Why do people hate on financial independence and early retirement (aka FIRE)

This post originally appeared as an Instagram story.

Overpriced avocado toast and retiring by age thirty are two incongruous ideas. Yet, both movements have been birthed by wily Millennials, always looking to disrupt things, like retirement. And while the avocados are a tired trope, not a week goes by without seeing an article on Retiring in Your 30s with a Million in the Bank (NYT) describing the FIRE movement. It stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early and the movement’s mission statement (found on the FIRE sub-reddit) rejects outright “the slow or traditional road to retirement.” These Millennials are flipping their employers the bird long before their 65th birthdays.

FIRE stokes a lot of emotions. Critics (including myself) are quick to point out that eating brown bananas, living in a truck (as a Google engineer nonetheless), and even dumpster diving do not lead to a richer life. But there’s something here worth investigating – where there’s smoke, there’s FIRE. After all, who wouldn’t want to retire early?

Might some of the vitriol directed at FIRE be triggered by envy? Or knowing that you lack the agency to get there on your own? After all, any popular cultural movement (Crossfit, Transcendental Meditation, Soulcycle) will have its extreme evangelists who distract from the pure intentions. So instead of FIRE-bashing, let’s look for pearls of wisdom that we can adapt to our individual situations and make improvements where FIRE misfires.

You probably already FIRE anyway

FIRE is basically like eating broccoli – accessible to pretty much anyone, but hard to do consistently. It starts with four basic financial concepts: spend less, save more, invest aggressively, and grow your income. Many FIRE devotees are (male) software engineers making over $150k, providing a strong tailwind for early retirement. And while those earning less have undoubtedly a longer retirement timeline, the FIRE principles still hold because at their core, they represent basic financial hygiene.

So then what’s all the fuss? The brown bananas.

1. Don’t become a Sucker Consumer

The FIRE savings goal is in excess of “50% of income” which can lead a 38 year old lawyer to look for “brown bananas and other soon-to-be discarded items from fruit and vegetable stands to help keep her grocery bills around $75 a month.” This sensationalism will drive clicks, but when you look at the US savings rate – a paltry 2.7% – there’s something to be said about boosting your savings. After all, it’s the one lever that we can all control. And one way do to that is to avoid becoming a Sucker Consumer (a term coined by FIRE’s de facto leader, Mr. Money Mustache).

It’s easy to become a Sucker Consumer in an Amazon world. Buying stuff releases a burst of dopamine; all it takes to do some serious damage is an iPhone with your saved credit card info. The Atlantic’s Alana Semuels argues that the friction of getting in one’s car and strolling the aisles once served as a gut check, but now:

We can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping. We can tell Alexa we need new underwear, and in a few days, it will arrive on our doorstep. And because of globalization, that underwear is cheaper than ever before—so cheap that we add it to our online shopping carts without a second thought.

But 1-Click ordering is the tip of the iceberg. The beauty of FIRE is that it decouples spending from happiness, forcing you to reassess the joy that spending delivers. And we’re not talking $10 iPhone cases and workout clothes – we’re talking cars, homes, engagement rings, vacations, and college degrees.

How we become Sucker Consumers

Our spending stops being intentional for two reasons: lifestyle creep and benchmarking. Most professionals will see their income grow over time. And their quality of life will improve in tandem. Unchecked however, your spending could offset much of the new income, beginning with small things:

It starts with little things: adding premium cable channels, buying the more expensive bottle of wine, making more frequent phone upgrades, giving nicer gifts for birthdays, adding impulse items to your cart on Amazon, buying tickets for better seats at an event, staying in nicer hotels, paying for slightly nicer airline seating.

Benchmarking (i.e. Keeping up with the Jones) can be even more pernicious, particularly as income increases. It can show up when all your neighbors drive luxury SUVs and you don’t (yet). Or the shame of renting when all your friends own their homes. Or insisting that your kids go to the fanciest private school because it’s the norm in your industry.

Determine your Money Values

When I abruptly left my high-paying finance job a common refrain amongst my peers was, “Well his wife let him do it.” Putting aside the the blatant patronizing sexism, what I heard was “Khe and Lisa are aligned on their money values.” And while it’s taken a lot of work (and many fights over Economy Plus), as a family unit, we know why we make money and where we spend it. Our family values freedom and mobility (at the expense of home ownership), frequent and comfortable travel (over more traditional luxuries like watches, jewelry, handbags, and cars), time with our kids (versus leaving them tons of money when we’re gone).

Being clear on your Money Values enables you to be dynamic and open-minded about how spending will get you to your ultimate goals. Take our own kids’ education: we moved to a neighborhood with great public schools to escape the private school dilemma that plagues many New Yorkers; we want to take the kids on a gap year when they’re in middle school; and while they both have 529 plans, we’re cognizant that the anticipated $500k per child expense (for the class of 2034) might not be worth it.

2. Apply a DIY mindset to earning more

There are two ways to save more: spend less and earn more. The brown bananas are a straw man – even if you eat two a day, you’re talking $180 a year. It’s nothing to scoff at, but you’re seriously missing the forest from trees if this is your pathway to retirement. Everyone can pull on the spending less lever, but it can only take you so far. Eventually you’re squeezing water out of a stone.

However, income is a different story – theoretically it’s got infinite potential or as the finance geeks would say: an asymmetric payout profile. RadReader and NY Times best selling author Ramit Sethi calls this the Big Wins strategy:

The fastest way to stop caring about the cost of lattes, designer clothes, etc. is to nail your big wins: Automation, investing, picking the right accounts, negotiation, earning more, planning ahead.

Here’s where FIRE really starts to kick in. The community is remarkable in its DIY resourcefulness, urging you to tap into the tech stack to create digital sources of revenue (via blogging, online courses, eBooks, affiliate marketing). I personally believe that these skills are the bedrock of an unbundled career. But they are far from the silver bullet towards early retirement. I can tell you from experience that creating digital only passive income is extremely challenging (and much of my income still comes from consulting and coaching, i.e. trading time for money).

Becoming digitally savvy is one type of Big Win. FIRE’s income principle says that you should work “to increase your income and income streams with projects, side-gigs, and additional effort” and I think it requires additional clarification. The blogosphere (myself included) over-fetishizes side projects while overlooking straightforward ways to grow your income while staying in your current job. For mid-careerists, complacency can act as a drag on income and there are unsexy ways to get the Big Win such as:

  • Understanding the history of your industry or role. How did we get to where we are today? Were there any watershed moments? What crises or big mistakes can we learn from?
  • Getting technical. Read white papers, original texts, and materials that are “off the beaten path.” Develop a set of first principles about your industry.
  • Learning how to be a dope manager. There is no greater leverage that investing in your team (and IMHO it’s one of the most personally rewarding components of work.)
  • Becoming the gatekeeper of truly unique information. This requires building genuine, mutually-beneficial and non-transactional relationships underpinned by trust, collaboration, and kindness.

Whether it’s via side projects or new skills, if you’re playing the long game increasing your income packs a bigger punch than cutting your spending.

3. Don’t succumb to scarcity

I like to think that I was early to the FIRE movement, 1996 to be specific. As an entrepreneurial (read: nerdy AF) 17 year old, I sold $7,000 worth of Magic the Gathering cards and bought S&P 500 shares (which I still own today). I dutifully abided by FIRE’s investing principle: Make your money work for you.

And in 2002 as a swashbuckling young banker I strived to hit the aggressive savings goal with a bar trick. Not the kind of trick that I’m proud of. Let me explain.

As newly minted investment bankers, we would mask the misery of our new jobs by partying. And this involved a lot of shots. On a typical night out, one person would lead the charge and buy the first round. Then there was the second. And third. I would strategically position my turn to be the last person to buy them and often times we got too drunk well long before my turn. But that’s not being strategic. It’s being cheap. And a bad friend, and 20 years later I haven’t shaken the nickname “Cheap-Hy.”

And here’s where FIRE rubs me the wrong way. The obsession with saving can perpetuate scarcity thinking. The tendency to hoard and delay gratification far into the future can rob you of today’s joy. But is that really what FIRE is saying?

One of my favorite definitions of scarcity thinking comes from Lynne Twist’s book The Soul of Money. On Oprah’s Supersoul podcast Twist described scarcity:

It’s like a lens that has everything look like it’s never enough. There’s not enough time. Enough money. Enough love. Enough vacation. Enough sex.

We start our days with: There’s not enough sleep. Then right away, There’s not enough time.

Which turns a “deficit relationship with ourselves:” I’m not enough.

This gives people permission to accumulate way more than they need out of the fear that they’re not going to have enough. As a result, we’re chasing what we don’t have while not appreciating what we have.

Wow. That last sentence. This gives people permission to accumulate way more than they need out of the fear that they’re not going to have enough. By now, you know that FIRE is actually the exact opposite!!!!

Disney versus 529 plans

But what about the delayed gratification question? The classic dilemma of plunking down a couple thousand bucks for memory making with Mickey versus compounding it (tax free) in a 529 plan. Would FIRE tell you to forgo memory making in service of locking down your kids’ education? It’s not clear.

FIRE would tell you to revaluate this purchase via your Money Values. What other ways could you create memories with your kids? Are you being intellectually lazy and defaulting to Sucker Consumer mode? Do you really know what brings your kids joy? The answer could very well be Disney. But it could also be a camping trip. Or just taking a day off of work and giving your child your unfettered attention. Ultimately, only you know the “right” answer.

Don’t FIRE at the expense of your relationships

Don’t be 21 year old Khe at the bar. Step up and be the person that buys the round of shots. If FIRE is forcing you to act in a selfish and self-isolating way, you’re doing it wrong. And while it may not be obvious in your twenties, the people who live the richest lives are the ones who tend the most to their relationships. In fact, one of the top five regrets of the dying is “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Australian nurse Bronnie Ware who worked with patients in palliative care adds:

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

An untethered approach to FIRE can lead to self-isolated life. In fact, leaving the workforce can strip you of your primary source of human interaction. Yes, you may ditch that awful boss – but it may be difficult to replicate the collaboration and intellectual stimulation of likeminded peers. Emma Pattee, who FIRE’d at age 28 realized that “it was hard to go from working every day in an office full of people to sitting in a tiny apartment by myself. It is very isolating.”

4. Is not working really the goal?

Ultimately Pattee (who has $150k in savings and $900k in real estate) began taking on more freelance work as a copywriter, realizing that she “got a lot more meaning from my work than I had realized” and that “it is a lot harder to find meaning than to save 70% of your income.”

There is a human desire to do meaningful work and to use our God-given skills each and everyday. But what does that actually mean? Here’s a little quiz I ask my coaching clients: If you won the lottery today, how would you spend the next five years of your life?

There are obvious answers: pay down debt, travel, upgrade your home and wardrobe, eat at nice restaurants, donate more money. The time freed up by not having to work would let you spend more time with family, start up some hobbies, recover on sleep, get in better shape, and read more. But once you did all those things, how would you fill the next 8 hours of your day?

If you struggle to answer this question, FIRE will not provide the answer. And you might reach the end of the FIRE rainbow left wondering, now what? However, FIRE will undoubtedly give you more space to answer that question. And it will give you set of principles to start answering the question thoughtfully. We’ve come full circle here, the first FIRE principle is: Discovering and achieving life goals [while identifying] would I do with my life if I didn’t have to work for money?

Ultimately it’s about decoupling money from happiness and Mr. Money Mustache ties it neatly together on the Mad FIentist podcast:

“By understanding what happiness means and helping to decouple the idea of happiness from owning certain things, you can really amaze yourself at how fun your life can be—because that’s the whole secret to living a rich life; it’s not feeling like you need more than you already have. … [R]etirement and early retirement and financial independence, it’s really a quest for happiness. So study that independently of the money, and then that makes the money part easier.”

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