(Camp Tomo-Chi-Chi Knolls, Illinois) As a nervous Scoutmaster looked on and a group of friends offered encouragement, young Billy Bailey huddled with focus over his task. He struck flint to steel, sending a small spark into his kindling. A whisper of smoke rose, and Billy cupped his hands carefully to shelter his infant flame. He blew gently to feed it, and was rewarded with a yellow-orange blaze. As he laid small sticks on the fire and the flames grew, there was no doubt – Billy had done it again. He’d started his third fire without matches, and thereby completed his final requirement for the Wilderness Survival merit badge!
Billy smiled at his friends and his dad and heaved a sigh of relief. He was glad to have earned yet another Scouting merit badge, but he was blissfully unaware that his newly-earned Wilderness Survival skills were the final step toward something much more grand. His life was about to take a major turn.
The first sign was a caravan of TV news vans tearing across the campsite. The closest hadn’t even stopped when a breathless reporter and cameraman jumped out and ran straight to Billy. “Billy! Billy! How does it feel to be the youngest person ever to achieve FIRE? What will you do now that you are retired?”
Billy, speechless and confused, glanced at the fire he had just lit then back at the reporter. What was she talking about? He had no response.
But his father, Dennis Bailey, was ready. “We couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s been working for months to be able to retire. This merit badge was the final piece of the puzzle!”
What is FIRE?
FIRE, which stands for Financial Independence / Retire Early, is the hottest topic in personal finance. Early pioneers of FIRE used super saving and investing to amass enough wealth to provide for the rest of their lives – and did it far younger than a traditional retirement age of 65. They have inspired millions, and countless people today are slashing their spending and supercharging their savings to retire in their 50’s, 40’s, and even 30’s.
While some financial planners claim that millions in savings are required to safely retire, FIRE adherents have proven that it can be done with relatively modest savings if spending is kept firmly in check.
How This Young Boy Retired at 12
Billy Bailey’s retirement started with his father’s vision. Dennis Bailey, 45, realized he missed the opportunity for a superlative retirement achievement, but like many fathers, he decided to live vicariously through his child. A quick search confirmed that the youngest person to achieve FIRE was in their late 20’s. The door was wide open for Billy.
Dennis guided Billy’s first steps toward FIRE over a year ago by taking him on the classic father-son bonding activity: dumpster diving. “We went late at night, sneaking into the loading dock of a big box retailer, and that alone was enough to get Billy excited,” Dennis said. “But when he saw the free stuff we were able to score – two perfectly good extension cords and a slightly damaged DVD player – you could see his eyes light up with the possibilities.“
The huge breakthrough occurred shortly after that, when Billy joined the Boy Scouts. As Dennis scanned the various merit badges Billy could earn, he was delighted to see how they could fully pave the path to FIRE.
Housing and food are two of the biggest expenses early retirees face, and Scouting provided a perfect solution. “With the Camping merit badge and a cold-rated sleeping bag, Billy’s housing costs go to nothing. And the Fishing, Gardening, and Insect Study merit badges have given him the skills to feed himself without ever having to waste his money at a grocery store.” Dennis also showed Billy how his dumpster diving skills could be used at restaurant garbage bins, where an unending supply of high-quality, slightly-eaten food would always be on offer.
As with many Americans chasing FIRE, solving for healthcare in early retirement was a challenge. Once again, Boy Scout training saved the day. Dennis explained, “By earning the Medicine, First Aid, and Dentistry merit badges, Billy can take a DIY approach to his healthcare and tightly control one of the most concerning categories of retiree expenses.”
Recent critiques of FIRE have centered on the risk of unexpected catastrophes scuttling “base case” early retirement plans. While some might argue a big pile of money is needed to protect against disaster, Dennis saw another option. Wilderness Survival, one of the more extreme merit badges, would be an effective hedge for Billy because, “When things go wrong, the skills of wilderness survival can help make everything right again.” He was ready for anything!
While Billy only has several hundred dollars in savings, his extremely low expenses and incredible self-sufficiency means he has everything he needs to never work again. He is retired!
The International Association of Mastering Financial Independence / Retire Early, or IAMFIRE, has in recent days become the definitive authority on who qualifies for FIRE. They had this statement:
\”We congratulate young Billy Bailey on his retirement. \’Retire\’ used to have a narrow and constricting meaning which did not fully embrace the full potential of possible financial situations. While \’financially independent\’ might be a far more accurate term for someone in Billy’s situation, \’retire\’ is such a powerful, evocative, and easily-misunderstood term that we encourage all IAMFIRE members, and especially Billy Bailey, to use it instead. No one’s going to be interested in a ‘financially independent 12 year old’, but ‘Retired at 12’ will drive headlines and talk show invites.”
Retired at 12 – Now What?
In a funny twist, Billy wasn’t even aware he was chasing early retirement. “I thought Dad just wanted to do a lot of fun bonding things with me and encourage my progress in Scouting.” Nevertheless, when Billy first learned he was retired, he was ecstatic. “I thought I’d be sleeping in late and playing video games all day long.” Unfortunately, the reality of retirement was far different.
Not only did his parents expect him to keep going to school, they said he’d still be going to college and getting a job. Even worse, they wanted him to start a FIRE-focused blog and podcast. He was going to be far busier in retirement than ever before!
His father Dennis explained, “Sure, Billy could permanently camp out in our backyard and eat the leftovers we dump in the compost bin – that is, after all, the retirement he’s been preparing for. But he doesn’t have to. That distinction is really important. ‘Retire’ has finally slipped the narrow, constricting bonds of a definition.”
But Is Billy Really Retired?
Some of Billy’s fellow FIRE-chasers were critical of his path to retirement.
Emma, who blogs at Don’tPlayWithFIRE said, “He’s really twisted the entire concept of retirement. I mean, it’s fine to keep working when you’re ‘retired’, but he took the bare minimum to survive, ticked off all of those boxes, and then said, ‘I’m retired – come visit my website and listen to my podcast so I can make tons of money.’ It’s turned FIRE into something really mercenary.“
Blogger Liam of ChasingFIRE agreed. ““Billy claims he’s retired, but nothing has changed. He’s still living in his parents’ house, sleeping in a bed, and going to school. If he’s this expert dumpster diver, why does he keep eating inside of restaurants?”
Others, while grudgingly acknowledging Billy’s achievement, were nonetheless disappointed with his impact on the industry.
Heather, 23, of FIRE25orBust, commented, “Billy has basically ruined the pursuit of FIRE for the rest of us. There was an order to things – first, people were retiring before 60. Then in their 40’s and 30’s. We’d already seen a sprinkling of people in their 20’s, but he’s jumped the queue and made it impossible for a 20-something to even get a headline. If I can’t hold the record for youngest person to achieve FIRE, is it even worth chasing?”
Dylan, of BurningRingOfFIRE, was more generous. “Listen, this kid figured out a new FIRE hack, and I think it’s awesome. I just wish I had thought of it.”
Astrid, a chef who blogs at OutOfTheFryingPanIntoFIRE, agreed. “Attention spans are extremely short, and while ‘retire’ now means anything you want within the FIRE community, it still has a very specific meaning within mainstream society. That definitional gulf presents an enormous marketing opportunity. I think Billy is brilliant, and I am totally up for a guest post!”
Billy’s unique path to FIRE has also inspired others. Asher, who blogs at FIREandAsher, said, “Like, if FIRE is basically ‘whatever’, then anything goes. I mean, my parents are super rich, so I guess I could claim I was FIRE at birth…” After a long, thoughtful pause, Asher excused himself and was last seen registering a URL for FIREatBirth.
Though industry opinion of Billy’s path to FIRE is mixed, IAMFIRE’s position is clear. A spokesperson offered, “Under IAMFIRE’s strict guidelines, Billy definitely qualifies as retired. The most critical measure today is the passion with which you describe yourself as retired, and our review of Billy’s press kit, which is headlined by ‘RETIRED AT 12!!!’, is all the proof we need.” Indeed, as Billy’s podcast has taken off, he’s realized how lucrative retirement can be, and he’s working harder than ever at it.
The Limbo Contest Continues
Billy’s reign as the youngest person to achieve FIRE may be short-lived, however. Earlier this week, 6 y.o. Anatjari of the Pintupi Aborigines of Western Australia killed his first kangaroo. While some would consider hunting to be work, Anatjari considers hunting to be “super fun” and “not at all work”, and this was the last survival skill he needed to master.
When asked for a ruling, IAMFIRE responded, “While Anatjari is extraordinarily young to be classified as FIRE, he claims to no longer need to work, so by our definition he is definitely FIRE. We’ll send him membership materials and a deal on website hosting immediately.”
What’s In A Name?
While Billy’s example of retiring at age 12 is certainly headline-grabbing, a few brave souls are trying to focus more on the substance of what he’s achieved.
Dmitri of ReadyAimFIRE put it best: “Billy has done an amazing job developing some really important life skills. I think we should stop getting caught up in the nuances of whether he’s ‘FI’ or ‘RE’ and just celebrate what he’s achieved at a remarkably young age. Do we really have to use the dog whistle of ‘retire’ every time we describe how people are getting their financial houses in order?”
An IAMFIRE spokesperson quickly responded, “Yes!” 🙂
Author Paul, who blogs at Asset-Based Life, has all sorts of survival skills and thousands and thousands of dollars, yet is still chasing an elusive retirement.