I have been FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) for over a year now and it’s fair to say the novelty has worn off.
No longer do I awake with a start thinking: “Oh God. I must be late for work.” Or wonder why my calendar isn’t packed with back-to-back Zoom calls. Or imagine my phone must be broken because it’s not ringing every ten minutes.
Life has settled into a new and settled pattern. So how does the reality of FIRE compare with the dream? What did the brochure neglect to mention?
Is FIRE how I imagined it to be?
Well, no. I had a fantasy in my head. That I could somehow do whatever I wanted. That I’d learn tons of new skills and become a ripped FIRE-Warrior-Monk.
A master in love, art, philosophy, combat, comedy, and dance.
I exaggerate, of course. But for all I dreamt of soaring once the chains fell off, I’m still flapping with the same stumpy duckling wings I’ve always had.
That’s okay. It’s not a disappointment because fantasies aren’t real. The reality is plenty good enough.
My relationship with time has changed in weird ways
Time is still the great enemy. Even though I’ve got bathtubs full of the stuff relative to my old life.
But the reality is you can still only fit so much into a day. And a mysteriously large amount of it vanishes while you deal with life’s mundanities like fixing the toilet, acquiring food, and navigating customer service lines seemingly designed by psychological warfare experts.
You know how the pensioners in your life claim they’re too busy despite having nothing scheduled bar a doctor’s appointment Tuesday week?
Now I know why! Once you’re no longer spinning plates on your fingers, arms, ears, and toes, you drop the laser-focus on getting stuff done.
Instead, you potter about for Britain. Must-dos get ticked off… e…vent…ually. In between breaks for a natter, a walk, a read, a leisurely lunch.
Left to my own devices I proceed at the pace of a canal boat holiday.
And it’s glorious! The height of luxury.
No longer do you feel squeezed like a tube filled with golden toothpaste.
You’re sovereign over your time. You can change the plan whenever. Say “yes” to helping someone out at short notice. Be more emotionally available for those closest to you. Finally catch up with old friends you haven’t seen in years.
Tons of stuff still doesn’t get done. I feel guilty about it because I haven’t shaken off the modern demand to be productive like a 24/7 computer-controlled factory.
But god, this is better.
Real world problems don’t go away
Nobody thinks all their problems will be solved, right? But still, FIRE is presented as some kind of personal End Of History.
Some of the marketing encourages you to believe that FIRE-ees step out of a monochrome world and into a primary-coloured Oz of rainbows, sparkles, and boundless joy.
But this has been The Accumulators’ worst year for a long time in terms of health. Death and life-threatening and life-limiting illness have struck close to home.
Mrs Accumulator and I are okay but others we love have not fared so well.
I’ve never had so many reminders that our healthy years run out and it’s always too soon.
I’m only dwelling on it here because the Monevator community has often debated the time versus money trade-off in the comment threads.
When should you pull the plug on your peak earning years and focus on living more?
It’s a very personal question but for me the answer has swung decisively in favour of time.
I haven’t completely renounced ‘work’
That said – and the thing that’s surprised me most – is that I’ve picked up a reasonable amount of paid work without trying.
Does this mean I’m not really FIRE?
For me, I’m 100% FIRE because I’m in control.
- These projects are a hobby not a hustle.
- I do them on my terms. I’m completely free to say no and nobody’s making me do anything I don’t want to.
- I’ve never had to drag my exhausted carcass through a bad day to meet ridiculous deadlines while fighting political trench warfare.
- If it all dried up tomorrow, I could still pay the bills. I don’t need the money. But I can’t deny it’s nice.
This is a healthy relationship with work which I enjoy. And it’s helped settle me into FIRE for two reasons.
Firstly, knuckling down for two or three days a week to nut out a problem has kept my brain ticking over. It also allows me to feel like I’ve occasionally done something useful. Such as with the social care series.
Secondly, I need some discipline in my life. Committing to delivering something tangible makes goofing off with Mrs Accumulator all the more pleasurable.
Scoffing up coffee and cake after a weekday amble feels like a wonderful treat. But only because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we’ve earned it by doing some ‘work’.
It’s basic carrot-and-stick psychology. Admittedly we’re beating ourselves with a tickling stick but it still works.
I think there’s something pretty universal about this. There’s a reason why so many FIRE-ees keep starting blogs and YouTube channels.
Note: hat tip to The Investor who saw this coming and would be livid if I didn’t acknowledge his wisdom on this point.
What about money worries?
Inflation is enemy number one for retirees. So it’s not ideal that UK inflation is scaling heights not seen for over 30 years.
Our portfolio is roughly where it was a year ago. That means it’s down after inflation.
Am I worried?
I haven’t spent a penny from my FIRE warchest. The money trickling in from paid projects has covered my outgoings.
The cash I’d earmarked to spend has been rerouted into the emergency fund, which was looking lightweight.
Knowing I can pay the bills by doing a little work makes me think we’ll almost certainly be okay in the future.
Sure, we can Red Team this and scare ourselves with disaster scenarios but I don’t see the point.
I set my sustainable withdrawal rate (SWR) at 4%. We’d only need to earn a third of our outgoings to reduce it to the so-called perpetual withdrawal rate of 3%.
Earning half of your expenses drops your SWR to a near-bulletproof 2%. (Global catastrophes aside.)
Some Monevator readers have said they’ll be terrified to spend down their resources. But I’ve noticed that people who actually are decumulating typically seem sanguine about it.
My guess is you soon get used to the idea.
I actually feel more relaxed about splashing the cash than I did when in full-on accumulator mode.
Before FIRE, I often regretted inessential spending because it delayed financial independence.
Now we’re here, I think we might as well enjoy ourselves.
For the record, our first-year FIRE spend was £25,000 for two. Versus a budget of £26,000.
Now I didn’t account for 10% inflation or doubling energy bills. We’re heavily exposed to food and heating costs so things will tighten up.
But it still feels like we’re spending quite freely and we can rein things in if needs be.
Ultimately, I’m not worried because I believe that if you can FIRE then you’ve probably got what it takes to handle any bumpy years along the way.
FIRE: my one-year verdict
I don’t do happy-clappy but don’t get me wrong: I’m loving FIRE. It was the right move for me.
I thought my problem was the low-level, chronic stress of working in a corporate environment. And the heartache of letting down my nearest and dearest who needed me there, more than they needed the money.
Luckily for me, that diagnosis was correct. FIRE is just the tonic.
The autonomy alone is worth the entry price.
They say ‘it’s the journey not the destination’. Well, with FIRE it’s definitely the destination.
The journey is agony.
But keep going. I think you’ll be glad that you did.
Take it steady,