Most FIRE (Financially Independent, Retire Early) blogs talk about financial independence and early retirement as one cohesive unit. Meaning, achieve the first, then strive for the second. However, early retirement doesn’t NEED to be your goal. Financial Independence, though, should be.
In truth, those of us who love our jobs probably don’t dream of early retirement. After all, there is nothing wrong with loving what we do for a living. Hell, I wish I loved what I did. But, I didn’t. For me, early retirement was the goal.
But for you, it doesn’t have to be.
Even if you have no real plan to call it quits early, there is still incredible wisdom in achieving financial independence as early in your life as possible.
Why? Because someday, your job may no longer make you smile. It might become a drain on your life and mind – just like my job was toward the end.
Truthfully, it is only natural to link financial independence and early retirement together. In fact, the term “FIRE” means precisely that, Financially Independent Retire Early. I talk a lot about these two issues as if they were linked at the hip, but this article is going to be different.
It is important to understand that these two concepts are absolutely mutually exclusive and can (and do) exist independently of each other. Keeping these topics separate is critical to understand the wisdom of becoming financially independent for virtually anyone alive.
Imagine you are having a conversation with someone about your plans to escape corporate America early. It might go something like this:
You: I hate my job so much, man. I am planning on retiring early.
Them: Yeah? Like, how early?
You: In about two years.
Them: You’re so full of it! You’re only 35…there’s no way you can retire by 37.
You: Yeah there is! I’ll be financially independent in another year and a half. With your salary, you could become FI too in a few years.
Them: Whatever. I love my job, so why go through the hassle? I don’t want to retire early.
What do you say at this point? If it were me, my response would be simple:
You: Fine, then become financially independent and keep working. Nothing wrong with that!
Don’t believe that Financial Independence is only possible for the “wealthy”
I remember a comment that one of my readers left to our September 2015 budget report (for the record, we no longer write budget reports because they took the most time and were easily the least popular posts on the blog!).
In September of that year (we both worked full-time at that point), my wife and I earned a combined income just shy of $12,000. The commenter reported a combined income between her and her husband of $4,000. Surely, $8,000 makes a huge difference in early retirement, right? Honestly, yes, yes it does. But, does someone NEED to bring in $12-grand a month to retire early?
Though financial independence is not a luxury designed only for high-income earners, there is no getting around the fact that our higher incomes made the whole early FI process quicker.
That part is absolutely true.
But, don’t compare yourself to us (or anyone else for that matter). I do believe that you’ll need a big income to achieve financial independence in your 30s. But, that doesn’t mean that financial independence isn’t achievable on a much lower income. It might take longer. It might look different. The point is: it’s still possible.
And, financial independence depends heavily on your expenses. The less money that you spend over the course of the year, the easier financial independence gets. For the record, we spend between $30,000 and $35,000 a year living in our Airstream.
For my wife and I, we’ve both enjoyed quite a number of advantages in our lives, but we also worked hard and smart to take full advantage of them.
Financial Independence for the job-loving
Like I’ve said, if you’re not planning on retiring early, there is still much wisdom in becoming financially independent. But many of our blogs – yes, mine included – far too often link these two concepts together, giving the impression that if the “RE” part of FIRE is not of concern, then why focus on FI?
There are several reasons why FI is important even for those who have no plan to retire early:
- Your next boss might totally suck, prompting you to contemplate slamming your head against a brick wall just for the few extra “workman’s comp” days off
- Your organization might shrivel up and dissolve or relocate, or otherwise stop doing business in its current capacity
- You may no longer enjoy what you’re doing in the future
- You might watch a documentary about a poor Ecuadorian school on television and would do anything to live there for a while and teach the local children English
- You might have a family emergency, requiring months of time away from the office
In other words, things might change from the rosy awesomeness that they may currently be.
At one point, for example, I quite enjoyed what I did for a living. But in my business (Computer Science), the profession has a way of literally draining the life out of you. Each passing year I become less and less enamored with the idea of doing this for the rest of my life.
Things change. Your wants and desires morph over time and your ability to tolerate and feel genuinely happy with the way that we spend our time can, and probably will, adjust over time. Getting yourself financially prepared for the future, with the realization that it might not look exactly like the present, is one of the wisest moves that we humans could possibly make.
So, why become FI even if you love your job and want to work forever?
Financial independence provides the freedom and flexibility to do anything.
After reaching that buttery-sweet point of FI, YOU become the ultimate ruler of your life rather than your full-time job. You pick and choose your schedule. You decide your life’s work from that point on. You instantly put yourself in the position to dominate virtually every facet of your life, from top to bottom. No bosses. No schedules. No performance reviews. It’s all you. Though you might choose to work, your job is no longer required.
But remember, this article is not intended to convince you to retire early. Instead, this is about the freedom that we all get once we become independently wealthy.
If you have ever worked at a place where rumors of layoffs start circulating around the office, the employees who instantly begin coming in early and staying late, volunteering for uncompensated overtime and start kissing the boss’s khaki-covered ass are not financially independent.
If those people were, they’d have nothing to worry about. They would continue strutting around the office with the confidence and carefree attitude that they always had, completely unaffected by the threat of layoffs. Being financially independent, this person can easily take the next 6 months off to “decompress”, George Costanza-style, then re-enter the working world that they apparently love so much for more jobiness. On their terms. When they damn well feel like it.
Which would you rather say if you were laid off tomorrow:
I’m laid off? Oh crap, I gotta get my resume together; damnit, I should have done that last week when the rumors started. What the heck am I going to do about my credit card payment? Am I gonna lose my season tickets? Jeez, FML…
I’m laid off? Cool, I get to sleep in.
Important bottom line: Whether you like your job or not – or plan to retire early or not, the instant that financial independence is achieved, your life changes. Your ability to quit your job and do something else becomes simple. Layoffs become meaningless. Your confidence to try new things and exert yourself almost becomes automatic.
The minute that my wife and I became financially independent in 2015, my work life suddenly changed, and it became epically better.
Note: This article was originally published in 2015, but has been updated after my retirement from full-time work last December.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.