Work hard, save money, trust the stock market, and retire at 65. For decades, this was the middle-class script for success. But some millennials are asking, “Why should we wait so long?”
At the start of Playing with FIRE (New World Library, Jan. 2019)—the acronym stands for financial independence, retire early—Scott Rieckens appeared to be living his dream in Southern California, accruing the usual trappings of wealth. A successful entrepreneur, Rieckens and his wife had a happy marriage, a young daughter, a boat club membership, and a BMW. But he couldn’t shake a rising sense of disquiet; he was creatively stifled and stuck in an unhappy cycle of having to work harder to maintain his standard of living.
Unwilling to accept as a given the approach of middle-aged malaise, Rieckens did what comes naturally to most millennials in distress—he went online for answers. There, he writes, he discovered the FIRE movement, and a new goal: to shrink expenses enough to be able to live off of income generated by tax-optimized investments.
“Millennials are re-evaluating what financial success means to them by combining frugality, minimalism, digital savvy, and smart low-cost investing to reach financial freedom,” says Jason Gardner, executive editor at New World Library.
A little more than a year after he began pursuing FIRE, Rieckens and his wife had given up luxury cars and moved to a less expensive city in Oregon. Despite the acronym, members of the FIRE community aren’t retiring in the traditional sense, Rieckens writes: financial independence means having the flexibility to pursue one’s “true calling, whether or not it makes any money.”
For Rieckens and his wife, that calling is spending more time together raising their daughter. For Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung, the married authors of Quit Like a Millionaire (TarcherPerigee, July 2019), it’s traveling the world and writing.
The book opens with Shen as a five-year-old in China, rummaging through a medical waste heap for potential toys. Her family immigrated to Canada, where, she writes, her father reared her with the Chinese concept of chi ku, or “eat bitterness,” which she describes as “accepting and pushing through pain without complaint.” She credits chi ku with giving her the strength to persevere, first as a child who didn’t speak English and who was sometimes mocked for being poor, and later as a computer engineering major who, her parents’ wishes notwithstanding, preferred writing over math.
Once Shen entered the workplace, her story had a pattern similar to that of Rieckens and other peers. She and Leung were exhausted from working all the time. The traditional next step would have been to buy a home, but in Toronto’s overheated market, she worried about going into massive debt as their IT jobs become more precarious. In 2012, she writes, they discovered FIRE and calculated that if they invested all their savings instead of using the money to buy a home, they could leave their jobs in three to five years.
It took even less time. By 2014, Shen was a 31-year-old millionaire, and, she writes, “We’re free!”
FIRE ambassadors have generated, well, a firestorm online. A New York Times article featuring Rieckens and Shen alongside others who say they’ve dropped out of the rat race early—such as Elizabeth Willard Thames, author of 2018’s Meet the Frugalwoods—inflamed readers, who took to social media to say that these goals are attainable only by those already earning six figures. Bloomberg Opinion summarized their position: “If you’re going to downsize, it helps to have size to begin with.”
Both forthcoming books try to head off such criticisms by supplementing the authors’ personal tales with vignettes of those who began the path to FIRE from lower incomes. Regardless of the starting point, the financial formulas and charts, which depend on a market that always bounces back, remain the same.