At some point, we've all fantasized about quitting our jobs to do whatever we want until we die. I've asked myself a lot, "How much money would I have to save to do thatright now?" The answer is actually kind of boring, either "a million-ish dollars (assuming you're debt-free and and don't mind living somewhere weird)," or "significantly less than a million-ish dollars (assuming you're debt-free, really good at investing, and don't mind living like a monk)."
A number of internet personalities preach the virtues of a frugality-first lifestyle meant to help you save and invest to a point where you can live off your meager budget forever; philosophically, they fall somewhere between the Four-Hour Workweek guy and those who think you can "opt out" of paying your taxes because they're secretly voluntary.
There's the Early Retirement Extreme guy that claims to live off $5,000-$7,000 per year and espouses vaguely anarcho-capitalist ideals; there's Mr. Money Mustache, whose New Yorker profile portrayed him as a goofy, stoner-ish version of the Early Retirement Extreme guy. There's the Retire By 40 guy and a couple who call themselves Millennial Revolution and implore you to "Stop working. Start living."
These people make achieving early retirement seem like more work than, well, work itself—not to mention that the idea of retired young-ish people making a living selling others on the dream of early retirement seems like a pyramid scheme. "Those [people] are outliers," says Mike Dang, a co-founding editor of the financial site The Billfold who also serves as the Editor-In-Chief of Longreads. "It's not a story you can learn from. They're nice to read, and then you move on with your day because you have a whole different set of problems than what those people have."
The first of those problems is that saving is generally a complicated business, especially if you came of age during the Great Recession, says Dang: "Wages were stagnant, but the amount of debt we were accruing after college was skyrocketing." Housing costs, healthcare, and student loans have risen since, so many young people are financially stretched as it is: "There are all these expenses you need to think about, then your savings, then retirement."
Let's say you could clear all your outstanding debts, cut down on housing costs through living at your parents' house, and taking a second job freelancing part-time (or selling weed). In that case you could stop working once you had around a million dollars.
As certified financial planner Sofia Bera explains to me, "People who have a ton of money don't need to invest for growth—they just need a big enough sum to generate enough income on a yearly basis," through payouts on investments. For retirees of any age, the idea is to have enough of a nest egg built up to the point that you can expect to draw a "salary" from your investments while still adding enough to weather inflation rates. "That can work out really well if you only need two or three percent a year in dividends in order to withdraw from your portfolio," Bera says.
Once you hit that million-dollar figure, you're able to turn your money into a perpetual money-making machine that you can theoretically live off of—that is, if you make some life adjustments. Judging off the yields Bera suggests, you'd be able to take $20,000 to $30,000 per year from your fund—enough to live sustainably in any of the lowest-income places in the United States.
Regardless, you really should start saving some money for retirement. Even a small amount can make a big difference over a number of years. (Here's a primer to get you started.) As for how much you'll need: Dang says that when people ask him this question, "I always tell them to think about how they want to live their lives." Some might decide to work well into advanced age as a way to keep themselves occupied while providing themselves with a bit of income; others might want to spend their twilight years having fun or using their decades of sexual experience to do weird sex stuff (and potentially get a couple STI's).
The point is, even if the world suffers some sort of cataclysmic event that turns society into The Road Warrior, you'll still need some savings to get by—if only to buy up all the weapons and gasoline you'll need to become a post-apocalyptic pirate ruler. So get started, because the magic of compounding is real.
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