Why I’m Only Focusing on One Half of ‘FIRE’

Now that I’m 38, I’m starting to have mixed feelings about my age. It’s almost as if I’m stuck between two generations. I’m not young enough to be cool or overly idealistic anymore, but I’m definitely young enough to feel like I have plenty of life ahead of me— and to have fun. On the other hand, I’m way too old to care what anyone thinks and maybe should care more. Or maybe not.

Due to my confused age identity, my personal finance writing can seem all over the place sometimes. I’m not as frugal as I used to be, but our looser spending standards are the result of choices we’ve made. In short, we save enough money each month that I quit caring about the little stuff. The fact I’m inching toward my 40s at record speed has also made me extremely in tune with my retirement and savings goals. I am getting older, thus I’m running out of time. Now that I’m almost 40, I no longer have the luxury of knowing that I have decades or longer to fix any mistakes I make.

On the flip side, I’m young and in good health. Since nothing is ever guaranteed, there is part of me that wants to go everywhere — to do everything — while I still can, no matter the cost. That’s why I travel a lot and never feel bad about my vacation spending. As long as I’m living and breathing, I want to do more than exist — I want to live.

I guess that’s part of the reason I struggle to understand the FIRE movement — a term used to describe the legions of people who aim to reach the goals implied in this acronym: Financial Independence, Retire Early.

Financial independence is a goal I am personally aiming for. However, retiring early is not something I’m sure I want — and for more reasons than one.

The Problem With the FIRE Movement

Every once in a while, a major publication comes out with a new article on the FIRE movement and some of its biggest stars. The characters change based on who does the write-up, but the story is almost always the same: Someone saves up a little over a million dollars so they can quit their jobs and travel the world or live in a tiny home.

The “problem” is that few FIRE players actually retire. They just trade restrictive 9-5 work for freelancing or blogging or something in the gig economy. I’m certainly not knocking flexible or freelance work since my husband and I blog full-time and I earn a living as a freelance writer. The thing is, I would never call myself retired because, well, I still work. A lot.

I also wonder if many FIRE savers will have portfolios beefy enough to truly retire. Earlier this year, Vice profiled several FIRE enthusiasts who claimed to have reached this status. Most profiled admitted they saved around $1 million to retire in their 30s, which is likely far short of the amount any couple would need to retire fully at that age. Of course, these “early retirees” seem to know this, since they all have profit-driven blogs chock full of affiliate links and plugs for e-books and courses.

There’s nothing wrong with subsidizing your income with freelance work, but I take issue with the idea that anyone in this position would say they are retired. In my eyes, it seems like they have simply transitioned from work they didn’t enjoy into different work that allows more freedom and autonomy. In a lot of ways, this isn’t much different than quitting a high-paying job you don’t enjoy to take a lower-paying gig you’re passionate about.

That’s great, but it’s not retirement — at least not in a traditional sense.

Why I’m Only Focusing on One Aspect of FIRE

I’m a huge advocate of building a life you love by finding work you feel passionate about. I’m also a fan of anyone who can break free from the 9-to-5 grind to find work with meaning — or at least work that helps them enjoy a better lifestyle.

Heck, call it whatever you want. If you want to quit your 9-to-5 job to drive for Uber or blog for profit and tell people you’re retired, that’s totally your choice.

As for me, I will keep working toward the half of the FIRE equation that resonates with me — financial independence — and ignore the rest. Here’s why:

#1: I want options, not retirement.

One component of the FIRE movement I totally “get” is the desire to have more freedom and, more importantly, more choices. When you save a large percentage of your income, as many FIRE enthusiasts do, you have more options in life than most people.

When you spend less and save more, you can choose to take a lower paying job or move across the country where you can actually afford a home. When you have few bills, you have the option to trade in your 9-to-5 for freelancing or blogging or whatever fills your soul. This is a far cry from the typical 9-to-5, paycheck-to-paycheck existence where you have to work in a job you hate whether you like it or not.

All I’ve ever really wanted in life is the freedom to live how I want and work on my own terms. Working toward financial independence is a big part of that since my options grow right along with my portfolio. The more money I save and invest, the more “free” I feel. Retiring early would not give me the same sense of freedom; in fact, it would likely make me feel very restricted.

#2: I don’t want to pinch pennies my entire life.

I’m still pretty frugal, but I am not nearly as cheap as I used to be. These days, I don’t fret too much if we go $50 over our grocery budget or my husband buys a gadget off Amazon. We’re debt-free, including our mortgage, and we made a lot of sacrifices to get here. So, I don’t mind enjoying the fruits of our labor sometimes — even if that just means not expending mental energy worrying over a surprise home repair bill or the cost of my kid’s school activities.

But, FIRE enthusiasts don’t always have the freedom to splurge. Most early retirees aim to save at least 25 times their annual spending, meaning that lower spending makes it easier to retire. As a result, they usually need to plan out their spending for life to make it work.

For many, that means looking for ways to earn more income. But once again, are you really retired at that point? Most FIRE enthusiasts also need to live a frugal lifestyle to ensure they don’t overdraw from their investment accounts and leave themselves short on funds later on.

I’m frugal where it counts, but I don’t want to spend the next 50 or more years of my life sticking to a strict budget all the time. I’m willing to work a little more if it means I’m able to have a little more fun.

#3: I have kids.

It’s harder for me to imagine retiring early right now since I have two children, ages 7 and 9. This has little to do with the FIRE movement and more to do with the fact that it’s just difficult to plan ahead when you don’t know what the future holds.

I’ve been saving for my children’s college education since they were babies, but I have no idea where they will go to school or how much it will cost. Will I want to help with their weddings? Will I help my kids start a business? Will my children get into more expensive sports or hobbies once they’re in high school?

Nobody knows the answer to these questions, and especially not me. For that reason, I can’t imagine cutting back on work until I have a pretty solid idea of where my children’s lives are headed.

#4: It’s easy to underestimate how much you’ll need to retire.

I’m probably on the conservative side when it comes to retirement savings goals, but hear me out. I’m 38 years old with zero personal debt, yet I would never feel comfortable retiring with a million dollars.

There’s too much that can happen over the next few decades — too much that can go wrong.

If you take a look at the national debt, it’s fairly reasonable to expect tax rates to rise significantly, for example. What if those additional taxes caused your your after-tax retirement income to drop like a rock?

Will I get payments from Social Security? Probably, but nobody knows for sure.

I worry what would happen if the “rule of thumb” calculations are wrong. What if 25 times annual spending doesn’t end up being enough for some reason? What then?

I hate the idea of having to go back to work at some point in my 50s or 60s. I also worry about becoming a burden on my children or the government.

When it comes to retirement savings, I would rather be safe than sorry. A lot can happen between now and 20 years from now. I would rather work more now, while I can, than throw in the towel early and wind up regretting it later on.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we all have to live with the decisions we make. We also have to be willing to accept the risks we take and be willing to change course if they don’t pay off.

Maybe it’s because I’m a parent, but I feel like early retirement comes with more risk than reward at this point in my life. If I were to step away from my work today to enjoy the rest of my 30’s and 40’s, I feel fairly certain my 50-something self would find my choices selfish and far too risky.

Financial independence, on the other hand, is a goal we can all strive for regardless of how long we plan to work. As for now, I plan to keep plugging away until I feel confident my retirement savings are “enough.” Hopefully I’ll know it when I get there.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.