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Millennials have a fresh take on the FIRE movement, and it's less about taking it easy in retirement

Illustration of a man distracted at work on a gold course.
Andrea Chronopoulos for BI

At age 36, Jace Mattinson is already over retirement. Four years ago, he sold his lumber company for seven figures, and he had enough saved that he never needed to work again.

He said that was an enticing idea after five "extremely tough" years of owning a business. During that time, he was away from his home in Austin a few nights a week and hustling to run the 135-year-old company he'd acquired. After selling the company, he needed a long break from anything laborious.

"I was golfing three, four times a week. I was going to the lake. I was doing all my hobbies that I really cared about and enjoyed, ones that for the greater part of a decade I didn't have as much time to do," Mattinson told Business Insider.

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But after eight months, he decided retirement was not nearly as fulfilling as he'd imagined. He returned to a job in lumber distribution and revived his financial podcast. He said he wanted to continue to model a good work ethic for his kids.

Jace Mattinson
Jace Mattinson and his familyJace Mattinson

Mattinson has all the trappings of someone in the FIRE movement. The acronym, which stands for financial independence, retire early, was coined in the 1990s in the book "Your Money or Your Life" and popularized on blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and the investment site Motley Fool. The idea was to work hard, ideally with multiple income streams, live a life of austerity, invest prudently, and build a big enough nest egg to walk away from work well before the average retirement age of 64.

But millennials, including Mattinson, who finds himself happiest when he has a balance of work and leisure, said they're not as interested in early retirement — and are creating their own versions of life after work.

Millennials often want the FI without the RE

Devotees of the FIRE movement often save or invest the majority of their income. Some take on extra jobs or delay major life milestones like marriage or having kids.

It's an exclusive club, and many hungry millennials are eager to join it. ChooseFI's Facebook group has over 108,000 members, while the r/financialindependence subreddit has 2.2 million members. But for some FIRE wannabes, the "FI" part of the equation is the biggest focus, and the "RE" half seems to be less of a foregone conclusion.

A popular rule of thumb among this group is the "4% rule," which says you should aim to save 25 times your annual expenses so you can withdraw 4% of your funds each year after you quit working. Some FIRE participants told BI that their target savings goal is between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, though many are working toward more for even greater security.

To be sure, early retirees are a small slice of the population. According to Business Insider's analysis of American retirees, just 2.2% are 50 or younger. Less than 1% are below age 35. Just 0.75% of all Americans over 18 and under 50 are retired. Still, many BI spoke with retire unofficially or partially retire, taking on less responsibility at a company or moving to a lower-stakes position.

BI spoke to a dozen millennials who have achieved or are on track to achieve financial independence. While some have retired and told BI they're enjoying it, most feel retirement is pointless and still want to build their careers or give back to their communities.

"The thing I have noticed shift most is the emphasis on FI and less on RE," Scott Rieckens, the executive producer of the film "Playing With FIRE," said. "I think it's awesome to see, as it signals that financial independence is the key motive, which it is, and that work and purpose are actually really important. Retiring early to nothing is a bad idea."

Brad Barrett, the host of the "ChooseFI" podcast, said "vanishingly few" people with the wherewithal to reach financial independence are retiring early. To him, reaching financial independence allows someone to live the life they want, but retiring early signifies turning away from everything you've worked toward.

For many, financial freedom goes beyond quitting a job you don't like. Some said it's the ability to spend on travel or leisure without much stress — which has become even more important after the pandemic's peak. Others said it helps them lead a life of purpose, whether that means educating people on a podcast or leading charity efforts.

The problem with retirement seems to be that people want to add value to their communities and within their own lives — and they believe work is the way to do that. As Bill Schaninger, a speaker, author, and thought leader on the future of work, found in research he conducted with Naina Dhingra for McKinsey, 70% of people who were surveyed said they define their purpose through work.

"Many people figured out one of the things that I get a lot of validation from is being clever, solving problems, participating, and working on something bigger than me," Schaninger told BI.

COVID-19 may have amplified this, he added. "The fragility of our condition, I think, was brought home in a way that maybe many of us had taken for granted," he said. "And so now it's like, 'Well, if I'm going to do this, it has to matter.'"

The millennial version of early retirement

Mitch, 37, said he is about to quit his high-stress job and take a mini-retirement — he has a 22-stop national parks trip planned this summer.

The Minnesota resident and vice president of a building-maintenance company, who asked that only his first name be used because of an ongoing job transition, has a net worth of about $2 million but said he's only planning to take a few months off before returning to the workforce in a lower-stress position. All the sources BI spoke with provided documentation of their net worth.

Mitch said he stumbled into the online personal-finance community in his early 30s, which inspired him and his wife to increase their savings to at least 75% of their income by avoiding spending on luxury items. He said even his high savings won't affect his decision to quit working.

"I think a lot of traditional retirees lack purpose — they take a year or two of retirement and hate it because they do whatever and lose purpose," Mitch said. "The ones that volunteer, continue to coach and consult, or do whatever it is to sharpen their brain and really have a purpose tend to be some of the happiest retirees."

Brian Luebben, a financially independent millennial, described having a panic attack shortly after he hit FI and quit his sales job.

"If you have anxiety, financial freedom is not going to solve it," he said. "If you have depression, financial freedom is not going to solve it. Be careful of the mountaintop moments. When you become a millionaire, when you become financially free, when you do all this stuff, no mariachi band follows you around and performs."

He argued that achieving financial independence and hitting a specific number is "the simplest part." After all, there's a playbook for wealth-building strategies like investing in real estate or building an e-commerce business.

"The most difficult part is figuring out what you do when you have nothing to do all day," he said. "What do you choose to work on?"

Luebben, who hosts a podcast and runs the entrepreneur resource The Action Academy to help other people achieve financial freedom, said people should think through four core questions before they're even close to achieving financial independence: "What does the perfect day look like? What does the perfect week look like? Who was with you? And where?"

Going through that exercise can help ensure that your identity doesn't become wrapped up in achieving FIRE, which is something that Grant Sabatier, who took a year and a half off from work after achieving financial independence, struggled with.

"I defined myself by the pursuit of financial independence," Sabatier, the author of "Financial Freedom," said. "Then, once I reached it, it was like, now I no longer had to do that thing, so what am I going to do? I encourage people on the path to do that inner work. Don't delay figuring out what you really want, why you're pursuing financial independence, and what you want to do after."

Balancing work and fun

Instead of a traditional retirement, many financially independent millennials are finding a balance between work and leisure that works for them.

For Sabina Horrocks, 41, becoming a millionaire was "quite boring." She and her husband worked in six-figure managerial positions, recently achieving a net worth of about $2 million, then had a daughter in 2021. They "plowed money into investments early on," kept daily expenditures low, and purchased rental properties they eventually sold.

Sabina Horrocks with her husband and kid
Sabina Horrocks with her familySabina Horrocks

She quit her sales operations job but has no intention of stopping work. She's a stay-at-home mom and plans to continue her blog The Moneyaires; she'd also like to become a financial coach or planner.

Blogging and coaching were common post-FI pursuits among the would-be early retirees BI spoke to. Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, 34, runs the blog Making Sense of Cents, and over the past decade, she and her husband have lived mostly in an RV or a sailboat.

By 2017, their blog, advertising sales, and a course they created called Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing had generated nearly $1.2 million in revenue. By 2018, they had achieved financial independence. After years of 100-hour workweeks, she now spends 10 hours a week on her business, which generates $600,000 a year.

Husband and wife Wes and Michelle Schroeder-Gardner stood on a mountain on a sunny day.
Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and her husband Wes both quit their 9-to-5 jobs to grow Michelle's blog.Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

"I'm able to travel whenever I want. I can work whenever I want. Nothing's really dependent on my work hours," she said. "My plan is pretty much to continue doing this while I like it and continue to make a little bit more money and save as much as I can."

Lauren and Steven Keys, who quit their full-time jobs in their 20s, have a similar outlook.

Steven does freelance work for his former employer but spends much of his time on an online-tutoring service called CramBetter that he cofounded in 2023. Lauren has one social-media client she works with a couple of hours a month. They also run a financial-independence blog, Trip of a Lifestyle, and earn rental income from a fully paid-off investment property.

"There's this misconception about early retirement that you'll never make another penny ever again and just sit on the beach all day for the rest of your life," Steven said. "We're never going to stop making any money whatsoever."

Are you part of the FIRE movement or living by some of its principles? Reach out these reporters at kelkins@businessinsider.com or nsheidlower@businessinsider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider