Mr. & Mrs. America

I remember hearing a story of a very typical American man who took his wife on a week-long vacation to a beautiful Caribbean island. Every day as Mr. & Mrs. America relaxed on the beach, Mr. America noticed a fellow about his age who lived on the island in a small cottage just up the beach from their rented villa. This native man would wake up early and sip coffee on his porch with his wife for awhile before heading out in a little skiff into the bay to catch a few fish. Upon his return he and his wife would grill up some fresh fish and eat them for lunch along with some native fruits and vegetables from their garden, followed by more coffee, a trip to the market where they would sell & trade some of their fish, fruits, and vegetables, a walk back home, a nap on hammocks under the palm trees, a late afternoon stroll on the beach, ending with a simple dinner out on the deck in the cool evening sea breeze while sipping a few Red Stripes and relaxing in the moonlight.  What a life, right?

One day, Mr. America struck up a conversation on the beach with the native man and discovered they were in fact the same age. As they talked, Mr. America began proudly proclaiming his very important job in the states and how hard he had worked so that he and Mrs. America could take a week off and enjoy this luxury vacation. He continued talking about his plan to work hard for another 30 or 40 years so he could retire one day – even encouraging the native man he was talking with to come to America so he too could get a job, work 40 to 50 hours a week, and earn a lot of money in order to maybe retire himself one day like Mr. & Mrs. America had planned.

The native man asked, “what will you folks do when you retire?” to which Mr. America proudly replied, “when we retire we’d like to live in a small little cottage on a Caribbean beach where we can spend relaxing & care-free days sipping coffee, catching fish, visiting the local markets, taking naps, strolling the beaches, drinking the local beer, and living a simple & relaxed life…”

This is all Mr. America  wants…

Do You Have A Plan?

What is your retirement plan? Do you want to work 40 hour weeks 50 weeks a year until you’re 67-72 years old? I don’t. Personally, I never bought into the societal offer of a massive student loan, a huge mortgage, expensive fancy cars, and a deck of credit cards bringing me all of my worldly desires with the agreement that I work my ass off for 45 years (the US average) to pay for it all.

Many years ago I began thinking – maybe I could alter my expectations, become happy with less, simplify my lifestyle, and do something crazy – like retire today, or next month, or next year. I’m putting myself in position to do just that – retire early – well before our society says I’m “supposed to”…

Back to Mr. & Mrs. America…

I recently caught a glimpse into the world of Mr. & Mrs. America that sparked my idea for this blog post. It was a real-life letter they wrote to a well-known financial website looking for help. They’re 40 years old and they make over $100,000/year, bring home $7,000/month, yet find it hard to make it to the end of the month. Granted, that $7k is their net take-home pay after taxes, health insurance, and with both contributing 6% to their 401k plans. At the end of each month, however, they are usually out of money and they feel like they are struggling to make ends meet. Huh?

At over $100,000 in combined gross income Mr. & Mrs. America are making 25% above the national average but at $7,000 their monthly budget is 36% above the national average. Their monthly budget looks like this:

Net monthly take-home pay: $7,000 ($5,000 his + $2,000 hers) – Expenses: house payment $2,100 (nice house), utilities $300 (comfortable house), phone, internet, cable TV $300 (entertaining house), car payments+insurance $900 (nice cars), gas $300 (long commutes), childcare $1,500 (gotta go to work), groceries $700 (at least they don’t shop at Whole Foods), credit card + student loan payments $1,000 (smart on paper, dumb on plastic).

This is what Mr. America thinks he needs…

What in the holy-hockey-stick is going on here? If you extrapolate those numbers, it’s a $400,000 mortgage, $50,000 in student loan debt, $15,000 in credit card debt, and two $50,000 cars. They most likely have a negative net worth. Just your normal suburban family livin’ large and lettin’ the good times roll…

Throw A Rock…

How in the hell do you bring home $7,000/month, tread water, and risk going broke? If Mr. & Mrs. America can do it, that means you can look up and down your street, throw a rock, and hit a house where this real-life case study is happening inside. And why does this happen? They’re Mr. & Mrs. America, that’s why! They drank the cool-aid, bought the ticket, and took the ride. Work, spend, consume.

As they make more money it immediately equates to more spending – nicer cars, bigger house, and taking the kids to Disneyland lest they risk debilitating childhood development problems. Never happy with less, always wanting more, bigger, and better. But hey, the vacation selfies look great on Facebookstagram, right?

Somebody get me a $#@%*!^ bucket…

Their Plan?

Mr. & Mrs. America are right on par with the US average savings rate. Sadly, however, with their above average spending rate they’ll need to plan on working 55 years (20% longer than the national average) before they are able to consider retirement  – see the graph below from networthify.com. Considering that at age 40 they are already 15 years into their careers, that puts Mr. America on the beach when he’s 80 years old… He needs to make some changes.  Soon!

retirement graph
Mr. & Mrs. America’s trajectory @ 54.9 years. Not good…

A house payment that is taking up 30% of Mr. & Mrs. America’s take home pay is too much – they need to downsize. Then, trade in the cars for something they can afford to drive and direct the car payments toward the student loans instead. Mrs. America is spinning her wheels and could stop working, adjust the thermostat, kill the cable tv bill, and end up even-money or slightly ahead since that would nuke the child care spending and cut the family gas budget in half. Once they stop using credit cards and pay those off too, they can start piling away some serious cash and work toward getting on the beach full-time in the next 20 years.

It won’t look nearly as glamorous, but if they want off the little spinning hamster wheel and on a road toward freedom, that’s what it will look like nonetheless.

On FIRE…

FIRE stands for “financially independent, retiring early.” Put simply, the “financial independence” part means you have enough passive income from your investments that you can stop working, while the “retire early” part means you want to enjoy the benefits of retirement well before the average retirement age of 65+.

The FIRE movement has been, well… catching fire lately, especially as the stock market peaks at record highs and folks who have done well saving money & investing wisely over the past 10 years now see a path toward early retirement and financial independence.

FIRE enthusiasts eschew the typically suggested savings rate of 10 – 15% on your income and ramp that up to 30% or even 50% and beyond. Obviously this does not mean a $400,000 mortgage, a $50,000 car, and living like Mr. & Mrs. America, but as you can see in that graph above, the higher you can get your savings rate the closer you get to the FIRE.

That of course means living simply and below your means, with a sensible budget and a sensible spending plan – both for today and in retirement. It means tempering your expectations and aligning them to the reality of your earnings + savings and not spending like mad in order to look like a Great American Hero.

a beachGet there!

Real Life:

There is a great website called firecalc.com where you can research a FIRE plan and predict its success rate based on calculations that look at market events & averages dating back to 1831. It takes into consideration your current savings and financial picture combined with your retirement plan to let you know if you are on the right path.

When I go to firecalc.com and enter my upcoming retirement date + current nest egg + expected contributions + estimated social security benefits + portfolio allocation + expected rate of return against my timeline, I see a success rate of 99.1% based on the income I will need in retirement – and that’s if I make $0 after I “retire”. If I dabble around in anything while I’m retired and make a little extra coin it’ll be gravy. Guided fly-fishing trips, anyone? Let’s go!

See ya next time – Get on FIRE!

Photos (top to bottom) by Christoffer Engstrom, Derek Thomson, Callum Chapmun, and Sven Sheuermeir via Unsplash

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