Every afternoon, Lauren and Steven Keys stroll along the beach near their Florida home with their fellow retirees.
They’re not octogenarians enjoying the fruit of decades of labor. They’re not even 65, just beginning their post-retirement life. Lauren is 32 and Steven is 31, and the couple retired at 29.
“Every day, I can’t believe that this is my life right now,” Lauren says.
After graduating from the University of Florida in 2012, the Keyses took a 45-day road trip to Alaska before beginning full-time jobs and grad school. The switch from the freedom of the road to the obligations of work and adulthood was jarring. They began to fear the vacation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before 40-plus years of work. When they discovered the concept of early retirement, it seemed like a path to the life they wanted.
Already frugal, they took an even harder look at their finances and started tracking their net worth. They lived off a small fraction of their combined teacher and marketing salaries, picked up side hustles, downsized to one used car, said no to Starbucks and eating out, and invested the majority of their income. Today, they’ve visited every national park, spent six months in Hawaii, and last year, joined TikTok to show others how to live like they do.
They’re part of a growing online community championing quitting work long before 65, with hashtags like#EarlyRetirement, #RetireBefore30, and #FinancialIndependence. Scrolling through this content can be overwhelming, and it’s difficult to discern who’s a real person with real tips, like the Keyses, who don’t charge for their advice, and who’s a scammer who just wants your cash (presumably to fund their retirement). But there’s no doubt many TikTokers are taken with the idea of leaving the daily grind well ahead of their twilight years.
Long before TikTok, proponents of what’s called FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) have pursued early retirement. But on the app, the movement built on aggressive saving, investment, and frugality has found a new audience — and come up with new strategies for piling up cash. The generally held advice is you need to reach a net worth 25 times your annual cost of living to theoretically live off your savings for the rest of your life. So, if you make $70,000 after taxes and live off half of it, you would need to reach a net worth around $875,000 to retire early. According to one of the many online FIRE calculators, that could take a little over 16 years to achieve. And that’s assuming you’ll always live off of $35,000 for the rest of your life. If you can bump up your savings and increase your income, you could get there even faster. The methods TikTokers recommend to do that are endless: crypto, affiliate links on Amazon, opening new credit cards, investing in index funds, downgrading your car and home, selling clothes online, monetizing your hobbies, renting out rooms in your house, the list goes on. The key is to not just to save, but continually grow your income and invest the majority of it.
One creator who goes by Dumpster Diving Freegan documents finding everything from coffee and wine to toilet paper and pregnancy tests for free, even though she works in banking. She’s saving for early retirement and reducing waste, she explains in a video.
Some “early retirement” proponents say they plan to keep working, but only in ways they want to, like Taylor Price, 21, a podcaster, financial influencer, and entrepreneur in Raleigh, North Carolina, with 1.2 million followers, who wants to retire by the time she’s 30, but not halt all her projects. “The term retirement to me means work is optional,” she says. “I have a passion to work.”
Cherry Tung, 26, a financial coach in Los Angeles, left a career in accounting and now, thanks to good financial planning, qualifies herself as “work optional.” She shares financial advice on TikTok and sells a course for others hoping to retire early. “I feel really uncomfortable doing nothing,” she says. “My purpose is in creating some impact and if it’s not in a corporate job, it has to be something else that I’m doing. ”
Even the Keyses aren’t after a lifetime of local beach strolls. Sure, they’re planning to travel to other countries. Maybe they’ll have children. Or maybe they’ll open a coffee shop? That was always the allure of early retirement: opening themselves to challenges, opportunities for growth, and yes, even work, but on their own terms.
Gen Z could be uniquely primed to retire early — they get a personal-finance 101 class every time they scroll through social media, and according to a 2021 Goldman Sachs Asset Management report on retirement, 25 percent of surveyed Gen-Zers plan on retiring before age 55, compared to 17 percent of millennials and just 8 percent of Gen X.
But should they? Neha Bairoliya, an assistant professor at USC who studies aging and retirement, says retiring so young is inherently risky: People underestimate the length of their life; nursing homes and retirement communities are exorbitantly expensive; health care costs more as you age; family planning is difficult to predict; access to premium Medicare and pension funds depends on the number of years you work; and the market can be unpredictable.
What worries her more is the potential loss of work experience if, years after your early retirement, you have to go looking for a corporate job again. At 21 in 2022, you might be able to hustle your way to large sums of money. But 20 or even 40 years from now, what happens if unexpected costs force you back into the traditional workforce? “You’re closing too many doors behind you by making this decision,” Bairoliya says. “Your future self might not be very happy with that.”
It’s also not possible for everyone to do this. The FIRE movement in particular has been criticized for not taking into account the socioeconomic conditions and systemic racism that make it impossible for many people.
Those who retire early have common advantages: a college degree, no student debt, a partner to share expenses with, no children or relatives to care for, access to health care, and a choice about where to live. Charmagne Chi, who retired at the age of 42 in Buffalo, New York, is quick to admit her own early retirement is thanks to a combination of luck, privilege, and lifestyle. To claim otherwise is “super tone-deaf,” she says.
She graduated debt-free and inherited some wealth from her parents. She shares living expenses with her husband — their city, neighborhood, house, and car cost less than they can afford — and they don’t have any children.
She’s also vocal about saying that while quitting her job did relieve a lot of stress in her life, it wasn’t the magic fix to her anxiety and burnout she thought it would be, offering transparency you don’t often see among the early-retirement crew on TikTok.
When @taybeepboop, who asked to be identified only by her TikTok username, shared her bright, disco-ball-enshrined, maximalist home in San Francisco, all the comments demanded one thing of the 28-year-old post-production freelancer: How did you afford this?
She wasn’t a part of early-retirement TikTok — she just wanted to show off her DIY décor — but answered the question anyway.
By denying herself everything but her most basic needs, she paid off her college debt in under a year and eventually saved enough for her home. When her friends went out to eat, she just ordered water. She found odd jobs on Craigslist, participated in medical trials, opened new email accounts to get food through giveaways, worked overtime on weekends, and often went to bed hungry. She was even in the process of selling her eggs when she realized she’d reached her financial goal.
Hers could have been an aspirational tale perfectly packaged in a three-minute video. But for @taybeepboop, all of this deprivation came at a steep price. She thought she’d be able to spend more freely after she had enough money saved, but instead still struggled to eat out when she knew she had food at home or enjoy vacations with her friends. Today she’s in therapy, dealing with the anxiety that came from her year of living wildly below her means.
It’s a paradox common on social media: People praised her for paying off her debt and achieving financial independence, even though it came at a high cost to her mental health. In the video detailing her financial journey, @taybeepboop cautions people against replicating her path, though it hasn’t stopped comments like, “You’re so inspiring.”
“The majority of people are just desperate,” she says. “They want any life preserver.”
This is one reason financial content performs so well on TikTok. Young people are overwhelmed by debt, unable to buy homes, and feel ill equipped to one day retire. When someone online is doing well financially, they’re desperate to know how to copy them — and might not consider a negative outcome. Even @taybeepboop thinks maybe she’d do it all over again.
“It was a horrible time in my life that I sort of blacked out,” she says. “But at the same time, I own my own home and I’m financially independent.”
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