouth.
“Did you hear so and so is about to retire?!?” “You save how much of each paycheck?” “Tell me again about these index funds.”
I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. ChooseFI has popularized the phrase, which is obvious and true. The FIRE is spreading.
Dispelling the Myths of the FIRE Movement
I mentioned the naysayers earlier. You know, the tribe of pessimists that lurk online to take others down in failed attempts to prompt themselves up by making false accusations and assumptions about others.
They, along with some better-intentioned but misinformed individuals, have spread all kinds of myths about the FIRE movement. I’d like to address a handful of them.
Myth 1: None of Them Actually Retire.
People point to the most popular bloggers and get riled up because they’re still earning money doing something else after leaving the jobs that made them financially independent.
The first thing I’ll say is that I know this space fairly well, and there are maybe a dozen or so FIRE blogs earning enough money to cover their living expenses (or more). On the other hand, there are nearly half-a-million users on the FI subreddit.
Another problematic fact is that people have different ideas of what one is and is not allowed to do as a retired person.
The goal of financial independence is to be in a position to do whatever you want with the rest of your life without having to rely on a steady paycheck.
What do FIRE folks do once they’ve reached the finish line? Some keep working. Some become full-time parents. Some loaf around (I’m looking at you, Justin 😉 ). Some travel the world. Some reinvent themselves and launch an entirely new career.
As of this writing, I’m seven months away from my last day of employment, and a good three or four years past the finish line. When I retire from medicine, I do plan to continue blogging. It’s fun, and I’m helping people out while making some money and supporting a charitable mission.
Myth 2: The Bull Market Made the FIRE Movement.
The 2010s were a good decade. I’m not gonna lie. I finished anesthesia residency in 2006 and the stock market plummeted early in my career, allowing me to invest on the way down, at the bottom, and on the way back up.
The bull market from 2009 to 2018 bolstered the returns for those of us lucky enough to start making good money at just the right time. However, when you look at the returns of U.S. Stocks as represented by the S&P 500 by year in a chart from macrotrends.com, you’ll see that recent history doesn’t look all that different from distant history.
The returns of the last 13 years have been good for those of us with enough bravado to invest in stocks after they had been beaten down mercilessly for the second time in the preceding 10 years.
That being said, achieving financial independence in a short timeframe depends much more on your savings rate than your investment returns.
Solid returns in recent years may have acted as an accelerant to FIRE, but they are not responsible for the FIRE itself. You’ve got to Earn, Save, and Invest quite a bit of money to benefit from a booming stock market.
Myth 3: The FIRE Movement is Just a Bunch of White Male Tech Bros.
As a white male (but non-tech) bro, I’m not the best person to bust this myth, but I assure you there are people of all sizes, shapes, genders, and colors pursuing financial independence. Of 361 early retirement bloggers previously listed on Rockstar Finance’s directory, 127 identify as white males. Granted, not everyone filled out each and every category, but there are 75 blogs on that list written by bloggers identifying as female.
Myth 4: The Early Retired are Screwed When The Next Recession Hits
This is probably the weakest of these four myths, and the easiest to bust.
The argument goes something like this: “When the market drops 50%, they’re all going to realize they quit too soon and will run out of money. Having been out of the job market a while, they’re not going to be able to make money again. They’re screwed.”
So… what you’re saying is… the people who learned to live on far less than they earned, and were industrious and productive enough to save up more money in ten or twenty years than most people do in a lifetime… these are the people who are screwed?
The people who are screwed are the poor souls who never learned to save. When a recession hits and they’re out of a job, those are the people we need to worry about.
The 2018 government shutdown made this crystal clear. There were a lot of people who missed two paychecks and were visiting food shelves or staying home because they couldn’t afford the gasoline to make their usual commute.
Now, in the 2020’s, we are in the midst of the first recession in over a decade, and people who have saved diligently are in a strong financial position. That previously living paycheck to paycheck, not so much.
I’ve argued that high-income individuals with ample savings don’t need a large cash emergency fund, but everyone needs an emergency plan.
I would also argue that no one is better prepared for an economic downturn than the FIRE community. We’ve demonstrated the drive to become successful and we’ve got plenty of time to learn new skills when needed. We’ve mastered the side hustle and we know how to cut expenses if times call for austerity.
For the sake of the middle class and the 42% of Americans who’ve saved virtually nothing for retirement, I don’t wish for a recession. But don’t worry about those of us “caught up” in the FIRE movement.
We’ll be just fine.
The Future of the FIRE Movement
The FIRE movement isn’t going anywhere, but I don’t think for a second the lifestyle will become the norm. For much of the population, salary versus cost-of-living simply doesn’t allow for a 30% to 70% or savings rate.
For those who do earn enough to afford to live on half, marketing and peer pressure are powerful, and embodying the image we want to portray to the world can be costly.
FIRE is, and will be for the foreseeable future, for a fairly small subset of the population, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be better understood and recognized by the public in general.
Ten years ago, people who retired early may not have known of anyone else doing the same. Five years ago, they were connected by the forums and blogs and realized others were living similar lives.
Today, the benefits of living well beneath your means to achieve financial freedom are recognized by millions of people who are making meaningful changes in their lives in this pursuit. This site alone has had over a million visitors in its first three years, and I think Mr. Money Mustache sees that many users in a normal month.
The terminology may change. The more time I’ve spent reading, writing, and reflecting, the more emphasis I place on the first two letters (FI) and the less I place on retiring early. For me and for many, it’s not so much about quitting a job as it is about being positioned to spend your days and years as you please, with or without doing anything that could be considered work.
We may eventually see communities heavily populated with early retirees. Mr. Money Mustache has talked about planning the ideal city for the active, civic-minded, environmentally friendly early retiree. I’ve got a friend in Georgia working to slowly transform a neighborhood of low-cost single-family homes into an enclave for FIRE devotees.
Finally, I think we can expect to see great things from some of today’s early retirees. If a person can earn and save enough to take care of herself and her family in just 10 or 15 years, what do you suppose she’s capable of in the next 10, 15, or 50 years?