The Raging FIRE Debate (And Why I Think Everyone Is Asking the Wrong Questions)
The Financial Independence/Early Retirement is making national news left and right. It’s been featured in many major media outlets, from Forbes to PBS. The secret is out: more and more people are opting out of work in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they claim it’s really not that hard to do.
On top of all that, Suzy Orman has come out of retirement and stated no one should ever retire early, kindling a fierce debate. She claims there is no “safe” amount of money to save because you never know what will happen.
We’ve had our own qualms about FIRE movement, yet are on track to retire long before age 60. But the questions we’ve wrestled with are perhaps a bit different than the ones that get debated so often in this space.
There’s no doubt in my mind that many people can save enough to retire early. I fully acknowledge that we don’t know how much the future costs. We don’t know exactly how much raising kids will cost. We don’t know exactly how much aging and health care will cost. And we don’t know what unexpected challenges or opportunities life may bring.
What I do know is that our income happens to be more than we feel is reasonably necessary to spend. And as we aren’t making an extraordinary amount of money or living an extremely frugal lifestyle, I imagine there are many, not all, but many who could save enough to exit early, too.
Our question about early retirement isn’t whether it’s possible, but is it good? Is it spiritually wise? Passages like Luke 12:13-21 should leave us wary of socking away so much wealth that we never have to work again. Give it a quick read:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
A far as I can tell, the real problem isn’t that the man in the story was rich, or was able to retire early, but rather: 1. He thought he didn’t need God, and 2. How he planned to spend his retirement.
We’ve always hesitated to latch onto the phrase “financial independence” (the first half of FIRE) because we view ourselves as ultimately dependent beings. We are not in total control of our health, our opportunities, our circumstances, or even our aptitudes. This is not to say that we aren’t dynamic beings who are responsible for our choices We just aren’t the end-all, be-all of our existence. We also want to acknowledge that we have abilities and opportunities we didn’t deserve or earn. While highly valuing our ability to make choices that impact our lives, we simultaneously see our talents, intellect, employment, and money itself all as provisions from God.
So while I know people use FI to refer to a mathematical reality, i.e., I don’t need to keep earning money from work, we prefer the term “financial flexibility.” First off, it doesn’t declare an independence we don’t believe is possible. And secondly, it suggests a continuum along which we are always moving. We can have the same mathematical/financial goal as someone pursuing “FI,” but we want our terms to reflect our worldview.
Our other qualm with FIRE is how retirement is to be spent. The common objections of “you’ll be bored,” “you’ll miss work,” or “who wants to golf all the time?” again fall flat for me. There are no end of interesting ways to spend your time outside of full-time employment. And I’m sure most early retirees continue to work at something, and often continue to earn money. People who are smart, talented, and hard-working enough to retire early probably aren’t decaying in front of Netflix or endlessly golfing.
The subject in Luke 12 has the hedonistic goal to “eat, drink, and be merry.” For those of us who don’t happen to struggle with gluttony, it would still be tempting to indulge in a different type of hedonism: self-improvement. This could look like learning new skills, a new language, reading, exercising, creating….but if it’s all about a better me, I’m still living a different version of “be merry.”
The sad ending of the Luke 12 parable is that “tomorrow you die.” And whether you live to 18 or 80, we all die some “tomorrow.” Human life is short, and it’ll be over before we know it. The only way to outlast ourselves is to live for eternity, for a purpose bigger than us. So by all means, we should invest in ourselves, but all self-improvement should serve the purpose of improving the lives of others.
So we only feel okay with RE if we use our freedom as a way to serve others. What will that look like? We’ll let God show us as the time draws near. Which is not to say we have no ideas, but if it’s going to service-oriented, we want to be sensitive to needs and opportunities as they arise. Next time I’ll talk about the key to pursuing FIRE without getting burned.
What are your qualms about financial independence/early retirement? Are they mathematical or moral?