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Debating FIRE: the final conflagration (Round 5)

Debating FIRE: the final conflagration (Round 5) post image

Round 4 saw The Accumulator and The Details Man exchange gestures of peace and understanding. But now The Investor looms in the doorframe. His eyes are glazed, perhaps he’s been drinking heavily? The Accumulator’s eyes narrow like his options. There’s no other way out. He spits on his palms and drops to a crouching position. There’s only one way to finish this: with a quickfire response round – TO THE DEATH!

The Investor: You articulate the reasons for financial independence very well. However, I feel like I’m one of those explorers in the desert who keeps walking past the same sand dune. Haven’t I seen this wadi before?

There’s almost no point making the case for financial independence because we both agree!

We have a disagreement about the mentality of the movement, which I believe tends to say “suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon” far more than it says “you’re right, 20 years of your life is far too long to stay somewhere mediocre when you only have maybe 40 healthy years left – get a new job first, your house is burning down!” which would be my response to someone who hates work but is getting through the day with dreams of early retirement.

The Accumulator: Come in from the desert, my weary friend. We agree that no-one should stick out a hateful job for 20 years. I’d note that job satisfaction surveys show that millions of people do not enjoy their jobs despite ‘get a new job’ being a well known option.

My conclusion: people don’t get stuck because they’ve read a few FIRE articles. I trust that people will get a new job if they can, but the FIRE movement can open people’s eyes to more unconventional possibilities and sources of strength.

The Investor: We also seem to disagree about timescales for the average person, but I’ve already given you my maths on that. The readers can decide!

Also, you have alluded to my rhetorical tricks but I feel you have something of the wily barrister about you, too TA… Money is a fallacious consumer narrative that is bought into, while a frugal FIRE-life is a life focused on friends, family, and experiences.

But as you know, money can help you make more of that, too. To return to my example of someone working an extra day or two a week post-FIRE for an extra £10,000 spending money above their reasonable FI requirements, that ‘fun’ money could be used to:

  • Go on two to five swanky holidays abroad with a partner.
  • Take your nieces out to dinner twice a week every week.
  • Do two to ten adult education courses every year.
  • Indulge a five-year project to buy, restore, and then use a six-person narrowboat for weekend adventures.
  • To travel to see old friends and to take them out to dinner every month or two.
  • Mix and match a myriad other options and combinations!

Money isn’t just for misers, in other words. Sure work is a sacrifice of time but by keeping your hand in indefinitely, you do get something back for your pains. (I’d agree that if it just goes on a bigger mortgage or a new car, then you’ve probably snatched defeat from the smiling face of freedom!)

I’ll conclude though by focusing on something I stated at the start that has been glossed over afterwards: paid work isn’t just about money or filling your hours. Paid work isn’t just about being massively happy at work, or middlingly happy, or miserable.

No, paid work is what makes our world go-around today. Anyone saying breezily that they are going to walk away from that at, say age 45, for various substitutes, probably hasn’t thought it through enough. Why should this be such a shock to us?

There’s plenty of evidence that being unemployed is bad for mental health and well-being, for instance, and also lots of studies that show that feeling important and useful in a community is healthy. So how best to keep enjoying those side-benefits of earning money in our society as constituted?

Not to denigrate people volunteering at the local half-hearted charity, but few of us in our early 20s would think most such operations were more than half-arsing it, frankly. Is the sort of focused / high achiever who is actually capable of hitting FIRE fairly young really going to be satisfied bickering about the posters for the village hall? Colour me deeply sceptical!

Someone will say they will do it at a higher level than that. Fine, but look through the Guardian adverts. Those higher-level jobs are hotly contested and come with decent salaries. Indeed, if this is your aim I say apply for them post-FIRE…!

The Accumulator: Two cunning sleights of hand got smuggled in there.

  1. If you’re not doing paid work, you’re effectively unemployed.
  2. Paid work equals feeling important and useful in a community.

Neither of which are true and overlook the billions of pounds generated in the economy by people who give their labour to worthwhile and personal causes for free, and which contribute to their wellbeing, sense of purpose and standing in their community.

You have a different relationship to money than me. I’d guess it’s more important to you as a measure of self-worth. This might help explain why earlier you seemed to buy into visions of a purposeful FI life disassociated from financial reward, only to fall back on these claims that paid work is vital for mental health, before moving on to slag off the charitable sector, and skipping the fact that there’s plenty of half-arsery in the private sector. I’m also pretty sure that with enough effort we could find voluntary work that meets your need for ‘action’.

It could also be that you compare yourself to a different peer group than me, or are influenced by the gold-paved standards of your fancy London life – stop hanging out in those Mayfair Clubs!

From my perspective, “thinking it through” doesn’t mean concluding that only paid work will cut it in the 21st Century. It means bending the bars of the mental prison that instructs me to value life in pounds and pence. Neither money nor time are enough. It’s what you do with both that counts. Your £10K extra revenue stream sounds great for so long as the time spent earning it is traded for a reward you truly value.

Productivity is obviously a non-negotiable human need. FIRE blogs are full of that. I think of productivity as making progress in every important aspect of life:

  • Physical
  • Communal
  • Familial
  • Spiritual
  • Financial
  • Intellectual

I’ve thought more than once during this debate of Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working a 15-hour week by now.

Why aren’t we? Some people don’t want to stop working – fine. Some people just can’t get enough of the goods and services conjured by today’s economy – fine. Some people are driven to compete – status, position, housing, schools – fine. Some people have no alternative, don’t realise there is one, or can’t imagine it – not fine.

If the competing and materialism is wearing thin for you then the FIRE movement offers an alternative approach that might just change your life.

Going to the dogmas

The Investor: Imagine if FIRE dogma had it that you had to abandon relationships with a significant other, or you could never have children, or you could only see your friends at weekends. Most people would understand that these were all alienating behaviours and at least think harder about whether that trade-off was worth it.

Well, I am saying the RE bit of FIRE is similar. And I stress AGAIN, because we seem to keep debating it, not the FI part! No, the RE part. That’s the bit I want to throw down a well.

I agree 100% that someone can become FI, then float in and out of work and do myriad other things along the way. And I certainly agree that a radical career change towards something more enjoyable, even if it means a big salary cut and a big reduction in hours can get you most if not all of the benefits of working.

The easiest way to get what I’m suggesting is simply to achieve FI then cut down your hours dramatically and work a couple of days a week.

My experience is that people can definitely do this. I see it all the time. You probably have to put yourself in the right position before pulling the rip-cord, sure, but that’s why I am saying think about it now.

The Accumulator: There is no dogma! The community is highly diversified despite mainstream efforts to portray it as otherwise. It’s a small, loosely-affiliated band challenging convention – it’s not a cult of brainwashers.

On the thinking front, I came across three excellent questions that can help you evaluate how you want to spend your time:

  • How would you live if you were financially secure?
  • How would you live if you had five to ten years left to live? What would you change?
  • What would you wish you’d done if you only had one day left to live?

The Investor: I’m happy with radical changes of direction. To give one example, with my aquarium hobby since childhood, I can well imagine going from being a pretty busy higher-rate tax paying type to doing three days a week on £10 an hour.

This would make very little financial sense given I’d be financially independent – I’d earn much more in a morning doing what I’m doing now as a contractor – but it would bring me a community, a role, regular contact with customers with a passion I share, further interesting avenues to explore (writing a book about aquariums? Hunting for fish in the Amazon?).

Most people can think of examples that work for them.

Bottom line, I am arguing against the RE part of the FIRE hegemony on the grounds of (a) the evidence from other bloggers and from people who financially ‘make it’ in real life, who very often – if not quite always – continue to work (b) a clear-eyed look at how the world is constituted (c) the science, that suggests being engaged is important to mental well-being and so on (d) the benefits of playing with a spreadsheet while assuming you’re going to do some work indefinitely, which can bring you most of the benefits of the FI part of the equation (security, the ability to ‘walk’, flexibility) far sooner than pinning your hopes on the distant and potentially nebulous benefits of full-time never-working.

People are going to say “but what is to stop me doing some work in retirement, like Mr Money Mustache?”

Well, I’ve already had the retirement police label slapped on me once in this debate! So fine, let’s embrace it. If early retirement actually means “probably continuing to work in some form” (as opposed to volunteering at the local X or Y once a fortnight) then by all means keep saying you’re aiming for early retirement, and then do your work in retirement.

To me all you’ve done is condone a useless label, taking a perfectly good word – retirement, meaning the end of work – out of circulation for no reason except to support a snappy acronym. But all cults have their catechisms I suppose.

The Accumulator: Excuse me while I pop on my crash helmet and beat my head against the wall. It’s like listening to Boris Johnson argue his opponents are raving Marxists because they’re in favour of protecting worker’s rights.

As you’ve invoked top communicator and cross-cultural phenomenon Mr Money Mustache (MMM), let’s hear what he has to say on the topic:

“Everybody uses the FIRE acronym because it is catchy and ‘Early Retirement’ sounds desirable. But for most people who get there, Financial Independence does not mean the end of your working career.

Instead it means, “Complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, energetic, happiest and most generous version of You that you can possibly be.”

Doesn’t sound so awful.

The FIRE acronym stuck because it sounds cool. We can probably agree that ‘Early Retirement’ became the banner call because it was a good way to get the community’s ideas noticed in a crowded media landscape.

I agree that closing in on financial independence doesn’t half sharpen the mind on what your new life could look like. I’ve found that liberating.

There’s also a segment of FIRE-ees who’ve used the core principles to carve out a middle way. They start out thinking, “Screw work, I’ll make full FIRE in ten years”. They cut spending in line with their values, build savings and investments, then realise that they can happily live on the money from doing their job three days a week, plus a side-hustle.

They’re now living a life they enjoy, full FIRE goes on the backburner and you should be thrilled! Except that FIRE ideas empowered this group to redesign their lives, FIRE didn’t stop them.

As community figurehead MMM articulates, the movement barely recognises the distinction between FIRE and FI, and neither do I. It’s not important to me, but obviously it is to you.

You already solved the problem though. Here’s some alternatives to the FIRE acronym that you and a merry band of Monevator readers proposed a while back:

  • FILF – Financial Independence, Loving Freedom.
  • FISH – Financial Independence Seeking Happiness.
  • FITS – Financial Independence Taking Sabbatical.
  • FIBS – Financial Independence Blatant Salary.
  • FIEF – Financial Independence Extreme Freedom.
  • FIND – Financial Independence, New Direction.
  • FIDMOT – Financial Independence, Doing My Own Thing.
  • FIFO – Financial Independence, please go away.
  • FILL – Financial Independence, Loving Life!

The Investor: Hah, quoting my own article to end with an olive branch – well played sir. Well good luck to everyone pursuing financial independence and whatever comes next to them. I’d just conclude by saying please keep an open mind!

The Accumulator: Hear, hear. Now climb out of your Christmas trench and come have a game of football with me in No Man’s Land.

Wishing all Monevator readers a bright and rewarding New Year.

Please let us hear what you think in our poll below and in the comments, if there’s anyone left out there!

Exciting interactive democratic vote opportunity

You’ve heard the debate. Then you heard it again. And then again! Would they ever shut up?

Well now they have and it’s time to vote for your future of FIRE:

Which definition best fits your vision of FIRE for you?


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{ 95 comments… add one }
  • 1 C December 31, 2019, 10:22 am

    Fantastic debate, gang. Thank you!

    In the vote above, I find myself a bit of fence sitter. Once I RE (already FI), I’m amenable to the idea of paid work – providing I can do it on my terms (ie not a job) and it helps a friend out. But I’d probably prefer it was unpaid and perhaps came with the possibility of some random rewards. Some of the happiest work days of my life have been when volunteering for someone or a cause I believe in and an unexpected reward turning up as a consequence. Volunteering also meant that I avoid the job bits of the work eg tiresome administration.

    As someone who has worked 20+ years in the voluntary sector, I’d challenge your characterisation of it. I don’t see too many coasters (sometimes the reverse) and in small/medium sized charities in particular, if you discover a problem to solve – you are often allowed to figure it out with high levels of autonomy. It’s true, there aren’t too many voluntary senior level jobs – but you will find these in smaller charities or consider joining a board.

  • 2 John B December 31, 2019, 10:33 am

    What a lot of saying how other people should act! Everyone is different, so while it is good to warn of the pitfalls of any radical change of direction, don’t suggest they are inevitable.

    When 5 years ago I noticed I’d not enjoyed any of my jobs for 15 years, I decided that when I became FI my goal was to stop having a job. So now I fritter my time away, and feel much better for it. Remember that lack of ambition is more common than you think, as its a selection effect that most of those drawn to blog about FI are driven people who want to be doing something and struggle being idle.

    Top tip, take on commitments to give your week structure, so you need to plan, as that avoids ennui.

  • 3 Simon T December 31, 2019, 10:35 am

    I found it a bit navel gazing to be fair. I too can’t stand the term FIRE, whatever happened to early retirement (guess you can’t make a verb out of it I suppose).
    I am early retiring: because I just about can; because I’m knackered after working away for over 25 years during the week; because running out of money is optional running out of time is mandatory

  • 4 never give up December 31, 2019, 11:06 am

    Hi first time poster but long time reader here. Thanks for all your work over the years. I have always been relatively frugal but was too scared to invest. I overpaid my mortgage during much of the last ten years. Your site and MMM have provided me with the courage to invest, and my FIRE goal is well on track because of this. I thank you for this.

    This was a very interesting series and raises a large number of key points for anyone seeking FIRE to consider. In my first year of seeking FIRE I had somehow missed the term ‘Coast FI’ and instead derived the term ‘Financial Accomplishment Reduce Time.’ I saw hitting 25x baseline expenses as the accomplishment facilitating the reduction of working hours to just part time. This would allow either a Fatter FI or a lower withdrawal rate to be achieved, depending on your attitude/level of caution to markets and things. It would also provide an element of freedom earlier and a far better work/life balance.

    Unfortunately as an acronym that equates to FART, typical of my luck in such matters. I still debate now whether to blast through to full FIRE, suppressing the urge to FART, or whether I should just FART at the earliest opportunity and be done with it. I see both sides of the argument here. I hope I have the courage to live the best life I can as early as possible. However the temptation of never having to work ever again if I don’t want to, is a pull towards achieving full FIRE rather than FARTing. If I enjoyed my job this would be a no brainer, but my working environment is deteriorating rapidly. FIRE versus FART is something that occupies my mind a lot.

    Thanks again for this series. It’s fun subject matter to think about and it’s for each individual to plot the best route through to their end goal.

  • 5 JimJim December 31, 2019, 11:17 am

    Good stuff, as always, and food for thought. Richness of life is enhanced when our options are wide and getting wider. The road to FI does not need to narrow them to the point it will flare out like the bell of a blunderbuss at the point of “FIRE”. FI does not mean I want to narrow my options, I probably want to widen them. If I achieve that, I have won. I may or may not work. It may or may not work, but I have options 🙂

  • 6 Brod December 31, 2019, 11:18 am

    Well, that was jolly good fun! A little confected controversy. FI – get some money behind you and it opens up all sorts of options including RE. End of. Re is the carrot, the aim, but as I’ve got closer I’ve become more cautious about what to do in RE.

    As a part-time paragon myself, I fully endorse John B’s comment about lack of ambition. I’m keeping some paid work though, at the very least it makes me more financially secure until SPA when I’m set, and, more importantly, I’m not sure quite what to replace it with. I’d vaguely like to restore cars, but I’ve neither the skills nor space to do so. Ho-hum.

    Btw, can we add another option to the poll? “FI, but still pottering about part-time”?

  • 7 xxd09 December 31, 2019, 11:20 am

    Wife and I worked at demanding professional jobs for over 30 years-raised 3 kids-all now working and married and with their own kids(8 grandchildren )
    Lived frugally-saved in Vanguard trackers-received one or two legacies-invested not spent
    Neither of us ever wants to work again -retd at 57
    Travelled all over world-now 73 and slowing a little
    Golden wedding last year
    Luck and hard work ?
    Love the time I have to read -history/finance-she paints
    So far so good
    It can be done

  • 8 Holt December 31, 2019, 1:17 pm

    Apologies, as this is a very specific and narrow post made in response to a single comment within this very interesting, and wide ranging discussion by TI, TA, and TDM.

    I just wanted to agree with the comments made by C in the first post.
    TI observations that “Not to denigrate people volunteering at the local half-hearted charity,… than half-arsing it, frankly. Is the sort of focused / high achiever who is actually capable of hitting FIRE fairly young really going to be satisfied bickering about the posters for the village hall? “; is wide of the mark in my experience.

    I hit FIRE at the age of 51 (albeit not fully planned – a redundancy and an early retirement package), but my accumulated investments over 20 plus years meant that I had no financial need to work.

    After 6 months I volunteered at my local advice charity. 15 years later I’m still with Citizens Advice, now in a role that (mainly) helps our disabled clients appeal flawed Personal Independent Payment, and ESA / UC not fit for work assessment decisions.
    It is more demanding than the work I did in the corporate world as a chartered accountant, but working alongside some very talented, dedicated, and inspirational colleagues helps make it enjoyable and hugely satisfying.

    (For some background):

    I doubt if our clients would regard the work our volunteers do as “half-arsing it”; many vulnerable clients with poor mental health rely on the service CAB provide.

    It’s a post FIRE choice I would highly recommend – Citizens Advice depends on volunteers, and a emphatic “focused / high achiever” is likely to find the role of a volunteer advisor very satisfying.

  • 9 The Investor December 31, 2019, 1:34 pm

    Just on the charity sector comment, I hear you guys. 🙂 Obviously even in a 20,000 word debate we have to simplify our positions a bit for the sake of a good discussion. In addition all our personal experiences will be anecdotal to some extent.

    I’ve been somewhat involved a couple of times with charities. Both times I found they were lackadaisical affairs, compared to private sector equivalents. It’s certainly true the private sector has a bundle of problems, too, of course. So all this is as we said pretty subjective.

    There’s obviously nothing wrong with volunteering/working for a lackadaisical charity if that’s what floats your boat. 🙂 My comment was made specifically in the context of replacing the sort of impact/challenge you get from your private sector job, rather than on the virtue of doing so.

    To be clear I’m very grateful to everyone who gives up their time to good charities for free, as we all should be! 🙂

    Anyway I want to let everyone have their say as we’ve all waffled a lot in the five posts, but just wanted to make that clear as I don’t want to (overly!) seem like Mr Scrooge here. Cheers!

  • 10 Nick H December 31, 2019, 1:45 pm

    Thank for the debate. I enjoyed reading the different views. I “retired” 3 years ago now and have enjoyed every minute so far. No plans to go back to work, but who knows what the future will bring. Most of the discussion was about RE, but I think that perhaps the FI could be debated too. In order to RE, we all have our own decisions to make – 4% SWR, 3% SWR whatever, a decision has to be made. For some of us, that decision will prove to be incorrect, possibly due to adverse future investment returns or changes in personal circumstances etc. As MMM allows, we have to be open to the possibility of returning to work if things don’t pan out as planned. The alternative is pushing well past the point of FI to create a huge buffer to cater for all reasonable adverse circumstances. Personally, I think that the FIRE philosophy encompasses this, and is therefore a lot more flexible on both the FI and the RE parts. However, it is also clear that some people hold the opposite viewpoint, and that FI means secure under all circumstances, and RE means no paid (or unpaid) work at all. To my mind, these strict definitions lacks a certain amount of freedom. I think all three debaters would (probably!) agree that the underlying philosophy of FIRE is all about personal freedom.

    Thanks for the great website. Keep up the good work and may 2020 bring you everything you desire.

  • 11 The Accumulator December 31, 2019, 1:56 pm

    Honestly, in real life he’s even more appalling 😉

  • 12 Dan H December 31, 2019, 2:18 pm

    The comment by JimJim “FI does not mean I want to narrow my options, I probably want to widen them.” epitomises a core reason for my desire to FIRE. Some of these options may generate income. What matters is whether that pursuit, be it income generating or any other activity, interests me and adds value to my life.

    The nature of full-time employment means it is unlikely this will ever be on the cards post FI as this narrows options. Being a part-time employee limits options as well. You are required to commit x time on x days to doing x activity. I find even if I enjoy a given activity I don’t always enjoy it at any given time.

    Although this is true for me, everyone is different. Some people may find the structure, routine, and community at work adds value to their life.

    In regards to RE, I don’t think it is the correct term for what everyone will do post-FI. I think it is a good term for sparking interest and discussion with people who would otherwise switch off when talking about just the financial side. It gets people thinking about what comes after. It is a concept people think they know but when they focus on it they realise how little they actually know. On considering/trying it they may decide they don’t want to RE. For those people who want to keep working post-FI there is already a term – FI.

  • 13 memyselfandi December 31, 2019, 2:19 pm

    I’m not sure how helpful this debate is – but I enjoyed reading it. It was a bit alpha male (arguing about initials) and also not very forward thinking (ironic… since that’s what it’s all about). Work as we know it will not exist in the near future. Technology and AI will change the way we ‘work’. I am quite certain some form of universal basic income will happen within the next decade. FIRE should be what works best for you – and there are no downsides to it as far as I can see. Be flexible. Be free. Be happy. Stop making up so many rules.

  • 14 PC December 31, 2019, 2:37 pm

    from the end of Round 2 (I’ve been saving this comment)
    “I don’t think the performance reviews or the delayed trains are really the problem… it’s you. Or me. It’s us. It’s humans. We’re infinite worry-machines. ”

    Lucy Kellaway wrote a nice article on the human capacity for worry https://www.ft.com/content/13ebd28c-2199-11ea-92da-f0c92e957a96

  • 15 Foxy December 31, 2019, 2:48 pm

    Very nice debate which funnily enough boils down to the RE part. No wonder every time I speak to a new person about the concept this is what we argue about.

    For me, it’s the power of having options. Which both you TI and TA agree. I was always frugal since being a kid. When I started building some serious surplus – partly thanks to my overrated profession – I was looking around to see what people do with their money. When I first found the FIRE crowd it was like I saw The Light.

    It’s like it gave me a frame for my finances that would otherwise have no financial purpose (other than usual secure my family, house and kids education). I just wanted to retire early. Yes, I made sacrifices but nothing extreme.

    Now, thinking ahead, will I really RE in 4 years by the real definition of the word? Probably not. Who am I kidding, I cannot even stay idle for 2-weeks of Xmas annual leave. But this framing gave me a powerful income + knowledge that just *feel* nice.

    I’m not sure I’d be on that path was it not for the FIRE pillars, MMM & ERE and of course all the investing help from you guys.

    Despite finding leanFIRE too hardcore for my standards, the power of having options is underestimated. So looking back, even if I don’t retire, following the FIRE principles added more value to my life than it subtracted.

    The ultimate question is this: Are the sacrifices made on the path worth it? Or should one just not care much since they probably won’t retire anyway…?

  • 16 weenie December 31, 2019, 2:52 pm

    I’ve loved this debate, thanks very much for a great read!

    I’m along the same lines as @John B in that once I’m FI (or as close to), I don’t intend to have a job. Dropping to a 4 or 3-day week first sounds good before pulling the FIRE trigger, but if not, then no job at all. I can’t wait to just fritter my time away – so many hobbies and interests to take up (old and new), books to read, box sets to watch, video games to play, places to visit, charities/communities to volunteer for.

    My own folks happily retired early and haven’t worked a day in their lives since. I hope to emulate them in that respect, although I guess they’ve led a Fat FIRE life, whilst mine will likely be leaner FIRE.

    That said, if the bottom drops out of the markets and I find myself tight on the cash, then of course, I would consider doing paid work again but most likely as a last resort – I’d go into full frugal mode first!

    Where I don’t agree with @John B is that although I do blog, I don’t consider myself one of those driven types who will struggle with being idle. I look forward to doing nothing in particular with my time (what I do most weekends), although I acknowledge some structure to my days/weeks will be an absolute requirement, something I found when I wasn’t working (following redundancy).

    @never give up – ‘Financial Accomplishment Reduce Time’ – ha! If only you’d gotten in there first with this acronym, before people started to talk about FIRE!

  • 17 Cath December 31, 2019, 3:35 pm

    Can I please add an option?
    I actually retired when I was 32 but I am far from FI, although working on it. I was medically retired and am too sick to work. So I’m doing everything backwards, which is interesting. Since being unable to work I’ve been forced to think outside the box with using my house equity for leverage and buying property and investments. So, I guess I’m already RE and now seeking FS (financial security). If I can’t add another option, I would have to say I’d never work again.
    Happy New Year TA and TI. Please keep up the great blog, I’m learning so much and am very grateful for your efforts. Cath

  • 18 cat793 December 31, 2019, 4:10 pm

    The debate was fun but a bit pointless as inevitably FIRE means different things to different people. I am a bit of a retirement policeman when it comes to highly ambitious 30 something bloggers claiming to FIRE. They seem to me to be entrepreneurs/salesmen/bullshit artists making a living marketing the FIRE concept. All well and good but it hardly qualifies as early retirement. At that age FI should be the goal or more bluntly – Fuck You money – to give you more freedom of choice. And what 30 something would retire anyway? A different concept for those over 45. I would say at that point the RE becomes the focus as the idea of full time work for x more years becomes increasingly unbearable or impractical. I feel FIRE gets too much attention at the expense of the practical underlying philosophy of earn as much as possible, spend as little as possible, save and invest as much as possible and avoid debt. If those principles where taught at school then FIRE would automatically follow for a substantial percentage of the population later in their lives.

  • 19 Another Centrist Dad December 31, 2019, 4:17 pm

    An excellent back and forth that highlighted a lot of the themes that orbit the FIRE sun… I enjoyed the intros and summaries particularly – them’s fighting words!

    For my part, I originally came across FIRE back in 2014 (via a random link to MMM from a motorcycling forum – where an inspirational young woman was telling her readers how she’d managed to squirrel enough away to take a year off, biking around South America). That swiftly led to this site, which I’ve been reading ever since (despite taking the boringly effective (so far!) route of dumping it all into a tracker and not paying much attention to the ups and downs).

    It was all persuasive enough to completely transform my attitudes – and finances.

    The point in this last post that summarised it all for me: “There’s also a segment of FIRE-ees who’ve used the core principles to carve out a middle way. They start out thinking, “Screw work, I’ll make full FIRE in ten years”. They cut spending in line with their values, build savings and investments, then realise that they can happily live on the money from doing their job three days a week, plus a side-hustle.”

    That’s very much in line with my experience. I’m still a way off FI, but have enough to not worry too much if and when something goes wrong – which it inevitably did a couple of months back, when I was suddenly made redundant after 20 years of full-time work.

    Having saved as much as I could when I could (post FIRE discovery), it means I can now set up as a freelancer and work for myself with much more confidence; whereas if I’d never stumbled across this movement (however you want to define it), I’m sure I’d be frantically applying for a(nother) full-time job and losing a day a week on the train to London.

    I won’t be giving up work anytime soon, but will hopefully be doing less of it. I’ll also be spending my working time on those aspects of my job that I enjoy and am good at, rather than trying to navigate office politics… (which I do not, and am not). That’s basically down to FI thinking and in very large part this site – so thanks as ever for all the thinking you share here!

  • 20 Brod December 31, 2019, 5:14 pm

    I think 3 days a week AND a side hustle sounds awfully full time to me…

  • 21 Another Centrist Dad December 31, 2019, 5:54 pm

    @Brod – yes, fair point!

  • 22 JimJim December 31, 2019, 5:55 pm

    FI is more pleasant if you can enjoy the trip. I just took this shot of the last sunset of the decade at our house, (which, as I have mentioned before has been our best investment) … https://photos.app.goo.gl/iWbeEksMXcEgPmm78
    A happy new year to all at Monevator and here’s to a glorious new decade.

  • 23 Mr Optimistic December 31, 2019, 5:56 pm

    Hmm, not quite sure if any of the protagonists have children but that complicates matters through the extra expense and the lifetime obligation to stand ready to help. I would be very impressed if you could achieve financial independence before your youngest child’s 25 birthday for example ( and then there is the wedding and house deposits, the divorce, rinse, spin).

    I enjoyed work. Not always, not Monday mornings in winter, but it provided a structure to my life that I wouldn’t have been able to establish left to myself. Provided interest, travel and variety, challenges which stretched me, oh and a good pension scheme.Might be a function of education, but without education what are your options post-fire?

    Reminds me a bit if that quote attributed to John Lennon about life being what happens while you are making other plans or whatever ( very doubtful he thought that up by himself). Thinking about the future to the extent of driving towards a FI target sounds a bit dangerous to me: all you really have is today ( strictly the next 8 minutes or so but let’s be optimistic for once).

    F-U money is another matter……

    Thanks for the blog, Happy New Year, and more to the point, plenty more of them.

  • 24 Dan H December 31, 2019, 6:34 pm

    @Mr Optimistic “Thinking about the future to the extent of driving towards a FI target sounds a bit dangerous to me”

    I agree. However FI shouldn’t be the goal without any consideration to the reason why. Taking action for the future while still living in the present is important. You need to know why you are driving toward that target. Reflecting on those reasons may change the approach and actions you take to get there.

    – You realise you are working in a job you dislike. Change it. Keep the FI goal. Maybe the new job takes longer getting there, maybe shorter, either way your happier on the way.
    – Want to travel more. Lower your savings rate and use holiday time to get some travelling in now.
    – Want to pick up x hobby but it takes so much time. Use some of the time you have now, find out if you do really enjoy it.
    – Want to get fit and healthy. Learn to cook and start exercising.
    – Want to spend more time with family and friends. Most of them will be still be working when you are FI. Many of them will do activities that cost money. Spend time with them now and reach your FI goal a bit later.

    Many reasons for FI can at least be partly achieved during the journey. The danger exists in only focusing on the numbers to get there.

  • 25 JimJim December 31, 2019, 6:42 pm

    @Dan H
    Could not have put it better… Options all the way

  • 26 ZXSpectrum48k January 1, 2020, 1:06 am

    I’m pretty down on the whole FIRE concept. With regards to the RE bit, I side with TI that ‘retirement’ means leaving a job and ceasing work. Perhaps I’m just pedantic about semantics. I don’t agree that anyone can find a side-gig or downshift to part time work. Not all of us have a marketable skillset if we come from a career where it’s been specialisation that pays. Also, if I can earn in one year, doing a full-time job, what might take 10 years in a part-time job, does downshifting really make sense? Also not all of us have the self-confidence (overconfidence?) to market ourselves that many in the FIRE blogosphere seem to have an abundance of. Not all of us would know how to deliver the BS involved in some of those roles.

    I’m also down on FI, albeit to a lesser degree. The broad idea of financial resilience makes perfect sense. The specifics of whether you are FI or not strikes me as all too arbitrary. A decade ago, when I was mid 30s, our net worth was 50x our annual spending. Our net worth has grown more than 4x over the past 10 years, yet I still don’t consider myself FI. What went wrong? Absolutely nothing; the assumptions just changed. I assume much lower forward asset returns in 2019 than in 2009. Current outgoings have doubled with two kids, both at private school. Forward liabilities have increased with the need to support those two children (Uni fees and inheritances) and possibly my parent’s care costs. Of course, by tweaking any of those assumptions I could declare myself instantly FI. Then again using the daft definitions of some FIRE bloggers, I was FI before 30. Honestly, the concept of FI is so subjective as to be meaningless. At best, you can say you might be FI today. Next year probably. Next decade, perhaps. In five decades time? You’re probably deluded if you think you can even ask the question.

    The final problem with FIRE is, as TI put it “it’s traditional in our realm to sneer at people on the hedonic treadmill”. Why do so many in the FIRE community think they have attained some special insight that the rest of us don’t have? That they see the truth but the rest of us are blind? Sorry but the way the FIRE community now heaps abuse on well-educated, highly successful people, who don’t support their dogma has started smelling in recent years too much like a puritanical religious cult.

    Happy new year !

  • 27 HariSeldon January 1, 2020, 1:07 am

    Financial Independence was my primary goal well before I ever came across the FIRE concept , in the 90’s the term downshifting was popular and it implied a lower cost, less stressful more meaningful life style. ( working was an option most downshifted would have considered, although probably part time)

    There would definitely be a ‘green’ element to downshifting now.

    FIRE is not something those on an average wage can achieve but Downshifting is feasible for most people.

    I achieved FI at 49 after 17 years saving/investing and 13 years of different side gigs , volunteering, travelling and occasionally the retired part but maybe something different in 2020 ? That’s the whole point of financial independence, security and choices.

    Personally I did not cut back at all in the FIRE saving stage, I didn’t let the lifestyle grow with a growing income.

    You don’t miss what you didn’t have, or need or want.

  • 28 Graham Wilton January 1, 2020, 10:54 am

    As you say RE was added to give it a snappy marketing name. FIRE by definition should only apply to people who value retirement.

    Like everything else, people can’t help but make FIRE overly complex, it is actually a very simple set of principles.

    FI/FIRE should be tailored to your life and your values, not followed like an instruction manual.

    I’d say spend less time arguing over the religion of FIRE and more time getting on with making your life better using FI principles.

  • 29 Vanguardfan January 1, 2020, 11:01 am

    Before I became accidentally FI, I was on course for a comfortable conventional retirement at a fairly unremarkable (although increasingly unattainable for most people) 60.
    Since FI (and I don’t agree that it doesn’t exist as per ZX, although I do appreciate that anything can happen over a multi decade time period) I have had quite a lot of existential angst about RE. It took several years to feel truly financially secure, then more time to gear up to first reducing and then eliminating my career job – but not before first securing the ‘two day a week £10k per year’ hobby job (coincidentally with that already cited charitable organisation Citizens Advice, I would endorse Holt’s recommendation). I don’t miss my career job, but I do still wonder if I made the right choice.
    I still angst about my life, mainly around meaning, purpose and whether I have achieved enough (in terms of positive contributions to the world) with the talents I have. Much the same issues that I wrestled with during my years working ‘properly’. So I totally agree with TA that financial security isn’t a magic bullet that will eliminate all worries, and that ‘wherever you go, there you are’.
    I think the main difference with FI is that it challenges you to make changes to your life, as there is no longer the necessity to keep working in the same way – you have choices. That can be double edged – most scientific evidence suggests that too much choice actually reduces happiness. Certainly the necessity of work spares many of us from having to think too hard about how we spend our days, in that sense it is comfortable and unchallenging.

  • 30 AVB January 1, 2020, 11:26 am

    Originally I was all for Retire Early but after reviewing how many years I’d need to keep working my main-stream job I realised small differences in assumptions can lead to considerable changes in required working years to be close to certain of ‘never working again’. E.g. depending on whether you target a 3.5%, or a more punchy 4.5% SWR could mean working 3 more, or 3 less years compared to 4.0% (that’s a six year gap between 3.5% and 4.5% – will vary depending on your individual circumstances). If your investment return is 7.5% instead of 7.0%, again that could save you a couple of years (or more) in some scenarios. I’m all for realistic assumption setting, and in order to be almost certain of never working again I’d need to make some pessimistic assumptions, e.g. 3.5% SWR, perhaps 3% inflation, 6% investment return etc; this could add about 10 years to my FI target date (again will vary depending on individual circumstances). If I have a more flexible mindset, accept I may possibly need to work part time for a few years, or take a 6-12 month full time contract to get me back on track, then I can be a bit more relaxed in my assumptions. I might assume a 4.5% SWR, 2.25% inflation, 7% investment return – i’ve just shaved 10 years off my FI target date. What is more important? Certainty (or close to it) at the expense of another 10 years full time, or 10 years freedom with the possibility of doing something paid at some point for some limited period of time? What is 10 years worth to you?

  • 31 Simon T January 1, 2020, 11:30 am

    @AVB that is my sentiment exactly. I see my early retirement next year as the beginning of a 15 year holiday, 5 years in Spain, then Cyprus then France, then back to the UK when I am 70. I might run out of money (hence the lower cost of living abroad), but heck its going to be a journey

  • 32 DaveDatum January 1, 2020, 12:08 pm

    Yes Simon T – I am also thinking of breaking it into chunks.
    Instead of worrying endlessly about SWRs, am thinking of proceeding as follows:
    Up to 55: Spend all the money in ISAs
    55 – 67: Spend all the money in SIPPs
    The above two would enable life in the fast lane.
    Then after 67, downsize property and live an old age of acetism surviving on the state pension (+ proceeds from the aforementioned downsizing).

  • 33 Moneyandtime January 1, 2020, 12:32 pm

    I agree with TI that if you don’t like your job/work situation you should try to change it, but also with TA that most are not willing or able to take such a big risk.

    Hence FIRE provides a nice goal/dream, but is hard to achieve. Perhaps a practical compromise is to make a work change once you hit financial security (say 50% of FI?). That way you can still aim for FI, which might take longer, but hopefully you’ll be more fulfilled on the journey and in less of a hurry to stop working.

  • 34 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 1:40 pm

    Great thread. I’m loving hearing from people who’ve made a success of dropping out of the rat race – I knew it could be done 😉 I’m particularly happy to hear that the likes of Holt, C and Vanguardfan have found challenge and fulfilment in the voluntary sector. I hear again and again from people that I challenge on the ‘must work’ point that volunteering isn’t for them. Some, like TI, cite a poor experience and then write the whole sector off. Like we haven’t all had a bad ‘work’ experience. I think the explanation likely lies with equating money with ‘value’. We’re taught to think of billionaires as a success, even if they’re just pushing another line of cosmetics, or a social network that threatens democracy. We’ve inculcated the notion of ‘free’ as near ‘worthless’, despite the fact that the most important relationships in our lives come free of charge. Why would a financially independent person do work that they wouldn’t otherwise do for free? The answer to that question may correlate with whether you’ll enjoy early retirement.

    I came across FIRE before it was called FIRE. The idea that I could stop competing in the rat race was the juiciest carrot I could imagine. After 2008 I was as motivated by work retiring me as I was by retiring from work. Cath and Centrist Dad have both highlighted different ways that the situation can be taken out of your hands.

    Regardless of the label (and arguing about this is saddeningly pointless in my view, it shouldn’t be so hard to agree the terms of the debate), you cannot be worse off for knowing that there’s another way to live life. That others have made a success of it and that there are a few general principles you can apply – though you’ll need to customise them to your particulars. Again, I’m saddened by out-of-hand dismissal of a movement as diverse as FIRE. The world is slightly better for having found a way to popularise the underlying principles, and you’d have to royally screw things up to try it and end up in a worse situation than when you started – even if you never do ‘retire’.

    I’m gonna write a few more comments picking up on some of the debate, so please indulge me. There’s a few more words in these fingers yet.

  • 35 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 1:42 pm

    @ ZX – “Why do so many in the FIRE community think they have attained some special insight that the rest of us don’t have? That they see the truth but the rest of us are blind? Sorry but the way the FIRE community now heaps abuse on well-educated, highly successful people, who don’t support their dogma has started smelling in recent years too much like a puritanical religious cult.”

    Where are you going to get this abuse? I’m sure there are some dickheads out there, but this doesn’t characterise the community in my experience.

  • 36 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 1:59 pm

    @ cat793 – “I am a bit of a retirement policeman when it comes to highly ambitious 30 something bloggers claiming to FIRE. They seem to me to be entrepreneurs/salesmen/bullshit artists making a living marketing the FIRE concept. All well and good but it hardly qualifies as early retirement. At that age FI should be the goal or more bluntly – Fuck You money – to give you more freedom of choice.

    And what 30 something would retire anyway? A different concept for those over 45. I would say at that point the RE becomes the focus as the idea of full time work for x more years becomes increasingly unbearable or impractical.”

    I agree that there are some snake oil types out there. They undermine the credibility of FIRE ideas in order to make a fast buck. I guess this happens in all walks of life where there’s money to be made. That doesn’t change the fact that I can use the FIRE concept to effect positive change in my life. It does mean buyer beware.

    Your point about age is very interesting to me. I meant to bring this up in the debate but got sidetracked by the initials thing. This is purely personal experience but I didn’t even begin sorting my financial life until my mid thirties. By that time I had a fairly good idea of who I am and the terms on which I engage with life – for better or worse.

    I would be better off if I had applied FIRE-style financial principles to my life from my early twenties. I don’t think it’d have helped me to start my career with the goal of getting out just as soon as I could. I still had a lot of growing to do at that stage. This is a personal observation but I wonder how much it rings true for others?

    Two caveats:
    1. FIRE financial principles are borrowed from elsewhere.
    2. I’m still changing! I hope I do until the end of my time. I’m just saying I was a much rougher draft in my early twenties.

  • 37 Sara January 1, 2020, 2:06 pm

    Thanks for an entertaining debate – thought provoking and really well written – made me laugh as well as think! Like Vanguardfan I find I have almost accidentally achieved FI, assuming I can resist the lure of world cruises and an extravagant wine cellar post-RE, which I’m pretty sure I can having become accustomed to a fairly frugal lifestyle… After I pull the trigger (some time in the next few years) I’ll need to ensure I have some structure and that life still has some meaning and usefulness – and scope for achievement of some kind, which I think is something often overlooked – so perhaps a further academic qualification is a possibility if not paid work. But my immediate problem is tangential to all of that… How will I cope with the (to me) major psychological shift away from actively investing and accumulating wealth to drawing it down? I look at parts of my portfolio and feel almost sentimentally attached to some of my holdings, and dread the day when the numbers start to (at best) plateau, and then gradually decline over time. Possibly this is the downside of investing as an all-consuming hobby rather than simply stashing away spare cash into Trackers for X years and logging in once a year to rebalance… fellow ‘naughty’ active investors beware!

  • 38 Mr Optimistic January 1, 2020, 2:19 pm

    @Sara. How right you are! I have just retired and am struggling with the idea you can be comfortable watching a declining balance. Think it’s a common problem with lots of retirees ( the lucky ones I suppose), systematically underspending and destined to die well off. If I can somehow come up with a plan as to how to ‘ decumulate’, how then to monitor the investment path when having less at the year end isn’t necessarily bad?

  • 39 John B January 1, 2020, 2:31 pm

    Conservation is an excellent sort of voluntary work. It gets you out of the house, has physical labour, its obvious what you’ve done each session, little scope for error (it all grows back), is social, and you can skip sessions if you don’t feel like it. Very different to being a charity trustee having to prepare accounts and then go to argue with a funding body.

  • 40 xxd09 January 1, 2020, 2:33 pm

    Be reassured-if you continue to live as before your Portfolio will continue to rise in value-this has been a common finding
    If your investments don’t do this then you haven’t saved enough to stop working or your standard of living is too high for your amount of savings or both
    “Watching a declining balance” during retirement is probably not a survivable state of affairs

  • 41 Mr Optimistic January 1, 2020, 2:46 pm

    @xxd09. How so? Isn’t that the whole basis of the safe withdrawal rate approach ( which I don’t aspire to) ? While I have a bequest motive, it’s not 100% of my savings. If you die with your savings interact, what exactly were you saving for?

  • 42 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 2:55 pm

    @ Sara, AVB, Nick H – you’ve all talked about different aspects of trading off financial security with actually having a life. How do you balance the notion of ‘enough’ versus the desire to avoid ‘forced’ labour? Especially when, as ZX points out, you can never be certain; in a world where billionaires have back-up boltholes in New Zealand and would probably site a bunker on Mars if they could.

    Nick H and AVB, I think you’re right that flexibility of mindset is vital here. Deciding that going back to work at some point is not anathema (perhaps picking up some part-time employment occasionally, to keep things on the rails) has gotta be healthier than never tasting the alternative because you must secure another million to sate a demon that can never be sated.

    Knowing the levers you can pull has helped me a lot. Fiddling with SWRs or other decumulation strategies seems pointless to many but researching the topic has given me some idea of the risks I’m comfortable with and removed the mystery. For example, I won’t declare FI when I have enough to sustainably support my average annual expenses. I’ll declare it when I can comfortably drop my post-FI spending by 20% and not worry about it. And when I’ve got two or three sources of back-up e.g. State Pension, reverse mortgage, emergency fund, option to annuitise. Not to mention of course, the option to pick up some paid employment along the way if it looks fun or necessary.

  • 43 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 2:58 pm

    @ Foxy – “The ultimate question is this: Are the sacrifices made on the path worth it? Or should one just not care much since they probably won’t retire anyway…?”

    I found that the ‘sacrifices’ stopped feeling like sacrifices pretty quickly. Hedonic adaptation is a two-way staircase.

  • 44 Vanguardfan January 1, 2020, 3:17 pm

    Why would someone who is FI do paid work? Main reason is that there are many roles and tasks which you just can’t do as a volunteer. My hobby job role isn’t available as a volunteer, and my spouse won’t give up work as it’s the only way to make that particular contribution they are most qualified and able to do.
    I’m not quite at the ‘happy to potter’ stage, but it will come eventually.

  • 45 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 3:43 pm

    @Vanguardfan – that’s not the question I asked. The question is: would you do that work for free?

  • 46 Vanguardfan January 1, 2020, 3:51 pm

    But the answer is the same – it’s not possible to do some activities for free. So the question has no meaning, as it’s not a real option. And in any case, I’m not sure what the point of the question is. Surely the issue is, once there is no need for additional money, how do you choose to spend your time? If you conclude that the best use for (some of) your time also happens to be paid, so what?

  • 47 tuk020 January 1, 2020, 4:06 pm

    Harvard Business Review article by one of the great management writers, Peter Drucker, on “Managing Oneself”.
    The last quarter of the article is devoted to ‘The Second Half of Your Life’.
    Gist of it is that once you have completed the key financial goals of the early part of your life – raising kids, buying a house, etc, etc, you have the luxury of turning your life’s endeavours from something that has to have remuneration as one of the key goals, to being able to focus on something important that you can contribute.
    Don’t view retirement as ‘stopping’. Financial Independence is an opportunity to switch to something more meaningful.

  • 48 Pendle Witch January 1, 2020, 4:23 pm

    Thanks to @TI and all Monevator contributors throughout the year. This was a fun read – surely not intended to trigger anyone!

    Comments under US FIRE articles are always very defensive. Presumably people can pick and choose what aspect of [FI][RE][else] might work for them, but it seems not sometimes 🙂

    A few years ago we also found ourselves accidentally FI, by the metrics of the blogs. But that was achieved by two professional salaries, a low-key lifestyle, one child, and a couple of decades of work! I always wondered whether knowing about it ahead of time (like @TA) would have added unnecessary tension.

    Having made the FI discovery, I resigned, yet was induced to stay by means of a pay-rise and a 3-day week. Perfect solution for now, especially since my husband shows no interest in stopping work. (Although a recent takeover might make that point moot.)

    Happy New Year to all who are interested enough to be reading these words!

  • 49 JimJim January 1, 2020, 4:25 pm

    The biggest consideration I find myself thinking about is the date it will all be possible/ optimal to retire or semi retire. From the projections I have done, I can say with a little certainty it will be possible post 55 and if I am still working full time at 60 I am probably foolish. But when is it optimal? By 63 working should not be at all necessary for either of us and by state pension age my cash flow may even exceed my present circumstances if I have worked until 60 (after deducting my savings which should not be necessary in retirement). Any time after 55 is on the cards (BTW I am 55 next October). My partner has four years on me and is already semi-retired and drawing a final salary pension whilst plying her trade as a physiotherapist two days a week with a side hustle of running an online writing course. (Not Very Retired). I feel the pressure of time more than I feel the pressure of money at the moment but we have chosen to keep it up for now because we, on the whole, enjoy what we do, it allows us to have adventurous holidays, and it is rewarding work. I feel no reason to retire and do something less well paid, or change career to chase more money but trade it for a life of office boredom. As a few have said in this thread, dropping the day job down to half time for a bit is probably not on the cards due to the nature of the work, part timers in my game are seen as a necessary evil and seldom get the burden of the management of the work and are therefore resented in the teams and avoided at all costs – but it could happen and if it did it would be just as time tying as full time work (which I can now manage to shoe-horn into 4 days/week). I could side hustle my way after 55 if I had to, I could get another job if this one disappeared.
    My questions from these musings are when is it time? and will I know it when it is?

  • 50 The Accumulator January 1, 2020, 4:41 pm

    @ Vanguardfan – exactly. That’s the point of the question. It’s a way to test whether you’re making the best use of your time, if you’re FI and working.

    If the answer is: “Yes, I’d do it for free” then obviously it’s a great use of your time.

    If the answer is: “No, I would not do it for free” then that begs the question: “Would you rather spend the time doing something else?”

    If the answer to that second question is “Yes”, then that’s a worthwhile discovery.

    If the answer to that second question is, “No” then the money means something else. Perhaps even greater financial security, or whatever.

    Either way, it’s an interesting way to frame your choices.

    Same with these two questions, which I find difficult to think about:

    How would you live if you had five to ten years left to live? What would you change?
    What would you wish you’d done if you only had one day left to live?

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