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Debating FIRE: breathing FIRE (Round 4)

Debating FIRE: breathing FIRE (Round 4) post image

In a tempestuous round 3, The Investor basically1 told The Accumulator he’s wasted his life then invites him to trade blows rather than shares. Will The Accumulator take this personal stuff personally? Will he explode in the face of The Investor’s ceaseless attacks on his FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) beliefs? 

The Accumulator: TI, you can make it as personal as you like, me old jackfruit. Or, we can talk about Brexit if that’d be more fun?

One of the straw men you’ve sent to fight me is that FIRE advocates advise sticking with a miserable job for a couple of decades.

This ain’t so. If you can find a better situation then FIRE-ees won’t burn you at the stake for dropping your savings rate.

FIRE is a movement for people whose nagging doubts about the hedonic treadmill have become a clanging alarm bell. Maybe they find themselves among the majority of the population who rate every job somewhere on a scale between ‘hate’ and ‘meh’. Maybe they once liked their job but the shine wore off. Maybe they like their job but don’t think the money-time trade-off is worth it forever. Maybe they regularly change their job to keep things fresh but still maintain FI** as a long-term goal. All these things are possible!

The community offers an alternative to the conventional consumer narrative of work for 40 to 50 years, buy as big a house as you can ill-afford, stuff it full of crap, get promoted to your level of incompetence, and beat those pesky Jones’s at all costs. Should this narrative ring hollow for you, the FIRE community is full of bright ideas on how to redesign your lifestyle – as much or as little as you want. From extreme to work optional.

I agree that ‘rapidFIRE’ is hard. Even opening your mind to the possibility seems hard, if the vitriolic comments underscoring every mainstream article about FIRE are any guide.

But that doesn’t mean the minority isn’t on to something.

Just walking the path for a while can have massive benefits even if you don’t make it all the way, as TDM mentioned. Let’s say that you’ve convinced me. Tomorrow I wake up and realise I’ve been pursuing a fairy story. What have I gained for my trouble?

  • No debt.
  • FU money to fund retraining or a bout of unemployment.
  • Less stress at work because I have more options.
  • Dotage sorted.
  • Mrs Accumulator is financially secure should my clogs pop tomorrow.
  • A healthier relationship with consumerism and careerism.

I’m happy with that even if I retire from work only to return 12-months later because I need more structure or money in my life than I thought.

Let’s talk about that. I don’t think I need to work in the conventional sense to maintain my sense of worth, purpose, need for challenge, or sense of engagement with the world. I won’t truly know until I get there and I accept I could be wrong. I’ve seen the same people crash out of FIRE that you have but I’m also aware that plenty of FIRE-ees report that they are loving life.

I agree that those who’ve publicly talked about their struggles have done us a massive favour. Now that I’m close to the line, about 90% of my FIRE bandwidth is spent thinking about what my RE life will look like, and about 10% to the FI side.

FIRE drill

I’ve tried to learn the lessons of others, and I’ve picked up on a few things:

Don’t change too much at once! Don’t go from doing 80 hours a week to zero, then move away from family and friends within months. Take it slowly. (For me, I think it’d be sensible to shift to part-time employment before leaving the workforce altogether).

Don’t trust the initial euphoria. Most FIRE-ees report feeling amazing for a few months, then they adapt… and demons return. (I’ve been putting time into identifying my demons and how I can control them.)

Don’t freak out if you feel sad, listless, adrift. You’re going through a massive emotional upheaval. This too will pass.

Retire to something. Don’t retire and then try to work out how to fill the hours. Have outside interests, passion projects, and hobbies already on the go, then expand on them when you have more time.

Think hard about how much of your identity is bound up with work, striving and earning money. SexHealthMoneyDeath comes to mind here. SHMD readily admitted that he struggled to value himself when he was no longer a breadwinner. (TI and TDM you obviously recognise this pitfall already. I think I’ll be okay with it but I’m not certain.)

Read books by those who’ve been there and done it. Retirees (both early and conventional) have written about the joys and hazards in store. I take heart that none of them wish they’d spent more time in the office. I guess the ones who do are too busy to write books?

Sidenote 1: @TI:

“I’m not sure how personal to make this; I don’t want to get noses out of joint, but you’re now explicitly saying you’re okay with your job. But many times you’ve said, on this site, that getting out of that job is a goal because you don’t like it.”

Maybe you can point me to the pieces you have in mind? It’d be interesting to see if my thinking has evolved more than I realise. There have always been aspects of my job I’ve liked and disliked. FIRE is my goal because I want time back to do more with my life. I’m no poster boy for early retirement. At best, I’ll be 49 by the time I pull the trigger. That said, three things in my work life have much improved since I began my FIRE journey:

  • My work environment is a lot better than it was, say 10 years ago. Personnel changes have helped but also personal changes – I’m more experienced and resilient than I was.
  • Greater financial security has given me more confidence and peace of mind.
  • I’ve improved my mindset. I’ve come to own problems I once blamed on my job. I’ve come to accept problems that are beyond my control to change. This is a domain that overlaps with the FIRE community if you dig deep enough.

Sidenote 2: @TI:

“I know you’re very thoughtful about all this. But if I may, five years ago you borderline dismissed such talk.”

Do you mean I rejected the notion of a retirement that included paid work? I don’t remember this but it’s possible. I think you were always clear that you didn’t want to stop work. I’ve always wanted the option to never have to work again.

As a society, I think we’d be happier if we were less materialistic and obsessed with financial status. I’ve got nothing against any individual who wants to work until they drop, and if I can envisage myself working in some capacity for longer than I once thought, then you can chalk that up to your nefarious influence.

Sidenote 3: @TI:

“You then say putting up with it for “a decade”. I think that’s generously short. If we assume someone earning £40,000 a year gross, saving £15,000 a year – already big numbers for most – then it’s going to take them over 20 years by my reckoning.”

I’m on course for 13 to 14 years, if you include the period when I hadn’t even heard of FIRE and just wanted to pay off the mortgage. I earn more than you quote above but still mid-five figures. Mrs Accumulator is on substantially less. Soooo, nothing like the DINK six-figure sums brought in by some of the US bloggers who checked out in under 10 years. Some Early Retirement Extreme types can make it in five years or so, earning modest five-figure salaries, admittedly with considerable sacrifice.

FIRE is not a prescription. It’s a broad church. I can admire and learn from people into geo-arbitrage or living on boats. Their lifestyle isn’t for me but it could be a lightbulb moment for someone else. The ideas are the important thing. And for sure, you could be at it for 20 years or more, but that’s still better than the conventional 40 to 50 years, if you never do find your dream job.

New thread – the influence of partners

TDM, your dearly departed old blog featured regular posts from your partner. I got the impression that your wife wholeheartedly supported your FIRE experiment but wasn’t sure whether it held any answers for her. Is your partner still pursuing FIRE? Did her uncertainty contribute to your decision to abandon FIRE?

The Details Man: My wife has strengthened her quest for FIRE over time. It wasn’t a thing for her when we first met. Although she knew it was for me. I’d say right now, she definitely wants to reach FI and is aiming for early retirement. The difficulty she has is working out what comes after.

I think there were two eye-openers for my wife. First, her colleagues earning hundreds of thousands a year but still living month-to-month in their late-30s and 40s. Second, the power of investing to compound your money. Together, those things show that it’s foolish to whittle away all your money in your 20s. Even saving and investing small amounts will start the metaphorical snowball.

Moving on, as you mentioned earlier TA, a great deal of our identity is wrapped up in the work we do. Especially those with professions like my wife and I. Jim of SexHealthMoneyDeath is another classic example.

Even at my (relatively) tender age, I’ve spent almost all of my adult life working towards and being a chartered accountant. When I retire, I’d be a retired chartered accountant. Much the same, I suppose as if you were a doctor, solicitor, electrician, and so on.

My wife’s uncertainty about what comes next didn’t affect my decision at all. Perhaps the opposite. My wife talked me into pulling the trigger – which I wouldn’t have done otherwise. However, going back into part-time work definitely came from me and my internal desire to get back to doing something I enjoy, though over a more reasonable proportion of my life. Finding that balance is challenging. I feel that I’m getting there. I’m thankful that money is simply part of the equation I don’t need to worry about.

The Accumulator: Heh, if there’s one conclusion we can draw from this debate, it’s that the difficulty lies in working out what comes after. TDM, it’s good to hear that your wife has been inspired by the possibilities of FI** and is carving out her own path. I really enjoyed her posts. 

Mrs Accumulator is the classic vocational professional… she got into it to help others and is inspirational in that respect. But her profession has been systematically hollowed out by cuts, targets, reviews, performance management, and the rest. The workforce is demoralised and prevented from focussing on what matters by counterproductive and politicised decision-making. So yeah, she’s pro FI**. And more frugal than I am. It’s hard to imagine making it work if we weren’t on the journey together. 

Even at my (relatively) tender age, I’ve spent almost all of my adult life working towards and being a chartered accountant. When I retire, I’d be a retired chartered accountant.

This is fascinating, TDM, I would never think of myself as a ‘retired [whatever the hell I am]’. I’ve spent most of my career resisting self-identification with my work. Inwardly I raise my eyes to the heavens whenever somebody asks me the: “What do you do?” question. Especially when it’s within the first 60 seconds of meeting somebody, as happened just the other day.

On the surface that question should open up the field of conversation, but usually it’s designed to narrow it down. I get it, I understand that’s the world we live in, but I chafe against it. It’s another reflection of our obsession with labels… speaking of which, oh god, he’s back…

Will The Investor be pacified by this late outbreak of moderation and affectionate talk of partners from The Details Man and The Accumulator? Is his strange, uncomprehending look the face of a combat vet struggling to realise the war is over, or the mask of an implacable warrior who must crush all opposition? All will be revealed in Round 5 – the final conflagration! Comments are turned off until the final post. 

  1. Reading between the lines. []