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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*
33 responses to “That Time I Almost Joined the FIRE Movement”
The mental health aspect is why I debated for months about publishing a post about my depression/anxiety and finally decided to do it. If it’s applicable, I also try to mention it here and there in my other posts so it’s not just a one and done “hey, I have depression and anxiety but that’s all I’m going to say about it” thing. I’m happy to see there are more people talking about it but I agree that it’s not talked about nearly enough.
I love Liz’s writing and general and how much she focuses on the benefits of living a more mindful life; she’s definitely been a huge factor in how I’ve been trying to bring intentional living into my own life. This is a great review, and I’m so excited to read the book!
I love that you opened up about your own depression and anxiety because it’s so needed. I’ve tried to be open on social media about the downsides of self-employment and that a lot of what I do comes with sacrifices that you (the viewer) aren’t seeing. Balancing in these truths can hopefully help other people make more informed choices and not just be swayed by the Instagram-able lives of FIRE/Digital nomads/Self-employed/Influencer types.
I wrote a post recently and really loved the comments more than the post (ha!), but I do think that FIRE distorts reality. Specifically, it distorts mine. I’m fortunate to really love what I do and to find it very fulfilling. I am still very much on the path to FI, but I don’t know that my husband or I have any plans to retire early (We get to retire earlier than most by default as teachers). But I spend so much time interacting with people who talk about FIRE as a race to escape that it makes me underappreciate my colleagues and my current situation. I much prefer my path to independence with a heavy dose of gratitude and intentionality, thanks 🙂
Do you find that sometimes seeing so many other people talk about hating their jobs can sometimes color your impression of your own, even though you generally like it? I had that struggle a bit when I was working a traditional job and still will, on occasion, feel it about self-employment. As for teachers: Peach is a teacher and feels the same way you do! I really enjoys his job and colleagues and the students. Plus, why walk away from that pension if you love your job?! He can, as you said, retire earlier than most and still get a pension. And his benefits are SWEET. The conversation around health insurance in early retirement really stresses me out.
Great post. I also think it would be a waste of a life to retire at 35 and spend the rest if your life in a tiny house, parking in friend’s yards and chiding them for needing such a big home while you use their kitchen. Definitely people should continue to do useful things. The beauty of free enterprise is that you make more money by helping more people. Financial independence should just mean the opportunity to do the useful things you want to do because you can take risks.
This has also made me think about the different stages of financial independence. We often just position it as when you’re done needing a paycheck from an employer, but there are many other moments along that path. E.g. not needing financial support from your parents (which for some happens much earlier than others) or having enough saved to do a sabbatical/mini-retirement or being able to tolerate self-employment on a volatile income without much stress because of a healthy financial safety net.
We’ve thought about going hard core FIRE from time to time. There have been times when we’ve been uber frugal out of necessity (like when we were paying a mortgage in one city but living in another) but it never felt like the right thing for us. Some of the practices stuck–like going cable free–but I like buying new clothing on occasion and we love both domestic and international travel. So like you we practice intentional living, which amounts to what I like to call moderately frugal FIRE. We will hit bare bones fire in eight years after just 15 years in the workforce. But we don’t plan to retire so much as move on to our next thing.
I was joking with a woman on Twitter about how there needs to be new factions of FIRE. They have Fat FIRE and Lean FIRE, but what about for folks who are more like “slow-burn FIRE” or “Chill FIRE” or just want to roast a marshmallow and not dive all the way in (Team S’Mores)?! It seems the intentional living part is starting to come in and balance out the community a bit, but the hardcore stuff is still the uber-frugal, don’t live in a city type rhetoric. I’m with you that it just isn’t for me.
If folks would just caveat the “RE” in FIRE from plain “retire” to “retire from the traditional W2 job” then much of the confusion would be cleared up. And it would quell the famous retirement police who arose as a counter to Mr. Money Mustache. He retired from his traditional W2 job, he didn’t fully retire. Leaving a W2 job (usually their current one) is what the vast majority of FIRE people are striving for. Unfortunately “retire from the traditional W2 job” doesn’t make for a good acronym!
Yeah, like I said in the post there is a big branding problem. The “R” needs to stand for something else, like reposition. It’s a losing war to try and redefine “retirement” for the majority of the world that isn’t “retiring” to a new/different job. Plus, that doesn’t account for people like me who don’t work traditional jobs and essentially live the “RE” part that so many bloggers describe, but are still working on the FI part.
Yeah, I’ve always felt part of the ‘FI’ part but not the ‘RE’ part. Everyone should strive for financial independence but retiring early makes me concerned. One of the big things is how nobody really talks much about health insurance when you retire early. A lot of people use those health sharing ministries but I don’t really feel comfortable using them and would rather have regular health insurance (if only it wasn’t so expensive, ahhhh).
I did like that there was a talk at FinCon17 about problems within the FIRE movement. Hoping to see more discussion about it.
YES about health insurance! I mentioned that in an earlier comment. That factor alone super stresses me out. I have noticed quite a few people use the loophole of a spouse that still works so they’re on the spouse’s insurance. Which also frustrates me because that’s usually just called a single-income family/stay-at-home parent or you’re a freelancer who has health insurance from a spouse (like I will after Peach and I get married).
It is encouraging to see more conversation around issues with the movement, but I’d also like to see more talk about why it lacks diversity. That isn’t a coincidence.
Mental Health. 100% Yes!
I haven’t gotten around to writing as much as I would like about this topic, but sometimes I feel the the pursuit of FI alone produces extra anxiety in my life. Currently, I’m trying to focus on small personal goals as well as financial goals to try to maintain balance. I want to build a life I love now, not just after reaching FI!
That’s a really healthy outlook. Why delay the process of figuring yourself out and identifying the lifestyle you want to live? I can’t imagine putting that level of pressure on retiring early. Talk about setting yourself up for both an identity crisis and depression!
I’m blown away by the claim that being a software engineer is an example of privilege. Programming is the ultimate meritocracy. It is possibly the only career in which actual privilege had no bearing on your career options. Race, sex, and wealth are all meaninglessness when the measure of your success is that ability to actually write good code. You literally cannot buy your way into a job as a programmer at a high level.
Not only that, but the example you used of $200k is in the top 10% of software engineer salaries which means that person spent years and thousands of hours mastering very difficult concepts outside of any formal schooling and has to continue to do so if they want to stay at that level.
A software engineer is no more privileged than someone who trained for thousands of miles to run a marathon or practiced for decades to become a professional athlete. Privilege is a special right or advantage that a group of people have because of where they were born or who their parents are. To use the term to describe the result of years of hard work is just plain insulting.
Clinging specifically to the software engineer example means you missed the larger point here. You can replace that with so many other examples, but the point is that a six-figure salary is not accessible to a vast majority of Americans and is often the under-lying theme of many FIRE stories that get media attention. I also didn’t assert that being a software engineer specifically privileged, but that many of the early retirement stories with click-bait headlines in the media include some caveat of earning a high salary or receiving an inheritance or something similar. The cliche of FIRE folks is indeed someone who works in tech and quickly hits a six-figure salary in his/her to mid-twenties and then couples this with either extreme frugality to compensate for high CoL or by living in a low-CoL area while making six-figures.
The defensiveness here is also problematic. Just because it takes talent and smarts and hard work to achieve a skill set doesn’t mitigate the fact that there can be/likely is privilege involved in a person’s success. Privilege comes in many, many forms.
Well, you only included two examples and the other one was very vague. You not only say pretty clearly that a software engineer is an example of privilege, but also state clearly that they, and anyone who might want to take a different path (RE), has a mental illness. Your entire article is based on the idea that only lucky, white men (What else do you mean by “not particularly diverse”) would be interested in retiring early but the oppressed shouldn’t worry because it is healthier to want to work a W2 for the rest of their lives.
I have three friends who are ex-miltary women who on track to hit FIRE in less than 5 years largely because of GI Bill and VA loan programs. They risked their lives (all three have TBIs and PTSD) and endured sexism and sexual harassment/assault for those benefits. Would you consider them privileged because others who didn’t take those risks don’t have access to those benefits? I have a co-worker who escaped the Boko Haram in Cameroon, took asylum in the U.S., put herself through school without a support system and is now working as a software engineer in a high COL area but still focused on FIRE so she can help her family escape their nightmare. If she ends up on a “click-bait” article retiring at 32, will you still see only privilege because of her profession?
Perhaps you would see privilege in my friend who is the son of a billionaire with a million dollar trust fund. Would the fact that he has also put himself through school and never touched a cent of his trust fund and works harder than anyone I have ever met to achieve a level of scientific and engineering knowledge that few people in the world ever will change your mind; or will you just see his race and sex and never look further.
I beg you to stop demeaning and demonizing those who are working so hard better their lives. You end up making excuses for your own fears and failings and projecting them onto those who want something different. Using the all encompassing “privilege” attack is lazy writing and lazy reasoning. How about preaching personal responsibility, hard work, and independence instead? You know, values that might actually allow your readers to get ahead in life….
It’s wonderful you are friends with inspiring people and have many specific examples of people who overcame a variety of challenges in order to achieve, or be well on their way to, FIRE. However, that doesn’t deter me from my original points that there are systemic flaws in the larger FIRE community. And considering that I’m not a W-2 employee, no, I certainly don’t advocate that’s the route people have to go. I would LOVE to see more diversity in the FIRE community, but I point out that the lack of diversity is problematic because that should be a warning sign that something is off. Why aren’t people feeling that either the lifestyle isn’t accessible or the community itself isn’t welcoming? Perhaps it’s because of how it’s portrayed in the media or on certain blogs/forums and too many people give up before they even consider their options. Not sure if you read all the way down to the end of the article, but the big takeaway here is that a) everyone is out for FI, it’s the RE that needs re-branding and b) learning to live life intentionally and finding your own path towards what makes sense for you.
As for the mental health issue, nowhere did I say that everyone pursuing the FIRE track has mental health issues. I point out that many people don’t acknowledge mental health or resist considering that “working for the man” may not be the only underlying issue. I’m far from the only one both outside and inside the FIRE community starting to voice this concern.
Obviously, there are shades of gray and a variety of stories on the FIRE-sphere, but there are still troublesome ones with a lot of influence that don’t offer the full picture, plus the 800-word articles with click-bait headlines usually don’t do the full picture justice.
Your last paragraph also makes it clear that this is likely your first time reading my work and you have no context of my own background if you believe I don’t advocate for personal responsibility, being outside the mainstream and taking risks. You’ve certainly inspired some ideas for follow up pieces though!
I know I’m late to this party but the privilege thing is definitely ignored by those who advocate for a FIRE lifestyle, as it ignores the fact that those with a better starting point in life (starting point here doesn’t just mean financial) are far able to fair far better living this lifestyle. I would love to try this lifestyle myself, but being a black woman puts it far outside my reach despite my middle-class income and homeownership. When folks fail to understand intersectionality and how it works in our lives, they fail to understand why FIRE isn’t likely to work for those who are routinely marginalized in our society, as Ben seems to woefully miss. Another thing I find off-putting about FIRE is often the smugness of its community, which insists anyone who isn’t committed to it is lazy or not willing to work hard, instead of understanding many folks simply do not have the ability to live any version of FIRE. I appreciate your take on this, as I can’t seem to find a single FIRE blog that takes these things into account; it’s unlikely I will ever be able to find one.
I must be the exception to the rule. I’m not an over achiever at all. My life after ER is much better than when I was working full time. The mental part was easy peasy for me because I became a SAHD/blogger. One of those is already enough to keep anyone busy. Also, I wasn’t a software guy, but a CPU designer. No difference to the rest of world, I suppose.
Anyway, your point is valid. Most FIRE bloggers had high income. Engineers, doctors, and finance people. I don’t think you need high income to ER, but it helps a ton. You could leanFIRE like Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, but that’s a lot tougher for most people. Better to increase your income and get to a comfortable level of expense. There are more diversity now because there are many new FIRE bloggers.
I think it’s just “to each their own”. Everyone has a different lifestyle, and there really is no “best” lifestyle or way of handling your finances. As long as you aren’t spending more money than you’re saving, you’ll be fine.
New reader!! Great post and I couldn’t agree with you more! I also used to be obsessed with retiring early, but lately my mentality has totally changed. First off, I like to work, haha! (I stay at home with my three daughters and blog!) I never see myself NOT wanting to grow my blog and write. My husband is also self-employed and loves it. I’m sure when he’s older he’ll naturally slow down, but he would never ever want to quit in a year or two – even if we had all the money in the world. We both enjoy having a purpose through our work, helping others, keeping busy, enjoying time off (if you’re off all the time, it’s not quite as enjoyable hahah), and just having fun! It does help that we work for ourselves, though. I’ll be honest – I couldn’t imagine working for an employer again. I love that my time is my own!
Best of luck and I’m happy to be following along!! 🙂
Really appreciate the commentary on the lack of diversity. Although I really enjoy several FIRE bloggers, I feel like the lack of diversity also correlates to the popularity of some quite vocal, quite conservative FIRE commentators. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s often male (and slightly less often, white) FIRE bloggers who make sweeping claims about wealth being entirely under your own control, how you shouldn’t care about social justice or activism because you can only control your own life, how “privilege” is a fictive concept, etc.
Many times I ask a question to myself that retirement from what? Just a proportion of spending time between personal life and professional life that’s all. Early retirement is not a good decision. In my opinion, living a balanced life will create a self-satisfaction. Of course financial independence matter above all but not that much that if you earn a huge amount in early age take retirement or do the job up to age 60 in case of not achieving the financial goal.
Living intentionally is cool. Minimalist is the way I design my lifestyle around.
Warm regards from Bucharest, Romania!
I agree with your points about (hidden) privilege and mental health/existential meaning 100%. But, I am a little confused by your criticizing the privilege of a software engineer earning $200K extolling his path to FIRE… and then recommending “Frugal Woods.” Irony? “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…” (because I ignored the *exact same* caveat about their dual-high-earning upper-middle-class household which made this achievable?).
“The Outline” called FW out on this undisclosed variable just back in March: “The Frugalwoods are tight-lipped about their income, though back in 2012, before they moved to Vermont, the couple bought a $460,000 four-bedroom house in Cambridge, a short walk from MIT, according to their blog; last year, they rented it for a monthly rate of $4,400. They’ve also built a healthy investment portfolio. In 2014, Liz wrote that she and Nate both maxed out the $17,500 federal limit on 401K contributions, explaining that these didn’t factor into their annual percentage of saved income, which was already a whopping 71 percent.”
So, are you going to tell me that Nate and Liz didn’t make a significant multiple of the median American household income in order to be able to buy an almost-half-million dollar house and saving 71%+ of their income (not including 401K contributions) in Cambridge, Mass, one of the most expensive areas to live in the country? That’s not “privilege?” Give me a break!
It seems a lot like the common factor that you *actually* admire in a FI guru (“The aforementioned J from Millennial Boss, Gwen from Fiery Millennials, Miss Mazuma, Tanja from Our Next Life”) is maybe just being a woman rather than a man?
Which is fine! Women *are* underrepresented in the personal finance community, and in the FI community, in particular. But, be above-board about your angle here!
Or, maybe you prefer these female commentators because of their style, how they share their story with more heart and disclosure, in contrast to the uber-nerd obsessiveness of the archetypal FIRE guy? Fine–say that!
But, don’t undermine your own (valid) criticisms with hypocrisy or bias.
Hi Geoff – To be honest, the information about Nate’s salary and that scandal, if that’s the appropriate term, didn’t get released until after I wrote this post, which is a couple months old. So, sure — I wish they’d disclosed numbers and I think it would’ve helped both reduce a lot of the backlash and help people put everything in perspective of how they achieved the goal. I also wish all FIRE bloggers would disclose numbers. I know some do and some don’t for a variety of reasons, especially privacy concerns for those who aren’t anonymous. I’m not sure if you’ve happened to read the book, but Liz does a great job of addressing the concept of privilege and time-and-time again references their privilege, which I interpreted as her way of communicating a high salary. But of course I understand how invoking the term “non-profit” immediately makes people assume the salaries were no where near six-figures. Ultimately, I did love the book and found her writing beautiful. Thanks for your feedback in terms of the folks I admire — I often deliberately mention the women because of underrepresentation. There are plenty of male FIRE bloggers (and general money nerds) I like, read and actual converse with on a regular basis.
Living intentionally on your plan is very important. Being happy on the journey is also important. We are on the slow path to Fat FIRE and enjoy spending more. It doesn’t mean we don’t save a ton. As for retirement, to me that just means I can choose the work I want to do. I will always be doing something, sometimes for money, sometimes for the joy of doing it and helping others.
As Troy says above, I think we have to agree to disagree. FIRE is not suitable for everyone because everyone has a different lifestyle, but I would go out and say that FIRE makes sense in some situations. It totally depends on where your dispositions like, and as far as I;m concerned, living below your means and looking for a better life after retirement is a good way to go.
I watched my dad be forced out of a job/ retired early (before traditional age), by a change of corporate management. Being FI, he took it in stride and didn’t panic, and instead joined committees etc and stays busy. I work in an industry known for mergers & buy-outs, so a similar fate for me is possible, which is why I’m pursuing FI.
I’ve realized we only have so much time / lifetime and I’m not content spending commuting in traffic and freezing my knuckles off at an office. I like what I do, but I’m targeting to shape my career to work less and spend more time with friends and family. For me, for right now the RE indicates something other than a Monday-Friday 9-5. Because life has a way of not turning out as I expected, I’m excited to see what that means in the future.
I completely agree with you. The thing that always gets me about FIRE is that they aren’t retired. For me, the idea of financial independence is where it’s at, where you can choose what you want to do with your time and know your financial situation can support it. I too can’t imagine leaving my teaching job, but am working toward more independence so that I can pursue things I want to pursue, such as more travel.
I really like the privilege part being mentioned, because a significant portion of the FIRE community are of above-average socioeconomic means (myself included).
Having said that, I’m not sure what to do about it. Granted, I’m from a privileged background and have the means to do things people twice my age could only dream of. Yet, apart from acknowledging that privilege and living frugally + modestly, I’m not sure what else should I do about it since nobody “chose” their parents / background.
Thanks for your help.
Honestly, acknowledging it is huge. Some folks don’t even do that or get defensive when the topic is brought up. It’s important to acknowledge advantages we all have (myself included) as well as make sure we understand our live experience doesn’t mean anyone/everyone can do what we did or achieve something in the same way. I would also just always be on the look out in your daily life about ways you can provide help/support to someone who may not have the same privileges you do. Often times it can be as simple as helping amplify someone’s voice.