Why I’ve changed my mind about the FI/RE ‘movement’

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 pride and 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 suggesting 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. I was correctly anchored. But 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 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. What the FI/RE community does not address is how to fill the 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 energy in optimising your weekly shop or calculating your 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. Not overly focussing on numbers is good. But boosting your income even in a small way will provide many benefits and control of your financial future.
  • Be comfortable 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 have the answer to this myself, because until now I’ve also been a dogmatic, STEM educated FI/RE proponent. 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.

*Please note this post contains affiliate links, meaning that if you buy something through this link we will get a small commission. This will help towards the running costs of this blog.

8 thoughts on “Why I’ve changed my mind about the FI/RE ‘movement’”

  1. Nicely written post – I think ‘burn out’ from FIRE is common – lots of blogs starting, all guns ablazing on frugality, savings rates, net worths, side hustles galore etc, only to disappear without a trace after a few months or to slowly evolve into something else, which is not FIRE.

    The reason for the drop out I think is lack of the equilibrium you mention, the balance. Extreme FIRE cannot be sustained long term, except by a select few – most will just give up along the way because it’s no way to live one’s life. Mr Money Mustache put me on the path to FIRE but I’m no Mustachian.

    I think I’ve been able to tread the FIRE path for so long because I don’t live and breath FIRE (I’m not a dragon haha…sorry!). I spend a lot of my spare time being unproductive – time which other FIRE types would spend hustling for more income, reading to educate themselves on finance or on how to make more money etc. My spare time is spent reading fiction, watching tv and playing video games. Since aiming for FIRE, I have become more interested in investing itself but I don’t think I obsess over it.

    I avoid the heated discussions between different FIRE factions (and I think there are factions), places like Reddit or MMM’s forum are the worst. I like reading about other people’s journeys to FIRE, not to seek assurance that I’m doing the right thing (because I know I am) but because I am interested in how other people are doing it.

    At the end of your article, I was left wondering what changes you will make to your own journey to FIRE (if any?)

    1. Hi Weenie, thank you for your comment. I think increasing my capacity to earn more money is a key area of expansion. I already do work as much as I can through my job and matched betting, but I’m not particularly a huge fan of either. I’m currently (and constantly) trying to figure out how I can do this. Although I won’t accept any compromise that impacts on my simple life – right now my biggest asset is time, but it won’t be that way forever.

  2. I’ve just come across this and thorougly enjoyed the read.
    As someone who has a STEM background and 15 years of work experience and drudgery under my belt, I have been through it all a few times.
    My epiphany of sorts happened before I had started working and when I read that our retirements were not guarranteed by anyone (except ourselves) and most people would end up destitute – so for me the call to arms was then. The huge number of people who are younger, more eager than me are in some ways totally naive – thinking that a 10+ year plan to FI/RE won’t conincide with them changing their world view and expectations. Dogma is dogma and my fear is that FI/RE will give rise to partially satisfied but stunted individuals – afterall, if you really want to drop out then there’s no shortage of hippy communes available.

    On “optimisation” or counting every penny – I would do that regardless, my money blueprint is deep and I’ve always converted £/100g or whatever in shops and looked for the cheapest deal – but it doesn’t stop us spending like sailors in our family. Life is not about money but money is about life.

    1. Hi GFF, I agree with your comment about the ‘partially satisfied by stunted individuals’ comment – because the nature of FI/RE is mostly front loaded (i.e. getting everything in place), there is very little in the community to offer meaningful goals along the way. Without this, when they reach their FI/RE maturity, what is to say they will have really achieved anything?

  3. > However the domination of STEM subjects and objective reasoning coarsens the fabric of life.

    Nicely put, “coarsens the fabric of life”, amen bro’

    That Oscar Wilde fellow had it nailed – “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”

    and I am one of these STEM geeks 😉

    1. Hi Ermine, thank you for commenting, I’ve followed yours for many years! I think that the majority of us are indeed STEM geeks and that the community naturally self selects. But recognising there are many beautiful paths in life that don’t revolve around counting money or even requiring it – that’s the difference.

      Your recent article did bring out my STEM-ness a little though, I’ll admit! https://simplelivingsomerset.wordpress.com/2020/11/11/on-paying-for-an-arts-education/

  4. This is an excellent post. The FI community is wonderful.

    But many of the benefits of FI can be realized long before a magical number is reached. It’s not binary: free or not free. Financial discipline unlocks freedom along a spectrum. Our freedom to pursue work we love grows as our investments grow.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Chris. I like the concept of FI, but it does suit those people who think about it in a binary way, as you said. If all we do is work and delay until we reach a magic number we are sure to be disappointed, as we won’t have mentally prepared for the challenges of a potentially inactive and identityless retirement.

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