More workers are looking to retire early: A look inside the FIRE movement

Key Points
  • Early retirement used to mean leaving the workforce at age 50. But a growing group of full-time workers are planning to quit even earlier.
  • The desire to retire in your 30s or 40s is what's driving the so-called FIRE movement.
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Retire early

Early retirement used to mean leaving the workforce at age 50. But a growing group of full-time workers are planning to quit even earlier.

The desire to retire in your 30s or 40s is what's driving the so-called FIRE movement. The name is an acronym for "financial independence, retire early." FIRE appears to be gaining popularity among millennials.

Two FIRE members, Tanja Hester and her husband, say they both had demanding consulting jobs. Each earned more than $100,000 a year, but both careers required long hours and extensive travel.

"My husband and I had jobs that we loved, actually," Hester told CNBC's "On The Money" in a recent interview. "I think there's a common misconception that those of us pursuing early retirement are doing it because we hate work. Or we feel like we shouldn't have to work. It really couldn't have been farther from the truth for us. It was just that we felt the toll that work was taking and we knew we couldn't sustain that pace until age 65."

Six years ago, they began to envision a life without daily 9-to-5 jobs.

Hester said they started "saving more without a real plan, then we built out a detailed plan." That strategy included investing more of their income, while cutting spending.

Simultaneously, she started chronicling their progress on a blog, "Our Next Life." It's one of many FIRE movement blogs and podcasts aimed at, for and about the group by those involved in it.

The FIRE movement is "a program of extreme savings and investment that allows proponents to retire far earlier than traditional budgets and retirement plans would allow," according to Investopedia.

While sharing similar goals, Hester said the methods to get there differ.

"Like any group of people, you've got a wide range of folks in the FIRE movement." she told CNBC. While some focus on extreme frugality, Hester said she and her husband don't share that mission.

"Mark and I are much less frugal. We weren't natural super-savers. And I wanted to show folks even if you don't love counting every cent you spend on your groceries, you can still pursue early retirement or some form of it. "

Although she declines to share how much they accumulated in their portfolio before quitting work, they officially began their early retirement last year. She at 38 and her husband at age 41.

"Early retirement isn't magic, it doesn't make life perfect. But I do like no alarm clock." She said in their first year, "a big chunk of the year we were away traveling," to destinations including Taiwan, Mexico, France and Monaco.

Tanja Hester and her husband
Tanja Hester

Her blog writing evolved into a new book, "Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way," where she suggests these tips among many, "Be clear on what life you want to live. You need to know how much it costs. Second, be clear on your spending."

But Hester adds there isn't a single template for early retirement, "I think it looks different for everyone. "

"It's easy to get caught up in the traditional retirement definition. Thinking that it has to mean that you either work, or you don't. I think it's so much more gray area and that each of us can really define for ourselves how much of a role we want work to play in our lives. Whether that's full early retirement or if it's something where you work some, or like I do which is I do a lot of stuff that looks like work but it's all projects that I feel passionate about. "

But what happens down the road if you're not working and you get an illness, have an accident or something else you hadn't anticipated?

Hester said: "I think that working sometimes gives us a false sense of security. And tells us we can spend all of our money, when in fact we should be saving a lot of it. Knowing that your career is only going to go for a decade, two decades, three decades, something shorter than the norm, I do think motivates you to save more and to make some different decisions"

She added people in the FIRE movement are choosing to live their lives differently than the work-life pattern of previous generations.

"It's people finding alternative narratives for their life and saying, 'You know, just because my parents and grandparents did it this way doesn't mean that I have to."