‘My goal is to be happy’: how thrifty Germans are leaving 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.

'My goal is to be happy': how thrifty Germans are leaving the rat race early
Lars Hattwig. Photo: DPA

“It was four years ago that I realized I didn't need my salary anymore. I didn't have to work any more. So I quit my job,” the Berliner, now 47, tells AFP.

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 admits, 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 says, pooh-poohing the official retirement age of 67.

“My goal is just to be happy.”

Making do with less

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's about freedom from “existential fear linked to money”, like anxiety over losing a job or unhealthy levels of stress that can lead to burnout, says 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?” Enders asks.

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 realize a specific dream or wish,” Hattwig explains.

Resources to help seekers along the path are plentiful, meaning budding ascetics don't have to be financial wizards to reach their goals, says Hattwig.

It's a German thing: we don't talk about money.” Photo: DPA

A top blogger in the US scene is known as “Mister Money Mustache” for his keen sense for a good investment.

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 organized 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 Noelting.

Outside the system

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 Enders explains.

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's 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.

Hattwig regularly receives messages from members of the public on his blog complaining 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 Noelting says.

After escaping traditional working life, most frugalists look for new goals, and often find themselves most motivated by voluntary work, says 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 suggests.

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French billionaires top list for world’s richest men and women

The world’s richest man and the world’s richest woman are - for the first time ever - both French, according to the 2023 ranking by Forbes.

French billionaires top list for world's richest men and women

“For the first time in the history of the ranking, the richest man and woman in France are also the richest in the world. A double performance that testifies to the strength of the French economy despite the successive crises that our country is going through, directly or indirectly,” Forbes France said in a press release, as it announced the list.

Forbes listed a total of 43 billionaires in France, including seven women, while there are 2,640 billionaires worldwide, according to Forbes’ calculations. 

The top 25 richest people in the world are worth a combined US $2.1 trillion. That figure is down some US $200 billion from the top 25’s value in 2022, as two-thirds of those on the list lost wealth.

Bernard Arnault 

The world’s richest man is Bernard Jean Etienne Arnault, age 74, best known as the CEO of luxury goods company LVHM.

Back in 2022, Arnault was third on the Forbes list behind Twitter and Tesla boss Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos but he overtook both in December.

Although his rise to the top of the list was helped by Musk’s public destruction of the value of Twitter, LVMH  – which includes luxury brands Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Tiffany & Co – added US $53 billion to Arnault’s wealth last year.

His net fortune is currently US $211 billion, Forbes said, although it has been reported that he had proposed reorganising his holding company so his five children each had an equal share, meaning that his time at the top of the list may be limited.

Like a lot of people on this list, Arnault had a bit of help from his parents in getting started on the road to riches.

Born in the northern French city of Roubaix, he joined his father’s public works building company at the age of 22 and then persuaded his dad to move into real-estate development. After some time in the US, Arnault returned to the family firm, this time instituting a drastic reorganisation and diversifying into luxury brands like Christian Dior.

“My father was surprised when I went to see him saying: ‘We’re going to redirect the family group and try to invest in something more promising, Christian Dior’,” the businessman recalled recently on Radio Classique.

Since then he has consolidated the empire and added more high-end brands, as well as moving into media companies, something he describes as “more on the patronage side”.

He generally shuns the limelight, and sold his private jet when environmental groups started tracking their use (you won’t see him on the train though, he still uses a jet but now he leases one).

The 2016 satirical documentary “Merci Patron !” (Thank you Boss!) by filmmaker and now politician François Ruffin, tells the story of a community in northern France left devastated when the boss (Arnault) shuts down the local factory and moves production to Asia. 

Françoise Bettencourt Meyers

The world’s richest woman (and 11th on the world’s richest people list) is one who is unlikely to be well-known outside France. The 69-year-old Françoise Bettencourt Meyers is reportedly worth US $80.5 billion.

Like Arnault, she was clever enough to be born into wealth – she is the heiress of the cosmetics giant L’Oréal. She has topped the Forbes rich list for women since 2019 – her mother Liliane Bettencourt was top of the list before her. 

Born in the exclusive Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Bettencourt Meyers describes herself as a businesswoman, philanthropist, writer and pianist.

Her mother Liliane became the centrepiece of the scandal that led to the corruption trial of ex president Nicolas Sarkozy – the elderly lady, who was possibly senile at the time, had been donating money to campaign funds that were not properly accounted for.

L’Oréal was founded in 1909 by French pharmacist Eugene Schueller, an enthusiastic supporter of French fascist and anti-Semitic groups who after World War II stood trial for collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

and the best of the rest . . . 

2 Elon Musk

Musk’s takeover of Twitter, and the chaos that followed, saw Musk’s wealth plunge US $37 billion in 12 months. The South African is still worth US $180 billion, according to Forbes’ figures, mainly – apparently – because of SpaceX.

3 Jeff Bezos

The former Amazon CEO saw his personal wealth dip US $57 billion in 2022 because of the falling value of his Amazon shares, but he’s still valued at US $114 billion, a fortune he’s eating into due to his philanthropy – not to mention going into space and buying a $500 million superyacht…

4 Larry Ellison

Buying a US $173 million home in Florida can’t have hit the 78-year-old tech entrepreneur and former Tesla board member too hard in the wallet, with Forbes calculating his net value at US €107 billion. He also owns the Hawaiian island of Lanai – which is where he lives.

5 Warren Buffet

The doyen of the upper echelons of Forbes’ rich list, the 92-year-old investor has a net value of US $106 billion and is a go-to financial expert for the US government, who consulted him about possible banking issues following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March.

6 Bill Gates

It takes a long time to give away your fortune. The mind behind Microsoft and his former wife still have US $104 billion to work through in the next 25 years via their Gates Foundation. They are planning to up their spending with the intention of winding it down in 25 years – but Gates is also working with Microsoft-backed OpenAI, which is behind the ChatGPT AI that a lot of people are talking about.

7 Michael Bloomberg

We dip below the US $100 billion threshold at last, for Michael Bloomberg the 81-year-old co-founder of the financial, software, data, and media company that bears his name. Bloomberg is worth a meagre US $94.5 billion on Forbes’ numbers.

8 Carlos Slim Helú 

The 83-year-old head of Latin-American mobile phone company América Móvil saw his personal wealth jump US $12 billion in 2022, to US $93 billion.

9 Mukesh Ambani

Asia’s richest person comes in at nine on Forbes’ list, with a personal wealth estimated at US $83.4 billion, from his multi-interest Reliance Industries, which has fingers in oil to telecoms interests. Three of his children are in key roles as financial experts wonder about the 65 year old’s succession.

10 Steve Ballmer

Being involved with Microsoft has its advantages, clearly. Former CEO Ballmer, now best known for his ownership of NBA side the LA Clippers, is in Forbes’ top 10, with an estimate net worth of $80.7 billion. He’s suffered – for a given value of ‘suffered’ – because declining value of Microsoft shares mean his $10 billion less well off than last year.

If you’re wondering, vaguely, where other well-known billionaires are on Forbes’ list: Google’s Larry Page is 12th, Meta (Facebook to most of us) boss Mark Zuckerberg is 16th; and Gautam Adani is 24th – having been the world’s third richest person on January 24th, according to Forbes’ metrics. His estimated wealth has fallen from nearly US $126 billion to US $47.2 billion since then. Proof that wealth – even super-wealth – can be fleeting.

In France, and out of the world’s top 25, François Pinault, founder of the luxury goods group Kering is the next richest person; then the brothers Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, owners of the Chanel fashion house.

Emmanuel Besnier, the boss of Lactalis is next – and the first of the French mega-rich not in the luxury and beauty sector. 

Meanwhile, Xavier Niel and Patrick Drahi, owners of Free and SFR, are both down in the ranking as the 18th and 22nd richest French billionaires.