Recently I was discussing the idea of financial independence (go figure) with one of my coworkers and he made the remark that “the only way to retire early or rich is to have phenomenal investment returns”. Besides the fact that I knew this wasn’t true, it did spark an interesting question in my head: how much do investment returns actually matter? In particular, I wondered how much they mattered for someone looking to retire early and escape the rat race in 10 years or less.
Per usual, I decided to make a grid (you can see my other financial grids here, here, and here) to look at how many years it would take to reach F.I. based on different savings rates and investment returns.
Here’s the end result:
Now, a 0% annual return on investments probably isn’t realistic, but I threw it in the grid just to prove a point: If your savings rate is around 70% or higher, you can reach financial independence in roughly 10 years or less even if you have a 0% annual return on your investments. This is mind-boggling to me.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll experience such an awful return on your investments, especially if you invest in index funds. But it just shows that a powerful savings rate can make up for pathetic investment returns.
On the other extreme, you will probably be hard pressed to earn 10% annual investment returns, but I also threw it in the grid to illustrate an important point:
- The higher your savings rate, the more your savings can offset poor investment performance and still allow you to reach F.I. extremely fast
- The lower your savings rate, the more you rely on investment returns to reach F.I. quickly
To visualize this concept in a different way, check out this graph:
As you can see, the higher your savings rate is, the less variability in the time it will take you to reach financial independence. For example, if your savings rate is 80%, you can have 0% investment returns and still retire in 6.2 years. On the other hand, if you have incredible 10% investment returns, this still only allows you to retire a year earlier (in 5.1 years).
Conversely, the lower your savings rate, the more your investment returns make a difference. If you’re only saving 20% of your income yearly, 10% annual investment returns can save you and allow you to retire in 25.2 years. But if you receive 0% annual investment returns, you won’t reach F.I. for 100 years.
But Isn’t Compound Interest the 8th Wonder of the World?
Compound interest is still a powerful force and investment returns still do matter. But here’s what’s important to realize: compound interest is a beast in the long run. In the short run, savings rate is far more important.
To illustrate this point, consider our friend Angela who has a 70% savings rate and receives a 7% annual return on her investments. At this rate, it will only take about 8 years for her to reach F.I. This graph shows how much of her net worth is comprised of savings (in blue) and how much is comprised of investment returns (in purple):
By the time Angela reaches financial independence, about 73% of her total net worth is comprised purely of savings. (For this example, I assumed an income of $100,000 and savings of $70,000 each year)
Now consider our friend Mike who has a 20% annual savings rate (Again I use an income of $100,000 and savings of $20,000) with the same 7% return on investments. It will take him about 30 years to reach financial independence. Here’s what his net worth journey looks like in terms of savings and investment returns:
Just like Angela, most of Mike’s net worth in the early years is comprised of his savings. But as time goes on, Mike’s investment returns completely dwarf his savings. By the time he actually reaches financial independence, a whopping 71% of his net worth comes entirely from his investment returns.
The Big Takeaway
In the long run, no one deny that compound interest is a powerful force. But in the short run, savings rate is far more powerful. For anyone who wants to reach financial independence in 10 years or less, your focus should be on your savings rate more than your investment returns. Your savings rate is the number one factor that will determine how soon you reach F.I.
Sign up to have my most recent articles sent straight to your email inbox for free
Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.
Zach's favorite free financial tool he's been using since 2015 to manage his net worth is Personal Capital. Each month he uses their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track his investments and ensure that he's on the fast track to financial freedom.
His favorite investment platform is M1 Finance, a site that allows him to build a custom portfolio of stocks for free, has no trading or maintenance fees, and even allows him to set up automated target-allocated investments.
His favorite way to save money each month on his recurring bills is by using Trim, a free financial app that negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone bills with any provider on your behalf.
His favorite micro-investing app is Acorns, a free financial app that takes just 5 minutes to set up and allows you to invest your spare change in a diversified portfolio.
His favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.
Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.