Would you like for paid work to become optional for the rest of your life? What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to work? When you become “financially independent,” you have enough money and passive income streams to sustain you for the rest of your life without earning any more. At that point, you have the option of retiring (whether or not you actually do). Achieving this goal in youth or middle age instead of 65 is the objective of adherents of the FIRE movement (Financial Independence / Retire Early). Typically, FIRE walkers earn high salaries and save a radically large percentage of their income. This article explores whether FIRE is a good or reasonable goal for a PhD (graduate student, postdoc, or PhD with a Real Job) to set.
What Is the FIRE Movement?
The FIRE movement (or at least the current iteration of the trend) started to gain traction within the last decade. Two of the fathers of the movement who documented their FIRE journeys on popular blogs are Jacob Lund Fisker (Early Retirement Extreme) and Pete Adeney (Mr. Money Mustache). They both advocate establishing a very frugal lifestyle to 1) save a high percentage of your income while working and 2) minimize the size of the nest egg needed to retire from paid work.
Now that the FIRE movement has gained popularity, it has diversified (it’s not just for young, single, male tech workers!) and splintered. One of the useful delineations is among ‘lean FIRE,’ ‘FIRE,’ and ‘fat FIRE.’ Roughly speaking, lean FIRE adherents seek to achieve FIRE primarily through expense minimization (and a high salary as well) while fat FIRE adherents seek to achieve FIRE primarily through vastly out-earning their spending (and keeping a lid on expenses as well), with regular FIRE falling somewhere in the middle.
Why Would a PhD Want to FIRE?
A person who completes a PhD has passion for her work (as well as incredible perseverance). I find it hard to imagine that such a person would want to retire early from her chosen field – especially those pursuing a life of the mind in academia.
But people who complete PhDs are also people. They end up in all types of jobs with all levels of job satisfaction. Even those with high job satisfaction might want to escape the demands of full-time work.
Even if retiring early is not attractive, becoming financially independent may be. Once you are financially independent, even if you keep working, you don’t have to be concerned about losing your job or put up with a job that’s no longer a good fit. Even during the journey to FIRE, you will have a much, much greater degree of financial security than most Americans, which brings peace of mind.
How Do You FIRE?
While difficult and rare to achieve, the mechanism of becoming FIRE is easy to understand.
To become financially independent (from active work), you need to have investments and/or passive income streams that will pay for your expenses in perpetuity. I’ll focus this discussion on the investments needed rather than the passive income streams.
Basically, to achieve FIRE, you need a nest egg of investments that is large enough that you can withdraw what you need to live on each year without eating into the principal. The higher your living expenses, the larger the nest egg you need to support them in perpetuity.
FIRE adherents usually follow the “4% Rule,” also called the Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR), or perhaps a more conservative 3% or 3.5% Rule. The 4% Rule means that withdrawing 4% of your portfolio balance each year gives you a very good chance of your portfolio not running out of money prior to your death; it is based on historical market returns. (Early retirees may adjust this rule to be more conservative due to their post-FIRE life expectancy being longer than a typical retirement.)
The 4% Rule shows you the two vital factors to FIRE: size of your nest egg and yearly living expenses. Therefore, to achieve FIRE you must save (invest) a lot of money and keep your living expenses in check. For example, for a household with $50,000 in yearly living expenses, a portfolio of $1,250,000 is needed.
A person pursuing LeanFIRE will primarily focus on minimizing living expenses. The rough definition of LeanFIRE is living expenses of under $40,000/year or a portfolio of $1,000,000. A person pursuing FatFIRE will primarily focus on building a large portfolio. The rough definition of FatFIRE is a portfolio of over $2,500,000 or living expenses of at least $100,000/year.
There is a delightful synergy between the necessarily high savings rate and necessarily low expenses. Given a static income, the less you spend on living expenses, the higher your savings rate can become, enabling you to achieve FIRE even faster. Mr. Money Mustache published in “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement” a set of ratios that illustrates the relationship between savings rate and years of saving needed until the SWR could be achieved. For example, with a savings rate of 10%, you need 51 years to save before you can retire, but that drops to 22 years with a savings rate of 40% and 8.5 years with a savings rate of 70%.
Because the key to achieving FIRE is an unusually (to say the least) high savings rate, it is almost exclusively pursued by high income earners. There is a floor on how low you can drop your living expenses (although that varies person to person), so if your income doesn’t exceed your expenses by much, achieving the “E” in FIRE becomes a remote possibility.
Can PhDs FIRE?
PhDs can FIRE if they commit to the process, but they have challenges that are not shared by their peers from college who went immediately into high-paying careers. (It has been done; Jacob Lund Fisker has a PhD and retired at age 33.)
The ideal path for someone pursuing FIRE is to obtain a high-paying job immediately upon completion of their education at 18 or 22, commit to a low-cost lifestyle, set up a radically high savings rate into investments, and keep the pedal to the metal until FIRE is achieved, for instance by age 30 or 35.
A PhD becomes derailed from this ideal path upon entering graduate school. Unless he previously set up massive passive income streams, a grad student’s income is nowhere near large enough to achieve a high savings rate (even if you live in a van like Ken Ilgunas did at Duke). This means that pursuing FIRE with a high savings rate will have to wait until landing a post-PhD Real Job.
However, the graduate school experience offers a unique advantage to FIRE: A necessarily low lifestyle. The $40,000/year maximum living expense for the definition of LeanFIRE is much higher than what virtually every graduate student takes home after paying income tax. Even a couple living the graduate student lifestyle can usually spend less than that amount.
Further reading: What Grad Students Can Learn from the FIRE Movement
A PhD also confers the possibility of a high income. While PhDs are not needed in currently high-paying careers such as finance, medicine (some specialties), computer science, and engineering, a person with a PhD does on average earn much more in a lifetime than the average person with less education, and people with PhDs can absolutely land well-paying jobs.
Therefore, a PhD maintaining her grad school lifestyle (more or less) while earning a high salary post-PhD is a recipe for FIRE, albeit starting in earnest closer to age 30 than age 20. A LeanFIRE early retirement can still be achieved within a short period, and of course she could opt for FatFIRE if her income is generous enough.
However, a graduate student (or postdoc) who commits to FIRE can go further than this default:
- Instead of living at 100% of net income during graduate school, save (invest) as much as possible. This will have the dual effect of further lowering living expenses and getting a head start on building your nest egg.
- Experiment with frugality to discover whether you want to ultimately pursue LeanFIRE, FIRE, or FatFIRE. You may decide that living below a graduate student’s means is not what you want long-term.
- Finish your training as quickly as possible to increase your income as early as possible. Prepare yourself to land a high-paying job through professional development and networking.
What Is Your Reason to FIRE?
Ultimately, it’s vital to have clarity on why you want to pursue FIRE. It’s easy to become consumed by the numbers and the process and lose track of your motivation along the way. Sometimes it’s possible to achieve aspects of the FIRE lifestyle without actually being FIRE, and I think that’s particularly true for PhDs who have a lot of transferrable skills and potential for autonomy. Remember the parable of the fisherman and the businessman. Just like you shouldn’t put your “Real Life” on hold during graduate school, you shouldn’t put your Real Life on hold while building up to FIRE.
If you are a PhD (-in-training) and seriously pursuing FIRE, I’d love to interview you on my podcast! Please fill out this form to volunteer.