Financial Advice Blog

Can you afford to retire early?

Financial Spectrum's Brenton Tong discusses the rising trend of Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) among young Australians and the financial considerations, including the impact of location, for achieving early retirement.

Financial Spectrum’s Brenton Tong was interviewed for this article by Lucy Dean published in the Australian Financial Review. You can view the original article here.

Sarah Lawrie and Laura Turner are 34 and 37, but within the next four to five years, the Adelaide couple plans to retire.

In fact, as of January 2021, they’ve been semi-retired, with their monthly living expenses now covered by their recipe site Wandercooks.

But to fully retire early, they want to build their $110,000 share portfolio to $585,000, and then live off an income of $23,400 a year, before earnings from Wandercooks are factored in.

“Last year, we sold our home and bought a very run down house – the worst one on the best street of course – so currently, semi-retired to us, is actually working almost full time renovating our house,” says Lawrie.

“We’re doing as much as we can ourselves and hiring local trades for the more specialty areas like electrical and plumbing.”

As it stands, they say their business makes them around $100,000 a year each from display advertising. They’re funnelling at least $1000 a month into index funds while also trying to plough through as much of their mortgage as possible, while saving at least 50 per cent to 70 per cent per year.

“[We’ve been] very frugal in comparison to most people we know,” Lawrie admits. But she doesn’t think they’re going without.

Some 41 per cent of Australians list early retirement within their top three financial aspirations, according to a survey of 1006 Australians commissioned by fund manager Betashares.

It’s a story financial adviser at Financial Spectrum Brenton Tong is seeing play out in his office, with a growing number of his younger clients “opting out” of the grind, and leaning towards a mindset dubbed FIRE: financial independence, retire early.

“A lot of people come to us and say, ‘I want a life, not just a portfolio’,” he says.

“It’s partly because it’s become so hard to follow the natural traditional process of buying a house, raising a family and doing all of that stuff,” he adds, pointing to the housing affordability crisis.

They’re also watching their parents come to the end of their working careers after paying off a 30-year mortgage, and deciding it’s simply not for them.

But the amount needed to retire early really depends on what sort of lifestyle you’re after, and whether it’s true retirement, or the freedom to either work less, or just on projects you enjoy, he adds.

How to build a $1m portfolio in 10 years

While numbers vary, the FIRE community coalesces around the $1 million figure. That’s due to the idea that with that sum, they could withdraw between 3 per cent to 5 per cent a year to fund their lifestyle, while still hopefully making more than that in returns.

And according to investment platform Syfe, it is possible to build out a portfolio worth $1 million within 10 years, but it won’t be pretty.

The platform recently launched its Goal feature to help users understand whether they are on track with their investing and retirement goals, and how they might change the parameters to achieve them.

Its calculator shows that to achieve $1 million in 10 years, an investor would need to invest an initial amount of $10,000 today, and then an ongoing amount of $5,400 per month.

That’s assuming a return of 8 per cent per annum. And if the calculations factor in annual inflation at 4 per cent, that monthly investment would need to be increased to $6800.

But if they had 15 years, with the same $10,000 initial contribution and the same assumed 8 per cent return, they’d only need $3000 per month, or $4100 with 4 per cent inflation.

Even so, these are substantial sums. But as Syfe general manager Tim Wallace notes, if those amounts are too much, there are three factors investors can play with: the amount they’re investing, their time horizon, or their goal.

It’s also worth modelling your scenario against different expected return amounts: if inflation goes significantly higher that could dent the strategy, as could a couple of dud years of returns.

More broadly, Wallace says that one of the benefits of having a goal is that it allows investors to adjust their strategies accordingly, whether that’s investing more or reducing expenses.

“It might sound basic but keeping track of your progress against your financial goals is a key part of you achieving them given it keeps you motivated, consistent, and informed,” he says.

“Depending on how you are progressing against your goal, you may need to make adjustments which might involve investing more, investing more frequently, saving more, or switching up what you’re invested in that has a risk-reward profile that is aligned with your goal.

“Conversely, if you’re not keeping track of your goals – you won’t have anything to anchor success or failure against.”

Forget about Sydney

Tong gives the example of clients Jade, 30, and Tom, 32. With a combined income of $160,000, they want to retire by 45 and are happy to live outside of a capital city – as long as it’s not in the middle of nowhere.

While they save, invest and work, they’re going to live off $120,000 a year, with the remaining $40,000 being funnelled into the future. They’re renting and will buy a home in their late 30s once they’ve chosen where they want to live, and are also salary-sacrificing into their super to work towards a tax-free retirement.

Tong estimates that in around 10 years, they’ll have a modest house that they’ve paid off, plus around $1.2 million in ETFs and super, generating $60,000 per year for life.

Housing is the biggest thing, though, he adds.

“If you can move somewhere cheap, then $1 million bucks earning 5 per cent of $50,000 a year – you’re sweet. Not a problem.

“I’ve had quite a few clients move overseas because it’s cheaper. You take $1 million to Bali, and you’re sweet.”

Try to do the same thing in Sydney? It’ll be a lot harder, he says.

In fact, he considers one of the biggest challenges for people trying to achieve financial independence and retire early, to be simply living in Sydney.

“It’s the worst place to do it. Yes, the incomes are higher, but the cost of living is ridiculous.”

For those who are living in an expensive city, renting may actually be a better option than buying, in some senses, he adds.

For example, someone who wants to live in Sydney could choose to rent somewhere cheap over the 15 years while they’re building up capital, and then if home ownership is still part of the goal, they can then purchase a property that they’ll move into in the future.

Hard questions

Tong has one last question he wants people thinking of retiring early to consider: “Do you have any idea what you’re in for?”

He says that while the maths is basic – you lower expenses, increase income and invest the difference until there’s a big enough portfolio that the returns will cover the cost of living perpetually, the reality is far from simple.

“The thing to ask yourself is, firstly, ‘Do I really want to do it?’ It could be a 14-year journey… and we’ve all read the story of the guy who’s 37, and he’s worked his arse off, and he’s got enough to do whatever he wants to.

“But I’ve also read quite a few interviews where these people have said, ‘If I had my time again, I wouldn’t do it because I’m 37, and I haven’t lived’.”

And while Lawrie and Turner love the extra time their financial strategy has scored them, they agree that it’s not for everyone. They note that saving more and investing the difference is simply not feasible for people living close to the poverty line, and for others, they simply won’t want to change their lifestyles.

“That’s also fair enough – we’re all different,” says Lawrie.

“The core of FIRE is to give you time and flexibility to do the things you want.”

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