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Financial Independence: FREE vs FIRE

To understand what it takes to find your FREEdom, we first have to delve briefly into what it means to achieve FIRE. Inspired by Mr. Money Mustache (check out his blog under the same name), Vicki Robin (of the book “Your Money Or Your Life” fame) and countless others, there is a movement towards financial independence called “FIRE.”

Most of you have probably heard of FIRE, which stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early” but for those of you who haven’t, the gist of it is that you (1) work hard at a traditional job and (2) save as much of your income from that job as possible so that you can have enough money to retire well before age 65 and live off of that money comfortably for the rest of your life.

If you are only 35 and you are retired, this means you have saved a pretty extraordinary amount of money, depending on your lifestyle and anticipated yearly spending for the rest of your life.

For those struggling with student loans, high credit card debt or other financial obligations, the thought of saving enough money by the age of 35 or 45 to never have to work again is incredibly daunting. I thought so, too, until I dove a little deeper into what this FIRE community is really all about.

The Concept of FIRE

There are traditional FIRE followers who follow the “4percent rule.”  For these followers, once they achieve an investment portfolio large enough to be able to withdraw 4percent from it every year and live entirely off of that withdrawn amount, they quit their job and never have to think about working again.

Sometimes this is also described as having an investment portfolio that is 25x your anticipated annual expenses in retirement.  As an example, if you expect to spend $25,000 a year (a low number, in my opinion, if you are living in a city like NYC or are accustomed to spending a lot more), then you would need 25x that, or $625,000, saved up in an investment portfolio that is generating income for you in the stock market.  That is a ton of money.

(I am no expert in FIRE, I just dabble in learning about it, so if you want to take a really deep dive and follow a FIRE pioneer, definitely check out Mr. Money Mustache’s blog, https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/).

I can’t tell you about my investment portfolio and how I plan to withdraw 4percent a year to live off of because I decided to retire from my Biglaw job before I hit FIRE. I don’t know what my expected yearly expenses in retirement are going to be.

I am still currently living in NYC so rent alone is exorbitant, meaning spending something like $12,000 a year (which is what some FIRE followers are able to live off of), while doable for many, is not something I am interested in doing.

My Dilemma: was there something for me in between working full-time at my corporate job and achieving FIRE?

A year or two ago I attended a couple of firm-sponsored group coaching sessions for some of the more senior women associates. They were confidential sessions with an outside coach who talked to us about a variety of career-related topics.

During one session, we were led through an exercise in choosing words that represented our values from a list of a hundred or so words. I forget what the real point of the exercise was, but I distinctly remember what happened at the end.

We were randomly paired up with a co-worker and told to share our three values with her. I sat across from a woman I casually knew and shared that I was drawn to three words, two of which I now forget, and one of which was “freedom.”

When I shared these with her, she stared at me, paused for a moment, and bluntly said, “if freedom is one of your core values, what are you doing here?” Yikes, I thought, she is so right.

Burnout and Running from the Law

I decided to retire before FIRE because I was experiencing another kind of fire – the burn of burnout.  As I wrote about earlier (My Burnout Story) I was burned out and couldn’t imagine working at the firm any longer. It would take many more years of frugal living to reach FIRE and be able to save up enough to retire forever. There had to be another choice.

Before I quit my job, so many people told me that I could only quit if I was quitting in order to move towards something as opposed to running away from something. For a while I thought this was true, convinced that they were right and that if I was just running away from Biglaw (which was exactly what I was doing) but not going towards anything in particular, I was going to regret my choice to leave.

Guess what?  This didn’t happen.  It took me a bit of time, but I eventually accepted that it is totally ok to run from something that is making you miserable and unhappy even if you don’t have something in particular to run towards. That something will eventually appear.

As Vicki Robin wrote in “Your Money Or Your Life,” once you take action, “the dreams waiting for you to find them will start to appear.”  Once you leave something behind that is dragging you down, you are free to take on new things. It is ok to run from something even if you don’t know, yet, what you are running towards because maybe what you are running towards is just time, options, possibilities and freedom. And that’s plenty good enough!

How Do I Define What It Means to Be FREE?

So how is all of this connected to retiring before FIRE?  Well, once I got interested in and learned about the FIRE movement, I thought I needed to stay at my job that I hated until I had reached the magic FIRE number. Until I came to the realization that in doing that I would just be holding myself back.

I have a financial safety net, so I am ok until I find my next income-generating job. Until then, I am trying to relax and enjoy life. I might not have reached FIRE, so I am going to have to work again one day soon-ish, but I gave myself the gift of being FREE while I look for that next thing.  Below is how I define FREE:

Financial Responsibility: the basic tenants (which are evolving as I learn more) are the following:

  • Be as frugal as you can and as you want to be. You don’t have to restrict everything (I’m never going to tell you to skip your daily latte if that makes you happy and gets you through your work day). There’s no need to live like a monk or a nun, but you have to be actively trying to save your money by following some sort of budget, even if it is a loose one. Otherwise, your money can easily all disappear without you knowing where it even went.
  • Educate yourself on every aspect of your finances. Pay back your student loans. Don’t forget about your real retirement and make sure to save for that, too (don’t neglect that 401k).
  • Know what your financial goals are for the next 5 and 10 years. Do you want to buy a house in 5 years? Do you want to go back to school soon?  These are big financial commitments to consider when you are also trying to leave a job and you should at least have a plan (which of course can change) written down before you make any transition.
  • Decide on and then reach your FREEdom figure. This figure is going to vary for everyone, but it is the number you need to have saved up or invested before you would feel comfortable leaving a stable job.  Personally, I wouldn’t have been comfortable leaving my Biglaw job without at least five years’ of living expenses saved up (not including retirement savings like a 401k which I don’t believe you should touch, other than for an emergency, until you are in your 60s or 70s).  For others, it could be a shorter time period – maybe just enough to take a one year sabbatical from your current job, or a two-year break to get a master’s degree. Still for others, it is longer. All depends on your risk tolerance, lifestyle and life circumstances (e.g., what family you might be financially supporting).
  • Once you have your FREEdom figure saved up, you’ve done it! You’re ready for your Early Exit!

Early Exit:

This one is easy to define – follow the path laid out above, reach your FREEdom figure, and you will have gifted yourself the option to leave your job if you still want to.  Reaching that figure is easier said than done, but once you have practiced financial responsibility for long enough, you very likely are going to be ready to take an early exit from your job like I did.

FREEdom Is Not All Sunshine and Roses…

Everything is not going to be perfect once you are FREE.  For one thing, becoming FREE does not afford you as much peace of mind as reaching FIRE does because it is not permanent – eventually you will need to make money again.  For some people, that time will come relatively soon, for others it’s in the more distant future.  You do control, more or less, what that timeframe will be.

Another concern about FREE is what happens when your time away from the work force is up and you either need to or want to find a traditional job again?  If you have been out of the work force for 5+ years, what will there be to go back to?

While this is a risk we are all taking, I find it hard to believe that the skills you will develop over the course of those 5 years of FREEdom won’t be just as valuable to employers as those you would have gained if you had sat around in an office job you were not satisfied in.

There are other concerns too, I’m sure. What else would scare you about leaving the traditional work force and taking time off to “do nothing” or to carve out a new career?

…But It Sure Can Be Exciting and Open Up Doors!

For me, being FREE has lit a fire under me to find something that will both sustain what I am doing now (currently, that means really taking the time to build this blog) without having to worry about money in the short term, while at the same time work towards bringing in more income to keep this up.

I have given myself a set amount of time from when I started this blog to when I would even consider going back into the corporate world but I don’t expect to ever get to that point.

What Do You Want to Hear More About and Learn About?

Over the next few months I plan to write more about the concept of “Financial Responsibility, Early Exit,” including:

  • Tips for saving and budgeting without restricting all the fun from your life.
  • How to figure out your FREEdom figure and tips on how to reach it in a relatively short time.
  • What to do when you’ve saved up enough money but aren’t mentally ready to move on and take the jump.

What would you be interested in learning more about?  Comment below or send me an email!

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