- Monevator - https://monevator.com -

Debating FIRE: the final conflagration (Round 5)

Round 4 [1] 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:

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 [2] 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:

I’ve thought more than once during this debate of Keynes’ prediction that we’d all be working a 15-hour week [3] 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 [4] that can help you evaluate how you want to spend your time:

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 [2] 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 [5] 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 [6] a while back:

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:

This poll is no longer accepting votes

Which definition best fits your vision of FIRE for you?
Vote [7]