Where Are You on the FIRE Spectrum?

There are many paths to retirement – from being born into wealth to never retiring. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Adam

Written by Adam on June 10, 2019.
8 min read. Financial Independence. 7 comments.

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Everyone has a unique relationship with money and a distinct path to retirement. These range from people who never work a day in their lives to those who never retire. There are always going to be people who build wealth faster than you and others that are on a slower path.

In other words, there’s a spectrum of people who pursue FIRE.

fire spectrum
fire spectrum

After I posted about my experience retiring on Reddit, it got me thinking: people are kind of judgy. Specifically, the most negative comments seemed to be based on the idea that unless you have had to grit out a path to FIRE through years of tradeoffs you had it easy.

On the spectrum of people that pursue FIRE, there’s a huge range of options! Just check out this chart to see what I mean:

FIRE Spectrum
FIRE Spectrum

Even this doesn’t take into account the multitude of other advantages that people have in life ranging from stable upbringings, paid for college and winning the ovarian lottery (being born healthy and in a rich country).

The farther down you go, the more “reproducible” your path to retirement is. The “traditional path to retirement” where you work until you’re 65 years old (or 67 now) and start taking social security is considered the “default” path. That’s the definition of a social safety net to help you when you can’t work.

Reproducibility doesn’t relate to difficulty! If anything, the farther down you go the harder and longer you’ll need to work. A company founder may work insane hours for years, but that’s very different than working long hours for decades.

When making this chart, I was surprised by where geoarbitrage ended up – but it makes sense! If you can get your expenses down to $20k/yr by living in Thailand, then you may only need around $500k to be set for life. This can play just a big a role as making more money – but is much more reproducible (whether you want to reproduce it or not is up to you though).

Laptop outdoors
Geoarbitrage can help reduce expenses

As you go farther up it becomes harder and harder to reproduce that path. Having tiny expenses enables FIRE at a much lower level of savings.

The easiest and least reproducible path is, of course, being born into a wealthy family where you don’t need to work a day in your life. No one wants financial advice from someone born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Between these are the paths just about everyone in the United States takes to retirement.

There are more people in blue collar jobs than white collar careers. There are more people in white collar careers than working at companies with crazy stock plans. There are even fewer people who hit it big in a startup or with an IPO, and fewer still that got rich from Bitcoin.

Reproducibility has another side effect too: the less reproducible, the more interesting the story. No one wants to read a FIRE blog about someone who inherited their money and never worked a day in their lives (well, except maybe others with that same path).

The same could be said about a blog about investing in Bitcoin by someone who hit it rich.

The reason for this makes sense: there’s less to learn. The more hardship and obstacles someone overcomes the more interesting their story! It’s the classic hero’s journey.

My own path to FIRE involved spans a number of spots on the spectrum – from working at K-Mart, to working a high-paying white collar career, to having some RSUs (stock options) and an ESPP, having a windfall from the sale of a business, getting a payout from an IPO, and having an inheritance when my mom passed away. That’s a very specific path that includes a lot of individual financial wins that built up to me being able to retire at 36.

There are a number of great blogs out there about building wealth, but when it comes to reproducibility, my path isn’t one I’d recommend. I can speak towards how to work hard, how to be obsessively focused on learning, how to read everything you can find about your career and how to constantly be the one people go to when there is a problem.

But even with this, there’s no guarantee of reproducibility. It’s the reason why I don’t state things like “anyone can be FIRE if…“. Everyone has their own path that will likely hit on a number of spots on this spectrum.

This is the key to me:

Retire early by minimizing expenses and spreading out your earning exposure.


Let’s look at an example here of a normal couple working towards retirement:

Retire at 70: If your only path to retirement only includes Social Security and you never save a cent of your income, then you might retire after 50 years working. 50 years is a LOT of years working.

Retire at 62: If you add Social Security + a blue collar job with some savings, then perhaps you can retire after 42 years working. 62 years old is the average retirement age in the United States stated by people who are currently retired.

When to retire
Gallup poll about expected retirement age.

Retire at 55: Add in more frugality, minimalism or geoarbitrage and our example person could cut this to 35 years working. Only 12% of people in the US expect to retire before they’re 60. In my experience, that matches up with the number of people in the US that are mindful consumers – but that number is growing for the younger population! Buying less house than you need, not going into debt and moving to a cheaper location can have a huge impact on your path to retirement. By avoiding lifestyle inflation while living beneath your means, the impact can be massive. If you’re working at 55, you can tap into your 401k without an early withdrawal penalty too!

Retire at 50: Add in some real estate and potentially your working years might go down to 30. Real estate has historically been one of the best ways to build wealth. Although I absolutely don’t want to be a landlord, if you own a handful of properties and rent them out, that income can substitute for a job (whether you consider this to be passive income or work is up to you).

Retire at 45: Create a successful side hustle on top of that and it drops to 25 years working.

Ok, I’ll stop there. What I’m trying to communicate is that to retire early, a lot of things need to go right. Every new thing that earns you income or significantly reduces your ongoing expenses cuts years off your working career.

If you’ve let your expenses climb over the years, perhaps the best thing you can do is to figure out how to drastically reduce expenses.

Anyone you see retire before age 60 (and especially for those who retire before 40) had the stars align in their life and that enabled them to retire much earlier than the average person.

While I don’t usually consider this luck, what worked for one person is unlikely to work for someone else. Pick out which parts of the FIRE Spectrum you could make the most of and work on those! (hint: It won’t be Bitcoin).

I’ve always found the best way to grow wealth is to constantly become better at areas that are already making me money. This didn’t require mastery, but it did involve branching out into new areas to increase my income. Rather than trying to fill all places on the FIRE spectrum at once, max out one, then see if another one makes sense to spend time on.

Whatever your path to FIRE is, don’t let the “reproducibility” of it limit sharing your story. We need stories of all types! Share your story, and think about what parts of it can help other people. (although, maybe share it on a blog rather than on Reddit).

Adam

About Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

7 Comments

Whitney Eilish

Whitney Eilish

June 12, 2019 at 11:46 AM | Reply

Hello! I am looking right now for the fund that will give me opportunity to get passive income and found this one: https://www.kitv.com/story/40599924/blockchain-credit-partners-bcp-opens-first-investment-fund-for-the-fire-community Terms sound great. Have you tried it?

Totally agree that we all need to share our FIRE stories. We need more diversity in the FIRE community so the more perspectives/stories we get, the better IMO.

The more the better for sure. I feel like comments on some

platforms lean towards the “not another blog” camp, but I’m very much of the alternate opinion – the more people sharing their stories the more chance there is to find someone to connect to!

Financial Velociraptor

Financial Velociraptor

June 12, 2019 at 5:11 PM | Reply

I started late but had it pretty easy I think. Pulled the plug at 40 on 5OCT2012 from a job paying 88k/year. Most people aren’t so lucky.

What we really need are more success stories from women and minorities. There’s totally a white “bro” thing going on in the community that is arguably toxic.

Very true. Last year at FinCon Chief Mom officer had a great question / discussion point with MMM about how to get more attention to women and minorities in the community. One of the recommendations was for those who are contacted by media outlets to recommend women, or to divert to them.

I like your FIRE spectrum chart. I’m right in the middle of that and I retired at 38.

Everyone has to find their own path. More stories would be great. It’ll make the community feels more inclusive.

Definitely! It kind of feels like we’re at a tipping point where more and more people are starting the journey today. It makes me excited for what stories we’ll start seeing in a handful of years – of even sooner.

Minafi - Financial independence through investing, minimalism & mindfulness.

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