Today we’re reflecting on comparison — when it can be good, when it crosses the line, and if it’s even possible to know when you’ve crossed that line. Let’s start with a little step back into our history…
Why We Started the Blog
Once upon a time, when we started this blog, we really didn’t think anyone would read. We started writing Our Next Life to have a chronicle of our journey to early retirement that we could one day look back on if we ever started to take retirement for granted, to remind us how hard we’d worked to get there. I wrote dumb posts about how our laziness in not wanting to dress up for work meetings was somehow an indicator that we should quit our jobs, because maybe I’d want to look back one day and read about that.
I always made a point in writing to share not just our mathematical and financial plans, but also the feelings that go along with it all, because 1.) I wanted to be able to remember what the lead-up to early retirement felt like, and how it came with its own stressors, and 2.) In the off chance that someone else was actually reading this, I knew there was a good possibility that they might be experiencing some of the same feelings, and I wanted them to know they weren’t alone.
Somewhere along the way, people actually did start reading. You are reading now. (THANK YOU! You rock.) And through the comments here and the emails we’ve received, we’ve realized that all kinds of different people in different situations are reading, which is both absolutely wonderful and incredibly humbling. Humbling because it makes us feel like we have to say more than what we have to say, which is just to share what we’re feeling and learning along the way, from our sample size of one.
Almost a year into the blog, we started sharing more of our financial info in percentage form, to avoid divulging our actual dollar figures, but to represent the progress we’re making — and, to be honest, to invite people into our excitement, because we have plenty of it to spare. (Sparkles, y’all!) We’ve never published our numbers because we don’t want them out there when we finally attach our names and faces to the blog sometime next year — but also, and maybe more importantly, because we’ve never wanted to feed the comparison beast.
I’ve written about privilege a few times, but truly, we are currently the embodiment of it. Neither of us came from big money, but we received enough boosts along the way to get us to a place where we earn far in excess of what we need to get by, and even significantly more than we’d need if we were raising a large family. But we’re not. It’s just the two of us, plus a couple of adorable and inexpensive dogs. So the disposable income we have to save each month is both plentiful and, according to every bit of economic data we’ve seen, rare.
The Thief of Joy
You’ve heard this quote before, and for good reason: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It’s often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, though I don’t know who originally said it, because as John Oliver recently taught us, you shouldn’t trust the internet when it comes to quotes. But it’s true: comparing ourselves to others never leads to happiness or contentment. It only leads to negative emotions, like feeling envious, or maybe superior.
Comparing ourselves to others is the exact opposite of defining our own “enough.” Comparison is what’s at the root of greed, that drive to have more than others have. Comparison is what makes too many of us feel that we’re not worthy or good enough. And comparison is what leads to the desire to keep up with the Joneses.
Many of us come to the FIRE movement after realizing that we have another choice, that we don’t have to chase the same goals everyone else is chasing, that we don’t have to define our own happiness based on external measures. We realize that we don’t have to keep up with those Joneses after all.
Our position on comparison has long been: don’t feed that beast.
We want to encourage and cheerlead for anyone working to pursue their dreams, no matter what that looks like or what timeline it’s happening on. We don’t want to set arbitrary markers and suggest that anything above that line is good progress, and anything below it is not good enough. We had felt that we were successfully staying on the right side of the line that separates inspiration and encouragement from comparison, until recently.
Where Is the Line?
I have heard many of you say — and it’s true for us, too — that seeing other people’s situations can be motivating and helpful in our own planning. That thought is what pushed us to finally share more of our finances as percentages and charts in our quarterly updates.
The most concrete stat that we shared in those updates was our savings percentage, a percentage made possible almost entirely by our good fortune in falling into careers that pay so well.
But we’ve also gotten tweets and emails from people saying that they’ll never be able to do what we’re doing, on our timeline, and that that felt discouraging to them. Or our friend Penny wrote that early retirement will never be an option for her and her husband because she can’t save a high percent like many FIRE bloggers do.
And reading Penny’s post, and hearing from those who feel discouraged by what we put out there made us confront the question: Are we contributing to the creation of a new standard of success, albeit a less consumption-based one? Are we inadvertently shaming people who can’t save at the same level for any number of reasons?
In other words, are we the Joneses?
And if we were the Joneses, would we even know it? Did the original Joneses know that they were either encouraging others to keep up with them or shaming those who couldn’t? How would we know if we’d crossed that line?
Separating Comparison from Inspiration
As the blog has grown and we’ve realized that other people were actually reading and coming back, our reasons for doing it changed entirely. The thought that we might be helping to inspire others in their journeys became our main motivation, with the ability to connect with new friends coming in a close second.
No matter what, we’ll keep sharing our own journey and the thoughts and feelings we’re having along the way, but we want to be as certain as possible that what we’re posting here stays on the inspiration side of the inspiration-vs-comparison line. It’s why we’ve already stopped sharing our savings percentage, and why we’re going to think hard about what we share in the future.
Every step any of us takes toward financial freedom, no matter how small and no matter how slow, is worth celebrating. Every day of your life you buy back from working for someone else is a win. Every night you sleep more soundly because you’re not stressed about money gets a high five. This community is so incredibly supportive and inclusive, and we’re working hard to uphold that tradition here. We’d love to know your thoughts on how we can do better.
After I wrote this post, I saw that our friend Amber Tree Leaves wrote his own post yesterday about FIRE and the Joneses, specifically with regard to retirement age. It’s a great post — go check it out!