For years now, in writing this blog, I’ve gone along with the “financial freedom” terminology that is the common parlance of financial independence and early retirement writers. But nearly every time I’ve written the word “freedom,” I’ve done so with a little twitch, a little nagging feeling that it wasn’t right.
I completely understand the sentiment behind the phrase, and I know it’s 100 percent well-intentioned by those who use it. But there’s an entirely different way of defining “financial freedom” that includes so many more of us while taking a broader view.
Where My Definition of “Freedom” Comes From
I’m a product of the Cold War. Army dad stationed overseas, civilian mom from a formerly occupied nation. Put them together and you get me.
At regular intervals throughout my childhood, we’d go back to Europe to visit family, and while we’d be in free Europe, we were never more than a few miles from the other Europe — the half under Soviet control, behind the Iron Curtain.
Sometimes I’d hear stories, of people who died trying to flee, of people ratted out by their neighbors and imprisoned, of people risking their lives at border checkpoints hiding in every imaginable part of a car, including being sewn into a car’s seat. And sometimes I’d actually get to look over the wall at the bleak, apocalyptic scenes. The landmine strips, the crumbling buildings, the towers full of armed guards.
It looked more like prison than a city.
The people I saw on the other side, they looked just like any of us, but they couldn’t travel where they wanted, they had no say in their government, they could be imprisoned for no cause and with no recourse, they couldn’t say a word against anyone in power (or be perceived as thinking those thoughts), and they couldn’t even confide in friends, neighbors or family. Everyone was a potential informer. (How many of us have never uttered a word of frustration about politics or our government? Imagine going to prison — a Soviet prison — for one little statement.)
Even at nine years old, I grasped that things must be truly horrible if people were willing to risk everything to escape, and I saw a tiny slice of it with my own eyes.
I’d hear the success stories, too, of course. Those who had tunneled out, run past the rifle shooters or escaped via marriage or diplomacy. Nearly all of those people left with nothing but what they could carry — including currency that was worthless in the rest of the world — but even if they got out with literally nothing, they all felt that it had been worth it, because their escape came with:
Not the kind of freedom we talk about when we talk money, but the most basic things: not fearing that anyone you meet might report you, not fearing getting shot for walking too far down one street, not fearing losing your life just because the political winds change.
To me, freedom simply means not living in constant fear. And if you happen to get some choice in life, too, that’s bonus. If you’re used to living under horrible oppression, freedom has nothing to do with your net worth or what you need to do to make ends meet. Freedom is simply being allowed to exist without fear that that existence could be taken away at any time.
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Freedom on Maslow’s Hierarchy
Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It’s a perfect way to think about the different types and levels of freedom.
The most essential needs are at the base of the pyramid: safety and physiological needs like food and shelter. The lack of freedom I witnessed as a child was at these tiers, the most critical.
In between those tiers are the psychological needs: self-esteem, love and belonging. And only way up at the tippy top of the pyramid is the area that financial “freedom” is focused on: self-actualization.
Self-actualization is wonderful, and we enthusiastically support all those who pursue it, but it’s really the icing on the cake, not an essential component of freedom. We just don’t always see that, because most of us have never known what it feels like not to be free.
You’re Probably Already Financially Free
Though financial independence has a million different meanings depending who you ask — it can mean everything from money never being an object again to just having the flexibility to work for yourself if you want to, even if you still need to earn an income — I still prefer it over “financial freedom.”
But you won’t read me talking about “financial freedom” here, because I believe that’s something I’ve always had. The ability to go to good schools, to have upward mobility, to choose my career path, to take on debt if I want to, to buy whatever I want with my money — heck, to spend money on opposition political candidates’ campaigns, and on groups advocating for policies the current government doesn’t agree with! Not everyone has had as much financial freedom as I’ve had, some have had more, but most of us have still had it in an objective sense.
There has never been a day in my life when I haven’t been financially free, and I will always be grateful for that.
I’d love to know what you guys think of these definitions. Does FI feel better to you than “financial freedom”? We’ve talked terms around here a lot lately, and I’m curious if anyone has had a change of heart — any terms you used to use that don’t feel right anymore? Any stories to share that have shaped how you see certain terms that people use casually? Anyone just want to celebrate your financial freedom?! Let’s discuss it all in the comments.