I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Financial Independence/Retiring Early (FIRE) movement, and some of the problems I see in the messaging around it.
Todd and I are working toward FI and would like to retire early as well to pursue other endeavors and to free up our time for more travel and eventually, more volunteerism. One of our reasons for tiny living, as I have mentioned here before, is to lessen the cost burden of our living expenses. On average Americans spend 40 percent of their budgets on housing and we wondered what we could do if we drastically reduced that or even eliminated a mortgage — could we accelerate our retirement? That’s a goal. In our lives, we’re also trying to actively fight the rampant consumerism that we both feel is shredding society, our values, and our happiness on a national scale. I think the goals of FIRE are wonderful — don’t be a slave to consumerism, buy less, save more, reduce your debt, invest any savings you have, and ensure you don’t have to work until you die. One of the best reads, IMO, on the topic is The Simple Path to Wealth.
Here’s the thing. The path may be simple but it’s not necessarily easy. (I mean no disrespect to JL Collins who I think is an incredible writer and has helped tons of people along the way change their habits and become adept investors; in fact I recommend his book to anyone reading this post, and I share it all the time with people who ask me about financial independence.) However, not everyone is going to be able to easily save 25 times their annual spend and call it a day. The four percent rule is great, but getting there is not as straightforward a path for all.
Lately I have started noticing some of the more well-known and popular FIRE bloggers coming off more condescending, almost haughty (again, not Collins; he’s great). Some of them even sound more and more like they’re bragging about how much money they have and how little they need to work – this really rubs me the wrong way, and I’ve been reading on this topic for a long time. I am wondering how turned off someone new to the idea of FIRE would be reading these blogs.
For many people, achieving wealth isn’t ever going to be easy, and assuming that it would be is tone deaf and shows a stunning lack of awareness about the world around you.
First of all, not everyone is able to make the money that many in the FIRE movement make. Many are simply higher earners, and I believe most went to college – a privilege not afforded to all. Even when we talk about investing in Vanguard’s low cost index funds – keep in mind, you need a minimum of $3,000 just to get started. Many Americans don’t have a savings. So, to start investing is going to take some serious work especially for those trying to escape debt.
I wasn’t even thinking of him when I wrote this blog post – but then I saw this. Thanks for proving my point, Dave.
There are systems in place and institutional barriers that prohibit much of what makes wealth possible – we have inequities in education, huge income inequality, racial barriers to housing and banking, just to name some of the obstacles to achieving financial independence. Not to mention the sheer number of people living in poverty (Forty million people in this country alone live below the poverty line) . For some people a medical or health emergency can wipe out their life savings and burden them with huge amounts of debt. We hear the stories all the time of people launching GoFundMe pages to be able to afford their medical costs.
These are HUGE issues, and I don’t expect all FIRE bloggers to take them all on. But perhaps a modicum of modesty, self-awareness, and gratefulness that we even have the ability to work towards these goals would go a long way.
To even explore the idea of FIRE means we have privilege. For me, in addition to a long list of ways I know I am incredibly fortunate, I also have the privilege of free time to research FIRE in the first place, and the ease of access to the information that has helped me become more financially secure. Not everyone has these things. It’s ok – in fact, it’s the right thing to do – to acknowledge that where you are in life may not be simply because of your own hard work.
That’s why it was refreshing for me recently to read Elizabeth Willard Thames’ Meet The Frugalwoods; she does not hide from her privilege or shame those who don’t attain financial independence. She fully acknowledges, like I do, she started out ahead. I also heard an episode of The Fairer Cents podcast which also took on some of the inequities that I’ve been thinking about; the hosts focus on women and money specifically. I recommend both of these for different (female) voices in the FIRE movement.
I guess what I am trying to get off my chest is that if you can achieve FIRE, bravo. But acknowledge your good fortune and privilege with some awareness that it’s not as achievable for everyone (heck, you can even acknowledge your own hard work!). Just don’t shame others who either can’t or don’t achieve the same. Be encouraging. Be humble. Just don’t keep telling everyone it’s easy. Everyone’s path will be different. There is no one spot from which everyone starts. Some start ahead, and some start from behind.
I am curious if anyone else out there feels similarly, or disagrees with me. I love to hear differing perspectives. Feel free to share your thoughts.
Thanks for reading,