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Thrifty Germans look to escape the rat race early
FORMER meteorologist Lars Hattwig has achieved the "frugalist" dream that is gaining ground in ageing Germany: retiring in his 40s and living on the proceeds of a working life lived sparingly.
"It was four years ago that I realised I didn't need my salary anymore. I didn't have to work any more. So I quit my job," the Berliner, now 47, told AFP.
Mr Hattwig put himself through a sometimes punishing savings regime for 10 years and carefully invested the proceeds, giving himself the resources to make the leap.
"For one or two years, I was extremely tight-fisted" after the 2008 crisis, he admitted, as his share holdings lost some of their value before later recovering.
"I avoided turning on the lights at home, I checked the meter regularly, I bought the cheapest food," he recalled. "But that phase is over now."
A craze for frugal living is spreading on German-language blogs and Internet forums, stoked by those already living the dream or people imagining what might be if they could only scrape the cash together.
For example, each step of 29-year-old Oliver Noelting's pilgrimage towards financial freedom is chronicled in detail online.
"I can totally imagine that when I'm 40, I'll say to myself: I've been doing this for 10 or 12 years. Now I want to do something else," the Hanover-based computer programmer said, pooh-poohing the official retirement age of 67. "My goal is just to be happy."
Known as FIRE - "Financial Independence Retire Early" - in the United States, where it originated, the motives of adherents to the frugalist movement range from the ecological to the political or just personal inclination.
Enthusiasts are often middle class and lead simple lives with a focus on health - and nary a cigarette to be seen.
For many, it is about freedom from "existential fear linked to money", such as anxiety over losing a job or unhealthy levels of stress that can lead to burnout, said Gisela Enders, author of a book titled Financial Freedom.
Few adherents have any interest in cars, large flats or designer clothes.
"Do I really need all these things the consumer society wants to convince me at all costs I can't do without?" Ms Enders asked.
Asking such questions is often a prelude to taking action.
"Frugalists live below their means for the long term, aiming to achieve financial independence and in the end realise a specific dream or wish," Mr Hattwig explained.
Resources to help seekers along the path are plentiful, meaning that budding ascetics do not have to be financial wizards to reach their goals, said Mr Hattwig.
A top blogger in the US scene is known as "Mister Money Mustache" for his keen sense for a good investment.
Mr Hattwig too offers coaching on how to invest in financial products and real estate - whenever he feels like it, and only for those who can pay for the privilege although he calls it a hobby.
Others gather at Financial Independence Weeks (FIWE), regular community meetings organised by a couple who used to live in Germany and moved with their two children to Romania. Their gatherings draw up to 25 adherents, according to Mr Noelting.
No-one has compiled figures for the number of frugalists living in Germany. "It's a German thing: we don't talk about money," author Ms Enders explained.
At a time when Europe's top economy is desperately looking for solutions on how to pay for pensions after 2025 when the post-war baby boom generation heads into retirement, raising the possibility of upping the retirement age, the frugalists seem to have hit upon one solution to the demographic headache.
But it is a choice that provokes criticism over how a society with a communal responsibility can continue to function if increasing numbers, who have benefited from it by receiving an education for example, pay less, or nothing at all, into the public social security, pensions and health insurance pots.
Mr Hattwig regularly receives messages from members of the public on his blog complaining that he is being selfish but dismisses them as an expression of "jealousy".
"Sure, I may have paid less into the pension system, but I don't want a state pension," programmer Mr Noelting said.
After escaping traditional working life, most frugalists look for new goals, and often find themselves most motivated by voluntary work, said Ms Enders.
Rather than complain, "when 25-year-olds are saying to themselves 'I want to stop working at 40', we ought to be thinking about the quality of working life that our society offers," she suggested. AFP