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Around 5 years ago I began a quest to save enough money to live a life that I wanted. I had just moved away to start a new job after a long stint working for a consultancy and the new job hit me hard. Before long I was looking for an escape, but my pride and my grim persistence wouldn’t let me leave the new job before I had given it a chance. I had anxiety and confided in my closest – and the internet. Within a week the FI/RE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) movement had caught my attention and swallowed me whole.
My first experiences of reading the big-hitting early retirement blogs were positive (and remain so). Writers such as Mr Money Mustache were pushing forward an idea that even I could retire early on a slightly above average wage. I still believe this of course and the idea of having financial freedom remains incredibly alluring. In my case it would give me freedom to practice otium – a state of freedom away from business and working life and a freedom to choose how to spend my time.
Before long I had set up automatic investments into index trackers, set up spreadsheets to identify where my spending was going and trying to boost my income where I could. And this is where I started to get disconnected.
At it’s core the principles of FI/RE are laissez-faire – regular investment, reduce spending and boost income. Unless you are doing something different (and fair play to you), in order to really embody the philosophy you have to subscribe to a ‘set and forget’ strategy. If this is the case and it really is this straightforward then why is the FI/RE community getting so much attention?
The truth is that the middle ground between starting saving and early retirement is filled with a cacophony of dogma, over-analysis and status signalling. This fills the gap for those stuck in the middle (myself included), who are constantly looking for verification that they are on the right track.
Soon an group identity is borne, one of lauding and profiting from capitalism, whilst at the same time emitting a war-cry of counter-culture and originality. Of course I have nothing against this group identity per-se because I think it genuinely has good intentions at heart. But to keep the momentum going, it is fuelled by one thing: optimisation.
The Sanctity of Optimisation
Optimisation is the currency of the FI/RE movement’s group identity. Although members of the group would say that their cooperation towards a common goal is how progress is made, there is always a cost to progress. So there must also be a cost to optimisation.
Optimisation is engrained into our evolutionary wiring and is the wellspring of all great innovations and inventions. There are no natural limits to man’s ability to optimise and therein lies the problem. You can never optimise enough and what the FI/RE community does not address is how to fill the middle gap with anything other than numbers and calculations. There exists a dichotomy:
- If you follow the route of optimisation, you are potentially diverting mental resources away from things that might be more important
- If you don’t follow the route of optimisation, you are not part of the group.
The first point for me is the most poignant. No-one can tell you what your raison d’etre is. This has to come from you – all I am saying is that it is probably not sitting at home counting your money.
An Alternative ‘Middle Ground’
Nowadays STEM subjects dominate school curricula, precisely because in doing so it creates more productive workers. However the domination of STEM subjects and objective reasoning coarsens the fabric of life. There is little wiggle-room for emotions, creativity and contemplation. Even when a practice like mindfulness hits the mainstream, it is seen as a countermeasure to ‘real life’ – a life where spreadsheets, long hours and monotony are a day-to-day experience.
In my eyes, the success of the FI/RE movement was partially a product of high-achieving successful STEM / Silicone Valley types, who propose that saving a huge amount of money is within anyone’s reach. Of course this is a lofty goal for most – while it’s true that anyone can achieve early retirement, there are personal risks and limits to what you are willing to do to get there. By putting so much time and energy in optimising your weekly shop or calculations of future net worth, you risk being the ultimate passenger – sitting at home watching a pandemic-ridden world go by, whilst investing in index funds and riding the waves of the cream of the capitalist crop.
The solution is to claw back some of your life from the chasm of optimisation. To do this, you might choose to take a position contrary to being efficient – sometimes life is messy, so give yourself some time to be messy yourself. Stop being anxious about money and instead focus energy into other uses of your time. And don’t focus on being productive!
If you don’t have any interests outside of money, then find some. Even if you do nothing for a while, forgive yourself for doing so. Here are some things you might consider:
- Limit consumption of the news, but if you must then contemplative study of opinion pieces is helpful. Perspecs News is an interesting site where you can get coverage of both sides of an argument for today’s news.
- Consider your physiological needs. At the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are food, water, warmth and rest. Most people that will be reading this blog have probably got water and warmth covered, but what about food and rest? Take time to learn to cook and switch off.
- Rebuild connections. Skype and Zoom aren’t really substitutions for real connection, but at the present moment they are great tools.
- Try learning one craft for a few weeks. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but expression and creativity is paramount. Examples include drawing, writing, dancing and storytelling.
- Read philosophy. There are some very good entry level books, such as Jules Evan’s ‘Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations‘.
- Increase your Income. I know I mentioned not to get focussed on the numbers, but boosting your income even in a small way will give you all sorts of benefits, namely a sense of control of your financial future.
- Be comfortable with the fact that what you are doing is the best you can do to secure your financial future, and that it may take a very long time.
Above all, the whole point of FI/RE is to give you time to focus on things you love, or work on actions that will be beneficial to the world. If you don’t need money to achieve it, why aren’t you doing it now? I don’t exactly have the answer to this myself, because until now I’ve also been a dogmatic, STEM educated proponent of FI/RE. And regardless of my opinion of it, everyone has their own reasoning. But surely there is an equilibrium to be had.
The end doesn’t always justify the means
Striving for financial independence is clearly a worthwhile cause for many. However the journey has to have meaning, otherwise what are you really achieving? If you are like me, this is something that pure numbers and logic cannot satisfy.
The FI/RE movement still holds many valuable lessons, and as a group the community can help people stay motivated on their journey. And of course, money accounts for a high proportion of the macro-ratio for a fulfilling life. But beneath the noise and the hubris of people who have already reached their target, you are still the same person, capable of finding profound meaning in the sub-optimal.
To my readers
I’m aware that the FI/RE community provides a great deal of comfort to some people, and this is not meant to be a tirade against the movement as a whole. It is purely an observation that the true principles central to the core of Mustachianism are getting forgotten in place of hyper-rational discussions focussed purely on numbers, investing decisions and arguments about the 4% rule.
What I would love to see is more engaging conversation around how people on the path to early retirement are choosing to spend their time creatively. Please let me know what you think in the comments.