Tanner Firl doesn’t see why anyone would need a budget. The 29-year-old says to CNBC Make It, “It never made sense to me.” “Most people find it hard to keep their money to themselves. Almost the opposite is true for us.”
Firl and his wife, Isabel, who live in Minneapolis, don’t like to spend money on things they don’t think are necessary. This is a shared belief that plays a role in how they manage their money. Firl is part of a movement called FIRE, which stands for “financially independent, retire early.” Firl specifically follows a “lean” FIRE strategy. People who follow this version of FIRE try to save more money by cutting out as many unnecessary costs as possible.
Firl has saved about $380,000 so far, and she wants to save at least $625,000 so she can retire at age 35. A portfolio of that size would bring in $25,000 a year for his family.
Firl is the main source of income for his family, which includes his son Teddy, who is 1 years old, and three cats. As a software engineer, he makes $135,000 a year. About half of each paycheck goes towards his monthly food and living costs. He puts the rest to work. Here’s how Firl says that his way of life makes him ready to retire early.
Pursuing fire from an early age: ‘It all seemed to make a lot of sense to me.
Growing up as one of six kids in Rochester, Minnesota, Firl learned about the importance of stretching a dollar. Family vacations meant packing into the van to visit family members or spend time at free-to-enter national parks or monuments. Lunch breaks typically meant pulling over for roadside PB&Js.
The Firl family wasn’t hurting for money. They just wanted their kids to learn to work for the things they valued. “Whenever we wanted something as kids growing up, we would have to spend our own money to buy it or wait until a birthday or Christmas,” Firl says.
As a result, Firl followed his siblings’ lead, got a paper route as a school-age child, and worked through high school. By the time he got to college, he’d discovered a blog written by Peter Adeney, also known as Mr. Money Mustache, one of the foremost figures in the FIRE movement. Something instantly resonated. “It all seemed to make a lot of sense to me: just spending as little as you can so you can live your life as fully as you want,” says Firl.
Firl graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2015 with a degree in mathematics and scored a job at the National Security Agency that paid an annual salary of about $66,000 a year. That same year, he and Isabel, who had been high school sweethearts, got married.
Within two and a half years, the couple had saved enough to put a down payment on a house in Minneapolis, where they lived upstairs and covered mortgage payments by renting out the basement on Airbnb.
The frugal path to FIRE
The Firls purchased their second home for $185,000 in 2018 and sold their first home not long after when managing it as a rental became cumbersome. They put up the basement in their new home for short-term rentals but had to abandon that plan when Teddy arrived in 2021. The house’s floor plan is just 675 square feet — close quarters for a couple of new parents, one of whom intermittently works from home.
Even though Firl’s salary has gone up to $135,000, the couple has resisted “lifestyle creep” and stuck to their plan to live cheaply.If the family needs something, they hunt for it for free on online marketplaces such as Craigslist.
“We also have garnered a reputation with our friends and family as being very frugal and thrifty,” Firl says. “We do get a lot of free things just because a family member will see something free on the side of the road, and they’ll think that we might like it.” Additionally, the couple doesn’t have to shell out much for their hobbies. Tanner is an avid runner, podcast listener, and board game player, while Isabel writes and runs a Twitch stream. They both enjoy playing video games in the evenings.
Plus, the couple has whittled their food and pet supply budget to $200 a month thanks to frequenting a food waste nonprofit to cover groceries. “For 25 bucks a bundle — a bundle is about half a carload — they just give you a ton of food, and then you drive off, and you have probably half your groceries for the month, if not more, depending on how much you want,” Firl says.
Looking forward to a financially independent future
When Firl thinks about the future, she knows that $25,000 a year might not seem like enough to live on. But he’s sure they’ll figure it out. The number is based on the idea that the house will be paid off by then (he pays about $1,100 a month for the mortgage, homeowners insurance, and property tax) and that he would be eligible for very cheap health insurance through the state of Minnesota.
Still, Firl knows that he’ll have to be flexible about the exact dollar amount and timing of his early retirement because his life has changed over the past few years. If he and Isabel decide to have more kids and move into a bigger house, that could change how he figures things out.
Firl doesn’t necessarily plan to live a life of leisure when he has saved $625,000. “Retiring is not about sitting on your couch all day and watching Netflix or going to the beach and getting a nice tan,” he says. “Life is about being able to do what you want.”
For Firl, this means having the freedom to quit a job that doesn’t make him happy or to take a job that he’s more interested in, even if it pays less. No matter how his retirement turns out in the end, you can be pretty sure of one thing: he won’t stop being frugal. “There are a lot of things to do in life, and most of the things that will make you happy are free or very cheap,” he says.