To find out, I reached out to locals pursuing FIRE through a Facebook group for the popular ChooseFI podcast. About half the people I spoke with worked in tech, while others were tech-adjacent, working indirectly with the industry. They included marketing professionals, chiropractors, pediatricians, real estate brokers, and, yes, software and hardware engineers — it’s unavoidable. But no one had received a big payout, or else they wouldn’t have been lurking on Facebook groups trying to maximize their paths to FIRE.
The moderator of the group is Allison, age 49, who FIRE’d four years ago with her husband, Dylin. Out of everyone I interviewed, they are the only people who had fully retired and were still able to live in the Bay Area. She was a project manager, and he was a marketing professional. “Unfortunately, none of these startups [they worked for] IPO’d or made it big,” said Allison, “so the main source of our net worth came from our salaries, not stock options.”
How did they do it? “We started investing in the stock market as soon as we got real jobs that offered 401(k) plans,” she said. “We maximized our income potential by taking advantage of the hot tech industry, and in several cases, changing jobs to increase our earning potential.” They also brought in extra income with side hustles, automated investments and bills—and kept their expenses low as well.
Is this method replicable in today’s San Francisco? Allison and Dylin bought their first home in 1999, when prices were, if not affordable, at least not totally bat-shit insane. They were able to buy that first home — a one-bedroom condo in the Oakland Hills for $186,000 — by saving 30% of their salaries, ending up with a 10% down payment. Then they bought and sold multiple times over the years, until they sold another condo in Mission Bay to pay off the Oakland condo in full.
“I’d rather have housemates and retire early than be locked in paycheck prison just for the luxury of living by myself.”
Making smart housing choices seems to be key for many people pursuing FIRE. Susan, 52, a former fashion/textile designer and current nonprofit employee, owns her own condo in Potrero Hill. “I have always had housemates,” Susan said, “which is how I can afford to be a homeowner as a single woman with a moderate income…I’d rather have housemates and retire early than be locked in paycheck prison just for the luxury of living by myself.”
Susan is financially independent, but not yet at early retirement. “The numbers tell me I am technically ‘FI’ for the lifestyle I’d like to transition to,” she said, “but that won’t be in San Francisco.”
For another perspective, I spoke with Ben, 41, who is both a commercial real estate agent and a landlord. He bought and rents out two multi-unit apartment buildings in the Central Valley, which takes a lot of guts. I asked him about buying a home, and he said, “Buying a house is overrated. I’m fortunate to be in such a position that I can rent out a room to somebody else. Not everybody who is married or has a family is willing or able to do that. That certainly helps.” He pointed out that it’s cheaper to rent these days than to purchase a property.
In other words, sticking it out in my rent-controlled apartment, despite my, ahem, eccentric landlord could still lead me to FIRE. As long as I don’t plan to retire here — nearly everyone I interviewed cited leaving the Bay Area as part of their early retirement strategy.
“I would be completely remiss to speak about my FIRE successes without acknowledging the overwhelming amount of luck and privilege I’ve had along the way.”
Dave, 30, an intellectual-property protection data manager, is about to FIRE next year. He is the youngest person I interviewed, and he freely admitted that there’s privilege required to do something like this at such a young age. “I would be completely remiss to speak about my FIRE successes without acknowledging the overwhelming amount of luck and privilege I’ve had along the way.” He points out that he is white, male, and able-bodied, and that he has financially stable parents. Although not everyone I spoke with had all these boxes checked, everyone had some.
But privilege alone generally creates the opposite effect. Dave could easily blow all his money in the Bay Area and still complain about making ends meet. FIRE, in any area and in any economy, requires a lot of planning. “I will be moving into a 710-square-foot mobile home in Santa Cruz that I purchased for $216,000 earlier this year,” Dave told me. His housing expenses will go from almost $1,500/month to only $400/month, less than one-third of the cost of his current living situation. He said that the home also has a 210-square-foot room that could be rented out to cover housing expenses, if needed.
Plans within plans within plans. Some refer to this as living by design, not by default. While the Bay Area is expensive, it also hosts a wealth of opportunities.
Ben, the realtor, said that he might be able to FIRE faster elsewhere, but in his line of work, he makes more money here. “Commercial lease rates and property values are higher here, meaning that if I’m able to build the right type of relationships, I can earn more money doing less work here.” He added that being in the Bay Area made him somewhat recession-proof compared to working in the Central Valley during a recession, which he described as “tough.”