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FIRE Movement: The Realities of Partnering Up to Retire Early

Jackie Lam | Sep 10, 2019

When Bethany McCamish’s fiancé wanted to put a complete halt on going out on dates for the sole interest of saving money, she was not on board. In fact, her partner’s new agenda to ruthlessly save kind of stung.

“I’m all about having fun, connecting with people, and making memories,” says McCamish, a freelance designer and writer in her mid-20s. “When we go out, it supports our relationship.” 

The reason for this savings shake-up? Her partner wanted to reach financial independence by age 40. 

For the unaffiliated, FI/RE stands for “Financially Independent, Retire Early” and is when one reaches a point where they have enough saved never to work for money again. 

In recent years, this movement has reached a fever pitch...and seems to only be growing. Early FI/RE heroes include Peter Adeney, endearingly known as Mr. Money Mustache. Adeney and his then-wife retired in 2005 at the age of 30 after working, saving for eight years, and building their net worth to $800,000.

To reach financial independence, you’ll need to hit “your number,” which is the amount you need in assets — think: savings, investments, retirement accounts, passive income from rental property, or a side business — to have the autonomy to stop working for the man.

The basic formula to reach financial independence is as follows: Many get a high-paying job, usually in tech. Live barebones — we’re talking about the basics — so you can live on as little of your take-home income as possible, and squirrel the rest in investments. Find ways to make extra money. Then retire as soon as possible.

In a relationship, however, the FI/RE bug might bite one partner...but not the other. 

Hard Money Talks

When McCamish’s fiancé talked to her about the concept of FI/RE, she was not so keen on the idea.

“I thought it was so crazy,” says McCamish, whose partner, an electrical engineer, proclaimed he wanted to cut their Netflix, Hulu, and cable bills to save as much money possible. “I mean it sounds that way if you don't know the math behind it,” says McCamish. 

FI/RE fans cut their Netflix, Hulu, and cable bills to save as much money possible.
Design by Nary Han

It can be hard for couples to get on the same page. It took McCamish and her partner a long time to talk about money. And to finally see things eye-to-eye, they had plenty of tough money conversations and fights. 

“When it comes to money, partners within a couple often operate on subconscious programming that is based on emotional temperament, financial narratives and beliefs, and cultural dynamics that they’ve brought in to the relationship,” explains Alex Melkumian, a financial therapist based in Los Angeles and founder of the Financial Psychology Center. “So the idea of financial independence or early retirement can have very different meanings to each partner.” 

McCamish’s partner, for instance, had a very plush background — his parents bought him everything he wanted, including a motorcycle when he was 14. She, on the other hand, grew up dirt poor in a trailer home. 

“When you grow up poor, it can make you a spender,” says McCamish.

There were times when she simply didn’t feel understood. Because her partner earned a lot more than she did, he saw reaching financial independence as being really easy. 

“He’s a tech bro, and I’m the underearner,” says McCamish, who is currently building her freelancing business. “He might not understand where I’m coming from, that I might be a little more tight when he comes to money.” 

Power Struggles

Suspicions that one’s partner is trying to control the money might come into play. 

For instance, Terri Bennett turned into a FI/RE aspirant when she and her husband both started making significantly more money. “I realized I didn’t really know what to do with the extra money because I had never really had any,” says Bennett, who is in her early 40s and is an adjunct professor based in New York City. 

“So, if a colleague asked me to go to happy hour and I declined, I put $20 right away into my savings,” says Bennett. “Or, if I suggested having a few beers at my apartment instead of the bar, I would text myself the $14 difference of drinking at home.” 
Design by Nary Han

When she brought up the concept of tracking every penny to her husband, Gabriel, who is in his late 30s, he found it to be more of a threat to his freedom than anything. He felt as if Bennett was trying to control his spending habits. 

“I’m sure it sounded rather punitive to my partner,” says Bennett. “He was thinking, ‘Hey, I just worked my ass off to get this great job, and you want me to live like I’m broke? And on top of that, you also want to know how I spend every dollar coming in?’” 

Bennett wasn’t trying to control the finances in the relationship; she wanted that money to achieve other goals, such as early retirement. For instance, she stopped spending a lot of money drinking out. 

“So, if a colleague asked me to go to happy hour and I declined, I put $20 right away into my savings,” says Bennett. “Or, if I suggested having a few beers at my apartment instead of the bar, I would text myself the $14 difference of drinking at home.” 

When Bennett’s husband Gabriel could see that the changes his wife was making was paying off, he could see that she really wasn’t denying herself at all, just that she was being more intentional. 

Time Will Only Tell

It could take years until you and your partner see eye-to-eye about your savings goals. 

“Being on the same financial page as your partner takes clarity, willingness, and most importantly, compromise,” says Melkumian. 

"The idea of financial independence or early retirement can have very different meanings to each partner.” 
Getty; Design by Nary Han

It was a random night during the week when Bennet and her husband didn’t have any food in the fridge and went to a nice-but-overpriced meal. 

“It was decent food, but not memorable, necessary, or gratifying,” says Bennett. “I remember saying something like, ‘See — I'm not all about never enjoying ourselves or never splurging or never having nice things, but I think if we were conscious of all the money we spend on mediocre experiences, it would add up to funding things that were much more interesting or consequential.’ And I think of that meal as a turning point because when he was paying the bill he was feeling the same way.”

For McCamish and her partner, they found a happy medium. They go out on dates that are free or low cost, such as hiking, camping, and going to the movies or concerts only if they are free. The couple also go on weekly money dates to talk about their money goals and make sure they’re on track.

“FI/RE was actually the best thing my partner could have stumbled onto,” says McCamish. “Not because of the promise of being able to retire early, but because it really was the driving force that helped us have full money conversations.”