The History of Early Retirement
The variables impacting how early you can retire are actually pretty simple and Americans actually been thinking about “early retirement” for almost 300 years.
1. Longevity: How many years you have to live.
2. Costs: How much money you need to live the life you want each year
3. Savings: How much money you have saved
Let’s take a look at all three to see how American’s were thinking about retirement.
1. Longevity – How many years you have to live
Unfortunately, throughout most of history, a vast majority of people have never had the opportunity to even retire, let alone retire early. It’s a pure luxury. It’s really only been in the past 150 years, through the evolution of modern medicine and quality of life improvements, that life expectancy has grown from 37 years old to 77 years old. Sure, this data is skewed by high infant mortality rates, and there is debate around the fact the people didn’t die of old age a 37 in 1850, but it’s definitely true that people overall didn’t live as long as they do today.
So how long can humans actually live? According to the most recent research, it’s believed that the longest humans can possibly live is to 125. This means, in the future, humans are also going to need increasingly more money to sustain us for the rest of our lives.
I’ve written a lot about how much money you need to retire early and how you can calculate your early retirement number, but as I’ve been writing my book this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of early retirement. When did Americans start thinking about this topic?
2.Costs – How much money you need to live the life you want each year
After 1900, as our life expectancies have gotten longer, the cost of living has increased exponentially. So not only are we living longer, but we need more money than ever before to sustain an increasing “cost to living”. In fact, cost of living index has actually increased at a faster rate than our life expectancies post-WWII – so we are living longer and it’s getting a lot more expensive.
3. Savings – How much money you have saved
So if we are living longer and things are getting more expensive, we are going to need more money than ever before to actually retire – let alone retire early. It’s pretty easy to see that a vast majority of Americans, who now have an average savings rate of 3.5% (which is close to the lowest levels in history), will likely never be able to retire. It’s a legit crisis. Seriously. Just look at the average savings rates!
Welcome to the rat race! Looking at the two charts above, it’s easy to see why very few people pre-1900 would have thought about early retirement since they weren’t living very long and it was relatively inexpensive to live (compared to today). But how old is the idea of early retirement and when did it start?
What is the history of early retirement?
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of early retirement in America, we can look to Ben Franklin in the 1700’s as an early example. Matt and I always joke on the podcast that Ben Franklin is America’s first early retiree because he worked hard and made a ton of money through his printing company so that he could retire in 1747 at the age of 42. In 1750, the average American only lived to the age of 36, as opposed to 78.8 years today.
Of course, Ben Franklin didn’t walk away from work entirely, but he was able to start pursuing more of the projects he was passionate about without having to worry about money, which included expanding the printing and distribution of his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack. So here was a guy back in the day who was able to make a lot of money so he could retire early and then he lived a long time. He’s also the first example of an American that I can find who was writing about early retirement. Thanks, Ben, for dropping all your wisdom on us!
Early retirement advertisements
As it turns out, while Americans have been thinking about early retirement at least since Ben Franklin’s time, it wasn’t until advertising in the 20th century (and when people started living longer) that you can really see the ideas reaching into the public consciousness. While I’ve discovered quite a few early retirement ads, the oldest that I’ve been able to find (and purchase – how did I start collecting these things ?) is from August 1938.
Reading it, minus the whole only-male-slightly-sexist-tone thing, it’s remarkably similar to the retirement ads that we see today. I mean, look at that dude on the golf course! At its core, the ad is focused on selling the idea that if you make the most of the next 10-15 years, you can have enough money to not work for the rest of your life.
Here’s the intro: “Most of us hope to win someday a long reprieve from labor. Yet to hope may seem as futile as shooting at the midday sun. But it need not be. For the prospect of retiring – the prospect of attaining financial freedom – is not just a bright impossibility. It lies within the grasp of almost every one of us.”
Keep in mind that in 1938, the average life expectancy in the United States was 62 for men and 65 for women. Then the ad goes on to say, “Yes, any man blessed with the ability to earn even a modest income – and ten or fifteen years of earning power left – can make a financial success of his life.” Basically, that’s all about trying to fast-track financial independence, right?
Then it goes on to sell a company called “Investors Syndicate” that can help you “accumulate $3,000, $10,000, $25,000 or more.” Talk about some big retirement targets right there! But people didn’t need much money given the low cost of living. Check out below the cost of living and how inexpensive it was to live back in 1938!
The average income was only $1,731 per year. So realistically saving up $10,000 – $25,000, would be like saving 5-15 years of your income, which depending on your desired standard of living, could last you the rest of your life at these low prices. I mean, you can see a lot of movies at 25 cents a ticket.
I love old ads like this. They give you an awesome window into how people thought at that time. It’s also funny to see how little has changed in the past 80 years and that Americans are still interested in retiring as early as they can. In fact, not surprisingly, as the cost of living and life expectancies continue to increase in the United States, so has our interest in early retirement and financial independence.
Early retirement and financial independence are growing in popularity
Growing up, I had never heard of early retirement and in fact, the youngest person I had heard that retired was a family friend named Jim who retired at the ripe young age of 51. He had both sold his company and inherited some money. My parents held him up as an example of someone who had “made it” and that was the only exposure I had to early retirement.
Back in 2010 when I started my financial independence journey, I didn’t have a roadmap – just a seemingly unrealistic goal to make $1 million. It was a simple goal, but getting there was messy and stressful, to say the least – it was a lot of testing, making mistakes and hacking it all together. But I eventually found a way through reading the best money books and other personal finance bloggers, to develop an investing strategy, and then an early retirement strategy built on saving at least $50 a day. Then I put it all into practice.
For a while, I felt like I was treading the path on my own, but as it turns out there were others who had come before me and made it happen – like Joe Dominguez, who retired at 30 and co-authored with my dear friend, Vicki Robin, a book that truly changed my life and pretty much started the financial independence movement – Your Money or Your Life. (By the way, I am setting up to make a formal announcement soon, but for those who don’t yet know I’ve recently partnered with Vicki and we are building a new platform for YMOYL, so if you are interested in learning more and getting notified of the launch, sign up to be alerted about early access here: https://yourmoneyoryourlife.com.
Then there were others like Mr. Money Mustache who retired in his early 30’s or Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme or Brandon from Mad Fientist but it was a pretty small crew. But as it turns out, even though the FIRE (financial independence early retirement) movement wasn’t even the FIRE movement yet, there was a growing number of us all trying to escape the rat race as quickly as possible.
Very few things make me happier than seeing the growth of the movement and the spreading of the message. While FIRE is still very underground, I feel like the movement is picking up momentum and reaching broader groups of people. A simple analysis of the Google Search data in the United States shows a massive increase in the number unique searches for early retirement and financial independence, highlighting a growing interest in the topic.
While there are clearly more people than ever before searching for early retirement and financial independence, the total monthly volumes still remain relatively low as a percentage of all the Google searches about money. Just as a comparison, there are 18,100 searches a month for day trading (booo!). While the FIRE movement is still an underground movement, it’s exciting to see more people interested than ever before and the message the spreading. Now we just have to get more Americans to save more money.