For These Women, a FIRE That Burns Too Male and Too White

Kiersten Saunders stumbled upon the FIRE movement — an acronym for “financial independence, retire early” — the way most people do: by reading about it online. But also like most people, she couldn’t relate to its membership, which seemed largely white, male and based in Silicon Valley.

“When I first started looking at the FIRE blogs, it was a bit of a culture shock,” says Mrs. Saunders, 34, a marketing director in Atlanta. “As a black American and as a woman, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to replicate exactly what they did.”

FIRE disciples have a reputation as overworked millennials, usually with the word “software” in their job titles, who stockpile 50 percent or more of their six-figure paychecks so that they can quit cubicle life in their 30s. While hyper-frugality is hardly new, the concept recently acquired its catchy name and a cult following on Reddit forums and popular personal finance blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and Early Retirement Dude, both of which are written by white men. Many adherents get competitive, posting monthly spending reports online as they race to hit their FIRE number — a chunk of assets that will theoretically generate enough income through dividends and interest to support them for the rest of their lives.

A central tenet of the movement is that with enough grit, financial savvy, and willingness to eat rice and beans, “anyone” can do it. But that’s simply not true.

“A lot of FIRE blogs, while well intentioned, can be very tone deaf,” Mrs. Saunders says. “They have these lean plans that are like, ‘Oh, we live on Soylent and frozen burritos, and that’s how we’re able to save 50 percent of our income.’ And it’s like, ‘O.K., but what about the other things that life sometimes requires? Where’s the budget for taking care of your mother-in-law?’”

Frustrated by the lack of diversity in the FIRE world, Mrs. Saunders and her husband, Julien, started their own personal finance blog in 2015, Rich & Regular. Today, she is part of a rapidly growing cohort of women who are forging their own FIRE community. While many of them chronicle their progress on the internet, most do so anonymously, wary of risking future job or salary prospects (or a firing of a less desirable kind) if they publicize their plans to cut their careers short. Like Mrs. Saunders, they tend to be the breadwinners in their families. But unlike the FIRE archetype, most of them don’t make six figures, work in tech or want to forgo the occasional bottle of good wine.

“There’s this mind-set in FIRE discussions that you have to cut out everything that’s not essential, but what’s essential to a white male is very different from what’s essential to me,” says Mrs. Saunders, who plans to hit her FIRE number (which she calculated using the 4 percent rule, a popular tactic in which retirees withdraw no more than 4 percent of their total savings each year) in 2021.

“There’s a cost to maintaining this Afro,” she adds. “There’s a cost to taking care of my skin. You don’t have to cut them to be on the FIRE path — it may take you a little longer, but it’s not a competition.”

Another leader of this group is Angela Rozmyn, 31, who lives in Kirkland, Wash., and works as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) professional for a construction company. About a year and a half ago, she saw that a prominent figure in the FIRE movement had created a list of his favorite FIRE bloggers — with only one woman on it. So Ms. Rozmyn posted a list of her female peers on her website, Tread Lightly, Retire Early.

“I published it and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I was blown away by the response it had gotten,” she says. “It was very clearly needed and wanted.”

Ms. Rozmyn’s list has grown to over 100 names from its initial 30 and now includes different categories: single women without children, single women with children, married women, and so on.

“I wanted to split it up so that anyone can read through and find who might resonate better with them,” she says. (If you’re wondering, she’s on track to retire by 45 at the latest, when her son turns 18.)

If the FIRE women have a matriarch, it’s Tanja Hester, 39, who retired from her job as a political consultant at 38. She wrote a book about her experience, “Work Optional,” and founded Cents Positive, a retreat for women in the FIRE movement in Denver in November. The inaugural gathering was supposed to be capped at 75 people, but demand was so high that she let in 85. (There was still a waiting list of several dozen.) She plans to host another one this year, possibly two, and expand into Canada in 2020.

While none of these women have a silver bullet for saving money, they tend to practice similar habits. They drive old cars, eschew restaurants and bars, turn down social outings, make food from scratch, shop at thrift stores (if at all) and institute “no-spend weeks” (just what they sound like). For fun, they entertain at home or do free activities like hiking.

They’re also quick to point out the obvious: Bigger paychecks make all the difference, even when the job isn’t ideal. Dawn Holley, 39, who writes the blog Stepping Stones to FI, commutes up to three hours a day to and from a job as a medical imaging technologist in the Bay Area — which pays more than if she worked closer to home. It’s a far cry from her life as a stay-at-home mother before she was widowed 11 years ago.

“I know what financial insecurity feels like, and I don’t ever, ever want to be in that position again,” she says. “One of my motivations for reaching my FIRE number is to have more time to help other women, especially single moms, do the same thing.”

Other FIRE bloggers have had to make even bigger sacrifices. When “Ms. FAF,” who anonymously writes the blog Frugal Asian Finance, had her first child, she and her husband were in graduate school and couldn’t afford child care, so they sent their baby to stay with her in-laws in China for a year. She now works as a research analyst for a nonprofit organization and has two children who live with her in Washington.

“I consider myself to be part of the FIRE movement, but early retirement is not my ultimate goal,” she says. “I’m more interested in being free from financial worries.”

Born in Vietnam, she is expected to send money back to her parents and take care of them when they get older. As a result, her FIRE number is higher than it would be if she and her husband were saving just for themselves. They haven’t pinpointed an exact amount yet, she says, but it’s probably around $2 million. They’ve saved about $400,000 so far.

Ms. FAF isn’t the only woman in the FIRE space who doesn’t plan to stop working just because she can. Instead, many just want the flexibility to do what they want, regardless of whether it pays.

For Jess Fickett, an editor from Colorado, the ideal retirement looks just as busy as her current life. She and Lauren Torres, both 32, write the blog Bitches Get Riches, where Ms. Fickett goes by “Piggy” and Ms. Torres is “Kitty.”

“I’m not going to sit around all day,” Ms. Fickett says. “I want to volunteer and start a business.”

The ability to do so, she adds, is what financial independence is all about.

“I think the real heart of the FIRE movement is about strategically maximizing your limited time on the planet so that you can do the things you find meaningful,” she says. “You don’t have to be a filthy rich Silicon Valley guy to take a hard look at how you spend your money and make sure that it aligns with the kind of life you want to live.”

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