I discuss the FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) movement, and how it falls short for so many of us, despite all of the hype.
FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) is a financial strategy or philosophy that encourages minimalist living in order to retire as quickly as possible.
It is, to put it mildly, very prevalent in financial spaces. It’s a common sight to read articles like this one from CNBC titled “3 lessons from people who retired in their 30s“.
I can understand the interest. No matter if you’re a younger person just entering the workforce or you’ve been in the working world for a while, who wouldn’t find the prospect of escaping the “rat race” enticing?
The people who popularized the movement, such the inimitable Mr. Money Mustache, have become legit celebrities, insofar as you can be a celebrity in the money space.
In short, this movement taps into something very powerful in many people.
So it would make sense for me to jump on the FIRE train too, right?
FIRE has never captured my interest, and I don’t focus on it with my clients.
But before you think I’m suggesting you work until you die, never escaping the “rat race”, read on, as my reasoning may surprise you.
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The different types of FIRE
FIRE, in its most traditional sense, is where you put away enough money over a short period of time and live on sufficiently small expenses such that you no longer need to work because you can live off of your savings.
But the movement is so broad that it has grown to include a number of different strategies, such as:
- Accumulating enough assets so that FIRE is in your future (Coast FIRE)
- Being able to get by on a part-time job only (Barista FIRE)
- Being more concerned with growing your income (Fat FIRE) or reducing expenses (Lean FIRE)
So what’s the problem?
FIRE has grown to encompass everything, not just FIRE
The diversification of FIRE strategies has made FIRE encompass all strategies, making it almost meaningless.
Take “Coast FIRE”, where you accumulate enough assets early enough such that you can stop contributing more and still be confident that you will reach your goals.
And with this, you can work less or earn less, presumably because you don’t need to be putting more away.
I don’t know about you, but is this really FIRE?
Saying “I’m saving up money so that I can have enough to live on one day” sounds like every single other person working toward retirement.
It’s also not even necessarily an “early” strategy. You could do this, and not have enough to live on until age 67. Is that really FIRE?
FIRE may be a Pyrrhic victory
A Pyrrhic victory is when the cost of success is tantamount or indistinguishable from defeat.
Traditional FIRE, where you mercilessly cut your expenses so that you can put away so much that you live off your savings, seems fine in theory, but actually sounds quite horrid.
FIRE seems to be saying: “live like a pauper now so that you’ll have the ability to live like a pauper for the rest of your life…but at least you won’t have to work!“
Now, I’m not into minimalism, so perhaps this is just not my cup of cold unsweetened tea, but this doesn’t sound like a way that I want to live at all.
And if you go “Fat FIRE”, where you save up enough such that you can live a good lifestyle, again, all you’re talking about is being financially intentional and savvy.
FIRE oversimplifies our relationship to work
Why do we hate work so much?
Work can help give us structure and a greater sense of purpose to our lives. It forces us to do something beyond ourselves and our own base needs, and makes sure that we can build something in a community.
At least, that’s the best of work. You could be working at McDonald’s too, in which case these things all go out the window.
Yes, not having to work allows you time freedom, but it doesn’t necessary replace the role than work plays in your life. People rush toward normal, non-FIRE retirement without a thought to what they’re going to do the next day, and there’s nothing saying that will be different with FIRE.
Let’s not forget that the best definition of “retirement” isn’t “when you stop working”, but “the point at which you stop working for money and you start letting your money work for you”.
Seriously, find a better job if you hate what you do so much. It might not be easy, but it has to be possible.
FIRE is inherently privileged
One of the best quotes on the FIRE movement I’ve read is this one, which states that the definitive ethos of FIRE should instead be:
“You can become wealthy on minimum wage—provided you don’t have: children or other dependents, ongoing medical conditions, bad credit, a disability, face a natural disaster, are abused by a partner, get sued, have relatives in poverty who need your help, face addiction, get deported, have student debt, struggle with mental health, have unstable work, deal with fraud or identity theft, have a complicated relationship with money, or are one of the 40% of low income Americans who lost their jobs due to a global pandemic.”
Also, the dirty secret of FIRE folks is that they are very often people who work in the tech industry, a notoriously privileged position, very often white and male, which comes along with location independence and outsize financial payouts.
(Seriously, try this. Find a FIRE person and see if they worked in tech. Betcha they did.)
As someone who has spent the vast majority of my working life in the tech industry, I could see myself doing FIRE reasonably well.
But then I think of some of my clients or friends, who don’t work in tech, who have children, who have health conditions, who have struggled with substance abuse.
It makes me think that the FIRE movement just isn’t for everyone.
And I’m much more interested in repeatable actions that anyone can take, like becoming an intentional spender, learning to make clear financial goals and stick to them, and feeling less anxious about money.
Take the best parts of FIRE
There are plenty of things to like about FIRE: the intentionality, the future planning, the reduction of unnecessary consumption.
I’m into all that.
If you hate work so much, and you can’t find anything else you want to do that would pay you, then I support you getting a plan in place to exit as quickly as possible.
But honestly, I don’t care whether you retire at 30 or 50 or 70 or not at all. I’d rather you design your life and your work intentionally, rather than rush to some arbitrary point as quickly as possible.
After all, it’s possible to create a fulfilling, satisfying, well-rounded life that involves work, without feeling like a rat in a maze. Now that’s something to get FIRE’d up about.