Realistic FIRE experience

Realistic FIRE experience

The FIRE movement, which got its start in the later 90’s, has been a hot trend the last 10 years – especially with high earning tech workers. It’s given rise to aggressive savers and hustle culture. There’s many good things about the movement as it got many young people thinking about their financial lives and how they want to live – instead of just following the crowd.

It does, however, require you to ascribe to a set of pretty restrictive and demanding principles: aggressive saving and often near-poverty level living standards that examines each penny spent. This method definitely has helped many, but it has some pretty big caveats.

FIRE methods used to be based on living as cheaply as possible and saving almost your entire income so you can retire early. Many of the adherents talk of living on just a few dollars a day eating the cheapest bulk foods they can buy (beans and rice every single day) and examining every expense with a view to shave every penny off. While this worked for many early 20’s tech workers, it isn’t possible for everyone and so variants have popped up. There’s many that claim they are retired at 35, but still keep part-time jobs (barista FIRE). Others retire early on low amounts but do so by living extremely simply and cheaply (lean FIRE).

Retire at 35

Gwen Merz started down the FIRE road aggressively and lived the FIRE mantra. She wanted to retire at 35 with $635,000. She got a job at a Fortune 100 and she saved $200,000 in just 5 years – an extremely impressive feat in expensive the Washington DC only making $80k/year. She saved 70% of her income and even started her own side hustles with a podcast, owning rental property, and running an Etsy shop. All of this sounds like the FIRE dream come true.

“I really bought into the hustle culture that is part of society and I got really burnt out.” 

But what’s it all for?

As time went on, she left her main job to be her own boss in her side hustles. Unfortunately, the side hustles fizzled and the constant grind burned her out. 9 months later she returned to her regular full-time job.

After that, she noticed others around her “weren’t afraid to spend [money] on themselves for their own improvement.” She asked herself, ‘Why am I trying to save all this money? I don’t look my best, I am not taking care of myself as well as I should, what’s kind of the point?’

She bumped down her savings and got a personal stylist appointment after realizing she didn’t know what looked good on her. After seeing a huge improvement, she wondered what other changes she should make that would also “make a really big difference in how I felt around other people.”

“My bank account really benefited from the actions that I took in my 20s, but I think my social life suffered an equal amount”

She noticed the intensity of her saving also curtailed her social life. “It’s really hard to be a single woman in your 20s in dating and not wanting to spend any money…it turned off a lot of people who might have otherwise been probably a pretty good fit for me.”

Know why are you saving

Merz has since stepped back from aggressive FIRE living. She still uses some FIRE budgeting tips and spreadsheets from a decade ago but no longer turns to them as much. That’s because money is no longer the number one priority it once was.

At age 33, she has still managed to save a amazing $400,000 and plans on retiring at age 55. She immediately paid off her car loan, and saves 10% in her 401k each month, but “I don’t deprive myself unnecessarily anymore. Stepping it back really benefited me and gave me the flexibility and the ability to say yes.”

Knowing what is worth spending on is as important as saving for it

But even more important was that Merz realized why she was drawn to the aggressive FIRE mentality. Merz grew up in a single parent home that struggled with necessities – and it created financial trauma that can draw some to the FIRE movement. Her struggles being broke drove her to want to have enough money to weather any storm life can throw at you and instilled a value that money is to be saved for the future. But she realized. “if you don’t learn how to spend it before you get to that point [later], then you’re gonna have some issues.” Those issues seem to largely include understanding what is worth spending money on compared to just having it.

Now she tells a different story. Despite all the saving, “It would be worthless if I didn’t learn how to prioritize other aspects of my life like my health, safety, and happiness.”

“To somebody who’s going super hard for early retirement at age 30, I would really encourage them to examine their motivations behind their actions,” she says. “​​And, are they retiring from something or are they retiring to something? Because those are pretty different concepts.”


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