Worried about having enough money in retirement? These frugal couples share their tips for living within your means — without sacrificing happiness.
The financial realities of life mean that most people work into their 60s. But for a small group, the work years actually end decades earlier, in their 30s or 40s. These early retirees aren’t necessarily born rich. They’re just frugal.
Many of today’s early retirees adhere to a somewhat radical movement called FIRE, or “financial independence, retire early.” By living well below their means, they’re able to save more than they spend. And then they leave the workforce decades before most people.
Jim White is one such early retiree. In 2018, at age 43, he left his engineering job in Cleveland. He and his wife — who also quit her job — sold their home and moved to Boquete, Panama, with their 8-year-old daughter.
“It’s all about your priorities and being intentional about achieving them,” says White, who chronicles his early retirement journey on his blog, Route to Retire. “I’d say we earned slightly more than the typical household, but it’s not like we were two married doctors.”
White, like the rest of the FIRE movement, represents a way of living that could free many people from the stress of money. Even if you’re already retired, you can still take a page from the FIRE playbook. Because learning to live below your means could make life a whole lot easier.
Whether you’re planning for retirement or already there, here’s how to use the principles of FIRE to improve your finances.
1. Build your life around your budget
Most people spend too much effort stressing about how to make their budget fit their lifestyle. Instead, figure out your budget and then rebuild your life — from scratch, if necessary — so that it fits within your limitations.
The Whites did this when they moved to Panama in the summer of 2019. They chose the country largely because of its low living costs. Affordable food and rent in the lush coffee-growing region where they now live provides a relaxing lifestyle at a fraction of the cost of life in Cleveland. They managed to get their whole family’s living expenses down to about $45,000 a year.
Mark Beneke is another FIRE adherent. He retired this year at age 29 after stepping back from working the two auto dealerships he owns with his brother. Even now, he and his wife have monthly budget meetings to review their spending and adjust plans for the month ahead.
“Having a monthly budgeting meeting is crucial for your success in [retirement],” says Beneke,who lives in Fresno, California.“It allows you to review your spending and make sure that every dollar has a name for the upcoming month. It helps you remember your goals and stick to your plan.”
2. Trim your “big three” expenses
Food, housing, and transportation are most people’s largest expenses, so anything you can save there will have a big impact on how much you can spend elsewhere.
White’s family, for example, doesn’t own a car. Instead, they rely on Panama’s public transportation. Their rent is less than $1,200 per month, and their grocery bills are much lower than in the U.S.
You might not be ready to move to South America to reduce your rent, but could you move into a smaller apartment? And even if you need your car to get around, does it have to be new? Cars lose about 40% of their value during the first five years of ownership, according to Carfax. That’s cash that comes right out of your retirement-living account.
3. Live a debt-free life
Thinking about taking out a loan for a home renovation project? Unless it’s absolutely critical, don’t do it. One tenet of FIRE is that debt is a financial anchor that drags you down.
When White graduated from college, he had $35,000 in student loans and upward of $30,000 in consumer debt, including credit cards. So he put everything he could toward it. He even lived with his parents for a year, diverting rent money to pay down his debt. “There’s no big secret to paying off debt,” he says. “The key is just to cut your expenses as much as possible and make it a priority.”
If you’re carrying debt now, make whatever radical lifestyle changes you need to eliminate it. Tackle your credit cards first, since they probably have you paying 15% to 20% in interest. Then move on to other debt. If you’re still carrying a mortgage, for instance, consider whether it makes more sense to pay it off or sell your home and downsize.
4. Make a game out of saving
Your best budgeting intentions will fail you if you can’t find joy in being frugal. So if the FIRE way of living sounds like a drag, treat it like a challenge or game, recommends Beneke. “I never feel as if making a sacrifice in one area of my life is in some way ruining my experience,” he says. “I view it as moving forward with my goals and getting one step closer to winning.”
So identify your financial problem areas and take aim. One fundamental idea of FIRE is that there’s always a way to save money without sacrificing happiness. “I used to think you’d need a billion dollars to retire,” White adds. “But I realized we could make it work on far less than that.”
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