More and more folks have likely heard of the FIRE movement. Lately it seems to be a popular target for potshots from mainstream media personal finance hacks who want the average person to keep reading their recycled bullshit advice and fueling their viewer/reader numbers without ever being able to graduate to something better. And FIRE advocates have “fired” right back. Sorry, it had to be done. FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. You might be surprised to learn that I am not 100% on board. I had been at one time. But my perspective has evolved a little over the last few years.
I love the FI in FIRE. In the richest society in the history of the world, we can all aspire to be financially independent if it is a high enough priority. Sadly, it will never happen for most people because shiny objects, slick sales pitches, lifestyles they feel obligated to live or provide, neighbors that have to be kept up with, etc, always seem to be more important. But for anyone who ever wishes he could say no at work with zero fear of potential consequences, financial independence would make it possible. For anyone who wants to go on vacation without planning it months in advance or having money be a limiting factor, same thing. I could keep going but I think you get the idea. There is nothing you can buy on this planet that is quite as satisfying as knowing you will never again have to make a decision based on such a crass factor as money. Or put another way, if you can think about money for long enough, you can reach the point where you never need to again. The FIRE movement is mostly about reaching that day as soon as possible so you can enjoy the rest of them more.
I think most people can agree that financial independence is a worthwhile goal. But many seem to object to the RE part. There is even a lot of disagreement about the exact definition of the term. Some FIRE detractors say it’s cheating if you work in any way, shape, or form after retiring early. Others say it’s not worth “living like you’re poor” your whole life just so you can retire at a young age. My take is that the term can be useful to anyone regardless of exactly how you choose to define it. If it makes sense, you can think of it as “retiring” from money being the most important factor in what you do – or a factor at all, for that matter. I would also say that your living standard is your choice and no one else’s. If you are happy and you aren’t hurting anyone, tell them to go pound sand. The FIRE community welcomes people all along the spectrum, from one extremely disciplined, analytical blogger who lives on about $7k a year all the way to another rather neurotic one (I mean that with love, Sam – and yes, it takes one to know one!) who seems to fear that even the $200k+ his investments earn annually, combined with his incredible intellect, might somehow not be quite enough.
Bottom line, FIRE can be whatever you want it to be. Unlike with religion, where it could be considered a little hypocritical to be on the ala carte plan, this is a very open and welcoming school of thought. Take what you like and use it to make your life better; ignore what you don’t. I enjoy hanging out with a local FIRE group and some of them take frugal to a level I would never want to approach. Others seem to live higher on the hog than a man of my humble origins is likely to ever want to – although I reserve the right to change my mind on that point. It doesn’t matter. Everyone brings something to the table and everyone benefits from both building relationships with similar minded people and from being exposed to a wide range of ideas and insights.
What is my personal FIRE struggle? At some point in your life, a guidance counselor probably asked you what you would do if money didn’t matter at all. That’s it for me, right there. Unless I veer pretty far from my current path, I’ll reach financial independence in the next five to ten years but I have absolutely no fucking clue what to do with my life when I get there. My job has its tough moments but it is also incredibly rewarding on many levels. Should I keep doing it and simply start finding ways to spend more money? I suppose a mansion or two, a garage full of high end vehicles, or any number of possible luxuries might grow on me. Or if I didn’t want to spend the unstoppable excess on myself, I could give it to causes I care about. Altruistic or not, that could be a great way to maximize the financial value of my life and put that value into whatever I want to impact most. After all, the argument could be made that if you can make a lot of money and benefit humanity in some way in the process, you should. Or maybe I should tell the boss I’m retiring when I’m roughly twenty years his junior and still younger than the vast majority of people who do my job in any territory, or at any company for that matter. I don’t hate the man by a long shot but something inside me wants to correct him and say “no, I’m not resigning; I’m retiring” and demand a gold watch, or at least a cake. And of course, there are a few choice people within the company who I would absolutely love to see turn some shade of green at my party.
But what would I do then? Sure, this is a good problem to have and I am immensely grateful for it. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it feels like a personal failing that I have a difficult time deciding on a way to spend roughly half of my life without money being a factor. Sure, I could go lay on a beach and drink beer somewhere or I could travel the world and see all kinds of amazing things. But I have a feeling I would get bored pretty quickly. And I’m not alone. Studies regularly show that this can be a problem for lots of people – even at more traditional retirement ages. One’s sense of purpose tends to get a little wrapped up in something if you spend half your waking hours doing it year after year. And I think that’s to be expected. If I had to guess, I’d say that there are probably a lot more mes out there than there are Elon Musks. And a sense of purpose is an enormous part of what makes life worth living, no matter who you are.
So I wrestle with that problem all the time and until I get it figured out, I’d be lying if I said I don’t use it as an excuse to justify the occasional large expense. After all, there’s no sense rushing to get to a destination if you don’t know if you will like what you find when you get there. This was a lot easier when I was in love with someone and genuinely wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, no matter what we were doing. Even if I meet someone who means just as much to me somewhere down the line, I don’t think I can ever put that much stock in another human being again – and that’s a good thing. But it’s only one more thing I’ve realized does not answer what will probably ultimately be the most important question of my existence.
But all that said, my general financial philosophy is currently that as long as I stay on the path to be financially independent by 40 at the latest, I doubt it will lead anywhere bad. I consider staying open minded, especially about trying new things, to be a crucial investment in my future. My advice to anyone else is really about the same. I’ll end this post with an excellent quote from Martin Luther King, Jr: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”