Do FIRE Principles Still Work Today?

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Viktor applied FIRE principles frequently espoused on this blog. He grew up an immigrant raised by a single mother on welfare. He retired in 2020 at the ripe old age of 35. His wife recently joined him in early retirement.

Starting line to FIRE

He knows that these principles have worked for his household. Yet there is a sentiment that the FIRE movement was a product of luck. We’ve experienced a simultaneous decade plus bull market in stocks, bonds, and real estate accompanied by the introduction of cryptocurrencies since the great financial crisis. Building wealth was easy.

Was the ability to achieve financial independence just a matter of being in the right place at the right time? Did people like Viktor and myself reach the top of the ladder and pull it up behind us?

In todays’ guest post, Viktor shares his personal story. He then examines whether something similar is possible for someone starting at zero today. Take it away Viktor….

Is FIRE Too Good To Be True?

Something interesting is happening right now. On the one hand, you have a record number of Gen Zers identifying or expressing interest in retiring early. In fact, more than half of Gen Z respondents consider themselves part of the FIRE movement, according to a recent Credit Karma survey.

At the same time, you have an unprecedented amount of pessimism about their ability to retire early. Prospects of a decade of low or negative real economic growth, housing unaffordability, lack of consistent living wages, inflation, college debt burdens, bankrupting health care costs and general inability to save… just to name a few. 

I’m just getting some solid footing on the other side of the early retirement journey. I was curious whether I might have just squeezed through a door that has effectively closed for the public at large. 

I want to explore what the outlook is for someone starting today with zero. How much would you need to accumulate to reach early retirement?

My Journey

I started my professional career at Lehman Brothers in the summer of 2007. Having interned there the previous summer, it was a job I absolutely loved, found intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. 

But within a few years, I was on my way to the ER in the middle of the night with what I thought was a heart attack. Fortunately, it turned out to be a panic attack. 

My early years on Wall Street were full of unprecedented upheaval and great financial distress as the Great Recession reared its ugly head. Many people lost their life savings and all hope of providing for their families’ well being. But it wasn’t the Lehman bankruptcy and the Great Recession that sent me to the ER. 

It was the fear of failure…. long hours, pressure (both external and self-induced) and the workplace Machiavellian politics of the type A bubble I was living in that got me there.

I realized early on that the long-term prospects of me surviving, let alone being happy, in that environment were not good. But I didn’t yet know what to do about it. And that certainly didn’t help my anxiety…

Is FIRE An Escape?

And then I heard about FIRE and the safe withdrawal rate. All of a sudden, I had this magical function of three numbers: net worth, expense budget, and 4%. This could free me of the rat race I was descending into. 

If I could get my annual expenses to be less than 4% of my net worth, i.e. a reasonably “safe withdrawal rate,” there was a very high probability that my assets could cover my expenses through appreciation and various forms of income generation indefinitely. 

For example, let’s say my annual expenses were $40k and my net worth consisted of a broad stock portfolio worth $1M without any debts. The growth of that portfolio, monetized via dividends and stock sales, could cover my expenses for the rest of my life! I could be free to explore my passions and interests without worrying about a paycheck.

FIRE Mindset and Values

I was about 6 or 7 years out of college at that point. But I had a few things working for me that aligned with some of the basic tenets of FIRE, like a thoughtful, value-driven approach to consumption and maximizing saving rate. 

I had a poverty mindset that came from growing up as an immigrant on welfare and public assistance. I saw my single mother free us of that within a few years of arriving in the US. She utilized an unbreakable work ethic as she transitioned from being a civil engineer to performing the most basic tasks at a nursing home and cleaning houses as a “side hustle”.

I also had my high school sweetheart, now my wife, by my side. Having someone supportive and aligned on the journey with you certainly makes it a lot more fun. Sharing finances with another person as part of a two income household for my entire adult life made a huge impact.

Getting Our Financial House in Order

I was able to pretty quickly advance in my career on Wall Street at a time where compensation became bipolar. The banks were cutting senior staff (highest earners) and investing in retaining junior people like me.

My wife and I were able to leave college with very little debt thanks to generous, needs-based financial aid packages and working throughout college. Completely paying that off was still the first thing that we prioritized financially once we graduated. 

We also decided that we didn’t want to have kids. While that wasn’t a financial decision, it certainly helped build our savings until we changed our minds when we were nearly in our mid 30s.

As a result, we were more than halfway to hitting our numbers the first time I crunched them. I shared this magical discovery with my girlfriend (now wife) and she agreed that this was the path for us. We made a plan, set a target date, and got serious about making it happen.

Accelerating Our FIRE Plans

The plan evolved and dates moved over time, but we were very fortunate to have been able to get there. I retired at 35 on Labor Day 2020. It was a little earlier than expected, but some events in my personal life pushed me to make the leap. My wife just submitted her resignation and is currently working out her transition plan to be retired by the end of the year.

In many ways, FIRE was the culmination of the American Dream for me. And I’ve been wondering whether that was still attainable for the generation just getting started in their careers or for people starting to save later in life.

Related: Do You Need Good Luck to Achieve Financial Independence?

Getting Started

So, let’s dig in. Being a finance guy, I like numbers. But I also like breaking things down into easy to consume chunks. As I see it, there are three initial steps for anyone getting started:

  1. Create a budget for your retired life.
  2. Determine the necessary net worth to support that budget (ie build your investments to at least twenty-five times your annual spending corresponding to the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  3. Create an investment plan to accumulate the necessary assets to produce the income needed to support that budget.

The first thing you want to do is get some ballpark estimates. Understand the feasibility and general shape of your game plan.

Defining the Goal

Now, there is an endless amount of content out there about all the nuances and considerations of the above three steps. So I am going to oversimplify things on purpose. Let’s just look at the scenarios where someone sets a retirement budget of $50K (“frugal”), $100K (“comfortable”) and $300K (“luxurious”, aka FatFIRE).

Based on the traditional safe withdrawal rate of 4%, one would need to accumulate a net worth of $1.25M, $2.5M and $7.5M to support those budgets, respectively.

The second key axis to your net worth target is the retirement age. The “standard” retirement age in the US is 64, according to SoFi Learn, which is a little over 40 years of working. So retiring after 30-35 years is nice. Retiring after 10-15 is amazing! I use 20 years as my baseline.

Determining Your Required Rate of Return

The last piece you need for the back of the envelope calculation is the rate of return that you expect from your earnings. I am looking at this from the perspective of the recent college grad just getting started.

This is generally an area where the more aggressive style investments would be recommended. The most common allocation would be a 100% broad-based, equity portfolio. For example, the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) is a very popular, low-cost investment product . 

US equity returns over the last 100 years have averaged around 10%. However, most recent, forward-looking forecasts put equity returns somewhere around an annualized 6% over the next ten years. This is because we are still near the top of an investment cycle. There is a meaningful possibility of recession over the next few years. So to be a little conservative, I used 6% as my baseline.

This is where a good retirement calculator comes in handy. But I just did this in a spreadsheet. I like being hands on with these types of things to understand the different dimensions when I’m doing something for the first time.

Required Savings

Based on my calculations, if your desired budget in retirement is $50K, you would need to save $50K per year for 16 years to build the necessary portfolio worth $1.25M (assuming 100% equity allocation averaging 6% annual return). Effectively, you need to save your desired retirement budget each year for 16 years

Alternatively you could save $34K per year for 20 years. This would require saving 68% of your desired budget each year to reach your goal.

These numbers grow linearly for the other cases. You’d need to save $100K annually for 16 years or $68K for 20 years to reach a portfolio value of $2.5M. 

Note the math is essentially the same for an older saver who is just starting to save for retirement.

Related: 7 Advanatages When You Start Saving for Retirement Late

It is also worth noting that taxes are not linear and do introduce a bit of complexity. An important next step after getting the basic picture is to look at real (i.e. accounting for inflation), after-tax income, returns and expenses.

Below is a matrix that shows different combinations of savings per year versus number of years of accumulation. Areas in green is where you reach your $1.25M target. This supports a $50K budget at the traditional 4% withdrawal rate.

Here is matrix to understand how things might be different over your 20 year accumulation period depending on actual rates of return:

Is This Actually Possible Today?

To return to our starting question – how feasible is it for someone just getting started to successfully save enough to retire early? 


There are certainly a number of headwinds. 

  • The typical college graduate, as of 2022, is starting nearly $30K in the hole due to college loans. Average salary for that college graduate is just under $60K. Inflation has pushed the cost of everyday goods up by nearly 20% just since Jan 2020. 
  • Average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $1,300 per month (or $16K per year). That varies from $730 in West Virginia to $1,650 in Hawaii. There is a tremendous amount of variability with this data between government (e.g. Census) and private (e.g. Zillow) estimates. Private estimates suggest these numbers are even higher.

As with everything, there is much variability in the calculation of the typical cost of living. The average annual expenses for a recent college graduate seem to fall somewhere between $35-$60K. So one would need $69-$94K in after-tax earnings, on average, to save enough in 20 years for a $50K early retirement budget. That goes up to $103-128K for the $100K early retirement budget.


There are some tailwinds to consider as well. 

  • Advances in technology and investment fee compression have made it far easier and cheaper to invest today than ever before. You can do it all with a few taps on your smartphone or have everything fully automated for you.
  • Technology is also unlocking an ever-growing number of income opportunities.  What was once relegated to the realms of “side hustles” is surpassing traditional employment income for many people. This is especially true among younger generations.
  • Continued move to a service-based economy, among the other factors mentioned above, is making part-time and contract-based work more prevalent. 
  • Covid has given everyone a new perspective on what’s important. It has made people more value-driven in their decisions and the value calculation has become a lot more holistic. It has also shown how resilient humanity can be in the face of unprecedented challenges.

The Reality of “Early Retirement”

The reality is that with most early retirement, you will need to find other pursuits or interests to achieve what Maslow put at the top of his hierarchy of human needs: Esteem and Self-Actualization. 

The changing work dynamics are making it more likely that meeting these needs in early retirement can produce some financial income to supplement your savings. For many, early retirement becomes a period of rewirement toward a more authentic self rather than the “traditional” retirement.

Principles vs. Techniques

While many important aspects have certainly changed in recent years, it appears that much of the fundamental structure that determines whether or not you reach early retirement remains in place.

As always, having a high income is going to be among the simplest paths to early retirement. For others, it will ultimately come down to individual decisions. 

Some people might call them sacrifices. I prefer to think about them as priorities. What is important to you? What gives you joy? What has value for you and where does early retirement fit into that?

You have the three main dimensions to work within:

  1. How much you spend (now and in retirement), 
  2. Your saving rate (in percentage terms and absolute dollars that your income allows), and
  3. The return you’re able to get on your savings. 

All of those have unique trade-offs and challenges.

Despite it feeling magical when I first learned about it, there’s really no magic behind it. You may not be able to predict all the things that the world will throw at you along the way. And you may not have as much help as others do. 

But with a clear plan guiding your decisions and persistence in following the tried and true principles, the road to financial independence and early retirement remains open to those that seek to pursue it. 

Where are you on your journey to early retirement? How do these numbers compare to your experience? Do you think you can do it if you had to start from zero today?

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to Financial planning inquiries can be sent to]

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  1. I think FIRE, as a concept is still a valid thing for people to aspire to. However, I think we need to really think about what the “R” – retirement – actually means. I also tend to think of things in much simpler terms when anyone speaks about getting ready for retirement, at whatever age.

    For me, it’s always simply has been about:
    1) Spend less than you make and save without sacrificing. Obviously the greater your salary, the easier this is
    2) Get out of debt (with the exception of a mortgage). This goes hand-in-hand with #1 but I understand that Gen-Z today starts at a disadvantage with college debt (BTW, college is ridiculously priced in the US).
    3) Have a plan for what you want to DO when you “retire”. FIRE at 35 is a nice idea, but you won’t live long if your life doesn’t have some purpose. So it’s likely that you will still be doing SOMETHING when you “retire” and that may still generate SOME income or benefits. Watching “Blue Zones’ on Netflix reinforce the need for purpose to keep humans alive.

    Finally, it comes down to balance and personality. Can you spend freely enough to enjoy life but still save for the future? Or do you hoard savings and never spend – never learn to enjoy life. Or do you spend frivolously and thus can’t save or worse, go further and further into debt? If you can’t change your behavior, then FIRE – at any age – is out of your reach.

    1. Graham,

      I completely agree with what you’re saying about redefining retirement, especially when it comes to early retirement or given that many people will enjoy many more years during “regular” retirement with increasing life expectancy.

      My wife and I like to think of this more as a “rewirement” – get our finances in order and pursue things that have more intrinsic value for us. And as you mention, those pursuits are increasingly likely to have some financial benefits.

      Thanks for your feedback!

      1. Clearly “1) Spend less than you make” is true for any to “plan” to retire at any age. If you spend all that you make you have no plan and certainly do not need a financial planner as any plan is out of reach. Even a simple savings account is beyond your means.
        As for 3), Remember that you should be retiring to something not only from something

  2. He does not represent 99% of the population. No kids; that in itself disqualifies this essay as credible. Number crunching is fine but let’s stick to real life. Not everyone works on Wall St. and is childless. Retiring at 35+- is a crap shoot. What about health care? What if you get divorced? what if goals change? Etc. etc.
    I must admit I read the beginning and skimmed the rest..just wanted to burst out laughing at the naivety.

    1. Hey Bob,

      I get your feedback and fully expected some would see my experience the way you do. As I mention in my article, I appreciate the many advantages I had in getting to where I am and that many might not. I also talk about having a kid now and being aware that things might change in the future. I don’t think it’s fair to say that not having kids would somehow disqualify someone from having an opinion…. That’s an increasingly common thing, especially among the younger generations in the US and the “developed” world. That’s ultimately a decision for each person on how they manage that risk as part of their plan.


      1. Viktor,

        Thanks for handling this comment with such class.


        The entire point of sharing different experiences and viewpoints is that everyone is unique. Hopefully different readers will find elements that they relate to in different stories or from hearing out different viewpoints. I’m sorry if you personally didn’t connect with this one, but that certainly doesn’t disqualify it as uncredible or make it naive.


    2. My head was filling with comments similar to Bob’s as I read this posting.
      Two big shortcomings in the article – first, as Bob notes, is the family headcount issue. It is a point that seems to be almost universally neglected in FIRE discussions. Sometimes I think FIRE should be renamed “Retiring Early with 0 or 1 child”.
      Second is that his application of the 4% rule is massively off target. It just doesn’t fit this situation at all. For example, a key element of 4% discussions is calculating portfolio failure rates. If applied here, the failure rate would be untenably large (to put it very mildly). Bob’s terminology for that was “crap shoot”. To a degree I think that element of this essay is dangerous.

      1. Jeff,

        The point of this article is whether someone starting today can still apply FIRE principles, despite having different circumstance (some harder, but some easier as outlined) not to have another debate about whether 4% is the safe withdrawal rate.

        Someone starting today would have 10-20 years to fine tune the details of their individual plan while working towards financial independence. Maybe the goal line would move back a little b/c they want a long retirement with no work and they prefer 3%, or less.

        Maybe it moves up, b/c they realize they really just want to work part-time, or in a lower earning but more fulfilling career, etc. And their growing level of financial independence enables that.

        That idea of empowering people and encouraging them to get started is what I hoped readers would take from this post and what Viktor was trying to convey.

        If some readers don’t resonate with this particular post, I get that. I don’t see how it is dangerous and I don’t understand the desire to completely dismiss someone who has the courage to share their story publicly in an effort to help others.


        1. Chris
          I didn’t dismiss his story and I think you missed a significant opportunity to apply your financial planning education to the 4% element of this story, even if you consider it to be old ground. The 4% rule was never meant to apply to early retirement in the sense of FIRE. It was developed to apply to typical retirement scenarios with retirement on the order of age 65 with a 25 to 30 year retirement life span. I have never seen a serious study conclude or even imply that a portfolio with 4% withdrawals can provide the growth and income necessary to sustain an extended retirement period without substantial failure possibility. In this case it is simply an arbitrary assumption. Changing to a different arbitrary assumption like 3% does not fix the problem. Thus my concern that it is being applied in this way.

          1. Since the average life expectancy of a US male is 78 years, is it okay to apply the 4% rule to those who are 48+ years of age? Looking forward to your sagacious input.

            Chris, when you have a party do not forget to invite Jeff & Viktor.

  3. Well, as someone who “ER’d” in 2002 (5 years before you started your career at Lehman Brothers) I’d like to humbly suggest that “FIRE” ought to be ditched in favor of a far more realistic and nuanced idea: lifetime semi-retirement. It’s an idea – and a lifestyle – that far predates FIRE but isn’t well-known because it doesn’t lend itself to clickbait stories on CNBC and can’t be summed up in a catchy acronym.

    Bob Clyatt, who semi-retired before I did, wrote a still-essential book called “Work Less, Live More” and still maintains a website supporting it even if his energy these days is mostly devoted to his avocation-turned-profession of being a world-class sculptor:

    You can also Google Paul and Vicki Terhorst, whose book “Cashing in on the American Dream” was probably the first to champion the virtues of ER in service of a life of adventure and growth.

    While I was happy to see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs featured in this piece, I think there’s still way too much focus on the money side and trying to control the inherently uncontrollable and not nearly enough on using investments to provide a baseline income to cover essential expenses while planning, from the outset, to keep on working at something (or multiple somethings) at least part-time for most or all of one’s life, with the aforementioned investments providing the freedom to do work one enjoys and feels challenged by without making compensation the principal deciding factor.

    People forget that the stereotypical American retirement path of working oneself to the bone until age 65 (often destroying one’s health in the process) and then keeling over from a heart attack on the golf course at 65 with one’s newly-minted gold watch gift from the megacorp still on one’s wrist is just not what human beings are built for – or what they’ve done as they age throughout human history. Surely it’s much wiser to chart a course – ideally from the outset – that will allow one to be more selective in their choice of paid employment over time and in so doing to choose work so fulfilling that the line between work and play and employment vs. retirement blurs wonderfully.

    1. I think defining retirement should be a bigger part of FIRE discussions, especially since “retirement” as discussed in FIRE circles doesn’t seem to be what is traditionally considered retirement.

      My impression is that when people talk about “retiring,” they really mean that they want the freedom to work for themselves or work less. Among the loudest voices of the FIRE movement online, it seems that none are really retired. They are managing websites, writing books and speaking at conferences. It might be work they enjoy, but it is still work. I’ve also seen some people describe themselves as retirees when it would really be more accurate to describe them as stay-at-home parents since their spouse continues to work.

      I wonder if some of the Gen Z folks who aspire to FIRE understanding how much work is involved in the “R” part for many people.

      1. Mary,

        I agree that it is important to discuss the role of work in early retirement. This is a drum I’ve been beating since my first posts on this site about Redefining Retirement. Going back even further to one of the earliest posts on this site Darrow wrote about “Working” in Retirement.

        Because this has always been a theme of this blog, a way of alleviating risk on a portfolio when you’re planning for long periods, and something that Viktor alludes to towards the end of the post I’m not understanding some of the critical comments of this post.


  4. Another excellent “guest post” or as I like to refer to – case study. Really appreciate Viktor sharing and you adding to, Chris.


  5. The author is conflating “Net Worth” with the value of a retirement portfolio. They are NOT synonymous. While a ‘portfolio’ contains investments, a Net Worth statement also contains depreciating assets, illiquid assets, along with the value of the portfolio. You can’t eat your car(s), but they should be included in your Net Worth statement. You can’t sell you house and live off the proceeds, you still need a place to live (although you could downsize). Can’t eat jewelry either. All these things should be counted in a complete Net Worth statement, but should NOT be included in a FI calculation.

    1. Hey JC,

      You’re absolutely right. Using net worth and portfolio somewhat interchangeably was one of the simplifications I made that is definitely worth a deeper dive. The decision as to what assets you consider investments with income potential is a critical part of the plan. But that will vary a bit from person to person.

      How to count your home is probably one of the biggest items that most people will have to thoughtfully consider. Many would argue that your home should be excluded from your investments for FIRE purposes. Given our life plan, we view it just like any other investment. We think about the total return from the asset and the potential to monetize it for income purposes (take out a loan, convert into a rental, sell and downsize as you mention, etc…).

      Thanks for the feedback,

  6. While I also consider myself blessed with a good paying career, I am starting to realize that FIRE is only achievable for the very high earners or the uber-frugal. While we don’t know what profession was Viktor’s wife in, we do know that he worked for an investment bank, perhaps as an investment banker. IB compensation at the bulge bracket banks puts you not even in the top 1% of US population, but likely in the top 0.5-0.1%. Kudos to Viktor for being able to have such a career, but it’s not very applicable to most middle-class earners. I will consider myself blessed to retire at 53 or 55, but to retire at 35 is just a pipe dream to anyone but the top 0.5%.

  7. Hi Viktor, thanks for saharing and breaking down the numbers for the different scenarios. I couldn’t help coming away from your analysis feeling that FIRE in 20 yrs is not realistic for most people. (Especially if you have multiple children). You stated that for the $50k scenario one would need to an after tax income of around $94k. Factoring in taxes, that’s probably pushing between $120k-$140k pre tax. If I were a few years out of college right now with $20k in student loans, trying to buy a house, and starting a family in the next 5-10 years, I would feel hopeless. Marriage and dual income can help, but bringing kids in probably negates any of that because of childcare costs. I doubt there are very many jobs out there for recent grads that pay $120k+. On top of that, by the time you work your way up to make that much, the goalposts move because of inflation. I still agree with your approach of living frugal, avoiding debt, and investing as much as possible. I just think for the majority of 20-30 somethings there’s not a whole lot left over even with frugal living. So, I guess my advice to all the kids out there is to pick a career that has a high income, find a decent college that isn’t super expensive and hustle for scholarships, work you butt off and live frugal during college and summer breaks to limit debt needs. Then, keep living frugal during your career and invest as much as you can. Finally, if FIRE is your priority, either don’t have kids or wait till your mid 30s and only have one or two. From my own experience, I’m glad I didn’t wait too long to have kids. I don’t want to be an old man raising kids and I want to be able to have a relationship with my grandkids someday. The price I will pay is that I will have to keep working into my 50s. Luckily,I enjoy my work. Regardless I still save and invest a lot because I don’t want to have to worry about that.

    1. Writing the article and reading the comments really made me think that maybe the most important part here is to be thoughtful about your goals in life and what it takes to achieve them. Establish your priorities and dig into what you have versus what you actually need. Do this as early as possible and pursue your best life!

      You’re right. Having a high income or being part of a dual-income household, not having kids or waiting to have kids later in life, frugality (perhaps to an extreme) are some of the staples of successfully FIREing for many. I certainly benefited from all of these.

      Working at a job you enjoy and having a good work-life balance with a couple of kids earlier in life sounds like a very good alternative. I didn’t have as much of that hence my pursuit of FIRE. My wife and I definitely both shuddered at the possibility of meeting our grandkids in our late 60s/early 70s if our daughter waits as long as we did 🤣

  8. Hi Chris/Viktor, I don’t understand the push back in the comments section to the article. Yes, kids can be expensive. Yes, a rigid 4% + inflation withdraw rate can run into issues under certain scenarios after decades of execution. However, kids also grow up and become independent. Many people don’t need a rigid 4% withdraw for decades. Markets can also perform similar to historical averages and balances increase. This article highlights a great example of using the principles this blog highlights, “Save more, invest smarter, retire sooner.” Thanks for your contributions.

  9. As a “wise” Gen Xer, I’ll add what I think is key today:

    1) don’t just go to college, have a plan for what the outcomes could be. Doesn’t have to be set in stone, think of it as a range of possibilities enabled by your degree.
    2) there are higher paying jobs out there. Go find them. Income is not talked about as much as investments and expenses, yet income can be a much larger factor in reaching FI.
    3) it’s not a race. You don’t have to set out with the goal to reach FIRE by 35. There are many lifestyles that involve working that still enable you many freedoms. You won’t know it looks like at 23, you might at 40. Be patient, seek your balance.

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