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?
For me anyway, FIRE doesn’t have anything to do with religion or morals or anything. I think the individual can do whatever they like with their life and personally I think it’s a great goal to have to not have to RELY on the paycheck from someone else to take care of oneself or family. I think my only beef is when people in that status look down on someone else because they struggle financially or are not like them or they are in not as easy of a position to achieve FIRE.
I understand these questions might not apply equally to everyone, but by “is it good” I mean not just morally, but is it healthy and will it bring fulfillment/happiness? Everyone does do what they want with their life, but will it work and bring the results they hope for in the long term? That is a question we should all wrestle with regardless of our philosophical leanings. But like you, I can’t see any compelling reasons why achieving flexibility or independence from relying on a paycheck couldn’t be a great position.
I agree that it’s so important not to judge those on different financial paths, to have compassion, and to recognize those advantages we have to be grateful for.
I just went through Luke 13 and while there are several stories there, I’m not seeing the connection you talk about to any of them. Would you spell it out for me with the verses?
The question, “since God is giving me the opportunity to earn all this money, am I doing what God wants with it?” has bugged me a great deal since I haven’t felt much direction in the area. There’s certainly no shortage of good things to do but for a time I was feeling pretty stressed trying to decide between trying to maximize total lifetime giving vs being independent of employment as quickly as possible so I could give myself to a cause. Eventually, what I realized was I didn’t believe in God enough to trust that it was OK not having an answer immediately. Joke was on me.
A mildly inspirational story: an acquaintance from a church I used to attend used several high-earning years in tech immediately post-college to pay off a small condo making their family financially independent from the high-paying job and free to take a low paying job with a youth outreach charity in an HCOL area. Not your classic FIRE story since their family is still dependent on a paycheck (I think the spouse transitioned to be a home maker when their child was born) though independent of a large one.
Sorry for the confusion; it’s Luke 12, not 13. I’ve corrected it and included the text from vv. 13-21.
There is a constant tension between providing for myself and others, now and in the future. I’m curious: what led you to believe God should provide an immediate answer to your question?
Thank you for sharing this story. This is more along the lines of the type of way we’d like to use (relative) FIRE–for a bigger purpose. Maybe not total FIRE, but greater flexibility and the chance to take volunteer opportunities we might not otherwise be able to entertain.
Intellectually I knew that Christian theology says that God doesn’t owe me anything. Emotionally, I wanted to know what to do with my life and it took a while to realize that the stress over lack of direction was due to not having internalized that. The joke was on me in that I was causing my own stress.
A few thoughts here:
1) RE sounds wonderful for soooo many reasons. However, the term Early is non descriptive and can mean many things depending the person in question. Furthermore, when are we “supposed” to retire? But aside from those details/questions, my concern would be; RE at what cost? If I could do nothing more than casually watch my spending and save some, then the cost would be low to RE. However, I would say that many to most of us are not in that position. For me to RE, I would need to watch my spending very carefully, cut back whenever possible, and possibly add income options. My cost would be slightly higher. For some, it could become a full time, moment to moment commitment. Regarding income options, I could easily get a second job and work nights and weekends and then I would really be on my way to RE. But what is the cost of that? My point is, if I sacrifice or pollute my pre-retirement years to RE, how sweet will that RE really be?
2) Can FIRE become your new idol, God, or for the non-religious folks, your new obsession? Even if FIRE can come relatively easily for you, if it is your main focus, or indicator of success, how emotionally/spiritually/socially healthy will that leave you? As stated by the OP, no one knows what life will bring. If you plan for FIRE by age 50 and then “life ” happens and you need to go back to work, did you fail? Did everything you worked for get taken from you? Are you a victim? Having proper perspective on FIRE as well as a sound back up plan should be part of every FIRE discussion.
Thank you for a great conversation here.
Great points–well said and I absolutely agree. There is no point to racing toward a finish line while being miserable, miserly, or simply obsessed along the way. A healthy perspective on FIRE, and living for that bigger purpose all along the way, seem like good safeguards against the dangers you point out.
There are many “retire early” folks who live in RVs and travel around the country either doing Habitat for Humanity builds or volunteering to do disaster relief tasks. That seems to me to be as nearly perfect as life can get.
Sounds like one great way to spend early retirement!
Fully agree, what a perfect way to spend your time – giving to others!
I never thought of myself as an early retiree until I started reading FIRE blogs. I was in my mid 50s when I started reading one of the better known blogs in this genre. After about a month of following it and reading some others I noticed that many of those “early retirees” were doing the same things I had been doing for 20 years. A light turned on on my head as I thought “I must have retired early without knowing it.” I’m not sure what the modern definition of retirement is. I just try to teach the young people in my life that having savings and investments leaves you free to turn down jobs that you don’t feel good about doing.
There are so many trending topics that are really throwbacks or just what many sensible people have been doing for a long time. I love that you lived reasonably and ended up retiring early without it being a big to-do. And that is also wonderful that you have been passing along this wisdom to those around you!
At the end of the day, its a personal choice.
Do I have the courage to go against what society expects of me? And if I do have to accept the risks associated with that!
Or I follow all the rest like a sheep – BUT I have to accept the risks that go with that also. There are no guarantees in life!
We all have our choices and we should make them according to our values, desires etc. There will always be others who critize, but they will be there no matter the choices you make.
I nice article, thanks Neil!
You’re so right that we accept risks and criticism whatever path we choose. We have wrestled with whether the personal choice fits with our values, and at the end of the day, we can’t see why it wouldn’t be beneficial to be a position of financial flexibility so long as we are true to our values along the way.
This was a blessing to me. We won’t be able to make early retirement in any way as I am about to turn 50 this year. We are nowhere near able to retire but I love everything you said here as we close in on a whole new time of life. We are almost done raising 7 children and we do have some money put away. I loved financial flexibility and what our focus is. I was able to put the directions we have been talking about before God and sit at His feet and I was thankful for the answers. Thank you for posting this it was confirmation and an answer to prayer. Have a great week.
Raising 7 children–what an accomplishment! I’m so glad you found this encouraging and that you’ve been able to follow God’s plans for your family and find fulfillment there.
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