In this episode, Emily shares the first section of a written guide she recently added to the Personal Finance for PhDs Community, titled How to Pursue FIRE in Graduate School. FIRE stands for Financial Independence / Retire Early, and it’s a big movement among personal finance enthusiasts right now. At first, Emily didn’t believe graduate school and the pursuit of FIRE were compatible, but the many interviewees she’s had on the podcast who are pursuing a PhD and FIRE simultaneously changed her mind. In the introduction, Emily introduces FIRE and the general ways people pursue it and lists the four biggest levers a graduate student could pull to pursue FIRE right away.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- Read the rest of the guide after joining the Personal Finance for PhDs Community
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. Gov Worker
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. 50 of By 50 Journey
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Crista Wathen
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. Sharena Rice
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. Erika Moore Taylor
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Diandra from That Science Couple
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Joumana Altallal
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. Sean Sanders
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Dr. Amanda
- PFforPhDs Podcast interview with Alina Christenbury
Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts.
This is Season 10, Episode 19, and today I’m going to read to you the introduction to a written guide that I recently added to the Personal Finance for PhDs Community, titled How to Pursue FIRE in Graduate School. FIRE stands for Financial Independence / Retire Early, and it’s a big movement among personal finance enthusiasts right now. I have to admit that at first I didn’t think graduate school and the pursuit of FIRE were compatible, but the many interviewees I’ve had on the podcast who are pursuing a PhD and FIRE simultaneously changed my mind. In the introduction, which I’ll read to you momentarily, I introduce FIRE and the general ways people pursue it and list what I think are the four biggest levers a graduate student could pull to pursue FIRE right away.
If you are pursuing FIRE or are interested in it, I’d love to hear from you. Please join the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at PFforPhDs.community right now, today. Once you’re a member, you can do two things:
- Read the rest of the guide, which goes into detail about all the financial opportunities graduate students have to pursue FIRE, from increasing their incomes to building assets to mindset work.
- Join me and other Community members for a special live discussion and Q&A call on Wednesday, December 15, 2021 at 5:30 PM Pacific Time. We have live calls like this once per month, and this month’s is dedicated to the topic of FIRE. I really want to hear from you. I’m going to continue to expand and edit the guide based on the ideas and experiences of Community members and future podcast interviewees.
In case you’re listening to this after December 2021, no worries. You can still join the Community to read the current incarnation of the guide and chat with us about FIRE in the Forum or the next upcoming monthly call. Again, go to PFforPhDs.community to sign up!
One last note. I reference a bunch of previous podcast episodes in the introduction. All these episodes are linked in the show notes, which you can find linked from PFforPhDs.com/podcast/.
Without further ado, here’s the introduction to How to Pursue FIRE in Graduate School.
How to Pursue FIRE in Graduate School: Introduction
I was in graduate school when the current incarnation of the FIRE movement started picking up steam. At that time, the acronym FIRE (financial independence / retire early) was not yet in use, and people focused mostly on the “retire early” goal—not retiring at 55 like some Boomers had, but retiring by 30 or 40. Pete Adeney of Mr. Money Mustache was one of the leading voices, having achieved early retirement at age 30 by combining a well-paid engineering career with rigorous frugality.
At first, I found the idea of early retirement to be largely unappealing. The chief reason was that graduate school was supposed to be the foundation for a long, meaningful, fulfilling career… Why would I plan to retire early from that already? Why would any PhD (a group I was growing more interested in creating content for)? I couldn’t get behind that idea.
Thankfully, my disinterest in FIRE in my mid-20s didn’t diminish my passion for personal finance writ large, and I still invested, practiced frugality, and attempted to increase my income to the best of my ability and knowledge at that time.
My view is different now, a decade later. While I still don’t consider myself part of the FIRE movement, I do see its appeal, even for PhDs.
1) I’ve changed: I’m ten years older. I have children now. I’ve switched careers, and I’m a business owner. I earn and spend much more money than I did during graduate school. My and my husband’s parents have retired (at a traditional age). I better understand why having the financial ability to downshift, change, or stop active work before age 70 is attractive.
2) The FIRE movement has changed: There’s a greater emphasis on financial independence rather than early retirement. The featured voices are more diverse. There are numerous well-documented paths to achieve FIRE, not just the earn-a-lot/spend-very-little model from Mr. Money Mustache.
3) Most importantly, I’ve met numerous graduate students and PhDs who do identify as part of the FIRE movement. They don’t see a contradiction between pursuing a PhD-type career and financial independence simultaneously. I’ve learned from their philosophies and methods. The Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast interviews I’ve published that touch on FIRE have been with:
- Dr. Gov Worker
- Dr. 50 of By 50 Journey
- Crista Wathen
- Dr. Sharena Rice
- Dr. Erika Moore Taylor
- Diandra from That Science Couple
- Joumana Altallal
- Dr. Sean Sanders
- Dr. Amanda
- Alina Christenbury
In this guide, I won’t attempt to convince you to pursue FIRE—because I haven’t fully convinced myself. I will show you how you can pursue FIRE as a funded PhD student. We will explore multiple potential strategies, and I am confident that you will be able to adopt at least one of them.
How you pursue FIRE during graduate school will look different than how you pursue it when you have a post-PhD “Real Job,” but you can get started right here, right now.
What is FIRE?
FIRE stands for Financial Independence / Retire Early. FIRE is a movement within the broader personal finance community that has gained popularity in the last decade, roughly coinciding with the long bull stock market post-Great Recession.
Being financially independent (FI) means that you no longer need to work for an income to maintain your lifestyle and that you expect to maintain this status until your death. Once you cease working to generate an income, you have retired. The early part of the name refers to achieving financial independence earlier than the typical retirement age of 70-ish. Some superstars in this movement reach FI by age 30, while others set their sights on age 40 or 50.
Broadly speaking, there are three common ways to achieve FIRE, and some people use a combination:
- Purchase a portfolio of paper assets (e.g., stocks and bonds) from which you can draw an income
- Buy or build an asset or set of assets that generate income, such as a business or real estate portfolio
- Qualify for a pension, e.g., after 20 years of military service
I’m going to omit the option of a pension from the remainder of my discussion because 1) it’s not common for people in my audience to qualify for one, 2) within the FIRE movement it’s typically combined with another strategy as well, and 3) there are other good resources on pensions specifically.
How you determine that you have achieved FI is beyond the scope of this guide. Our focus is on the start of the journey, the pursuit of FI, and how to do it during graduate school.
However, to give you a rough idea, to know that you are FI you must have a good grasp on how much money it takes to sustain your lifestyle, i.e., how much you spend yearly. For example, FatFIRE is considered a yearly spend of $100,000 or more, while LeanFIRE is considered a yearly spend of $40,000 or less.
If you have a pension or own a business or real estate portfolio, the amount of income it generates should be more than the amount of money you spend for you to be considered FI. With respect to paper assets, a popular rule of thumb based on the Trinity Study is to have a portfolio of twenty-five times your yearly spend. For example, if you want to live on $40,000 per year indefinitely, adjusted for inflation, your portfolio should be valued at $1,000,000 or more.
How do you pursue FIRE?
How exactly you will pursue FIRE depends a great deal on your personality, career goals, and lifestyle desires.
At some point, you must create or purchase assets of the type I listed above. While you can start on that during grad school, creating or purchasing assets does not have to be the first step on your journey to FIRE, depending on the rest of your financial picture. If you are in debt, your first step may be to repay debt. If you have no savings or little savings, your first step might be to save up cash. If your income is low or unreliable, your first step might be to increase your income so that you don’t rack up any debt.
I recommend following the eight-step Financial Framework that I developed for use by graduate students and early-career PhDs. It will help you decide which financial goal is best to pursue at any given stage in your financial journey. You can find this Framework detailed in several resources inside the Personal Finance for PhDs Community, including the ebook The Wealthy PhD and the recorded workshop Optimized Financial Goal-Setting for Early-Career PhDs.
In brief, the Framework Steps are to:
- Save a starter emergency fund
- Pay off all high-priority debt
- Prepare for irregular expenses
- Invest a minimum percent of your income for retirement
- Pay off all medium-priority debt
- Save a full emergency fund
- Invest more for retirement and/or other goals
- Pay off all low-priority debt
The Framework is fully compatible with the pursuit of FIRE, though a FIRE adherent will likely move through the Framework steps faster than the average and may pursue additional financial goals such as purchasing real estate.
There are two less tangible but no less important ways that I recommend that you pursue FIRE starting in graduate school, both of which involve your own development.
1) Your career. I am confident that one of the major reasons you entered graduate school was for career development. Using your time in graduate school to set yourself up for a fulfilling and well-paying career is vital. Do not lose sight of this goal in your pursuit of FIRE. Your future, higher income is going to play a major role in how fast you will achieve FIRE. On the flip side, if a PhD no longer figures into your vision for your future, do not stay in graduate school; jump ship for a higher-paying job.
2) Your mindset and systems. To achieve FIRE, you must have a certain kind of money mindset and well-established systems and habits. You will continually develop these in your pursuit of FIRE. Even if you are unable to increase your net worth much during graduate school, pursuing your career and mindset development now is worthwhile to pay major dividends later.
What makes grad school different?
Your pursuit of FIRE during grad school is likely to look quite different from how you would pursue it if you were not in grad school or how you will pursue it post-PhD.
Generally speaking, PhD students accept a low stipend in exchange for training that—we hope—will qualify them for more lucrative jobs later on. They could be making more money right now in another job, but graduate school is a long-term career investment. Blanket personal finance advice to switch jobs or negotiate to increase your income does not apply well for graduate students (although there are many ways to increase your income, which I cover later in this guide).
In non-pandemic times, most graduate students are required to live in close proximity to the university they attend, although some may be permitted to finish their degrees remotely. For the former group, geographic arbitrage is not available. Geographic arbitrage, a common FIRE strategy, is when you choose to live in a low cost-of-living area while maintaining an income more suited for a high cost-of-living area so that you can boost your savings rate.
Finally, graduate school is a major time commitment. Few PhD students consistently cap their work weeks at 40 hours. You may have less time for outside income-increasing or asset-creating pursuits during grad school in comparison with other times of life.
My Personal Favorite Steps
In the second half of this guide, I will explore numerous possible strategies to further your FIRE journey during grad school. Some of them are what I call “big levers,” which are strategies that are virtually guaranteed to greatly increase your available cash flow and are possibly unusual choices for a graduate student. This increased cash flow can then be saved, invested, or used to repay debt. In your pursuit of FIRE during grad school, I think it will be very helpful for your psychology to pull one of these big levers if you’re able to. It will be clear to you that you are serious about your commitment to FIRE, which will help keep you on the path.
I want to give you a quick preview here as to what I believe these big levers are before we go through all the strategies in much more detail.
Big lever #1 is to choose a graduate program that provides a 12-month stipend that is well above the local living wage. If you’re a prospective graduate student, simply don’t consider any offers that fail to meet that bar, even if they are good fit for you otherwise.
Big lever #2 is to commit to applying for awards like it’s your part-time job—everything from multi-year, full-stipend fellowships to small poster competitions.
Big lever #3 is to radically reduce or eliminate your housing expense. Two potential ways you can achieve that are to house hack or serve as a resident advisor.
Big lever #4 is to start a side business with the potential, at least, to pay you a high hourly rate. You’re most likely to generate a high pay rate by employing the skills and knowledge you’ve developed during your graduate program.
If you can’t pull one of these big levers in your remaining time in graduate school, that’s fine. Put in place one of the smaller strategies from this guide, and if possible keep stacking those up throughout your time in graduate school.
Personally, even though I hadn’t committed to FIRE when I was a graduate student, I was putting a lot of effort into my personal finances. I didn’t know about these big levers or most of the other strategies I’ll discuss in the second half of the guide. I pulled just one big lever by accident, which was to attend Duke for my PhD in biomedical engineering. I wasn’t at all considering the stipend when I made that decision, but I realized later what a boon it was. My stipend was approximately 30% higher than the local living wage, which meant that with careful budgeting I could sustain a decent savings rate.
Over our seven years of PhD training, my husband and I increased our combined net worth by over $100,000. You can hear all about how we did that in Season 1 Episode 1 of the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast. Now, seven years removed from when we defended, I can clearly see that the time value of money continues to honor those early efforts, even though we earn and save much more post-PhD. That money forms the bedrock of our current financial security.
By applying just one of the big levers or a few of the smaller strategies in this guide, I firmly believe that you also will accelerate your progress toward FIRE, even as a graduate student. Many of the people I’ve interviewed on the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast have far exceeded my own degree of financial success using the strategies I’ll share with you next.
It’s Emily again! That is the end of the introduction to How to Pursue FIRE in Graduate School. If you liked what you heard and want to read about all the strategies and join the live call on Wednesday, December 15, 2021, please join the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at PFforPhDs.community. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode!
pfforphds.com/podcast/ is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes’ show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved!
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See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps!
The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC.
Podcast editing and show notes creation by me, Emily Roberts.
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