You may have read about those people pursuing decades-early retirement and financial independence. They’re depicted, generally, as men in their 30s who work in tech.
Yet the financial independence movement, often called FIRE (financial independence, retire early), is far more diverse.
To begin with, it’s not all men.
There’s growing interest in the possibility of freedom from regular work. A financial independence subgroup on Reddit has 449,000 subscribers, a measure of how many people are interested in this slice of personal finance.
Liz Gendreau, 38, an IT program manager, hates the stereotypical male image. “I’ve seen many people in this movement that don’t fit the stereotype,” she said, “people from all different family situations, walks of life and income levels.”
But that’s not commonly reported. “Most of the articles either feature men, or they’ll feature a woman who is part of a couple,” Gendreau said, who blogs about her investing strategies and philosophy at Chief Mom Officer.
Starting around 2012, Gendreau says, many of the early proponents hit the scene and were in fact that clichéd persona. “They got a lot of media coverage,” Gendreau said.
In part, they were tech-oriented men with websites. “It’s hard to find people who don’t write about themselves on the internet,” Gendreau said.
But media did not accurately reflect the diversity of people who choose to live below their means and pursue independence. Instead, articles continued feeding the stereotype by covering those early adopters.
Women who are actively pursuing financial independence are nonplussed by the coverage, Gendreau says. “They wish other perspectives were portrayed,” Gendreau said. “Even some men came up to me [at a conference] and said, ‘I don’t fit that stereotype. It doesn’t apply to me.’ They are tired of seeing the same kind of stories.”
It’s especially ironic, given that women more often champion the benefits of living with financial restraint. “Your Money or Your Life,” co-authored by Vicki Robins and Joe Dominguez, is often held up as a guide by people in the financial independence community.
Gendreau now earns a salary that’s in the six-figure range and her husband is the stay-at-home parent for their three sons, yet it wasn’t always that way.
As a recent college grad, newly married and with a baby, she was broke. She turned to “The Tightwad Gazette” for some tips on saving money. She credits Amy Dacyczyn’s book with helping to crystalize her desire for financial independence and for introducing her to “Your Money or Your Life.”
The book helped Gendreau think about consumerism, frugality and Americans’ relationship with debt. “In the 1950s and ’60s it was harder to get into debt,” she said. “You didn’t have credit cards, you couldn’t take out much of a loan for a car or get as big a mortgage as you can now.”
For many years, people lived below their means, Gendreau says. Then came the years, especially the 1980s through the 2000s, when people began living at their means and above. “Original principles were lost,” Gendreau said. “[FIRE] is rediscovering things from the past, like the concept of financial independence.”
“Look at [Benjamin] Franklin,” Gendreau said. His adages about frugality and saving money are woven into American thought, even if they are often at odds with American consumerism.
The “e” in FIRE should stand for elective, Gendreau says. “Women don’t want to retire, they want security, freedom, flexibility,” she said. For many, it’s less about leaving the job than it is being able to keep it on their terms.
Stephanie Kibler, 32, started her journey to financial independence when she was in college, and found she didn’t have enough money to stay enrolled. She was racking up credit card as well as student debt and had to drop out. It was a rock-bottom moment that spurred her to get involved with learning more about personal finance. “I learned as much as I could,” she said, and started her blog, Poorer than You. (Tagline: “Money management for my fellow broke millennials.”)
Achieving financial independence is purely mathematical, Kibler says. Anyone can do it, no matter their income. But there are important differences for men and women.
“Women live longer, we have more incentive to do this,” Kibler said. There’s a greater risk of outliving assets, as well as spouses. After a divorce, women are often financially devastated.
“Being a single mother is the No. 1 signal of poverty,” Kibler said. “Overall, it’s expensive to be a woman. Not just the pink tax, but we can be hit harder in these financial situations.”
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Kibler says these concerns mean that women need a louder voice if they’re seeking financial independence, in part so they can help other women who want to be on that path.
She considers the financial independence movement a subculture of the personal finance community. “It was what I wanted, but never had the words for,” Kibler said. “A way to get myself financially secure so I wouldn’t have to be dependent on a day job.”
Although the FIRE movement gained momentum with the “highly visible tech bros,” as Kibler calls them, the original term comes from the Robin and Dominguez book. “There’s always been a woman at the forefront,” she said. “It’s easier to get to financial independence if you’re a man working in Silicon Valley making a large income. But it always had a lot of women,” Kibler said.
With a household income that’s a bit below the $100,000 median for the Washington, D.C., area, Kibler, her husband and small child live the FIRE life by shopping for bargains at the grocery store, sharing a car and living well below their means.
Her goal is accumulating enough money to meet whatever happens. “Job loss is a big one,” Kibler said. “Because I was laid off from dream job a few years ago.
“It was the worst thing that could happen,” she added. “I felt helpless, since I was the one bringing in the greater income.”
“For the last 20 years, I’ve been pursuing financial independence,” Gendreau said. “As my income goes up, it gets easier.”
If there’s one thing everyone in the movement has, it is commitment to a singular, future vision. To succeed, you need some things that virtually everyone has: time, money and patience.
People who hope to achieve financial independence are generally more balanced in their attitudes about consumerism. “There are people who are minimalist or anti-consumerism,” Gendreau said. “They don’t fall into one stereotype.”