Monevator has a diverting ding-dong started last year that tried to split off the financial independence from the retire early part. I get it, nobody should be made to retire early if they don’t want to. I didn’t take part in it because much of it was a rhetorical construct. In the end being FI is necessary for you to retire, but it’s not sufficient reason. If you don’t want to retire, well, just don’t.
This is a particular case of the general question how does one live well?
This has occupied philosophers and religions since we found ways to have the opportunity to ponder such questions. There are as many answers as querents.
These answers diverge more as you get older. You had much more in common with your schoolmates that you do with the people you work with at 30. This divergence in aims, goals and lived experience continues throughout life. The branches of the decision trees fan out to more and more widely spaced points as they cascade. You are the product of all those decisions as well as what happened to you outwith you control.
FIRE is one aspect of this general problem, but first we should acknowledge that life is a journey, not a problem. It involves change. Your fifty-year old self is not the same as your 20-year old self. If you had good fortune and played your hand well, your fifty-year old self with be deeper, happier, wiser, more tolerant and gentler than your 20-year old self. If not, well, all sorts of other outcomes are possible. By no means all are bad, people are adaptable as hell, provided they don’t ossify first.
Let me call this “out in 20 years approach” extreme FIRE, xFIRE, in homage to the grandaddy of FIRE, Jacob Lund Fisker, of earlyretirementextreme. He was a great exponent of FIRE ASAP, and his manifesto gives you it straight between the eyes
I posit that most people can attain financial independence in less than 10 years and in less than 5 if they are truly determined. I also submit that many people are not willing to make the necessary changes.
I lapped this up, because guess what? I wanted out in 3 years. Yesterday would have been better, but the numbers showed 3 years. He was a great inspiration.
Worked for me. But I didn’t do it starting at 20. I had almost paid off my house. I had a decent company pension scheme. I was 12 years from normal retirement age, at the then white-collar retirement age of 60. So while I used a lot of ERE’s xFIRE methodology, I built it on a very different foundation.
If you are 20, that option is really tough, and the risks are very high because your retirement is 40 years long rather than the more normal 20.
If you’re a footballer, you better get it done and dusted by the time you are 35. If you work in industries where burnout is rife, like law, finance and IT, look around your office. If there’s nobody over 50, don’t aim to be the 50-something exception in 20 years’ time. Don’t fight the obvious evidence.
Everybody else under 30, take a step back. and think. There are two main columns to the FIRE methodology.
Don’t be a financial muppet
The first is ‘don’t be a muppet’. Don’t buy anything with debt except a house and the tools of your trade, which may include education though not always. All else pay cash and do without until you have saved enough.
Fail to do that and stick it all on 20% APR revolving credit card debt and the best that will happen is you only pay 20% extra for everything you buy. It’s that simple. Don’t be a muppet. There are other aspects of don’t be a muppet to do with consumerism and spending. All of these, twentysomethings, knock yourselves out and take it all the way. There is absolutely no downside apart from the months of cold turkey when you catch up with your previous muppetry and pay it down. If this is unrealistic (the debt is high multiples of your monthly salary) then seek outside help with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Debt Stepchange or the Money Advice Service. Just make sure it’s a non-profit and never consolidate loans on your mortgage. You heard it here first. JFDI. It’s never too early or too late to stop being a muppet.
You will observe nobody’s talked about early retirement so far, and financial independence ain’t on the horizon. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for FIRE to stop being a muppet, but even if you are happy to work till you drop start off with not screwing up. Anybody wanting to lend you money is looking to make money out of you, and their gain is less money you can spend on what you want. Don’t be a muppet.
The second column – take back control of the track of your working life
There’s significant privation to be gone through in becoming finacially independent (FI) earlier than normal in the FIRE sense. It appears Monevator’s definition of RE means people want to quit the rat race after 20 years1. You’re looking to do it in half the time it will take most of your colleagues. You want a good reason for taking such an iconoclastic path. All other things being equal2 your peers will have a lot more disposable income than you. Humans are social critters, you’ll feel that. I only did it for three years, I felt it!
This is all part of this “what does living a good life” conundrum, and people seem to miss out that fact that what looks like a good life changes over your lifetime. It’s more obvious in the early stages: Living a good life at two means not shitting on the carpet, but that’s probably not quite enough to make the grade at fifteen. Once we’ve nailed the muppetry, to see if the view of xFIRE is worth the climb, we need to broaden the frame of reference.
The seven stages of life
What does a well-lived life look like? It depends. I did sciences rather than arts, and philosophy is firmly on the humanities side of the Two Cultures so I start from the wrong side of the tracks. But a general education, a life’s worth of reading and an inquiring mind hopefully compensates a little for my absence of Oxbridge PPE…
There’s a lot of woo in this, but the stages of life are found across human endeavour and through the ages – Shakespeare’s All the World’s a stage, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Carl Jung’s work on individuation. In the spirit of holding contradictory viewpoints a la Scott Fitzgerald, I thought I’d run with it, because the metaphor speaks to the human condition.
Your twenty-year old self should be different from your fifty-year old self, else you aren’t doing something right. I would hate to have the concerns of my twenties now. I struggle with some of the reincarnation bits of that, but compared to the Immortalist society freezing their heads in search of the Elixir of Life 3, who am I to call it. Savant cryogenicist man-children like Ray Kurzweil didn’t invent this. Old men looking for the Elixir of Life is a search thousands of years old, ever since terror management theory became a thing in the Palaeolithic.
What I liked was the resonance with my observation of humans changing over the stages of their lives. I have passed through some of these stages – the forecast of a fall in grades in the third stage (adolescence) surprised me, but it was true of me in the lower-fourth, and looking back, for those reasons. As indeed was the quarter-life crisis, which overtook me at university in my second year undergraduate level. All those angsty Millennials writing in the paper have a point that some things are tougher now, but being twenty to thirty is always hard because you’re taking on a lot of change, most of which is new to you, and you are changing your social role in the world.
The adult stages of life are indistinct in our culture, but they are still there, unsignposted. The modern world is delaying some of these stages of life compared to previous generations. “Adult” children seem to remain dependent on their parents beyond 30 to a degree that would have been shocking in the past.
The adolescent to mid-life FIRE-aspiring you must throw switches that route your life differently from your peers. But the facts of FIRE don’t change – if you haven’t got your shit together and started along the track by the time you are 30, you ain’t retiring by 45. Retiring by 55 is ten years early and very doable. 50 can be done with serious effort, but ERE does have a point. Most people won’t want to take the hit.
So young pup, give up a little bit of life now if you can, so your older self may have a choice, though I confess I am with Monevator – don’t kill yourself to get out in 20 years.
I am closer to Monevator than I thought on xFIRE, even though I used it
I disagree with him on some things, like that work is a meaningful part of life in and of itself. In one respect I agree. There’s a nasty hair-shirt streak developing in the xFIRE ethos.
My younger self would have struggled with suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon in my 20s. At the start of your career you have greatest freedom of action and least to lose by trying a different track. To sign away twenty years of your life to trying to get away from a working situation you detest is selling yourself short. You owe it to yourself to ask if that’s the best you can do.
I lived the counterfactual view: 20 years of your life is far too long to stay somewhere mediocre when you only have maybe 40 healthy years left – get a new job first, your house is burning down! I was OK with London apart from the price of rents and houses, but I wanted more money and more interesting work, so I changed job three times in the 1980s, improving my situation both in terms of pay and congeniality.
I never solved the housing cost problem so I left London, because no job I could get was going to solve the housing problem for me. I’ve spent a lot of time bitching about work here, but for 27 out of thirty years I was okay with work. There was enough interest, people were good in the main, and particularly in the early days at The Firm I was learning a lot of interesting new things from some really bright people. I could still have made a decent fist of being a gentleman aristocrat if I’d had a trust fund, but work wasn’t a terrible second best.
I used xFIRE at the end, but that’s a very different thing from using xFIRE for 20 years. What’s wrong with xFIRE from the get-go is that you are telling your young self that the next 20 years is going to be hell. Form may follow thought. Just as work isn’t a panacea or even a serviceable reason for living, it may not need to be hell either. Provocatively, perhaps xFIRE is more suited to desperate old gits at the end of their working lives than Page 1 of the Book of Working Life for twenty-somethings 😉
There’s a Jungian stages of life aspect to this too. Susan Roberts says
The young person’s task is to get into the world
Early adulthood asks us to establish ourselves in society — through vocation, relationship, and a stable material life. Now the idealistic youth must bank his or her fires in order to adapt to the world on its terms. Hopefully, in all the striving for worldly accomplishment, the twenty- or thirtysomething will not lose sight of the original vision, but find ways of working his or her gifts in spite of the compromises demanded by reality.
suck it up, work sucks, keep your eyes on the horizon is an avoidance technique. In the world but not of it, not quite failure to launch but probably not engaging. While I reject wholeheartedly that work is the non plus ultra of meaningful achievement in the second half of life, perhaps it has its role in the first half. Roberts’ description is a decent account of the accommodation I found with work – I wanted to rise above the first technician job, the second studio engineer job, I wanted to design, to innovate, to originate, which is why I eventually aimed at research. I did not lose sight of the original vision. For twenty years I lived it.
Having given that point, I am now going to take a pop at some things that are red herrings in my view.
well-paid part-time as FIRE-lite? Yeah, right
Here’s a canard. You don’t have to go nuclear on your career, you can just do some well-paid part-time work. Nothing I have experienced in three decades of the world of work supports this view. There are inherent problems with part-time – other people will be learning faster because they are full-time. They will get better quicker other things being equal. People bitch about there being a penalty for taking time out of the workforce but it’s not rocket science. Practice makes perfect.
I lived this prejudice. The Firm was dead keen to reduce its costs by encouraging part-time working in the 2009 crash. I didn’t entertain the idea for a heartbeat. If my career was flaming out, then at least full-time I could make the most of the last years – three years gone part-time was probably equivalent to another ten years shelf-stacking at Tesco to make up for the money I wouldn’t earn. I’d still be there. There was a second fear, because if they can get along fine with only half of you, there’s an obvious extrapolation to be made.
Of course we officially applaud people taking time out to do more important projects in their lives, but if it’s my business that takes the hit when you’re telling me that your choices in life are more important to you than my company I hear the message. I’m likely to take the line that I’ve very happy for you, but don’t do your important project at my cost. Fortunately, I’ve never been anywhere near being in charge of HR with such unreconstructed views, but I didn’t originate this, and I’ve seen some small companies stiffed that way. There are some great paying part-time jobs, but not as many as full-time. Why is this? Part-time cleaners are interchangeable. Part-time CEOs? Not so much. It’s also a right pain in the arse for full-time workers to interface to the particular part-timer with domain knowledge on job-shares and continuity sucks. Which are all part of the reasons why part-time work generally pays less, if you don’t want to hear it from me, hear it from the office of national statistics4.
So when Monevator nonchalantly says you can save yourself the trouble of saving up a quarter of a million pounds if you can earn £10,000 p.a. for the lifestyle you want, I think WTF? I can’t even think of something I could do to earn £10k p.a., other than work in a shop. I could probably earn more than that if I worked full time, but from what I’ve seen of the world of work it has become more demanding and always-on rather than less. Don’t fancy that much.
OTOH, if contracting is your taste, then I can see there is much less of a problem. I believe indeedably uses this method, favouring recreation in the warmer months and work in the colder ones. Hats off to him for innovation.
Some of that objection to part-time is I have no desire to go contracting. Contracting comes with self-promotion and always hustling, and I’d rather crawl over broken glass than hustle. I have done occasional hit and run jobs since retiring. I earned an higher hourly rate with one than my working self ever did, but not on a sustained basis. And having to do 10k worth of that a year gives me the creeps, indeed having to do anything for x amount of money gives me a very bad feeling indeed. What part of financial independence am I missing here? FI for me is not having to sell my time for money. End of. To paraphrase Kate Moss
No consumer shit tastes as good as financial freedom feels
I have enough to buy more consumer shit than I want, and arguably consumerism is/should be a little bit less important as you get older. Erich Fromm summed it up in the title of his book, To Have to To Be. When you are young, Stuff makes more difference to your life, because you start out with now’t – you first kettle and your first chair and your first house make a huge change to your lifestyle. That lessens with time.
There is an argument that stuff bought you better security in the past than it does now
The percentage of workers who are freelance instead of salaried grows each year. House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market. […] the greatest wealth now comes from the accumulation of invisible capital, not physical stuff: startup equity, stock shares […]
Meanwhile, crisis follows crisis and mobility now feels safer than being static, another reason that owning less looks more and more attractive.
Some of us are cut out for that part-time required sort of FI-lite (thin FIRE? sputter? unFIRE? extinguished? never ignited?) , but I’m not one of them. I had a working life as a full-time employee with no break between getting my first job and leaving work for the last time other than a one-year MSc.
I’m an all or nothing guy here. It would be a bit rough to work thirty-five hours a week for less than my money does sitting on its backside. That isn’t a good message for me. Easier to work a decent job at a decent rate and parlay your savings into a decent stash than work some shit job.
Now that’s just me and my unreconstructed ideas about work that were probably set forty years ago. I could see the rationale for elective spend, if you need to work part-time for essential spend then you ain’t FI. If part-time working nets you 10k so you can go on holiday more often and that lights your fire, then have at it.
Do what thou wilt, and harm ye none.
Your time gets more valuable as you get older
Supply and demand. There’s less of it left, bud. The young just don’t get this, because, well, they’re young.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
I would agree with Pink Floyd that the fourth stage, midlife, is where may people stall. Overly invested with the meaning that served them well for 20 years up to then, they freeze rather than abdicate that source of meaning. For some (more often chaps) it’s work, for some it’s the contents of the nest that if done right should become empty in the natural order of things.
At least becoming overly invested with work doesn’t do anybody else any harm. Helicoptering your kids can seriously arrest their development, much must happen between the third (adolescence) and fourth stage else Philip Larkin’s prognostications of This be the Verse may come to pass. You will recognise those children later on – arrested at the puer aeturnus stage. The gold of character is at times forged in the furnace of adversity.
As an example I did not gain understanding from the crisis of confidence in my third year at university. After many years I did eventually learn to let it go, it was a product of time and stage, not a curse set to play out again and again.
Had an external force alleviated it, however, then like getting a childhood illness in adulthood, the injury may have been worse because the transformation would not have happened. I wonder if our Western societies fail us in having no real rites of passage across the stages of life, particularly those early ones. Passing your driving test or getting your first credit card don’t really match up to slaying a boar, or a walkabout. With no model of transformative challenge, is it any wonder that Western adults can freeze at the crossroads of midlife, clinging to the empty shells of old forms that have served in the past, but now stand in the way of change?
Midlife is a big hazard, because you are established enough that you can get away with stalling it, clinging on to past glories. Compared to the fusillade of transitions across childhood, you’ve settled in steady as she goes for 20 years and think you have it sussed. The words of Carl Jung indicate the problem: What is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.
The problem isn’t that the world changes. You do. Worse still, the tendency is to regress, to capture a lost youth but without the innocence. This inflates the sales of sports cars and persuades flabby men with a beer gut that their Russian bride thinks he’s 21 year old hunk.
In her section finding lasting values in the afternoon of life, Susan Roberts says:
Few of us today have the financial resources to become renunciates, and so we may have to keep working into our elder years.
Hmm, having this option is what FIRE is all about. It’s an option, and just like a stock option, it is an option, not an obligation to retire early –
But whatever our outer activities may be, our attitude needs to change if the afternoon of our life is not to be one long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people.
[…] a flowering of its qualities of imagination, depth, and understanding. With nothing to prove and no one’s approval to seek, the old person may gain a delicious freedom to return to the original vision first kindled in him or her in youth. He or she may then become a character, a wise old man or woman, and ultimately an ancestor, a bearer of values that outlast the fleeting concerns of the present moment.
To reach this point, one must submit to the archetypal tasks required by each stage of life. By allowing the deep processes of nature to work on us, the acorn of our destiny may grow into the mature oak tree of our fully-realized individuated self.
Clinging to the chimera of you are what you do may not be the best way of doing that. But in my observation fewer than half of those who make it to old age achieve individuation.
And yes, I am making the case that perhaps the meaningfulness of work is a truth that may be more of the morning of life than its evening. It was in my case. It was much more important to me at the beginning of my career, a big part of who I was, neither of my parents had gone to university and my Dad worked with his hands. As I grew older it mattered less, I have now rendered unto Caesar the value of a working life, exchanging my human capital for financial capital. It is time to move on, to embrace the seasons.
It really doesn’t matter whether you retire or not at some point earlier or later than anybody else. To make it possible5 your younger self needs a motivational story. “just suck it up for as long as you have been alive and there will be a pot of gold over the rainbow” is not inspirational.
If your older self thinks the same about work as your younger self your development has become arrested, and you will not individuate. The hazard of that is of a long process of decline and ourselves to become embittered old people. You may, of course be fortunate enough to avoid physical decline and die in your sleep. You may project all your energies into the grandchildren. It is not mandatory to deepen as you get older. Just try and avoid the embittered Victor Meldrew, eh, for all our sakes.
Your older self may come to the same conclusion about early retirement as your younger self, but if the reasons are different, that is good. Let the option lapse. Give your freedom fund to your kids, or the cats’ home, or shovel it out of a helicopter over your home town. Your younger self will have lived a bit less large. Insurance against adversity always costs.
I have seen people who fall apart after retiring. Often they fall because their sense of meaning is bound up with work. What was true in the morning failed them in the evening. Some struggle because they are skint, or they become infirm. Some fail to maintain their human relationships and web of life, or don’t build these up before they retire. There are many ways to screw up in life, ain’t that a thing? That perhaps many fail does not mean all will fail.
Happy New Year to y’all, and a cautionary tale of work I came across.
I had been in the States working on a project when it became apparent that an internal takeover was going to bust my project in Feb 2009. Americans look after their own, while The Firm now owned that subsidiary this work was going to move over there and out of my division. Project work was drying up due to the financial crisis.
Your job gets more brittle as you get older
One of the problems you tend to have as you get older is that you specialise more. You also get paid more, if you are any good. That makes the shape of the sort of holes you are going to be a good fit for quite specific and therefore rare. Monevator nonchalantly says
get a new job first, your house is burning down!
That’s a young man’s game. It might be an argument for living in London6 rather than Ipswich, because your pool of potential alternative employers is larger. Selling up and moving would cost me a year’s wages, and we owned a smallholding at the time. I just didn’t have the get a new job option – there wasn’t more than 10 years of work to play for. So I chose to play a weak hand, as it happened quite well.
I was fortunate enough to be able to use a different legacy skill for my final project, But before I got that project, I faced this exchange which summarised the working environment. Let’s call the chief scumbag Graeme F, he was my division head’s boss7. GS stands for generally satisfactory, the performance management mark of 3/5 (average). My boss had made mine “needs improvement” before I got that work. I had already applied for voluntary redundancy, though it would have been premature. The shithead GF demanded a conference call with me and my division head just before 17:30 hours because he “had some news he thought I’d be interested in“. These are notes made at the time – the first thing I did next day was buy a telephone recording coil so I would have an incontrovertible record of that sort of intimidation should it happen again.
Friday March 6th 2009
GF: [We are] Raising the bar next year. will be harder to improve GS
Me: This sounds like a threat to me (this was verbatim, I could hear the bullying sneer in dear Graeme’s voice.)
GF no, effectively saying how it is
Me: okay carry on
GF: you cannot get [voluntary redundancy] on a GS
Me: outline that I am going away from that anyway, outside opportunity needs [VR] to work, time has passed, [The Firm] looking better, new projects etc
GF: but we may be able to do something else for you
GF: offers three months’ salary plus gardening leave to go
Me: that is not enough
GF: seems taken aback
Me: I will not change the course of my life for such a small amount
GF: reiterates stuff about raising the bar
Me: I say ok I hear what you say, sorry if the news didn’t get to you, wasting time etc
Graeme didn’t meet his target that day. Three months VR after 20 years was derisory, plus I would have lost an advantageous Sharesave. I was at the very outset of a three year journey out, I couldn’t get there from here. Another entry in the log celebrates my division head (who brokered this delightful meeting as the offer of a great opportunity) getting the bum’s rush without VR. How did that happen?
Finished at fifty is a thing
They even made a TV programme about it. All sorts of people will holler in yer ear if you don’t like you goddamn job so much go get on your bike git a new one you lazy bum. Hello IDS, Digby Jones, I’m looking at you . The trouble with that specialisation is my division head was shit outta luck as far as finding another job for a division head at a FTSE100 like The Firm. There weren’t any, and there was a large pool of competitors – the guys the CIO had let go in the days before. The CIO’s management style was to call all division heads one after the other into the office, and ask each one to describe a weakness of the just departed fellow. A commenter elsewhere described the CIO’s modus operandi as
replacing British IT workers with resource from India here and remotely – decimate the workforce.
Lots of guff about new tech, agile, under the hood it will be nothing but using the cheapest IT workers they can get.
That sort of environment, young fellow, is why your older self needs a RE ejector seat and parachute. He may earn more as he gets older, but his position gets more brittle as it gets more specialised, and more susceptible to hatchet men like that CIO.
I was able to switch direction out of IT and use a legacy analogue RF electronics skill on my final project, which is how I was left standing after that division head left. More by luck than by judgement, a specialism that fitted another set of odd-shaped holes was in demand at that time. So after three years I brought the damaged wreckage of my career to a successful landing and was even glad-handed on my leaving do as having left on a high. It could easily have gone differently, and I would be stacking shelves rather than writing this.
You don’t forget that sort of learning in a hurry. What I learned was never rely on selling your time for money again, it makes you a hostage to fortune.
Even if that hadn’t happened, I was already past the apogee of life, and hopefully the individuating self would have gotten the message through:
Self, you need to start looking for new ways to be, because what is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie
In my life one of those things was work. Had that crisis not happened I would still be working, running on the old default assumption of working to NRA. In hindsight that would have been a dreadful waste of my time.
We are all headed for different waystations on the branching railway lines of life, maybe this will be different for you. But if you see no things that were desperately important to you in the morning of your adult life become less so, then ask yourself how you are so invariant in the face of change. The sun is making its way across the arc of your life. Change with it, for the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.
- I am a RE failure by that definition, I worked for 30 years, so 10 years behind schedule. I am still a long way to getting my State Pension, and not even at the NRA for my works pension ↩
- One of the tenets of the FIRE movement is that not all things are equal and many people spend like muppets or carry revolving debt. All this is true, but you just can’t bring the difference in lifestyle down to zero by spending smarter though perhaps it won’t be half their disposable income. ↩
- For some reason unbeknownst to me extremely bright materialist rationalists are drawn to cryogenics likes moths to a flame (for example). It is possible I am just too dumb to understand, but it seems obvious to me you must not lose state. I do not find it impossible to conceive that humans could live forever, but I’d say you must not die first. Reanimating a hunk of meat strikes me as a hiding to nothing. Sure, future alien visitors might be able to recreate humans from DNA like Jurassic Park, but these would be new humans, not the deceased living again with all their past memories and foibles, in the same way as your children don’t remember your schooldays, first love or skills in Latin though they may look like a mini-you. ↩
- ONS ASHE Fig 5 ↩
- Parents can try, but there be dragons in that territory. The dead hand of parental capital coming at some unspecified time to transform their lives easily robs the children of agency, because it doesn’t seem worth it for them to make the effort to try and save something that will be lost in insignificance to the inheritance. There is a similar problem with the legions buying lottery tickets – Lady Luck seems to be a harsh mistress when she pays out, because the recipient has not learned the value of the windfall. No idea how the aristocracy used to fix this problem, though it seems they did as many estates have been in the same ancestral hands since 1066 ↩
- Just kidding. I left London in 1988, and my career went titsup in 2009. That’s twenty years of outrageous London prices I haven’t had to pay in rent, I left there because I couldn’t afford to buy a house. That Guardian millenial’s lament that “House prices are prohibitive in any place with a strong labour market.” held true before. I had a decent job and savings, but I was living in one room. ↩
- Researching this on Linkedin, it is probable that Graeme F was a hired gun brought in from elsewhere in The Firm to ping people out from my campus. I guess like management consultants on the cheap, outsiders will be more ruthless because they don’t know anybody locally ↩