Financial Independence, Fight Club and the Mindless Consumer Zombie Narrative

There’s a pervasive narrative in the financial independence discussion that I’ve come to call the Fight Club version of FI, because it sounds a lot like Tyler Durden’s soliloquy in the film:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. — Tyler Durden, Fight Club

The FI version of this is often distilled to some version of an often misattributed quote that goes something like: “We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.” (I’ve seen this credited to Dave Ramsey, Will Smith, Warren Buffett, and others. Most likely it was written by humorist Robert Quillen in 1928.)

And this narrative is compelling, the notion that we’ve all ceded control of our lives to the marketing gods, and been fooled into believing that more stuff = higher social status. That last line in the Fight Club version says a lot, too — And we’re very, very pissed off — that sometimes it feels good to get angry about something, a sentiment this narrative stirs up in a big way. Look how I’ve been manipulated!

And no doubt marketing is a hugely powerful force in our modern lives. Companies spend billions to convince us that we need these things, that we’ll be better looking, smarter, more enviable people if hand over our cash (or credit) for them. The manipulation attempts are rampant, and we’re right to resist that.

But that narrative and its accompanying righteous indignation, especially when we apply it to financial independence, paints all of us as mindless consumer zombies, which is an overly simplistic way to view the world. The TV made me do it. 

And worse, spreading that overly simplistic worldview does two things that I think are harmful to the FI movement:

  • It judges a lot of people harshly and unnecessarily for acts that aren’t necessarily motivated by this mindless consumerism or this desire to attain higher social status, and
  • It turns a lot of people off on financial independence before we can even have a real discussion about it.

Let’s talk about how we can open this discussion up to be both more inclusive and more accepting of the nuance of varied decision-making that underlies our actions.

Financial Independence, Fight Club and the Mindless Consumer Zombie Narrative -- Fighting back against the notion that everyone who isn't on the path to financial independence or early retirement is a mindless consumer, buying things only to impress others, instead of completely legitimate reasons.

In that Fight Club rant, I think the most important line isn’t all the stuff about marketing, it’s this: “No purpose or place.”

That palpable lack of purpose that so many of us feel in modern work, especially with the ever-increasing pressure to accelerate our productivity and pace, feels so much more powerful than this idea that we’re not in control of our lives because, like, marketing, and that the only way to reject consumerist culture is to stop buying everything (and maybe also to fight people and to try to collapse financial society, while the Pixies play in the background).

And that’s something I wish we all talked about more. About how we can define our purpose in life, whether we wish to retire early or stick with a more conventional path, and then align our life choices around that purpose. That’s what I’d love to see us focus more on, not just railing against the marketing machine and judging those who still consume.

Related post: When saving is really spending

The Harm in Judging All Consumption as Mindless Consumerism

One of my motivations in starting this blog was to provide an alternate narrative of financial independence, one that doesn’t involve becoming a minimalist, never setting foot in a store or scolding others who buy stuff sometimes. Because, by any measure, Mr. ONL and I are still consumers. We don’t buy status-focused stuff (not sure how a client felt earlier today about getting driven around in my 2004 Honda Civic), but we still buy stuff.

When we can, we buy used. And we strive to be intentional about our purchases, considering the full life cycle of the products and whether we’ll be able to get their full use out of them. We avoid buying anything disposable, except for toilet paper. But if you think that sounds more like an environmental consideration than a financial one, you’re correct. We don’t want to trash the planet. So much so that we will occasionally pay more to make the more environmentally responsible choice.

I started out just wanting to show that it was possible to retire early while still shopping occasionally, or buying things necessary to have certain experiences (try mountain biking without a mountain bike, or skiing without skis) that can add tremendous value to your life if you’re into those sorts of things. But somewhere along the line, that mindless consumer narrative started grating on me more, because it purports to know everyone’s motivation for their actions, when we don’t actually know them. And that motivation — seeking status or to impress others — is so incredibly shallow.

There are some other great voices out there taking on similar questions — I especially love the Luxe Strategist’s case for buying expensive clothes — but what it really boils down to is this:

There are a number of reasons why any of us could make any single decision, impacted by external factors, internal motivations and desires, and social pressures. We shouldn’t pretend to know the motivations of other highly complicated humans. 

And here are some totally legit reasons why someone could buy things that have nothing to do with impressing others or being a slave to the consumerism machine:

  • To support local artisans or small businesses
  • To undertake fulfilling experiences (art, travel, outdoors activities, other sports, music, etc.)
  • To appreciate good design and aesthetics at home
  • To stay warm, safe or secure (don’t cheap out on bike helmets, friends!)
  • To support environmentally responsible enterprises or good social ventures
  • To make life a little easier or more convenient

I really believe that the issue with the type of consumerism that’s so reviled in the FI community is the mindlessness, not the consumerism itself. (After all, those of us who invest in stocks benefit from many forms of consumerism.) But that often gets lost in the discussion, which is a missed opportunity to talk about mindlessness in all its forms — in overspending that stems from an urge to fill other voids in our lives, in overeating that serves the same purpose, in going through life without considering the hardships of others and how we could help them, in not considering our environmental impact, the effects of systemic sexism and racism, etc., etc., etc. And to talk about how that mindlessness often comes from within, not from external marketing forces, or because we’re zombies incapable of making our own decisions.

As for why this matters, it’s this:

Turning Off Potential Financial Independence Converts

The Fight Club narrative, and the later Mr. Money Mustache narrative, are both based on the punch to the face, one literal and one figurative. And that punch to the face might work well for some, including plenty of us talking here.

But it doesn’t work for everyone.

And that means if we describe the FI movement as being about rejecting consumerism, we’re losing a lot of people before we even have a chance to make our case. Especially because rejecting consumerism is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve financial independence. There are other steps you must take, but also steps you can take that don’t require you to give up all purchasing. (We’re an example of that.)

Whether any of us who’ve already drunk the kool-aid see the FI approach as extreme, plenty of other people do. (I also bristle at the term “FI lifestyle,” because that makes it sound so monolithic, when there are in fact so many different approaches. Subject for another day.) They see rejecting consumerism as looking a lot like how the characters live in Fight Club — moving into an abandoned house with a leaky roof and no heat, wearing worn-out clothes, drinking coffee filtered through a dirty sock out of a cracked mug. We all may know that’s not what it really looks like, but that image is a pretty terrible sales job for new converts.

And presenting financial independence as something you achieve by never buying things — rather than by identifying what’s most important to you in life and shaping your finances to maximize that value while reducing spending on things that don’t add to your happiness — is bound to turn a lot of people off who could otherwise get inspired by the FI concept and change their lives for the better.

Though I don’t think everyone will ever get on board with financial independence or early retirement — some people really do like swimming with the current — I believe deeply that there are many, many people out there who are just waiting to hear these ideas before they become convinced and reshape their finances and lives.

And we should be telling the most inclusive, least judgmental version of the story if we want to help them see the light.

What Do You Think?

There’s a lot to comment on here, and I’d love to know your thoughts — even if you disagree! Do you love that Fight Club narrative to pieces and want to make a case for why it’s the perfect encapsulation of the FI movement? Find it too judgy and have an alternate proposal? Have you found a good script for winning people over to the FI side with or without the consumerism stuff? Just like watching Brad Pitt with his shirt off in those fight scenes? ;-) It’s all fair game in the comments.

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108 replies »

  1. I’m with you on this one. It’s not about rejecting consumerism or living like a hobo by the train station. No it’s about efficiency. Maximizing your lifestyle across the years of your life. How you do that is individual to you. That can include buying luxury cars or clothes. It could also include driving a twenty year old car and wearing a shirt from a band you saw twenty years ago. It all depends on what you value and not buying crap that sits in the corner of your garage or basement three weeks later. It’s also about not buying things to impress others but instead to make you happy.

    • Great way to put it. It is absolutely about efficiency, and that can happen a thousand different ways. Totally agree that wasteful spending is antithetical to any approach, but that beyond that, we can each customize the FI plan however we wish.

      • I call it the splurge and save mentally…..each person decides what is important to them and spends on that and saves on other things….

        This why you will see BMW’s in ALDI groecery story parking lots or other people buying organic foods at Whole Foods and then drive away in their 20 year old car with 150k miles on it…..people will save in one area that is not important to them and then splurge in other areas they care about. it is not about status but where their passions lie.

      • Absolutely right. That is how it should be, anyway! We are totally the people who pull up to whole foods or occasionally a nice restaurant in our old little car! ;-)

      • True. I just loaded my Aldi’s groceries into my new to me 2017 VW Sportwagen. Then again, in 15 years I’ll probably be loading my Aldi’s groceries into my 2017 VW Sportwagen.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I want to jump up, click my heels and shout, “Amen, Sister!!!” I am not a blogger. Overall, I enjoy the FIRE community and stay current with many FIRE blogs, but I find the “if you consume you are evil, selfish and / or stupid” line just down right tiring. I have found myself avoiding all of those blogs (such as MM) as being closed minded and not using a situational approach.

    I have a net worth over $3 million, in addition to high passive income streams. I worked very hard to obtain this. I will be retiring early in the near future. The way that I achieved this would be applauded by most FIRE bloggers. Yet those same bloggers would quickly condemn some of my expenditures (just a couple of examples):

    I own two homes for personal use (no rental income);
    I belong to wine clubs and purchase relatively expensive wine for personal consumption;
    My base retirement expenditure budget is $121,500 per year in 2017 dollars (actual expenditure – aka after taxes), and includes a $1,000 / month line item simply titled, “travel expenses.”

    To these bloggers, it doesn’t matter that I have no mortgages and paid cash for my vacation house, that any expenditures I make are well below my means and occur after a high personal savings and investment rate, or that my retirement budget is well below that which I could afford if I withdrew at a rate significantly lower than 4% and lived to be 150. I am just a victim of over consumption…

    So, thank you Mrs. ONL and those other bloggers like you, who take a much different (and in my opinion, more responsible approach). I appreciate your wisdom and non-judgmental openness in the area of financial independence and early retirement.

    • Right on! :-D “Tiring” is a good way to describe that “evil consumerism” narrative. I think your financial plan sounds great, and like it’s well suited to your interests and priorities. Good for you for not following even the FI herd, and finding the right balance between work/saving and spending! :-)

    • Major kudos for establishing your financial independence and not just following the herd! Your quality of life is way more important, and as long as your spending aligns with your values, who are they to judge?

  3. Any one size fits all approach to anything will always fail to fit all – it’s just not possible! I think one of the benefits of blogging, and of so many FI bloggers, is that you can see all of these nuanced approaches.

    I approach FI different than many others (and until the phrase FI became “popular,” there wasn’t even a name for it), MMM approaches it in his way, you approach it in yours, and folks will gravitate towards the one that resonates best.

    The beauty is in the diverse opinions and that might turn some people off… but that’s a good thing. It gets them closer to the voice that makes the greatest impact.

    I loved the core message of Fight Club, thanks for the reminder! :)

    • I hope my post didnt come across as dissing Fight Club. I love that movie. ;-) I just think we shouldn’t adhere to any philosophy so stringently!

      As to your point about diversity of views, I agree in theory, but I do think there are a lot of folks who feel that they must perpetuate the evil consumerism narrative, and that’s what I’m pushing back against. Tell us about YOUR journey, and what’s unique about YOUR approach — that’s what I’d rather read from folks than a regurgitation of the cult leader’s words. ;-)

  4. I love this post SO very much. To me, this is truly what FI is about. It’s about being mindful of your choices and recognizing buying all the things won’t make you happy. Keeping up with the Jones won’t make you happy. But spending on things you love, will (skiing in particular comes to mind, b/c it’s $$$$ but oh so worth it for those of us that love it).

    We don’t have a set plan to retire early b/c we are self employed and aren’t working crazy hours as it is. As far as work goes, we’re happy with what we have for the stage of life we’re in. I think it’s a good idea to recognize not everyone wants that punch in the face to be able to quit working in their 30s or 40s forever. Not everyone takes a punch in the face well, period. But lots of people could do with a little nudge to think about their spending and realize they do have choices of what they want to do with their life.

    • Thanks, Sara! :-) And yeah, I’m sure to those who don’t love skiing, it probably seems like a ridiculous sum to spend. But you love it, so you know. ;-) And I couldn’t agree more that not everyone takes a punch in the face well, period. (I think this is *almost* everyone! Because, geez. It’s a punch in the face!)

    • Financial Independence gives you the freedom to choose what you want to do with your life, whatever that might be.

  5. It all comes down to value, and to me, that’s what financial independence is all about. Value. Buying those things that actually bring value into your life rather than spending money because your neighbor just did, or because you believe you “deserve” something, or you just want to impress upon those around you that you’re successful and can afford the nicer things in life. Those decisions aren’t based on value.

    It’s so darn easy to judge people. I’ve been guilty of it, too. Imagine, we see people out in the wild who’ve lived 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years without crossing paths with us. We wouldn’t know them from anyone else on the street. But, we humans still feel qualified to make rash judgments based on seconds of interaction with them. SECONDS! We witness a few brief moments of their 50-year lives and BOOM! We automatically call them mindless consumers. Or cheap-skates. Or filthy rich. Or incredibly poor. Or…whatever.

    It’s amazing how quickly we form judgements on other people. And we all do it, too. Every one of us. It’s just human nature, unfortunately.

    I do agree that it can do a disservice to those outside the FI community. But then again, I think some of this “shock value” can also pound its way into traditional society a little easier than a softer touch might. If we all wrote like perfect creatures, as born authors of The Economist magazine, as presidential speech writers where our ONLY goal is to not offend a single soul, we also might not have the reach into the community that we currently do. We’d all be saying the exact same thing in the exact same way.

    I think there’s room for both types of dialog. I tend to like the in-your-face stuff that Pete (aka: Mustache) writes even though it might turn some people off. In fact, it’s that type of writing that got me interested in the FI community to begin with – back when I was a spender, a few virtual punches in the face was just the kind of motivation I needed to kick start a new way of life for me.

    Different strokes for different folks I suppose.

    • Oh yeah, the judgment is real. It might be human nature, but we can fight back against that tendency and allow more space for nuance. Which I think is different from writing specifically not to offend. ;-)

      I’m curious if you can answer something, because I think it applies to all of this: When you had your Corvette and sunk all that money into it, were you doing it because YOU thought the car was sweet and fun to drive? Or because you thought it would impress others and make you look cool? (Or, more likely, where on the continuum did it fall, since it was probably a little of each?) I could see your car fascination being entirely internally driven, which itself flies against that “buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like” narrative. I dunno… it’s hard to see you doing something like that just to impress others, when you seem not to care too much what others think of your choices. ;-)

      • Honestly, it was a little of both. Yes, I wanted the Vette. But equally important, I wanted to *be the guy* that drives around in a supercharged Corvette. I liked driving something different. Something loud. Something faster than 99% of what everyone else on the road has. Ultimately, I wouldn’t have sunk all that money into something that I didn’t truly enjoy at the time. I did thoroughly enjoy driving the car until I just couldn’t justify the cost any longer. But, I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit to at least a little “look at me” going on there.

        I’m glad that stage of my life is long behind me.

      • I completely appreciate your honesty! I’m always just curious about motivations, since I try my best, though not always successfully, not to assume what they are. ;-)

      • Love your conversation on this Steve …. great personal experience and insight. I would say the same about my years of sportbikes, dirtbikes and racing both. It was awesome but I also wanted to have the best “coolest” bikes out there.

      • This is so interesting to me! I have often wanted sweet gear, but never so that others would see it. (In fact, when I have had the best gear, I was sheepish about it, thinking, “Hmm, can I put a sticker over this label so no one knows??” Hahaha.)

      • Re: *be the guy*

        I always thought “that’s the guy going through a mid life crisis” driving his “mid life crisis car”. LOL
        But now I see that’s a bit judgemental. ;)

  6. The face punch narrative is entertaining to me because for a movement that puts efficiency on a pedestal, it’s a highly inefficient way of encouraging behavior change. Research has continually demonstrated that shame and punishment are some of the least effective motivators! For many in the FI community to talk a big game about efficiency and then leave the spectrum of psychological efficiency on the table.. I find that incredibly ironic!

    • Ha! Well said! It is HIGHLY inefficient to create a movement based on changing people’s behaviors using methods that are known to be the least effective. ;-) But yeah, let’s definitely keep shaming people… Hahaha.

  7. I found the more aggressive messaging around FI to be very motivating at first, but after a few years, the gentle approach is how I sustain progress. Posts like these remind me that I still have a life to live!

    We made a few purchases this summer that initially felt frivolous (bike seat and hiking pack for our toddler and a SUP for warm days on the lake), so we delayed them. Hindsight, it was silly to delay and waffle about them because we get so much enjoyment from these purchases.

    • That’s so nice of you to say — thanks! :-) And those purchases don’t sound frivolous to me at all. As you said, with purchases that add fun and value to our lives, how often do we ever regret those purchase? I think it’s most often what you experienced, wishing we’d bought them sooner!

  8. Very insightful post, and refreshing as well. I have wrestled with the feeling of “doing it wrong” when I purchase items I could easily make myself (laundry detergent, hair conditioner, floor cleaner, to name but a few), or even do without completely (decaf sugar free vanilla lattes). It seems to be human nature, or at least my nature, to beat myself up over missteps on the route to true frugality (whatever that means). I finally came to the realization that while I’m capable of saving a lot more money monthly than we actually do, I don’t enjoy many aspects of the spartan lifestyle we’d need to embrace in order to do so. Washing clothing in cold water, on the shortest possible cycle with homemade detergent and line drying afterward does accomplish the task at hand and certainly represents both financial savings and environmental responsibility, but beating yourself up when you cave and run a load on hot with Tide and dry it in the dryer doesn’t make you a failure. It’s a choice, only one of many that must be made on a daily basis. Many of the purchasing decisions we put off ended up being unwise (replacing our worn out tow vehicle after spending several thousand dollars attempting to force it into duty it wasn’t built for comes to mind), and conversely many of the frugal decisions we thought made sense at the time (a great buy on the all cash purchase of our much too large and costly to maintain retirement home) ended up not penciling out in the long run. We’re nearly three years into retirement, and while we’ve stepped on a few landlines like health insurance premiums that exceed a mortgage payment, we’ve also joyfully purchased both a boat and an RV. At the end of the day we want to enjoy our retirement, not suffer through it. There’s no shame in spending money on the tools that bring you joy, as long as you have the means to do so. After ten incredible days in Yellowstone, I can honestly say the purchase of our travel trailer may have been the best $20,000 we’ve ever spent on anything.

    • Thank you! And remind me to tell you sometimes about my experiment making homemade hair conditioner. Let’s just say it took WEEKS to get it all out of my hair. Hahahaaha. I think there’s no shame in using Tide and running your clothes through the dryer if you’d rather spend your time and energy taking on other tasks than hanging up your clothes to dry and making homemade detergent. There are folks who find that stuff fun, and that’s great! But you shouldn’t feel like you must like someone else’s mold of frugality to “do it right.” I also love that you bought an RV — especially because you got a travel trailer that tends to be a much better value. Ten days in Yellowstone sounds sooo wonderful.

  9. I’ll tell you a little secret. After serval years of financial independence, you tend to stop talking about financial independence and just live your life however you see fit. It doesn’t really matter what anybody else says anymore because you’re free.

    It does feel embarrassing going from Honda fit to a Range Rover, but I bought the car because I want a larger car to protect my little one. And, I like the car and it goes to Tahoe during the winter season fine, where I have a condo.


  10. I don’t try to sell anyone on FIRE, except my wife, and one day my kids. I’ll barely qualify as being “early” since I’ll be 60 when I retire – LOL.

    If other people are happy to over-consume, get in debt and work for 45 years, fine. Who am I to argue that they are doing it wrong? We followed that path somewhat. Sure, it would have be nice to have done it differently so I could have retired at 50 – or 45 – but I’m not angry or pissed off that I was “suckered” into living the life I did. It was (is) a good life for us.

    BTW, I tried watching “Fight Club” and never made it through the entire movie. Maybe all the hype ruined it for me. It was weird. Maybe one day I’ll try watching it again.

    • Every day you steal back from 65 is still early! Don’t sell yourself short! And thank you for acknowledging that the draw of the consumerist life is that it can be a good life, so long as you aren’t going into debt to support it. We feel the same way about our baller years — we don’t regret them at all or feel like we were suckers for spending money on the travel and dining out that ate up great sums of cash in those days. It was worth it. (And if you watch Fight Club again, do it soonish. I’m not sure that it will hold up well forever.)

  11. I’ve only seen Fight Club once, so after this post I feel like I need to go watch it again. Also yes to Brad Pitt with his shirt off…sorry, what were you saying? ;)

    I certainly needed the facepunch at the beginning of the FI journey, but agree that it’s a fantastic way to turn a lot of people off immediately. I’m all about the conscious consumption, but given that I’m still struggling with twinges of guilt and feeling like I need to justify every single non-baseline purchase I make (both to myself and publicly), I think there’s a lot of room for growth on the non-judgmental front in general.

    • Hahahaah. I definitely think you need to rewatch Fight Club STAT! ;-) And I think it’s good you recognize that you have some unnecessary guilt around some of your purchases so you can work on banishing that. Let me know if you need any moral support to make purchases that add worthwhile value to your life! :-)

  12. I have been executing my plan for 30 years, by most standards I achieved FI a decade ago, but I wasn’t ready to quit work that I enjoyed and the added years would give us true freedom to never worry about money again. Like anonymous above we will be able to pay ourselves more in each year of retirement than we will likely spend.

    We never saw The FIRE destination as a place where you “shelter in place” and survive on your savings the rest of your life worried that you might outlive your money or that in order to make it you weren’t spending beyond the essentials. In my opinion this journey isn’t about being frugal to save only to be frugal to make it through early retirement. Thrifty, smart, intentional but not inflicting suffering to do it. Laura please feel free to wash your clothes anyway you want guilt free, there are no rules and no one is judging your choices. If they are, they don’t matter to you. Give yourself permission to live free of the fear of being judged or accused of “doing it wrong”.

    Our plan is like Anonymous above, we won’t necessarily consume things just to have them but we will consume events and make memories, enjoying family dining out without worrying if we have a coupon, traveling to experience the world and doing it comfortably, enjoying the outdoors and giving our time and money to worthy causes. If we need a car we can buy new or used, our choice, the finances do not dictate the outcome

    We were thrifty to get to where we are at, we will be smart with money the rest of our lives, but retiring early and enjoying the fruits of our labor doesn’t mean we have to become some minimalist anti consumerism warrior and berate those who don’t coupon and shop at goodwill, it merely means we don’t worry and we will do what we want.

    Yes I agree there is a tone in the FIRE community that sounds a lot like doomsday preppers and others who want to shelter in place. That may very well be what works for those people but it should not be the message of what FIRE can do and be in your life.

    In my opinion if FI means not working for a paycheck but what you pay yourself requires you to cut every corner, delay or defer everything beyond essentials and live like a monk then you may be free of a 9-5 job but i do not think I would call that true financial independence – in fact the finances are controlling you.

    This was a great topic Ms ONL and I am sure it will touch a nerve or two. Remember the first rule of fight club……

    • What’s that first rule of Fight Club again? ;-) Glad you enjoyed the topic! I like your “shelter in place” analogy so much. Don’t know if you saw it, but I wrote a post a few months back urging people to make sure they have enough cushion built into their plan to be able to change their minds, and that feels like a similar line of thinking. The shelter in place mentality limits your future options, and how free is that? Such a good point!

  13. Seriously, being introduced to FIRE a la MMM did not do Mrs. SSC any favors. I too imagined “living in a van down by the river” eating rice and beans, and Ramen “if we could afford it”. Hahahaha

    When I talk to young people here at work about saving extra and working towards FI, I never mention the retire early part. It’s too far out for them to grasp. Instead I phrase it as giving themselves freedom to make choices in their life later on. As in, “Sure you love work and this job now. In 15 years, you may have a different opinion about this job or this company or industry. By saving now you can give future you options…”

    I ahve no problem consuming goods, I’m just way more mindful now than before. But, no F’s are giving admitting to buying a new car, a brand new car, or getting a mortgage on our second home.. Gasp!! A second home, that’s not a rental?! or not side hstling every waking minute of free time that I have. My priorities are skewed way differently than that.

    I like to keep the “Personal” in “Personal Finance”. :D

    • I love how you talk about FI to your younger colleagues. That’s exactly what this all should be about: options. And it’s funny for a movement aiming for more options to create this idea that there’s one right way to do things. If our goal is to have options at the destination, shouldn’t there be options in how we get there? ;-)

  14. I think that most conversations could benefit from a great deal more perspective on all sides. This is the major reason why yours is the only blog I read regularly. The black and white mentality rankles. The world is an extremely complex place and people usually aren’t as mindless as we make them out to be.

    The whole concept of FIRE, FI, whatever term we use, only has value inasmuch as it benefits the person who pursues it and it adds value to their life. It isn’t really a “message” so much as a concept. I don’t feel any particular urgency about evangelizing. That implies that I know better than others what makes them happy, what their financial situation is, and what they want out of life. I’m happy to share my thoughts with anyone who shows interest or for whom their finances are a major source of stress. Other than that, I’m happy to live my life and let them live theirs. :)

    • It means a lot that you read my blog, given how discerning you are! :-D And yeah, black and white thinking makes me crazy in all its forms, not just when talking about FI. ;-) There’s way too much of the fundamental attribution error going around in general, assuming others are dumb, lazy or ill-intentioned. (Uh, maybe we’re all just doing the best we can under the circumstances?) And I like how you put it, too, that FI is a concept, not a “message.” Those of us who write about it could all stand to remember that! :-)

  15. I think the purpose of all of us is to be happy. What makes us different are the principles and internal motivation that drive our choices. People pursuing FI either save/spend because that is what makes us happy. I believe this is driven by our understanding that happiness is based on internal factors – whether it be spending on clothes or contributing to the community or being frugal. For non-FI people I believe the factors are external – status, pride, peer/societal pressure.
    In terms of the FI message, the extreme examples will always get more visibility because they generate more curiosity. We can just hope that people who are thinking about FI put in some effort to read about different approaches. At the end of the day, you need lots of effort to be FI and someone who just reads one blog and decides it is not for them might not be cut out for it after all. (not judging).

    • I disagree a bit in that I don’t think non-FI people are *necessarily* externally motivated. And I know that from personal experience, before we discovered early retirement and got on the path. We didn’t spend our money on visible signs of wealth, pretty much ever, but we sure burned through a lot of cash traveling and, especially, eating at very expensive restaurants. This was pre-Instagram, so we didn’t do it to share with others, but because we truly loved those experiences. Our aha moment wasn’t about switching from external motivation to internal motivation, but rather about scaling our spending to let us continue doing those things we love at a lower level while also getting closer to the goal of not having to work for money.

      • Yes, agree with your viewpoint. When I read your reply, I can see that I am still trying to divide people into 2 distinct groups. Looks like I am not thinking it through.

        Want to check this thought with you. Considering you earn well above the average, would you say that not many would be able to save as much while pursuing the ONL lifestyle? Would the frugality based FIRE blogs better serve people who earn less and still want to find a way to retire? (I agree that the the trade-off between spending on some item now vs saving is a personal choice)

      • I think “better serve” is up for debate, because it’s a question of what you need. If what you most need is a tactical guide to frugality, then other blogs are definitely going to be helpful to you in a way ONL is not, not because I don’t practice plenty of frugal tactics, but because I made a decision early on not to write those kinds of posts. I think the bigger questions that I ask are suitable for all income and frugality levels. But to your actual question, our approach would be the slow route for lower earners for sure because we’re not frugal to the max… but I also don’t really write about that. ;-) But yeah, we absolutely know that most people can’t spend what we spend and still save a very high percent of income.

  16. I feel personal finance bloggers have been fairly good about addressing mindful spending. There are only a few that seem to take it to an extreme place of being against consumerism (we’re all consumers of some things, right?) Or maybe I just don’t read those bloggers.

    I think some people need to limit the types of things and amount of consumer spending they do to reach FI goals. Other people may make very good salaries and get there without limiting their consumer spending nearly as much.

    Some of this reminds me of the cheap vs. frugal discussion in personal finance… I can’t quite place my finger on why right now. Maybe because they are both about not spending money, but the two different connotations matter.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Fight Club, but the IKEA scene was the most memorable consumer one to me.

    • I think you’re right that many, many people have talked about mindful spending, but it often comes with a side order of judgment about what types of spending are mindful or not. (Is that really mindful?) But you’re right — there are definitely different paths to FI. We’ve been super lucky to get there without living a particularly ascetic life, while others with smaller incomes might have to scrimp to make it happen. One way isn’t better or worse, they’re just different. (One way is definitely more privileged, though. I completely own that.) And I think you’re right that this is a good parallel to the cheap vs. frugal conversation.

      • Ms ONL

        There has to be a balance and it has to be healthy and it has to be grounded in a reality that contemplates both the long term goal and the live in the moment points of view. Let me share a personal example that I hope readers understand.

        My father was raised with very little, went to college on an academic scholarship and earned a middle class living. He paid for college expenses scholarships didn’t cover for his two kids, saved money by being thrifty, not frugal, and when he retired 15 years ago had achieved financial independence with two paid for homes (main residence and winter home) and near two million in the bank.

        My parents traveled a bit, my dad still looked for bargains, took discounts and bought used cars. My mom wanted to do more but he was happy playing golf and never wanted to touch “the money”

        5 years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and over time it kept my parents from doing some of the things they put off. My father passed in January leaving my mom with more money than they started with when he stopped working. She is sad to this day that they put things off. He was 75, not an old man by any standard. They could have enjoyed more travel, nicer dining experiences, visits win the grandkids, hosting amity vacations. He carried with him his thriftiness and never lived to enjoy the fruits of his hard work.

        I know he didn’t regret a moment when he passed, he lived the life he wanted to lead, but he could never give himself permission to enjoy it and I for one will not make that same mistake and my advice to everyone here is FI is not about suffering and denying things that are comfortable and part of an enjoyable life to achieve a goal that once achieved requires you to continue to deny yourself things that cost money. He didn’t take a dime with him.

        Make your life’s goal to optimize what you think you will get to have, trade off something now for a better more fulfilling future for sure but make it a trade not a sacrifice.

        Good luck to all

      • I’m so sorry you lost your dad this year, Phil. :-( It’s really admirable that you can draw this personal lesson from it, and it’s certainly a tale I’ve heard before, of people who were so focused on saving that they never got to enjoy the fruits of your labors. And I think you have the added piece here of your mom and what she wanted. Your dad may have been happy with his choices, but your mom felt deprived. An important reminder that we are often not in this alone and need to find a balance that all partners are happy with. Thank you for sharing this!

  17. Very well said, and you can’t see me, but I’m geeking out over the shout out!

    I totally agree that there seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition when it comes to FI. And I think that’s part of the reason most of society feels alienated from it. I personally was inspired by Mr. Money Mustache, but I choose the parts of his philosophy that are relevant to me. I think many of these extreme points of view tend to work on those who already have a basic knowledge of financial concepts. And when you think about it, maybe it’s more noble to try to reach those who have no idea how credit cards work, because they are the ones who need the most help with money. I find that the face-punchy attitudes don’t work well for this group, and often come across as “tone deaf”. Showing empathy and leading a balanced life by example is a great way to reach non-FI people, but let’s face it, a balanced approach isn’t nearly as sexy or catchy as the face-punching narrative.

    • It was a completely well-deserved shout-out! :-) And I think you’re right that MMM does a huge service to a lot of folks in introducing them to this possibility in life. My issue is not with him, but more with some of the adherents who act as though every word is gospel, which I’m pretty sure is not what Pete intended. Like that time Gwen ( got shot down on the MMM forums for not wanting to ride her bike to work when the weather was crappy. That is when we know certain segments of the community have lost their way. And I love your point that, perhaps, we should be focusing more energy on helping those with lower financial literacy see what’s possible instead of only preaching to the choir, even if it’s not as sexy. ;-)

  18. Yes! Great post. This is one of the reasons I started my blog. The super judgmental tone of some of the people is counter-productive in the long run. I believe it can motivate many, but also result in quick burn-out and a hopelessness about finances — similar to crash diets vs a change in lifestyle. That said, I believe that to start a movement, you have to be outside the mainstream, and that’s largely why MMM for instance has been successful. But I believe in looking inward with intention to find your true values, motivations and what works for you. That’s what I hope to write more about. I tried to address this a bit in this post, but there is so much to say. I’m so glad for your blog where you raise questions and perspectives not often heard in the “movement.”

    • Thank you! :-) I can see we’re simpatico on this! That go-straight-to-the-deep-end pressure DOES burn a lot of people out, even those who are totally bought into the FI concept. I’m a much bigger fan of focusing on what you value first, and only then figuring out how money supports it, not letting the tail (money) wag the dog (your life). And thanks for sharing your post! Look forward to checking it out.

  19. Our friends will certainly say that we are not frugal, but we are definitely deliberate. “One of the ways that I believe that people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there. … and in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love something is transmitted there … “. From the voice of Steve Jobs at last weeks keynote at Apple Park. I love great products and despise shitty ones. I’ve been a maker of products my whole career and certainly influenced by >12 years at Apple and several other companies along the way. I used to play a game where I’d ask people what their five favorite products were. The ones that bring true joy into their lives. A smile on your face. No right answer, it’s an individual choice. The last time I wrote about this almost a year ago, mine were: Leki hiking poles, our Airstream Classic, my Taylor 608e guitar, the Big Green Egg & our radiant floors in Colorado. It is inspiring to see how people put products out into the world that engage so many. Again, I’m not talking about the shitty ones. But go find the ones that are great … for you. It’s not either or for us. We will continue to buy and use products that bring us joy, but not at the expense of securing a solid financial position for the family. There is a preaching rhetoric that can come from any group including FIRE. There’ss not one way to get it done. It’s not my place to rail against those that consume. I’m so excited to see you guys wrapping up one chapter & starting the next. Go buy that iPhone8 Plus … if that’s what puts a smile on your face.

    • I love that Steve Jobs quote, and also that thought exercise with the five things. I’ll have to think about what mine are! I’m sure the new iPhone 8 is freaking cool, but I think the 6S is plenty for me. ;-)

  20. Great post and love how you’re using fight club as an example, love that movie! What you stated is exactly one of the key reasons why I started my blog.

    I think we all have our inspirations when it comes to FIRE. MMM is an inspiration to me but I like to take his messages and create my own. To me it’s about finding something that will work for you (i.e. finding your personal balance between saving and spending).

  21. I love this discussion and the non-frugals coming out of the closet. Many would say I worked too long but I worked long enough to support a lifestyle that includes the things that truly enhance my life. There is no right answer for FI. We each define it differently and we should be just as accepting of other’s definitions and methods as we are of our own.

    Oh and I agree with in-floor heat and I’d add a heated steering wheel become necessities in the Colorado mountains.

    • Agree 100%, Liz! :-) I know that we could have retired a year or two ago if we had a different vision for our life, but that would force us to scrimp on the things that we value most. Travel is our top priority, with some expensive sports behind that, and those would be off the table if we didn’t save more — and that wouldn’t feel worth it to us! I know you understand. ;-) And we loooooove having our Subaru with winter package. The heated seats and windshield wipers add major value to our lives. ;-)

  22. Very well-put – I’m with you that there isn’t a magical FI lifestyle that everyone should follow and the things that are a terrible fit for one person’s values could be wonderful for another’s.

    I think the “in-your-face” blogs like Mr Money Mustache serve an important purpose as they appeal to a certain demographic, but they aren’t the panacea of what a great life looks like for everyone.

    In the end, I think everyone should at least be willing to think critically about what’s really important to them and feel empowered to craft a life that focuses more on those things. I think that’s the thread that ties all of my favorite blogs (including ONL and Mr. Money Mustache) together.

    We can share the why (living a life more intentional) without sharing all the details of the how (extreme frugality, side hustling, tax optimization).

    • Thanks, Chris! I love how you put it — focusing on the why more than the how. That’s definitely what I try to do here, and I think that’s also the right sequence for thinking about these questions. Focusing on the how first is a recipe for losing motivation, but if you know your why, you’ll naturally know whether you’re more interested in a super frugal fast track, a more spendy route, or somewhere in between. :-)

  23. This post has a very close parallel to a recent article I read about eating/diet. Certain diet proponents have a tendency to think in extreme black and white terms instead of the healthier alternative of moderation and sanity. They frequently tell you which foods are prohibited and should be avoided at all costs, which can lead to some bad things, such as orthorexia – “the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet”.

    I’ve been there in my FI journey. I jumped into the deep end and quickly found myself rather unhappy. It’s been a process to allow myself to add things back into my life without feeling guilty of taking away from my future self.
    You had a great recent post describing this similar thing – the deep end effect (

    “There were two rival fire brigades, a volunteer one and the official one. A fire broke out, and, for some reason, the volunteer brigade got there first and extinguished the fire. When the official brigade came later, they said it was incorrectly extinguished.”

    Love your blog, keep up the great work!

    • SO MANY parallels with the frugality/FI stuff and eating/”eat clean”/orthorexia. This idea of perfection and purity is so powerful (and harmful!). And LOL — that fire brigade analogy is PERFECT. Thanks for the nice note, Henry! :-D

  24. I am seeing a continual trend here of others thinking the same way as me. I love the raw in your face honesty to break through and catch people’s attention but after that I think we can ease them into the ideology and mindset. As a business owner and retailer myself I don’t want people to stop spending, I just want them to think about their purchases and have their intentions clear. Said several times above, does it add genuine value and does it take away from my long term goals.

    • Ha — so true! So many of us have built businesses or side hustles that rely on others spending their money, so let’s not be hypocrites about spending? ;-) LOL

  25. Great Discussion!
    I so agree- it is all about priorities and choices. I too was very inspired by MMM several years ago as I saw we were finally getting closer to FI. But, I am just not that hard- core. I really cut back on lots of excess spending to my husbands delight- but for me personally- I drew a line in the sand on a few things that although not worth the money to my husband–they were to me. The big one – true confession here- is getting my hair professionally colored ( hey I am 57 and just not ready to go gray). I always feel embarrassed to admit that in the FI community- so good to come out of the closet.
    I do drive a 13 year old Honda Element – cars have never been exciting to me.

    • Thanks, Sally! And if you ever need someone to back you up on spending money on your hair, come on over, and I’ll give you a big thumbs up! I’ve never understood why some people get so judgy about salon hair care when you wear your hair EVERY DAY. ;-) I’ve seen people who will spend big bucks on other stuff, but freak out when they hear that my haircuts are $75. Yeah, well, I don’t spend on that other stuff that they do! ;-) (I will say, though… drugstore hair color has come a long way!)

  26. I’m glad you wrote about this. On some blogs it’s almost a contest to see who can spend the least amount of money. We have no right to judge others based on what they’re buying or the lifestyle they lead (no way I’m riding 20 miles to work on a bike in subzero weather!). Instead we should be helping people to make choices that help them achieve their goals, whatever those may be (hopefully one is FI).

    This perception of the FIRE community is hard to avoid. A friend actually apologized to me this summer (after talking about a big purchase she made) and said that she could never save as much money as I do. This made me sad because I’ve never said anything about her spending and wouldn’t expect ANY of my friends to save as much as I do. But she assumes I’m judging her because my saving habits are very different. Clearly, I need to change the way I’m talking about money around friends.

    I’m all about values based and mindful spending and that’s the message I’m trying to spread IRL. It’s just hard to get people past the idea that you don’t have to live like a hermit to accumulate wealth (unless you want to, of course!).

    • Thanks, Kate! And wow, if a friend had said that to me, I would have been taken aback as well! That must have been so disheartening for you! I’m sure it has as much (or more) to do with what other money experts preach as it does with what you’ve said to her. I’m sure it’s still a net positive for her to have you in her life to show what’s possible with (slightly) different habits!

  27. Definitely the best post I’ve read this month. I, too, get somewhat defensive when people get on their high horse about consumerism:

    There’s something in me that wants to defend how any individual wants to accomplish their goals, or having different goals. After all: we catch the same judgment when people look at our weird, FI choices, too.

    I think consumerism is something to be worried about but the way we address a problem is key. In a way, we need to think of the pitch in the same way a marketer does.

    It’s no good having a great idea or product if you lose people on the pitch…

    • Thank you! Such a nice compliment. :-D I think the FI movement has taken on this personality of sticking our chins out and not worrying whether others find us weird, which no doubt has a LOT to do with the persona of the first FI celeb. But of course that doesn’t mean we all think that way or live our lives similarly! As you said, the way we address the problem of consumerism is key, not just that we recognize it’s problematic.

  28. I agree with the premise that Personal Finance is “Personal”. The Dave Ramsey & MMM approaches serve a segment of the population that desperately need a starting place, but don’t always allow for “Personalization” and rely to heavily on shaming behaviours that don’t fit their doctrine. While I enjoy riding my bike to work 3 miles on Friday’s in the summer, my days of riding my bike 30 miles to work rain/shine/snow are long over. And that is perfectly fine with me. I enjoy your blog because it focuses more on the “why” than the ‘how”. Find what you value and then find your plan.

    • I think the last sentence of your comment should be my new blog tagline: “Find your value and then find your plan.” ;-) YES, that is the perfect encapsulation. Not “base your plan on not getting shamed” or “base your plan on what’s right for someone else.” ;-)

  29. It would be easier to take the punch in the face versions of FI more seriously if they recognized that Fight Club is also a huge critique of the accouterments of traditional masculinity as constructed in the US. And that the narrator and the men who join the clubs could choose to self-reflect and see that they chose their damn choices, and that “mindless consumerism” never had to be their default. But no, erotic fanfiction of Tyler Durden and the type of man/respect they deserve to be is easier than facing the fact that they, largely, created the boring lives they lived. Scapegoating companies for the narrator not having the guts to have a personality and make choices based on it is for non-serious people. (I like Fight Club, but I don’t like it when people pretend that the anti-consumerist message is the only thing there. Or when they don’t notice the misogyny. Or the homoeroticism. Or …)

    Humans consume. As do animals. As do plants. There are a few species that are invasive and will overconsume, but most creatures will stay in balance. Pretending that one’s choices are inherently better than another’s choices, especially without having all of the information, is a fool’s errand. There are so many ways to be a good and conscientious person. We are informed by our cultures, but we are also responsible for our choices.

    • Oh my gosh, YES. I kind of want to write a novel back to you, but I’ll share you. Yes yes yes, so many things about the Fight Club narrative that are not how it’s most often used. And yes, the protagonist uses consumerism to fill a void that he’d rather not do the hard work himself to fill. And YES to your point that there are many ways to be a good and conscientious person — though I think being a good person gets lost a lot of the time when we’re talking about life goals here in the PF world. We need to talk about that more!

  30. Amazing post! You expressed so well what I have found inadequate and sometimes annoying in the PF community, but hadn’t quite put my finger on: the mindless consumption narrative that “purports to know everyone’s motivation for their actions.” That is so over-simplified. I can look at our families and trace money attitudes and choices back to different people’s personalities interacting diversely with historical factors like the Great Depression. I don’t claim to know the whole story about why people in my lineage made all the choices they did, but I can at least see the big picture of many, many factors that influenced them, and how they in turn influenced their children, and so on. It’s never a simple story.

    • Thanks, Kalie! Appreciate you saying that! :-D I absolutely understand the desire to try to boil things down to make them easier to understand and explain, but there are times when doing so does harm. It’s also the fundamental attribution error — assuming our own actions are morally just but others are morally corrupt — which is just that: an error. If I decided to splurge one day and buy impractical shoes, I’m treating myself for my hard work, but if someone else does it, they’re making an irresponsible financial decision that will doom them forever. Huh?! ;-)

  31. I completely agree with you. It’s why I’ve butted heads with a few people about FI/RE and FF because it’s yet another “goal” and spoken as if it’s one path. I talk more about financial wellness because I believe you must do what’s right for you. That means starting with your values and choosing a purpose. Wellness is personal approach because what makes us well requires being more mindful of what matters to us.

    Great article and congrats on plutus.

    • Thanks, Jason! :-) I’m with you 100% (I kind of want to tweet “Not everyone wants a punch to the face” on a daily basis. Hahaha). Hit me up if you need backup in any of those fights with the more dogmatic and sanctimonious FI folks. ;-)

  32. I agree in general, but “buying local” and “supporting small business” are examples of buying into a carefully crafted marketing campaign. It’s still buying things you don’t need, or over paying for stuff you do need, from a merchant. A merchant is a merchant regardless of size or location.

    • I’m talking about buying from people we know, not buying things with marketing dollars behind them. Others for sure disagree with us on this, and that’s cool, but I am definitely on the side of being unwilling to label any purchase of any product bad. If we’re buying something we will use or love aesthetically from someone we know, we know what they’re about, we know where they source their materials, etc., I’m never going to feel bad about that. What I need is up to me, just as what you need is up to you.

  33. I’m only just getting started towards financial independence and although I have found the punch to the face inspiring, it has put me off commenting before. I feel like I’ll be judged poorly because of my choices, for example, earlier this year I got a car loan to buy a car efficient and safe enough to deal with my new commute to work (still felt like I had to justify it here!). I am in complete agreement with your post, we all value different things and as long as our spending is mindful and adds value to our lives I don’t see anything wrong with it. Many thanks for starting such an interesting conversation.

    • Glad you connected with this post! Yeah, it’s nuts to me that a community that sprung up from the idea that we want to do things differently than the norm has in some cases created its own new norms and now criticizes those who don’t do things exactly that “right” way. We need a rebellion from the rebellion! ;-)

  34. Thoughtful post as always, Ms. ONL. Well done!

    I think the challenge with strong, in your face messages like MMM’s is primarily with the readers’ own equally strong reactions to it (for or against). And obviously many people have ideological adherence to the SURFACE of the message instead of the underlying principals.

    MMM is a caricature. And caricatures are designed to exaggerate certain surface level features in order to make a point and appeal to a certain audience. Pete certainly adheres to the practices that his caricature espouses, like biking everywhere and spending much less than average.

    But I think the principles behind those choices are what he is trying to get embedded into society – like the practice of self reflection, prioritizing purpose and happiness, and living more sustainably. I don’t think anyone here has an issue with those.

    The great service he has done is show what’s possible with one particular path to FIRE. Everyone else now has to find their own paths, just like he did. And you, Ms. ONL are doing a fabulous job with that!

    • Thanks, Chad! I agree on MMM, and honestly, my beef isn’t even mostly with him anymore. (Though some of his stuff I strongly disagree with, especially his views on privilege.) But he put a caricature out there that lots of folks are now magnifying, and that’s what I think is harmful, and results in the community judging a lot of folks unfairly. But in any case, I couldn’t agree more with you that it’s up to each of us to find our own path, and decide what our own parameters for happiness and financial security are. And I completely appreciate the bloggers like you who lead with purpose in shaping that vision!