May 24, 2020

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of articles circulating around which talk about FIRE (Financial Independence and Early Retirement). Articles like these:

Meet the people trying to save enough to retire by 40

The Fire movement: why millennials are saving so they can retire decades early

How to turn your retirement plan into an early retirement plan

Here’s Why the FIRE Early-Retirement Movement Has Become Such a Hot Topic

In case you haven’t yet heard of it, the rationale behind FIRE can be described as follows:

“The message is simple: set aside almost everything you make for a few years, grow your money in the financial market with DIY investing, and set sail into super-early retirement as soon as you’ve saved enough.”

Now, I don’t want to be too down about FIRE or spread any misconceptions. I think it’s great to promote better money management, normalize investment and show that even those without high incomes can achieve wealth. In fact, I frequently refer to information from the FIRE community. There’s just always been one little aspect that doesn’t really resonate with me.

The idea that instead of going after what we want now, we should focus on saving money so that we have the freedom to do what we want later in life.

I’m all for sacrificing a little bit of comfort now — a cheap car, a run-down apartment, second-hand clothes. But the idea of putting my whole life on hold for a couple of decades seemed a little excessive.

This feeling was confirmed to me when I was reading an article about Kristy Shen and Bruce Leung. The couple has recently been in the press a lot due to retiring at the impressive age of 31. Inspiring? Maybe. Yet I was deeply disturbed to read the following passage:

“Since retiring she is so much happier — at one point, her job made her so miserable she was on anxiety and depression medication”

If there are people out there who are willing to put themselves through hell and suffer mental health problems for their entire twenties — maybe their thirties too, if they aren’t as conscientious as Shen and Leung — then more power to them. But this could never be the life for me.

Personally, I have no aspirations to retire at all, as long as I stay healthy and can make some small amount of money doing something I enjoy. It would be tempting to write a whole critique based on that. Yet I know that this would be unfair and surface level; most people who follow FIRE don’t advocate ‘retirement’ in the sense of sitting around doing jigsaws all day. Many people in the community retire from their full-time jobs and then decide to focus on a creative pursuit or an alternative career instead. Or maybe they just choose to work fewer hours and take longer holidays.

Yet I find this even more troubling.

If the goal was never truly about stopping working, why not just go after what you really wanted to do in the first place?

Now, I know that it’s not that simple. If you have dependents or debt, ensuring you have a large enough income coming in is extremely important. Even if you don’t have any of these obligations, but you’re living paycheck to paycheck, increasing your income is going to be top of your priorities list. If you’re saving a specific amount for a specific goal which is very important to you, then it also makes sense to sacrifice your present self until you can reach that goal.

Basically, most people will experience some intervals in their life where money is the top priority.

Yet it seems like a very drastic decision to spend the majority of your young years this way, slaving away at a job you don’t care for whilst living extremely frugally. Why? Just so that, at the age of 40, you can finally do what you wanted to all along.

Granted, it makes a lot more sense than spending the majority of your life slaving away at a job you don’t care for, just to live lavishly in the present and then be able to do what you wanted to do all along when you’re 70.

But what if there’s another option? What about just designing the life you actually want?

Since most people who advocate FIRE are happy to live frugally and intend to work during their ‘retirement’, I would question why they didn’t just opt for a job they like with a low salary in the first place. They might not be able to save anything to start with, but after twenty years they could even end up richer. Minus the mental health problems and the knowledge that they’ve wasted twenty years of their life already.

I’m going to be frank here. Other than in the situations I’ve outlined above and other exceptional scenarios, focusing purely on money just seems like the easy option. Because even when it’s nicely packaged up as financial independence, at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about: making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.

The FIRE way of thinking is extremely risk-averse at best. At worst, it is completely delusional.

If what you really want is to be able to spend more time with your family, why not just work fewer hours your whole life instead of working crazy hours when they’re young then stopping working altogether when they’re older? If what you really want to travel, why not just find a way to make a sustainable living whilst you travel — whether that’s digitally or through picking up casual work along the way? If what you really want is to be an artist, you could try to find an imaginative or boring way to commercialize the type of art you want to make, or at least focus on honing your craft whilst holding down a less intensive job?

Yes, I know I’m slightly missing the point. If you follow my advice, you won’t accumulate a nest egg in the same way.

But I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t invest. You should. I just don’t see the point in putting everything else on hold so that you can invest as intensively as possible while you’re young. I don’t think that’s the only way to achieve financial security.

You’re not just investing your money. You’re also investing your time.

I’m investing in my education and learning. I’m investing in my relationships with my family, my boyfriend, my close friends and my network. I’m investing in the websites and businesses that I want to start now. I’m investing in improving my skillset.

I hope that doing this will enable me to secure a career I won’t ever want to retire from. I hope that doing this will make me richer, yet I accept that it might well make me poorer. But hey, at least I will have tried.