If You Don’t Understand the FIRE Movement, Read This

Do you think the FIRE movement is a little cult-y? That the people who support it are a little too into it?

Does the idea of early retirement seem like a novelty and not something reasonable?

Or do you think that it all simply doesn’t make sense? Why scrimp and save for years so you can stop working (retire early) and then continue to live a life where you scrape by on as little as possible?

If so – then you believed the same things I did about the FIRE Movement.

But, like any advice I read online, rather than dismiss it and move on, I wanted to understand why people were such huge fans of it. If so many people love an idea, and I can’t see why, then I must spend more time trying to understand it because there’s something there. And there is.

Let’s unpack it and hopefully, you can come away with a greater understanding too:

Table of Contents
  1. My Perceptions of “How Life Worked”
  2. I’m Wary of “Cults”
  3. There’s No Single “Way”
  4. FIRE Is a Support Group
  5. FIRE Is Just Math
  6. You Define Your Retirement
  7. Conclusions

My Perceptions of “How Life Worked”

How you approach life is often influenced by how you were raised. My friend Ramit Sethi calls these invisible scripts and it’s important to understand that your view of the world is colored by these scripts. (By the way, if you read Ramit’s post, you’ll see how his first example of Indian culture is essentially how I was raised.)

My parents were first-generation immigrants to the United States and I learned from a very young age that my “job” was to do well in school. Grades were a priority because good grades meant you could get into a better college. 

I volunteered at a local hospital because my mom heard it was a good way to flesh out your application (which was great because I really enjoyed volunteering there, not something I would’ve thought about on my own).

I went to a great school for computer science and while I didn’t get good grades, I did graduate a semester early and got into a graduate program. I did well in the graduate program and those grades got me my first job.

I had reached, at least to that point, my first of many perceived goals. My high school performance was validated by getting into a good school. My college performance was validated by getting a good job. Now I just had to keep that job and all was okay!

Now you take the one skill I’ve learned through school (how to get good grades) and apply it to my life – what is my purpose?

To make money.

Good grades -> good school -> good job -> good income -> good life (duh, right?)

Simple enough right? Naturally, during my good job, I started a blog about money, it earned even better income, so I did that instead. Then I sold it.

Around the time I was running Bargaineering, I’d stumbled onto Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme. I enjoyed it because his austere systematic approach fit how I saw money, very engineer-y of me I suppose, and I didn’t think it was that extreme.

FIRE wasn’t yet a popular acronym, complete with all the baggage, and early retirement was a simple math equation. Save up your money (spend way less), invest it, and then retire when you want to… preferably earlier than the socially accepted and completely arbitrary date of 65.

I’m Wary of “Cults”

One of the more popular FIRE blogs is Mr. Money Mustache and Pete Adeney has often said that he started a cult.

The FIRE Movement has a lot of the hallmarks of a cult with one of them being very adamant fans who won’t stop talking about it. There’s an old joke about how the hardest part about running a marathon is working it into every conversation – sometimes it can feel like the FIRE Movement has that.

My initial turnoff was that this fairly simple idea (spend less and be frugal) was given an acronym that people latched onto and were very adamant about it.

What’s the big deal here? I didn’t understand why it was so popular.

It wasn’t until I realized that there were a lot of people who were stuck in jobs they absolutely hated. Some hated the work, some hated the stress, some hated the people, some hated the customers, … whatever the reason, they were miserable and couldn’t leave.

The FIRE Movement became their thing outside of work that allowed them to see greener grass. There was a thing to work towards rather than look at their own situation in despair. This is why there were so many fierce proponents of FIRE when you wouldn’t expect such an emotional charge over budgets and frugality.

Once I understood that extreme example, it became easier to understand how FIRE as a goal was a good thing for everyone (even those who were content with their jobs). There are many flavors and styles, from Fat FIRE to Coast FI, and these subcategories captured the entire spectrum of fans.

FIRE is a great goal (even if you don’t retire early) and getting yourself psyched up, however you do it, is a good thing.

There’s No Single “Way”

I grew up thinking everyone did the same thing – get good grades, get into a good college, and get a good job. There’s that invisible script again.

Once I started my own business and met more people, I learned that life is far more complicated than that. The path of a college professor is different than that of a physician or a dentist. Or a car mechanic or a plumber. Or anyone else really.

We don’t realize how much of our life is one big echo chamber. It’s like the hall of mirrors in Enter the Dragon.

When you go to an academically strong school, many of the students there are also on that same path. Good grades and a degree will lead to greater opportunities – a better job. Better jobs means more money – that’s the way. Confirmation all around you.

But if money is the goal, and it more or less is because that’s how you pay for things, then there are many paths to achieving it.

Don’t believe me? Call up a plumber and find how much it’ll cost to have them come out to diagnose your plumbing problem. In Washington D.C., it’s a minimum $100 per call fee just to show up.

Need HVAC services? Ha, it’s at least $100 to have them come out plus you have to wait a few days!

And they didn’t have to go to school for four years and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition. πŸ™‚

I had to get over this, and meeting some smart tradespeople helped, to fully understand the appeal of FIRE.

FIRE isn’t about a high income or a sexy job title.

It’s about building a life that you want to live.

It’s about abandoning what society (and marketing) deems is important and finding it for yourself. Marketing, especially around the holidays, says it’s totally normal to buy your spouse a luxury car with a massive red bow without consulting them.

Old financial rules of thumb say buying a house is better than renting because renting is “throwing your money away.” Ask a single woman how often her family asks her when she’ll get married. Ask a married childless woman how often she’s asked when she’ll have kids.

FIRE says you save up, invest wisely, and you can tell society to pound sand. I get that now.

FIRE Is a Support Group

Society isn’t about saving money and trying to invest it for the long term. It’s about short-term dopamine hits and YOLO – because marketing that lifestyle is more profitable!

As an aside, years ago, I remember promoting brokerages on Bargaineering and an affiliate manager told me that I needed to try to get more options trading accounts because they were more profitable. Telling people to just buy index funds wasn’t going to make them too much money because those accounts rarely traded. Trades generated commissions… buy and hold generated nothing!

So when you decide to abandon the socially acceptable YOLO culture, you need to find an echo chamber that echoes what you want – this is why I think FIRE has ballooned in popularity. If the people around you don’t support your pursuit of financial independence, you want to find the folks who do and use them as your support group.

As Pete said in building a cult, you have to create this us vs. them mentality. For that, you need an us.

FIRE Is Just Math

When you strip away any preconceived notions about what you should be doing or what is expected of you, it’s easy to see that an impersonal, non-judgmental view of FIRE is that it’s a math problem.

You can reach financial independence, it’s simple (but not easy). You just need to save enough money to fund the rest of your life. Whether that’s increasing your income, increasing the pace at which your wealth grows through investing, or decreasing your expenses – the math is clear. You just need to amass enough wealth so that, based on your rate of consumption, it can fund the rest of your life.

When you look at it from that perspective, there’s nothing to “get” because it’s like looking at someone’s budget. It’s a reflection of what they want. Your budget is a reflection of what you want. You may not agree with what their spending it on but it’s not your money to spend!

You Define Your Retirement

The second part of FIRE is what was hardest for me to understand – early retirement.

Early retirement is probably much harder than you may think.

As I shared in a guest post with Tanja on Our Next Life about what they don’t tell you about retiring early, I wasn’t prepared to “retire” after selling my first blog. Making the choice to abandon income is hard, especially if you’re young and have more in the tank.

When I heard about FIRE and how these folks were “retiring,” I found it difficult to believe because:

  1. I didn’t hate working or my job
  2. I never did the math of how much money I needed to fund the lifestyle I wanted
  3. Thought it was ridiculous people would retire before they had to

But it was easy to get over once I realized that:

  1. There are a lot of people who HATE their jobs
  2. There are a lot of people who have done the math (and they can also always go back to work)
  3. You can define retirement however you want!

Traditionally, when someone had a long career and retired in their sixties, they retired to a life of leisure. Those who wanted to continue contributing took on encore careers where compensation wasn’t monetary. It supported causes they believed in, social impact, personal meaning, and other reasons.

If you believe retirement only means the end of work, you believed what I believed about retirement. Retirement isn’t about not working, it’s about working on the things you want to. Your choices aren’t constrained by the need to earn a certain amount of income.

Conclusions

Everyone wants financial independence.

Not everyone wants to make the sacrifices it takes to save enough to retire “early,” whatever that means to them, and that’s totally OK. I think there are a lot of great takeaways from the FIRE movement even if you don’t want to retire early, or be extremely frugal, or anything else that you find unappealing about it.

I think the most valuable piece about it is that you have to be intentional with your decisions. Don’t do things simply because an invisible script says so – do it because it’s the right thing for you.

What are your biggest takeaways?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

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  1. FireGuy says

    Awesome article Jim! You reached many of the same conclusions I did, and MMM is an extreme example for sure, but a great stepping stone. Your summary is spot on – aim for FI, attain it in whatever manner fits your personality and lifestyle choices, THEN decide what you want to do with your freedom. Learn what you are wasting your money (aka TIME) on, then decide if it’s something worth delaying your freedom over. For some background on my wife and I: we are 51 and FI. I am no longer working my 23 year computer engineering job, and she quit her healthcare-related job 1.5 years ago. We are now out on the road in an RV (something she enjoyed with her grandparents growing up) are now devoting our time to making invaluable memories with our kids and grandkids. A huge side benefit is that they will see the value of changing your thoughts on money from an early age, and understand they don’t have to live by “the script”.

    • Jim Wang says

      That’s great that you were able to switch to this lifestyle at 51 and go from making money to making memories. I think that will have a huge positive impact on your kids and grandkids because they will see how you’re living your life, how you’re talking about it, and know that it doesn’t have to fit that “script.” The more people who “get” this, the better.

      And the best part is that you can pursue FI and keep working after you attain it! You don’t have to retire, you can do whatever you want – hence the term independence! πŸ™‚

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. Scott Hansen says

    Jim, I enjoy your news letters. You hit the mark on FI, Keep em coming!

    Im a 63 year young commercial fisherman. After our second child finished grad school I have reduced the time spent fishing away from my wife. I still have some fuel left to burn. I don’t want to use it all in the Bering sea. We are traveling more and spending as much time with family as their schedules allow.

    How would you recommend finding a reputable financial advisor?

    Scott

    • Jim Wang says

      Thanks for the kind words Scott!

      I think realizing that you want to step away from work but still have some left in the tank is a good thing. It’s hard to walk away but it’s often for the best!

      I am not a great person to ask about finding a good financial advisor however I do know that NAPFA may be a great place to start. They have a list of fee-only advisors and that’s really the only kind of advisor I’d ever use (fee only). I also think that a lot (but not all!) of what a financial advisor does for you can be done on your own, which is why I wrote this post on a DIY financial plan.

  3. Gov Worker says

    Hey Jim! I loved this article. I feel like you’ve captured what the FIRE movement is all about and written it in the perfect voice to send to an outsider. I’m definitely going to be sharing this article with people as more people learn that I’m “part of” FIRE and ask me questions about why anyone would want to retire early.

  4. Florie Barry says

    Aloha Jim, thank you for your inspiring story. I grew up with a similar structure (good grades, college, good job, make money). I feel your statement below is what we should all get out of life.

    It’s about building a life that you want to live.

    I spent many years traveling to visit my family in Hawaii from MN. This took many of my savings, but I have no regrets. My grandpa, dad, mom and sister are in heaven now. The time I spent with them are priceless. I live by the motto: You can always make more money, but you can’t ask for more time. Have a great year!

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