How the early-retirement movement gave this couple a solution to the racial wealth gap

Julien and Kiersten Saunders are on the path to early retirement, and they’d like other African-Americans to consider the journey as well.

The couple behind the blog “rich & Regular” paid off $200,000 in debt after five years in 2017. Their goals now are to retire by mid-2021, as well as grow and generate income from their blog, invest in businesses and expand their real estate holdings. “We take things one week at a time,” Julien said.

They weren’t always this disciplined with money. While Julien, 38, was a saver, Kiersten, 34, was a spender, and in their initial conversations about money as a couple she would get defensive about her choices and consumer debt. But they worked together, and spent time reading on saving and investing. After they decided to pay down debts, their goal eventually evolved into finding alternatives to working a traditional office job, she said. Julien left his job last year to focus on the blog and other businesses, while Kiersten still works full time in the service industry.

Mr. and Mrs. r&R spend much of their time now sharing their experiences with other members of the “financial independence, retire early” (or FIRE) community, as well as those around them who don’t believe they could ever attain the same wealth necessary to live financially free.

There is no one-size approach to FIRE. Many of the bloggers who are working toward the same goal disagree on how much one needs to retire early, and others are approaching early retirement by leaving their 9-to-5 jobs and taking on more creative gigs.

Julien and Kiersten’s story — and the success of their blog — come amid increased interest in the FIRE movement, usually characterized by extreme frugality, side hustles and high-earning jobs that allow employees to save a large portion of their salaries. These strategies are also in contrast to the retirement crisis effecting many Americans. Although some individuals are able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by their mid-30s, a significant portion of America is financially unprepared for the future, and risks falling near or in poverty by age 65.

The Saunders are planning to leave the traditional workplace entirely in the next two and a half years and then focus on alternative streams of income. They highlight some of the challenges specific to the black community, such as being risk-averse, having a high dependence on jobs and an “overreliance on education as a way to climb out of multigenerational poverty.” They want to introduce FIRE as a means to change that financial narrative.

Read: You can retire early without adopting Mr. Money Mustache’s extreme frugality

Early retirement is out of reach to much of the population, and minorities might feel even more of a disconnect when it comes to FIRE, especially considering the wealth and retirement savings gaps along racial lines. A majority (65.9%) of white American households had retirement savings in 2016, with a median amount of $67,000, compared with 37.5% of black American households, that had $23,000, according to Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. White households were also more likely to own homes (71.8% of white versus 41% of black households) or own businesses (19.6% of white households versus 7.6% of black households).

See: This 24-year-old is on track to save $100,000 by age 25, and she has advice for other women who want to be rich

Julien and Kiersten spoke with MarketWatch about saving for retirement, FIRE and race:

MarketWatch: How would you define race in the FIRE movement?

Julien Saunders: It is one of the most difficult sorts of conversations to have but our experience has been incredible. The community as a whole has been welcoming. We thought long and hard before including and injecting our voices into the sort of FIRE and personal finance debates but we know how important it is to be represented and to be relatable, so our goal was to step out there and share the journey, which is different from our counterparts. We have gotten notes from people saying “I am so glad to see someone who looks like me” because they felt they were doing it alone, or they felt they had to abandon their identity as a culture to take part on this journey. Just us being there has given people, particularly minorities, more comfort in taking on this journey.

MW: A MarketWatch story caused an uproar last year when it reported that by age 35, a person should have twice their salary saved for retirement. A lot of critics said they couldn’t do that because they had student loans, an expensive mortgage but also that there were gender and wage gaps that meant they earned less and thus couldn’t save as much. How do you connect with a community that may have more difficulties approaching retirement saving?

Kiersten Saunders: We have a post called “The Racial Wealth Gap” that explains all of the big barriers in why the gap exists for black people specifically, but for us it was acknowledging that and affirming that yes, you are right, it is harder, but it is still possible. We talk about jobs as an alternative. It’s more along the idea you can retire early and leave this system that isn’t working for you. Think about all of us working jobs for 30 years and there’s still a wealth gap. Why wouldn’t I take a bet on myself, and try the idea of saving and earning more outside of the context of a traditional career to break the pattern?

Julien: We have to be mindful and note that not all black people are coming from this place where they’re saddled with student loan debt or are lower earners, especially in a city like Atlanta. You’ve got significant earners. One reason we felt so comfortable sharing our story was because FIRE is a wake-up call for people who are making a good living but still at risk of downsizing or not on the path to grow. We wanted to make this introduction to FIRE as a viable path — we wanted to make sure people knew about it and that it was up to them to decide if this was something they would want to pursue.

Don’t miss: 7 myths FIRE haters perpetuate about the early-retirement movement

MW: What has the feedback been like?

Julien: Most of them are open to it. The black experience for high earners is a lonely one, you’re the only one in the room if you go to a conference, you’re the only on there in a C-suite, or the only one sitting at the table. It wears on people, so to give them an option to say hey, if you want to have an early retirement or live below your means, build up reserves and strike, this as a viable option for you. I would say this is a big wake up call, not just for African-Americans but people who get the big jobs or big promotions and then say it’s not what they thought it would be or not as it did not make them as happy as they thought it would make them. We introduce FIRE as an escape plan.

MW: What is important to discuss when focusing on FIRE and retirement savings to this community?

Kiersten: We talk about the disconnect when you have cultural obligations that conflict with financial ones, so we help people pinpoint where their values are. That doesn’t exist when you’re just talking about the math and a lot of FIRE focuses on the math. But people have cultural obligations, like taking care of parents when they’re older or paying for a three-day wedding for their kids or sending their kids to a certain school. There has to be flexibility, so you don’t have to deny those parts of your culture to achieve FIRE.

A lot of conversations are all about “what’s your number?” and we have one but when we talk about portfolio size, we think of that as a metric — it’s just the back-end of a math equation. That’s not a good proxy for when we feel independent. We track our portfolio size, don’t get me wrong, but it’s about teaching people how to measure the intangible alongside counting coins.

Julien: I think it’s important to note the image of black wealth. People have a very narrow image of what that looks like. They jump to extremes, like Oprah Winfrey —

Kiersten: The Obamas, LeBron James, Puff Daddy —

Julien: But where are the regular people who work hard and save money? It doesn’t exist in popular media and we want to change that because we find that to be destructive. When you go to an inner-city kid and say you can be like Oprah, she has every right to say “No I can’t — that’s out of reach.” But to a white kid you can say you’re going to be a business kid, you can be that person. Even if you think visually, someone walking down the street with a T-shirt and sweatpants could be a millionaire, but in black America that doesn’t exist. We’re kind of challenging the narrative and saying “Hey man, you can be a regular person who works a regular job and makes smart, deliberate decisions, and be a wealth builder.”

MW: What do we need to do as a society to make that image less narrow?

Julien: I think it starts with removing the barriers to creating wealth first, and societal norms and taboos about talking about money. We need to encourage entrepreneurship as a viable route. When you tell someone to be an entrepreneur they say they don’t have a big idea, but you don’t need to create the new Facebook. You just need to solve problems and engage in commerce. That is particularly difficult for black Americans who are stuck on the one-trip pony: go to school at all costs, work twice as hard, and climbing ranks that will be harder. Once we diversify the conversation and undo the obstacles and overcome a lot of the social and cultural taboos I think it will naturally open people’s minds.

Also see: Minorities — particularly Hispanics — are increasingly unprepared for retirement

MW: How would you define retirement saving for black Americans, and how can it be made better?

Kiersten: It’s a fragmented approach right now. I come from a middle-class upbringing and I still don’t have a strong example of people who opted into retirement. They were either sick and had to retire or were let go and got their pensions. For our parents, the corporations provided you a pension so there were no responsibilities on the employee to save. There’s an absence of passing down what it’s like to set aside money for retirement in vehicles other than employer-sponsored 401(k) accounts and a lot of people are not thinking about it. Also there’s an image around retirement. Even when we travel today internationally or domestically, we see snowbirds in their 60s and 70s from Canada and New York and I don’t see a lot of older black people to give examples of how retirement can look. When we talk to family members they can’t see a day when they’re going to retire. There’s no plan to stop doing what they’re doing and culturally there’s a lot of traditional value found in hard work, but also the other part is financial in that they just haven’t planned. It feels like a lost cause.

MW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Julien: We have had so many conversations about race and diversity over the last couple of months and it has been all good at large. I am proud of the FIRE community because I think they get a lot of flack — the community at large gets attacked for being a very white space — but our experience has been one that is welcoming. Our goal has been to inspire more people and African-Americans and I certainly understand why they may not want to do that if they feel like the place or movement is one that isn’t welcoming, but I can say it has been.

(This interview was edited for clarity and length.)

Published at Wed, 13 Mar 2019 15:28:34 +0000