How to Become Financially Independent and Retire Early
The typical road to retirement looks like this: Graduate college. Get a job. Get promoted. Get raises. Buy a house. Fill it with stuff. Work for at least 40 years to pay for the stuff.
Then you retire and finally have time to do all the things you’ve been dreaming of… if you have the money to do them.
For many people, this path has lost its appeal, and they’re turning toward a different one.
It’s called financial independence, or FI for short.
Financial independence is having enough wealth to live on for the rest of your life without the need for traditional employment.
That usually means you can live off your investments, but as FI gains popularity, people have included passive income, real estate, and even freelance and part-time passion projects into it.
People who pursue financial independence have decided their time is worth more than their money. And they’re willing to make sacrifices to have more of it.
In the early ’90s, friends Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin capitalized on the concept of valuing time over money. They hosted talks during which they asked people to consider how many hours of work something costs them instead of just thinking of the cost in terms of dollars. They turned those talks into the best-selling book “Your Money or Your Life.”
Over a decade later, blogger Pete Adeney, also known as Mr. Money Mustache, further popularized financial independence by equating it with early retirement. Adeney and his wife practiced extreme frugality to save 66% of their incomes as software engineers. They retired with a paid-off home when they were both 30.
Nowadays, the goal of FI-seekers is to save enough in investments and lower their expenses to the point where they can live off passive income without the need for paid employment.
Why This Couple Is Sacrificing Now
Shane Courtney discovered FI from Mr. Money Mustache, though at first he didn’t put his extreme practices into action.
But by October 2017, Shane had been working nights as a diesel hydraulic mechanic for over a decade, and he began to consider financial independence again.
“Only being able to see my wife on Saturday and Sunday was probably the biggest driver of trying to figure out something different,” he said.
So he looked for other stories of people pursuing FI. He found the financial independence subreddit, where people of various ages, locations, incomes and professions share the ways they’re trying to escape traditional employment.
Shane, 33 at the time, and his wife, Melissa, 32, realized that without kids they could reach FI and retire early at 50 to fulfill their dream of moving to the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
Their first steps were deciding how much they’d need to spend in retirement and how much to save to get there.
The Courtneys make a combined income of $160,000, and they would like to live off of $45,000 to $50,000 per year in retirement. For their investments to produce that much growth every year accounting for inflation, they estimate they’ll need to save $1.25 million.
To lower their expenses, Shane and Melissa cut out most of their recurring bills aside from their mortgage, utilities and internet.
Shane had a car he loved, but it got horrible gas mileage and had dropped significantly in value. It was too expensive for Shane to justify keeping, even though as a mechanic, he’s passionate about cars.
They’re also planning ways to save after they reach financial independence. Going to the grocery store is easy now in their suburban Tampa, Florida, neighborhood, but they’re learning new skills to be more self-sufficient in North Carolina.
Melissa is taking canning classes, and Shane has learned to make sourdough bread. “It’s so much cheaper than buying bread,” he said.
And they’ll start to look at properties near Pisgah National Forest soon, in hopes of buying land and paying it off before they start building their house in five years. They plan to move into a mortgage-free home when they retire.
Reaching financial independence isn’t just about raising your income and lowering your spending. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance to do something so wildly different from your peers for such a long time.
But their vision for the future drives their day-to-day decisions. Shane sees himself riding mountain bikes around Pisgah, and Melissa dreams of being able to rescue and foster animals.
How to Save For Financial Independence
So once you’ve calculated how much you need to save and you’ve cut your expenses in order to save it, where is this money going?
The easiest and most common way is to invest it in retirement accounts. The Courtneys max out two Roth IRAs, one 401(k), contribute to a second 401(k) and max out a family HSA. They put these savings into low-cost index funds.
But there are alternatives. Chad Carson, aka Coach Carson, used creative financing to purchase duplexes and single-family homes and his own money for renovations. His portfolio generated enough passive income for him to become financially independent in his 30s.
And Michelle Schroeder-Gardner created a blog and online course that generates more than enough passive income for her to travel full time in her 20s.
And then there’s the hybrid approach, sometimes referred to as “Barista FIRE”: This is when you save enough to cover some expenses in retirement and work part time at a job you love — hence the name “Barista” — regardless of what it pays to cover the rest.
Even if they don’t need to, Shane plans to coach CrossFit and Jiu-Jitsu to supplement their income, and Melissa may earn money doing animal rescue.
The supplemental income is also helpful in times the stock market doesn’t produce as much growth as planned.
… but What if You Don’t Make Six Figures?
Sure, Shane and Melissa have great incomes. He’s been a diesel hydraulic mechanic at the same company for over 10 years, and she’s an accountant. They can afford to save a large portion of their money.
But most of us aren’t making six figures, even in two-income households.
So what options are there for the rest of us? Fortunately, investment growth isn’t the only passive income option to reach financial independence.
Passive income from an online business, royalties from creative works like art or music, rental properties or a number of other sources can provide non-employment income and lower the amount you need to reach FI.
In 2016, Jonathan Mendonsa and Brad Barrett started the Choose FI podcast. They talk about complex and intimidating financial independence topics twice a week and make those topics understandable for a broader audience.
They highlight entrepreneurs who build passive income streams to escape traditional employment, early retirees who work part-time jobs to get out of the house or supplement their income, and people who downsize homes and cars to cut their fixed expenses.
FI-seekers stack these strategies on top of one another to optimize what they have to work with.
FI is often dismissed as unattainable for average income earners. But while saving a significant portion of your income is difficult, the math shows it’s possible for more people than you might think.
Take a 25-year-old single person who earns $30,000 and wants to live off of $30,000 per year in retirement. Even if they have nothing saved for retirement, they can become financially independent at 52 if they max out a Roth IRA during their working years and earn average returns of 8.1%.
A couple in their 30s bringing home a combined income of $70,000 per year with $0 saved for retirement can become financially independent in just over 16 years under the same market conditions if they stay within a $40,000-per-year budget (including in retirement).
These scenarios aren’t as sexy as retiring at 30, but they show that with perseverance and focus, financial independence can be achieved at a diverse range of incomes, ages and marital statuses.
Even if pursuing financial independence doesn’t result in everyone retiring at 30 or even 50, no the movement is motivating people to open up about their finances and save a little extra every month.
And that’s never a bad thing.
Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.
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