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From the New York Times, I'm Sabrina Tavernisi, and this is The Daily. Many Americans work their entire lives and retire with nothing. But a group of frugal obsessives is trying to flip that script. Today, my colleague, Amy X. Wong, I'm the people behind this growing movement and their bold bid to rethink how All We Work. It's Friday, June 14th. Amy, you've been exploring this world of people who retire early. Tell me about that. How did you first discover this movement?


Well, I had always been, as a child, preternaturally obsessed with money, and so I was constantly looking for coupons blogs about how to stretch a dollar, how to invest smartly, things like that. As part of that, I would read these news stories about people who were saving or making money in a different way. I came across maybe one or two stories, 10 or 15 years ago, about people who were following something called FHIR, financial independence, retire early. Financial Independence, Retire, Early.


Financial Independence, Retire, Early. Exactly. What is that?


It's really about strategizing to leave the workforce at an age of your choosing. Say you plan to retire at 45 instead of 65, or there are even people who do it at 35. It's about freedom from work and having the time to yourself.


Got it. It's less about actually retirement and retirement age and more about work and freedom from it.


Right. It's a philosophical movement that's wrapped in a bunch of financial and economic logistics.


Were these just people from different walks of life? Who were they?


Yeah, I would have thought that it was people who are mostly high earners, like bankers or surgeons or people who had the means to squirle away a lot of money. Exactly. But in fact, I found that the range of people who are planning for early retirement really spans the gamut from that surgeon, upper middle class to the lower middle class, to even people who are on minimum wage, making $35,000 and still being able to retire early. It was fascinating to discover all these different fire people.


Okay, so it's a new philosophy around and the idea that it shouldn't be taking up so much of our lives, so much space in our lives. How did you start reporting on this?


I had always been keeping an eye on fire, but I noticed that in the pandemic, it really, really took off. More and more people were joining forums. There are half a million followers in the FHIR subreddit, and the Financial Independence subreddit is actually 2 million followers. Then you have all of these Facebook groups, all of these Twitter little enclaves and influencers on Instagram. This whole ecosystem on social media is just millions and millions of people that is very, very active. I wanted to know, are these real people who are actually doing this, who are actually retiring early? Hey, Allen. Hello.


Can you guys hear me?


I found someone who is really involved in the movement. Yeah. Can you just start with some basics of telling me your name and who you are?


Sure, yeah. My name is Allan Wong. I'm in my mid-30s, and I've been I've hired since I was 25.


His name is Allan Wong. He's one of the moderators and one of the biggest FHIR subreddits. He has retired, and he's spent the last decade or so essentially coaching other people on how to fire in his way and sharing details of his story.


Tell me about Alan.


Can you take us back to your childhood and where you grew up?


When I was growing up, I didn't really I see much of my father- Alan grew up in New York City, in Queens, and he watched his immigrant parents essentially scrimp and save to give them a better life. Even my father, he originally didn't even finish high school.


They're from rural villages in China, and his dad in particular had a really hard life.


He was like an orphan. His father had many kids, and he couldn't afford to keep all the kids, so he just gave them up. So he ended up working in a farm that was run by the government in China. And he did not like that. He didn't want to spend his entire life working in a farm.


And his dad, at one point, actually just so desperately wanted to flee his circumstances that he escaped from Guangzhou to Hong Kong.


So he legally swam to Hong Kong.


By crossing the river illegally because it was an international border. And then from there, was able to buy a plane ticket to New York City.


Essentially, he started life in Chinetown.


Started his life over and escaped the trappings of poverty from where he was from. Amazing.


If there's someone that I would say I look up to, it would probably be my father because he wanted to do anything possible to make sure that I had a good life. I wasn't even born yet, but he wanted to make sure that his kids had a good life. That's why he swam to Hong Kong. That's why he moved to New York and all this stuff. It wasn't for himself.


Alan grows up with this in mind. His father has all these extraordinary things to wrench the family an entire ocean away, plant them in a different sphere, and try and start again in a more lucrative chasing the American dream way.


He's the type that really, really works very hard.


If there's- His father is going to work. He sells medicinal herbs in Chinatown. He's going to work every day, dawn to dusk.


I never really saw him. He would work from the morning, so I would go to school and... Sorry, this is... I'm sorry. He would go to work in the morning, and I would go to school. When I come back from school, I still would not see him because he doesn't get off work until 9:00 PM. So by the time he actually gets back home, I'm already ready to go sleep and stuff like that.


His mother as well, she would also come home exhausted from manual labor. He as a kid growing up, essentially on his own in New York City and seeing how tired work made his parents.


I felt that I didn't want to have a life like that. I understand the hustle. I understand trying to make as much money as possible for your family. But I also believe that if you make so much money but you're not happy, you're not with your family, then what is the point of making so much money?


Then when he went to college, actually, his father was ousted from his business, and it really drove him into this spiral.


When he got fired, he spiraled into this major depression. He went to see therapists, and they gave him Prozac and stuff, but it wasn't really working.


Alan told me that his father actually committed suicide because of this.


That was really hard on me because I thought you're supposed to work really hard and then be able to retire, and then when you retire, you're happy. But that wasn't the case for him. In the end, he ended up being this really depressed husk of a person. I just I just vow to not end up like that.


He's in New York City trying to work his first entry-level job. I believe he was coding for a tech company. His mother, because of everything going on, started having psychotic episodes, so he had to figure out how he could possibly take care of his mom.


That's when I discovered creating apps.


He resolved to get out of the situation. The app store was just coming up, so he was like, Why don't I just take a moonshot and make something and it's going to take off, and I'm going to get my family out of this situation.


I spent all of my free time. Every possible free hour I had, I would just try learn and code new apps.


He very resiliently essentially started coding around the clock. He was working his job. He would come home, and in the evenings, on the weekends- These apps don't exist anymore, but I made one- He would just code away at different project.


It's like a news app.


He had a couple that- Like a dog whistle or something like that.


Didn't take off. It allowed you to scroll the website by just tilting your phone.


That were duds, as he told me.


Just really gimmicky apps like that. The police scanner idea.


Then he made this one app. It was a police scanner. It lets you tune into police radios around the world. It proved really useful.


I kept refreshing the app store to see Where is it was going. Is it higher now? Is it higher now? I just kept watching it and watching it.


Alan got so many downloads of his police scanner app. There was all this advertising revenue and subscription revenue coming in. At one point, he was pulling in $350,000 per month.


Oh, my God. Like life-changing money.


Life-changing money, exactly. He started thinking, This is it, right? I've done it. I have done the thing that I set out to do. I can take care of my mom. I can hire people to help her. I can buy her a house, that thing. Alan told me that he had been thinking about his rich person ideal purchase for a while. What would he buy if he suddenly struck it rich?


I think people might hate me for saying it, but it was a bright lime green Lamborghini that I bought.


This shimmery Lamborghini.


I was in my early 20s at the time, too.


It's like a trophy, right? It's like, This is my thing. I'm rich now.


It's so clear. Yes, exactly. He's putting down a mark. Exactly.


The reason why I bought that is because I felt like I needed some reward for what I did. I called it my fortress of it to because it allowed me to insulate myself from all the bad stuff that was going on in my life for a while, just to be in the car for a little bit to enjoy the moment.


Then he thought, What do I do about work? What do I do about my job that I'm still clocking in and out of my 9:00 to 5:00 job? It didn't really make sense for him to stay at work after all of that.


He doesn't effectively need to work. $350,000 a month is a lot, as we've established. So what does he do?


So I just had to quit.


So Alan quit his job forever because he could, right? He was a multimillionaire at the age of 25, which is a decision that most of us would not even dream about making.


And the reason why I quit, I was always worried about my mother. I knew that she couldn't really take care of herself that much, so I need to physically be at home. And I knew that if I just kept working, I can't do that.


Alan retired at 25, which was about a decade ago. He's been taking care of his mom ever since. She's doing a lot better now, and he has really settled into his own retirement. He lives in Florida, the land of retirees. He plays pickleball all day long. He owns a huge lavish home filled with video games and trinkets galore, and he bought a second Lamborghini. He's really achieved this childhood dream life.


We're talking in the context of this fire movement. Alan's story is really interesting and seems to show that he achieved the fire movement's objectives. But did he understand that he had? What is his connection to the movement?


Alan essentially achieved F. R. On his own without knowing that he'd achieved F. R. He had done it. He had achieved financial independence. He had retired early. As part of that, he began spending a lot of time online just browsing or finding opportunities to chat with people. Somebody on a Reddit forum, it was not even a fire forum. It was like a random entrepreneurship forum, asked him a question that was something like, What's it like to be rich? He said he wrote out this essay of a comment expecting no one would read it except for this one guy who would ask the question. The comment went viral. Then all these people reached out to him on Reddit and said, You should join these fire subreddits. You would be great here, and people would really love your mentorship and your insights. That's how Alan Wong found himself embraced by all these fire people. He virtually looked around and he said, Wow, these are my people. These are the people who I've always been waiting for. These are the friends that I never knew that I wanted.


Amy, this is absolutely fascinating, Alan's story, but it does strike me as pretty unique. I mean, here's a guy who struck it rich with this app, but I have to imagine most people are not in his camp. Is this replicable?


You're absolutely right. Alan's story is incredibly rare. It's really, really tough to make a best-selling app and suddenly launch yourself into multimillionaire territory.


I decided I was going to win the lottery, and I did.


For those who are listening to this thinking of it, I started to dash your dreams, but it's really, really tough. Alan almost got to fire as a fluke, right? This is not the thing you can plan for. Actually, the majority of people in the fire movement are planning, but they're doing it in a very, very different way. It's about the nitty-gritty of personal finance. It's about strategizing the numbers that make sense for you. This goes back actually to the origin of the FIRE movement. The FIRE movement began in the early 2000s not as anything about getting rich. It was about anti-consumerism. It was about not spending money because you didn't want to spend money. It was about reducing your footprint on the planet, about being a ethical responsible responsible human being. That was how fire really began. People were like, I don't want to work anymore because I don't want to be beholden to this system. I don't want a paycheck. I just want to figure out enough money for myself so that I can retire and leave this system, like Unplug. A lot of people talked about taking the red pill and stepping out of the matrix.


It was freedom from work, but also an ethos and a philosophy of living light and not buying stuff and just having freedom from the consumerist world.


Exactly. You could get by living off a can of beans, so why bother paying for the Michelin star meal?


That sounds very, very different from what Alan did.


It absolutely is completely different. In fact, the fire movement has grown so big and so diverse that there are essentially splinterings within the community of different ways people are approaching fire. The traditional route that we were just talking the anti-consumerism, the whole ethics of it, is now known as lean fire. That stands in opposition to what Alan is, which is fat fire.


Stands to reason.


Yeah. It was self-explanatory lean fire and fat fire. You have one camp that's all about minimalist, cutting it down to the bone, being happy with where you are, and fat fire, which is all about blowing that all up, getting as rich as possible, having your cake and eating it, to being able to retire, but doing it in the lap of luxury.


But how does the mainstream of the fire movement, I mean, not the Allans, but everybody else, how do they actually do it? I mean, how do you retire at 30 if you don't make a best-selling app?


The great trick of FHIR is planning. That sounds really silly, but that's how people get there. A lot of things that the FHIR people recommend are actually things that financially savvy people are doing already, like maxing out your 401k, investing in index funds. The real fundamental difference between that and what the FHIR people are doing, though, is the amount and the aggressiveness that you're pursuing it with. The average person is putting in 10 to 20% of their paycheck into these instruments like 401k. What the fire people recommend is 50 to 70% of your paycheck.


70% of your paycheck.


70% of your paycheck. Of course, you don't have to do it that way. You don't You have to live off of only 30% of your income. But the idea is if you do that, then you'll get there faster. It's about a personal trade-off. Say you don't want to be living so frugally and you'd rather enjoy yourself a little bit more, then you can save, let's say, 50%, and it would just take you a little bit longer to get to retirement. The idea of fire is calculating first the amount that you'll need. Start with the age that you want to retire and then work backwards from there to determine how aggressive you need to be about saving.


Amy, this is baffling because I guess I'm thinking regular American household barely has enough to pay the bills, pay the rent, and everything. How are they saving 70% of their paycheck?


I had the exact same question. I kept thinking, there has to be something else. There has to be a secret behind the secret. I'm missing something. It can't just be saving money in this ferocious way. Who can do that? You You have to be a surgeon, a top-tier lawyer, that person to be able to afford to save this much money. I realized that to understand whether fire can really work for everyone, I needed to look for some everyday people who had actually managed to pull this off.


We'll be right back.


I gave my brother a New York Times subscription. She sent me a year long subscription, so I have access to all the games.


We'll do Werdal, Nini, spelling Bee.


It has given us a personal connection. We exchange articles.


Having read the same article, we can discuss it.


The coverage, the option, it's not just news.


Such a diversified bisque.


I was really excited to give him a New York Times cooking subscription so that we could share recipes. And we even just shared a the other day. The New York Times contributes to our quality time together.


You have all of that information at your fingertips.


It enriches our relationship, broadening our horizons.


It was such a cool and thoughtful gift. We're reading the same stuff, we're making the same food, we're on the same page. Connect even more with someone you care about. Learn more about giving a New York Times subscription as a gift at nytimes.




Amy, you said you set out to find ordinary people who had done fire. How did you start that? Where'd you go?


I went and found the biggest fire conference in the country. It's something called Econome, Econ-O-M-E. I'm not going to get the pun. It is the largest gathering of fire people on an annual basis. I believe this is its third or fourth year of people who have either made it already into early retirement or are close or maybe just are stepping their toes in.


Okay, so describe the scene. You go to this economy conference. What does it look like? Who's there?


I was expecting either a crowd of retired millionaires or a crowd of really young people who were just graduating from college and frustrated. But it was a huge, diverse mix. There were millennials, there were the retirees and the people who had made it who were just sitting back being like, Let me show you the way. But there were also all of these pretty everyday people. There were people who worked on cruises. There were public school teachers, off-Broadway actors, dentists, plumbers, all sorts of people of different ages, too, who had flown from different parts of the country and even the world to come here, to be with other people who were like-minded.


What was the vibe like? What was it like sitting in the room and listening to people.


It was like being in a secret lair of some sort or underground world in which things were topsy-turvy and it was not the status quo that was the case above ground. What I mean by that is everyone talked openly about money and their money. They would share with each other how much money they had in their bank accounts or what their salary was, the raise they had gotten last year, the number of figures of debt they were in. Like, Oh, I'm in five-figure debt. I I have a million dollars in debt.


Okay, that is topsy turdy. Right.


They would say this openly, and it was like an embrace of money that is so oppositional to what we normally have in Western society. That it was really odd and culture-shocky. But at the end of it, I was like, I want this to be the default of the… I want to go around sharing my networth and my student debt and all of this with other people, and I want them to share it back with me.


Amy, who How did you meet? Bring us into the room with you. Tell me about the people you met.


A couple of people really stood out to me. There were some people who had discovered FHIR young. Is this your first time here? No, right? No. You've been here for a year.


This is my third economy. It's probably my 20th FHIR event.


When Merz discovered FHIR when she was in her early 20s, and she grew up similar to what we're talking about with Allen in a financially stressful situation.


I grew up really poor. We were living way below the federal poverty line, and so we never had money. I was like, I want money so I can have things and say yes to things and not have to be bullied because I don't have the right clothes. I wanted to just not stick out because we didn't have money.


She always had this message that she wanted money for herself so that she could be happy and live freely and not be judged.


Do you remember the website, Stumblapon?


Yeah. R-i-p.


I know, right? I put in personal finance as one of my interests, and I was like, You're telling me that all I have to do is follow these easy steps, these simple steps, maybe not so easy for some people, and I'll be able to put working early and I'll have lots of money.


Sign me up. She embarked on a journey when she was in her early 20s, and she's now at the point where she could quit her job if she wanted to, or she could keep going, and she hasn't really decided yet.


When I started out, I had $10,000 in the bank, and we were like, Yeah, what do you know? You're 22, right? Now I'm 33. I have half a million a dollar net worth. And then people are like, Oh, actually, wow, you've done a lot in 10 years. Maybe there's something to this.


There were other people I met who were older, actually, and just discovering fire.


I've been an actor since I was 15 years old. I'm 48 now.


For instance, I met one woman who goes by the name Essence Revealed, who was actually an actor her entire life. She told me she never really thought about retirement.


Acting is not like being a ballet dancer or a football player or something where your body's like, We can't do this anymore. I can pretty much act until I die.


She knew about fire, but it seemed completely out of the realm of possibility for her.


But then when the pandemic happened, all of the things that I did for money were gone. And so I just ended up unemployed.


But when the pandemic hit, she had this realization that she needed to have a financial plan of some sort. She couldn't just rely on paychecks. So she read more about FHIR. She learned about investing, and then she decided to completely upend her life, and she became a truck driver.


A truck driver.


Right. I had actually called my Godbrother to borrow a month's rent, and he's like, Have you ever thought about driving a truck? I said, Absolutely not.


She heard about trucking as a job from someone she knew, and she thought, It doesn't sound like such a bad gig. I can live in a truck, have money to save, and see the country at the same time.


In the back, I have a bed. I have a micro microwave. I have a plug-in griddle and an instant pot, and there's cabinets for clothes and things. Very small. It's like a whole New York City apartment. I was just about to say, but I've been living in a New York City studio.


I've been living in a studio. She did it. She lived in an 18-wheeler truck that was also her job, driving around the country, which was, of course, a little tight, but she quickly went from saving very little money to saving 70% of her paycheck every single week.


Then I was like, No, I I think I can do this fire thing. I haven't actually sat down and done the math. Times, how many years will I actually get there? But I feel like I can get there.


Okay, so you were actually finding normal, not fabulously wealthy people that were doing fire, saving really aggressively. And according to them, it's working. This is real for the people you were talking to.


It is real. It is very, very real.


Which, Amy, leads to my next question, which is, once a person does achieve fire, managed to retire at 40 years old or even at 30 years old, for that matter, what do you do with the rest of your life?


It's unimaginable for many people, and so many people don't think about it. But when you do fire, you have to think about it, and you often don't have a grand plan.


The first few years of retirement were actually really hard for me because I really didn't know what to do afterwards.


Alan Wong, who we were just talking about, went through this himself.


It was as if I finished a movie really quickly and everyone else was still watching that movie. I'm already watching the end credits and everyone's still on the first act.


He had a period of many years of soul searching.


I traveled the world and I tried to do every possible fun thing I could do to see if maybe that would make me happy.


He had his YouTube account where he was showing off his car. That didn't really make happy. He bought all these things that didn't really make him happy.


I started volunteering and helping people that are less fortunate. I felt better. I felt like I wasn't just moping around in life.


What he found was he really liked giving back and establishing relationships.


I was used to it. I was used to taking care of my mother and helping her. But I realized that I had a skill set to help others as well besides my own family.


Then, of course, he spends a huge amount of his time being the moderator of the Fatfire subreddit It, which is where I found him, actually, and how I came across him because he posts there all the time. But Alan, after all these years of soul searching, realized that what he was really after, too, was not just the question of what makes me happy, but who am I without Without work. That's such a resonant question for all of us. Who are we all without work?


How does he answer it?


People keep trying to ask me what I do because they want to know who I am, what I'm like, and stuff like I don't even know myself because I don't really have an identity, I don't think. And I'm okay with that.


He was telling me that he doesn't really have an identity, and he's working towards being proud of that. He's rebelling against the idea that you have to be one thing. You have to be a noun or two noun or different things that you do. He is almost defiantly saying he's nothing. He's not any of these things. He doesn't want to be. I thought that was really interesting because a lot of other people in the fire movement also feel this way, too, when they retire. They don't want to define themselves. The whole idea is very subversive. The overarching credo of fire is that you don't belong to work, you belong to yourself. You don't need work to define yourself. You're not a former software engineer who is now a gardener or whatever it is. You're just you. You're a good person who has interests and relationships and is beloved and loved.


I don't believe that I need to have any identity. I don't need to be known for anything. I don't feel like one thing should describe a person. I feel like they're made up of all their actions, not just one thing that they do.


Amy, I'm curious what you make of the fact that fire is really surging now. Why now? Why this timing?


Well, I think fundamentally, we're just in a completely different world. We're in a different era in a different world to what our parents grew up in. There is very little job security out there in the way that it used to be. It was very straightforward. You graduated college, you got a job, you stayed in it for 40 plus years. Gold watch at the end, big retirement party, great pension, retirement, done deal, a very straightforward way of living. Now all of that is just blown completely up. We're in this time of economic unknown. The cards are so stacked against people. It's so difficult for millennials to even comprehend buying a house the way that the boomer parents did as one example, that you just can't plan for this thing. So People are detaching from it. They're leaving this vision and stepping out of themselves and saying, Wait a minute, there has to be an alternative. What fire really provides is not necessarily a straightforward answer. It's not like a just take this instead alternative. It's more like a fill in the blank question mark that allows people to figure it out themselves. It's like, Here's an alternative path.


Take it, see where it leads you, and figure out maybe if you might find your way to a different American dream.


People are searching, and this is helping them provide some answers.


It's giving them the agency to take back control. It's giving them the empowerment, the way that a support group would to tell people it's okay to think differently. Try to think out of the box. Actually, thinking out of the box is the whole idea of F. R. It's being subversive, being a little cheeky about it and saying, I don't want to do things the way that the system does. I want to design my own version of a happy life.


Amy, thank you very much. Thank you. We'll be right back. Here's what else you need to know today. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld access to a widely available abortion pill, rejecting a bid from anti-abortion organizations to restrict the pill because they lacked the right to sue. The ruling on the drug Mifepristone, was unanimous. The justices sidestepped the questions of safety and morality and focused entirely on the issue of standing, the doctrine that requires plaintiffs to show that they have suffered direct and concrete injuries in order to bring their complaint to court. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the decision that the doctors and the organizations who brought the suit had not suffered those injuries and thus had no grounds to sue. At a meeting in Italy, the G7, the West's seven largest economic powers agreed to give Ukraine a $50 billion loan to help it in its war against Russia. The loan will be repaid from interest earned on Russian assets that were frozen in European banks when Russia invaded Ukraine. For two years since that invasion, Western countries have debated what to do with the approximately $300 billion in Russian assets, asking in particular whether they could legally turn those assets over to the government of Ukraine.


The move on Thursday represented a compromise. A quick reminder to catch a new episode of The Interview right here tomorrow. This week, David Markezi speaks with Serena Williams about life after tennis.


That had been my life for over 40 years.


And so it was like, you don't go from literally a 40-year career to just going, Okay, what do you do today?




Today's episode was produced by Luc Vandenploeg and Mujd Zady, with help from Claire Tennis-Sketter. It was edited by Brenda Clinkenberg, contains original music by Diane Wong, Dan Powell, Marion Lozano, and Alasia Baetou, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansberg of WNDY. That's it for The Daily. I'm Sabrina Taverny Cee. See you on Monday.