So you want to be financially independent (FI)? I don’t blame you. And I know you can do it! I got there in under seven years on a mid-five figure salary. But first, you need a plan. I’ll walk you through how to create your own financial independence plan in the steps below.
I know this plan delivers – because it’s the one I used.
You only need to work out a few figures, and the only one that takes much time to fathom is your required annual income. That is, how much will you need to live on?
To set the stage, here’s a fast-forward preview of what’s to come:
- Annual income / withdrawal rate = FI target
- Take FI target
- + monthly saving figure
- + real return rate assumption
- Feed numbers into calculator
- = Years until you are FI
Okay, let’s get on with it. Freedom awaits!
Annual income required
1. How much do you live on now? The ideal way to laser this number is by tracking your current monthly expenses on a spreadsheet for a year or so. By that point you’ll have captured most of the annual expenses that parachute into our lives like enemy commandos behind the lines.
If that’s all too much of a drag – or a traumatising journey into your own heart of darkness – then try an online budget planner. You’ll rustle up a workable number in no time.
Now for the fun bit. Let’s imagine how that number might look once you no longer answer to The Man.
2. Subtract expenses that will no longer apply. For starters you can gleefully strike out all your work-related costs – commuting, work clothes, professional fees, expensive lunches, the lot.
Also eliminate expenses that won’t apply once you’re FI. Mortgage payments (hopefully), saving to be FI and the like can all go.
3. Add new lifestyle expenses. Most people find they live on much less once FI. But it’s worth considering a range of categories that begin with ‘H’: holidays, hobbies, heating, health, and helium (or is that just me?).
The number you’ll be left with is a rough gauge of the net income you’ll need. Obviously it’s not the real number – you’ll only know that once you arrive in the future – but it will do for now.
Also, don’t worry about inflation. Later we’ll use calculators that take inflation into account, so we can keep working in today’s figures. Praise be!
4. Don’t forget tax. As if you would. To turn net income into gross income, just dial up your favourite tax calculator. For sheer simplicity I like the UK Tax Calculator.
Pop in your net income figure as your salary (into the calculator) and you’ll see what you’re left with once your tax bill is chopped off. Play around with the salary figure until you can take home the net income you need. Et voila! The salary figure is the gross income you need to work with.
Remember to cancel out the effect of National Insurance Contributions. You won’t be paying any if you’re not employed.
Bear in mind that income drawn from an ISA is not subject to income tax, but you do pay tax on pension monies over and above your personal allowance.
This is our best post on the eternal SIPPs vs ISAs question. Most people should probably use both, so we wrote this series on how to maximise your tax shelters to achieve FI.
5. Deduct other sources of income. Expect to have money coming in from elsewhere? Then you won’t need to amass quite as big a mountain of assets to pay your bills with. Obviously these other income sources only count if they can be relied upon, and if they’re on stream by the time you achieve FI.
Common conduits of regular cash include:
- Other passive income – trust payments, royalties, and so on.
Still with us? Having dashed through those five steps you’ll have a good enough idea of the gross income you will need to live on from your investments. Once your assets can support that income then you can declare yourself FI.
Cut a ribbon, run a flag up a pole, fire AK-47s into the air – whatever floats your boat.
Your target asset pile
To generate your desired income from your investments, you’ll need to accumulate a large heap of capital.
How big should it be?
To find out, all you need do is divide your income by your sustainable withdrawal rate (SWR).
Your withdrawal rate is the set percentage that you cream off from your hoard as income.
- If your required annual income = £20,000
- And your withdrawal rate = 4%
- Then your target to achieve FI = £20,000/0.04 = £500,000
You’ll need to accumulate £500,000 to earn an annual income of £20,000 at a 4% withdrawal rate in this scenario.
£500,000 = Financial independence in this scenario
A few things to know:
- The withdrawal rate is the amount you take in year one of your financial independence. You adjust your income in line with inflation every year after that.
- The 4% rule assumes you have a judiciously diversified portfolio of assets, as discussed elsewhere. Shares, bonds, and so on. It doesn’t work with cash in the bank!
- If you withdraw too much then you’ll shrink your hoard faster than it can replenish itself with interest, dividends, and capital gains. Live like a Roman emperor for a few years and you’ll be running on empty with bills to pay.
- 4% is a commonly used sustainable withdrawal rate. According to widely accepted practice, you can set your withdrawal rate at 4% a year and have very little chance of running down your entire hoard to zero.
- What’s less well known is that the 4% rule was derived from a specific set of assumptions that applied largely to the US, and to retirements lasting 30 years or fewer. It shouldn’t be used blindly by UK investors. We’ve previously explained why.
- A 3% SWR is a far safer yet still achievable withdrawal rate, although research is ongoing. But you might be able to increase your withdrawal rate with a few smart investing techniques.
Hitting your target comes down to how much you can save and the returns you earn on your investments.
Your savings rate is absolutely critical. This is the master string that makes the rest of your financial puppet dance.
It doesn’t matter how big your salary is or how much you live on, your savings rate dictates how long you will spend working. The following table – sampled from Mr Money Mustache’s excellent post that underlines this point in red pen – shows you how quickly you can go from zero to ‘cheerio’:
|Years to FI
It’s a beautiful relationship. If you can save more now, then you have proved you can live on less. Which in turn means your income target is smaller and you will reach it sooner.
So what’s your savings rate?
For the purposes of our calculation, we’re interested in the actual amount you can tuck away monthly.
You probably know this number already, but just to make sure you’re getting as full a figure as possible:
- Take your annual net income.
- Subtract your annual expenses.
- Add all your other income streams including rentals and bank interest.
- Add pension contributions and employer matches if pensions are a factor in your plan. Gross them up to account for tax relief.
- Don’t add investment income and gains. These are accounted for in the return assumptions that follow.
The number you’re left with is how much you should be saving a year. Now take your total savings and perform the following calculation as provided by UK early retirement blogger The Firestarter:
Total Savings / ( Total Savings + Expenses ) x 100 = Your savings rate
Once you know your savings rate you know how long it will be until you retire.
Ratchet up the rate if you want out quicker.
Picking an investment return rate
This is the final piece of the puzzle – the return that swells your investments into your own financial life support system.
However you calculate it, this number will be wrong. If I (or anybody else) knew what the market will deliver over the next couple of decades then I wouldn’t be writing this post. I’d be flicking through What Tropical Island? magazine.
You could just use whatever rate is inserted by default into an online calculator, but be aware that these numbers are usually pretty generous. Companies know you’re more likely to use their products if they deliver good news.
A 4% real rate of return is a common gambit. That comes from a 5% historical real rate of return for UK equities and 2% for government bonds. It also assumes you’ll plump for a 60:40 equity-bonds portfolio.
A more sophisticated approach (although not necessarily more accurate) is to use an expected return calculation.
Again, even Brian Blessed couldn’t over-emphasise what a shot in the dark these numbers are. You also need to dilute to taste. If your portfolio is more like 40:60 equities-bonds then your expected returns rate will be lower. But you can nudge the rate up to historical norms if your time horizon lengthens and your tilt towards equities becomes more daring.
Your best bet is to run a few different scenarios using nightmare and conservative assumptions, especially if your timescale is fewer than 20 years.
I personally wouldn’t run a dream scenario for fear that I’d anchor myself to an unrealistic number. If the future turns out to be a garden of roses then I’ll enjoy that when the time comes.
Don’t get your nominal and real returns mixed up. If your calculator includes an assumption for inflation, then feed in a nominal return which incorporates that inflation number along with your expected real return. For example, the calculator assumes inflation will be 3% and your expected real return is 4%, so your nominal expected return would be 7%. If you feed in a real return without adding something for inflation and the calculator also backs out inflation, then your future will effectively be whacked by inflation twice! (And the calculator will tell you that you’ll never be able to retire…)
It’s a numbers game
Right, let’s spin the wheel of fortune and see when you’re gonna be FI.
- Strip out the inflation figure from the calculator if you’re feeding in a real expected return. If you want an inflation guesstimate then 3% p.a. is around the UK long-term average.
- The lump sum figure is money you already have. It can include the value of any rental property (minus attached mortgage debt), pension assets, savings accounts, and current investments.
- Don’t include your home, wine cellar, fleet of Vauxhall Corsas and so on.
- Check out this post for our ultimate, belt-and-braces financial independence calculation. This one includes how to factor in a boost for the State Pension or any defined benefit pensions that begin long after you FIRE.
The result of all this number-crunching is your answer, in years, to the question:
When will I be financially independent?
Now you’ll know!
Take it steady,
Note: This article on creating your own financial independence plan was rewritten in August 2023. Comments below might refer to the 2013 incarnation, so double-check the dates if confused!