As someone who often writes about how others can save money for retirement, I’ve never actually given much thought to when or how I’ll leave the workforce myself. So when deciding on ways to secure my financial future, I figured jumping right in the flames would be a good way to start.

In other words, I’m going to try “FIRE,” or the financial independence, retire early movement, which calls for people to save huge chunks of their income while they’re younger in order to retire in their 30s or 40s. This mindset, which requires being frugal and extremely budget savvy, is gaining steam with everyday Americans and has made luminaries of people like “Financial Freedom” author Grant Sabatier.

Supersavers put away 50% or more of their income and live on what’s left. Based on my past vices, like spending $2,300 a year on Starbucks and loving it, I think I can safely say I’m not one of them. Yet.

Still, since the idea of trading in my computer keyboard for a West Coast cabana sounds pretty nice, I’m giving FIRE a shot.

Deciding which FIRE to burn: The traditional method vs. the ‘lean’ way

There’s more than one way to go about this, so figuring out which method will work best is key. While FIRE is all about financial freedom, it will look different for everyone depending on their goals.

There are several variations within the community. I narrowed it down to two:

  • Traditional FIRE: With the standard technique, savers determine what their expected annual expenses will be after they leave the workforce, then multiply that number by 25 to reach a comfortable retirement amount. Choosing this route means I can only spend 4% of my savings each year but will conceivably not run out of reserve funds, barring a big unexpected expense. Retired Americans ages 65 and older spend about $50,220 annually, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Using that marker, I’d need to cache $1.2 million to live out my golden years comfortably.
  • Lean FIRE: This method focuses on a minimalist lifestyle and lean budget. The idea is to save more money now and spend less later. People using this strategy reevaluate their expenses to cut costs while they’re working and often live off $40,000 a year or less after calling it quits. The advantage: It doesn’t take as long to store the funds you need. The downside: I would have to move to a cheaper statesell my car, and possibly eat rice and beans every day to cut down costs.

I’m planning to start slow

Even if you do manage to save a lot of money while you’re young, those dollars will have to last the rest of your life. While I can definitely get behind the idea of sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere when I’m older, I don’t want to deprive myself of good food and drinks right now.

So I’m going the traditional FIRE route, and the first step is customizing my number. I started off by playing with the numbers on Grow’s retirement calculator, which specifies a goal based on your age, income, current savings, and outside factors like inflation. Then I compared that to what 25 times my post-work life spending would be and found an amount I felt comfortable with.

To maintain a smooth post-work life (assuming I retire at age 67), I need to save about $1,100 a month. Since I’m in my 30s, if I’m aiming to retire before age 50, I need to amp that up. Here are the steps I’m going to take.

Keep expenses low. I have to trim my spending. I can’t see myself eating mostly ramen (and neither can my doctors), but I can manage to swap a dinner out each week for a less expensive homemade meal.

Reducing how much I spend on food, streaming services, and even housing can help, but I don’t necessarily need to go to extremes, since there are other ways to improve my financial picture and get closer to my goal.

Boost income. Getting a side hustle or part-time job is a great way to earn extra cash. I don’t think I’ll have the bandwidth for that, but I’m planning to look for other ways to up my income. Namely, taking advantage of any raise or cost of living salary increase that presents itself.

Pay down debt. Along with millions of other borrowers, I owe part of the collective $1.7 trillion outstanding student loan debt. I also have a credit card balance and other bills I need to pay. Part of the money I save from cooking at home, driving less, and taking a break from bingeing “American Horror Story” I’ll put towards those financial priorities.

Prioritize investing. Investing is also an important step. For a lot of Americans, that means building and diversifying a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can weather market volatility. That’s included in my plan, though I’m really aiming to pay myself first by contributing to my 401(k) and other vehicles that benefit from compound interest.

I’m going to focus on the big picture

You don’t have to be super rich or money savvy to start saving more, and more ambitiously, for your future. It does help to have resolve, though, and to be OK with being the odd one out in your social group.

“My friends were all going out, spending a ton of money — I lived in a crappy apartment and drove a crappy car,” Sabatier previously told Grow. “The biggest challenge on the financial independence path was to choose to live my life differently than the other people in my life.”

Detractors argue that FIRE is for high earners and extreme penny pinchers. It seems to me that the movement is about changing your individual lifestyle to match your financial aspirations, and I think I can do that. I don’t know how easy my journey will be, but laying the groundwork should help light a spark.


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