While two-thirds of Americans struggle to retire by 65 with less than 1 times their annual spending saved 1., groups are forming of early retirees who are calling it quits after saving 25 times their annual spending.
The FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) groups are those opting out of the traditional workforce after only 10-20 years of employment, having saved enough money to cover living expenses through passive income and / or a less than 4% drawdown on their investments. They typically define financial independence as the freedom to pursue varied interests without the need to make a full-time salary. Most emphasize that not only do their frugal habits lead to financial freedom, but that their lifestyle choice also packs in more pleasure and coolness than the standard way of high-consumption living.
Ironically, many of these early retirees still earn money through their blogs or podcasts, but they do these projects strictly for pleasure. The average age of many in the FIRE communities is 35, and the majority of these folks are former engineers, computer scientists, and other professionals who once earned close to six-figure salaries.
Rather than living like typical Americans spending 95% of their take home pay, they jumped off the work-spend-work treadmill by saving 50%+ for approximately 10 years or more. With annual budgets typically between $30,000-50,000/year, they spend less than approximately two-thirds of U.S. households despite their household incomes in excess of $100,000.
So, how do they do it? Below I highlight three of the top FIRE thought leaders and their habits and beliefs around top spend categories: housing, cars, health insurance, travel, and food. At first glance, some of these concepts may seem over the top. While you may not agree with these masters of frugality, one good idea might spur you on to improving your spending and, ultimately, your life.
First, let’s meet the experts:
Mr. Money Moustache
Pete Adeney and his family of three retired by the age of 30 from tech jobs in the Boulder, Colorado, area. He is now a blogger with over 1 million followers, owns a co-working space where his cult following gathers, and leads the way in insisting that living inexpensively means living your best life while lessening your negative impact on the planet. His motto: Early Retirement through Badassity. Through his most popular post, “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement,” Pete preaches that you only really need to save 25-30 times your annual spending to be financially free and that this can be done in about 10 years with a 65% savings rate.
Brad Barrett and Jonathan Mendonsa are frequent podcasters with their show ChooseFI. On the path to retire early from accounting and pharmacy, respectively, both are married with families. Jonathan clawed himself out of $168,000 in student loans in four years and is now on the path to retire early. Self-described geeks, both men preach smart financial strategies without having to live in deprivation or unhappiness.
Mrs. Frugalwoods, Elizabeth Thames, is part of a young Boston couple with two kids. She and her husband saved more than two-thirds of their income, so they could retire to a homestead in the Vermont woods before their 35th birthdays. Elizabeth is the author of the well-regarded book, Meet the Frugalwoods: Financial Independence through Simple Living.
Here’s what they teach:
Mr. Money Mustache:
· Choose your home as if cars don’t exist. Live near public transit or within biking / walking distance, so you can cut the high costs of transportation, which typically is in the top 3 expenses for most Americans.
· Right-size your home. Purchase what you need without wasted space. Pete recommends 2,000 sq. feet or less with access to affordable homes near nature and good schools as priorities.
· Consider a fixer-upper. Properties that need a little work are great if you have the skills to do renovations yourself. Plus, you can add desired amenities like the music studio / home office Pete built behind his home overlooking a beautiful park.
· Pay off your mortgage early. The majority of FI-ers have eliminated debt because they make an effort to pay them off early. You can too.
· Realize that location matters. Choose a low-cost home in an affordable place like Virginia (where podcasters Brad and Jonathan live).
· Buy a multi-unit residence. When possible, house hack by purchasing a duplex or triplex. Then live in one unit while renting out the others.
· Pursue minimalism. From a home purchase standpoint, less is more. Recognize that more rooms can actually reduce happiness when you have to furnish, heat, repair and clean them.
· Educate yourself before you buy. Shop open houses to find the house you really want at the best deal. (The Frugalwoods went to over 270 open houses before buying their first home in Boston).
· Favor “fixable” flaws. Search for homes with “fixable” flaws that cause sellers to price their properties low.
· Prioritize the quality of schools and community. Make sure your new home is close to nice grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and other simple pleasures.
Mr. Money Mustache:
· Stay close to home. Make sure your residence is within 10 miles of your work, and then preferably bike or walk there where you can also boost your physical fitness along the way.
· Opt for practical over pricey. Buy a 10-year-old, fuel-efficient, reliable, utilitarian car for $10,000 or less with cash. Specific models suggested include: Toyota Prius, Mazda 3, Mazda 6 (as a family car), Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris.
· Go for “used.” In order to achieve the lowest cost of car ownership, choose a 10-year-old econo-hatchback, which has an annual cost of ownership of $5,000/year compared to $30,000/year with a new car.
· Avoid car payments. Continue to drive the car you own for as long as you can to prevent a new car payment until absolutely necessary.
· Say “no” to new cars. Buying a brand new car is one of the worst financial decisions a family can make (unless you are a billionaire).
· Target the sweet spot. The best option is to buy a used car that is 5-6 years old. Be sure to take a test drive before you purchase and conduct research on sites like CarGurus.com.
Mr. Money Mustache:
· Prioritize your health daily. Be selective about what you eat and follow a daily fitness regime. The healthier you are, the lower your medical bills will be.
· Use your health insurance sparingly. If you maintain optimal health and do not have any chronic health issues, then choose the lowest cost insurance with the highest deductible and use your insurance only when necessary.
· Take advantage of deductions. Check to see if you can deduct insurance premiums or other health costs from your taxes.
· Seek out subsidy options. If your only option is to enroll in the federal healthcare, work to reduce your taxable income through shelters, deductions, and credits to make you eligible for subsidies--up to $45,000 /year for singles and up to $95,000/year for families.
· Exercise part-time insurance benefits: Consider a side-gig with a company where working part-time gives you health insurance until eligible for Medicare at age 65.
· Use cost comparison tools. Be sure to price-compare procedures that you will need by using your health insurance company’s cost comparison tool. Just input the care you will need (i.e., MRI, X-ray, specific surgery, etc.) along with your zip code. The program will then spit out a listing of facilities and /or providers and their average costs. The tool may even list patient satisfaction ratings of the providers.
· Shop for prescriptions. To find the best prices, use this tool: GoodRx.com. Input your prescription, dosage and zip code and voila! You’ll get a listing of pharmacies within a certain radius of you and their cost for your specific prescription.
· Ask about coupons. Many people don’t know that the drug manufacturers often issue coupons for high-cost prescriptions. Find and use them to save even more.
· Be an underdog. Aim to keep income lower than thresholds necessary to qualify for government subsidies. Simply withdraw from Roth IRAs after 5 years or brokerage accounts, which are tax favorable.
· Work for the benefits. Have one spouse continue working part-time and / or remotely in order to get insurance through his or her company.
Mr. Money Mustache:
· Take nutrition seriously. Cook at home more often, eat more veggies and reduce intake of meat and bread. Avoid convenience foods and anything with sugar.
· Eat in more often. Save eating out for celebrations as restaurant food is more expensive, time-consuming, and unhealthier.
· Buy in bulk. Target items with long shelf lives, developing your own personal top ten items to buy at Costco. This ensures you get the lowest cost per unit on your key items. Pete’s personal list includes: coffee, olive oil, pasta, pasta sauce, oatmeal and various fruits / veggies.
· Entertain at home. Choose eating at home with friends over eating out. You get to treat your friends to a tasty home-cooked meal while avoiding the high restaurant bill.
· Buy in season. Foods are less plentiful out of season and, thus, more expensive to buy. You can get good bargains on in-season foods because they are more readily available.
· Keep emergency meals in the freezer. This tip can be a lifesaver for times when you are rushed. Quick but healthy meals like Trader Joe’s orange chicken are a good option.
· Double recipes when you cook. Stretch them even further by eating the leftovers so that three to four meals cover seven days.
· Buy your 10 key staples in bulk. When you do, you’ll get a price break and always have your favorite foods on hand. Jonathan’s key staples include: potatoes, cereal, onions, frozen chicken breasts, frozen berries, and flour to make homemade bread.
· Plan your meals weekly. This saves you time, money and energy ... and simplifies your life.
· Rarely eat out. For the Frugalwoods, living in the woods of Vermont makes that easier. But no matter where you live, you can save money and eat well with a little meal planning.
· Limit pricey foods. Meat, dairy, and processed foods tend to be two to three times the cost of healthier options. Eat them sparingly and opt for lower cost, nutrition-packed items instead.
Travel / Other
Mr. Money Mustache:
· Invest in yourself. Maintain your own car, body, garden, and home instead of paying others to do the work for you.
· Find fun at the library. Today’s public libraries don’t just loan books. They are bona fide entertainment sources, offering activities like art fairs and science exhibits to free movie showings and reasonably priced concerts.
· Look to nature. Make the outdoors your primary source of recreation and peace. Camping, hiking, and boating and touring national parks all offer their own unique brand of fun.
· Invest in people. Cut out TV watching and car commuting. Use this time instead for group activities, entertaining, and volunteering.
· Choose vacations rich in experience. Try camping in the mountains, exploring a nature preserve, or backpacking through the wilderness. Internationally, live like the locals, travel from country to country via public transit, or explore ancient architecture and museums.
· Tap into credit card benefits. Use rewards / sign-up bonuses on credit cards to cover most of your travel costs.
· Try ChooseFI’s top pick. Chase travel rewards includes two Southwest Airlines cards to enable free Southwest flights for one person all year round.
· Borrow or buy used items. Ask friends, family or neighbors if you can borrow items you use sparingly, like power tools, camping supplies or wheelbarrows. You can also buy gently used items online or at garage sales, which is a smart option for items your kids will grow out of quickly like clothes and toys.
· Start a “Buy Nothing” chapter. You can save money and the environment by “gifting” items you’d like to give away, lend, or share with others in your area. The worldwide “Buy Nothing” social movement encourages sharing and community while helping to reduce the overproduction of unnecessary goods.
· Exploit the purchasing power of Amazon. You can buy practically anything on Amazon these days. Use it to get the best deals on items like books, tools, clothing, music, electronics, food and more.
While quitting the workforce at a young age may not be for everyone, most people can benefit from the idea of spending their money in a more optimal way … less on wasteful stuff, more on learning, giving and fun. The Financial Independence sub-culture has a great deal to offer on the subject of improving costs while designing a more adventurous, fun-filled life. Whether you are trying to break free of the 9 to 5, firm up a secure retirement, or just looking to save a few bucks, the FIRE message might be just the wake-up call needed for improving your finances and more.
1. National Institute of Retirement Security. March 2015. “The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis.” https://www.nirsonline.org/reports/the-continuing-retirement-savings-crisis/