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Created on 08.06.2021

Retire at 40? How the FIRE movement works

How about stopping work at 40 and enjoying life to the full – and having the freedom to do the things you really want to in life? It sounds quite utopian, but doesn’t have to be. Achieving financial independence and retiring at 40 is the life goal for an increasing number of millennials. They follow the principles of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) lifestyle movement. We explain here what it’s all about and how FIRE works.

Ever heard of FIRE? The FIRE movement is a trend that originated in the USA, but is enjoying growing appeal in Europe and Switzerland too. FIRE devotees aim to achieve financial independence well before the regular pension age so they can stop working once they reach 40. That’s why the movement is called “financial independence, retire early”.

Most followers of FIRE are millennials seeking to live their lives differently to their parents and grandparents and not work up to the age of 60. To achieve this, they need to show discipline both in saving, but also in investing.

How realistic is FIRE?

Achieving FIRE is generally not an easy task: retiring at 40 means maximizing your monthly rate of saving and investing this money to enable you to live off your passive income after retirement. The FIRE community has created its own mathematical models and principles to achieve this goal. One of them is the “4 percent rule”: assets need to be saved and invested in such a way that the use of 4 percent of your assets a year will be enough until the end of your life. This obviously entails maximizing your assets. This can be done in two ways:

  • Minimizing monthly outgoings and/or increasing income
  • Investing all assets systematically and often aggressively

The first point is quite self-explanatory: FIRE devotees live extremely frugally. That’s why they’re often called frugalists. FIRE followers make savings everywhere – on holidays and other forms of enjoyment, but also in everyday life. They shop as cheaply as possible, avoid visiting hairdressers and restaurants and give up expensive hobbies, etc. By doing so, they aim to save, or even better, invest around 40 to 50 percent of their monthly income. To attain their goals, many FIRE followers also take on additional employment to boost their income. 

This second point is key. FIRE can’t be achieved through saving alone. At least 60 percent of the money saved needs to be consistently invested in shares or equity-based ETFs.. Systematic investment means the benefits of the compound-interest effect come into play. You can find out more in the article “Compound interest and the compound interest effect explained in simple terms”. Focusing on shares is essential to have any chance of generating sufficient returns. 

FIRE calculations made easy

How much capital do you actually need to retire at 40? Let’s go back to the 4 percent rule. FIRE devotees usually do a simple calculation: they work out their annual required living costs and multiply them by 25 (to meet the 4 percent rule) – this is intended to be a rough estimate and usually does not take account of market fluctuations or reserves etc.

The simple variant

If you’d like to retire at 40 and then be able to afford to live off around CHF 80,000 a year for around 50 years, you’d need to save 2 million francs.

How long the money will actually last clearly also depends on the amount of annual yield generated by the CHF 2 million in capital after retirement. After all, the portion of the assets remaining after the 4 percent of assets used annually will continue to be invested. 

Put another way

If you’ve saved around CHF 100,000 by the age of 30 and wish to retire at 40 and then live off CHF 60,000 a year, you have to invest CHF 11,819 a month with a yield of 6 percent.

Setting aside enough money to retire at 40 is a huge challenge if you don’t start living a frugal lifestyle and focusing all your energy on achieving FIRE in your early 20s.

What’s more: the 4 percent rule, on which the calculation is based, comes from traditional retirement planning. It assumes you’ll live off your own assets for another 30 years after regular retirement at 60+. But those adopting the FIRE approach want to do so for around 50 years.

Many people committed to the movement apply their own calculations and come up with a figure of either 3 or 3.5 percent. Or they put their faith in being able to manage on lower living costs than planned if necessary, thanks to the frugal lifestyle skills they’ve applied for many years – or quite simply by going back to one of the jobs they did while in employment. 

How desirable is FIRE really?

Living a thrifty, modest lifestyle, which not only means more money in your portfolio and account, but also saves on resources is precisely what frugalists learn to do on the path to achieving FIRE. If you’d like to retire at 40, you also need to learn how to manage your own finances – how do you create financial plans and budgets? How do the stock markets work? How do I invest my money to achieve maximum, long-term profit, while only assuming the risk I’m able to?

FIRE is a good life lesson when it comes to being prudent and understanding finance. But FIRE definitely isn’t for everyone. Living on a shoestring, saving every penny and doing several jobs at the same time for decades isn’t something everyone wants to do. Having to make huge sacrifices now to maybe retire at 40 (to then perhaps have to live frugally afterwards) is too great a hardship for many people.

“And what would I do then at 40?” is something many people ask themselves. Being retired at 40 when all your friends are still working may mean a very lonely existence – and work isn’t always a necessary evil, it provides a sense of purpose and source of satisfaction for many people.

Then there are also considerations of a purely financial nature: do I really want to spend exactly the same amount of money all my life and watch every penny? What happens if my circumstances change – children come along or health problems arise? How are the markets performing? What about inflation? Have I factored my AHV contributions – which I also have to pay when not in employment – into my calculations? And how can I insure against the risks of death and disability?

A frugal lifestyle has to be properly planned and well thought through – or you see FIRE as a personal challenge to retire at 40 without trying to achieve it at all costs – and retaining the flexibility to simply scale back or to go on working for a bit longer. There are also individual FIRE models, such as for people who only want to give up their main job while working part-time after retirement, or who’d be happy to retire at 50 or 55 and simply wish to have greater financial independence. 

Being able to retire when you want

Not everyone will be able or want to retire at 40. Many people aren’t able to save over 50 percent of their income each month. This may be because they only just about manage on their salary as it is.

It’s little surprise, then, that many members of the US FIRE movement are young people without children who work in large tech firms and earn high salaries – while also enjoying benefits such as free meals, complimentary gym memberships, company mobile phones and similar perks.

Some people are not willing to sacrifice the joys of life now and greatly restrict their lifestyle so they’re able to give up work in 20 years’ time. And others don’t want to do it at all.

But what’s good about FIRE is that it encourages people to reflect on their own financial situation, savings targets, investments and personal life goals and to acquire financial skills – regardless of whether they plan to retire at 40 or 65. 

Feeling inspired? You’ll find some concrete tips on how to get more from your retirement planning in the article “How to get more from your retirement planning.”

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