A Black couple who retired early says there's a 'Black tax' on common wealth-building strategies

A Black couple who retired early says there's a 'Black tax' on common wealth-building strategies
BI Graphics

A Black couple who retired early says there's a 'Black tax' on common wealth-building strategies
Early retirees Kiersten (left) and Julien Saunders.Phyllis Iller
  • Kiersten and Julien Saunders left their corporate jobs before they turned 40.
  • They joined the Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) community.
  • However, the couple didn't feel like the wealth-building strategies they learned accounted for their lived experience.

Kiersten and Julien Saunders first met at their corporate hospitality job, then got married a year and a half later. At the time, the couple subscribed to the idea of "Black excellence."

Julien says, "Black excellence is this term that we use to label anyone who is doing really well, or even just a term of endearment that is used whenever someone is shining brightly in an area where less may have been expected of them."

Kiersten and Julien both had six-figure corporate jobs in Atlanta that allowed them to travel all over the country. It looked glamorous from the outside, but the couple says their personal lives were strained. On their delayed honeymoon to South Africa, they still found themselves "work-obsessed," checking their phones "addictively."

Julien adds, "What we found is that the term" — Black excellence — "created a warped sense of existence, and it really led us to work as hard as we did. We wanted to be the example of the shining exception. We wanted to be the people who were able to do all of these amazing things, but unfortunately we just weren't paying attention to the toll that it took on us."


That's when they knew things had to change.

When the couple joined the FIRE movement, they said the community was 'mostly white'

Waking up to their workaholism, the couple became committed to "leaving the corporate treadmill" as early as possible. Julien learned about FIRE online first, but it wasn't until after their honeymoon that he seriously tried to convince Kiersten to start their early retirement journey.

True to the principles of the FIRE movement, which stands for Financial Independence/Retire Early, the couple started saving and investing aggressively in real estate and the stock market to meet their early retirement goals.

According to records viewed by Insider, the couple paid off two mortgages, one on their own home and another on their rental property, totaling $200,000. They were able to retire from their corporate jobs before they turned 40 thanks to the stability provided by their rental income, as well as cash flow from their blog, Rich & Regular.

But, they say, they found that the community was "mostly white," and much of the advice shared didn't account for their financial reality.


They encountered a 'Black tax' within the FIRE movement

FIRE devotees are generally pretty open about sharing their wealth-building tips online, but the Saunderses quickly realized a lot of the advice shared on the forums did not take into account the racial wealth gap that many Black Americans face. The couple said they encountered "Black taxes" — extra money spent due to racial economic imbalance — while getting started in the FIRE movement.

For example, the Saunderses say, the FIRE movement doesn't speak to individuals or couples who financially support their family or other community members in some way. The Saunderses found that their white counterparts, many of whom came from generational wealth, generally didn't need to worry about supporting anyone else.

"One thing that's often overlooked is how Black Americans are far more likely to have elders who have underfunded retirement accounts," Julien tells Insider.

Indeed, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 46% of all retirees retired earlier than expected, however, the reason Black elders retire early is typically due to health reasons instead of access to resources that allow them to retire comfortably. Additionally, the Economic Policy Institute's State of Working America report shows that Black Americans have 14.9% less than white workers in their retirement accounts.

Says Kiersten, "White people will have more time to build and follow the standard rules of thumb than we do. They have more valuable social networks because of nepotism."


How the racial wealth gap restricts Black people from planning for early retirement

When it comes to building wealth, the most common strategies include real-estate investments, building a diverse investment portfolio, or holding equity in the company you work for. However, the racial wealth gap can restrict Black Americans from planning for early retirement, the Saunderses say.

For example, says Kiersten, "If you happen to own a home in a Black neighborhood or have Black art up while the appraiser walks through, your home is going to be valued lower than your white counterparts." Since rental income is a common cash source that keeps early retirees afloat, she says, having a home that's considered "less valuable" can restrict cash flow.

Additionally, pathways to early retirement through equity are typically less available to Black workers. Carta's 2021 Annual Equity Report shows that only 4% of Black employees hold equity in the companies they work for, even though they make up 12% of the workforce. That's compared to 65% of white people holding equity while they make up 62% of the workforce.

"Getting a 9-to-5 at a blue-chip company is a great path to wealth," says Kiersten. "But if you're a Black person, the odds of holding stock in companies like Google or Netflix is really small, and when you look at leadership in those companies, it's even smaller."