Early Retirement By the Numbers: Ages, Barriers, and Sacrifices [Survey]

A new FinanceBuzz survey reveals what people are willing to give up to achieve the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) lifestyle.

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Updated May 13, 2024
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Even if you love your job, fantasizing about retiring early isn’t uncommon. Whether you have visions of spending your days playing tennis or golf or traveling the world, once you picture yourself living a life of leisure, you probably want it to begin as soon as possible.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement has garnered so much attention. But in a new FinanceBuzz survey, we discovered that early retirement isn't in the cards for most Americans. 

Not only do they lack the means to retire early, but also they’re unsure about how much money they actually need to save before saying goodbye to full-time employment.

Additionally, we found that most respondents were willing to make some big sacrifices (but not always the obvious ones) needed to FIRE. We asked people how financially prepared they were for retirement and what trade-offs they’d be willing to make to be able to retire 10 years earlier. Here’s what we found.

Key findings:

  • The amount of money needed to retire proved to be a mystery to most respondents, with close to 30% admitting they had “no idea what they'll need.” Another 45% acknowledged that they had only a “vague idea” but hadn’t yet “done the math.” In fact, only one in four said they had a "strong understanding" of how much money they'll need to retire.
  • When asked which extreme measures respondents would be willing to take in order to be able to retire a decade earlier, 12% said they'd forgo having children, and 11% said they'd give up their pets.
  • More than a third of respondents were willing to choose austerity and spend two years without buying anything new, with the exception of essentials such as groceries. Yet as few as 6% said they'd give up their car.
  • Another third were willing to work harder now by taking on a second or third job if it meant they could retire early.
  • While popular topics on personal finance websites and communities include early retirement and FIRE movement tips, 82% of respondents said they hadn’t heard of FIRE.

The retirement gap

Though many dream about ditching the demands of their nine-to-five workday sooner rather than later, they recognize it’s probably not going to be possible.

When asked what age they'd like to retire, survey respondents were most likely to select age 50 (21%) or age 55 (15%). A small but hard-working 2% said they wouldn’t mind continuing to toil away until age 70.

Though many may daydream about handing in their resignation letters in the not-so-distant future, when those same respondents were asked at what age they think they'll actually be able to retire, most selected age 65 (25%) or age 70 (17%.)

So how do those findings align with the average retirement age in the United States? They’re actually fairly accurate. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 63 is the national average retirement age. Though it varies by state, it falls within a 60 to 65 range, which is still well beyond the age of 50 or 55 our survey respondents desire.

What’s causing the disconnect between the age at which most would like to retire and the age at which they actually can? Most people cite a lack of knowledge when it comes to how much money they’ll need during their golden years and many don't know much about how to invest money

Our survey found that three-quarters of respondents have either “no idea” or only “a vague understanding” of how to save for retirement.

How much money will you need to retire?

If you hope to enjoy a lifestyle similar to the one you currently have, experts at T. Rowe Price suggest this rule of thumb: In order to maintain their current lifestyle during retirement, people should strive for an income replacement rate of 75% of their gross pre-retirement income.

But what about that other 25%? Once their retirement is underway, retirees are obviously no longer putting money toward it. Taxes and expenses are likely to be reduced during retirement as well.

How can you steadily save so you’ll have that much money at your disposal? Fidelity recommends saving 10X your income by age 67 and offers these guidelines to help you set savings milestones:

Save at least:

  • 1X your salary by 30,
  • 3X by 40,
  • 6X by 50,
  • 8X by 60, and
  • 10X by 67

Barriers to hitting retirement goals

In theory, it doesn’t seem like saving for retirement should be as challenging as it often is. Survey respondents shared which obstacles have been holding them back from socking money away in the hope of retiring early.

The top barrier to saving for retirement was not earning enough to stash away any cash. The second roadblock was the high cost of raising kids, which is understandable when you consider that, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report from 2017, the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 is $233,610, or approximately $13,741 per year.

Millennials, not surprisingly, were much more likely than older generations to mention student loan debt as a hindrance to saving for retirement. 

The average student loan debt for 2018 college graduates was $29,200, which includes both including both private and federal debt, according to Student Loan Hero. And it’s not just these recent grads who are saddled with tuition-related debt. 

Among the Class of 2018 students who borrowed money for school, 14% of their parents took out an average of $35,600 in federal Parent PLUS loans, Student Loan Hero notes, meaning Generation X and baby boomers feel the strain as well.

Health-care costs are another barrier that spans all generations. Almost one in three respondents, regardless of age, said health-care costs pose a threat to their retirement. According to a 2016 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 26% of Americans have had problems keeping up with their medical bills.

Getting out of debt, specifically credit card debt, served as another challenge to savings.

When you consider these factors, it explains why nearly one in five millennials and Gen Xers tell us they haven't started saving for retirement yet.

What would you sacrifice to retire early?

Retiring while you’re still young enough to make the most of it sounds ideal, but this doesn’t happen without making some concessions.

Engaging in a little retail therapy or online shopping is a favorite pastime for many, yet 36.30% of our survey respondents said they’d be willing to go two years without buying anything other than the absolute essentials.

Surprisingly, 32.60% who are looking forward to leaving the workforce early said they’d be up for doubling or tripling down on their jobs now by taking on a second or third gig if it meant they could retire a decade earlier.

Coffee and alcohol, which some consider staples when it comes to starting and ending the workday, could be sacrificed by more than 28% if doing so allowed them to leave their careers 10 years early.

A little more than a quarter of respondents would be willing to move to an area where the cost of living was lower, and nearly the same number of people would opt for downsizing their home in order to be able to retire 10 years earlier.

Though children and pets have long been considered part of the American Dream, almost 12% would not have kids, while 11% would give up their pets if it made retiring a decade earlier possible. At the same time, only 6% would sacrifice their car for the same goal.

Ways to get back on track with your retirement savings

If your nest egg isn’t as substantial as you’d like, it’s easy to get discouraged and imagine yourself having to work indefinitely, never achieving that covetous FIRE lifestyle. But don’t despair: If you've fallen behind on saving for retirement, there are plenty of ways to catch up, explains Cameron Huddleston, Life and Money columnist for GOBankingRates.

“For starters, get motivated to save more by having a picture of the retirement you want — an actual picture,” she says. "It’s easy to put off saving when you don’t have a clear picture of how you’re going to benefit down the road from setting aside money today. 

"So figure out what sort of lifestyle you want in retirement and find a picture that represents it. Put that picture in your wallet or someplace where it can be a reminder to spend less so you can set aside more for the retirement of your dreams.”

Save your raise

Every time you get a raise, add that extra money to savings, notes Huddleston.

“You're already accustomed to living at your previous income level,” she says. “So increase your retirement contribution by the amount of your raise rather than letting that extra income hit your checking account.”

Minimize non-essential spending

Reducing non-essential spending can help free up more cash for retirement savings. But don't forget to look for ways to reduce your bills, Huddleston continues.

“For example, you might be able to save hundreds of dollars a year by re-shopping your auto and homeowners insurance to get lower premiums with another insurance company,” she says. 

“Reduce your electricity costs by adjusting the thermostat when you're at work or away from home so your not unnecessarily heating or cooling your home. Call your cable TV or Internet provide to negotiate a lower rate. For every bill you cut, make sure you increase your retirement savings by that amount.”

If you’re saddled with credit card debt, consider negotiating lower interest rates and putting the money you save toward retirement. 

Downsize sooner rather than later

Consider downsizing before retirement, Huddleston suggests.

"Many people wait to move into a smaller, less-expensive home until they retire,” she notes. “But if you reduce your housing costs before retiring, you'll be able to set aside a lot more so that you actually can retire.”

Bottom line

Despite their struggles to determine how much they need to retire, survey respondents were willing to make sacrifices if doing so resulted in leaving the workforce 10 years earlier. 

Whether that’s picking up another job or cutting back on unnecessary expenses, most are ready to do what it takes to bolster their savings and enjoy their retirement sooner rather than later. Trimming expenses and banking those extra bucks are great ways to achieve the FIRE lifestyle.


FinanceBuzz ran this survey through Pollfish, collecting 1,000 online responses from U.S. adults on June 3, 2019. For our analysis, we defined baby boomers as respondents born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X as respondents born between 1965 and 1980, and millennials as respondents born from 1981 to 1996.


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Author Details

Liz Alterman

Liz Alterman is a New Jersey-based freelance writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Business Insider, Next Avenue, and more. While she enjoys covering all aspects of personal finance, she specializes in retirement, real estate, and entrepreneurship. When she isn't writing, Liz enjoys reading and spending time with family. To view more of her work, visit ElizabethAlterman.com or follow her on Twitter @LizAlterman.