Aiming For FIRE? Beware The Boring Middle
Fee-for-service financial planner and founder of PlanEasy.ca
Financial Independence Retire Early (aka FIRE) is one of those big personal finance goals that has gotten a lot of attention recently. The idea of being financially independent, choosing when and if to work, is attractive for many people, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the world.
To be financially independent means that your investments (whether that be stocks, bonds, GICs, real estate etc) can provide enough income to cover annual expenses indefinitely. FIRE enthusiasts typically use the 4% rule as a guideline for how much income they can generate from their portfolio each year. The idea being that a person can draw 4% of their initial portfolio balance, adjusted for inflation each year, and have reasonably high chance of not running out of money after 30-years.
By using the 4% rule we can generate a rough target for FIRE. The basic idea is that you can take your annual expenses and multiply by 25 and that is your “FIRE number“. This is the amount needed in investments to safely retire early (although with low interest rates and low bond returns at the moment this rule is often thought to be too risky).
But despite it being a simple concept, reaching FIRE is a difficult task. It requires a high savings rate, low expenses, and lots of time.
FIRE is made easier with an above average income, which allows for a higher savings rate, but it is still a difficult task. Reaching FIRE means living well below your means for an extended period of time.
This combination of low spending, high savings, and a long time frame can lead to what’s known as “the boring middle”.
In this post we’ll briefly explain what FIRE is, why it’s so easy in the beginning, and why “the boring middle” could be a sign that there is an imbalance in the plan, one where the means may not justify the end.
What Is FIRE?
FIRE is a short for Financial Independence Retire Early. It’s a personal finance goal that many aspire to. The FIRE movement is all about creating financial freedom through an above average savings rate (savings divided by net income) coupled with long-term investing.
A mix of low spending, high savings, and long-term investing allows those pursuing FIRE to retire early or become financially independent well before traditional retirement age.
The higher the savings rate the faster it’s possible to achieve FIRE. It’s possible to retire in as little as a few years, but typically with a 50% savings rate it takes 16.6 years to reach FIRE (and that’s if everything goes to plan).
The focus on FIRE sometimes leads people to have an ultra-high savings rates and very low spending. This is often seen a way to reach FIRE faster, it’s a “means to an end”, but with FIRE the end and the means are the same, and an ultra-high savings rate can sometimes lead to trouble.
In The Beginning
When first learning about FIRE everything is exciting and new. Perhaps you’re already saving a good portion of your income, or perhaps you haven’t been saving much at all. Either way, the idea that a high savings rate and a bit of time is all it takes to reach financial independence is an exciting idea.
The concept of low spending, high savings is simple to understand. It might lead to other new concepts like low-cost index indexing, living below your means, having FU money. It might also lead to learning about other forms of FIRE like lean-FIRE, fat-FIRE, coast-FIRE, barista-FIRE, entrepreneur-FIRE etc etc.
In the beginning there are lots of fresh ideas new information to understand.
There are also lots of lifestyle changes that might take place. Changes to help increase savings rate, decrease expenses, increase income. Investments might get shuffled around, especially if currently in high priced mutual funds.
The beginning is exciting. This is the stage where everything is new and fresh. The concept of FIRE is so attractive and appealing that some big lifestyle changes might get made to align with this new goal. This stage could take months or even years. But after the beginning inevitably comes the middle.
The Boring Middle
After the excitement of the beginning comes the middle, the boring middle… this is when everything is on autopilot. Savings are funneled off regularly from each paycheck and invested in a low-cost portfolio. Debt is paid down. Expenses have been minimized to the greatest extent possible to allow for the highest savings rate possible.
Once these things are set up there is nothing to do but wait. With regular saving, regular investing, low expenses, it’s just a matter of time before FIRE is achieved.
This is the boring middle… and it can be long. Even with an above average income, and below average expenses, most won’t reach FIRE until 15-20 years after they start (find out how long it would take you to reach FIRE).
This long period of waiting can be BORING!
But the boring middle… is life, and life shouldn’t be boring.
The boring middle should be a carefully crafted life that still allows for FIRE but is also is enjoyable and fulfilling.
This balance can sometimes be difficult to achieve. For those who are just starting out on their FIRE journey it’s easy to miss that balance and tilt too far to one side.
This type of imbalance can be dangerous, it can be hard to see, but it usually presents itself as “the boring middle”.
Finding The Right Balance
When aiming for FIRE, or any other financial goal, balance is important.
Life today shouldn’t be sacrificed for life in the future. But life in the future shouldn’t be sacrificed for life today. It’s a difficult balance to achieve.
For some, pursuing FIRE can be so enticing that they miss the point of FIRE. They’re too focused on the end. FIRE early is all about freedom. The freedom to live life as you want without the constraint of employment, income, financial worry or stress.
Enjoying that freedom should include the years before reaching FIRE as well. It may require adding a few years to the goal but finding the right balance might be all that’s required to forget about “the boring middle” and enjoy life now while still preparing for the future.
Financial planner, personal finance geek and founder of PlanEasy.