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Jeong Hyo-won, right, quit her day job in 2018 to launch Linchpin, a youth group that hosts weekly book clubs on investing and attaining financial independence, with her boyfriend. Photo: David D. Lee

‘Quit your job, live your life’: South Korea’s ‘FIRE tribe’ seek financial freedom in an uncertain world

  • In the West, adherents of the Financial Independence, Retire Early movement tend to be high-net-worth individuals, but many in South Korea are ‘regular workers’
  • They’re young, frugal and ready to retire before they reach 40 – by putting aside as much as 90 per cent of their monthly pay cheques if necessary
South Korea
Kim Min-jae quit his dream job at one of South Korea’s biggest video game developers last year to focus on living life on his own terms. He and his girlfriend now split their time between island holidays, daily yoga sessions and evening walks – and they don’t plan to work for a living ever again.

The 35-year-old is a member of South Korea’s “FIRE tribe”, a movement that takes its name from the acronym for Financial Independence, Retire Early first popularised by the 1992 book Your Money or Your Life.

FIRE tribe members aim to live frugally and maximise their savings so they can quit their jobs before the typical retirement age, and spend the rest of their lives living off the proceeds.

Kim Min-jae squirrelled away huge chunks of his monthly pay cheque to build up his savings. Photo: David D. Lee

Kim has about 1.8 billion won (US$1.44 million) in net assets, which he accrued by putting aside as much of his monthly pay cheque as possible – more than 90 per cent at times. He said he achieved this by eating all his meals in the company cafeteria, avoiding any spending on “luxuries” such as designer clothes and expensive coffees, using his company credit card whenever possible, and keeping his monthly outgoings to around US$200.

“I loved working with some great people at the company of my dreams, but I couldn’t control the amount of work that was required of me and there was just no guarantee that things would get better in the future,” said Kim, who worked as a game developer for 11 years, the last five of those at NCSoft Corporation.

Meaning of life? In most places it’s family. In South Korea, it’s money

He had toyed with the idea of quitting for about five years, he said, but was eventually convinced to do it by his girlfriend, whom he met at work. She also left her job at the game developer in November.

“I was nervous for the first three months after resigning as it felt unnatural not to be working,” Kim said. “My girlfriend, on the other hand, is thriving on not working at all.”

The couple now spend around 2 million won (US$1,600) on living expenses and don’t plan to marry until they are at least 55, when they will be able to apply for a government-sponsored reverse mortgage that allows homeowners to borrow money using their home as security.

“Our ultimate goal is to spend all of our savings before we die,” Kim said. “We’ve decided we don’t want to have children.”

A youth-led movement

In the West, adherents of the FIRE movement tend to be high-net-worth individuals like Kim, but many in South Korea’s FIRE tribe are “regular workers who are displeased with their work-life balance, or even unemployed young people who have a new-found interest in investments,” said Shin Hee-eun, a former financial journalist.

A survey of 707 workers by Korean employment website Incruit last year found the average monthly wage of FIRE tribe members to be 2.67 million won (US$2,140). More than one-quarter of those surveyed identified as a member of the tribe and said they aimed to save about 40 per cent of their pay cheque each month.

Shin, who now profiles FIRE tribe members on her YouTube channel “Single Fire”, said the movement started to take root in South Korea in 2017 “when aggressive investment strategies and bitcoin became trendy”. In the West, by contrast, the movement started to gain traction after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

It is not known how many adherents of the movement there are in South Korea, but some online FIRE communities have tens of thousands of members, Shin said.

Morning commuters cross a road in Seoul earlier this year. Like elsewhere in Asia, South Korea has a large wage gap. Photo: Bloomberg

Lee Taek-gwang, a cultural commentator and professor at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University, said “enduring workplace harassment and overwork” had caused many young Koreans to seek financial freedom before the usual retirement age.

The rise of the country’s FIRE tribe was a result of “a clash of values”, he said, between “rigid workplace and organisational culture” and what young people really wanted.

“And, as in other Asian countries, South Korea has a large wage gap,” Lee said. “New recruits at major corporations can make more than 100 million won a year, whereas delivery workers and other regular workers are barely able to pay rent.”

The average annual income in South Korea last year was 37.44 million won, according to Statistics Korea.

A glimpse of Asia’s lonely future in South Korea’s ageing society

Dissatisfaction with her former job is what caused Jeong Hyo-won to join the FIRE tribe. She quit her position at a public research company in 2018 to found Linchpin, a youth group that hosts weekly book clubs on investing and attaining financial independence that now boasts about 400 members nationwide.

“While I was reading a book during lunch, my colleagues asked me why I was bothering,” the 25-year-old recalled. “I felt that my workplace was dragging me down and there wasn’t anyone that I aspired to be like. I needed to find another way.”

“Young people are changing the way they want to live,” Jeong said, pointing to the lack of interest in this year’s public service examinations, which used to be hotly contested among Korea’s youth as a way of landing prized positions with stable incomes and guaranteed pensions in Korea’s civil, foreign and legal services.

The grade 9, or lowest level, public service exams this year had the fewest applications since 2001.

The FIRE tribe isn’t only about quitting your job, it’s about having more control … over how you live your life
Kim Min-jae, 35-year-old ‘retiree’

“Our goal is to become irreplaceable, which we aren’t at work, so we’re finding our own financial weapons and honing them,” said Jeong, who operates multiple business ventures, including co-working spaces, under the Linchpin brand with her boyfriend.

Jeong said she was confident that South Korea’s FIRE tribe would continue to attract new members, but Kyunghee University’s Lee pointed out that “strong finances are not guaranteed” amid high rates of inflation in the country and the looming possibility of a global recession.

Kim and his girlfriend aren’t worried though. In addition to their savings, the couple have zero debts and are confident in their investments that are mainly focused in real estate.

“The FIRE tribe isn’t only about quitting your job,” he said. “It’s about having more control. More control over your money and more control over how you live your life.”