Can you Retire Early Without a Successful Blog?| Updated: |
(Disclosure: Some of the links below may be affiliate links)
Today, I want to discuss one question that has been in the back of my mind for a while. Can we retire early without a successful blog? The personal finance community is full of bloggers who retired early or want to retire early. However, some retirees are getting a hefty income from their blogs. Their examples may not be straightforward to follow without such an income in retirement.
I believe that there are three problems together in this situation. First of all, as I said, can we retire without a blog income? We will try to answer this question.
Second, and probably more important, you should be wary of some blogger examples. Due to the high income, some bloggers do not use the 4% withdrawal rule that they advertise. That means that you cannot compare your situation and theirs since they are still investing after retiring.
Their net worth keeps increasing after retirement. It is not because the 4% rule is working. It is because these bloggers do not have to withdraw from their principal. And this is not a typical case for most people who try to follow the path to Financial Independence (FI).
Finally, I believe that you should sometimes be careful about affiliate links. They may be here mainly because the blogger wants the affiliate money and not because it is an excellent product in which the blogger believes. It is not directly related to early retirees. But this is entirely related to how bloggers are monetizing their blogs.
In this article, I want to discuss these three problems in detail. I think it is essential to know about that. I went a bit overboard with the length of this article. But I think it is an important subject that deserves more coverage.
How much do FIRE bloggers make?
The first thing we need to discuss is how much money the prominent FIRE bloggers are making. Not all bloggers are very transparent about how much money they make from their blogs. However, you can find blogging income reports from several prominent bloggers. If you do not read these, you may be surprised at how much money some people make from their blogs. And FIRE bloggers are probably not even the bloggers that make the most with blogging. Let’s take a few examples.
For instance, one of my favorite bloggers, Joe Udo, from retireby40, got about 50’000 dollars from his blog in both 2017 and 2018. He has always been incredibly transparent about this. He gets income from some ads and affiliate links present on some pages. And contrary to some other bloggers, he does not have pages stuffed with only affiliate links. I like the balance of content and monetization on his website.
Some bloggers are making less money but are still getting some nice income. For instance, Lily at thefrugalgene.com, another of my favorite bloggers, can make something between 1000 and 2000 USD on her blog each month. This income gets published in some of her monthly reports. It is a very nice income. But she is not retired yet.
Grant Sabatier from millenialmoney.com is in another category by himself. In 2017, he made more than 400’000 USD in a single year. It is from multiple income sources related to his website. It seems he stopped publishing these income reports. Indeed, I was not able to find any report for 2018.
But Mr. Money Mustache is in the same category. In 2016, he disclosed that his blog was making about 400’000 USD per year. And it must be much more now. Mr. Money Mustache is one of the initiators of the FIRE movement. At least, he made the FIRE philosophy so popular these days.
The personal finance blogger that I know makes the most money is Michelle from makingsenseofcents. In 2018, she made one and a half million dollars from her blog! This kind of income is insane. In a single year, she makes enough for most people to retire. It is easy to see a large discrepancy between such bloggers and their readers.
On the other hand, many bloggers make less than 1000 USD per year on their blogs. And there are even bloggers that do not try to monetize their blogs.
Unfortunately, many FIRE bloggers are not transparent with their blog income. It makes it difficult to relate to them. This lack of transparency makes it difficult to know if their story is possible without their blog income.
What about me?
In the first three years of the blog, I made very little money. But in 2020, I made about 20’000 CHF. And I made about 25’000 CHF in 2021. So, this is not insignificant.
This amount is much lower than my employed income, but it will still help me reach financial independence faster.
Currently, my blog is far from sustaining our lifestyle, contrary to many bloggers, even some in Switzerland. And I have never tried much to push monetization on the blog. I am sure I could push it farther, but I am not interested in the work necessary to achieve that.
Nevertheless, you should be aware that I make money on this blog, which will help me reach Financial Independence.
How do FIRE bloggers make money?
We have seen that FIRE bloggers can make a lot of money. We can see how, as well. There are many ways for bloggers to monetize their blogs. Most bloggers use the same main three techniques:
- Ads. Ads are the most common form of blog monetization technique. You simply put some ads on your websites, and the advertisement company gives you back money when one of your readers clicks on an ad. Most bloggers use either Google Adsense or Mediavine for it. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the technique that is paying the most. However, it is a great way to start monetizing a blog.
- Affiliate Links. One company pays you if you refer a client to them. I am sure you have seen affiliate links to Personal Capital on most U.S. blogs. Affiliate links can generate a lot of revenue, especially since some companies give you back a percentage of what users spend on their services. For instance, I use affiliate links to Interactive Brokers and other services.
- Sponsored Posts. A company will pay you to advertise its products or services on your blog. You will also find a lot of them in some blogs. They are generally advertised as being sponsored guest posts. They are often reviews of some services. But sometimes, they are more disguised as actual content with links to a service inside.
- Books. More and more successful FIRE bloggers are writing books. These books contain mostly what their blog contains but are much more organized. I am not sure how much bloggers make with their books, but I do not think it is a substantial part of their earnings.
- Courses. In the FIRE blogging world, there are very few online courses yet. And most of them are about blogging, not even personal finance. But in the general blogging community, many bloggers earn a lot of money with these courses. I do not doubt that more and more courses will be available from FIRE blogs soon.
Of course, there are other means of monetizing a blog. But these are the main ways that I currently observe.
Be careful with affiliate links
Let’s tackle one of the three problems I want to address in this article. This problem is about affiliate links. Generally, prominent bloggers make most of their income with affiliate links. This subject is the thing I would like to spend a bit more time on it. Again, an affiliate link is a particular link to a company. If you follow this link and purchase a product, the blogger (the referrer) will get some money.
If used correctly, affiliate links are excellent. They allow bloggers to recommend the products they really like and get some money back. And this makes good advertisements for these great products. It is a win-win situation for both the blogger and the company. But it may not be a win situation for the blog reader.
Indeed, there is something very pervert about affiliate links. The best affiliate programs are not the programs of the best products. Some companies are focusing on their affiliate programs more than on the quality of their products. So, a blogger has more incentive to recommend the product with the best affiliate program rather than the best one!
Some bloggers are honest and will choose the best products rather than choose the best affiliate program. Hopefully, this is true for most bloggers. But I think more than half o the bloggers are choosing products based on the revenue they can make on them.
You need to be aware of this. It is not because somebody very influential is recommending a product that it is any good. A blogger can recommend a product without even using it. He may not even really know about its quality. Some bloggers have never used the services they are recommending.
And when you see some pages stuffed with different services, you can often see that services with affiliate programs are often first in the first, such as this article. There is no way a single person will use all these services. And these articles are becoming legion. Some of the blogs I used to read and enjoy quickly become affiliate links directories today.
Affiliate links controversy
We can take two concrete examples of bad affiliate links.
The first one is not so bad. It is about Personal Capital. If you read U.S. personal finance blogs, you have read recommendations about this service many times. Once somebody registers 100K USD of assets at Personal Capital, the referrer gets 100$. I do not have anything against Personal Capital. It is not helpful for me since I am not in the U.S.
And it is not hurting readers in most cases. As long as they do not use the money management services of Personal Capital, it is free. However, I do not believe this service will change your life. Managing your assets can be done with a single spreadsheet, and you will still be fine. The reason it is recommended everywhere is mostly that their affiliate program is great!
We can take another example, this time a terrible one. Bluehost! It is a well-known hosting company. Bluehost is advertised on most of the blogs I am reading. At first, I thought it was incredibly popular, and it was the best service out there. But it is not the case. Bluehost has the best affiliate program.
But Bluehost is one of the worst hosting companies out there. Their services are horrible, their servers are slow, and their support is terrible. I should know, I started hosting my blog with them. Since everybody was advising it, I trusted them. I soon realized that Bluehost offers a terrible quality of service. Bloggers just want the higher affiliate income that this company is proposing. So I had to migrate to another hosting company.
You do not have to take my word for it. Out of almost 800 Bluehost reviews, they got a score of 2.38. It is a borderline scam. You can compare that to Siteground, which I am using now, which gets a 4.6 grade out of 1000 Siteground reviews. If you search, you will find that many people are discussing this situation. However, there are still many more blogs recommending Bluehost rather than Siteground (or any other). This fact is profitable for blogs! This situation is bad for readers!
These kinds of affiliate links are why almost every blog has a post on how to start a blog. Indeed, this is the best way to monetize a blog! I am sure you have seen these blog posts blossom all over your favorite blogs. Even bloggers who make almost no income or have nearly no traffic have these posts now.
I have recently read a great tweet about the two steps of Personal Finance Bloggers:
- Actively promote bluehost.
- Call it passive income.
It is funny, but it is the truth. Most blogs, even the tiny ones, have a post about how to start a profitable blog. It is a pretty sad state of the blogging world.
Bloggers do not use the 4% rule
Alright, now we need to get back on track to early retirement. It is probably the most crucial point I want to talk about. Successful bloggers can live almost only, or even entirely, on their blog income. Some of them are still saving a lot of money even though they are retired. That means they do not withdraw anything from their principal, and they do not follow the 4% withdrawal rule. I have mostly talked about blog income here. But the same applies to real estate income. A lot of bloggers are also getting a substantial income from rental properties.
And there is another transparency issue with some bloggers. Many of them still have a spouse working. And many of them could not have retired without this income. So, we could easily argue that they are not retired, only staying at home.
It is a fundamental fact! Even though they advocate this 4% rule for Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE), they are not using it themselves. It means that they did not put their theories to the test. It does not mean the theory does not work! It means that their examples are not good examples of the theory put to the test.
When you look at a net worth graph by some famous bloggers, you may have seen that it always goes up. That is not only because the market goes up. But that is also because they are not withdrawing from it, and they can still invest more! In a retirement without income, you would see withdrawals and not more investments. So these graphs are not representative of how someone would retire early without a high income.
Readers need to remember that successful bloggers are setting a different example of retirement. They are examples of retirement with some income. It is much easier to achieve. A person that wants to retire without an income is unlikely to invest more money into the market in retirement!
Some bloggers retired before getting income
It is also important to note that some bloggers retired before getting a significant income from their blogs. They mostly got famous by retiring early, and their blog got more traction after early retirement. We will discuss this paradox later on. It means that their early examples are still setting an example of the 4% rule. However, you need to distinguish when they started getting a substantial income.
For instance, Mr. Money Mustache retired in 2005. It was long before his blog started making a considerable amount of money. Joe Udo made about 10’000 USD from the blog on the year he retired. It helped him, of course, but it did not cover its entire expenses.
Before they retired, most bloggers were not counting on the blog income for retirement.
Are they retired?
Another question that is interesting is whether early retiree bloggers are retired. Some spend a considerable amount of time working on their blogs.
They may not be employees anymore, but I believe that they are not retired either. Some of them may not be able to stay retired if they stop working on their blogs. Is not that the definition of work?
Joe Udo is still spending between 20 and 30 hours a week on his blog these days. And he said that at the beginning, he was spending even more time on it. It may well be a hobby. But for me, it still feels like work. From what I could gather, Michelle Schroeder-Gardner is working about 10 hours per week. But she has a virtual assistant helping her.
Most high-income bloggers seem to be spending between 10 and 40 hours per week on their blogs. And I am pretty sure some of them spend even more time on it. This amount of time is not negligible at all! I get that for some of them. It is their hobby. As for me, I am having a blast blogging, and I do not even make an income from it. But remember that successful bloggers have to spend a lot of time on it if they want the income to continue. And some of them may depend more on this income than we know.
Non-bloggers early retirees
If you look on the internet, it seems that all early retirees are also bloggers. The fact that we could believe that only successful bloggers are retired is highly biased. The problem is that we only know about bloggers because they are highly visible on the internet. If one of your neighbors was early retired but never told you, you would not know. If he had a blog, you would probably know about its early retirement.
It is much easier to find early retirees with a blog than early retirees without one. It does not prove that there are none. It just shows that people with a blog are more visible than people without one!
Very recently, ESI started a new series on esimoney with interviews of early retirees! I think this is a great thing. And I hope he does not interview only bloggers like most series are doing these days. The first retiree interview got released last month. I hope this series goes on for a long while.
If you are aware of other interviews or stories about early retirees without blog income, I would love to hear about it!
The Paradox of Success
Now, there is a nice paradox here. Over time, the FIRE philosophy that bloggers are selling changes from the FIRE they live due to their blog income increasing.
When FIRE bloggers start their blogs before retirement, they do not get income from their blogs. They are advocating for Financial Independence without work. That means they have to accumulate a net worth of about 25 times their yearly expenses. At least that is what they aim to if they follow the 4% withdrawal rule.
When they start their journey, they are trying to show a journey that people can achieve. They say that everybody can do it as they are doing it and follow what they do. That is what I am trying to achieve, and that is what I am trying to blog about.
However, once they start getting income from their blog, this will accelerate the way to Financial Independence. This income is not a big deal since increasing your income is an excellent way to reach FI faster. However, once they are financially independent and retire, some of their expenses, or all of them, are sustained by the blog income.
And this is a problem because they are writing (and selling somehow) the way of Financially Independence without having to work ever again. However, they are living their Financial Independence will still get an income. There is a considerable gap between the FIRE they sell on their blog and the FIRE they live.
It makes a huge difference since they do not need to withdraw from their capital. It means successful bloggers can handle much higher corrections in the stock market than retired people.
Can you retire without a blog income?
Let’s get back to the question in the title of this article. I think it is still entirely possible to retire without a blog income. The theory behind Financial Independence, namely the 4% rule, is sound. You can also use a different withdrawal rate to be safer or more aggressive. There are many parameters you can take into account to validate your retirement plan.
However, no doubt that having an income after retirement will help you a lot. First, it will protect you from sequences of returns risk. Since you will not need to withdraw too much from your portfolio, you will not have to withdraw at the worst possible time. Moreover, it will also help you retire earlier if you wish to. It is just a different kind of retirement, one where you are still making money instead of one where you never have to work again.
If you do not have an income in retirement, like most people, you need to be prepared for the hard times. For instance, if you can plan to cut your retirement spending by about 25% during a recession, that could help a lot. Having a large cash cushion could also help by not having to sell your investments at all when the stock market is down. All these things are necessary if you want to ensure your retirement. However, if you have a substantial blog income, you do not need it. So once again, be careful of examples set by very successful bloggers. You need to make your path to Financial Independence!
What can readers do?
What is essential for the readers is to take everything from bloggers with a pinch of salt.
Even though I do not doubt that most personal finance bloggers are honest, it would be naive to believe that everything published on blogs is entirely true. Even though they may not mean it, they may forget to include something meaningful that would change the way their situation is perceived. It is better to bring some skepticism when reading things on the internet. Do not forget that people are not accountable for anything they say.
Another thing that readers need to be careful about is affiliate links. Many bloggers will only recommend services they are using and that they trust. However, some bloggers will sometimes write blog posts only for the sake of affiliate links. These kinds of posts have no value for the readers and are harmful. Therefore, you need to be extra careful about trusting affiliate links. You never really know if it was because they like the service or because they make a hefty commission by referring people.
Finally, and more on topic, readers should be aware that prominent bloggers may have large or massive revenue after their early retirement. It means that even if you follow their example to the letter, you will not have such a good result after retirement as they have. Unless, of course, you start a blog as well and get a high income from it. It does not mean you cannot follow their lessons. You just need to be aware of the fact that their kind of FIRE is retirement with work rather than a retirement where you never have to work again.
What can bloggers do?
There are a few things that bloggers can do to improve this state of things. Of course, they should not stop monetizing their blogs! Some bloggers are doing an excellent job with monetizing their blogs, and I highly regard their efforts and their success. Everybody would like his hobby to be turned into a side hustle. We just need more transparency from many bloggers on some things.
First, every blogger should disclose if they monetize their blogs or not. It is something that is already working quite well, I think. Most bloggers using affiliate links are honest about them and have a disclaimer. Readers should know if a link is an affiliate or not. Of course, you can look at the target of the link and recognize affiliate links by their parameters. But not all readers are tech-savvy, and some may simply be too gullible.
Also, I believe that all personal finance bloggers, and especially Financial Independence (FI) bloggers, should disclose how much they make from their blogs. There is no need for full details. It would already be great is every blogger revealed the range of income like more than 50K, more than 100K, or one million per year. Doing so is a form of honesty, and that will help the readers understand the context much better. Without that, the reader has no way of knowing that the blogger may be retired only because of the blog. Some bloggers are already doing that, and it is excellent!
Moreover, when an early retiree blogger publishes his net worth evolution, he should fully disclose if he gets an income. This disclaimer should be present on each page where this is important. Such as disclaimer would help the reader know that the blogger would not have that much money left if he did not get a nice income from its blog. Such bloggers should not have a single disclaimer but should insist on it when they present their finances after retirement. Being transparent is merely being honest.
Finally, a blogger should never recommend a service only because of their affiliate program. I understand the need for money. I may be naive, but honesty will go a long way in convincing your readership. It is long-term work. But bad affiliate links can hurt the people who are trusting the bloggers.
And they can hurt the community as a whole. If a blogger advertises a product because of the affiliate program, it does not serve the reader. It has no value. The value of a blog should be in its content and its recommendations. Recommending something purely for money issues is harmful.
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This article turned out to be much longer than I expected. The main issue is that when FIRE bloggers are starting, they preach an early retirement where you will never have to work again.
However, as their blog becomes more successful, they live an early retirement where they still get a substantial income from their blog. This income means there is a significant difference between the FIRE they are preaching and the FIRE they are living. The reader is not always aware of that and should be extra careful when looking at their early retirement numbers.
Do not take me wrong. I do not advise against monetizing blogs! For instance, I have affiliate links on my blog. It does not generate a large portion of my total income. But it is still not negligible.
However, not all affiliate links are useful. There are plenty of affiliate links that can hurt readers if they are only recommended for their affiliate programs and not for their real usefulness. I would never recommend a service I do not trust or like just for the sake of adding one more affiliate link to my website.
After I started writing this post, I realized that I am not the only one thinking like this. Tanja Hester from Our Next Life wrote a very nice post about the fact that blogs do not tell the full story. It is a nice read!
What do you think about this? Were you aware of these problems? What do you think bloggers should do about that situation? I would like to hear all your comments about that subject. If you think I am doing a bad job at being transparent on my blog, I would like to know as well!
And yes, you should also be careful about Swiss bloggers, including me. Having a blog helps get some income, and we may never follow the 4% rule in the end.
On another note, I also checked if it is possible to retire early in Switzerland, and I even interviewed an early retiree in Switzerland.
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34 thoughts on “Can you Retire Early Without a Successful Blog?”
Great post. I don’t have anything against young retirees making side income through blogs or other means. But personally it’s off-putting when some FIREd folks give an impression that once you reach your FI, that’s the end of it and you can stay that way without much risk control. They should be talking more about risk factors, so to give young people more realistic expectations.
FIRE is kinda misnomer, if you ask me. FI alone is fine because FI certainly give people more options.
I agree that you have to be careful about RE through FI. A lot of people forget that this is based on historical simulations and unless you have some margin of safety, it can be risky.
Thanks for this post!
I’ve only just starting out with blogging together with a friend, and to me, I find that it helps me structure my thoughts and refine my own strategy. Of course I hope that my articles will also help others, or encourage others to look into their own situation more.
Getting rich with blogging is definitely not the goal. We are currently not monetizing the blog at all, not sure if we ever will (beyond perhaps showing some ads). There are currently ads on the blog only because we are using the free version of wordpress :D
I agree with the general approach to transparency, but as we are also blogging anonymously, I find it a bit challenging to be fully transparent on everything, as it could give our identities away. I think that’s a delicate balance. Definitely agree that affiliate links etc should be disclosed, and I also would not recommend a product that I have not used just to get some income. I’m not even sure if we will ever add affiliate links. I’m happy to recommend a good product without being paid for it ;)
Regarding retirement with/without income streams. Of course, having 100K+ income from a blog is another category, but I would dare to guess that most people will have SOME form of income in retirement, whether that is an eventual state pension, a private pension, rental income or some form of side hustle. I am not sure if anyone is really living or planning to live 100% off their investment principal in retirement?
While aiming for FIRE, it is often suggested to build up multiple streams of income, so I don’t think that all of these will cease at the same time for most people. Personally, I definitely plan on having some regular income in retirement (most likely from rentals). I don’t think financial independence suggest having no income? To me, it just suggest having the choice between working or not working, as well as where and how much (if at all).
It’s definitely a delicate balance :) I am currently considering going public but still not entirely decided.
It’s a good point that many FIRE people will have income in retirement and there is nothing wrong with that. The important point is to be transparent about it.
I may retire early but keep this blog to help keep me afloat. I will probably not consider myself retired though :)
Thanks for the reply. I guess the crux here is the definition of retired, or what constitutes “work”. I recently read another article about this by Fire and Wide (here is the link if you are curious https://fireandwide.com/early-retirement-define-work/ ). It seems to be a non-trivial question.
Perhaps I’ll change my framing and say I’m pursuing FIWO, Financial Independence / Work Optional (hat tip to our next life). Or perhaps FIPO Financial Independence / Pay Optional, to signal that I may work, but I dont need to get paid for it.
I wonder if that would catch on :D
Yes, it’s very difficult to define exactly what it means to stop working or even to be retired. The definition of some people is entirely different than for other people.
It all comes down to what people want to be doing with their time.
You can try to make it stick ;)
I found this because I had been thinking about the same things and did a search on FIRE w/o a blog.
I have been following various FIRE bloggers on my path for several years. I have no interest or desire to start a blog or rental properties. I’d like to simply save 25 x my expenses and live on the 4% but have been wondering if that is really possible since most that are writing about it also have income from the blog or rental properties.
I do believe that it is possible and I’m almost there myself.
I also think this is possible. But indeed, it’s much easier with a strong income with a blog (or any other business for that matter).
I just wish some bloggers would disclose that a bit more openly.
Good luck achieving Financial Independence!
Fantastic article and very interesting read. Personally I’m not against anyone earning money from their blog. It would be naive to think the big FIRE bloggers are simply living off their pre-high profile savings and investments. Good luck to them as long as any conflicts of interest are disclosed. We all benefit from the messages being shared so I’m happy for them
Hi Mr. Simple Life,
Thanks for your kind words!
I completely agree with you! As long as there is no conflict of interest, all the better for them.
It would be naive indeed. But we have to remember that many people are naive, especially regarding money.
Thanks for stopping by and good luck with your blog!
Good post. I like the 4% SWR rule, but I’m not a true believer especially because I retired from my engineering career at 38. That’s too young. I prefer to be more conservative and put off withdrawal as long as I can. If I wasn’t blogging, I’d be doing something else to make a little income. That has always been my path and I try to make it clear on Retire by 40.
Also, I think not working completely in your 30s or 40s is a bad idea. You’ll get bored. Why not work a bit? Anyway, everyone has to find their own path.
At least, I don’t advertise for Blue Host. They offered 3x (?) the referral fee of Siteground, but I still prefer to work with Siteground.
Thanks Joe :)
I completely understand. Putting off withdrawal will extremely increase the likelihood of the principal sustaining the withdrawal later on.
I think you are doing a very good job making it clear on your blog!
As you said, everyone has to find their own path! There is no single path to financial independence! And financial independence may not even be what everyone needs!
Not working is probably not something that everything wants indeed! I would keep blogging if I was retired and I would actually keep programming as well. But all on my terms!
I am glad you prefer advertising for the company you use rather than the company offering more affiliate!
Thanks for stopping by!
You can certainly retire without a successful blog. There are a lot of FIRE calculators that aim at answering how long it takes (e.g. mine https://www.thewealthyfinn.com/p/when-can-you-retire-calculator-for.html ) and it does take a long time.
It’s just that even a small blog income help a lot. With the 4% rule a 100€/month blog income offsets 30 000 € of principal. 100€ per month is definitely a lot already, but likely quicker to reach than 30 000 €.
Yes, I also think it’s possible. There are just much fewer examples of successful retirees without a blog than with a blog.
That’s a good example! A small regular income can go a long way in reducing the target net worth.
Thanks for stopping by :)