Work hard, save money, trust the stock market, and retire at 65. For decades, this was the scenario for middle class success. But some millennials ask, âWhy should we wait so long? “
At the beginning of Play with fire (New World Library, January 2019) – the acronym stands for Financial Independence, Early Retirement – Scott Rieckens seemed to be living his dream in Southern California, accumulating the usual attributes of wealth. A successful entrepreneur, Rieckens and his wife had a happy marriage, a young daughter, a yacht club membership and a BMW. But he couldn’t shake a growing sense of worry; he was creatively smothered and stuck in an unhappy cycle of having to work harder to maintain his standard of living.
Not wanting to take the approach to middle-aged discomfort as a given, Rieckens did what comes naturally to most distressed millennials: he went online for answers. There, he wrote, he discovered the FIRE movement and a new objective: to reduce expenses enough to be able to live on the income generated by tax-optimized investments.
âMillennials are re-evaluating what financial success means to them by combining frugality, minimalism, digitalisation and low-cost smart investing to achieve financial freedom,â says Jason Gardner, editor of the New World Library.
A little over a year after starting to sue FIRE, Rieckens and his wife had given up on luxury cars and moved to a cheaper town in Oregon. Despite the acronym, members of the FIRE community do not retire in the traditional sense, writes Rieckens: Financial independence means having the flexibility to pursue one’s “true calling, whether or not it makes money.” .
For Rieckens and his wife, this vocation is to spend more time together raising their daughter. For Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung, the married authors of Stop like a millionaire (TarcherPerigee, July 2019) is to travel the world and write.
The book opens with Shen, a five-year-old in China, rummaging through a pile of medical waste for potential toys. Her family immigrated to Canada, where, she writes, her father raised her with the Chinese concept of chi ku, or “eating bitterness”, which she describes as “accepting and enduring pain without complaining”. She credits chi ku for giving her the strength to persevere, first as a child who did not speak English and was sometimes laughed at for being poor, then as a computer engineer who , despite his parents’ wishes, preferred to write mathematics. .
Once Shen entered the workplace, her story followed a similar pattern to Rieckens and other peers. She and Leung were exhausted from work all the time. The traditional next step would have been to buy a house, but in Toronto’s overheated market, she was worried about going into massive debt as their IT jobs became more precarious. In 2012, she writes, they discovered FIRE and calculated that if they invested all of their savings instead of using the money to buy a house, they could quit their jobs in three to five years.
It took even less time. In 2014, Shen was a 31-year-old millionaire and, she wrote, âWe are free! “
The FIRE Ambassadors have generated, well, a firestorm online. A New York Times article starring Rieckens and Shen alongside others who say they gave up the rat race too soon, like Elizabeth Willard Thames, author of Meet the Frugalwoods in 2018, ignited readers, who turned to the social media to say that these goals are only achievable by those who are already earning six figures. Bloomberg Notice summed up their position: âIf you’re going to downsize, it helps to have size to start. “
The two forthcoming books attempt to counter such criticism by supplementing the authors’ personal accounts with vignettes of those who started the FIRE path from lower incomes. Whatever the starting point, the financial formulas and charts, which depend on an ever-rebounding market, remain the same.
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A version of this article appeared in the 03/12/2018 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: Fire-lighter