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.
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.