retirement

Playing With FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early)

We explore the hot FIRE movement and its leader, Mr. Money Mustache, and discover that being mustachian fits well with the financial philosophies we've been espousing for decades.

About a year ago, I got an e-mail from a reader with a suggestion for reaching younger readers. He was barely 40 himself, he said, and had been reading Kiplinger’s since he was a teenager. He credited this magazine with much of his financial success—starting a business when he was 18, buying a farm when he was 22, putting away 20% to 30% of his gross pay each year and paying off his mortgage early. But he said younger people these days are searching for ways to pay their student loans and mortgages more quickly and save more, often with profits from a side business.

“If you were to include an article or two about FIRE—financial independence, retire early—each month,” he wrote, “it would appeal to more people in their twenties to forties.” He said he loved reading the FIRE blogs and that many of the reader comments were from people in their forties to sixties who wish they had found out about the FIRE movement earlier.

This month we take a look at FIRE. As senior editor Eileen Ambrose explains, FIRE traces its roots to publication of the book Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, back in 1992. Sometime in between the tech bust and the financial crisis a decade ago, FIRE ignited, mostly among millennials who didn’t want to spend decades with their nose to the grindstone at jobs that didn’t reflect their values.

Financial freedom. But it’s the FIRE blogs that have given the movement legs. And the most famous one is penned by Mr. Money Mustache, a.k.a. Pete Adeney, who has become something of a spiritual leader of the FIRE movement. “Maximum Mustache” is a brand of FIRE delivered with an ironic, muscular attitude that disdains consumerism and waste, but the financial principles are similar. As Adeney writes on his website, he retired at age 30 “not through luck or amazing skill, but simply by living a lifestyle about 50% less expensive than most of our peers and investing the surplus in very boring conserv­ative Vanguard index funds and a rental house or two.”

What I like about FIRE is that many of the financial-freedom tenets sound a lot like the advice Kiplinger has dispensed for seven decades: Cut excess spending. Never spend more than you earn and (its corollary) avoid debt. Invest in low-cost index funds. Cultivate sources of side income, such as real estate investing. Follow the 4% rule for retirement withdrawals. Many of the FIRE success stories sound similar to stories I’ve heard from you, although retiring before age 40 is rare.But retiring doesn’t mean what it used to. We sent contributing editor Lisa Gerstner to MMM headquarters to meet Adeney and talk to some Mustachian disciples, and she had this observation: “For nearly everyone I spoke to, FIRE isn’t so much about ‘retiring’ as it is having the freedom to spend their days doing the work or activities that they enjoy, without being beholden to a rigid schedule.”

Update: Thanks to all of you who responded to my column in the September issue with article suggestions. I mentioned that we were still looking for an investing writer, and some of you generously offered to contribute. But soon after the issue went to press, we hired a new writer: John Waggoner. You may know John from his columns in USA Today, where he had a 25-year career, or through his freelance work for Money, Morningstar and the Wall Street Journal. I’m certain he will help make our investing coverage even better.

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