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Jim White is an engineer who loved his work — until he was promoted to middle management, when he began to hate getting up in the morning and going to the office
So White began to save. A lot. He and his wife squirreled away 60 percent of their earnings. They stopped buying new cars or the latest clothes, ate out at restaurants less often and held onto additional income from rental properties. And in 2018, he retired — at 43.
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“We’ve seen so many things and been to so many cool places together that we never could have done otherwise,” says White, who moved with his family for a year to Panama and got to spend more time with his daughter.
White is part of a grassroots but fast-growing movement called “financial independence, retire early,” or FIRE, which preaches frugal living and extreme savings.
Although it’s been around for three decades, FIRE has been propelled by some of the same factors that fueled the great resignation: a realization by many people that they consider their work unfulfilling.
Rather than walk away for different jobs, however, FIRE calls for patiently creating nest eggs and getting a head start on their retirements, or freeing up time to follow paths they find more meaningful.
It isn’t only widespread job dissatisfaction that has quietly fueled FIRE. It was the bull market of the last few years, which turbo-charged retirement savings. But the ensuing downturn, and high inflation, both also serve as stark reminders of the risks of the early retirement trend.
Even enthusiasts such as White, who now produces a blog about FIRE called Route to Retire, wonders: “Although we saved a good amount of money to cover our expenses for the rest of our lives, was it enough?"
That doesn’t mean financial experts discourage the thinking behind FIRE. On the contrary; They say that at a time when half of Americans are storing away too little of their incomes for after they stop working, according to the Center for Retirement Research — the National Institute on Retirement Security puts the proportion who are under-prepared at an even higher 92 percent — it provides a great example.
“If it gets people to save more for retirement, that’s great,” says Andrew Biggs, a former principal deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration who now is a senior fellow of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
A few caveats
Typically thought to have originated with the 1992 book Your Money or Your Life, which preached slowing down and valuing time over the pursuit of material things, the idea that would become FIRE (the name and its acronym came later) isn’t promoted by national associations or financial firms, but by an underground of influencers, bloggers and devotees who proselytize through YouTube videos, self-help books, meetup groups and weekend retreats.
It generally calls for saving at least 25 times annual expenses, at which point a person will presumably have enough money to quit full-time work, retire or pursue some other passion. After that, FIRE says, he or she should spend no more than 4 percent of those savings per year.
This demands extraordinary thrift.