Thursday, July 25, 2024

A former FIRE fanatic who planned to retire at 35 ditched the movement after watching her youth slip away

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Ten years ago, Gwen Merz, now 33, knew exactly what she wanted and what it took to get there: to retire early at age 35 with $635,000 to her name. At least, that’s what she thought she wanted. 

She had just landed a job at a Fortune 100 company in Washington D.C. after graduating from college debt-free thanks to a scholarship and time spent serving in the military. Her clean slate allowed her to “just to go all in and start saving immediately,” she tells Fortune, inspired by the early FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) influencers like Mr. Money Mustache that she read about in college. 

She never made more than $80,000 a year, yet managed to save $200,000 within her first five years while maxing out her 401K, Roth IRA, and HSA. But while it got her close to what she wanted on paper, it wasn’t getting her what she needed from life. 

Unhappy with her working environment, she quit and became her own boss, feeling buoyed by a few side hustles—hosting a podcast, owning a rental property, and running an Etsy shop. But most of those endeavors didn’t work out, which Merz says left her broke. She made about $15,000 on her own, but realized the grind wasn’t worth it and returned to work nine months later.  

“I went at it really hard, and I saved 70% of my income,” she says. “I really bought into the hustle culture that is part of society and I got really burnt out.” 

Today, Merz is an IT auditor in the banking world living in St. Louis. Tired of the hustle and a newfound perspective on money, she’s since scaled back her retirement goals, opting to live by the ‘Coast FIRE’ movement—arguably the chiller, younger sibling of the more type-A FIRE movement. It’s all about “front loading savings early on so compound interest and time in the market will combine to cover your expenses in retirement,” Merz explains.

She has $400,000 saved, per documents reviewed by Fortune; she anticipates that nest egg will compound into about $1.8 million by the time she retires early 20 years from now with her pension at age 55, creating less pressure to save.

While she still has strong savings habits from her intense FIRE days—she immediately paid off her car loan and socks away 10% of her monthly into her 401(k) with a 6% company match—“I don’t deprive myself unnecessarily anymore,” she says, adding that she’s found great returns to easing her foot off the pedal, even if they’re not always strictly financial. “Stepping it back really benefited me and gave me the flexibility and the ability to say yes.”

The breaking point

Merz says she learned to be good with money early on since her family didn’t have a lot of it; her single mom struggled to put necessities on the table. Similar financial trauma, like parents losing jobs or getting divorced, is what often pulls people to the FIRE movement, she adds—they “really want that peace of mind and that security and that freedom of having money to be able to weather whatever life throws at them.”

This upbringing gave her the mentality that money is to be saved for the future, she says. “But if you don’t learn how to spend it before you get to that point, then you’re gonna have some issues.”

She realized that while living in D.C. in her 20s, prompting her to put the brakes on her fast-track to early retirement. She noticed that the people around her made a lot more money and “weren’t afraid to spend it on themselves for their own improvement.” It was a different mindset than the one Merz developed growing up middle-class in the Midwest. 

“I just remember going ‘Why am I trying to save all this money? I don’t look my best, I am not taking care of myself as well as I should, what’s kind of the point?’” she says. 

She bumped down her savings rate to as little as she could and turned to a personal stylist. She often went thrifting or borrowed clothes from friends, and had no idea what looked good on her. Seeing a huge improvement after just one session, she recalls, she started to wonder what else could change in her life. “It actually made a really big difference in how I felt around other people,” she adds.

The break from saving opened Merz’s eyes to how her budget was constraining her lifestyle. “My bank account really benefited from the actions that I took in my 20s, but I think my social life suffered an equal amount,” she says, adding that, “It’s really hard to be a single woman in your 20s in dating and not wanting to spend any money…it turned off a lot of people who might have otherwise been probably a pretty good fit for me.”

Life as the FIRE’s flame dwindles 

When Merz first entered the FIRE world a decade ago, she says there was a bit less room for nuance. The 2010s FIRE icons often fit a certain stereotype, she notes—married, dual income (often engineers), and very cerebral. The ideology they followed was one of strict budgeting, logging everything in spreadsheets, eating rice and beans every night, and biking to get around, she explains. “Now the FIRE movement has really kind of expanded to encompass a wide variety of people and attitudes towards retirement,” she adds; there’s more room to make your own rulebook and to wade, rather than dive into, the lifestyle.  

She found community, something she continues to treasure about the lifestyle. And while she still uses some FIRE budgeting tips and spreadsheets from a decade ago, she says she no longer turns to them as much. That’s because money is no longer the priority it once was for her.

“When I was younger, the number one lens that I viewed the world through was money,” she adds. “Now, money is very rarely my first consideration when I’m trying to decide between things, because money doesn’t matter as much.” 

She’s now engaged and figuring out how to best merge her finances with her partner. She figures it might not have worked out if she met him at 22, given how intense her lifestyle was. During a recent shopping excursion to a garage sale with a friend, Merz felt sad when the friend pointed out that Merz wouldn’t have accompanied her during her past FIRE lifestyle. She says it made her sad, wondering, “How much of that time did I miss out on? Because I wanted to save an extra couple $100.”

Still, Merz learned from her FIRE habits and budgeting ways. While it can take a long time to join the movement if you don’t have a clean slate, she says you don’t need to go full hog to still apply some of its lessons to your life. Even though the movement is often about the end goal and what’s in the bank account, she encourages people to “go beyond the numbers.”

“To somebody who’s going super hard for early retirement at age 30, I would really encourage them to examine their motivations behind their actions,” she says. “​​And, are they retiring from something or are they retiring to something? Because those are pretty different concepts.”

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