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FIRE: Financial Independence Retire Early. It’s a phenomenon that’s been really sweeping the personal finance sphere for a few years. You’ve probably seen it referenced in those click-bait headlines like, “Early retiree with 3 million dollars shares best tips to build wealth” or “4 steps to retire early, from a 28-year-old who retired with $2.25 million” or “This couple retired in their 30s and are now traveling full time in an Airstream”.
I’ve been a not-so-silent critic of the FIRE movement for years. Perhaps cynic is a better word. It’s an admirable goal. I mean, who doesn’t want to at least achieve FI (financial independence)? It’s ultimately what we all want: to not have to rely on someone else for a paycheck. But as the movement has snowballed and become more mainstream, there have been two often undiscussed elements that make much of the movement feel like snake oil to me.
- Mental health
The FIRE community, in general, is not particularly diverse from both a socio-economic and racial perspective. Too many of the “I retired at 30 with 5 million dollars” stories include a caveat of “John Smith earned $200,000 a year in his job as a software engineer.” That’s certainly not applicable to the average American. Now, some folks have fascinating stories of reverse engineering the game. Like J from Millennial Boss. She basically figured out how to design her career and learn new skills to get herself into the high-paying tech world.
But honestly, the mental health part is my bigger concern. So many people who write FIRE blogs talk as if quitting their jobs working for the man will be the magic bullet to solve their problems. Rarely is this actually the case. There is usually more to the feeling of anxiety/depression/malaise than the “Sunday Freakout”. Mental health is rarely addressed by the larger community.
Not to mention, most FIRE folks are intense over-achievers and I wonder about the feeling of fulfillment in retirement without some form of work from which to derive that sense of accomplishment? Granted, many FIRE folks do continue working after “retiring early” but they’re able to work on their own terms and quit any job they dislike because they are financially independent. Which is why the “RE” part of the FIRE does have a branding problem. To most Americans, retire means that you’ve quit working. Full stop. But to those who leave the workforce at 30-something, they’re usually still working in some capacity, it’s just not a requirement in order to put food on the table and keep the lights on.
(You can hear me speak on these topics at length on the Fire Drill podcast.)
“But you said you almost joined the FIRE movement!”
Whew, gave you that full rant with a title about how I almost joined the FIRE movement. Okay, here’s the first thing you should know – I am in the “FI” camp. Of course I want to achieve financial independence. I’m just not so focused on the “RE” side because working as a freelancer gives me some element of what folks hope to achieve with retiring early. I do set my own schedule. I can travel when I’d like. There is a lot of flexibility in my life already. But I do still have to work for a paycheck and a volatile one at that.
Now, the other thing to know is that despite my criticism of the larger movement, I admire A LOT of people in the FIRE community. The aforementioned J from Millennial Boss, Gwen from Fiery Millennials, Miss Mazuma, Tanja from Our Next Life, 1500 Days, but my first FIRE crush was on Mr. & Mrs. Frugalwoods.
I met Liz and Nate before their names were public or they even revealed what they looked like on their website! We all spoke together on a panel back at NYU back in 2015. I’d been reading their blog, but sometimes people’s blog personas don’t actually match up with real life. Let me say, Liz and Nate are truly authentic in their pursuit of intentional and simple living. We met before they’d achieved FIRE and were still living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before they quit their jobs, bought a homestead in Vermont, before they had not one, but two babies! Even then I could sense the frugal living and devotion to self-reliance and efficiency was not some sort of show, but genuinely how they felt. I’ve had the opportunity to spend quality time with Liz and Nate, (more so Liz), in person on several other occasions. Not just quick-chat type quality time, but hours-of-discussions type time. They’re the real deal.
Since that first panel meeting, so much has changed for all of us. They retired from the traditional work force, while I quit my regular job and pursued self-employment. And Liz and I both got book deals!
The book that started to change my thinking
An advanced copy of Meet the Frugalwoods arrived in my mailbox back in November 2017. I knew it would be different than most personal finance books I read because Liz was taking a memoir-style approach to sharing her story: the Frugalwoods’ journey from two college kids in love pursuing their career dreams in New York and DC and Boston to a family living on a homestead in Vermont. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel reading this book. I’ve long loved Liz’s writing, but the uber-frugality style of living is just not for me. The fact that Liz and Nate lived frugally and saved 70+ percent of their income while also living in a super expensive city impressed me, but I was certain no amount of beautiful prose could convince me to switch from my healthy savings rate and respectable frugality level to something more intense.
Here’s the thing: Liz never tried to convince me (the reader) that the Frugalwoods style was the end-all-be-all way to achieve financial independence. In fact, she doesn’t even really discuss the movement and steps to achieve it as a whole until page 125.
Instead, the book focuses on intentional living and following Liz’s own journey of getting a bit lost and going back to the basics in order to remember what makes her happy and fulfilled as well as what keeps her marriage strong.
I read the book cover-to-cover in two days. Quite literally with a highlighter in hand. I don’t want to give you many spoilers, but here are two of my favorite nuggets:
“I didn’t quit school or my job, but somehow, I made space for our weekly hikes. I came to understand a maxim that guides me to this day: I can make time for whatever I want to do most. Full stop.”
“By retaining the things we love, we were able to craft a lifestyle that isn’t focused solely on saving money; but rather on optimizing for our priorities.
Peach and I got into a lot of discussions after I read Meet the Frugalwoods. For a few days there, I began to consider joining the dogmatic pursuit of achieving FIRE at an early age. To try and squirrel away as much of our salaries as possible and be able to leave the workforce and do what we wanted. But then I posed this question to Peach, “What would your ideal life look like?” He smiled and said, “Pretty much what it’s like right now.” *Insert heart melting*