Why The FIRE Movement Isn’t Really About Money

At the recent FinCon18 conference, I attended a panel titled…


At the recent FinCon18 conference, I attended a panel titled “Four Flavors of FI/RE.”

It was organized to give influential voices in the FIRE (financial independence / retire early) community space to interact, share stories from their financial journey, and answer audience questions.

I first learned about the FI/RE movement when I joined the Tiller team back in 2015. The FIRE movement is built on simple math: if you save more and spend less, you can stop working once you’ve saved 25 times more than you spend in a year.

For example, prominent FIRE advocate Mr. Money Mustache’s family spends about $30,000 a year according to his blog. This requires an investment account of $750,000 to sustain. (More on Mr. Money Mustache below.)

After coming across some tweets from the Mustachian back then, and exploring his blog, I thought the idea of retiring at 30 was absurd. How could anyone possibly make enough to live the rest of their lives comfortably by the time they were 30? Wouldn’t there be undue stress over money when you quit working?

These questions were still on my mind as I sat in the chilly hotel conference room drinking half-frozen coffee from the day before. And as I watched the four panelists interact before the session started, it was clear this wasn’t the first time they’d been in a room together.

Four Flavors of FIRE Panelists
Four Flavors of FIRE Panelists

Mr. Money Mustache was leaning over toward the guy on his right talking intently with a quick smile and laugh here and there. I was eager to hear what he had to say about financial independence, having read his blog and admired his sustainably minded lifestyle for the past few years.

When the session got rolling, and after a few moments of hearing these folks speak, it was clear this movement isn’t about money. It’s about happiness, freedom, and the option to live life in line with your values.

This movement isn’t about money. It’s about happiness, freedom, and the option to live life in line with your values.

Defining Independence by Defying Consumerist Culture

Seeking financial independence for these four bloggers stems from part burnout and part desire to defy the consumerist culture that’s prevalent in the United States.

Carl Jensen from 1500 Days was tired of the daily grind and trying to live up society’s expectations of him. When he found the Mr. Money Mustache blog he knew this was the next step for his life.

Many people credit Pete Adeney (AKA Mr. Money Mustache) for starting this movement, and often cite his post, The Shockingly Simple Math of Early Retirement, as their starting point in this journey. But Pete is just a super frugal guy who got tired of working a job he didn’t love.

As a child he was “wired to be super efficient with every decision” and this helped him get ahead with his money and ultimately his early retirement. Of course, he still makes money from his blog and other side hustles, but he prioritizes “doing work he would do for free” because his heart is in it.

This movement gets a lot of criticism as being for “white male software engineers” but Jillian Johnsrud of Montana Money Adventures definitely breaks this mold. A mother of 6, she retired early after bootstrapping all her life.

“There’s shame and embarrassment when you grow up poor and so when you have a little money it’s a hard choice to not look poor and build wealth,” she said when asked about challenges on the path to early retirement.

Many of the panelists echoed the challenge of looking the part and fitting in vs building your wealth and choosing freedom.

“Social pressure can cause you to feel the need to upgrade your lifestyle,” says Mr. Money Mustache. He believes the key to alleviating this pressure is being confident in your decisions about how you spend and earn, taking a joyful approach to life, and embracing that you’re a little different.

Leaf from Physician on FIRE had a similar sentiment that there’s a fear of losing respect or not meeting expectations when you choose early retirement. For him the pivotal moment in making this choice was realizing he didn’t want to be missing out on time with his family because of work.

Does financial independence mean instant happiness?

The answer is clearly no. “You won’t be instantly happier when you leave your job,” said Carl. He believes our culture tends to idolize people with a lot of money, but money is not the goal.

He asserts that happiness is the goal, and money is only a facilitator of achieving that goal. Mr. Money Mustache echoed that finding what makes you happy is a lifelong journey, and you have bad days even when you’re retired. There is still the challenge to be present, express gratitude, and try to enjoy each moment.

“Retirement isn’t about doing nothing,” said Jillian. “It’s about having the time and freedom to do the things you’re passionate about.”

Regardless of whether you’re on your way to early retirement, have already achieved FI, or not even considering it, one inspiring message came across consistently from these four early retirees:

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Don’t postpone your happiness. Do that by investing time in what fulfills you, having gratitude, and finding joy in the little things.” quote=”Don’t postpone your happiness. Do that by investing time in what fulfills you, having gratitude, and finding joy in the little things.”]

The work will always be there, but the moments you miss with friends, family, and yourself because of worry, stress, or work will not.

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