If you believe retirement only happens when you reach your 60s – and you want to retire earlier – then read on.
There is a growing band of retirees in Australia and overseas who are hitting retirement in their 30s or 40s.
No, they aren’t rich kids living on an inheritance or technology whizzes who have sold an app.
They are followers of the FIRE movement – that stands for “financial independence, retire early” – who rigorously save, invest sensibly and enjoy a modest, agreeable life.
It is the opposite of working flat out throughout your life, piling on debt, living beyond your means and consuming voraciously.
While most Australians rely on compulsory superannuation and its 9.5% contribution rate (capped at $25,000 a year) to fund their retirement, FIREs don’t want to wait until they are in their mid to late 60s.
They want to pursue interests, have a more balanced life and enjoy more family time.
Kate Campbell, 19, plans to save $1 million over the next 20 years and live on $40,000pa.
Pat Seyrak has an ambitious plan: he wants to have $1 million in 10 years. At 30 he is half way there and aims to reach his goal in the next five years.
The FIRE trend is still in its infancy in Australia but it has taken off in the US and Canada thanks to its most high-profile supporter, Peter Adeney.
He and his partner worked as software engineers in their 20s, and by living a frugal life and saving they had enough money to leave the workforce at 30.
They have one son and the family spends around $US25,000 ($32,000) to $US27,000 a year.
Mr Money Mustache
Adeney, a Canadian expatriate who lives in Longmont, Colorado, started blogging about his life in 2011 at mrmoneymustache.com.
His message is straightforward: reject consumerism, pare down your life to live simply with fewer possessions, save as much as you can and live a frugal “badass” life of leisure.
Adeney says it delivers greater financial freedom and happiness as well as a smaller environmental footprint. It resonates with many people and Mr Money Mustache now has a cult following, reaching 23 million people and attracting 300 million page views.
Adeney has posted 400 wide-ranging articles and there are 37,000 members on the Mr Money Mustache forum with 1.7 million posts.
“Our situation was a bit unusual by today’s standards, because it was driven by within rather than inspired by an existing movement like this financial independence thing is becoming,” Adeney told Money from Longmont.
“I just had a natural love for solving problems efficiently, and to me I just figured having a super fun life could be another one of these problems. So I found ways to spend money on creating a joyful life, while seeing less of it go to waste.”
He calls his approach “mustachianism”, an idea he put into practice 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”.
“Nowadays, all the same options are open to everyone but there is more awareness and community support for this type of joyful, efficient living,” says Adeney.
“So you don’t have to be as much as a stubborn weirdo as I was to make these big jumps ahead to financial independence while you’re still young”.
Mustachianism is the belief that “consumer insanity has taken over people’s minds”, Adeney told Tim Ferriss, the American self-improvement guru, on his radio show.
“It is causing people to act in an irrational way. It has sabotaged people’s own ability to have a good life.
“For example, they are working way longer than they have to because they are consuming way more crap than they have to without getting any life benefit from it. Everyone is very inefficiently going about their lives. It affects their health. They are not getting fun out of their lives.”
Adeney says that if you save 50% of your take-home pay from the age of 20, you can retire at 37. If you can save 75% of your salary, you can retire in seven years.
Just as heavy spending means low saving, frugal living means high saving.
The more extravagant your lifestyle, the more you’ll need in retirement and it will take a longer time to accumulate your required wealth because your savings rate is low. But if you can live simply, you will need less to retire on and you will acquire it more quickly.
While there are plenty of people who scoff that FIREs are living miserable, deprived lives, our case studies suggest it is quite the opposite.
They are having fun and they feel empowered by their savings and plans.
“I decided that I could easily live a great life, and in many ways an even better life than I was before I had this goal, all the while reducing my expenses, consumption and waste and doing more things for myself,” says Seyrak, who is on track to retire at 35.
Experiences come first
“I see high consumption as an unconscious habit. Most of the time it is completely automatic and so it is rarely thought about critically,” he says. “Much of it is also keeping up with the Joneses. One should not base their self-esteem on how wealthy they can appear to be. By eliminating this habit, a large amount of money can be saved.”
People like Pat value their time much more than they value their possessions. FIREs have a long list of experience-based activities and interests, including family time, that they want to pursue. They usually don’t rule out part-time work either.
Most of the Aussies we spoke to are well-qualified people with good jobs that pay well.
This does make it easier to save but people with lower salaries will also see great benefits from frugal living although it will take longer.
Travel is at the top of the list for most early retirees. Not a short trip to fit in with corporate holidays but long, slow explorations of continents. When you aren’t working you can take advantage of special deals and offers.
These are some of the key FIRE savings strategies:
• Get out of debt. Make paying down any credit card debt a No. 1 priority.
• Live close to where you work. Walk, cycle or take public transport. For example, if you live a long way from your work, car costs can really add up. If you are driving 20 kilometres, you could be easily spending $120,000 over a decade and if you drive a family sedan it’s probably $150,000.
• Become a great cook. A $100 per week restaurant habit is $52,000 every 10 years. A $12 lunch, bought twice a week, adds up to $12,480.
• Stop buying stuff. Don’t spend your weekend browsing the shops or searching online.
• If you have a mortgage, make extra payments.
• Cut your grocery bills. Buy whole ingredients instead of packaged meals. Stock up at the cheaper supermarkets.
“So I found ways to spend money on creating a joyful life, while seeing less of it go to waste,” says Adeney.
“My usual example is that by choosing to live closer to work and biking there (which also allowed us to live with just one older car), we saved $US10,000 per year on car expenses while also getting the fun and health benefits of year-round cycling.
“It was already a win-win situation, so there was no need for a support group or a community. But very few of my co-workers were able to understand how big this win was, so I was often still the only one on a bike.”
Early retirement formula
Instead of paying a financial planner to help you work out how much they need in retirement, FIREs have a formula: take your annual expenditure and multiply it by 25.
“This will keep you going for the rest of your life, even if you retire young,” says Adeney. This assumes a conservative return or income of 4% a year.
FIREs aren’t spending down their capital. They’re simply living off their investment income.
If you can live off a third of your income, and devote the other two-thirds to saving, you would reach 25 times in 12 to 13 years. Then if you continued to live that way, 4%pa investment income on your nest egg would provide your living expenses for the rest of your life.
For example, if a couple earn $121,700 a year after tax and live on $40,000, they can save $81,700pa.
The savings earn a real rate of return of 4% after inflation. In 10 years they will have $1 million, which can be invested earning 4%, generating $40,000pa to live on for the rest of their lives.
Most FIREs don’t pursue “super kickass” investments such as hedge funds, private equity or the hottest active fund managers.
These sorts of investments need constant monitoring and, as Adeney told Ferriss: “There’s so much more to concentrate on in your life. If you retire early you are most probably wanting to be a great parent or aiming for physical fitness.”
You are better off using basic, plain-vanilla index funds.
The 19-year-old Aussie already planning for retirement
Kate Campbell, 19
Aim: retire at 40
Income needed: $40,000 a year
Investment strategy: high-interest savings account, shares, diversified exchange traded funds and tech companies (10%).
When you are 19 it is easy to blow your full pay on going out and socialising.
But Kate is setting herself up for financial independence in about 20 years when she will be 40. She is saving 60%-70% of her salary from a full-time job in IT.
“If you are financially independent, going to work is a choice. It changes your mindset. You can look at what you are doing differently,” she says.
Living at home certainly helps her save. She recently got rid of her old car and catches public transport.
As well, combining study with a full-time job and being time poor is a great way to slash her weekly social schedule to one event, with a budget of $20 to $30. She has cut her spending on clothes to one item a month.
Her major expenses are gym fees and train fares.
Kate admits she doesn’t want to be super frugal and believes she needs $40,000 a year to live on when she retires.
“The big question is, how do I balance how much to save and how much to spend?”
She reads widely about investing and checks out low-cost robo advisers such as Six Park and Stockspot. She is a fan of dollar-cost averaging.
Kate has an emergency fund in case anything happens and is building a long-term portfolio of solid company shares and diversified ETFs.
“Because I work in the IT industry, I am placing a small portion of around 10% in tech companies.”
She is putting aside money to travel at the end of her university degree when she hopes to work overseas and keep costs down by using the sharing economy to travel and find accommodation.
To keep her on track she listens to FIRE podcasts about women such as herself who are striving for, or have reached, financial independence and
are living incredible lives.
Kate’s parents have successfully become semi-retired through saving and living off their investments.
“It’s a very empowering feeling and I see how it helps my parents,” says Kate. “If anything happens – such as the company I work for goes bankrupt – I will be fine.”
She doesn’t want to be in her 50s with debts and feeling stressed.
The 30-year-old planning to retire in five years
Pat Seyrak, 30
Aim: retire at 35
Income needed: $40,000 a year
Investment strategy: shares and ETFs.
Pat has a firm number for his financial independence: $1 million. He plans to reach it by December 2023 when he is 35.
So far the millennial is almost a third of the way there, hitting $300,000 and aiming for an investment portfolio of $1 million in today’s dollars to provide him with an annual income of $40,000 for the rest of his life.
Pat, who sets out how to “buy back your life” on the website lifelongshuffle.com, kicked off his mission to retire by going through his bank statements from the previous year to understand where his money was going.
“Like a leaky bucket, I worked to plug all the holes,” he explains.
He has cut three big spending areas: accommodation, transport and food. “This is where the 80/20 principle applies. For example, 80% of your savings can come from optimising just these three areas of your life. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
“I decided that I could easily live a great life, and in many ways an even better life than before I had this goal, all the while reducing my expenses, consumption and waste and doing more things for myself.”
He rents a small home close to work and walks and cycles whenever possible.
“Cars are enormously more expensive than most people realise,” he says. “Ideally, everything should be within walking or bicycle distance, such as work, children’s schools and a supermarket.”
Pat learnt how to cook well: “I prepare the vast majority of my own dinners and lunches and this saves me a fortune compared to eating out often.”
He has also learnt to do his own repairs.
Pat’s investment plan is simple. “The only way I know to build wealth is to do it slowly and methodically. Dollar-cost averaging into diversified broad-market exchange traded funds over an extended period of time.”
Saving hard now means that he can reduce the amount of money he needs in the future because his savings are earning an income.
He doesn’t like the word frugal to describe his life. “Because many people seem to associate it with self-deprivation, which is simply not how I like to live. Nor
do I feel anything I am doing is extreme.
“If I were to be honest, I would consider the way in which most people live their lives to be extreme – paying much more than they need to for just about everything and spending their entire pay cheques, regardless of how large those pay cheques may be.”
Slaving for 30 years to pay off a mortgage isn’t part of Pat’s plan. He prefers to spend time with friends and family.
Pat has a retirement plan that includes plenty of energetic activities such as playing music, learning a language and joining the State Emergency Service. As an engineer he is interested in the practical side of building.
“Mostly I just want the freedom to live each day as I see fit and dedicate as much time as I would like to my passions and hobbies. I would like to be able to balance productivity and free time and not be forced onto a schedule.”