Beyond FIRE: An ode to creative retirement timelines

By Andy Baxley, CFP ®, CIMA ®

Once upon a time, as a younger man, I was enamored with the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement. I read every book and blog post I could find on the topic. Guys with the strange names like Mr. Money Mustache and The Mad Fientist became personal heroes.

The fundamental insight of the FIRE movement is that maintaining an abnormally high savings rate makes it possible to retire earlier—in some cases, much earlier—than one’s mid-sixties.

The idea is to take the traditional timeline, which looks something like this…
…and turn it into this…

…or even this…

What could be better, I thought, than retiring at forty to enjoy decades of pure, uninterrupted, retirement bliss? I could spend all day doing my favorite hobbies— reading, going for bike rides, hosting brunch parties, having date nights with my wife, and playing with my future children.

This all sounded great. My wife and I were each pretty frugal already, so it seemed completely reasonable to save 50% of our income and coast into our vision of “the good life”. Green lights all the way, right?

Not exactly.

The first yellow light came when I realized that my list of favorite hobbies was only going to last me until about Wednesday at noon. What would I do to fill the rest of my week? This seemed like a good problem to have, but it was nonetheless a surprisingly difficult puzzle to think through. The more I tried, the less clear it became that I’d actually know what to do with such an abundance of free time.

The second yellow light was even more of a surprise. I was starting to love my work. Though I was still in the early innings of my career as a financial planner, I was increasingly having the highly unusual experience of looking forward to work the next day. The deeper into my career I got, the more fulfillment I derived from it. The idea of walking away from something so gratifying to seem silly, if not downright reckless.

Clearly, it was time to make some modifications to the FIRE timeline I’d once felt so sure about.

As I began to think through these questions for myself, it occurred to me that we Americans suffer from a critical lack of creativity when it comes to retirement. I mean, who decided this was what “normal” should look like?

(Sidenote: as it turns out, it’s actually a pretty fascinating story)

The FIRE timeline was certainly more creative, but for many, myself included, it was far from perfect, so I began my search for a better way.

It was around this time that I found this TED Talk by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister. Like me, Stefan was not enthusiastic about deferring all of the “fun stuff” until he reached traditional retirement age. Also like me, Stefan loved his work and had no interest in giving it up.

His solution looked something like this…

Every seven years, Stefan shutters his studio for an entire year in order to travel and rejuvenate his creative outlook. Pretty cool, huh?

I sure thought so.

Stefan’s approach was a revelation to me, and it got me thinking about how many different ways there really are to “do” retirement.

There’s “semi-retirement”…

…”phased” retirement…

…“time with kids and grandkids” retirement…

…“lifelong learner” retirement…

…and many more!

My point is not that any one of these timelines is preferable to any other, but that we owe it to ourselves to think creatively about how we design the timeline of our lives. The possibilities are nearly endless, and there is no one forcing us to tread the well-worn path.

To be fair, the path is well-worn for a reason. It’s simple, it’s familiar, and it works fairly well for a lot of folks.

Anyone interested in pursuing a non-traditional path is going to need a few things to get through the journey:

  • A thoughtful financial plan— Each of these timelines has its own unique financial challenges. None of them are insurmountable, but all of them require careful planning to overcome.
  • A high savings rate— Retirement is expensive, creative retirement even more so. If we want to craft an exceptional timeline, we must be prepared to maintain an exceptionally high savings rate. The more we save today, the more choices we will have later on.
  • Flexibility— Believe it or not, things don’t always go according to plan. In fact, one could reasonably argue that things never go entirely according to plan. Surprises and detours are inevitable. This isn’t an argument against planning; rather it further underscores the value of planning to build in flexibility for changing goals and unexpected bumps along the road.
  • An independent mindset—People who buck societal trends draw naysayers like moths to a flame. If you don’t believe me, check out the comments section of this article about Mr. Money Mustache. People will doubt you, question you, and harbor general concerns about whether you have your head on straight. That’s ok! Spend some time educating them about your well-researched plan if you want to get them onboard. Or not. Totally up to you.

If you’re one of the many people for who want to look beyond the traditional retirement trajectory, I encourage you to engage in a bit of creative life planning. It isn’t easy forging your own path, but it sure is worth the effort.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I would love to have a conversation with you about your own creative timeline!