A woman in the audience at Grace Hopper a few weeks ago asked me and my fellow panelists what we thought about FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). A sea of murmurs and nodding heads showed this was a really popular question.
And it’s true, FIRE seems to have hit the zeitgeist recently, though the idea has been around and popular in certain, rabid circles for decades now. The Canonical Early Retirement personality, Mr. Money Mustache, was himself from the tech industry…during his extremely brief career.
The FIRE discussion is extremely relevant to you if you work in tech because, generally, you make more money than you “need.”
So, you have the opportunity and luck to save a buttload of money, the cornerstone of FIRE. It’s worth thinking through the philosophy, even if you end up not embracing it, or not embracing it in its entirety. (And yes, I realize I’m generalizing. It’s entirely possible to work in tech and not make bucket loads of money. That’s an entirely separate issue.)
As my wiiiiise sister-in-law once inadvertently taught me: there’s something of value in every discussion. Even if you disagree with some or most of it, take away the part that you do agree with, that does resonate with you.
And this is exactly how I think about the FIRE movement: There is plenty to dislike about it. But there are some really powerful tenets that could benefit you, your family, your community, and the earth tremendously. Try to focus on those potential benefits, even when the popular personalities are off-putting.
The Roots of FIRE
The original Financial Independence tract, Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robinson, first came out decades ago. I read it, oh, 6 years ago now, and it really does shift how you think about money.
I went through a bunch of the book’s recommended exercises with a girlfriend. My favorite was the one where you’re supposed to calculate the true economic benefit of your job. You get paid a wage, yes. But there are all sorts of costs—both time and money—to having that job: commute, clothing, getting ready in the morning, meals out, etc.
I remember vividly my university-professor friend figuring out that she made barely over $4/hour all things considered. That puts a $4 latte, or a $50 shirt, or a $2000 vacation in a way different light.
You Might Find It Hard to Appreciate FIRE Because…
I have struggled to hold to my sister-in-law’s dictum when it comes to FIRE, despite really believing in some of its core tenets, because of the culture that grew up around the concept. Like the following…
The Holier-Than-Thou Attitude
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more self-congratulatory bunch of asshats as I see in the FIRE community. At least, the part of the FIRE community that is all over social media. For all I know, the vast majority of FIRE adherents are humble and compassionate. I just don’t see those people.
FIRE <> FIRE Blogger
As I said above, there might be plenty of people living the FIRE lifestyle, and you just don’t know about it. The only people I see, at least, are the FIRE bloggers. The ones making money and fame off of touting their own success, their own crazy stories of crazy frugalness or life-hacking. These are the ones who do not, as it turns out, actually live on only that nice nest egg they “retired on.” Instead they tend to live on the Very Nice passive income they get through their blog (affiliate links and advertisers) and books.
Earlier this year there was an awesome piece by a FIRE blogger herself (yes, you read right: herself) entitled “What FIRE Bloggers Owe Readers.” In it she rails against the fact that many FIRE bloggers espouse the “You don’t need a big income at all because your spending is so low! That makes achieving FIRE easy!” … while at the same time living quite luxuriously off their FIRE-blogging income. So while their theory might be right, they sure as heck aren’t evidence of it.
As my husband so wonderfully put it, the FIRE blogger community, by and large, has “taken a good idea and weaponized it for their own benefit.”
It’s Not Just Hard Work and Discipline. It’s Luck, Too.
Many of the well-known FIRE advocates do not adequately acknowledge the advantages or privileges they had, which enabled them to reach FIRE earlier, or at all.
If you have a lot of student debt, or had kids early, or have extended family that depends on you for financial support, or were struck by a major medical problem early in your life, you’re not reaching FIRE any time soon. And it has nothing to do with your lack of knowledge or discipline. It simply is a reflection that life is complicated for a lot of us and sometimes bad sh*t happens.
It Shouldn’t Be All or Nothing
I dislike the “all or nothing” approach to FIRE. I think it’s damaging. There is So Much Merit to having “more” money; you don’t have to have “all the money” to benefit.
With more money, you have the ability to change your life: change jobs, go back to school, stay home with kids, etc. And that is a major motivator for my work with women: Money gives you choice, and I can’t think of much that is more important for a woman than choice.
But if success means only “enough money to never have to work again!” then that goal is simply too daunting and unrealistic for many of us. Which leads us, because we have these frustratingly irrational brains, to not even try to get “more.”
All of these things are irritating, sure, but I think the bigger problem is that they can discourage people who could benefit from many of FIRE’s tenets. If you can’t see yourself in the FIRE movement, it’s going to be a lot harder to try to embrace it yourself. There’s a reason why most of the talking heads are white men who work(ed) in the tech industry…and that continues to be the dominant demographic.
How You Can Benefit from FIRE
Despite all the things that drive me nuts about the FIRE movement, I still believe there are many things to like about it.
The merits of FIRE can be summed up in one tenet: Spend thoughtfully, and spend less.
This has many awesome effects.
You cultivate a less-expensive lifestyle.
And by doing so, you’re able to save more money, which means you build your savings faster. Because you need less to live on, and you’re able to save faster…combine those two and you reach “Financial Independence” even sooner. A well-known and respected member of the Financial Planning community, Michael Kitces, wrote an entire, long, extremely detailed blog post about this very dynamic.
There’s less clutter and distraction in your life.
You’re more able to focus on the few things that really matter to you.
It’s better for the environment.
It’s not just about spending less; it’s about consuming less. There are plenty of ways to spend less money that are horrendous for the earth. I particularly like Mr. Money Mustache’s emphasis on decreasing our car consumption (both in terms of miles driven and the size of the car); that’s in part because I’m rabidly anti-car-driving.
It’s better for your physical health.
One way to spend less money is to eliminate some conveniences, like eating out or driving a car or buying a Roomba. Turns out those conveniences aren’t exactly great for your health. So, you can make choices that benefit yourself both financially and health-wise.
It emphasizes creation instead of consumption.
This is a concept I’ve been mulling over mostly since I went to Disneyland in 2017. Yes, yes, call me a grouch because I know many people love it, and Disneyland is certainly impressive as all get out, but it’s all about consuming someone else’s creativity. It is so much more gratifying to create something yourself.
This all jibes well with something I talk and think about all the time:
Make financial decisions, especially spending decisions, with intention.
Make them in a way that aligns with your core values, the kind of life you truly want, the values you want to promote and embody. Know the impact of your current financial choices on your life now and in the future.
Every choice is a trade-off of some sort. Is the trade-off worth it?
So, I encourage you to at least take a look at some FIRE bloggers. Maybe they turn you off quickly; that’s understandable. But maybe you can get a little inspiration to spend thoughtfully and spend less and hey, be kinder to the planet and make yourself happier and healthier as you do it. Some of my favorites:
Mr. Money Mustache: He only writes sporadically now, but his archives contain a lot of timeless material.
Our Next Life: Written by an actual woman!
Frugalwoods: Written by another actual woman!
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.