The FIRE movement — an acronym for Financial Independence, Retire Early — is largely known for being dominated by white tech-bros who stockpile their paychecks in the name of quitting the rat race in their 30s, for good. And while many FIRE success stories do fit that profile, the community has now grown beyond Reddit boards and into the wider world of men and women across different industries and income levels. This more diverse demographic hasn’t captured as many headlines for a simple reason: They need more time to save up, so most of them haven’t actually hit their FIRE number (i.e. the point where they can retire) quite yet. Still, FIRE is more of a life philosophy than a singular goal. Here, a 30-year-old FIRE acolyte in the Seattle area shares her plan to retire at 45 — or 40, if she and her husband feel like it — while they raise their son, pay off their mortgage, and still enjoy the occasional vacation, all on their construction-job salaries.
I first came across the FIRE movement when I was paying off my student loans. I graduated in 2009 with a degree in environmental science and a significant chunk of debt — $24,000, with an 8.5 percent interest rate. When I went online and calculated how much the interest was accruing, I was like, “Holy crap, I have to do something about this.” So I started reading debt payoff blogs, and from there, I found the FIRE blogs.
It took me three-and-a-half years to pay off my loans, which wound up being about $30K total, including interest. I wasn’t making a lot of money, and for most of that time, I was working two jobs. My husband and I got married right out of college, had a child — who is now 3 and a half — and bought a home a couple years ago. He was in the military, and we lived in a tiny town in South Carolina where he was based. I worked as a naturalist on one of the barrier islands, but it only paid $750 a month, so I got a second job at PetSmart. When we moved to the Seattle area a few years ago, I got a job as a park ranger that paid $15 an hour, which felt like a significant raise compared to what I was making in South Carolina. Then I got what I would call my career job, as a LEED AP in sustainable building. I held down both jobs for a little while, while I was finishing off my loans, and now I just work for the building company.
In terms of how we live, our life still looks pretty similar to our early 20s — we just make more money now. My husband also works in construction; he’s an assistant site superintendent. Between the two of us, our combined income is in the very low six figures — I make a little bit more, but we’re pretty comparable. Individually, we’re below the median income for our area, but for a family of three, we’re slightly above. We try to stick to the same lifestyle we’ve always had, though. When we bought our home, people said it was a nice “starter house,” but really, it’s our forever house. I was sure to pay off my student loans before we had a kid, and also made sure we had enough money to cover a reasonable maternity leave and hospital bills. Becoming a parent definitely changes things, but we’re pretty set on our family size staying what it is now.
Your “FIRE number” can be an age, date, or net-worth amount when you reach financial independence and no longer have to work if you don’t want to. In the FIRE community, that’s usually when your net worth is 25 times your annual expenses. The FIRE community also observes the “4 percent rule,” which is how much of your stock portfolio you can spend every year so that you never run out of money. For us, it’s a little more complicated, because some of our savings is in real estate instead of the stock market, so the 4 percent rule isn’t quite as applicable. In terms of net worth, there isn’t really an exact amount that we’re looking reach. It’s more about a combination of net worth and cash flow through other investments that would create an income of about $45,000 per year in perpetuity, for the two of us. It’s not like we’ll hit some number and then spend it down until we die. We want to build solid, stable, permanent sources of income that will work for us no matter what.
I started saving more aggressively about a year ago now. I’m 30, and our son will be 18 when we’re 45, so I worked off the idea that we’d like to be able to retire by that age at the latest. If we want to take off and do something else when he graduates from high school, we’ll have that opportunity. We could actually retire by 40 if we stick to the current track we’re on, but our kid will still be in school then, so we might as well work those few extra years. In the FIRE community, retiring at 40 or 45 is like, “Well, you’re doing all right,” but when you look at the general population of this country and the world, even retiring by 50 is pretty freaking incredible.
I got more serious about retiring early after my maternity leave. When I went back to work, it was crazy and overwhelming, so I cut back to 80 percent hours, which came with a 20 percent pay cut. We also put our son in preschool for a couple of days a week, so our finances were tighter. Around the same time, I’d started noticing that some of my older colleagues were really unhappy at work. They were approaching retirement age, but financially, they weren’t anywhere close to being ready. They just had work stretching on into eternity, and that freaked me out. I didn’t ever want to be stuck in a chair just because I needed the income to survive.
I care about my job, but becoming a big boss is not the goal at all. Before I had my son, it might have been, but after having him, I’ve realized that I want more out of life than just my career. I want to have time to go for long runs and go hiking and camping and exploring and traveling. To be in charge of a bunch of other people, working 60 or 70-plus hours a week — that’s just not something that I see for my future.
We’re tracking toward saving about 50 percent of our income this year. You’ll read FIRE blogs about saving 70, 80, or even 90 percent of your income, and that’ll never be us; we just don’t make that kind of salary, and the Seattle area has a pretty high cost of living.
You do see people burn themselves out in the FIRE movement. If I went back to working full-time hours and we cut our spending even more, could we get to retirement by 35, 38? Yeah, maybe, but it doesn’t seem worth it. We want to be able to travel and donate to charity this year. I’m not going to worry about every last penny to that degree. I would rather have my life in a good functional place, while keeping my eye on my FIRE number, than kill myself to get there.
In terms of cutting our spending, a lot of it came from reducing our food expenses. We’ve never been big spenders on material things — we spent $150 on all the furniture in our house, and most of it came from garage sales. We don’t have a microwave, and we didn’t have a functional TV for over a year. Those things just don’t matter that much to us. But we did always spend a lot of money on food. We really enjoy local, sustainable produce and craft beer and good-quality meat, so we kind of gave ourselves a blank check in that category. Between eating out and groceries, we were going through $2,000 to $2,500 a month on food for the three of us. Once I started tracking our food expenses more carefully, I was able to cut them down to $800 a month. That’s still more than most FIRE savers, but like I said, food is important to us.
Now, we do a lot more basic cooking; we don’t buy any prepared food or snacks. Instead of getting a pre-marinated chicken breast or pork loin, I’ll get the straight-up meat and do the marinade myself. We buy a quarter cow from a local farm every summer and that lasts us a while. I even make my own English muffins. It doesn’t save us a ton of money, but it’s fun and my kid likes to help — it’s just flour, water, butter, yeast, and a few other things. We also have a garden, so we grow vegetables and can them. Being purposeful about using what we have on hand has saved us a bunch of money. I used to just swing by the grocery store and pick things up all the time, and I’d buy random things that we didn’t need. Now I make a point to not go grocery shopping more than once a week.
As for other expenses: I’m 18 months into a clothing ban. I wanted to go for a year, and the first three months were really hard, but now it’s just a routine. I wanted to shrink my wardrobe, and then I realized that the best way to do that was to not buy anything anymore. Occasionally, I wish I could buy a cardigan or a new pair of boots or something, but I’ve gotten some good hand-me-downs from friends.
I try to have as many $0 spend days as I can, and I’ll plan around them so that our bills are chunked together. We don’t use a budget at all, even though I’ve tried to use spreadsheets a ridiculous number of times. They just don’t work for me. I make up random categories, and then halfway through, I find that I’m off. I do much better to just set a total number amount each month and then ebb and flow with what costs we have. In terms of percentages, I’m trying to go 50/50: 50 percent goes to savings, and then our necessities probably take up 70 percent of what’s left over. And the rest is discretionary.
My husband took a little longer to come around to the idea of early retirement. He thought we were doing pretty well with our finances already, and didn’t see why we needed to boost our savings — we were putting away about 20 percent of our income, which is good. But he’s definitely interested in the concept of financial independence. He doesn’t necessarily want to stop working, but he does want to be able to work, say, 20 hours a week on projects that sound fun to him, or take three months off if he feels like it. I don’t think he would’ve thought about the possibility if I hadn’t introduced it to him, and it was a slow and steady process. Generally, he’s content with me directing where our money ends up. We discuss it, but he doesn’t want to be involved beyond the high-level, occasional talks. We share big expenses, like our mortgage and food and child care, and then what’s left over goes into our separate checking accounts so we can spend it the way we want.
In terms of what we envision for our retirement, it’s probably pretty generic. We might want to live in another place at least part of the year, and get a larger piece of property. We also want to be able to slow travel. Socially, it definitely helps that most of our friends don’t have a ton of money. We like to have people over, but we’ll say, “Hey, we’re having a bonfire, bring a dish to share,” and that’s it. We still buy craft beer — we live in the Northwest, after all — but we’ll fill up a growler instead of a six-pack.
Becoming an active member of the FIRE community, through blogs and social media, has made a huge difference. Having the accountability of sharing my spending reports every month is really helpful. I have offline friendships with some of those people now too, so we’ll text and call and see what’s up. I can tell you that it’s definitely not just all guys in tech. I have a number of female and male friends with normal jobs and incomes who are pursuing the FIRE path. It may take us a little longer to get there, but it’s possible.