It’s interesting how much controversy the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement seems to cause in our society. Personally, I find it a fascinating topic and view the discussion generated by the FIRE community as valuable to everyone working toward retirement, whether they’re in pursuit of early or traditional retirement. I’m encouraged by the FIRE community and feel that ANYTHING that makes more people aware of the need to save for their retirement is a good thing.
For the record, I’m a fan of FIRE.
However, is it right to accept the movement without question, or should we take some time to think comprehensively about FIRE and attempt to determine if there are some “gaps” in the strategy which warrant discussion? It’s always good to question things, so today we’re going to do just that. We’re still a land of Free Speech, and we’d be wise to leverage that Freedom for a more complex discussion around important issues. Money and Retirement are certainly important issues.
Let’s have some fun. Let’s challenge ourselves. Let’s learn to keep our minds open.
Let’s look for gaps in the FIRE movement.Is the FIRE community hypocritical? Today, we look at 4 areas where it may be wise to question the FIRE movement. Click To Tweet
I recently had one of the most comprehensive comments I’ve ever received on this blog. As you’ve likely guessed, it was regarding the FIRE movement. Given the quality of the comment, I’m dedicating this post to answering the issues raised.Phil raises the questions about FIRE respectfully and they deserve a thoughtful response. Is FIRE hypocritical? Today, my thoughts... Click To Tweet
Regardless of where you are on your journey to retirement, I trust you’ll find some value in the discussion.
Is the FIRE Community Full Of Hypocrites?
The comment which generated this post was in response to my article titled “What the FIRE Movement Is All About – In One Word”. The reader, Phil, prefaced his comment with a generally favorable view of the FIRE movement, including a few comments I’ve summarized below:
- Darrow Kirkpatrick and others ” have had a big and, largely, positive impact for me and my family”.
- “To be clear, I find nothing wrong with trying to improve people’s financial literacy and promote a culture of frugality.”
However, Phil soon moves into the “meat” of his comment with this statement:
“…After being on my own FIRE journey for 4+ years, I have developed some serious reservations about what I am reading these days…” Phil
Turns out that Phil has been a member of the FIRE community for 4 years! My curiosity peaked as I continued to read his words. Here’s a member of our community, and he’s raising some questions. “Hmmm, this could be interesting”, I thought as I continued to read his words.
What followed was this statement,However, FIRE bloggers are ignoring some serious issues with their collective community and their message. Click To Tweet
Phil follows this claim by writing 4 well thought out concerns about the FIRE movement. Given his tone, I took his comments seriously, and have spent some time thinking about the issues he’s raised.
I challenge you to do the same.
4 Questions About FIRE
Phil’s comment, respectfully raised, has merit. In an effort to look more critically at the FIRE movement the points he makes deserve to be considered. In our culture of increasing “Political Correctness”, it bothers me that folks aren’t open to exploring ideas which contradict with their own. Personally, I love to look at arguments that don’t fit the conventional narrative. What I like in particular about Phil’s arguments is that he has been a self-professed member of the FIRE community for 4+ years. In full transparency, I consider myself a member of the FIRE community, having retired at a (by society’s standards) relatively young age of 55, though “older” than most in the world of FIRE.
If Phil has questions, perhaps others do as well. Let’s air it out. Let’s look for gaps. Let’s discuss the issues.Arguments which contradict our narrative make us think. Thinking Is Good. Challenge your brain, and learn to think through alternative ideas. Click To Tweet
Today, I’m going to look objectively at the 4 questions Phil raises.
My approach for each question will be the same:
- Phil’s Comment: I will copy each of the issues Phil’s raised verbatim from his comment.
- What’s The Point? I will summarize what I believe are the main points raised by Phil “What’s The Point”.
- My Thoughts: I will provide my thoughts on the topic raised.
- Subjective Score: Where I’ll rate my agreement with the validity of the comment (100% = Total Agreement)
With that, let’s challenge our brains…
1. We Should Be Skeptical Of FIRE Bloggers
“FIRE bloggers are “lifestyle influencers,” and merit the same level of skepticism as anyone in this game. Most FIRE-bloggers monetize their blogs and so are sellers of a product, a product that should be evaluated objectively. I’m sorry, but the general defense that FIRE can be anything you want it is not accurate. Every single FIRE-blogger is selling the idea that financial independence and a lifestyle of much less work or no work will improve your happiness significantly. The reality is that this may not be true for everyone. I applaud Chris Mamula, Sam Dogen, Joe Udo and others who have written about the downsides of this lifestyle – depression and loss of purpose. JD Roth has been willing to write about the down-side of the FIRE-blog community and people should read his posts.
Unfortunately, many other bloggers refuse to acknowledge this. The fact is that most research into the psychology of happiness in the past several decades has shown that people are actually more happy when producing than when consuming. The simple fact is that remaining productive is difficult for many people outside the context of a standard career. FIRE bloggers should talk more openly about this.”
What’s The Point? Phil raises three issues in his first comment:
- We should be skeptical of the motives of FIRE-bloggers who are attempting to monetize.
- FIRE-bloggers promote the idea that less work will improve your happiness, it may not be a reality.
- Research indicates that people are happier when productive, and that may be harder outside a career.
My Thoughts: In my view, the most valid point raised is the question of happiness after FIRE is achieved (I also agree we should always be skeptical of folks trying to “sell us something”, but don’t see that as a major flaw in the FIRE movement. I think it’s also fair to mention that there are likely more FIRE followers who don’t blog than do. While this comment questions the blogging element of FIRE, it’s not fair to throw the non-bloggers under the same bus).
But, more importantly, on to the “happiness” question:
As I was moving toward retirement, I did a lot of research on the topic of happiness after retirement, which I summarized in my post “Will Retirement Be Depressing”. For the record, I agree with Phil that this element of early retirement is not covered to the extent that it should be. Having said that, I also provide some suggestions on how to ensure you’ll avoid some of the traps that cause depression in retirement in the post mentioned above. I’ve implemented those steps, and I’ve found my retirement to be anything but depressing. I agree more should be written about the topic, and agree with Phil that this is a valid point regarding the FIRE movement. Too many folks focus on the financial side of early retirement, but true happiness requires an equal (or greater) focus on the “non-financial” aspects of retirement. I suspect we’ll see a natural shift as more of the FIRE bloggers achieve RE.
(For the record, this is why I’ve been writing a larger % of my posts about the “soft” side of retirement. Now that I’m in retirement, I realize the importance of the non-financial topics in achieving a great retirement. I also realize it’s not covered to the same extent as the financial side, so I’m doing my part to rectify the situation.)
Subjective Score: 80% Skepticism is good, and there should be more written about the “softer” side of happiness post-RE.
2. FIRE As A Marketing Scheme
FIRE bloggers are too much like multi-tiered marketing sales people.
Blogger: “You should save a lot of money to retire early.”
Blogger: “It will give you freedom to pursue more creative pursuits.”
Reader: “Like what?”
Blogger: “Blogging. Take my course!”
Not everyone wants to be a lifestyle influencer. Not everyone has a creative bent that they will be able to finally express when free from a job. FIRE bloggers need to discuss the reality of finding productive outlets for people who are not FIRE bloggers.
What’s The Point? Phil argues that FIRE bloggers don’t broaden the discussion on post-FIRE productivity options beyond the common approach of monetizing a blog (or creating a course). FIRE bloggers should dedicate more page space to discussing alternative outlets.
My Thoughts: I’d frame this issue more as a question of how applicable some of the FIRE blogger advice is to folks who don’t blog, especially as it relates to options around finding an outlet which provides productivity and joy after early retirement. I’ve written extensively on the topic, and I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned anything about monetizing a blog. Perhaps I’m unique, but in my 4 years of blogging, I’ve always tried to write with the reader in mind, and the vast majority of my readers don’t blog. So, I write about ways of “normal” people to find a Purpose after retirement. In 5 Keys To A Great Retirement, I provide a summary of the top 5 keys from two decades of retirement research, none of which focus on being a lifestyle influencer. For most folks, however, there are almost unlimited options to find a Purpose. I agree with Phil on the importance of the topic, but I also understand that most bloggers write about what they know. I don’t have a major issue with this one, but I do agree on the importance of stressing wider options which apply to a greater audience.
Subjective Score: 50% I agree that we would benefit if a higher percentage of FIRE blogger content focused on “finding productive outlets for people who are not FIRE bloggers”, but I disagree that this “plague” affects all bloggers. Many bloggers discuss the post-FIRE lifestyle more holistically and do not warrant the “multi-scheme marketing” label.
3. FIRE Is An Escape From Reality
Many young people who latch on to FIRE really just need to get some coping skills. It is painful to read the blogs of the youngest bloggers and Redditors who have some dream of living off of a half-million dollars for the rest of their lives by “embracing frugality.” Work is hard. Building a career is hard. Raising a family and taking on the financial commitment it requires is hard. You know what else is hard? EVERYTHING WORTH DOING.
Simply put, for too many, FIRE is running from the harsh world to the pleasant, but fantastical dream of complete freedom. There is no such thing. To paraphase my favorite line in my favorite movie: “Life is pain, snowflakes. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
What’s The Point? Phil argues that some FIRE advocates pursue the dream as an escape from reality, and are unwilling to endure the pain required to achieve true success.
My Thoughts: I hate “snowflakes” as much as anyone, and detest the idea of “safe places” creeping into our University system. That said, I don’t think this argument is valid for the legitimate FIRE community. If there’s ANYONE who appreciates the rewards of sacrifice and hard work, it’s someone who’s saving 50%+ of their income in order to achieve the dream of FI. In fact, I would argue that they’re a better example of hard work and sacrifice than someone who is following a more traditional pursuit to retirement, given their willingness to voluntarily make the extreme sacrifices required to achieve early retirement. I suspect there are some “illegitimate FIRE followers” who are fair to criticize, but I see that as a minority percentage of the FIRE community as a whole.
Subjective Score: 10% I argue that legitimate FIRE advocates are a great example of sacrifice and pain for a longer-term goal. I’ll maintain the 10% rating for those “illegitimate” members of the FIRE community who view the dream of early retirement as an escape but aren’t willing to make the required sacrifices. It’s a minority of FIRE population, in my view.
4. FIRE Folks Don’t Really Retire
Very few FIRE bloggers actually live off of their passive income. Here is my biggest pet-peeve. FIRE bloggers are really people with second-careers, who have chosen lifestyle-influencing as that career. Sam Dogen appears to make six figures from his blog. Joe Udo is making $60k per year now. Montana Money Adventures just fessed up that she makes about $70k per year “consulting” and her husband has a military pension that puts her household income over six figures. Even Justin at Root of Good covers a good chunk of his meager expenses with income from his blog and consulting. You know what these people are: part-time social influencers. They are not retired. They are entrepreneurs in the competitive and demanding field of social media content. Don’t get me started with MMM, who makes almost a half-million dollars a year from his blog.
Just tell the truth. No sane person seems to retire in their 30s or 40s without some income. Yes, income. Not assets, but INCOME. A pension, a side hustle, a blog, some rental properties, whatever. Human nature seems to strongly favor income over capital appreciation. I know of one FIRE blogging couple who is actually not hard into a second career as a for-profit lifestyle influencer – “Where We Be.” They seem to actually walk the walk, but they appear to be a very rare exception to the rule.
And here’s the thing – income takes work, with only one known exception – passive income from a diversified portfolio of investments. Right now, the most one could hope for would be in the range of 2% between the current S&P dividend yield and interest rates. That is half of the revered 4% rule. So, if you really want the ideal FIRE lifestyle of worry free passive income, and given the behavior of FIRE bloggers who indicate with their actions that “worry free” means not drawing down on a the principal of a portfolio, then be prepared to save 50x your current annual spending needs.
What’s The Point? Phil’s “biggest pet-peeve” is that folks in the FIRE community don’t really “retire”, but rather pursue second careers, often as “part-time social influencers”. As such, they are not retired.
My Thoughts: It is from this comment that I derived the title of today’s post, and Phil’s comment reflects a common criticism of the FIRE community. Many view the FIRE Community as being hypocritical, given the reality that “RE” often includes some form of (voluntary) work. I think the argument misses a very important point:The true value in achieving FIRE is the elimination of mandatory work. Click To Tweet
I addressed this exact issue in the post on which Phil left his comment (What The FIRE Movement Is All About – In One Word), and paste below my statement, verbatim, from that post. I continue to stand by the statement today:
Note: There’s some debate in the community on the meaning of the “RE” part of FIRE, given that many FIRE advocates continue to “work” after they “Retire”. Fair enough. What’s important, however, is that achieving Financial Independence allows folks the freedom to do whatever they wish with their time. If that means continuing to work on things they enjoy, instead of pursuing a traditional Job for money, then I say “More Power To Them!”. Perhaps, as suggested by Dr. McFrugal in a comment on this post from FIideas, we should redefine RE as:
I recently read an excellent post on this topic from a very good FIRE blogger Financial 180 titled “FI Without RE“, which won a CampFireFinance award. The article is worth a read, but most relevant for today’s post is this line from the Conclusion in the post:
“Because FI isn’t about retirement. It never was. It’s about freedom.” FI180
Subjective Score: 20% I think this argument misses the true benefit of FIRE, the Freedom From Mandatory Work. Given that many in the FIRE community also argue about the moniker, there is some validity to the point that “continuing to work” after “RE” is confusing to the population at large and leads some to consider the FIRE Community to be “full of hypocrites”, hence my 20% score to the comment. For those who spend a lot of time in the FIRE community blogosphere, there grows an understanding of what “RE” is all about, and there’s acceptance of those who CHOOSE to work when, in reality, they could CHOOSE not to. That’s a huge difference from the majority of folks who live a life without the freedom to choose. My BFF (wink) Steve at ThinkSaveRetire makes frequent mention of the “Retirement Police”, a joking reference many in the FIRE community have adopted as a term to summarize this criticism.
Phil ends his comment with the following paragraph:
The FIRE community needs to address these issues. Bloggers need to be more transparent with their readers / customers. Bloggers are selling a product and they should accountable for the accuracy of their claims. Many of them have good intentions, but good intentions do not guarantee good results. People with problems and challenges come across your blogs, read your ideas and make life decisions based on what they find. Hopefully, FIRE bloggers will work harder to present the positives and negatives
Subjective Score: 40% If you average the subjective scores on each of the 4 issues raised, you’ll come up with 40%. I think that’s a reasonable overall score for the questions about the FIRE Community raised in Phil’s comment. He did a nice job with his summary comment above, and I think we’d all be wise to spend some time in self-reflection to consider how we can continually improve the messaging of what the FIRE philosophy is all about.
While you may think this post was about questioning whether The FIRE Community is Full of Hypocrites, I had a more sinister motive behind my words. My real challenge to you today is to avoid the pervasive reaction of disagreement so prevalent in our society today.
If your initial reaction on reading the title of this post was to feel an escalation of blood pressure and an involuntary moment of rage, this conclusion is particularly important for you.
If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that involuntary reaction.
Learn to stop and think before you react to something you disagree with.
If nothing else, learn to challenge yourself to practice analytical thinking versus our increasingly normal reaction of rejecting alternative thought before we’ve taken time to consider if the alternative point of view has merit.
Is the FIRE community full of hypocrites? No. There are elements which confuse the general public, but I think it’s unfair to label the FIRE movement as hypocritical. Most FIRE folks that I know are honest hard working people who are simply trying to take an aggressive approach in life to build more Freedom.
Does the FIRE community have room for improvement? Sure.
Then again, Don’t We All?