I love the financial independence/early retirement blogging community fiercely, and I’m proud to be a part of what is unquestionably one of the most positive, supportive places on the Internet. I didn’t even really read FI blogs before we got started on our journey, or before I started blogging for that matter, but I’ve still gotten so much from them, and from the community of readers who comment and share thoughts, too.
For those of us interested in living a particular kind of unconventional life made possible by the subtraction of work, FI blogs serve a crucial purpose.
And that crucial purpose is why it’s so critical that we always tell the full story.
Last year, I wrote my feistiest post to date (possibly ever – depends how this one goes!), in which I encouraged readers not to listen to FI blogs, especially when it comes to the question of whether early retirement is sustainable, because too often they don’t tell that full story. (Bottom line: nearly every retired FI blogger draws significant income from their blog, and therefore isn’t actually testing the approach to early retirement that they espouse.)
That post started some great discussions, and I was pleased to see a few more bloggers disclose their blog income as a result. But that alone isn’t enough.
So today, I’m going farther. This is a manifesto of what FIRE bloggers owe our readers. We’re at our best as a community when we push each other to be better, and this is my big nudge to all of us, including to myself.
The predicament I see with FI blogs is, interestingly, that many are too encouraging. This may be the one and only time I ever complain about a group of people being too positive, but the fundamental conflict is that if we make early retirement seem too easy to achieve, or too simple mathematically, we lead folks down the primrose path to potential financial ruin later in life, at exactly the time when they are least equipped to deal with it, because they simply did not save enough to weather all the future unknowns that none of us can control. We need to be both encouraging and realistic, and sometimes full realism is what’s missing.
Problem One: The Plan Vs. Reality Mismatch and the Incomplete Message That Creates
Let me make this completely clear: I do not think that making money from your blog is the problem here. I know how much work it is to write a blog and keep it going, and I believe people deserve to be compensated for their work. So if you make money on your blog? Great job!
The problem is that what folks espouse and then what they actually do are often quite different, and that creates a real and important issue in the message. Let’s break that down.
Consider the most commonly discussed levels of financial independence or early retirement:
While bloggers may have different approaches to getting to financial independence, the model of post-career life that most espouse is this one:
No inherent problem there! Never having to work ever again is what we all want in an ideal world, right?
Here’s the problem:
Or, to put it more simply:
It’s understandable if you spend all these years working a high-stress job, thinking you never want to work again, and then get to retirement and realize that there actually are certain types of work that you wouldn’t mind doing. (Hi. We did that.) Or your blog grows because you achieve financial independence and become a big inspiration to people and realize that you can make big bucks from that. All well and good.
But imagine this scenario:
A blogger who needs retirement cash flow of $40,000 a year saves a million dollars and leaves their career. Great! They quickly begin netting $50,000 a year from their blog, and now instead of withdrawing $40,000 a year from their portfolio, and actually testing the 4 percent rule they espouse in their posts, they are now not withdrawing anything, and are instead reinvesting dividends and even adding $10,000 more to their portfolio on top of market gains. In no time, their portfolio balance hits $1.1 million, and then $1.2 million and beyond. Should the blogger’s blog income ever disappear and force them to default back to their original withdrawal plan, they’ll now only be withdrawing 3.3% of their portfolio each year, not 4%. If the economy tanks, they can sustain a 17% correction before they’re even back at their base level they need to be completely financially independent forever. Or maybe they have a $200,000 cushion on top of their FI fund to weather things like higher future health care expenses or a home purchase if they decide to move somewhere higher cost.
The question is: If this person keeps blogging about the likelihood that the 4 percent rule will be adequately conservative in the future, or whether an economic crisis would sink their finances, or about why “enough” is a lot less than you think and you should stop working already, or whether we should all be more confident about our early retirement money working out just fine, should we trust that?
There is an unstated social contract at play in the FIRE blogosphere between writer and reader which says: You can trust what I’m telling you and incorporate my ideas safely into your own retirement plan because I’m actually doing this myself and betting my own finances on it.
Of course it’s still the reader’s job to consider the source and do your own homework, but when bloggers break that contract, the least they can do is tell you.
Problem Two: Ignoring the Reality for Many Readers
I appreciate the lengths that so many bloggers go to to make readers of all stripes feel welcome here. It’s why I write posts like how I started with essentially nothing saved only 10 years before retiring early. And I’ve heard from enough readers to know that that inclusive spirit is absolutely a positive thing.
But there’s a dark side to that: To be inclusive, we often have to act as though the things we say apply to everyone, and that’s just not true. Looking at income breakdowns in the U.S., for example, most people simply cannot save for early retirement in 10 or 15 years without spending so little that it’s below the poverty level, an impossible reality in the age of housing shortages, massive student debt, skyrocketing health care costs and wage stagnation. Sure, some people can save in that time frame or more quickly, but they are not the norm.
So when we say “anyone can do this,” or start throwing out big numbers or percentages that are clearly out of the mathematical realm of possibility for the majority of people in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, we’re actually excluding with our attempts to be inclusive or, worse, we’re shaming those who can’t save at those levels for being less capable or dedicated.
I don’t believe that the answer is to be less inclusive, but simply to acknowledge a much wider range of economic realities. And if you aren’t sure what those realities are, keep reading.
I think we as a community of FI bloggers are already doing a great job on the encouragement side, and that won’t change, nor should it! So the encouragement part isn’t represented here in the manifesto. Where we’re lacking is on the realism side, both our own as bloggers, and potential future problems readers could face. And that’s where we can and must do better collectively. That’s true for both the big, influential blogs, and the small blogs, too, because they could be the influential blogs tomorrow.
The Manifesto: What FIRE Bloggers Owe Our Readers
Be Transparent About Whether You’re Testing Your Own Plans – If we write about the 4% rule and taking an approach to saving that embraces more risk, then we need to be living by the 4% rule and not continuing to pad our investments. Or if we find ourselves unexpectedly making good money in retirement (good for you!), we need to be clear with readers that our plan has changed and we’re no longer doing what we said we’d do with respect to our finances.
Share the Parameters of Your Own Financial Independence – Not all financial independence is created equal. To one person, financial independence might mean that if you never work again, you won’t be comfortable but you won’t starve, while to someone else, FI might mean being able to live large forever. Readers deserve to know what standard of living is build into your definition of financial independence, whether it covers only you or you plus a spouse or family, whether it relies on living in a particular place like a low cost of living area or overseas, and whether you’re factoring some future work into your numbers or not.
Acknowledge If You Have a High Income – I get that “high income” means something different to everyone, and that if your income matches those around you it’s not going to “feel”’ high. But I see way too many bloggers saying “Anyone can do this!” or characterizing their own situation as normal, average or the massively misused term “middle class” when it’s clearly not, and that both misrepresents the truth and alienates readers who can see through it. But let’s take the ambiguity away from what “high income” means. Here are some facts: the 50th percentile of household income in the U.S., per 2014 Census data, is $57,000 per year. That’s with an average of 1.41 earners, meaning the individual average is just above $40,000 a year. So if your household earns above these figures, you already earn more than average. If your household earns above $80,000 a year you’re in the top third of all households, above $100,000 you’re in the top quarter, $160,000 puts you in the top 10 percent, $200,000 is top five percent and $250,000+ is top three percent. That’s household, not just one person in a dual-income home. Even earning top quarter ($100K+ for the household) puts you well above average and about double what most households earn, so is going to materially impact what you’re able to do financially and the rate at which you can save and invest. That’s why you must say so. (It also means if you earn six figures as a household, you’re – by the most generous possible definition of middle class as the middle half of everyone – not middle class. To say you are is untrue.) And if you’re in the top ten percent or higher, then you absolutely need to clarify that what you’re doing is going to be out of reach for the vast majority of folks. I’ve always acknowledged that we earned well above average, but I can do better and owe readers that. Our lightning fast saving for early retirement was absolutely aided by having a household income in our final saving years that was in the top three percent, along with not having kids. It wasn’t always there, of course, but when it was in lower brackets, we saved more slowly.
Tell Readers If You’re Working – This one doesn’t need elaboration, but it’s important for readers to know if you’re still drawing an active income. And as two people who telecommuted for years, I can absolutely affirm that just because you’re doing it from home, it doesn’t mean it’s not “real work.” If you left the office but are otherwise doing your job, it’s still work.
Be Clear About the Limits of Good Intentions – We can talk all day about how important it is to be flexible, but how flexible can you be if you’re 75, you haven’t worked in three decades, the cost of Medicare has tripled so that health care is now your largest expense, and you just found out you have stage 3 cancer? Is that when you’re going to “just go back to work”? Of course we all must stay on top of our spending in early retirement (and traditional retirement), and constrain it if the markets start tanking. But we owe it to readers to remind them that flexibility and frugality have their limits, and sometimes the only answer is to save a bit more or build in more contingencies.
Drop the Health Arrogance and Ableist Bias – This is going to sound harsh, but many bloggers are either blind to this or are deliberately choosing to see themselves as better than others simply because they are currently healthy. And hey, lucky you. There is a lot we can all do to improve our chances of staying healthy over the long run, and if you aren’t focused on staying active and eating healthily, I think you’re doing it wrong. But to say to your blog readers that you can control the costs of health by making healthy choices is straight up lying to them. First, none of us can control the cost of health care, and health insurance alone is currently going up in many states by 20 percent a year. (That’s about seven times the rate of overall inflation, each year.) And that’s before the expected cuts to Medicare arrive, even though the average Medicare recipient already has to pay more than a quarter million dollars out of pocket on health care between when they get on Medicare and the end of life. But more importantly, anyone can get sick anytime. Even the healthiest people. Or you could get hit by a car and need massively expensive surgeries and hospitalization. We can and should do everything we can to improve our odds, but we can’t even begin to control this stuff. Because health isn’t something you can plug into a spreadsheet. So don’t talk about it like it is.
Talk About Your Backup Plans and Their Limits – If your plan fails, what happens? Do you have contingency plans you can fall back on, like a home you own that you could downsize to free up resources? Do you have family you could move in with if it came to that? Do you have family connections that would let you move to another country with free or inexpensive health care? All of this stuff matters, because it provides your reader with important context. Saying it’s fine to save slightly less than your numbers suggest you should means something different if it comes from a blogger who has a big fat safety net versus one who doesn’t, and readers deserve to know your context to assess whether your advice feels right to them.
Consider the Usefulness of Partial Numbers – There’s no need to share your actual numbers if you’re honest with readers about your general financial situation, particularly on questions like whether you have or had student debt, the range of what you earn(ed) and whether you’ve had any windfalls that have sped your progress. But if you don’t share all of your numbers, consider whether it’s useful to share any of them. A popular metric to share is savings percentage, and there was a time when I shared ours too, but if you don’t specify the “Of what?” answer, the percentage itself will shame some of your readers into feeling that what they’re saving is a fail, and it will tell others that you must have such a crazy high income to save that percentage, and therefore you can’t possibly be talking to them. Better metrics to share are those that could truly apply to anyone’s situation like progress percentage toward your goal or simple facts like whether you reached your saving targets or not. Info like that keeps you accountable on your journey without the unintended side effects.
Keep Yourself Educated About Financial Realities – Very few FIRE bloggers are trained financial experts, and that’s fine! Sharing real world examples of the FIRE journey is absolutely inspiring to a great many folks. But if you opt to write a blog about a financial topic, you have the responsibility to stay in touch (or maybe get in touch in the first place) with the financial realities for most people, including those who might be very different from you socioeconomically. If you don’t know anyone who couldn’t come up with $400 out of savings in an emergency – an attribute that describes half of the country – or if you read those income figures above and thought, Really?!, that’s a big sign that you have some work to do to get grounded in what most people are up against. The more that you reflect that reality in your writing, the better your blog will be, and the better it will serve your readers.
Obviously I have strong feelings, but I’d love to know yours! For non-bloggers, what do you wish bloggers would universally do more or less of? Is there anything that would help you in your planning that bloggers aren’t generally doing now, or are doing and should stop? And for bloggers, what would you add to or subtract from this manifesto, and why? Anything you take issue with? Let’s discuss!
Don't miss a thing! Sign up for the eNewsletter.
Subscribe to get extra content 3 or 4 times a year, with tons of behind-the-scenes info that never appears on the blog.
Tanja, Thanks for the candor. Bloggers who left a job and now draw income from the blog have changed their income model from employee to free lance writer. Being a free lance writer has many lifestyle advantages and can not be affordable to some, who have debt or other obligations, so it is still an accomplishment. Understanding this change in income sources is important to potential early retirees because a source of income reduces the stress on the retiree’s portfolio. Fred
It absolutely does reduce portfolio stress. And it just colors their perspective on things. If you know your investments have the pressure off, it’s easy to feel optimistic and breezy about all things and to therefore push your readers to be equally nonchalant about things that may very well warrant a bit more focus and concern. ;-)
Speaking of different realities … I used to work in financial literacy. We had community focused staff who did grassroots, face to face workshops and programmes generally with people on very low incomes struggling to make ends and meet and low financial knowledge/skills. We also had, at the other end of the spectrum, a person who focused on investor education (a lot less frontline, a lot more media focused). That person was so frustratingly out of touch, hassling those of us who didn’t live in the inner leafy suburbs for our long commutes (us lowly staff lived where we could afford to) and literally puzzling over why people at large don’t contribute to superannuation (who can’t afford $20 a week? That’s chump change) and don’t have emergency savings to avoid borrowing from loan sharks (apparently he actually believed that everyone has a solid EF 😳). Truly bizarre disconnect.
Thank you, from someone with a master’s degree who is barely making ends meet. I budget only £40/week for food, groceries and misc after all the bills have been paid, and even then my income-based-repayment on my student loan isn’t close to cover the accruing interest. So my debt continues to grow even with the monthly payments I’m making, and early retirement, let alone a savings account with money in it, are pie in the sky for me. Not exactly what I expected from a solid education. I follow ONL because I find it very interesting and I do hope to do something like it someday, as unlikely as it seems. I am expecting a rather large salary increase about a year from now (after qualifying professionally, leaving public practice and going to industry), so hopefully that will help start to turn this runaway train around.
I appreciate so much that you read ONL despite what must feel like some overwhelming obstacles to reaching FI! You’re such a great case of someone who has achieved a great deal academically and is clearly very smart, but you have some circumstances that put FI out of reach, at least for now. And I do think some of the messaging out there has probably made you feel bad about that. But you have nothing to feel bad about, and I commend you for being so focused on your finances when it must be awfully tempting to go the nihilistic way sometimes. :-)
That’s troubling to hear! I saw a stat just today that in the U.S. at least, the top 20% own 93% of the stocks. So when you’re talking about stock investing, you’re already talking to only a small slice of the population. It is mind-boggling when people do not recognize that.
Good points here to consider for FI blogs. From what I’ve seen most do a good job of disclosing incomes and talking about their side hustles. For me it comes back to what so many people don’t understand about the “RE” part of FIRE – most of us are not striving to fully retire, we’re striving to retire from the traditional W2 job and do what we want. We still want to make money, but on our terms. Call that gig-economy, freelancing, whatever. But blog income clearly falls in that realm.
As I said in the post, I have no problem with the income, and you’re right that many do disclose it. The problem is with how that then changes your view of your portfolio and every other aspect of early retirement finances. If you don’t disclose that, “Well, I might actually be a bit more risk-tolerant and confident generally because my portfolio has all the stress lifted off it,” it’s a huge and important omission.
The health assumption is a big one for me. I see a lot of folks who think that they’ll be healthy forever, but my family has been through the near death of my husband from septic shock six years ago. Even today, that event still has impacts to his health. I also have two friends who died of cancer while having young kids, and my husband has a friend battling cancer right now. The “it can’t happen to me” mindset is just incorrect. And if it doesn’t happen to you, that’s great! But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t millions of people out there battling their own or a loved ones ill health.
You guys have been through some truly awful stuff, for sure. I appreciate that you share your story, and I hope it convinces some of the “We’re healthy so we can control our costs” folks to reconsider that shortsighted view.
Totally agree, and I appreciate this blog calling that out. I’m a vegetarian who trains hard and has raced bikes for over 20 years …. and I’ve had cancer, pulmonary embolisms twice, and live with rheumatoid arthritis. When bloggers advise “just eating right and exercising” I roll my eyes and think, just you wait.
As usual, love the honesty and the fresh view! Great, detailed read! I wish more bloggers were as forward and open book as you guys! :)
Thanks so much, Corinne! :-)
Great points, Tanja. I think if anything though, people are often too tepid to test the waters, and they end up staying in their jobs longer than they need to, out of fear. “If I could just get to 2 million, or 3 million, or even 4!!!”
We probably do oversell some of this stuff because hey, if it’s working for us, it must be easy enough for everyone else, right? That’s why it is important for bloggers to write about failure as much as, if not more so, than success. I blew it big time in my 20’s and early 30’s – when you SHOULD be socking it all away.
As for health – you’re spot on. But part of what makes early retirement enticing is the health benefits of getting away from that coffin of a cubicle. Health care costs are too stupid high in this country. And I’m hopeful we eject the current clown and push towards some sort of Medicare for All in a couple of years. I can dream.
In the meantime – I’d encourage all of your readers to do their homework. The numbers don’t lie and the math is pretty sound. If nothing else, remember that life is full of twists and turns. Building your margin of safety is super important, but so is enjoying the ride.
It goes both ways. There are for sure folks who feel too scared to make the leap and work far longer than they need to. I’m not worried about those folks financially, and I do think it’s right to encourage them to pull the ripcord and live their dreams. It’s the other folks, the “get out as fast as possible” folks who I worry many blogs are encouraging to just wing it. To your point about sharing failure, the inherent problem with blogging is that it’s totally optional, so those who in fact fail at ER are unlikely to talk about it. They’re more likely to just disappear. And so we have nearly 100% of retired folks making it look all rosy, and while it’s great that it’s rosy for them, I think we’re potentially missing an important piece of the picture.
On health, you’re absolutely right that many jobs come with health impacts these days, and the stress generally is affecting all of us. But retiring is not a cure-all, either. And we shouldn’t act like it is. (I don’t think you’re saying that! Just making a general point.) ;-)
Right on, sister. I know you’ve mentioned migraines that haven’t dissipated (though I hope it’s just a lagging thing and time will help.) I personally have an auto-immune thing that’s triggered by stress. Workplace stress and domestic stress are the two biggies that get me. I’m hopeful that eliminating the cubicle solves one of those instantly, and then helps mitigate the domestic in turn.
It is a good point you make. The bloggers who keep writing on after hanging it up should be the ones we cling to the most. Interestingly, some go back to work for no better reason than they’re bored (I think that’s what happened with Jacob and BNW?)
Tag line for the day: “Early Retirement: Don’t Wing It. MATH IT!”
Mark has a stress-triggered autoimmune issue as well, and we’re hopeful the lack of work will help it! But not so far. Too soon to tell, though.
I hope he see some improvement. I’ve been reluctant to write about mine, but I think it’s going to happen in the coming weeks.
I get that it’s tough to share, but I can also say that every time I’ve written about our health stuff, I’ve gotten lots of notes from people who’ve said how helpful it was to them. LOTS of people deal with chronic health issues, and it’s so nice to know you’re not alone.
Love your writing. You have such a great way of expressing your thoughts and ideas. This is great topic and very well done. I remember reading a little about one of the very first retire early bloggers that is now making high 6 figure income off their blog and it seems he was worried about hurting his creditsbilty of his blog. I think your approach is needed, transparency is a good thing.
I look forward to getting my emails with each new posting from you.
Thanks so much! :-) I truly have no problem with bloggers making money as long as they disclose that fact AND acknowledge how it might be coloring their view on things like risk tolerance and how much folks need to save. Most of the people I see saying that the 4% rule is too conservative, for example, have another income source from a blog, pension, etc., and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
It’s easy to understand why people might find it tough to talk about these things, but just because you disclose being a low, middle or high income earner, does not mean you have to give out hard numbers!
The health one is a big one too and cannot be underestimated. My partner will have to be on medication his entire life, regardless of its price, so that is something we decidedly add into the equation!
Gosh, we can relate on the meds! Mark’s meds are $1000 *generic* without insurance. We chose our ACA plan entirely on the basis of drug coverage, and thank goodness it is now affordable!
Thank you for bringing up the health issue. An accident or a disease can derail the best plans. As you age, you must be pro-active about your health. That costs money – whether you go to acupuncture, buy herbal remedies or get body work — you need to pay for it. Once you hit 50, there are many preventative procedures you should do. If you have a sub-par health plan, these procedures could cost quite a bit of money. Everyone has a different situation but I do believe you need to spend money to maintain your health.
Being pro-active about your health – sure – but acupuncture is a scam, and so are most herbal remedies. With the exclusion of a good cup of tea to improve your mood, but hey, that doesn’t have to cost a lot. I wish people would stop promoting these quack “remedies”, as they cost money and sometimes cost people their health or their life – for example if they fail to go to a real doctor on time.
On the other hand, there’s a very strong correlation between taking vitamins and being healthy, even though vitamins do not themselves make anyone healthier. The advice I’ve heard is to be like a person who takes vitamins without actually buying or taking them, and I wonder if the same could apply to acupuncture, homeopathic remedies and other “treatments” that rely heavily on placebo effect. ;-)
Is there new science showing the effectiveness of acupuncture? Every past study I’d seen showed that it was an expensive placebo effect. But I’m also not opposed to doing some things for placebo effect, so long as they aren’t harmful and are cheap. ;-) To your larger point, though, eating healthily costs more than eating junk food, and staying active might require a gym membership in a place where it’s cold in the winter or too hot in the summer to exercise outside. We DO need to invest in our health. But even then, we can’t control what will happen to us, only improve our odds.
Perhaps it’s a placebo, but acupuncture and reflexology changed the pain level in my body substantially. And did not actively cause harm. The same cannot be said for the western medicine routes I was offered.
I’m super glad to know that. I don’t know if it’s just me, but acupuncture is super painful. For a while, I was seeing a naturopath, but insurance would only cover it if I also got acupuncture from her. By the last few visits, I was begging her to do just one needle. And I don’t mind needles for things like blood drawing and I even did platelet donation for a lot of years. But there is just something about acupuncture needles. (Oh, and perhaps obviously, I didn’t feel like it helped me.) ;-)
Fascinating. I felt all sorts of weird things. But no pain except for the one time a solitary needle went in too far. It was so soothing to me that I fell asleep for most of the procedure. I was super skeptical going in and am still skeptical, but I go with what my body reacts positively too. Reflexology (same premise as acupuncture, but just massage) works even better for my body than acupuncture. I don’t understand it, but I accept it for me. I also accept that it may be entirely placebo. But it’s placebo I love.
As always, I’m just glad it works for you, even if it’s a miserable thing for me. ;-)
Yes to all. I think each item in your manifesto is key, but a few stuck out to me…
Tell People if you Work: This one is big for me. I have found myself enchanted, then woefully disenchanted by a few blogger narratives. I’ll hear the “I’m retired!” and image their days doing as they please… enjoying family, activities and volunteering. But when I find out they are working in some significant capacity (30 hour a week blogging certainly counts in my books!) and making a decent income, I’m thrown for a loop. Its not that they found their ideal life or that they found meaningful work that annoys me, it is the lack of transparency vs. what is touted in their writing.
Health: Sure, it is great to encourage folks to live a healthy lifestyle. This will certainly help increase chances of a healthy body with less medical intervention needed… but it by no means guarentees a low cost medical life. Pretending that “eating lots of farm market veggies + running 3 miles a day” will ensure health is just silly. This is where I want to stand up and shout “We are all in a unique situation!” And our unique situation may include genetic issues, tough habits to break, the inability to afford healthy options, living in a food desert, bizzare diseases/accidents and so many more factors that affect our health.
Great article and thank you for posting, Tanja!
ps- Loving your powder-day Instagram posts!
I agree — sometimes the lack of transparency is just disillusioning and not necessarily unethical. And yeah, on the health stuff… sigh. ;-) Thanks so much for your comment here and the encouragement on Twitter! Stay tuned for more pow pics. :-D
I don’t know this for sure because I don’t consider myself a FIRE blogger, but my guess is that a blogger starts off with one perspective and their site gets popular. They retire and then their perspectives change. You view yourself as having gotten popular because of your previously held beliefs (especially you see it repeated elsewhere) so it’s hard to change publicly. Maybe you’re concerned it’ll mean people won’t read your stuff anymore?
I don’t know if FIRE bloggers “owe” it to their readers but I think that sharing how your perspective and approach changes has tremendous value. Very few people are on the other side of FIRE, the retirement side, and so there aren’t obvious models that you “know” are right. You can plant your flag in the ground somewhere as your way and be one of the first.
As a side note, I know I have seen people get upset when they learn bloggers make money. This happens everywhere, not just FIRE blogs. If a blogger tries to sell a course or an ebook, people react negatively. They put advertising on the site and people say they hate it. Not a lot of people but they can be vocal. But after years of giving away free material, shouldn’t the blogger get some compensation for their time if it makes sense?
I had an initial reaction to the word “owe” in the title. It reminded me of a Bart Simpson quote about Comic Book Guy complaining about a bad episode of Itchy and Scratch (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0701245/quotes/qt0207837):
“Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart Simpson: What? They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.”
Aww that’s a low blow, using a Simpsons quote against me! ;-) I think there is plenty bloggers DON’T owe readers. I don’t owe it to anyone to stick to the posting schedule I established. I don’t owe it to anyone even to keep blogging if I don’t feel like it. I don’t owe it to anyone to keep my blog ad-free or sponsored post-free or to use a mobile responsive-theme. Doing all of those things is my choice. But, if I’m going to hold myself up as an example — which is what every PF blogger is doing — I do owe it to readers to be completely transparent about the factors that will allow them to assess if what I’m saying applies to them. If I say my blog is nonfiction, it needs to be nonfiction. Surely you wouldn’t quibble with that. ;-)
There’s probably a Simpsons’ quote for everything. I actually thought that Lisa said it. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would come from Bart.
I think the word choice of “owe” is very loaded, especially with a “manifesto” in the title.
I’m not sure that every PF blogger is holding his/her self as examples. I think I’ve just been just telling my financial story for the last 11 years (which does include some example stuff because that’s natural).
I don’t know if I have seen a blogger say that his/her blog is nonfiction. If a blogger does say that then certainly I won’t quibble with an accountability with that declaration ;-).
I’d argue that if you don’t say it’s fiction, the implication is that it’s nonfiction. ;-)
I AGREE entirely with this. The danger with not being ‘honest’ about the success of FIRE/ER while blogging is that someone who is not as ‘woke’ may take a bloggers words too literal and make a huge financial mistake that they may not be able to correct. It’s especially dangerous for someone who has a lower income or savings buffer and may have lower marketability, so a recovery for that person won’t be as easy. I applaud the community for all it gives but it can be a dangerous trek for someone who just doesn’t know any better. High income earners don’t owe per se, but it’s our moral obligation to ensure we don’t ruin someone’s life with untruths.
Gosh, yes. And you made a particular point in here that I think is super important to acknowledge: higher earners are more likely to be able to bounce back after adversity, for a wide range of reasons. They likely have more education, and higher education levels are always linked to lower unemployment. They likely have more in-demand skills. They likely have more financial literacy. I could keep going, but you get the idea. Thank you for adding that in!
Worst episode ever…
Just had to do it and finish the quote.
I think you make a good point about changing perspectives of blogs/bloggers. We used to read some blogs that we now avoid because their focus and tone changed so much that they are barely recognizable now. The bright side is that there seems to be an endless supply of other interesting blogs to take their place!
That is the wonderful plus side of the community having grown so much! There are so many great new blogs to discover all the time.
I think you’re exactly right. You’re on the record with one approach and maybe it feels weird to acknowledge a change. But how boring is it to stay the same? So much more interesting to trace your evolution, especially given that the principles of FIRE are not rocket science and don’t require ongoing blogging. It’s the personal story that people come back for.
And on making money, as I said in the post, I have zero issue with bloggers getting paid. But I do think, especially with FIRE blogs, earning a side income that lessens the stress on your portfolio without seeming to do any “work” (What?! I’m just blogging!) can’t help but color your worldview, make you feel more confident and optimistic, and if that results in you pushing readers to make the leap before they’ve reached their solid FI number, for example, I think your readers deserve to know what’s behind that risk-embracing worldview. The income isn’t the problem, it’s what it can potentially do to the advice you give.
Wow cannot thank you enough for this! Glad to see the whole community waking up to realistic numbers, though some will always continue to fight, the numbers don’t lie. Perspective is everything, you can be “middle class” in your particular town, or county, but when you jump to state level, all of US, or even better the world, that changes things. And blog readers can be anywhere. If your blog is based on your experience and advice of FI with the intent of telling anyone else they can also do what you’re doing, you do owe it to them to share what you’re ACTUALLY doing.
Well said! As some other comments here affirm, there will always be quibbling over what constitutes “middle class” and whether earning six figures in an expensive city somehow makes you poor. (I call BS on that.) But failing to acknowledge that you’re still way ahead of the bulk of people, and that that is what allows you to save quickly, is a major lie of omission.
I think (and hope) you’ll get a lot of love for this post! Such an important message. I think the FIRE community can turn into a bit of a bubble where we’re all patting each other on the back, when in fact we all need this type of accountability you’re describing.
One additional thing that has irked me is when bloggers may share about their windfalls as they happen, but then don’t incorporate that into the overall narrative that they continually tell. Most of us have had “boosts” along the way, some bigger than others, and that’s wonderful! But when the overall narrative is anyone can do this, not only is your income probably out of reach to most people, but also those windfalls are not reproducible. Some of this may be due to media coverage more than a blogger’s actual writing, and I understand that it may feel redundant to keep stating the same thing, but it just needs to be loud and clear that everyone may be able to do X or Y, but not necessarily Z.
Couldn’t agree more, Kalie. I do think there’s some icky stuff that happens with news headlines that bloggers themselves likely wouldn’t choose, but setting that aside, I think it’s so true that many windfalls aren’t reproducible and play a big role in the savings rate for folks who get them. And yeah, the “anyone can do this” and especially its follow-up “and if you don’t, you’re an idiot” narrative has got to go.
I completely agree about windfalls and how I’m sure most aren’t talked about.
But what struck me most about what Tanja said is the whole pretending your income isn’t so big. That really does bug me and there is a very very popular blog that just loves doing that.
I mean if you really care you can do the math and figure out that they make well over 100k a year. But the constant message on their blog is we are just like you, we don’t make investment banker money. And I’m like ” really your going to compare yourself to people who make 250k + a year to make your self sound middle class.” Eye roll. Like you said it’s very disingenuous for people who can do the math and see through it.
I didn’t know all the number stats but I did know 50k is average… Making double+ that puts you well out of average territory.
But I also know sharing half numbers is shaddy business too. Strongly why I am considering purging our net worth post from our site.
I’m definitely not trying to push you to take your net worth down, so long as you provide folks the necessary context to understand what it means, how you got there, etc. As you can see from the comments here, LOTS of people are interested in seeing others’ numbers, but as you said, it’s the selective sharing that’s potentially problematic.
Thank you for sharing this, your blog often helps point out the more human side of the FIRE community. I had my share of stupid money decisions early in life followed by a divorce and layoff in a economically depressed part of the country. I’d like to add another point that the FIRE community seems to always be pushing: People can move to better parts of the country and/ or work online and make more money. While I’m sure I could move to a big city and make much more income, I am not giving up 1/2 the year with my daughter to do so. Many people in the area including myself have no or limited access to internet at home. While I understand bloggers aren’t able to address all unique situations, I do think some are blind to the realities of large groups of people.
I couldn’t agree more. Some bloggers ignore realities, like family obligations, that influence where people live, the car they need, etc.
Absolutely. We have no business telling someone who transports a disabled relative that they are wasting money owning a car, and should instead be riding their bike everywhere. That is for them to decide.
That is such an important point, and a big part of why staying grounded in real life realities is so important. There are a ton of good reasons why not everyone can move — specific industry, kids, needing to care for a loved one, and lots more reasons — and I think that telling folks to move or just work online can be awfully insensitive.
Well put Getting2Living! I get frustrated with bloggers acting as if it’s easy to change significant parts of your life purely for the goal of better money. I feel pushed at times because my husband and i both choose to work at jobs with lower pay but higher satisfaction for us both. Yes, our progress is slower, but it doesn’t seem like a reason to leave jobs where we’re happy. I’ve had horrible, horrible jobs in the past, and a reasonable work environment is extremely valuable to me. Money isn’t the only factor.
It’s also a little offensive to watch bloggers try to appear that they had lower salaries when it’s clear there’s no way they reached FI on my salary in a supposedly similar field.
Great post, Tanja. This is an important conversation.
YES to all of this! The idea that you’d ONLY care about money in your career and not the whole picture is bonkers, but that is definitely the vibe you get some places. And the idea that anyone can just pick up and move or downsize a home or get rid of their car, it’s all just so insensitive because not everyone can do that stuff, and not for lack of commitment to FIRE.
It seems that this presumes the FIRE model is build a big nest egg and draw down on it. It doesn’t seem to cover a scenario where someone could retire through a large blend of income streams from royalties, businesses (outside of blogging), rental property, etc.
While I may write about the 4% rule, it’s more for the reader’s information of what some people are doing rather than a personal plan.
I think most readers of personal finance blogs get an idea of whether a blogger is high income if they follow the blog for any length of time. Usually they talk about what their current or past career was. I think it becomes a thin line to walk to keep telling readers that they have a high income. High income doesn’t necessarily tell the story if the blogger lives in an area of a high cost of living.
Maybe it should be about high-income for your area. The median income in my town is $75,000, so the $80,000 number in your article is pretty close to just being average, not in the top third. It’s a little harder (maybe impossible) to get specific costs of living for most cities/towns.
The problem with the health question is that it can’t really be addressed. Like you say, it can’t be put into a spreadsheet. Everyone is going to be different. However, it is helpful to have *some* numbers, even on an average basis to go by. Otherwise, you can’t ever plan for FIRE. I think it’s also important to recognize that US health care is not normal and perhaps it is worth exploring a contingency plan to get health care elsewhere.
I make it a point to write every couple of years how people don’t have the savings of $400-$1000 for emergencies. I’m happy to see that many bloggers cover this.
If you are wealthy enough to live in a rich town you can claim that your high income is average “in my town” but that’s still a basically misleading claim.
Wealthy areas of larger metro areas have been separating themselves out into wealthy municipalities for almost a century now, for the specific purpose of segregating themselves from poorer places. Even in poor states like Alabama there are rich towns like Mountain Brook, which has a family income of $130K.
If you’re going to make the “for your area I’m average” argument, you at least need to go by county, if not entire metro area.
For instance, I’d accept that a family making $80K in the Bay Area is only “average” even though they make 40% more than the national average, because most of the counties in the Bay Area (totalling a population of several million, so it’s not all doctors and engineers) have median family incomes over $80K.
But that argument doesn’t work so well outside the really expensive big metro and coastal areas that have high incomes on a metro or county basis.
If you state the town or area that you live in, I don’t think it’s too misleading.
Looking at my county, Newport RI, instead of just my town, the median income is $69,526. I grew up in Middlesex county, MA where the median income is $83,488. That’s a county that includes a lot of suburbs of Boston. It’s no Bay Area… that’s a much, much bigger step up. I lived in Foster City for awhile and the median income there is $143,004. I think that’s normal for the county if you know the area.
I’ve always been in the coastal areas, so I see what you mean, but these aren’t extreme examples like NYC, SanFran, or Boston proper. I think this argument applies to a lot of people because, well, many, many people live in the cities in coastal areas.
This discussion kind of gets to the point that I was trying to make. Even within the United States (or poor states like Alabama as you point out), actual location of that income matters greatly.
I used to live in Foster City just a few years back. $143,000 doesn’t cover it anymore. The Bay Area is not the norm but I will tell you I couldn’t have FIRE’d at 52 without living and working there for the last 8 years of my career. Not the norm, my experience is impossible to emulate anywhere else. This is why those of us in the 3% club (or higher) can’t give meaningful advice (based on our own experience) to those trying to FIRE who are from “average America” earning “average wages”. Heck I made $500,000 on a house I owned for 2 and a half years. For this reason I tend to believe the FI guidance / experience of those who look more “average” give more practical advice (this blog is the exception to that) to their readers than do many others.
The Bay is definitely a massive outlier at this moment. I think very high earners can share good advice, but if they believe they are “middle class” and present their advice accordingly, that’s when it’s a problem. ;-)
Locality impacts your spending power, but not so much that a local median is an acceptable substitute for grounding yourself economically in the bigger picture. You for sure could say something like, “My income is in the top fifth for the country but I’m right about the median level for my area, which is especially high cost.”
Couldn’t agree more, David. Very well said! The locality adjustment skews things and is just another way to mislead. I don’t think that any blogger using that metric is intending to mislead readers, but it does suggest they’ve lost touch with what true median income means and could stand to be reminded.
I’m going to push back because I think this is a dangerous conflation. Nearly universally, places that have a higher cost of living also have proportionally higher incomes that more than make up for that higher cost compared to lower cost places. In addition, comparing median incomes in your area only has the potential to skew things rather ridiculously, particularly in more well-off places. If you’re 40th percentile in Belair, I can assure you you’re still flipping rich. Hell, in Belair, being in the lowest 10% still puts you in the 0.01 percent in America. I know that’s an extreme example, but I’m using it to illustrate the point. What I’d propose is saying something like “I earn an income that’s in the top 10 percent for the U.S., though I live in an area that’s 25% more costly than the U.S. average, so that reduces our perceived wealth accordingly.” Calling yourself middle class or median income if you earn the median for your area but your area happens to be pretty wealthy is telling a very skewed version of your story.
Great points, what I’m most considered about is the health piece. We take care of our bodies, are active, and have good eating habits; but you never know what fate has in store for you. I don’t like the instability of the healthcare system and the national conversation of whether healthcare is something that should be available to everyone at a reasonable cost (it should). No matter how many yoga sessions, bike rides, or miles of hiking I do – I can still get cancer, be in a car accident, or be struck by lightening. No one should go broke over health issues, and taking care of our bodies is only one part of the puzzle.
Absolutely. I think a lot of us share your concern! I’m hopeful that our leaders will take action on the health care crisis in the next few years and try to stabilize the costs and quality for everyone, not just the folks for whom money is no object.
I agree with a lot of what you said above. It gets under my skin when bloggers still claim to live off of ~$25k/year (for example) but then admit they don’t track spending numbers,and that they’re just an estimate and don’t include any actual real life spending that they actually spent money on. Spending is spending… I’m with you, I don’t care if you make money, good for you, but don’t say “I’m retired, we did it. Oh but my wife still pulls in a full time income that covers all of our bills, but that doesn’t count…” In what world does that income not count? That’s my pet peeve with the FIRE community – people that “retire” and then act like their plan worked when in reality they have a HUGE buffer exactly like your situation described above. When I leave work in another few months, there won’t be a massive “I retired” post headline because I’m jsut going to do what so many thousands of other parents do and become a Stay at home Dad/parent. Maybe I’ll get to earn some coin somehow and try consulting or maybe not. We’re so close to our “never work again” number that with a decent income from Mrs. SSC covering our bills, we’re freaking golden whether we save anymore or not. Pretty simple. That’s hell and gone from what our plan was when we first started planning for this idea, and even from a year ago. Things change, plans change, incomes change. I don’t get why it’s hard to just be honest with people about what your situation really is, however much it has changed for the positive. It’s like celebrate it, you did it, don’t feel shamed or embarassed and downplay how much you succeeded.
We don’t do specific numbers as far as a target number or specifics of what we have saved or even what we make, but anyone can go back to our monthly spending reports and take 3 mintues and figure out we’re in the upper 3% of the country, and that’s even with Mrs. SSC losing $100k/year. Even when I leave my job, we’ll still be on the border of the top third of incomes in the US. It has worked out well for us, but we also don’t try to sell the hype of living off of less than what we actually spend. We estimate our lifestyle change spending by taking out daycare, and mortgage which cuts our current spending by almost $50k/year, which is still amazing to me, but beyond that, we try to reflect what our situation is and let people judge for themselves whether they want to follow it or not.
That’s why I harp on “track your spending, track your spending, track your spending…” Whether you make $45k/yr or $145k/yr if you don’t track your spending you can’t do anything about trying to improve your situation. Sure it’s a lot harder to save $$ when you’re making $45k/yr but even I was still able to put away 15% in a 401k when I was making that much. That was during my horrid overspending and not tracking my spending days when I was blissfully ignorant of how to manage finances well.
And healthcare… A friend at work went from “healthy”, not overweight, non-drinking, eating well, good lifestyle to needing dialysis 3x a week, and is about to be put on an organ donor’s list this summer and that all changed within a matter of 6 months. Again, she wasn’t overweight, ate healthy, no history of health issues, but life happens, and hers went from top physical form to death’s door and multiple overnights in the hospital every single week, in a 6 month time frame. You can’t exercise that sort of situation away…
My mother never spent a day in the hospital in her life (except giving birth), never sick, never a broken bone and then BOOM! Cancer at age 59. You never know when something will bring your life to a standstill.
Yes! I think people get hung up on “sexy” titles rather than being able to be proud of what you’ve done and honest about what you did to get to it. Congrats to you for owning your process and being able to leave work soon!
So agree. We need to do away with the sexy titles and just be real.
I give kudos to people that track their spending and sharing their annual spending. That’s more transparent than saying that “oh we spend about $30k a year.” It’s easy to say that, a lot harder to back it up with actual numbers.
If there are exceptions, like your wife still works full time, or you are getting $40k a year from the blog, or anything else, explain it. It’s all about being transparent.
Hear, hear! Absolutely agree.
I’m so excited for you that you’re leaving work soon! :-D And yes 100% to things that “don’t count.” If you’re going to share numbers or tout your success as having happened a certain way, you need to be clear about all of it.
I think you’ve been very transparent about your income ranges, and about the fact that Mrs. SSC could afford to lose a big chunk of income without it hurting your progress much.
I’m sorry to hear about your friend at work! That’s awful. :-( And such an important reminder to all of us not to take our health for granted.
Yes, Yes, Yes. Thank you for this refreshing take. Health has always been the biggest one for me. My husband has suffered with Lyme disease for over 25 years. Some of the newly “retired” do not even have children, I have a child that was born 11 weeks early and spent 6 weeks in the NICU. Nothing can prepare you for that. He is literally my Million Dollar Baby.
Wow, you guys have dealt with some big health things! (I was also born super early and spent my first months in the NICU, so stories like yours always speak to me especially. I’ve had health consequences from that my whole life, and there is nothing I could possibly done before being born to prevent that stuff. An important reminder about the limits of individual choice in our health!) Sending lots of good, healthy vibes your way!
Possibly your most controversial post yet. Does that mean more time on your hands is allowing you to spend some time in darker corners where you haven’t had the time in the past :) ? I read about 8 FIRE blogs. I’m generally impressed by a few things in the ones that I read. First, most are quite up front and honest with their situation (income during accumulation phase) and their income from side gigs. I’m impressed with the general openness – some with very detailed (down to the penny) accounting of what they spend and what they are still making on side gigs (or now their main gig). And then how many have left their career only to have found a way to earn money in a different and less time consuming way – at least not 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year. They say do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.
I’m a big believer that you have to change with the times. I’m going into my retirement thinking I will never work full time again. I even tease my friends who have retired and returned to the work force as “failures in retirement” and setting a bad example for me because I need new role models. In politics they call it “whiffle-wafting”. I call it getting more knowledge through eduction, experiences, etc. and making a new decision for a new day.
Thank you for being as open as you are. I had fun backing into your retirement numbers from the information that you have shared – I like spreadsheets – A LOT :P . Appreciate that you continue to make time to blog. I’ve got to get ready for my Wednesday 8:00 a.m. tee time!
Hahaha. Maybe! ;-) And I do agree that a good number of blogs are open about many things. That’s why the manifesto goes beyond just transparency. ;-) And I love how you put it with regard to future work: “making a new decision for a new day.” If anyone is turning down something that sounds super interesting and fun (and lucrative!) because they don’t want to have to say they failed at retirement, that’s a backward set of priorities.
There is actually a very lively conversation on this very topic going on right now on the Mr Money Mustache forums. The thread is focused on the Frugalwoods. I won’t go into the details here but it’s worth popping over there to check it out.
I consumed all the Fire blogs in high volume at the beginning of my journey (about 2.5 years ago) but have since became a bit disillusioned and find myself rolling my eyes more often than not…lots of repetition, rehashing the formula of make more, spent less, invest the difference. I would like to hear more about their post-fi business ventures. They’re a part of the equation and as an aspiring entrepreneur I would appreciate that perspective more.
And of course with the financial success of many blogs you start getting more and more bloggers trying to replicate the model and things get diluted a bit. There is even a newer podcast that essentially aggregated all of the fi bloggers in one spot. Started off strong, got really weak despite the hosts’ (annoying) enthusiasm…would love to see those guys create something new vs trying to get paid off of other bloggers’ work :)
Anyway, I think I’m going to start reading your blog more in depth vs just skimming the emails. Sounds like you have the potential to be a more realistic virtual mentor.
Do you have a link to the mmm forum thread?
Thanks, Kate! :-)
I think he’s referring to this (long) thread.
You read my mind, Captain Cactus, and I’m with you 100% on the podcast. I used to tell my wife it sounded more like an infomercial than a podcast. That’s probably the main reason I stopped listening. The only place I disagree with you is that I think the FI space is more than “a bit” diluted at this point.
I’m honored that you found this post worth reading! ;-)
I appreciate your note at the end very much! I don’t know that I’d call myself a perfect mentor by any means, but I do my best to keep it real and not to rehash other people’s content. ;-)
Who are these disingenuous bloggers? I read lots of them and I’m not seeing the same deceptions. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I’m seeing income reports (either published or via newsletter), discussions of side hustles, contingency plans, etc… from transparent bloggers genuinely helping people.
Obviously, you’re not going to name names, but it seems like you may have a beef with one or two sites and are making broad accusations at dozens of FIRE blogs. Maybe I’m being overly defensive, but I think the problems you see apply to a select few, so why indict an entire category of bloggers? It feels like a manufactured controversy.
I think this is precisely why a discussion of “what is middle class” is so necessary. Let’s say a FIRE blogger makes $200k/yr but truly believes they earn a middle class income, then they are going to present themselves to their readers as an average Joe. They may not intend to be deceptive or disingenuous but they are setting up a false narrative for their truly “average” readers to compare themselves to.
PoF, you’re great. You fully acknowledge as a physician you earn a high income and you communicate clearly that your intended audience are high-income earners. When I read your content, I take it with a grain of salt–not in a bad way, but I know that my household income is significantly less than yours and so your financial planning looks different than mine.
PF Geeks – You need to re-read your Mr. Money Mustache. These concepts cut across MANY levels of income. We don’t need a bloody discussion about “what is middle class”. Do you think MMM is presently a false narrative, living off $24K a year, even though he reaps over a million in blog income nowadays? He barely broke six figures before he retired. Keep your grains of salt in the salt tin. Stop comparing, and start getting after it – the way you know it’ll work for YOU.
Hey Cubert, I completely agree that a discussion on middle class should not be necessary because it should be based on data. The problem is that some people don’t get that and say that middle class is up to your own definition. So when a FIRE blogger publishes an article saying that a $300k income is needed to have a middle class lifestyle, then maybe a conversation reminding people what middle class is, is necessary.
I’m honestly more concerned about the path to reaching early retirement rather than what one does once they get there. Some people get in a tizzy because a blogger makes an income in retirement–I say, “Good for them.” I love MMM and read everything he puts out.
The math to get to FIRE cuts across income levels–but the paths and journey to get there looks drastically different at various income levels.
If you’re in the top 3% of earners as Tanja acknowledges she was then the path is lightning fast.
If you’re truly middle class, then it looks significantly different.
The problem comes when a popular FIRE blogger who is a top 5% earner presents his/herself as making an average income in order to make them more relatable to their audience. To me, that is presenting a false narrative. Do you disagree with me on that?
Side Note: The reason I mentioned my respect for PoF is because he presents his own story honestly and makes no attempt to present himself as average. Even though I make a truly middle class income I can learn from his writings and apply them to my context.
Let’s call some people out then. Who is masquerading as a low *income* FIRE blogger, when they’re making big coin? The $300K “middle class” example makes me really curious. Must be someone out of San Fran or Manhattan?
The one key thing to keep in mind, is that we don’t START OUT making a good wage. Over time, we make good decisions, we educate ourselves, we work hard. Suddenly, we find ourselves making six figures, maybe 10, maybe 20 years after we started out at $20,000 a year.
So yes, I agree that it’s a problem when a FIRE blogger doesn’t come clean about their income, *while claiming* to earn a modest wage. However, does it change the math behind savings rates, side hustles, low fee index funds, geo arbitrage, etc. etc.?
It doesn’t change the math, but it does drastically change what’s possible. And what message readers take away from it. I can tell you’ve read a bunch of the comments on this post — surely you saw quite a few from folks who said they felt super discouraged reading about how “middle class” folks were saving a huge percent of their income. But of course it turns out those folks were actually high income all along. If we’re discouraging readers in our attempts to encourage them, we’re doing it wrong. ;-)
It’s not always a linear exercise though. For instance, I spent well over 80% of my career under six figures and in negative net worth territory. The game changer wasn’t my income, it was rental houses. I’m always clear about how lucrative side hustles like real estate (and eliminating debt, avoiding debt) got us to our current standing.
So yeah, I was discouraged too – for many years, but time discipline and risk taking eventually add up.
And I don’t think you should stop telling that story! Just make sure you’re providing your context along with it, and it’s all good.
Well said! If middle class was a clear definition that everyone agreed on, and people used it consistently, we wouldn’t have to have this discussion. But as one notable post made clear this week, we’re not at that point.
I agree with your sentiment on people making money post-ER and think as long as they disclose that fact and think about how it might be coloring the opinions they espouse, then it’s all good. And agree that PoF does a great job of being transparent about his income and context! (He’s also awesome on the charitable donation front, which is close to my heart.)
The wrinkle I’d add is that it’s not about MMM’s or anyone else’s principles. That stuff is NOT rocket science, and the ideas are sound. But things like risk tolerance or how much people discuss the need for contingencies are very much impacted by the blogger’s mindset. And there is simply no way in hell that making many times your annual expenses on your blog doesn’t color your worldview in some way. And for some bloggers, it might very well make them less concerned about things that pose a real threat to the financial solvency of folks who don’t have the benefit of that large side income. Is MMM worried about health care expenses? Almost certainly not, because he can afford anything at this point. Therefore he doesn’t talk about them as a concern, and if lots of bloggers take the same approach, readers could easily get the impression that health care inflation is not a huge deal. When in fact it is. That’s why talking more about our own situations and how they impact our mindsets matters.
Agree, Tanja. I suppose that’s where the disclaimers come into play. But heck, even working until your 90 doesn’t guarantee you anything, other than regretting you worked until 90. ;-)
Absolutely true! There’s risk on both sides.
So perfectly said. And this is exactly what I’m talking about. Not folks who are deceiving deliberately (I know they’re out there, but that’s not who I’m addressing here), but those who are out of touch with what average really means and therefore see themselves as average or middle class when they are clearly not. It’s such a weird relationship we have in this country with money, and we both all want to be rich AND can’t see we’re rich when we get there. As bloggers who profess to be knowledgeable about money, we need to do better on this front.
I agree, I see an astonishing transparency on money issues that simply doesn’t happen in real life. For example I have no idea what my friends earn or spend. Or even what my brother earns or spends. But I have pretty good line of site into the incomes and spending of random internet strangers.
I guess they could be deceiving me, but the numbers don’t seem way off to me.
Thanks for the article.
I truly don’t think it’s about anyone attempting to be deceptive. It’s about folks who have lost touch with what the average earner is up against mischaracterizing their income as a result (because even the highest earners believe they are “middle class”) or not being transparent (perhaps because they themselves aren’t even aware) of how having additional side income or other hedges affects their confidence in the whole FIRE concept. If someone is telling readers that they shouldn’t be so worried about recessions and should just make the leap, but they aren’t actually relying on their portfolio because of side income, readers deserve to have that context.
POF, I have a question for you – if Tanja were a man and/or if she made the same kind of income as you did when you were still working full time, would your commentary be the same? Might you have stopped to consider that just because you don’t see what she’s seeing doesn’t mean that it’s not out there and just maybe you are being reflexively mansplain-y? I mean no disrespect to you but goodness that commentary feels condescending and I’m not the person who wrote the article or had the opinion. Perhaps your motivation for your blog is to help people, I don’t have an opinion either way on it, but I get the feeling that many of the FIRE blogs out there don’t have such pure motivations, many are repetitive, pick and choose metrics, and conveniently leave out important details or leverage points along the way. But, like anything in life and anything online, I take away what I like and leave the rest. I appreciate Tanja’s original contributions to our community because she DOES make me think differently about a lot of things and consider points of view I hadn’t previously considered and further acknowledge our extreme privilege and she has got me thinking more about my own ableist bias today (and how I can be more considerate).
I wrote about six paragraphs in response yesterday, but apparently they got caught up in the undertow. I enjoy Tanja and her writing, and look forward to getting more face time with Tanja and Mark (is Mark coming?) at Camp FI Midwest in my home state of Minnesota this summer.
I may be a bit tone deaf as a white guy from the northwoods, but I don’t think my reaction would be any different if this post had been written by a man. Of course, implicit bias is difficult to recognize. To quote the Butthole Surfers, “You never know just how you look through other people’s eyes.”
I made the comment above because it felt like a bunch of my friends (and maybe me) were called to the principal’s office for something that they (or we) didn’t do, at least not to the extent of the accusations.
I do agree with everything in the manifesto. I think the blogs I follow, and that’s a lot of them, do a good a job as they can. It’s possible and perhaps likely that the blogs being called out are ones that didn’t appeal to me or didn’t seem genuine, and I moved on without paying much attention.
An oft-cited recommendation in blogging is to write for a particular niche, or better yet, one fictional person or “avatar.” If you take that advice, you’re not going to write articles that are so broadly applicable, and if you try to make qualifying statements and acknowledge your privilege in every post, your writing will be clumsy and insufferable.
I recently wrote about surfing in Hawaii — we got both our boys up on boards and I was able to catch my own waves for the first time — it was awesome. I was inspired by the people working with Accessurf on the beach that day, and I made a donation on the behalf of our volunteer instructor to help them continue to help disabled people experience the magic of the surf. I know that most people can’t afford to spend a few weeks in Hawaii or donate money on a whim, but the people I write for people who can and I aim to inspire. Dozens of people have told me they started donor advised funds based on my frequent articles on them.
If you read my Hawaii post in isolation or my posts about the physician households earning $300,000 a year, you might think I’m completely out of touch. But I’m writing for physicians who can’t figure out how to max out a 401(k) on that salary while working in a profession with a suicide rate double that of the general population. They may have high incomes, but they need to learn how to become financially independent and gain control over their lives.
I’ve been forthcoming with my background in various posts and podcast interviews, but have never put all of that information in one place. I’m writing a post for next week that does that. So there’s something that came out of this conversation.
Yeah, sorry about that comment — it never popped up in spam so I have no idea where it went! Let’s blame the internet retirement police, who are for sure out in force today! ;-)
You already know that I greatly admire your commitment to charitable giving, and I love that you have pushed so many to start DAFs. And I think you’ve been great on making clear your economic situation and that it’s not widely applicable. I wouldn’t suggest that you change who you’re writing for. Now, if you start calling your household income “average,” we’ll have to have another talk. ;-)
My guess is that what wishicouldsurf was talking about — though I’ll let her respond for herself — was accusing me of manufacturing controversy rather than asking yourself if maybe there was stuff out there that you’re missing. (Hint: I think there is.) That’s something that especially happens to women, and while you might equally have quibbled with a male blogger who wrote something similar, the “I haven’t seen that so therefore I don’t believe you and think you made it up” narrative is one that women are unfortunately incredibly used to. And there are now a great many comments in this thread (it took me nearly two full days to respond to them all!) that can give you plenty of examples and corroboration, if you’d like to see them. :-)
I’m so touched to know that the ableist bias comment spoke to you and is something you’ll pay more attention to moving forward. That’s all any of us can do. When we have our eyes opened to something, start paying better attention! :-)
Hi PoF — You are correct that I’m not going to name names. ;-) The fact that you don’t see this stuff could also mean that you just haven’t noticed some of this, and the intent of this post is in large part to draw attention to some of the things that I believe we as a community can do better. Given that there are currently more than 120 comments here from people who have said some version of “thank you for saying this!” I think it’s fair to say that others have noticed much of this, even if it’s not on your radar, and not just from one or two blogs. Perhaps this is a good reminder that just because we don’t notice something ourselves doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The discussion I’m attempting to start here is that sometimes transparency itself is not as simple as saying, “Hey, I make some money from something!” I agree that plenty of bloggers report blog income, and that’s a great start. But then there is often still a disconnect between what they preach to readers and what they themselves might do in the absence of that income. Getting into specifics would call folks out, and I have no desire to do that, but it’s all to my larger point of context. Readers deserve to know the full set of circumstances that might impact both your finances and ability to save, and your general worldview. Those who are risk-averse tend to have reasons for being that way, and likewise those who embrace risk (and, in my view, are most likely to lead readers down the primrose path by encouraging them to undersave and just hurry up and quit already) have reasons for being that way that are rarely discussed. That’s worth examining.
POF is very open and honest about his expenses and income.
Tanja – I’m a FIRE blogger and to date I’ve made $0 from my blog because I haven’t tried. I also don’t work at any other job so I live entirely off my retirement savings. Mrs. FF works part-time because she likes to work but she makes less than $6K per year, so that’s not much.
I agree with your list, but I do have one nit to pick. I would like to define “retirement” as the freedom to do whatever you want – part-time work, no work, hobbies that make money, whatever. Otherwise, it creates the idea that “retirement” is some how restrictive. Just my two cents!
Agree, Mr. Freaky. In my simplistic view, “Retirement” = “Escape from the Rat Race”. Let’s leave it at that, and then focus on whatever makes us happy.
Mr Freaky Frugal
How about we try this definition:
I no longer think of FIRE as the right acronym. It should be “Freedom In Selecting How You Spend Most Everyday Living Life Without Having Any Material Money Issues”
FISHY SMELL WHAMMI
Again I like the thought provoking nature of this blog but I do not consider Tanja and Mark “retired” living off of their assets, they have transitioned away from W2 work to something else they enjoy KNOWING they are safe (financially to do so). FISHY SMELL WHAMMI. It’s what everyone should aspire to on their way to eventually NOT WORKING and relying solely on your assets to live off of (e.g RETIRED)
We have zero disagreement here! I agree 100% that retirement is whatever the hell you want it to be (https://ournextlife.com/2017/04/26/what-is-work/), and my only issue is when bloggers write about one approach, practice another but then don’t change what they espouse. Zero issue with the work itself or with making money from the blog, as I went to great pains to say multiple times in the post. ;-)
I’m new to this FIRE scene, but I just feel I have to argue (as an outsider to this community who only just discovered it a few months ago) that you can’t pick a commonly used word and “redefine” it in an unconventional way and then expect people to understand what it means to you personally. To most people, retirement would mean living off of one’s savings and investment income. Working (perhaps-time or some side-hustle) to supplement your income would make you “semi-retired.” Working (blogging or otherwise) so that you no longer need to draw reguarly from your investment/savings nest-egg makes you, well: WORKING.
And while I respect that part of retirement (as defined by this community) is about gaining the freedom to work the jobs you want on your hours and on your terms, I also think it is important that bloggers understand that a person new to the community who is going to see the word “retired” will assume (by no fault of their own) that it means drawing all income from savings and investments. I mean your spouse making 6K per year isn’t that much, but some of these bloggers are making tens of thousands (or maybe more). And not disclosing that kind of income is exactly as Tanja says: disingenuous (even if it is unintentional).
Now that I’ve read more about FIRE and checked out more of the blogs, I get the “RE” part of it better. But I’m not going to lie, when I first started reading about it, it was quite confusing. I hope I don’t get accused of being one of the “retirement police”because I am not trying to call anyone out on their personal definition of ERE. But I do hope that the FIRE bloggers out there can recognize why this sort of personal definition of a word would be confusing to someone new to the community who sees it and makes assumptions about what it means. When one blogger sees “retired” as monetizing their blog, and another sees it as not working at all, and another sees it as working remotely and part time at their old job, it can be hard to make sense of a person’s retirement plan when it isn’t explained and they just use the generic term “retired.” People can define it how they like, but they do need to be transparent about what it means to them (and how that definition is evolving as their lives change and as their FIRE journey brings them down unexpected paths).
This is a tough issue, because “retirement” does have some deeply ingrained definitions for people, but also, a large percentage of traditional retirees also work, and no one is going on and on about how they’re not really retired. The truth is that retirement is not a word with an agreed-upon definition, and it’s also a new concept, so I think it’s fair to try to pull it in the direction of what it should be: a different phase of life when you no longer need to work for money and can do what you please. But definitely hear you on the linguistic challenges of this discussion!
I appreciate this. I am definitely more conscious of “age bias” playing into my old understanding of what it means to be “retired.” That’s something I never thought of before reading FIRE, and I appreciate the way the FIRE community has opened my mind to what retirement could mean, or as you put it, even “should be.”
That’s awesome to hear. Thanks for sharing that! My view is that we should always be broadening possibilities for ourselves, not narrowing them. ;-)
I feel there isn’t much that can be done about those who are being disingenuous. It is like life, you learn who you can trust and who you can’t. It is like the self help industry, where people give advice they don’t follow.
The positive side is that there are many people who are being genuine and telling the truth – it is those people that should stand out and also help the most people. We’re really thankful for them and hope we never find out they’ve been lying :)
I purposely didn’t use the word “disingenuous” or “dishonest” or any other synonym here because that’s not what I’m talking about. I think there are plenty of folks who BELIEVE they are telling the whole truth and aren’t. They aren’t sharing their context, they aren’t properly characterizing their income because everyone in this country seems to believe they are “middle class,” etc. Folks who are straight-up lying are out there, but that’s not what this post is about. ;-)
Oh I see now! Thanks for.clarifying.
You bet! :-)
I appreciate the focus on honesty and the reality of health issues, but as simply a reader of FI blogs I still feel compelled to be responsible for my own retirement plan and not to rely on insights from blogs and etc.
Retirement at any age needs to be planned for, early or late. It’s an individual plan and every one has to be unique to the planner. You have to assume the worst case and hope for better, it just that simple. If you haven’t set aside dollars for health care or other items you simply aren’t ready for the worst case and the plan is less than perfect.
As part of a strong plan it’s a good thing if you can add in streams of revenue. Some from social security, some from rental properties, savings, blog income or anything. Even, or maybe, especially important if you happen to be less prepared for retirement when it comes.
So when you get advice from bloggers or anyone else, just add it into the information mix and then make YOUR perfect plan based on what your reality is. If your plan gets you to a safe and enjoyable retirement early all the better.
I think you have exactly the right mindset as a reader of blogs! Any reader who tries to exactly replicate a plan just because some stranger on the internet wrote about it is likely to have a rude awakening at some point. However, that doesn’t absolve bloggers of their responsibilities, and that’s what I’m pushing for here. ;-)
Hmm, I’m not sure I see this as much as you appear to, but I agree that it’s in our best interest to be as honest and transparent as possible. Anyone who’s actively deceiving their readers isn’t doing them any favors, but then again, we all have our own comfort level with how much we reveal, and that’ll always trump everything else. So long as we’re being as honest as possible, that’s the bottom line.
This isn’t about bloggers being deliberately deceptive. I think that’s a tiny number, and I know a post here isn’t going to change anything for those folks. ;-) It’s the context stuff that isn’t a deliberate omission, but which robs the reader of the opportunity to make an educated decision about how to interpret what a given blogger says. And it’s especially acknowledging how one’s worldview is impacted by circumstances or by financial changes, like how one’s views on risk might be colored by additional blog or side hustle income, or how one’s family safety nets might do the same. I applaud that you shared your joint income on Twitter the other day — that’s pretty huge. Waaaay too many people — and you never did this — characterize their income as “average” or “normal” when it’s clearly not, and that’s incredibly misleading, but probably not intentionally so.
Yup, I completely understand – and now I’m pretty sure I know what sparked this post. :)
I don’t want to call anyone out on Tanja’s blog. :)
You could give hints! But I think I have enough clues, Steve. Sleuthert is on the case. :-)
Appreciate that, buddy. ;-)
The truth is that MANY things sparked this post, which is why the manifesto list is so long! Hahahaha. ;-)
Good for you to point out areas for improvement. I’ve appreciated some honesty in FIRE blogs, but I want some of the male bloggers who have wives still working to stop saying they’re FIRE. They conveniently separate or combine marital finances as it serves them to appear FIRE. Some will talk about their spouse planning to retire but she loves her job. In the meantime, husband blogger hasn’t gotten hit by a $20,000 health care insurance addition to their FIRE budget because he’s on the wife’s plan. There aren’t many $40,000/year FIRE budgets that will be ready to suck up the addition of health care. So stop saying you are retired. Say you and your wife have collectively done well financially so far and that you are a stay at home husband/dad. Period. But you aren’t retired. My wife takes care of three kids in diapers. She is not retired. Neither are you.
THIS. As a female I’ve thought about how laughable other people would find it if I had kids and quit my job and went around telling people I was retiring while my husband continues to work full time. Part of this is age discrimination to some degree: no one questions someone in their 50s or 60s who says they are retiring even if a spouse still works. And part of it is sexism: people assume a wife is living off her working husband’s income while I think they’re more likely to assume a non-working husband must be independently wealthy. But still. You can’t act like your spouse and their income and their share of your household expenses and their health insurance don’t exist.
I think this whole post is pretty spot on, but I do think you’ve got to cut bloggers a little slack for not speaking broadly enough to everyone and being universally inclusive. It’s OK to write for a target audience – aka college educated high earners. You pretty much have to unless you want to generalize your message to the point of uselessness. People who don’t fit that description and tune in anyway do so to learn, and that’s great. I read all kinds of things without being offended that they don’t pertain fully to me or take into account my specific life experience. None of us should act like poor and disabled people don’t exist or don’t matter of course, but that doesn’t mean bloggers are doing something wrong for not researching and writing about specific topics that would apply to them (like how to access certain welfare benefits or how to get rid of a payday loan) – but not to the vast majority of their regular readers.
There is a BIG dose of weirdly ageist stuff in any talk of retirement. No one questions whether a 70-year-old who does a little consulting for fun one day a week is retired or not. But because we’re each working like 10% this year, plenty will say we’re “not retired.” And yes, I agree completely with the sexism.
And don’t misunderstand — I’m not asking anyone to start writing for people who won’t ever be able to retire early. If anything, it’s just to be a bit clearer about who they ARE writing for. The problem is when we start using meaningless tags like “middle class” to characterize ourselves, someone might start reading thinking it’s for them, but then get discouraged when that “middle class income” is actually very high income and they can’t achieve similarly high savings rates. If you read through the comments here, you’ll get a pretty good sense of how many folks have felt discouraged reading FIRE blogs at one point or another, but might not have if the info presented were a bit more straightforward. :-)
I think it’s a fair question to ask whether there is a gendered double standard here. Would a mom be able to stay home while her husband is working and call herself retired? I do feel strongly that people get to decide for themselves whether they’re retired and not leave it to the internet retirement police to decide, but some acknowledgement of the benefits that come from a working spouse would be very welcome, it sounds like!
I was SO excited to dig into your salty post today! As a non-blogger, FIRE blog consumer, all I can say is PREACH to all of this. I’ve skimmed through dozens (hundreds?) of blogs over the past few years and get turned off due to the lack of transparency and seemingly disregard for reality (healthcare, US wages, inheritance, etc). Maybe I’m just super risk-averse (why I like your blog), but it seems like many don’t have a concrete plan that accounts for contingencies. I choose not to read blogs that I feel aren’t grounded in reality. Call me crazy, but I just don’t believe that 25x your expenses is all you have to worry about.
Keep posting the good stuff!
Thanks so much, Kate! And gosh you know I’m with you on 25X with no padding for contingencies! It makes me super concerned for folks because it assumes level spending forever, and one expensive health care year or one natural disaster could wipe out a lot of that. Some folks are comfortable with that, but I also think some have contingencies like the ability to move in with family that they don’t acknowledge, and it’s important that readers get that context!
The real issue is the reader unquestioningly accepting anything they read or are told.
If someone is sick they may ask “Dr Google” for general information, but for treatment they would hopefully seek help from a professional medical doctor. If someone’s home lost power or heat during the middle of winter they may take a quick look at youtube videos instructing how to change a fuse, but for the major stuff they would call out a qualified electrician or plumber.
Personal Finance is no different. Anyone who bases their whole financial plan upon what some reddit trolls were arguing about online, or the latest too-good-to-be-true spiel touted by a self-appointed “expert” blogger (with no relevant professional training or experience), demonstrates questionable judgement to put it mildly.
There is no barrier to entry for bloggers. Anybody can invent a persona, then spin a narrative that makes them look good while supporting the world view they espouse. That may be from an altruistic desire to “educate”, or an ego trip, or to document a journey, or whatever.
Often that world view is more invested in the “business of blogging”: a sales funnel for a course; affiliate commission generating advertorial; a brand building exercise to cultivate an audience for their next book, or podcast, or keynote speaking engagement. While that isn’t for everyone, it isn’t inherently a bad thing in itself.
For example we routinely expect used-car salespeople, shop assistants in mobile phone stores, building contractors, politicians, and real estate agents to try and rip us off.
The only real difference between those other shady professions and bloggers is the revenue generating mechanism is less transparent, in much the same as it used to be for Financial Advisors and Mortgage Brokers back when they were allowed to accept trailing commissions and kickbacks for steering punters into the most lucrative rather than most appropriate products.
I agree good bloggers don’t mislead their audiences, however I challenge your assertion that bloggers owe their audiences anything. It is up to the audience to critically assess the messages they are being presented with, decide for themselves what is valid and what is bullshit, and what (if any) action to take based upon them.
There are blogs out there promising to sell the winning numbers in the next lottery draw, or providing instructions for building a time machine, or how it is easy to create a blog that throws off $25000 year. Much as I would love for these things to be true, that doesn’t make them so. The same goes for the 4% “rule”, the infallibility of VSTAX, and the effortless operation of cashflowing investment property.
Always “trust, but verify”!
I’m going to disagree with you, friend. :-) Of course readers must always be discerning and critical, as I said in the post. That’s a given. But when bloggers mischaracterize their income because they don’t understand basic economic reality, or they tout how easy it is to retire early without acknowledging boosts they’ve gotten along the way, they are saying that they’re on the level and honest when in fact they are pushing some misleading narratives. The fortune teller example you cited is not an apt comparison because that’s obviously someone out to prey on weak people, whereas most FI bloggers position themselves as on the level and not out to enrich themselves. That makes it harder for even a discerning reader to know what’s trustworthy and what’s not. And while I agree with “trust but verify,” it’s also not easy to verify the facts that many bloggers might share about their own story or progress, especially if they are anonymous as many FIRE bloggers are, and therefore readers need to be able to trust what we tell them, even if it’s up to them to do their due diligence on their own plans.
Fair points all.
By verify I don’t mean check to see if the blogger really is the former olympic gold medalist, runner up in the Miss Universe pageant, and nobel laureate they claim to be. As you rightly point out that would be a fruitless endeavour, particularly when it comes to those of us who hide behind anonymity.
What I mean is critically assessing the advice a blogger is offering.
Your blog is a fantastic case study for this. You claim to have worked in Washington, lived in Tahoe, and retired early. That makes for an compelling backstory narrative, but so what? It might be true, it might not, ultimately it doesn’t really matter.
Where I got interested as a reader was when you published your spreadsheet setting out exactly how you were proposing to fund things, what your assumptions were, and so on. That was fantastic, I wish all bloggers would do this, present the data supporting their arguments and approaches!
I don’t care about your actual numbers, we have different professions, live in different locales, etc so any comparison would be meaningless. However now I can dig into your logic, verify or disprove your suggested approach for myself. If I satisfied myself that you knew what you were talking about then I would likely be more open to hearing what else you have to say. If I wasn’t I’d move onto the next site and quickly forget every having visited this one.
My challenge is how many readers actually do their own research? They all should.
One of the most cliched stories in the FIRE blogosphere is the ‘Bengen’s 4% “safe” withdrawal rate’ post. Yet how many of those bloggers could actually explain what caveats and limitations Bengen himself placed upon his conclusions? How many readers actually dig into the data behind the endlessly cited Trinity study to verify that the conclusions its authors drew were supported by the data, and that their methods and approach were sound?
How many readers attempt to recreate Big ERN’s findings from his marvellous “safe” withdrawal rate series?
How many people validated the formulae used in my Mortgaginator spreadsheet or Minafi’s interactive FIRE guide before they actually used them?
If they haven’t done the leg work then how can a reader be confident that the conclusions being drawn are valid, accurate, and applicable to their own situation?
That is what I mean by “trust, but verify”, and also why the responsibility resides with the audience to apply their bullshit filters to everything they read (this comment included!).
Thanks for hosting this interesting debate.
Glad you’re participating in the debate! ;-) And I can’t disagree with any of this. The x-factor that I’ve clearly not articulated perfectly is less in the data themselves and more in the interpretation. So with the Trinity Study, for example, the conclusions drawn are what they are, but the core question most posts on the 4% rule are asking is whether those results will apply equally in the future as they have in the past. Because no one knows, everyone is hazarding a guess. And guesses are based in part on reasoning and considering data to whatever that person’s level of understanding of it is, but guesses are also based largely on emotion. And having more money can make us remarkably more calm and optimistic about money, along with more risk-tolerant, while having less money tends to make us more anxious and risk-averse. So if you’ve got a bunch of folks who are the leading voices on FIRE sitting on more money than they need, it’s possible that they’ll all be way more optimistic and risk-tolerant than they might otherwise be, and that bias can creep into their content. If nothing else, I see remarkably little — with some key exceptions — on health care inflation and contingencies at large, and I think that’s a trickle-down effect of much of this optimism and risk tolerance. But without knowing the full set of context, how are readers to know that this bias is potentially baked into a huge swath of the FIRE thinking out there? That’s why I think it’s on bloggers to be transparent about the conditions that might create these biases, so readers know to look for them. :-)
Also appreciate your note on my income source post! That’s great to know!
Ok are you really serious when you suggest that the average reader should try to recreate Big ERN’s studies? The guy has a PhD in economics and he worked for an investment management firm for a decade. He’s in the top few thousand (or even few hundred) Americans terms of math/money abilities and training. The other 99.99% of us are going to have to take his word for it.
Yeah, it’s not rocket science, but if I were going to try to recreate what he’s done I wouldn’t even know where to get the data sets, let alone how set up and run the Monte Carlo simulations and other calculations.
Big ERN’s stuff is great! But you can’t expect people to be able up check his work.
Everyone can and should make their own assessments of whatever they read. But it’s just silly to argue that everyone can and should literally verify everything they read. For one thing, that would vitiate potential gains from trade due to specialization!
I think you’re right. For basic planning, absolutely verify. But with advanced mathematical modeling and analysis, you’re right that at a certain point we just have to trust that what folks are telling us is on the level. And whether we’re talking about the advanced stuff or not, having at least some understanding of a person’s biases and leanings, based on their economic position and other life circumstances, helps us make a determination of what applies to our situation and what doesn’t.
I think you are making some good points, but wanted to respond and say that I stopped reading some FIRE blogs because as a critical reader I could see immediately that the numbers weren’t adding up (or were just left out, so I was curious). So I was compelled to do research by looking at other blog posts from their site, taking out a calculator to make sure I wasn’t going crazy, and reading other forums and threads (such as on MMM), etc etc. and eventually felt that if I had to “research” (aka sleuth around the Internet) to put the pieces together so that the narrative made sense, then the blog isn’t very helpful or honest. So I stopped reading. Or if I kept reading, it was because the blog became more of a strange kind of entertainment rather than a thought-provoking and helpful series of posts. If that was the blogger’s intention, then they succeeded. But I genuinely think they were trying to be helpful and inspiring. So Tanja’s advice above is a breath of fresh air and I hope all the FIRE bloggers consider it.
I’m glad this one resonated with you! I don’t think most bloggers are attempting to fool anyone. I think we all just aren’t necessarily the best judges of which parts of our story are important to share and which aren’t. So it’s necessary to have this discussion!
This was an excellent post! I am new to the FIRE blogging community and older than most (in my early 50’s) and had to figure out my own early retirement by myself – no blogging community was established during my journey.
FinCon17 was my first real exposure to this community. While I saw that most bloggers have good intentions, it was obvious to me that “monetizing” a blog was a main focus of the conference. That was a little disillusioning to me. My goal is simply to tell my story (the good and the bad parts) to assist my daughter (18) and her age group in their own financial journeys, as well as anyone else who wishes to learn from my experiences.
Hopefully, your post will encourage others to be more transparent when discussing the reality behind their story if they aren’t already. I for one appreciate the advice and will adopt many of the suggestions you make in your manifesto.
Hi Mark — I wouldn’t conflate FinCon with all PF bloggers. The focus there IS on profit, and that makes sense given that it caters to the slice of bloggers who are willing to pay to travel to a conference. But I do think most bloggers, particularly in the FI space, are truly not in it to make money, or at least not primarily so. And I so appreciate your note about incorporating bits of the manifesto into your blogging! :-D
Thank you so much for this post. I discovered your blog just a couple of weeks ago and have been alternating between reading the oldest posts (start from the beginning!) and the newest (stay current!).
When I read your Monday post, I knew I wanted to read this next one as soon as it came out. I really appreciate you–especially since it looks like you are read by so many people–expressing these ideas (feisty and all!). There is so much I agree with that I won’t bother listing them all, but I do want to make a special point about the “health arrogance and ableist bias.” I’ve known plenty of formerly very healthy and fit people (friends and close family members) struck down with cancer before they reached Medicare-age, and I doubt my husband and I will retire completely from work without some solid health care options (especially now, with the state of Obamacare). So thank you for drawing attention to this important issue.
Hi Julie! Thanks so much for reading, especially the old posts! ;-) I’m glad this post spoke to you. You already know I completely agree on the health stuff — it’s not something any of us can take for granted, and we all have examples of healthy people doing everything right who had something horrible befall them. Not taking health care needs very seriously, particularly in the U.S., is a mistake. I’m glad you’re not making it! ;-)
Yes to so much of this. When I first started reading FIRE blogs, I subconsiously accepted the fact that in order to do it, i would need to have a blog because that seems to be the “success formula”. (I have since realized i don’t have the time/desire to blog, so I have lots of respect and appreciation for those who do)
I think a lot of readers may not fully comprehend how the blogging economy works (how bloggers get paid, how much time/work it takes, how much money can be made) and that creates confusion because its least often discussed by bloggers since its not “cool” to talk about. If you quit your job and RE, that’s awesome, but in between the stories of travelling the world, its helpful to share stories of getting an additional 10k from media bookings as a result of your blog or having said travel paid for by the events you are going to speak at. Again, none of the actions are inherently bad, but as my Dad used to say, “Deception by omission” is still kind of a lie, and not telling those stories is why it sometimes feels icky.
Also, to the point about income levels, its already clear from some of the comments that people feel context is important (and it is) but its not everything. Fact: Making 80k per year is well above national average. Also Fact: Living somewhere expensive on 80k per year may mean you are making closer to a local average wage. So you could be only ~5k above your local average, but with lifestyle choices you could lower your cost of living, etc and save a much greater percentage of your income. The basic cost of living (even in a more expensive place) is likely a lower % of your overall income so you have more room to work with. If a person were making ~5k above average in a lower cost of living area, the basic costs of living will still likely be a larger % of income. Yes you could be frugal and try to save, but there is inherently less wiggle room because most expenses have a market floor (For example- If you pay 5k per month in rent for your family, you could maybe move somewhere cheaper and save the difference, but if you pay 1k per month in rent for your family, its probably harder to find something much cheaper. In both cases the ratio of your rent to Income may be similar based on cost of living adjustments, but I’d guess that one of the benefits of living in a higher cost of living area (and getting the higher income) is the availability of a range of options that may not exist elsewhere.
I don’t think Tanja’s point is that people shouldn’t make other (blog, rental, royalty) income, feel bad about their salaries, or not share their journey. I think it’s just that with something that effects people’s lives so much as PF & Retirement planning, sharing a more transparent, honest story help make sure that anyone reading really gets a full picture before they take any hard-to-reverse decisions.
Thank you Tanja for writing this great and thought-provoking article! I look forward to seeing the conversation develop and you showing your skills as #WorldsBestModerator
Oh wow, that’s crazy that you internalized that belief that you have to blog to be successful on the FI path! That’s important and worth noting. I’m glad, though, that you’ve dropped it if it wasn’t bringing you big joy, because you know what a huge lift it is! :-)
And gosh I love how you said everything here! On the income relativity, it’s absolutely true that people in higher cost of living areas on average make enough more to more than make up the cost of living difference. And high COL areas tend to have richer people generally, which skews the median income. And so, sure, some number might be median in that area, but it still doesn’t make it middle class, “normal” or any other euphemism, and your point about options is spot on. And the “hard to reverse decisions” point — YES. EXACTLY.
And you’re far too kind on the moderator comment, but a pro tip I’ll throw out there is to be well prepared before you have to moderate. Folks may come at you with wacky questions or inaccurate assertions, but they can’t rattle you if you know your stuff. ;-)
Thanks for the tip! And given the fact that you’ve thoughtfully and compassionately responded to over 180 comments, I think i was justified in nominating you for the Moderating Gold Star ;-)
Hahaha. I will treasure that gold star forever! (Right after I get back from the massage therapist… oh my gosh, so sore from all the typing!) ;-)
Yes! This post. A big one that bothers me is the bloggers that aggressively chastise people for the money they spend. Do I think people most people can benefit from looking at their finances and cutting back? Yes. Do I also acknowledge that people have different priorities and obligations? Absolutely. Shaming people for their lifestyle is not the right way to spread the FIRE message.
I also don’t think enough bloggers talk about privilege. Being able to even think about FIRE is a privelege not everyone can afford. Those of us who are able to pursue it are extremely privileged.
Thank you for writing this.
That is probably my single biggest pet peeve. People who talk about “freedom” but then don’t give others the benefit of that same freedom to make their own spending decisions. (Or even just acknowledge that not everyone has the same set of choices available to them.) And of course you are so right about privilege. I know that word has taken on some loaded meaning, so I deliberately left it out of this post, but I tried to get at the concept by encouraging folks to stay in touch with economic realities beyond their own. ;-)
YES! Words mean things. Rich people are rich and not middle class! Regardless of how they feel. I appreciate your candor, as always.
“Regardless of how they feel.” YES. Everyone is on the hedonic treadmill. Everyone compares him or herself to those above them economically, not those below. So almost no one feels rich, but it doesn’t mean they actually aren’t.
So true! And perhaps folks are not self-aware in many aspects of their lives and personal finances. Some people appear to feel very numbers oriented, but don’t notice their emotional responses to light push-back…
Hahaaha. That is absolutely true! ;-)
I understand what you are trying to get at but I also feel you are distorting the issue somewhat.
I’ve been blogging on FIRE for over a decade and most years I have earned less than $1000 a year or in terms of my working income less than 1% (and that is before I paid income tax at my full marginal rate on that income dropping it to a few hundred dollars a year). Frankly very few bloggers make enough money from their blog to be a meaningful shift in their plans. Like most publishing there is a very big shift from the top (ie: MMM) to the little guys for blog income (classic 20% of the blogs are making 80% of the income). So while I don’t disclose the exact amount I make from the blog I do disclose how much of that ends up in our annual spending. Why? Because when I self published my book I invested over $2K of my own money into the project and yes I broke even with a slight profit (which in itself is accomplishment). So saying what I made of the book was sort of pointless without the fact I invested my own money into the project.
Also I live in Canada where health care issues really aren’t the same as the US hence I write almost nothing on the topic as it literally is not an issue for me.
Finally I really dislike your choice of words for ‘owe’. I actually ‘owe’ my readers fuck all. I choose to actually follow most of your suggestions for disclosure and I actually agree with your point that at times some blogs are overly positive. Thus I am writing a series of posts as I adjust to FI and leaving my day job covering the good and the bad. But don’t forget your disclosure ideas are from your point of view and they don’t apply universally.
Sorry if I sounds like a stick in the mud but the wording of your post really rubbed me the wrong way despite the fact I agree generally with your points.
The question that arose for me, reading your comment, was: If you don’t owe your readers anything, who are you writing for?
That manifesto was BOSS.
Thanks for being honest and mentioning the elephant in the room for popular FIRE blogs
Thanks, friend! :-D
I think the point about partial numbers is a subtle but important one. I’ve been following some FIRE blogs regularly for about 6 months now, and I will admit that at the beginning I fell into the trap of focusing overly on savings rate percentages, and then feeling bad when mine couldn’t compare to what people said they saved. Then I had a pretty big “Wait a minute!” moment when I realized that, of course, even if I had similar expenses but was making less, I wouldn’t be able to save as high a percentage of my income…
Overall I’m still on the fence about whether I find sharing real numbers to be more helpful or distracting (I really enjoyed your discussion of the topic on The Fairer Cents, btw!). But if you do share, context and seeing both sides of the financial equation are really important. Because in the end, anyone aspiring to FI needs to be able to see and reason over both sides of her own equation, both income and expenditures. Thanks for pointing that out and reminding us to keep it in perspective! And thanks for being so forthcoming generally – of all the blogs I follow, I feel I get the most value out of yours, because it is so honest and thought-provoking :).
Thanks so much for that, Sarah! :-) I think a LOT of readers have had the experience you had, of seeing a saving percentage without context, and then feeling bad about their own rate. I’d be more impressed to know the absolute number people spend, frankly, as that’s much more tangible, and makes for an easier apples-to-apples comparison. (Of course, we don’t share that, so I understand why many people don’t either!) ;-)
I love your feisty self so much. It’s that bias about health and healthcare that finally got to write about my sudden deafness this past year. Not everything health related is under your control, and it totally sucks when it isn’t.
Amen sister! And it’s crazy how much even “small” health issues can cost.
There’s a reason health bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy 😔
Even for people who HAVE INSURANCE. It’s crazy. And not okay.
And yet, here we are.
I don’t know if it was careful timing or if this post was well underway when the “$300,000 to live a middle class lifestyle” post popped up. But your points on the reality of what constitutes the various percentiles of income are right on the money (forgive the bad pun, unintentional). It is unfortunate that many folks don’t write (blog) or comment on posts with a perspective of reality. Many live in their own bubble and the bubbles that exist in the major west coast and east coast cities paint a picture that is not even close to what America is and stands for. I’ll be the first to admit that we got sucked into this bubble in our early spendy years – I think you had similar experiences too. I’ll also admit that we don’t share our numbers although a few bloggers (friends) in the community do know our numbers in great detail, based on trusting friendships formed and cultivated over time.We have been in the 3% ‘ile for some time and we are grateful to that also for powering our savings over the last 6-8 years and enabling our FIRE date.
I never ever have a problem with people earning money through blogging. It is awesome. Or for families to choose to live their lives in a way that means a SAHM or SAHD, with the other earning a large salary. These are life choices and are all good. But when you are doing either of these and screaming via your blog/Twitter handle that your portfolio is growing massively and that life is just a breeze and you joke sarcastically about the “hardship” of early retirement, I make the choice to turn off. IMHO, that stuff should not be shouted about so loudly. A different narrative can be told. Unfortunately that “click-bait” stuff draws more readers and includes readers who are seeking help but come away dejected, frustrated and disillusioned about what they read. If bloggers truly understood the implications of such writing, I think they would act differently. At least I hope they would.
Let’s turn to emotional intelligence, defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
I think that influential bloggers take on a leadership role in this great community. And great leadership comes with the necessary skills of emotional intelligence which you display in abundance via your writing. I challenge other bloggers to follow your lead, embrace the concept of emotional intelligence and take their writing to a greater level that benefits a much larger swath of readership in a positive way.
This post was already written, but Sam certainly gave it a bit more relevance, didn’t he?! ;-) We have absolutely been in that bubble, and that’s the whole thing about bubbles — you don’t see them when you’re in them. So I think quite a few folks who mischaracterize their income don’t see themselves as high earners relative to those around them. But that doesn’t mean it’s not so, and its our responsibility to stay in touch with economic realities to understand our own situation relative to large numbers of people, not just to our fellow bubble inhabitants.
I agree with all the rest, too. No problem with earning blog money or any of the rest of it, just recognize what that does for you and write in a way that reflects that instead of being insensitive or even misleading. And thanks so much for your kind words — I do my best over here, but I’m always learning ways I can be more sensitive, and I try to keep improving. Definitely a work in progress!
I agree with your first point about keeping it real that is why FI blogs that share real numbers are more real and transparent. When a blogger says I am redone a 1 mil but then says now I make 30k from my blog I can understand that they are mostly likely only using 10k if there savings to live in but if no numbers are shared then it’s like a president not showing his tax returns.
If they share numbers, it’s for sure easier to see where some conflicts might exist, but it still doesn’t necessarily tell you how having that extra padding might be shaping their world view. And obviously, as someone who doesn’t share numbers, I think it’s possible to be transparent without real math, but it’s definitely a lot more work! ;-)
Another great post. As I’m sure most of your readers do… I so look forward to Monday and Wednesday mornings. Many thanks!
Totally agree with transparency. If I’m being honest though, I actually still find it a bit frustrating even when FIRE bloggers DO share their blog income, book income, speaking arrangement income, consulting income, etc. Don’t get me wrong… it’s great that they’re enjoying and being paid for their efforts (i.e. work)… but at the end of the day, it means they’re not fully retired… and it means less money they need to pull from savings, so they’re not truly testing the financially independent waters.
In about 3 years, we’ll transition to semi-retirement… earning about 1/3 of our previous salaries… enough to pay the bills so we’re not withdrawing from retirement accounts (or very little), but no longer saving the 2/3s we used to. This is where I feel a lot of FIRE bloggers live.
I’m looking for a more apple to apples comparison. When my wife and I fully retire (around 53ish), our 401k/403b (pre-tax) and Roth 401k/403b (post tax) accounts will roll over into IRAs/Roth IRAs… and that’s it… that’s what we’ll have to truly test out the 4% rule. And even that gets wonky ‘cuz once we get Social Security at 62 and Medicare at 65, we may not actually need what the 4% rule would be paying out by then. Bonus for kids and charities.
And then there’s our health. Take care of your body the best you can… and then hope and pray. We plan for tomorrow, but live for today. Don’t wait ’til tomorrow to Find Your Joy.
Thanks so much for saying that! :-D And I understand that frustration — it’s not about the money they’re making, which it sounds like most of us agree is great! It’s about not truly testing the concept, but then still evangelizing about it. Definitely feels problematic, if not like a full-blown conflict of interest.
Thank you Tanja for this! I try to make it clear to my audience that my husband and I combined have a high income, so our ability to save as much as we do is mostly a function of our income. I’m making some big transitions this year that will allow me to be even more transparent. Overall, excellent post!
Thanks, Jamila! And I DO think you do a great job of acknowledging your high income, which I so appreciate, and I know your audience does too!
I get tired of the “Any individual can make $100,000+/year, easily!” message that gets thrown out on most PF blogs. It’s fine if someone makes that kind of money. And I accept that there are a lot of people in the FI Community who probably do make that kind of money. But I love that you’ve always acknowledged that it isn’t the norm for the majority of households in the US. I always feel like I’m lazy, or not applying myself, because I’m not making six figures. But then, I step back and realize that I know very few people IRL that make six figures. I make more than the US median, not including my partner’s income. And we don’t live in a high cost of living area. It may seem silly, but giving that context helps me reframe our goals and how I feel about our progress.
I also get tired of the people who share their spending, but leave out big amounts to make it look better. I’ve seen bloggers who say they only spend $25,000/year, but then admit that they didn’t include their mortgage, because they could pay it off if they wanted to. Or don’t include the principal part of the mortgage, because that’s equity. Or buy a car, but it’s “an experiment for the blog”, so they don’t count that cost. Uh… seriously?!?! If I have a mortgage, the WHOLE PAYMENT comes out of my bank account each month. If you need to have $40,000/year to make all of your payments/expenses, then you spend $40,000/year. It’s one thing if you’ve paid off your house. But, otherwise, include the whole amount. Most people do have to pay for housing. Or cars. It’s so much easier to relate to the real number than some paired down, idealistic amount!
I agree with your sentiments. I think there is a vast middle ground in the FIRE world that is missing due to several factors. In real life, I generally feel pretty good about where we are and the progress we’re making. From reading general financial articles, I understand we’re definitely doing better than average about saving/investing than the “median” person. On the flip side, in the online FIRE world, I sometimes feel left behind or less than average. We’ve never made anywhere near what most bloggers did before they left their W-2. We are quite a bit of the way along in child raising and have experienced 2 large stock market crashes along the way. We didn’t cash out, but definitely didn’t have the immediate turbo boost that those who started in 2009 or after had. There are not many FIRE bloggers who are in “the middle” – many are younger or much older than we are and not imminently planning for children’s college, etc. Also, so many have actually “FIRE-d” now that it becomes hard to relate. When you begin leading a totally different lifestyle and schedule than it took you to get to fire, I kind of lose interest if there are only updates about where we’re traveling, etc. It’s happened for quite a few recently and not many bloggers I started following are actually still in the process of “getting there” and I look for that perspective as well. I’m thrilled for all of them for achieving their goal, but sometimes I miss “sharing the journey”. I greatly appreciate articles like this that also do a deeper dive and challenge the status quo.
Definitely. Along the same lines, so many of the PF blogs I used to follow went from being about their personal journey, to the whole “5 ways to…” I get it, those types of posts make more money, and bring in more new readers. But I miss the comradery of learning each others’ journeys. Which is what made those blogs popular to begin with!
I will say the pressure to write those posts is real, and there’s a whole internet full of “how to blog” resources that push people in that direction. :-)
I understand! In my first year of blogging, I wrote a post about feeling behind because we’d “only” be retiring at 38 and 41, not early 30s like so many others. (Talk about being in the bubble!) The blogs do tend to highlight the freakish outliers, and it’s easy to lose perspective that only THREE PERCENT OF PEOPLE retire before age 55. Only 3 percent! So comparing yourself to the 99.99th percentile instead of realizing that you’re most likely already part of the rarified top 3 percent is crazy, but it’s also super easy to do.
That is truly one of my least favorite things that some blogs do — inadvertently shame people for not earning six figures or not being able to save more than half their income, etc. People have different circumstances, earning six figures isn’t the norm and as people who claim to be interested in personal finance, you’d think we’d better appreciate that. (Lots of folks do, to be fair — just not all.) And yes, the leaving stuff out… I won’t even get started on that, but it’s not okay! That’s partial math masquerading as full math, and while I believe most deception on blogs is NOT deliberate, the leaving stuff out math really does feel deliberate.
I think there’s definitely a dispute over semantics and the definition of the term retirement. I think that when people first learn of the FIRE community, that R brings up mental images of sitting on a beach somewhere, fruity drink in hand, no cares in the world. And so it’s a little jarring to read further and realize that the R for many in this community is actually the freedom to choose to work or not. And no, I’m not part of the retirement police and fully believe that there are as many versions of retirement as there are people in this world. So I agree with you that how a blogger defines their version of retirement should be a clear part of their blog. I really liked your term conservative entrepreneur. Because it seems like that’s the actual path that many are following. Maybe it should be the FIRES (Financial Independence Retire Early Sorta) community. ;)
There seems to be some heartburn over the word “owe” in the blog. And while I agree that bloggers don’t technically “owe” their readers anything, to not be transparent invites accusations of being hypocritical later. Just like professional athletes don’t “owe” it to anyone to be a role model, but by virtue of putting themselves in the public eye, they’ve brought it onto themselves. And they accrue both the benefits and responsibilities that come along with that role.
While I think there is value in acknowledging if you have a high income, I think there’s also value in acknowledging whether you live in a HCOL area. Those two seem to go hand in hand. Maybe I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like jobs that pay over $150K/year are centered around Huntington, WV or Jackson, MS. Maybe acknowledging the Affordability Index for the area should be part of that discussion.
I like how this post, and many of your posts, reinforce that it’s so important to recognize and be grateful for the good fortune we’ve all encountered on our way to FI.
Great post, I really look forward to seeing your thoughts every Sunday and Wednesday.
I like FIRES! ;-) (To be honest, I don’t even like FIRE, but mostly for grammatical reasons, and because I just generally dislike acronyms. Haha.) The cost of living for a place certainly plays into someone’s finances, but higher cost areas also generally pay much more than lower cost areas, so the high cost is generally more than made up for with higher pay. But I do definitely think talking about affordability of an area is more helpful than just talking about your own income relative to the local median, which will be incredibly skewed in richer areas where people earn more overall. Thanks so much for your nice note! :-D
Love, love love this post. I’ve been commenting left and right that while I admire many FIRE bloggers, they are in fact running a business as opposed to being relieved of paid work. No shame in that at all, but I thank you for being the first blogger to really call people out!
I should add that in my field, you actually get paid significantly less on the coasts and in major metros. Highest salaries are in the rural South and Midwest, so for my (very large) field, it is certainly not the case, and with the new tax laws and burgeoning housing costs, expensive areas are becoming more so even for six figure earners.
Bravo, Tanja. As somebody who is very close to FI and reader of many FI blogs, the one thing that really troubles me is the lack of transparency on blog income. Retire By 40 and Go Curry Cracker come to mind as bloggers who are very transparent with how much blog income they’re bringing in. I know many bloggers have side hustles or rental income, which is fine, but those bloggers who claim to have left their jobs and portend to be living solely on the 4% SWR without divulging that they are actually living on blog income is bothersome. I’m doing my due diligence, but I’m trying to get a clear picture of how they’re doing it.
Also, there are currently 1581 FI blogs listed on Rockstar Finance! As many have mentioned here, so much of it is regurgitated content over and over again. I really appreciate the FI blogs with personal stories that talk about the bad and good. Not, “Rah rah sis boom bah!” This is so easy and anybody can do it!”
Thanks, KT. :-) And yes, exactly — you can only do so much due diligence if someone is misrepresenting their story. I don’t believe that the deliberate deception is most of what I’m talking about here, but I do think it’s true that lots of folks aren’t actually testing the whole philosophy they’re proselytizing for.
Thank you for this post. While I don’t feel bloggers “owe” me any details, I do feel that its disingenuous when a blog/author touts that they are “middle class, average salaries” when their income puts them in the top 3%. The implication is that any average person can do what they did, and that you, too, can retire after just a couple of years of cutting back expenses. I used to feel so inadequate after reading one blog when they were boasting about a 70%+ savings rate. However its a lot different to live on 30% of a 50,000 salary than 30% of a 300,000 one (though I admire that blogger for not being consumed by lifestyle inflation). While I still get tips/ideas from this blog, the hypocrisy of stating that your path to success consisted of ordinary every day wages (when the reality is you both were making substantially above average incomes even for a high cost of living area) still bothers me.
That’s so understandable! We get so tied up in knots about what “middle class” means in the U.S., and even the top 1% of earners still by and large think of themselves as “middle class.” So I get why some people use that label, but it’s still deceptive and you’re a great example of being made to feel inadequate based on facts that weren’t even true. We should not be shaming readers for not doing what the very highest earners can do, but that’s the effect that mischaracterizing income especially can have.
At that’s a long list of to dos…those that are in FIRE and make money blogging they should double the duty to be transparent with their readsrs. Hubby got a $2k check from his parents as a gift and I told everyone because a payout of $2k every year is somewhat of a privilege.
Making money on a blog is only a problem if you don’t disclose it and don’t acknowledge how it might change your mindset on things like risk tolerance, how much folks should save before quitting, etc. And bravo to you for disclosing that check! :-D
Maybe it’s time to retire the “FIRE” acronym (which has been around since the mid-1990s) and stick with “FI”. FIRE is a catchy marketing phrase, but FIRE debates seem to generate a ton of clickbait.
These Internet Retirement Police posts are another reason I appreciate the transparency of the U.S. military niche.
We military families can all look up the pay scales. We can all research our benefits. We can all figure out how to optimize our skills for our career paths– and how to optimize our finances. Yet we all know that we’ll be out of the military someday.
We all understand the speed bumps in our careers. We all know that someday we won’t get promoted or even a pay raise. We also understand that healthy choices don’t protect us from injuries, illness, and death.
I share our personal financial percentages (instead of $M) because “comparison is the thief of joy”. However I also share every penny I’ve earned from my writing (including blogging) and I’ve donated all $16,558.83 of the last seven years to military-friendly charities. I think readers understand that amount doesn’t make much of a difference in the context of 16 years of FI.
Perhaps the issues raised in the manifesto posts are self-correcting. I think our readers are perceptive and can figure it out without our admonishments or mutual flagellation. I think they can tell who’s helping, who’s manipulating the facts, and who’s deceiving themselves. They’ll gravitate toward the right answers for their situations. Maybe they don’t care about these credibility questions because they’re already shining their flashlights on their own paths instead of playing follow-the-leader.
Well put, Doug. Very well put.
Gosh am I sick of debating what “retirement” means! ;-) So I’m with you — never really liked the “FIRE” acronym anyway. And you already know that I admire that you donate those blog earnings — kudos.
I disagree, though, that the other parts here are self-correcting, in part because even things that may seem obvious often aren’t. Like when you talk about the 4% rule being plenty conservative, not every reader will know that you can say that from a context of having two military pensions in your household to fall back on. That’s hugely important context because most people do NOT have the benefit of a pension of any sort, and have to be wholly reliant on their investments in a way you do not. Likewise with talking about income levels. As you can see just from the comments here, never mind the offshoot ones on Reddit and MMM forum, that we are nowhere near agreement on what constitutes “middle class” or “median income” or any other related term we might choose. So if I say “above average income,” that could mean wildly different things to different people. And that matters substantively when you’re talking about how fast someone can save and also how they’ll perceive their own savings rate. So I do think we need to be better collectively at not assuming that all of this stuff is obvious.
Much respect to you and your blog.
I disagree with this here though: “Perhaps the issues raised in the manifesto posts are self-correcting. I think our readers are perceptive and can figure it out without our admonishments or mutual flagellation. I think they can tell who’s helping, who’s manipulating the facts, and who’s deceiving themselves.”
You and I are both on the ChooseFI facebook group. Look at most of the questions asked there. People literally can’t figure out what buttons to push on Vanguard. They’re just getting started, so that’s how green they are. So I can’t believe anyone that green is perceptive enough to figure out the significant nuances Tanja discusses here.
Excellent points! Thanks for chiming in with these.
The numbers are awesome to see and aren’t too far off from what I would have expected. Does the context of location matter? Sure. It’s going to be tough to live on $30k in Hawaii but obviously people figure it out and they do it hence the bars and restaurants being staffed.
I don’t agree with people that say bloggers “deserve” to get paid for their time writing their blogs. If they CAN get paid, more power to them, but if their success is the result of using their respected blogger status to shill crappy products to people who don’t do their research, that’s not all that admirable to me.
A lot of folks spend a lot of time volunteering. They don’t “deserve” to get paid just because they put in a lot of time.
Blogging/online journaling/etc has appeared to have transitioned from a lot of people sharing their own personal stories to becoming these internet influencers who craft posts for SEO so that they can sell products, services and/or courses. This is not exclusive to the FIRE niche, it’s happening all over the internet. Are there exceptions? Of course. The trend seems to be going in the direction I don’t prefer, but who can blame people for chasing a buck. It seems extra disingenuous, though, to promote oneself as retired if they are so blatantly chasing the buck.
I do think location matters, but it doesn’t change cost of living as dramatically as some would like to claim. And I don’t think stating your income range relative to the median in your area answers the concern either because many high earners live in rich areas where the lowest quartile is still very well off. I believe bloggers should disclose their income range but can certainly qualify it and say they also get less out of that income by living in a HCOL area. But they still have more options than someone who earns less even in a low cost area.
Blogging seems to go in cycles, and 10 years ago, blogs in other niches were super monetized, and then they got beaten back by the recession. I think we’ll see another blog correction fairly soon that will wipe out plenty of those who are just doing it for the money. But readers are smart and can figure out which ones are the offenders and tune them out. :-)
Thank you for this article! As a household that lives comfortably but not in the $100,000/year range this is good perspective. From what I’ve read I do think most FIRE bloggers are honest about their circumstances, but as a reader in my situation it is all to easy to compare and wonder why we aren’t making or saving more money. We do our best and have made gains and mistakes along the way.
I appreciate your thoughtful perspective and the integrity, and accountability you bring to this community.
Thanks so much, Melissa! :-) I think it’s the comparison stuff you mentioned that more bloggers need to consider. I get that we want to celebrate our successes, but they rarely occur in a vacuum, and if we’re going to talk about how we’re crushing it financially, we also need to talk about the advantages we’ve had or trade-offs we’ve made to get there, or else we’re just shaming everyone who earns or saves less.
Oh ya, you used Manifesto in the title of this blog therefore we have to be friends forever now ! :)
Stoked that it stuck with you
Wait, we weren’t already going to be friends forever?
lol of course, now it just has been officially stamped and notarized … Holy SH@t this post blew up! It took me forever to find my comment here and reply back to you. Hello Google SEO ranking
More like getting debated on Reddit and the MMM forums. ;-)
pffftttt no press is bad press, keep being authentic and rocking your message, we got yer’ back against the IRP lol
Thanks, pal. :-) Fortunately comments have been OVERWHELMINGLY supportive, even on Reddit. (No one is more shocked than I am!) Sure, there’s plenty of debate about what “middle class” means, but that won’t be settled anytime soon. Haha.
Thank You for this. It helped me put into words a frustration I’ve had recently with the fire ecosphere. That is that frugality is the only thing that made early retirement possible. I wish more folks would acknowledge the things beyond frugality that helped them retire early and have a little patience / empathy with the folks that aren’t there yet. If it were simply a matter of being frugal most of my musician friends would be set.
The things that have helped me semi-retire early are:
– I am white. My former salary and opportunities reflect this.
– I am good at something that companies are willing to pay for. (Technology)
– I exited college debt free. I was lucky enough to get a good summer job AND went to college at a time when it was affordable. My parents contributed about 20%.
– I am able bodied and healthy.
– I am financially literate. (Thanks Mom and Dad for the financial education / transparency.)
– I am mathematically literate. (Not everyone is the first child of a math teacher.)
Frugality is a great excellerator and living this way aligns with my desire to live lightly on the planet. AND I’ve also been very very blessed.
Well said, Paula! :-) Picking any one piece out of the puzzle and claiming that THAT ONE THING is the secret will always be problematic. We need to acknowledge the whole picture.
I am going to split this up into two comments because I have two main thoughts. I am a non-blogger who found MMM 1.5 years ago and have since started reading some other FIRE blogs and listening to some FIRE podcasts. I owe a lot to fire bloggers. I was drawn in by the promise of it’s easy and anyone on an average income can do it. I have since done the math and realized that barring a career change, I probably will never be able to retire early. But the changes that I made before I came to that realization mean that when I am 65 I will be able to retire comfortably, which is not something that I was previously on the path to achieving. Reading FIRE blog posts has inspired me to really think about my future and make some lifestyle reductions so that I will eventually be able to retire to a comfortable lifestyle and no money worries. So that is my new goal.
I really appreciate your comment, Sara! I think it’s important for bloggers to see stories like yours and how frustrating the “anyone can do it” narrative can be even for those who’ve completely drunk the koolaid and want to change their ways. I’m super impressed that, even though ER feels out of reach, you’re still committing yourself to making long-term changes to retire securely. A lot of people would throw their hands up and say, “Well, if this isn’t possible, then what’s the point?!”
My second comment is that my largest pet peeve about some FIRE blogs is the constant talk about side hustles. I feel that the simple philosophy behind FIRE is (or should be) that time is more important than money and we should live simpler lifestyles so that we have to trade less of our time for money. When people advocate using side hustles to get to FIRE sooner I feel like that philosophy has become PERVERTED into: money is very important and I am going to trade more of my time to accumulate more money.
YESSS!! I so agree. The most attractive thing about FIRE to me is the idea that you take back your time and are free from “the grind”. My current “9 to 5” is actually a “7 to 7” so when I read about how “Side hustles” are the solution, I want to cry.
Totally! Side hustles can be great if your job is not already super time consuming and you find a side hustle you love. But otherwise they just steal more of your time and life enjoyment.
Thank you! I feel very defeated sometimes reading PF blogs; Between the implication that it’s easy for any individual to make $100,000+, and then the concentration on side hustles, I start to feel incredibly lazy and like I’m not applying myself. But I put a lot of time and energy in to my full-time job. Is it so bad to want to have a life outside of work now?
Absolutely not! A life outside of work is what this is all about, and that should not just wait until some potentially far-off “later.”
I see both sides of this one. I dropped my side hustle years ago to focus on my career entirely, and I only did the side hustle in the first place because I truly loved it and it felt worth my time (because you know I wasn’t earning all that much from it! https://ournextlife.com/2017/11/06/yoga-multilevel-marketing/). And I think for those who want to live a life with no work, it feels worth the trade-off of time in the near term to get to the zero work life faster. It’s like how we chose to stay in high-stress jobs even though we could have lived a more reasonable pace of life with lower paid ones. We wanted to get to the finish line faster, though. But if your goal is just to have more time generally, then I agree with you — trading nearly all your time away for money puts your focus in the wrong place.
Great stuff as always Tanja. How do you consistently write these long and thoughtful posts? Kudos to you!
The fact that many FIRE bloggers make money on the side via their blogs or through side hustle, is exactly why the average Joes and Janes troll these “Retire at ___” main stream articles. Because to them, these bloggers are still working. But they are making income by doing something they enjoy. That’s the key difference. The key thing here, as you wrote, is to be honest and disclose these kind of information. You can’t be preaching something while doing something completely different.
That’s like someone trying to sell an investing consultation when they have $0 or very little money invested in the same investments. Why should I listen to you?
Thanks, my friend! This one has been bumping around in my head for a long while now. ;-) And I agree completely — there is no problem with making money from a blog or from anything else for that matter, but readers deserve to know that that’s what’s happening because it affects how they interpret the example you’re setting.
Such a great post and thank you for writing it. As you mentioned, one of the things I started noticing in FIRE blogs is the focus on retiring and never working again, while making either a decent or significant income from their blog in the process. It brings up an important discussion about what to do if things don’t go as planned.
What if the 4% rule doesn’t sustain you? What will you do when the market drops? What will you do if you have to pick up part-time work for a while? The part-time work bit is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s easy to say “Oh, if things get bad, I will just get a part-time job!” Well, that brings age discrimination, low wage jobs, and a host of things into consideration.
Healthcare concerns me A LOT with early retirement. FIRE bloggers usually do one of two things: they either use a health share ministry or hop onto their spouse’s (who is still working) employer-sponsored plan. Those seem to be the only options! I soooo wish we talked more about navigating healthcare in early retirement.
Thanks so much, Colin! :-) Re: health care, here is what we are are doing (with lots of links to prior health care posts): https://ournextlife.com/2018/01/08/early-retirement-health-insurance/. And all of those contingency questions you ask should be very much a part of every FIREr’s thinking, but I get how when you have side income coming in, taking some pressure off your portfolio, you become more insulated from risk and disasters and therefore don’t worry as much about it. That’s a problem if you’re a reader getting a sense that, “Well, none of these bloggers seem too worried about market crashes and health care costs and the like, so I guess I’m overthinking this.” NO! You’re not overthinking it. Others are just under-discussing it. ;-)
Tanja, I’ve been reading and following you guys for awhile, but this may be my favorite post. The honesty, integrity, and awareness are palpable. I hope your fellow bloggers take note. Deep gratitude!
Thanks so much for saying that, Jane! That means a ton. :-)
Wow…I would say that you hit a good nerve with your readers – and there is absolutely some valid opinions on both sides of this discussion. I have always been a middle of the road and try (emphasis on “try”) to see both sides of an argument kind of guy. You must apply a filter to anything that you read – dig deeper, put yourself in the pro and the con side of the position being presented. Rely on your intellect and experience as well.
Personally, I don’t see any of the bloggers that I read trying to get me hooked on “Kool-aid” so to speak. They are sharing their experiences and perspectives and most are doing a pretty good job of being transparent. Like loosing weight the recipe is pretty straight forward (burn more calories than the high nutritional calories you consume). I happen to be overweight and while I get the math I am struggling to put it into consistent practice. Same with having your finances under control (or being a bit further down the spectrum – FIRE) – earn as much as you can, spend less than that and wisely invest the difference. The pace (working out, or gap between income and spending) will determine when the goal is reached. Like most things – moderation (not starving yourself with food or spending) will make it easier to stick with a plan.
While there is some real math associated with who is in the middle class and who is not, I feel that there is also a psychological aspect to it as well. I’m one of the fortunate that made money that put me in the top 5%. I graduated from a good university, got a masters degree, was able to find and maintain employment in a good industry. I worked hard – too dang hard in retrospect with business travel every other week for the past 5+ years and 60-70 hour weeks for my entire career. I feel that that effort and dedication got me some of the compensation and perks but also came at a price. My struggle in life can best be summed up in one word “balance”. My hope is that in retirement I can find the balance that I haven’t had while employed. We never had a lot of money left at the end of the month so we didn’t feel “rich” though by most measures we would be considered that. I never call us middle class but I don’t feel “rich” either if that makes sense.
The FIRE blogs are an interesting read as I see glimpses of how people have 1) saved large portions of their income at various income levels, 2) turned a passion into money (side gigs), and 3) see the struggles and successes from people around the world as they participate to some level in the FIRE movement.
I’m quite a bit older than most on here. I have seen how the world has changed in many financial ways such as the move away from pensions, the tightening of the job market where salary increases are a rarity vs. an annual event, and the move to a self-service and automated world where good paying jobs are not as available to the broader workforce.
I think that this discussion is incredibly healthy and much needed.
I’m glad you think so! I agree, of course. :-) The psychological aspect of income is pretty much the entire thing here, and the fact that we appear to be wired to compare ourselves to those above us income-wise rather than below us is not going away. And so we have a world in which everyone thinks they’re middle class but only half actually are. Imagine, to use your weight example, if you went to Weight Watchers diligently each week, you ate according to your food plan, and then every week the folks around you lost a ton of weight while you lost only a tiny amount. You might come away feeling discouraged, and wondering what’s wrong with you. But it might just be that they happen to be able to burn three times as many calories as you, but they don’t know that because they only see their own situation and the folks around them who burn as many calories as they do. Now, if you know that they burn at a higher rate than you do, you might not get discouraged, because you’ll see that your situation is very different. I know I’m really forcing this metaphor, but this is the central problem I see with regard to income on blogs, and why I think it’s so critical that folks force themselves to stay in touch with larger economic trends. :-)
Yes! This is the stuff I was trying to get at on my Twitter feed. I think a lot of it is that for 99% of people “retirement” means, you don’t have to /can’t work anymore. But for some FIRE bloggers, they interpret it to mean “changing jobs.” And then they don’t think they have to tell you that they’re still working or making income because that’s their weird definition of retirement. It shouldn’t be FIRE/financially independent, retire early – it should be STANC/Saved! -Trying a New Career
This can be really misleading to people reading their blogs and trying to figure out the money issue.
One thing I’d amend slightly in your comment is that I don’t think most of the folks we’re talking about go into early retirement intending to have a new job, and some of the folks making good money off their blogs are doing so with very little work, in a model that looks a lot more like passive income. (Though certainly they built their blogs up in the past, which took active work.) I think it’s more that you get to ER, realize there are these opportunities, and it feels dumb to turn down easy money. I completely get that. But you just have to share that context with your readers.
I love this post so much! Part of the reason I stopped blogging was because I felt I was doing more harm than good. I really hope that bloggers read this (and especially the comments) so that they have a better understanding of their audience and the people they are (hopefully? supposedly?) trying to help.
The health/ableist stuff really annoys me. Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at 29 (which in no way could have been prevented and now requires me to be on daily medication for the rest of my life) has me terrified of future health costs and obtaining medical insurance. It’s the one thing that may keep me in the work force until I’m eligible for medicare, since I don’t know that I’ll feel confident to retire regardless of how much I’ve saved. It’s absolutely shocking to me that bloggers don’t discuss the rising cost of medical care as people age. How can this be ignored? And if they haven’t ignored it, how much are they budgeting at various ages?
The higher than average incomes during the accumulation phase is another annoyance and the main reason I avoid certain blogs (i.e. anything with “physician” or “doctor” in the name). I will NEVER see income anywhere in the realm of theirs so I find it very difficult to relate to most of what they’re saying. Along with that, bloggers need to discuss the income their spouse brings in. Being single, it’s hard enough to relate to one super high earner, but add a second and it’s nearly impossible.
I appreciate that you’re always open and honest about what has made it possible for you and Mark to retire early. And I really like that a lot of your posts focus on the emotional aspect, since everyone can relate to that on some level. It’s because of this that yours is one of the few blogs I consistently read.
Thanks for keeping the PF bloggers in line :)
I miss your writing! But I also stopped because I didn’t feel that continuing was going to be of any benefit to anyone who was reading it (or myself, frankly.)
I don’t know how one ever could plan for every contingency with theoretical medical costs.
Obviously people who have actual medical costs it’s going to be something that is given a higher priority.
People always say that Starbucks gives part timers insurance, but I can’t imagine they just give someone a job because they apply.
I think you’re right that you can’t plan for every possible contingency, but it’s like with a construction or production job. You build in a 10 or 20% contingency knowing some things will go over. I don’t see a lot of FIRE folks talking about that, instead just basing things on 25X and assuming level spending year to year. The answer to “you can’t plan for every contingency” isn’t to plan for none of them. ;-)
I 100% agree with all of that and it’s why I never felt okay identifying myself as early retired with my own particular set of circumstances, even though plenty of people could have my circumstances and call themselves retired if they were willing to live extremely inexpensively and “be flexible”. Heh.
My point was that it is logical and natural that health care is something that you focus on because of what you have to deal with in your own set of life circumstances.
My biggest financial mystery, by a massive margin, at the forefront of my mind is “will there be a spouse?” “Will there be kids?” and “how much will all of that cost in addition to my current expenses?”
That’s obviously not an unknown variable for you, so you’re not going to spend 5 seconds thinking about it. :)
I literally have no idea what my life will cost in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years regardless whether I’m healthy or unhealthy….so does that mean I chase as much money as I possibly can as quickly as possible or do I just live my life. try to make good choices and adapt how I spend my money (or time) to whatever roadblock I hit along the way? Hell, I might not even be around 30 years from now so it would be ultra depressing if I spent all this time generating income just because someday I might get to say that I have enough $$$ + a buffer to never work again.
Plenty of folks get unexpected/involuntary retirements and have to make do, so I don’t know why the folks who do so voluntarily aren’t also capable of adapting to whatever life throws their way.
Honestly, I’m much more interested in how people live their lives after they retire – how they are filling the massive amounts of new found free time and feeling like they live a purposeful and fulfilled life.
It would seem silly to me to call myself retired if I were to say become a part time radio board operator or a travel tour guide because it sounds fun and the money is irrelevant to my long term planning – If I introduced myself to people, I’d say I’m a radio board operator or a tour guide.
I think people should label themselves however they want, it just seems like if you tell people you’re retired and you don’t look the age, you’re also telling them that you are wealthy enough not to work. That seems like an odd way to socialize with peers knowing the struggles that most people in our are groups have. So I don’t know what it accomplishes if the “being early retired” isn’t a revenue generator for someone.
I thought that long term travel was that thing that full time work was getting in the way of, but I quickly learned that it wasn’t, at least not as a solo, and it’s been quite the struggle in figuring out what might be instead. I don’t regret taking a chance and trying, but it’s obviously turned into a frustrating experience and in hindsight would have been wiser to have maintained my previous income for the past year.
That’s a great point that we focus on particular things because they are part of our life and thinking. (Though, to be fair, I also write so much about health care because it is the biggest inflationary risk to anyone’s retirement and I do not see it talked about enough! That’s just for basic health insurance, not for the cost of being sick.)
I think the “retired” label matters a whole lot less if you’re not blogging about it and forced to adopt a label of one sort or another. I’ve found, for what it’s worth, that saying we’re retired when meeting people gets very different reactions depending on HOW we say it. If I say it sort of incredulously, like I can’t quite believe it myself (which is true!), I find that people aren’t put off my it, and start asking lots of interested questions. But again, the label isn’t the important part.
In your case, I hope you see the travel experiment as a great learning experience, and not as a frustration. You got to do something that very few people ever get to try, and you didn’t keep going for years and years thinking that long-term travel was your magic cure-all. What a gift! And now you have more perspective with which to make choices about your future, and can keep your eyes open for other things that spark your interest. That’s a pretty great spot to be in, and lets you keep options open for big future life changes that may come your way. :-)
Hi Kate! I’m bummed that you stopped blogging, but I totally understand. And you know I agree 100% on the health care stuff. It was definitely the thing that *almost* stopped us from pulling the trigger, because we both have pre-existing conditions that aren’t going away, and there’s still just so much uncertainty with everything health care related. Also agree on spouse income, particularly if one half of a couple is still working more or less full time. Thanks so much for your nice note — I’m touched that you’ve stuck around for so long! ;-)
Your post will get lots of interaction! I should read through the comments, but there are already too many. I dislike the ‘FIRE’ acronym. Especially the ‘RE’ part. The ‘FI’ part I’m totally behind (and have been for decades). I don’t remember all the terms in YMOYL book, but it was financial intelligence, financial integrity, …, and maybe for some lucky ones financial independence. In any case, you will be far better off in the future if you pay some attention to it. For me the true message was just being deliberate and conscious of the balance between the making and spending. Also, I am trying to think which ‘FIRE’ blog that I read where I feel like I’m purposely misled by the author. I can’t really think of one that crosses the line. It’s human nature to some extent, both them simplifying and glorifying & me being super skeptical and trying to overload my situation onto the details they release. But if I’m open to it, then I can learn something from them all.
I would subtract “purposely” because that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the great many blogs that believe they are being wholly transparent but aren’t, either because they aren’t divulging how additional income has changed their situation or because they don’t see their income as high when it is. The whole “everyone thinks they’re middle class” thing. That’s why I’m pushing so hard for folks to be more grounded in economic realities for more of the population because good intentions alone aren’t enough. It’s still entirely possible to mislead without intending to.
think for yourselves, blog readers! the key word is “independent” as always. pay a little attention to the man behind the curtain.
Of course. But it’s still bloggers’ responsibility to be wholly truthful.
I totally agree with the dislike of the “anyone can do FI approach”. It’s very tough to do unless a family makes at minimum the median income. However, there are millions in the upper middle class who are terrible with money and need to be awakened to important personal finance topics.
Something that always stuck with me was a comment from Tim Ferriss. He said you should write specifically for two people who can benefit the most from your work. It’s how he wrote the Four Hour Workweek. I really try to follow that approach and have mentioned a few times in my blog that my audience is middle to upper middle class earners. Being upfront and transparent is so important.
Both can absolutely be true. Not everyone can do this AND lots of people who could do this need to be shaken up. And articulating who you are writing for makes a ton of sense and is a great way to be transparent. Though it might be worth being a bit more specific as the research shows that nearly everyone considers him or herself to be “middle class,” making it a fairly useless descriptor. ;-)
I read some of the comments above and was bemused by some of the push back concerning your post. It’s very refreshing to have this level of candor in a blog post about money (something that Kayla Sloan brought up this week). It’s not unreasonable for you to bring up and acknowledge what A LOT of people grumble/talk about behind the scenes when discussing: F.I. extreme debt repayment, etc. This is one of my favorite posts from any blogger this year. Keep being candid and saying it like it is.
Thanks, Michelle! I appreciate that a ton. :-) I think the vast majority of bloggers don’t intend to deceive readers, but there are certain patterns that have very clearly emerged of unintentionally misleading or deceiving, like not acknowledging high income or just being super out of touch with what the majority of working folks are up against. It’s not the first time I’ve poked this tiger, and it won’t be the last. ;-)
Yesssssss this feisty post was everything I wanted it to be!
“…meaning the individual average is just above $40,000 a year. So if your household earns above these figures, you already earn more than average.” Even MY salary is just above average for the US, let alone the world. It’s quite easy right now to be in tune with what ACTUAL middle class means since I’m there, but I hope when I’m no longer in the middle class I don’t lose that sense of perspective. And while I hope never to inflate my spending (health spending excluded, ugh) above a middle class lifestyle (but wait, didn’t I just read $300k spending IS middle class???!? That means I’ll be able to call myself middle class forever!!! /sarcasm) becoming FI means I won’t truly be in the middle class then.
My grandmother was the healthiest woman in the world until all of a sudden she had cancer and we lost her way too young. There is no way to predict if something catastrophic will happen to you, and given the truly horrendous state of health insurance in this country, we’d all be wise to prepare for the catastrophic just in case.
Awwwww, thanks friend! :-) And there is nothing wrong with aspiring to leave the middle class. That’s what we’re all supposed to want, right?! That makes it especially weird to me that so few people want to acknowledge that they’ve left it. (Wasn’t that the whole point?!?!?) But you’re awesome for wanting to stay in touch with what most folks experience, particularly as a blogger. Sometimes you might have to work extra hard to stay out of the bubble that forms invisibly around you as you ascend upward in the income levels. It absolutely happened to us, and we had to force ourselves out of it. And I’m so sad about your grandma. But such a common story, unfortunately. Anyone not preparing for that possibility is not being realistic.
I acknowledge I totally used to be spammy on my blog as far as affiliates/ads. It was only after I went to FinCon that I realized I wasn’t thinking about, y’know, the people who were reading. :) I was so obsessed with making an income from my blog that I ignored the basics. We have a duty to think reader-first, especially when we share such personal details of our lives. I’ve made big changes to how I work and I’m much happier with the blog. Am I making money on it? Ha, no. I’m actually losing money on the blog, but hey, it’s a fun hobby.
Money pit bloggers unite! Hahaha. I applaud you for making those changes to your site and putting the reader first! I think a good rule is: If you would get annoyed by something on another site, don’t put it on your own. ;-)
Thanks for this! I love the blogs too, but there’s a lack of skin the game for some of them.
I work full time, and my wife stays at home with the kids. We meet the 4% rule technically, but I don’t consider us FI.
There’s a much-loved FI blogger who’s family is the same, and she says they are FI. They don’t need to figure out health insurance outside of an employer so there’s a big chunk of helpfulness missing there!
FYI when you say ” in which I encouraged readers not to listen to FI blogs, especially when it comes to the question of whether early retirement is sustainable” that link goes to your crypto post.
Ditto. That’s what I mentioned above. If a married couple has one partner declaring retirement, their total financial picture should at least in theory cover health insurance if the spouse were to stop working. Otherwise I’m going to be the FI police as well as retirement police and say they are just working in a different role. And that doesn’t even cover whether they have long term care insurance. Most people don’t think about that, but if they had a episode where health insurance and disability insurance covered things, they might still have long term care needs – even in their 30s. LTC costs about $100,000 per year. True FI needs to list what insurance a couple has to cover contingencies. My wife and I have an LTC policy even though we are both 20-30 years from 65.
Wow, good for you, Mike! I wrote about LTC insurance and other aspects of “traditional retirement” that are often overlooked on FIRE blogs here: https://ournextlife.com/2017/08/16/later-years/
I fixed the link — thanks! :-) And yeah, the lack of skin in the game is one of the core problems. Not that everyone has to have that skin in the game, but if you don’t, you must say so.
I respect lots of folks in the FI blog community. But I have extra bonus respect for ournextlife now because of this post.
Thanks so much for that. :-D
Fantastic post as always Tanja! I love that you have always accounted for your and Mark’s above average income and that your progress posts included more graphs showing your progress relative to where you goal was. You hit the nail on the head that when some bloggers share their savings percentage it makes those of us earning and saving less wonder why we even bother trying. It’s all relative! I make >$65k a year, but I’m not saving a ridiculous amount because I live alone in a one-bedroom apartment in a high cost of living area! I do love how positive and uplifting this community is, but some bloggers act like anyone can do what they are doing which just isn’t accurate.
Well said! I hope many bloggers will read your comment because that’s exactly it. You make a good living but saving a ton isn’t realistic for you, and therefore some of the narratives out there make you feel discouraged. That should not be happening! We should be all encouragement, with the occasional reality check. ;-)
Boom! The gauntlet has been thrown down. I love it.
I don’t really consider myself a FIRE blogger, but I too love the FIRE community. While I do like to write about finances, I’ve steered clear of writing about my personal financial situation for many of the reasons you outline in this post. It feels like an apples and oranges comparison and sometimes I’m the apple, while others I’m the orange.
As an avid reader of FIRE blogs and listener to FIRE podcasts, I think this is a great conversation to start and hope the community as a whole responds in kind.
Thanks for weighing in. If you feel inclined to share more of your own situation, I don’t think you should shy away from it — that’s what readers are most interested in anyway, and if you’re transparent about key facts, I bet you’ll find that there are folks out there in similar situations. :-)
Hm… I’m of two minds on this one. I can certainly see your points. The more transparency and cognizance of how a blogger’s situation relates to the world, the more valuable their message. However, I don’t think that’s owed to the reader. Each blogger is providing their unique perspective and adding something to the conversation. I get nuggets of value from different places and incorporate them into my journey as I see fit. I’m not trying to replicate one person’s journey (I can’t!) so I read what is offered and take away what is of value.
You can’t ever be all things to all people. Certainly, bloggers can always strive to be better at their craft and at transmitting their message. But I don’t think they’re necessarily doing a bad job. They’re just writing what they know. I enjoy reading many blogs and keep reading because I find it valuable. If I come across one that is particularly tone-deaf, I just don’t read it again.
As to owing the full picture to a reader,
If a blogger discusses savings and strategies for making the savings last, it is inaccurate not to also discuss how an income the blogger is receiving takes stress off of a portfolio and increases the chances of making the blogger’s portfolio last. It is really about not misleading a reader about how to manage a portfolio.
Well said! That’s exactly right. If you don’t want to talk about blog income, then you don’t have to cover the subjects it relates to. But if you want to talk about portfolio management, then you do owe the reader that transparency.
I agree 100% that no one should try to be all things to all people — that’s impossible anyway. But the “anyone can do this” message is pretty widespread, and that smacks of trying to be all things to all people instead of acknowledging who your particular blog’s advice is most applicable to.
Future health is a big unknown for everyone. There are no guarantees, so no matter what advice you give…”there are no guarantees”. You might get stage 3 cancer at 72, but how do you plan for that financially? It will financially break most people without health insurance, and for those with health insurance it can still break you.
I’m tempted to say there is no way to realistically plan for this except to conclude that you should FIRE with a built in buffer. How much buffer will you and I need? Nobody knows.
You’re right that there’s no way of knowing, but basing a plan on 25X assumes essentially no contingency and no rising costs over time. In any construction job, you build in a contingency of 10-20%. That’s a good start. ;-)
Sure, everyone should be more transparent. I had some income from blogging before I quit my full time job so it was always a part of the equation. I was counting on about $500/month from blogging income to make ER goes smoothly. However, it’s been much better than expected. I’ve always shared my income from blogging and I’d like to see the same from all bloggers.
I never liked the whole completely stop working after ER model. What the heck are you going to do for the next 50 years? Working a little bit is good whether you make money or not.
I think you’re a great example of blog income transparency. And I also think, given that you’re already a leader on that, you’d be perfectly positioned to lead the discussion on what that blog income does to your mindset compared to how you might feel if you truly were relying on your portfolio, having to buy health insurance on the exchange, etc. It’s possible that you’re more open to risk and are more optimistic generally because your blog income and your wife’s income provide you with a huge hedge — I’d find that a fascinating read, and I’m positive other readers would as well! :-D
I don’t really know the field but I would have thought that only a handfull of blogger can make a living out of it. (Same with youtuber, instagramer etc…) Some FIRE blogger don’t seem to care wether their blog is popular or not and the other most likely don’t have enough maket share in a overcrowed field. MMM being more the exception than the rule. Was I wrong? Is FIRE blogging the goose laying the golden egg?
“A living” changes when you’re not trying to save anymore, and you can earn relatively little from a blog and still have that cover a good chunk of expenses. :-)
While I certainly agree with what you’ve said, I actually find it to be very rare (although I probably follow blogs that tend to be more transparent, so it’s probably self-selecting). I think most blogs acknowledge that they make money off it and that they are “jobs.” I personally find actual numbers to be the most helpful – how much you make vs how much you’ve saved. And while you certainly don’t owe it to you readers, I would argue that as someone writing this post, you could be a lot more transparent. You say you only started saving for retirement 10 years before retiring and while you say you had a high income, we have no idea if you were making $100,000 or $1,000,000. A high income can have huge extremes that influence your ability to retire. Just food for thought that you might not be as transparent as you seem to think you are. And not trying to write this in a mean-spirited way! I think you guys are great role models and you bring up a lot of great points in all your posts, I just find it a little hard to try to compare what you were able to do with what I might be able to do if that makes sense.
I don’t think we are transparent about numbers, so I agree with you! ;-) I try hard to be transparent about the principles behind what we’re doing, but sharing our numbers isn’t on the table. That’s why I’ve stopped sharing certain partial numbers like savings percentage, because if I don’t tell you “of what,” then that number is meaningless.
I agree with much of what you’ve written, including almost all of the manifesto, so on this comment I will only focus on where I disagree or think the post is misleading. In other words, don’t take this as “I hate this post” 😉 Top notch as always.
I’m also going to write it BEFORE reading the 90 other comments, so some of this may be repetitive. I want to get my thoughts out without them being tainted by others’ opinions.
1) “nearly every retired FI blogger draws significant income from their blog, and therefore isn’t actually testing the approach to early retirement that they espouse” – how true is this though? Is there some sort of study that we can look at? An independent report? Or is this just your experience from talking to people? There are so many retired FIRE bloggers, and so few that give hard numbers about how much their blogs actually nets. “Nets” is important there – I don’t recall seeing a single blog income report yet that talks about the expenses, only the income and sources of income. Without knowing the net income, we can’t really assess whether the significant income really affects their retirement spending. A blog making $100,000/year is very successful, but if they are paying $35k for an assistant, $20k for work-related travel, $5000 for hosting/domain/plugins/etc, $5000 to build products, etc etc then maybe they aren’t actually making much. I don’t know, because nobody shares those numbers. (It’s a pet peeve)
2) I don’t think a person has to be living the 4% Rule to write about why and how it’s effective. There are plenty of FIREes who are living the 4% Rule and plenty of research to back it up. This goes to something I’m always saying – don’t just look at bloggers if you want to talk about FIRE. There are other places to find FIREes. I’m a personal fan of (and looonnnnngggggg time member of) the forums at early-retirement.org. If you want to find 1000s of non-blogger FIREes, some of whom have been living the 4% Rule for decades, start there.
3) If we are going to talk about middle income, we either need to decide on a standard definition or we need to recognize that we are allowed to use different definitions. For instance, while your definition makes sense, it’s not one I’ve ever seen used. I mostly use the Pew Research Center definition, which is that middle income is annual household income that is “two-thirds to double the national median” (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/). In that link they show middle income as $42k-$126k in 2014. Note, they show different median income than what you quoted for 2014 even though they are supposedly also using Census data. Annoying.
Anyway, my point is that by your definition I am above middle income, but by Pew’s I am at the high end of middle income. And if I talk to Financial Samurai I’m middle middle income for a HCOL US city 😉, which is where I currently live. So if we are all using different definitions, it’s hard to be on the same page about whether we have a high income – and how we should talk about it. I certainly “feel” like I am very well compensated with plenty of money to set aside without living at poverty-level spending, but by some definitions I’m just doing kind of okay and by others I am rolling in money. And that becomes important when we talk about writing for our audiences. If Physician on FIRE were making what I make and called himself high income, his audience would laugh him out of the room. If Erin (Reaching for FI) were making what I make and called herself middle income, her audience might break out the pitchforks. For my audience, I’m on the higher end but I’m also further into my career than the bulk of my readers, so I’m basically them in 5-15 years – and the military DEFINITELY considers ourselves middle income.
TL;DR (on point 3): I think it’s important that within our blogs, we identify what we mean by high, middle, and low (if applicable) income. It’s not as important that we standardize across the entire FIRE community.
Other than that, great post. I do think it’s vitally important that we are honest as bloggers – that doesn’t mean unadulterated openness, but it does mean we have a responsibility to say something if we aren’t living the life we espouse.
Now off to read the other comments!
Followups now that I’ve read through the comments:
– hahaha that both PoF and Erin already wrote in here! .
– There was somebody who mentioned not needing to worry about healthcare because he isn’t a US citizen. It’s the same for me as a US military member – if I end up retiring from the military, I will have exceedingly cheap healthcare – possibly as low as $24/mo (in 2018 dollars). And my healthcare is free right now. So while I am VERY aware that health is an issue (multiple family members who didn’t make it to 50, thanks cancer!) healthcare is not something I write about very much. Maybe once I retire, or if I don’t end up retiring from the military. It’s just not an issue for me right now (and I’m very grateful for that!), to the point where I literally don’t even know how civilian healthcare works much less what it costs. Any post I write on it would be pretty…useless.
Your blog title makes it enormously clear who you’re writing for, so I don’t think you have to do anything clunky like disclaim in every post that you have health care and a pension for life. I think it’s most relevant in your case if you comment elsewhere or speak to non-military audiences that you keep those facts in your mind and speak accordingly. Because those are an important part of your context! It doesn’t mean you have to write about health care, but at times you may need to remind folks that it’s not something you have to worry about the same way. ;-)
I try to remember that, and also comment about how extraordinarily awesome it is that I don’t have to worry the same way!
And you do a great job. :-)
Thanks! :-) 1. It’s a small sample size, so there’s no independent report. ;-) I know from talking to folks that many/most are using blog income to replace what they would have pulled out of their portfolios. Your point about expenses and such is valid, but I’d skipped right to the bottom line in asking the question, so feel comfortable in my assertion. And again, it’s not a bad thing! It just colors the advice they then offer, and readers deserve to know that. 2. You’re right to look beyond bloggers! The point with the 4% rule generally is really more about risk tolerance. And I think that if you plan one way but then get an influx of income that takes all the stress off your portfolio, you can’t help but be more optimistic and perhaps to embrace taking more financial risk, because you now have a much bigger safety net. Readers deserve to know this. 3. You get at a larger point which is that no one agrees on what middle class means. So in that case, why do we consider that an acceptable descriptor of income? Given the wide range of interpretations of what it means, it’s essentially meaningless, and therefore it’s on bloggers to be more specific. I vote percentiles. ;-)
Thank you for REALLY outlining what “middle class” is for the United States. Its frustrating as all get out to hear somebody say they have a household income of 6 figures and are “middle class folks” – they can certainly live a moderate middle class lifestyle, but they’re doing it on a more than middle class income. I’ve learned a ton in the short 3 and a half months I’ve been in the FIRE world, mostly to hopefully get my husband and I on track for a normal retirement since we are late to the game with our income level. I appreciate everything I read from bloggers and hear on podcasts, but the dollar amounts and saving percentages are sometimes hard to fathom.
Thanks for chiming in, Heather! You point out what strange dissonance we sometimes create in the community by overusing the amorphous “middle class” label. We can do better and be more specific without giving away info that may feel too private.
I agree with your point on transparency. I don’t think any blogs I’ve read have hidden details but it’s hard to get a complete picture unless you read many posts over time. I like reading monthly expenses and net worth updates but I don’t find them applicable or helpful on their own. Maybe over time they’re helpful. Or with some context to someone’s situation. Where I do think it’s helpful is if you’re looking to reduce, say your grocery bill, look at posts where someone tackled that, how they did it and the end result is helpful. Or maybe scoping out living costs in a different area or different lifestyle (like homesteading). Or looking at how someone FIRE’s and how they generate income sources.
I’ve noticed more posts on mistakes lately but I think we need to see a lot more. See the full picture so to speak.
Anyway, great post!
Thank you! And I agree that posts on mistakes are great! I bet we’d all love to see more of those, especially if they include more acknowledgment of folks’ safety nets and backstops that made sure those mistakes didn’t turn into financial ruin. Those are important pieces of the puzzle, too!
First things first, I don’t feel that any bloggers or any other media owe me anything. I know that what is being presented on FIRE blogs is not real. It is only the bloggers representation of reality. However, the ideas and stories may relate to my wife and I’s personal situation. In fact, ONL has played a big role in our FIRE life. Your scenario is nearly identical to ours. We are basically the same age, have the same portfolio percentages and have identical ideas on market risks. Reading your blog was a great confidence boost as you made nearly the same decisions we have. You are like our FIRE twins. With that being said, if I found out that you are now earning half of your expenses in blog and other income, I wouldn’t be hurt. If I found out that you didn’t live in the mountains outside of Reno, I would not feel outraged (other than you live outside of Reno). I view this community of FIRE bloggers as a collection of lighthouses in the rocky waters of personal finance. I don’t expect them to tell me how to steer the ship.
To answer your question Tanja… The things I want more of are “What do you do after FIRE”. We’ve struggled with this question so much, we’ve postponed the RE part. It’s a genuine fear but no one really talks about it. Also, the term privilege gets thrown around a lot. Not all who are FI have had the privilege you talk of. Instead of just acknowledging it, as a community, we should do something about it. I’m not sure what that looks like but that can be a topic of discussion as well.
PS, Thank you to all FIRE bloggers for your thoughts (good and bad).
Thanks for chiming in — that’s awesome to know this blog has been helpful to you! Hooray, FIRE twins. :-) Though I’m surprised that it wouldn’t be weird to you if you found out we were lying about some big thing. That would, at the very least, feel icky to me. ;-) I do see more people talking about what to do after ER, so I’m hopeful that will continue to grow as a topic of discussion. And on privilege, I couldn’t agree more that we as a community should be doing more with the privilege we have (even if we didn’t have it at the outset — anyone who is FI for sure has it now!) to benefit others. I would be thrilled to see more conversations about that.
I can see feeling icky but I have no expectation of truth on blogs that I get to consume for free. Maybe it’s my cynical side showing through but there are too many opportunities for people to not be truthful so its hard for me to assume that they are. I would be disappointed but not surprised.
BTW, incredible job responding to all the comments. You should include that in the manifesto.
Thanks again and keep on keeping on.
This is why I don’t blog about FI. I thought about it, but I don’t think my experiences are widely applicable. Find wealthy relative to pay for a fancy education through law school, show up for work every day, don’t have any dependents, try not to buy stupid stuff – not very inspirational content.
I’m here for your tough love about health care costs and emergencies. Also for the conversations about living simply (but not monastically) by focusing on relationships and experiences. I think those messages are universal.
If you feel truly inspired to blog, don’t let those details stop you! I don’t think our story is especially fascinating either, but I can still share our thought processes along the way. ;-) And yeah, I’m going to stay a broken record on the health care stuff because I can’t help it. Hahaha.
Found your blog shortly before your liberation date and have devoured its contents (from its all-lower-case beginnings to your current navigating-newfound-freedom present) over the last six months. I still have a way to go before I’m truly free, but I’m getting closer each and every day! 🙂
I believe that critical thinking and reading are so important in the FIRE blogosphere. For those who have spent some time here and have worked hard to educate ourselves on the topic of achieiving financial freedom (maybe starting with some casual book or blog reading that ignites a mild obsession), it’s often clear that the answers aren’t always as simple and as straightforward as they are presented by their authors. The reader must weigh the merit of the ideas presented based on facts and quality research, rather than just by the sometimes-sensational headlines. A next step might be to perform your own “sniff test” for the options offered as a part for your own personal financial and life plans. Some ideas pass the test, while others don’t. Go back for more of what flowers beautifully, smells pleasant, and resonates for your journey. Leave behind what starts to remind you of a corpse flower.
The written clues are often right in front of the discerning reader to reveal that a blogger’s “message” and “reality” aren’t congruent or that what worked for the author may not fit with your specific needs. However, a novice in this realm may not as easily recognize the mismatched information or have learned enough yet to know how to reconcile the conflicting information for themselves. I think you’re raising a call to action for this community of writers to “do no harm” to the readers through honesty about income streams, sharing HOW AND WHY authors’ opinions have evolved over time, and expressing vulnerability and fallibility for lessons learned the hard way.
I really appreciate your willingness to challenge your peers in this space to pause, step back, and maybe think differently about something they didn’t notice was happening at all!
Here’s your virtual medal! :-D I’m touched that you read all of it — that’s a biiiiig undertaking!
And I could not love and agree with your comment more! It truly is “do no harm,” especially for those who haven’t yet found all the landmines or figured out the right questions to be asking themselves about any blog content. And even for those who have been around a while and have developed a good BS detector, sometimes we still see things within a certain bubble that may or may not be helping us. Remembering to look outside the bubble is helpful and important, too. And your last point is so important — oftentimes we don’t notice this stuff. But I believe the community is smart and capable and that we collectively can level up on this stuff. ;-)
Preach It, Sister! Spot on.
Thanks, Fritz! :-)
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! (I don’t know if you read the comments, but I had to get that out).
This is the “feisty” type of article that I love reading. It makes me feel like I can accomplish my financial goals, even though it might not be as effortless/simple as bloggers make it.
Oh you bet I read the comments! ;-) Comment on all of them, too — though sometimes I’m slow if there are a lot. Hahaha. And your comment makes such a great point — that sometimes in an effort to make things seem achievable, we actually discourage folks if they look at their own finances and don’t feel they can do the same thing the blogger did. But you took the right lesson from it — not every step in the journey will be fast or easy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Just focus on doing it your way, not someone else’s. ;-)
Hey Tanja! Thanks for the post, as always! My response is a quasi-disagreement, not because I don’t think you’re right, but because maybe you’re not giving yourself (and other bloggers – not one myself), enough credit or flexibility. I think the onus is in our hands as readers, personally. Every reader has the freedom of choice to read, take-in, analyze, consider and choose to apply or not apply the lessons from a FIRE blog. I work in healthcare, and I used to be a bedside hospital nurse, and we still struggle with patients being part of their own health outcomes, and being active participants in their care. I think it’s similar here (patients=readers, somehow). It’s almost like you’re letting the readers off the hook for their own “responsibility” in deciding if a blog, a person, or a post is applicable to them and if they want to apply it. I think you, as bloggers, are amazing for just taking the time to share your journey and lessons and perspectives, and the rest is up to us (readers) to make good, well-informed decisions. Maybe I’m naive in thinking it’s the readers who are making poor choices about who and how much they believe or are swayed??? Totally open to a different perspective! Or maybe it’s time for a READER MANIFESTO!
I wrote in here that it IS the reader’s responsibility to think stuff through for themselves, so I agree with you! But I think that the ways that bloggers sometimes mislead readers are subtle enough (and, frankly, are generally invisible to the blogger! I don’t believe many bloggers are attempting to be deceptive!) that readers might not realize that they need to question something. Like if a blogger genuinely believes they earn a middle class income because the data tell us that even the 1% see themselves as middle class, even when the reality is that they are a high earner, that’s not deliberate deception, but it happens all the time. To use your patient metaphor, it’s up to the reader to take an active role in their finances, but at a certain point you have to trust that what you’re being told is on the level. If patients were constantly trying to determine if doctors were telling the truth, navigating our health care system would be even more impossible than it already is. ;-)
Oh, and PLEASE WRITE THAT READER MANIFESTO!!! :-D
I am happy to see that unmasking yourself has not made you shy away from controversial topics! I am also happy you chose this topic since a lot of it needed to be said in a public way even if it may not win you new blogging friends. Here here for more honesty on the internet and not just FI blogs.
As a non blogger the biggest thing on FIRE blogs that makes me roll my eyes is hearing it was faster and easier to get to the finish than they expected with no acknowledgement of the advantages they had in making it easier, such as staying gainfully employed with big company sponsored cheap health insurance during the accumulation phase. The first time my husband was downsized in 2008 we discovered that adding COBRA payments of $1200 per month while halving our income was financially devastating. The Great Recession dried up employment opportunities in our area. Finding a new job came with a major pay cut, and being the newest hire meant the first one downsized a year later and more unemployment. A few years of treading water employment wise pushed out any FI plans by even more years. Years it is hard to stay motivated. The supposedly easy math chart in many blogs always shows a positive trend up, up, up instead of the more realistic some up years and some down of both market returns and contributions which makes the down years feel even worse when you don’t see enough examples of living through tough times. Ultimately I’m on the fence though. If blogs didn’t make it seem easy I may not have felt encouraged enough that it might be possible to try that path for myself.
Hahahaaha. Indeed it hasn’t! ;-) I think I’ve probably been guilty of saying what you called out here, and I appreciate you mentioning that pet peeve. My intent in saying that the saving went faster is more to talk about how motivating it is to see your savings climb, and thus you feel more inspired to cut other unnecessary expenses, which further accelerates the pace. But you’re right that that’s built on having a steady job for many years with solid benefits and health insurance and not having faced the ups and downs that you guys did. I hope you know how much I admire you for sticking with the vision through all of that instead of just throwing up your hands! But I also can and will do better. Thanks!
You have been pretty open about advantages you had and that life isn’t always perfect that make me love your writing so much. I’m talking Reader Cases or The Math Is So Easy posts that often come with a table showing a net worth that will consistently go up up up. Many times there is a statement that it will probably be faster but no balancing statement that it could be much slower because Life Happens. After experiencing first hand how demoralizing setbacks feel at the time it makes me scared of setting up Readers with some maybe unrealistic expectations that life will never laugh at their plans. Just throwing up your hands and giving up is very tempting! I’m just too stubborn…
Our setbacks were fortunately not permanent so I have experienced the motivating effects you describe and think that is an important point too. It very well could be faster. But don’t give up if it isn’t. The work we put in before the setback put us in a better place to handle them and get back on track later than if we had done nothing and I am forever grateful for that.
That makes a ton of sense. And you’re giving me ideas! :-) It’s such a great point that the work you did toward FI put you in a better spot to handle the setbacks and to bounce back, and I think that’s just as important a lesson as any of the ones we tout here. Even if things don’t go to plan, you’re still better off than you would have been staying your original course. <3
Great post! To me your post is distilled down to a simple mantra:
> Practice what you preach – and if you aren’t, explain why.
Authenticity shines through in good writing. People might not be able to point to exactly why they trust a specific writer or blogger, but more often than not it’s because they’re transparent and able to connect with their readers – and on more than just numbers.
I think that’s good advice for any creator, FIRE blog or otherwise. Be authentic, be genuine and be transparent – both about what you know and what you don’t know.
I think that’s right, but I’d also add: “And get out of your bubble.” ;-) I think essentially all of the deceptive stuff is not deliberate, but is just a factor of losing touch with the reality that most people face, instead of just looking at those right around you. Getting out of the bubble is good for everyone. :-)
I read the post AND 107 comments before writing this,
Great post today!
I follow several blogs and comment here often. Never here do I feel like I am attending a real estate seminar where the teacher espousing real estate investing is actually making ALL his money teaching the class. Yes transparency is important but I never read a FIRE blog and say “that’s how I should do it”. We are all unique, the advice in the community should be amalgamated by readers into their own personal approach. There is NO set formula to FIRE. There are 1000 “retirement calculators”. They all yield different results. Everyone’s FIRE journey is unique.
The bottom line is if people follow blogs HOPING to receive THE SECRET then they are not learning the critical skills to serving themselves to be as financially literate and informed about their own financial futures as possible.
Personally I do think that FIRE isn’t for everyone, a comment above was spot on, in that while the reader said she couldn’t retire early, when she did at 65 she would be so much more better off if she hadn’t learned to make better decisions about her financial health. To me THAT is how people should approach what they read on FiRE blogs. Tania you know I DESPISE the message that in order to FIRE one must be supper frugal (I call it the shelter in place mentality) because I feel that advice A) isn’t for everyone and B) can deny people certain joys and create to much FOMO anxiety. Balance LIVING NOW with planning for your future. You might be fortunate to quit at 40 and never work again or you just might retire a little better off at 65. Both are great outcomes gained through better financial literacy.
Readers use these blogs for that goal and I feel the information you collect will serve you much better.
Wow, impressive you read so many! I’m on day 3 of responding, so that tells you something. ;-) I agree completely that any steps people take after reading FIRE blogs are ultimately a positive, and even if folks see what FIRE bloggers do and don’t believe it’s for them, perhaps they’ll still end up making some changes that will give them security later in life. That’s wonderful. If anything, I think we sometimes can discourage folks, though, and that’s obviously unintentional, but no small thing. Given that you read the comments preceding yours, I know you saw several good examples of that!
Wow, seems like a lot of the bloggers are a bit defensive about this post, whereas a lot of the nonbloggers seem to be agreeing. Maybe it’s confirmation bias on my part.
Really good post that had helped me crystallize some kind of similar thoughts I’ve had for a while that have been pretty disjointed.
That is also my sense, though quite a few bloggers did chime in to agree! Glad the post resonated with you. :-)
Absolutely love your blog! To add my voice to the comments/feedback: I would love the FIRE community to acknolwedge that not everyone lives in America. Or even in a first world country. And that there are a lot of us who get a lot less for free and have much fewer safety nets than first worlders do. Thanks for another great and thought provoking post :)
Thanks so much for that addition, Lindsay! If you could share any more specifics of ways we could be more sensitive and inclusive, I’d appreciate that!
This. This. And ALL of this!
I completely agree, more transparency in the number would be helpful, especially for judging which situations relate to mine and whether something might work for me. I also inderunder the need for privacy and security, I would be scared as hell to put lots of data out there, and also probably a bit embarrassed too. The question is: what metrics could be put out there that would help readers assess the bloggers background, situation, relevance to the reader, etc. while also respecting the bloggers privacy and desire for security? Perhaps you could lead the charge to creating a standard that personal finance bloggers could use, or atleast propose a sets of metrics, given your significant role in the personal finance blogging community.
Probably obviously, we share your concern, and privacy is part of why we don’t share numbers. It’s a super interesting idea of creating a set of info that any blogger could use to be transparent about their numbers without giving it all away. If you share too many ranges, you’ve sort of given it away anyway because people can extrapolate. I’ll give it more thought! (Which is not to say that anyone would use it, but I could put it out there.) ;-)
I actually really prefer the multiples numbers (i.e. “We Saved 2x this year” where X is your annual expenses) rather than the % because this seems to better account for major differences in cost of living. It also helps people give an idea of what a real cushion might be. So for example “Many advice would suggest 25x for savings but because we live in HCOL land and our house is located in a hurricane-risk area, we are working towards 30x to account for potential large deductables or additional repair costs”
These are made up examples, but my point is that it makes more sense to me to see things in terms of annual exenses than in terms of income. Tanja, I think you mentioned this once in a post about retirement calculators online and maybe that’s where the idea struck me. What we need isn’t some magical income number, what we really need is money to live on and a certain multiple of how we live. maybe i’m being overly simple, but i’m trying to think of it this way now since it feels more positive in my head.
I don’t think you’re being overly simple with that thinking! What we spend really is the key driver of everything in retirement planning, but virtually no retirement calculators online account for that, perhaps in part because most people don’t know what they spend.
Wow! This was quite a post.
While I love personal finance blogs I have been pretty sceptical of the FIRE movement.
Numbers being one thing, I also think most humans will try to do something with their time. A lot of those activities can be money generating or money consuming.
If it is money generating, then as you rightly pointed out, the FIRE bloggers have a responsibility to their readers to inform them how their retired life is not exactly like what they had forecast.
If those activities are money consuming, like travel, a lot of the best expenses might not have been accounted for and then again early retirement might not remain a permanent state.
Either way, if a blogger is looking to be personally inspirational through a FIRE blog, it is their responsibility to be absolutely honest.
Great way of putting it. Just out of curiosity, what has your skepticism been based on? ;-)
This is a great summary. I especialy think knowing the parameters (location, kids, parental help, etc.) and income of bloggers gives the real insight into their journey.
On a side note, I think it’s odd how wrapped up people can get about the term “middle class.” There is a cultural habit in the US of applying middle class too broadly, both on the upper end and lower end of the scale. If people wanted to be more accurate, they would use better terms like “working class”, “mass affluent”, etc. But there is a general preference to be considered middle class.
It’s a bit like finding out someone is “retired.” You don’t really know what they mean until you understand their situation better.
Oh my gosh, YES. “Middle class” is about the least helpful descriptor for exactly the reasons you said. Everyone aspires to be rich but then no one actually thinks of him or herself as rich once they get there. So bizarre. So we need more info and context.
THANK YOU for this post. I think this is why the new FrugalWoods book, and the way their high incomes (even in grad school) were downplayed and obfuscated so that the book has a singular focus on frugality, has rubbed people the wrong way.
I saw JD roth’s review of it over on https://www.getrichslowly.org/ but haven’t seen very many others where folks mention the lack of income numbers “rubbing people the wrong way”. Who is being bothered by this? Amazon reviewers?
The book doesn’t say “here is the roadmap to do what we did” on it, it’s a personal story. The IRP are in full effect once again. People can’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s crucify MMM while we are at it for making $400k on his blog despite the fact that he walks the walk on only living on $30k per year – https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2017/05/19/2016-spending/
Liz doesn’t even say they are “retired,” she just says they are FI. (Though I’m guessing some of the publicity materials for the book might lean heavily on the retired message.)
This post certainly wasn’t meant to pick on Liz, who is a good friend. I read the book and felt she was quite clear about their advantages, but I think we can all always do better about giving the full picture of our context.
Is there anybody out there that lives using the 4% rule without any side hustle or other income???
Yes. I recommend asking that question over in the forums at early-retirement.org to get LOTS of answers.
Great tip! Thanks for adding that!
There are! But they mostly aren’t blogging about it. ;-)
There’s not much risk in ‘retiring early’ if the blog makes effectively as much or more than your day job that you retired from. Btw, great article.
Thanks, Peter! :-) For what it’s worth, I don’t know anyone in the FIRE community at least who’s making as much off their blog as their old high income job paid, but I know plenty who are making more than enough to cover annual expenses.
I agree 100%. That being said, I think a lot of folks who reach FI and plan on living off of the 4% rule then have the freedom to pursue other work with more energy than they did before. Whether it’s individual consulting or gig-economy or having more time to write / promote their blog. I think it’s gonna be hard to have heard a blogger that just lives 4% rule strictly with their nest egg at 25x.
Speaking of what FI blogs owe their readers – I do get skeptical of FI blogs that are trying to sell courses on “how to get out of debt” and “how to invest”. Thanks but no thanks that stuff is already out there for free. (the following is a generalization to be clear)
Just tell me your damn story. I don’t want to see the pop up modal asking me to sign up for your mailing list, I don’t need to hear your review of Mint or Personal Capital or Betterment. I see you trying to make that affiliate income and ad revenue, but everyone is already doing that, with all of the same opinions. This is your story, it shouldn’t be a copy pasta of things that others have been saying for years. You don’t need to focus on making the perfect pin so that you get the optimized traffic from pinterest. I don’t want to hear about how I can sign up for all these services to promote my blog better. Inspire, don’t market.
More good stories, less snake oil.
Amen, brother. (Though for you and everyone reading this response, I don’t push anything in my newsletter. Just in case you were wondering.) ;-)
You’re completely right that reaching FI is a lot different from dreaming of it, and we’re a great example of getting here and then going, “Hey wait! There’s stuff out there that we want to be a part of!” We don’t care about the money, but we also won’t turn it down. ;-) And that’s why we’re side hustling a bit this year, because we still have plenty to contribute and now have the freedom to do it on our own terms. And I commit to continue being transparent about that and what it means for both our finances and for our mindset and what I espouse here.
I was “put off” by a blog recently. It told of the blogger telling a person working a fast food job(taco) to save ten percent. Then seemingly congratulating themselves for getting him on the road to retirement.
I whole heartily disagreed. I think that at eighteen, his best investment is in himself. Either as a formal education, or getting trained in a trade or craft.
I don’t think that earning money at a minimum wage job will ever allow the young man to pay bills, living expenses, and ever save for retirement, let alone fire. Ten percent of very little is still very little.
But, on the other hand, encouraging him to get educated for a much better job, which would improve his life chances, would help him quadruple, or more, his hourly money and give him a shot a Fire.
I feel that telling someone to simply save ten percent, when they are making poverty wages, simply wreaks of being out of touch. This seemed blatant to me. But comments made under the post showed how out of touch even the readers were. They did not see anything wrong with the advise dispensed.
It seemed like perfect timing when I saw this blog post.
You are calling out such FI bloggers and I believe that it needed to be done.
Wow, out of touch indeed. That’s pretty shocking. I’m so glad that you raised the reader piece, because I think that’s important. While we all know it’s a reader’s job to use critical thinking when reading blogs (and everything!), there is a lot of echo chamber stuff happening. And that’s part of why I think it’s on bloggers to do better. If you’re nominating yourself to be a voice for this stuff, that comes with some responsibility. And I agree wholeheartedly with you that part of that responsibility is not to get out of touch with economic reality.
I don’t have much to add (others have made some really good points) other than to say that the title of this post seems clickbait-y. Particularly, the use of words “owe” and “manifesto” in the title bothered me. In my mind, these types of sensational posts are the bigger problem in the FIRE blogging world (and blogging world in general). I lump this post in with Financial Samurai’s 300k middle class post earlier this week. Great for views, but not much else.
Sensational *headlines* are pretty much the norm these days online with most media operations. Of course this has been standard with newspapers for many, many years. I guess we can debate whether this attracts or drives away readers over the long term. But to be honest it doesn’t take me very long to figure out if any particular blogger has substance beyond the style.
As far as FS and ONL, they back up their headlines with more than just 100% opinion. Their arguments are constructed logically and with supporting evidence.
Of course some (many? most?) of their assumptions and conclusions can be debated. But isn’t that why we read them in the first place? To challenge our status quo thinking? To get us out of our comfort zone? To get out of the typical social media echo chamber of like-minded people?
I would rather read a sensational headline backed up by some coherent arguments (and clearly some personal time investment) than just about every other available opinion source on the internet these days.
Thanks for this comment, Josh! I work hard to research what I’m writing about and not go entirely off opinion, so I’m glad that comes through. :-)
You don’t like my title. Got it.
There is the hard math (Trinity Study) and then there is the personal story of the FIRE blogger. Don’t confuse the two. All the transparency in the world won’t do anything to undermine the hard math that is the foundation of everything that FIRE is based on.
Just because Joe Blogger made it work on a 3.85% withdrawal rate doesn’t mean YOU will make it on 3%. You could fail because you got cancer or you got sued or you children needed help. Likewise, just because Suzie Blogger is pulling in $5k per month from her blog doesn’t mean YOU can’t make it on a straight-up 4% withdrawal rate per the Trinity Study.
The future is unknown and your personal life WILL BE different than the bloggers’. Don’t try to compare the two.
I’m not confused. The Trinity Study looks at the past. Any discussion of the relevance of the 4% rule involves a GUESS about the future. Plenty of very smart analysts think the 4% rule will hold up in the future, and plenty of other equally smart analysts think it will not. Where you fall on it will be hugely impacted by emotion, in this case by your risk tolerance, which is an almost entirely emotional thing. And risk tolerance is bound to be impacted by plenty of factors, not the least of which is if you have some massive hedge like side income bolstering your portfolio. You owe it readers to disclose that income so they can understand that you might be more optimistic or open to risk than they would be without that advantage.
There needs to be a balance between “not everyone can reach FI because of varying incomes” and “everyone can do FI”. A big problem with our society is the “oh that seems like it’s for people that X and people who Y and people who already had Z paid off” and they don’t bother making ANY changes, when a few changes may not get them to FI in 10 years, but it may help them stop living paycheck to paycheck and eliminate debt. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
I couldn’t agree more, and I think it’s a really hard balance to strike. I firmly believe we should leave it open to people to decide for themselves rather than excluding anyone, but to do that, we have to give folks the full picture so they can figure out if a particular model would work for them.
One thing that I don’t see being addressed is the loss of SS income when one spouse dies. There is the reality that expenses do not drop that much (even though some people think they do) and that the spouse left behind will end up with a lower quality of life having to share housing-etc. In old age, many of the household bills are fixed and shared between 2 people.
Also if there is a health crisis with one spouse-which often happens especially with a couple that is 10+ years apart in age, the ill spouse can use up quite a bit of money leaving the other spouse with little funds to take care of themselves at the end of their life. I have witnessed this with my relatives.
Personally, we are not relying on or expecting SS income because of these factors. Also I do think boredom and loss of purpose is a bigger issue than most people are willing to admit. And personally, I would not consider living in a foreign country in old age if I had lived in the US all my life. So geographical arbitrage is not an option for most people.
That’s a great point, Jan. I think there’s a heavy bias in the community right now in favor of not counting on Social Security (that’s us all the way), and therefore I think pretty much all SS topics are neglected. And this is an important one for folks who will rely on SS, which is actually quite a few non-blogger FIRE folks. Appreciate you raising it! And I appreciate as well that you called out that the “you can always move overseas where it’s cheaper” argument is a bit lazy and not inclusive. Thanks for chiming in!
“Drop the Health Arrogance and Ableist Bias”
YES! This point is so important and resonates with me because I experienced this first hand. I was diagnosed with cancer at 40 and was in disbelief because I did all the “right things” in order to be healthy. Sometimes genetics aren’t on your side. Sometimes idiopathic disease pops up. Health can a wily beast, because your habits do affect it, but so much of it is out of our control. That’s why people have insurance – to insure against an unexpected health event.
Like so many of your readers, my husband and I are working toward financial independence. Our reasoning is not to stop working, but to have more flexibility to pursue other creative interests. As we work toward that end, healthcare is an important deciding factor in our next move. Because, without proper care and coverage, one unexpected illness could wipe out a lifetime of savings in the blink of an eye. I was fortunate enough to have great insurance coverage when I got sick, so it didn’t impact our finances as much as it could have. To put the cost in perspective though, my insurance company paid well into six-figures for my care.
Oh my gosh, that sounds terrifying! I hope that you’re in the clear now! I wish more bloggers talked about the fact that health care expenses are still the leading cost of bankruptcy… for people WITH HEALTH INSURANCE. I think there’s a big assumption that as long as you have insurance, you’re good, and that’s sadly not true. All of which is to say, I completely agree with you and wish people would discuss this stuff more!
I’m creating a PF blog to discuss said subject.
Really have enjoyed reading this blog, but something about this post troubles me and I’m not entirely sure why. In reading through the comments and the references in the comments to the frugalwoods misleading or not misleading middle class income hubbub (never looked at that site, but was sucked into reading the linked never-ending MM debate), this seems to be a pretty direct response to that debate. Maybe it is that this site doesn’t share exact income numbers either. I don’t think anyone who does a retirement blog “owes” that to readers and wouldn’t expect anyone to share their private financial information. But this seems to suggest there is some obligation in that direction, e.g., whether your income falls within defined middle or high income standards, which begs the question of how far the obligation goes and whether if you fall short of absolute full disclosure you get to attack those who fall short of where you decide the line should be or doesn’t share the same definition of middle class. That said, there does seem to be an intentionally misleading for profit purposes aspect of the frugalwoods income representations and the same is certainly not true here. I think what really bothers me about the announcement of the manifesto is (i) it seems a bit presumptuous to decide that you have the unilateral right to set industry standards when you are in the industry, and (ii) that the post follows a post two days ago (that referenced this coming feisty post) disclosing that Tanja and Mark are working enough to cover all their expenses for the year. At the time, I thought that was surprising given the site story about getting financially prepared for the big early “retirement” date. Now I can’t help wondering whether that disclosure wasn’t a bit of we better get this out there before we get on the soapbox with a manifesto that requires disclosure about whether there is ongoing active income so as not to mislead.
You make several excellent points. I think Tanja and Mark have been helpful and I enjoy their perspectives. When I started following them and others I was always frustrated that there were lots of theories and best practices but few (if any) tangible numbers but given their reasons for not sharing them I could understand even if without them it felt like an important part of the puzzle (in order to get a full picture to see if it was applicable to me) was missing.
What DOES surprise me is that the vast majority of FIRE bloggers who blog from the OTHER SIDE of FIRE, aren’t RETIRED and because it’s not their old job they get to classify it as a “Side Hustle”. I call BS on that. I retired from my 30 years of W2 work recently at 52. Inevitably I will consult and do project and board work in my former industry. When that happens I will no longer be retired – I will be working and it isn’t a “side hustle” at that point I will either be un-retired or semi-retired but in no way will I still FULLY RETIRED (that’s the stage when only YOU are paying yourself.
That’s why I no longer think of FI and RE as the acronym. It should be “Freedom In Selecting How You Spend Most Everyday Living Life Without Having Any Material Money Issues
FISHY SMELL WHAMMI
Again I like the thought provoking nature of this blog but I do not consider Tanja and Mark “retired” living off of their assets, they have transitioned away from W2 work to something else they enjoy KNOWING they are safe (financially to do so). FISHY SMELL WHAMMI. It’s what everyone should aspire to on their way to NOT WORKING and relying solely on their assets to live off of
Tanja we can do a guest piece on this new acronym. Glad to help out in anyway
Oh hello, officer. I didn’t realize you were undercover for the Internet Retirement Police. My bad.
Sorry, but you don’t get to decide if we’re retired. We get to decide that. And if I do one paid speaking gig that I probably would have done for free anyway because I love speaking, and one side passion project that is the fulfillment of a life dream and that I couldn’t have done in my career? Yep, still retired. If I was 70 instead of 38, we wouldn’t be having this ridiculous debate.
I agree it WOULD be presumptuous to claim that I get to codify community standards! The only thing I can do is put my thoughts out there and let folks decide how they want to take it. Some might change a bit of what they’re doing, others won’t and both are their right. Regarding Monday’s post discussing our side hustle year, this isn’t a new idea for us, and it’s something I’ve touched on multiple times before, including when we were still working. Here’s one example, from July 2016: https://ournextlife.com/2016/07/18/rethinking-work/. Of course, in the past, the idea of work in ER was theoretical, whereas now these small projects we’re doing are real, so it’s bound to feel different. But Monday’s post was certainly not a Friday night news dump. ;-)
Best FI article I’ve ever read and completely agree with! I should buy you a beer for this. I’ve read countless FIRE blogs who’s sites are really successful know for the fact they’re FI and living off their site’s income. I take it with a gain of salt when they say 4% withdrawal and never work again when they’re prob making over $50k from their site not touching their portfolio. Good for them, but in he back of my mind I always knew they were lying to their reading. You guys are the first to call them out. My wife and I have over $1.3million living in the Bay Area. Our goal is $2 million to FI in Europe where she’s from living off at $70k (live off $50k but $70k for major flexibility assuming we have no extra income). If I had a side hustle and a successful website generating $35k we would be in EU today. I read FI blogs to help get ideas for a side hustle and ignore the parts where they say it’s easy to FI and to “retire before you hit your number if you’re flexible.” Again, excellent article
Aww, thanks! No need to buy me a beer, but maybe toss a dollar or two in a charity collection bin for me. ;-) And yeah, you point out a super important phenomenon which is that there seems to be a growing trend of pushing folks to quit work sooner, ahead of hitting their number, and the folks pushing that narrative are by and large those who don’t currently have skin in the game. And that’s a problem. On another note, as a risk-averse over-planner, I so appreciate that you guys have a major contingency built into your budget! Many high fives!
I love the heart behind this post, and I will say it’s single handedly put me on twitter for the last day and a half. I’ll be off again, but whatever.
Since, I love the heart so much, I hesitate to say anything negative, but I hope it will offer food for you to clarify your own thinking further. The essence of my comment is this: Even when bloggers don’t take the initiative to understand the obstacles many people face, the lessons they learn on their journey to FIRE are broadly valuable (if not universally applicable).
I personally read a lot of FIRE blogs including MMM early in my financial journey. It was obvious to me that he was talking to high income earners (like me), and it gave me much to think about, and it influenced our own efforts towards frugality.
Subsequently, I learned a lot from bloggers who talked more about boosting income, and about flexible styles of entrepreneurship and freelancing.
Since learning a lot on my own, I’ve had opportunities to help lower income individuals and families with their finances (as an example too rich for TANF, but kids on Medicaid). The things I learned from the FIRE movement influence these discussions, and I hope make their lives better. After discussions, I often get exciting updates like a couple having a “positive gap” between income and spending for the first time in a while. Another couple started looking for higher paying jobs for the first time in their careers and they found them, and they paid off all their credit card debt before a balance transfer switched to a higher interest rate. One woman ended up selling her house, and moved in with a friend and saved several hundred per month, enough to payoff her old medical bills and start saving.
Are these folks on the track to FIRE? No, but they are better off, and I think that’s important too.
Hahahaaha, sorry about that. Twitter was a bit crazy on Wednesday! :-D And I’m not meaning to suggest that everyone needs to get super woke about issues lower income and poor people face (though it also wouldn’t hurt), but just to have a little perspective, which I do think many folks in the space have lost. And I agree that many of the concepts the FIRE community talks about are broadly applicable, though I also don’t think the FIRE community can lay claim to them. Frugality is as old a concept as humanity. ;-) You, however, are my hero for engaging with lower income families and helping them improve their finances. That rocks so hard. :-) <3
I feel like I’ve found the one corner of the internet where people are allowed to express divergent opinions. Congratulations on convening such an interesting group of readers; I’m enjoying the comments.
Maybe we just see what we want to see, but I read this post as more “rallying the troops” rather than “manufacturing controversy.” I think you should go with the momentum and keep pushing for more transparency and authenticity in the FIRE community. I like the idea of a manifesto, but if that seems like too big of a step for some, what about designing a FIRE version of the Proust questionnaire? Would be cool to see a standard set of questions that would help us understand where different FIRE bloggers are coming from.
I’m sure there are other places, but you can absolutely disagree here. :-) I so appreciate your comment and that absolutely was my intent. For sure some folks will feel called out by it, and will get defensive as a result, but there’s no way around that. ;-) I love the idea of the questionnaire! I’ll give that more thought. Folks would be free to ignore it, of course, but I could put it out there at least. (And if anyone else reading this is inspired to take it on, please feel free! I do not own the idea and welcome community thoughts on how we can all be as transparent as possible, even if we don’t share numbers.)
The only thing I dislike are bloggers who make money by telling other people how to make money. Some of these personal finance bloggers are making most of their money telling other people how to make money.
And without “selling the dream”, they wouldn’t be making much money at all!
Hahahaaha. YES. I’ll teach you how to make money with your blog by teaching other people how to make money off their blogs by teaching people how to make money with their blogs. ;-)
This remains one of my very favorite corners of the internet. #micdrop
Ok, I’ll jump in. I agree with 95% of what you’ve written, but have one major point of contention.
FIRE community is too positive and encouraging??? I’m not buying this. There are plenty of politicians, media, etc selling the message of how hard life is, how the deck is stacked against you, and how “only I” can fix your problems if you vote for me or buy my product.
There are absolutely things that make one person’s situation harder than the other. That said, I think we need to keep empowering people by showing them that there is far more possible than following the path that most people take. The last thing this world needs is more people telling them what is “realistic.”
Can everyone follow your path of saving 50+% of a high income, save in index funds for a decade, be done in their late 30’s/early 40’s and then retire to a life defined as no paid work forever. No.
But that’s not what I’m writing or reading other people in this space write. That’s not the same as saying anyone can’t drastically improve their lives and ultimately become financially independent by following simple principles of earn more, spend less, and/or invest better. There are different levers to pull, be it extreme frugality/minimalism, changing careers, entrepreneurship, real estate investing, etc. Everyone needs to start where they are and find what works for them. We all will have different paths to different destinations, but we can ultimately all do better and should be encouraged to do so.
I’m not suggesting that we stop being encouraging and positive. ;-) As I said at the top of the manifesto, I think we’re doing great on that front and expect it to continue. But there has been a recent undercurrent of thinking that’s pushing people to retire before they hit their number, and to replace good planning for contingencies with “flexibility.” And while flexibility is important, it’s not enough. So I’m all for encouragement (obviously) but not when it potentially steps outside the bounds of reason.
Holy crap, that’s a lot of comments. Just stopped back b/c curious to see if you were really still answering every one. I’m going to say you’re not really retired, b/c you had to work 40+ hours this week just answering comments! FWIW, I’ll come out of retirement as a physical therapist if you need some tips on treating the carpal tunnel syndrome you’ll soon be experiencing if you don’t slow down. ;)
I see what you’re saying in theory, but haven’t really seen that much. That said, I don’t read many FIRE blogs anymore and though I’m making some effort (OK very little effort) I’m still pretty out of touch on social media so maybe I’m just not seeing something that’s more prevalent than I realized, as is apparent from skimming these comments.
It’s true. This is my full-time job now. Hahaha. (But also, OMG. Soooo tired. Be careful what you wish for, people!) ;-) And my keyboard is pretty good ergonomically, but I could definitely use some ultrasound on my lower back. ;-)
I’m glad you skimmed the comments and saw that this stuff isn’t just my perception. I think some of what’s happening is probably inevitable with any community that reaches a certain level of maturity, but that’s why you need a little bit of rallying the troops from within to get everybody back on course. I’d loooooove if others would write their own versions of this with what they think we could all be doing better. I’d love for us all to keep growing and improving together. (And I also sooo appreciate that, despite not reading many blogs, you still sometimes drop in over here. I love how you’ve so seamlessly picked up Darrow’s mantle. Keep it up, friend!) :-D
You guys started with a goal of living the 4% rule (or the ONL more conservative 3.x%). It’s changed since then, but I’d be neat to see ONL keep two sets of books to see how the 4% rule would fare!
As stated by many others, I look forward to for new posts to show up on ONL!
That’s a cool idea! It’s complicated a bit by our two phase approach, so we’re not really testing the 3.x% rule the same way. But I want to give this more thought because I think it’s super interesting!
Two weeks ago I saw Millennial Revolution tell someone in the US that they could retire with under $500,000. Seriously? Considering how popular their blog is, and the fact that they are about to release a book, I think this is frightening.
What? I’m super surprised to hear that.
(Haven’t read all the comments – so many!). Thank you for keeping it real! While we aren’t on FIRE, unless you count planning to work until 60 or 65 as early retirement, I do read a lot of FIRE blogs and have noticed the same trend. Living in an area where there are quite well-off families as well as those on food stamps (very mixed), we see a lot. Looking at healthcare in the US, family health issues, wondering if we’ll have to chip in to care for our parents, college costs for the kids, heck – even living on the W Coast there is the persistent threat of “the big one.”
And then there are cases where maybe you want to move to a lower COL area but spouse/rest of family isn’t on board. So then what do you do? And if you divorce? Well, there’s yet another scenario that can rip FIRE plans to shreds.
Stay tuned for a divorce post! ;-) Because I can’t help stirring up controversy, apparently. Hahahaha. You’re so right — I think the “25x” thinking assumes that so much will stay the same, and doesn’t allow for a whole range of real life circumstances that happen to people every day. It’s good you keep yourself grounded in what’s possible!
This is wonderful. I really enjoyed learning about FIRE last year when I stumbled across ChooseFi. Once I started following various FIRE personalities on Twitter, I became more turned off. For example, I just saw a tweet from a popular fire personality telling a story of how his daughter thinks her friend is rich because she has a big house. It would have been so refreshing for him to end that tweet with an explanation to his daughter that the beauty of the FIRE community is that big houses aren’t needed for happiness. Instead, he exposed the family for overspending on their house and ended the tweet almost giddy that the family likely had no equity in their home (ended with a smiley face!). I’ve been seeing that smugness more and more, and it’s a big turn off. I totally agree that some people only want to incorpate some parts of FI and shouldn’t be shamed for spending choices that aren’t totally compliant. I just wish some FIRE bloggers would leave the smugness at the door…
For the record, I think you (and the ChooseFI guys) are super encouraging and I really enjoy your content. Makes me want to take more steps toward FI!
Thanks so much, Liz! I’m glad you’re finding good encouragement in the FIRE community, and I’m sorry you’ve encountered that gross snugness. :-( I don’t think that’s the norm for the community, and I think we should all call people on that bad behavior when we see it. Yet another data point in the case for why it’s so important to stay grounded in the economic realities that people in different socioeconomic strata face!
I have now read all 308 comments – kudos to you Tanja for taking the time to respond. Very cool
I am not an undercover IRP, I was trying to make the point that there is a point where the cash spigot turns from inflow through work to inflow purely from the asset base you have created through your investing FI journey. Forget the term retire, semi retired, it doesn’t matter what matters is how do people get to FI where their freedom to do anything they want regardless of the compensation for doing it explodes into a luxury most people never get?
I also think that one dimension that could smooth out the middle class / average income / HCOL 1% earner issue is to switch from income focus, to saving in terms of absolute dollars and what accumulated wealth in the form of both income producing assets and appreciated capital assets can do for you from an FI point of view.
If we look at most living expenses that exclude housing costs, I am relatively certain for two people – regardless of where they live in the U.S. Could live comfortably on a tax and inflation adjusted (e.g like a take home pay amount of between 40,000 and 120,000 a year). Food, real estate taxes, fuel, a trip or two a year, charitable giving, holiday spending, health care, dining out casually a few times a month etc. everyday spend categories. Now if that is the product of the saving equation then there are some good areas of advice that can help people target what they need to save in the accumulation phase in terms of real dollars (not % of income) in order to produce the outcome at a certain time in the future. SOR is a factor for sure but the income and percent of income saved is so distorted that it doesn’t help enough people look at the full journey to know where they might land or how they are doing. SOR can be dealt with via contingency funds, or padding the base through a few more years work (like we did)
So how about you use your awesome powers to survey your readers. Ask One simple question. Excluding housing costs and income taxes, how much money do you estimate you would spend to enjoy life per year if you were FI and not earning income?
You would get an awesome sample, a statistically valid distribution and your followers could think about the end in mind and work backwards
I will start. 120,000 a year to give us as a couple the freedom to engage in joyful pursuits, not worry about having enough if we wanted to travel or donate beyond our expected levels that year. We have FIRED at 52 and this is our 2018 targeted spend. it took 30 years to accumulate the assets to support this outcome and we focused the whole time on what the annual “savings” nut had to be each year to stay on track.
Again VERY IMPRESSIVE POST.
Ooh, I forgot to tell you that I did a Twitter survey just for you! It was based on the question of whether retirement is defined primarily by your income source (do you live off earned income?) or by free time, and the OVERWHELMING majority (85% vs. 15%) said it’s defined by free time. You can see for yourself: https://twitter.com/our_nextlife/status/976967564940148736.
So by that definition, working less than 10% this year, we’re clearly retired. Not that I need to convince anyone, but it shows where the bulk of thought is on what retirement means. ;-)
Your survey idea is interesting. I will give that some thought!
Awesome – you are always a step ahead!
I just LOVE your candor and calling a “spade” a spade. Anyone who really wants to help should take your comments to heart… Thanks for putting yourself out there to help not only the FI community but those who read and follow the blogs!
Thanks, Chuck! :-) I’m glad you enjoyed this as a reader of blogs. If you have thoughts for what else FIRE bloggers should be doing better, please share them!
Holy bananas! So many comments!
I think there is inherent selection bias in FIRE bloggers. We do not really represent a normal cross-section of the population. We are outliers, although when we jump into the echo chamber we start to think we are normal. For many of us life has been relatively easy without major disasters and often with quite a bit of hidden privilege. I’ve met a lot of FIRE bloggers and they tend to be very smart, driven people on average. The unifying theme is one of freedom and not wanting to work a standard 9-5.
There is this fine line between inspiring people and creating false hope. I do believe that almost anyone with an above average income can retire early if they put their mind to it, but what we don;t talk about enough in this community are the failures and challenges. I would love to read about people who retired on 4% SWR and then got divorced 10 years later, or someone whose expenses went from 30k to 50k a year because of a chronic medical problem. Do they have regrets? How did they adjust? What would they have done differently?
As you know, my personal irritation with some in the FIRE community is minimization of medical costs and just how disastrous this can be to the retiree (not just early). People look at average cost of medical care, but this is misleading. There are people with massive costs that drive up the average, and these people run into big problems (even with insurance which seems to be more restrictive with each renewal cycle).
Anyways, random thoughts. Good writing Tanja. I like it when you get fired up :)
Thanks, pal! :-) And yes, all so true on medical costs. People do not realize that health care costs are still the leading cost of bankruptcy for people WITH INSURANCE. It’s not just uninsured people who get in trouble, nor just the poor. And I love your idea of featuring more stories from folks who’ve run into major obstacles several years in. If that’s you and you’re reading this, please drop me an email!
I’m a non-blogger who used to read a lot of blogs and now can only handle a few, one of them is yours. 😊Out of curiousity, I went back to the ones that I left and now see why there is such outrage. The one that argues $300k is “middle class” because of living in HCOL is just absurd. I read the budget line items and saying that buying coach and the gap brands are “middle class” is just out of touch.
Another suggests taking away mortgage and property taxes to get on an even playing field. Also out of touch if on an employer sponsored health plan.
I live in Portland, Oregon and work as an RN at a women’s health clinic in a high affluent area. I speak to women every single day who can’t afford the cost of estrogen cream, approximately $300/mth, that is usually not covered by insurance companies. The need for estrogen cream isn’t because they aren’t healthy and don’t exercise, it’s because their body no longer makes enough estrogen during the natural aging process, starting around fifty. How does this affect me as a male, you ask. Your female partner will not want to have sex because it hurts.
Please keep on keeping it real, Tanja. This is definitely your “retirement” calling.
Thanks so much! :-) I can just imagine myself, 20 years from now, shouting at the FIRE community to get off my lawn. ;-) Hahahaha. I’m exaggerating, and I totally love this community. I just want us to be all we can be and not get so into living in our own bubble that we lose touch with the real world. You raise such a great example of health stuff that happens regardless of a person’s choices, and the monetary costs that come with that. Thank you for doing such good work!
Shoot. My post didn’t get posted. I did use a word that may not be appropriate for blogs, just part of my daily work vocabulary so I sincerely apologize. If it’s in your spam folder, you can change my word to say “intimate” and post if you’d like. -JT
Ha! You’re allowed to talk about sex here. ;-) No idea why you got spam-flagged, but you’re cleared now, and if you go back to spam in the future, I’ll clear you again.
Plan is 4 more years and we move to another HCOL area in Oregon that provides us with close access to nature and hopefully away from this god-awful traffic and people who keep moving here. 😉
That sounds familiar! ;-) (Though the HCOL areas close to nature seem to have PLENTY of traffic of their own. Speaking from personal experience. Hahaha.)
This article is refreshing. While the FIRE community is doing a good service disseminating the tools to minimize the wait to FI, we shouldn’t pretend the years to FI can be counted on one or two hands for everyone. I believe there’s a reason the FIRE blogging community has a high concentration of high-paying positions such as engineers and physicians. I am thankful for many of these bloggers who’ve introducing me the the FIRE community. I am thankful for you telling it like it is and putting your readers first!
You’re so welcome! I agree with every word you wrote. :-)
Well one of my big questions is always about savings percentage. Of what? Your gross income (then we are at 50ish percent)? Your net income (then we are at 70ish percent)? Do you include employer match? Then we are at even more. I think that may warrant a post. :-) We should all use the same percentage and method to compare apples to apples. And no, I’m not a blogger trying to push my blog. Just someone who reads a lot of blogs…
That is such a good point. It’s not often abundantly clear how someone is calculating a savings percentage, and as you say, there can be a whole lot of different ways to count things. At the very least, if folks are going to share savings percentage, they need to make this super duper clear!
Thank you for point 2. It is frustrating to read “oh well when you get your annual 3% raise”. Not every industry has a standard raise. Because of my hard work, and bosses who recognize it, I got more than the standard for my company this year. Last year we were coming off layoffs. One year I got a 1.8% raise. When I was a temp/contactor I worked hard to negotiate for a $1.25 per hour raise.
Another thing I noticed is: if you read the simple math MMM post 3 years ago that says you can retire in ~10 years if you are saving 60% of your income, or you read it today and are saving 60%, it will still take ~10 years. There is so much more to it, as you and other bloggers do go into. Thank up for what you do, and for keeping it real!
That frustration makes total sense, and I know that I have been guilty of oversimplifying things like raises. I appreciate you pointing that out specifically! And you are right. While some of the math *can* be simple, it is rarely that simple, and we owe it to readers to represent the many factors that go into an actual financial life.
Great article. I am retired living off my portfolio so it is paramount I understand the moving parts of my life. I find the FIRE community endlessly interesting as I try to understand their personal methodology but what I also see is the practice of theology and and a community wide echo chamber selling “it will be alright” Nobody knows the survival probability of spending down a 50 year portfolio.
1 Past results DO NOT portend future results.
2 Just because you have a computer program that says everything will be OK does not mean everything will be OK
3 The economy giveth the economy taketh away
4 The Government giveth the Government taketh away
5 The “experts” seem to proclaim moving targets when it comes to SWR. I recently read one well regarded “expert” who used to proclaim 4%, then 3%, and now 2%. He’s also hawking annuities and reverse mortgage.
6 The non experts also seem to proclaim moving target SWR. Physician FIRE blogs are pretty much 3%, more generalized FIRE blogs are 4% or even 5%
7 Nobody in FIRE land talks about taxes and how your nest egg can be easily decimated with just a couple percent change in one or multiple rates. Imagine what happens to your IRA or 401K if the government decides to raise RMD by 1% over resent across the board. A $1M IRA throws of $36K at 70 Raise that RMD rate by 1% and it throws off $44K = Pay more taxes sooner, run out of money sooner. What if they disallow Roth conversions? That was a Orin Hatch proposal in the last tax bill.
8 42% of America has less than $10K in retirement savings. Who’s going to pay for them?
9 In 2035 there will be more old people than young people, read that one again
10 In 2034 SS by law will be cut by 23% Re-read #8 and #9
11 Inflation? I lived through 1970’s stagflation
12 The markets (stocks interest bonds) are at 90% above their predicted mean values. A reversion to the mean is inevitable.
13 Who says you can get another job grasshopper? Robbie the Robot has you in his sights.
14 Did you realize when a spouse dies the taxes can advance 2 brackets?
I don’t see any of this covered much in the FIRE community. I’m not saying FIRE isn’t possible but let’s face it if we are honest, this is a grand experiment. When an airplane flies into the ground there isn’t usually one big arrow pointing into the ground. When the analysis is done there are usually 6 little ones that add up
Many good points! And to your bottom line point, yes exactly. This IS a grand experiment, and while a lot of very smart people have done good analysis that underpins much of the thinking, we do as a community tend to talk as though there’s far more certainty than truly exists.
Thanks so much for understanding the frustrations that readers in the fi community are feeling. Reading all the comments, I am reminded that I can stop reading bloggers that seem out of touch even if they are popular. After all one of the biggest always bugged me with its condescending tone and I felt better after I stopped reading it.
The FI community always seems overly optimistic which is likely due to the high concentration of entrepreneurship-minded folks. I think the community would benefit from not putting down folks who make different choices or who are struggling to survive. I have every right to own a car or have a rec center membership. Let’s support each other in all phases of the journey.
I have an autoimmune condition as well. This caused large medical bills, additional health problems. Because I am young people often assume I must be healthy. While I am much healthier than I used to be due to a career change, it is a constant struggle. I’m ever so grateful for good health insurance from my current employer and a higher wage from my current employer that makes things easier for our family. If you have good health, don’t take it for granted. It is a huge blessing.
Amen to that! Good health is NOT something to take for granted, yet many do. Agree all around with your comments, and overall we should always be seeking to encourage each other, never to shame or condescend to anyone!
As a non-FI blogger I can tell you that if I sense disingenuousness in a FI blogger I follow, I lose trust and unsubscribe.
This keeps my blogroll short and sweet. I don’t need total transparency but I will fact check blanket statements, data claims and even inconsistencies in income reports becuase I am actually using the info on your sites to plan my future and in that sense it’s nearly as important as my income producing job.
I would pay someone to assist me but I don’t really trust the financial industry, especially as a Physician. So that leaves DIY, aka blogs, books and buddies (fellow FIRE docs).
I appreciate you sharing your approach in reading and interpreting the info folks share! I hope other bloggers will take note.
I’ll be honest and say I haven’t read your blog for a while, I got a bit burned out reading financial blogs as it did seem a bit same old, same old after a while. Other than the $400 dollar quote (a pet hate of mine) this is the first time I have read something like this on a PF blog and it has inspired me to start looking into FI again. So thank you :)
What a great note to get. Thanks, Catherine! I’m glad this was inspiring. :-)
Excellent post! While I’ve realized for a long time that my wife and I earn enough to be considered “upper class” from a whole-world perspective, I’d never really considered us to have more than middle class earnings from a US perspective. Your post was a really effective reality check. (although I’m not sure how I feel about it to be honest)
One thing that I haven’t really seen in the comments yet (and there are a TON of them):
I think one reason that many FIRE bloggers and people attempting to reach FI would consider themselves middle class while earning upper class income is due to their level of spending. Obviously one of the basic tenets of the FIRE community is attempting to avoid the hedonic treadmill and spend far less of their income than the average person. So while some bloggers may earn upper class income, it’s probably very hard for them to see themselves as anything other than middle class if they’re spending $40K a year. Granted, this doesn’t make your point about acknowledging a high income any less valid. It just may be one of the subconscious reasons that some bloggers’ perspective may be skewed.
I’m sure you’re right about that! If you’re driving a used car and living in a “normal” non-extravagant house, you don’t see your life as anything more than middle class. But by that definition, Warren Buffett is middle class, and we all know he’s sooooooo not. ;-) I think the fact that you aren’t sure how you feel about knowing you’re upper class speaks to this conflict, though — we have a society that teaches us to aspire to be rich, but then creates deep discomfort with actually being rich. That definitely affects how folks talk about their income and wealth in the FIRE community!
This — your last two sentences. I sometimes refer to it as the vilification of the “rich,” however one defines rich. My grandparents were uneducated (some didn’t go to high school) and poor/blue collar working class. My parents started their marriage with nothing and busted their butts to move up. And they did, which allowed them to pay for my college degree, which allowed me to pursue a professional degree and earn the income that goes with it. But most of my extended family made totally different choices and they struggle. A lot can change in one generation, but it requires a ton of work to get from point A to point B. I get frustrated that, generally (across media, etc.), this hard work appears to be dismissed as an afterthought when a person condemns the rich and greedy corporations. I don’t know.
A big issue I have with some PF bloggers is that they sugarcoat or slowly disappear when they run into a financial hardship or decrease income. I’d love to read more about how people weather the storm of unexpected health bills or a layoff en route to FI. I also am annoyed when I read about these 70% savings rates but then read about the car they bought a few months prior with cash of course that somehow didn’t get included in a prior expense report. It’s easy to do the earn and save when it’s easy. It’s far more interesting to read about people meeting adversity with infinitely. If you can’t meet your 50% savings goal because you’re helping family members or you’re between jobs, it’s not a failure. It’s a true test of your principles.
Very true! We need more honest, transparent stories of hardship. While I don’t wish anyone hardship, I hope that those who experience it will write about it.
Both my husband & I are newbie bloggers. We wanted to say “Hi” & that we are blogging about how to have a fun healthy lifestyle. We are reading everyone’s post to learn how to get better at it. We would really appreciate any advice you all could give us! I don’t know how to add a link to this post but our website is: blueyezblue.com. Thank you in advance for any advice! Leslie & Lisa.
Your points are very well made, especially the one about physical health. This can be a problem even in a country with a tax-funded health system, for example, if you HAVE to have a car because of mobility problems, or a special diet, or accessible housing, or other basic requirements of life which militate against frugality. Case in point: I lived without a car for many years, but plain old arthritis has put paid to that. I still cycle as much as possible, but there are days when the only way I can begin to fathom going from A to B is by car.
I am also grateful for you giving an indication of your pre-retirement income. I always thought that FI bloggers’ work incomes had to be higher than they let on due to the mathematical impossibility of their projections otherwise, but I have been shocked recently to learn quite how high some of them were. I just want to add that in many careers, especially public sector careers, and certainly outside of the US, such income levels are simply not attainable, no matter how qualified or senior you get. I am a civil servant in an EU country, and I make 30% less than my counterparts in US public sector, for example. You guys earned more than our Head of Government, and just slightly less than our Chief Justice! (Or the justices on the United States Supreme Court, for that matter.) I participate in a Facebook group for public servants and other people with pension entitlements, and there, the parameters of our discussion are decidedly more pedestrian.
One last point while I am at it: I also think that many FI blogs take a fairly regular upbringing and family life for granted. There was a remarkable woman who for many years commented on J.D. Roth’s “Get Rich Slowly” blog, who had overcome some awful family circumstances and was rightly proud of the amount of financial stability she had nevertheless achieved. Likewise, I come from a very difficult family background, and have once calculated that the total financial cost connected to this troublesome start in life was upwards of $50k. (This is between therapy and LOTS of it, financial demands from family – also an issue for many ethnic minority folks – I myself am white, but it makes me reflect on the whiteness, as far as I can see, of many FI bloggers – various form of wage theft from the same family, and other expenses. But what to do when you want to have even basic quality of life??) So the usual FI advice to start saving when you are in your 20s riles me, as being able to focus on financial progress this early in life is in itself quite a bit of a privilege. In short, FI strikes me as a very bourgeois undertaking resting on very bourgeois assumptions. So thank you for speaking out!
Brilliant post. I’ve been blogging for over a year now and have been following FIRE bloggers since 2008. Your clearly articulate the “emperor has no clothes” syndrome that is common with FIRE bloggers.
I’ve got no qualms with someone making money. Perhaps their blogs might be better categorized as “self employed” or professional blogger/marketer instead.
I’m not a blogger but I think more honesty is definitely needed in this space or eventually this whole FI movement will die out.
A recognition that a bull market economy allowed people to hit their “number”. Remember in the next 30 or years so it is almost inevitable that it some point we could see 50% or higher losses in the stock market, it’s important to understand this, it’s not being a “doomsday” scenario person, it’s just reality that the market takes these swings. You might see a lot of this FI stuff dissappear if we hit a rough patch, which of course means it wasn’t sustainable in the first place. When your putting 75% of your money away and the market is returning sub 20% returns, your ability to accelerate is pretty high.
If you operate a blog and make money from it good for you, you should be compensated and if you do small side jobs that make you money so be it, its your life, but……your not retired. Just call it FI. Don’t have to have long drawn out discussions about the word “retirement” it’s simple…if your “retired” your living off investment’s and not working. Their are probably blogs that make no money and are honest about it and show how they live on just the 4% or such rule..if so good for them..they are really retired.
I work in the long term healthcare/nursing home industry and I can tell you with absolute certainty….if you get sick in old age..which essentially is 70 or older..if you are not lucky enough to be able to live in your own home…which happens to over a 1/3 of the population…IF this happens…and it CAN. You can kiss your money goodbye…you will be giving it away if you can or it will go straight to the nursing home company….this is why the semi independent….assisted living…nursing home model is gaining a lot of popularity…people pay now to be part of the continuum.
I think the model that MMM and this blog uses are good ones, be honest about your situation and provide value to the reader. I’m nowhere near able to retire but I learn a lot from the content and for instance, found out about a tax loophole for used electric cars in Colorado that helped me saved money, etc..
excellent post! love the honesty!
I just want to thank you so much for this post. I started reading FIRE blogs a few months ago by accident (I just wanted some frugal recipes and instead found FIRE) and it has been a double-edged sword. I learned a lot and found much wisdom and inspiration, but I also have come away with feelings of shame, envy, confusion, and pessimism as well. I thought maybe I was losing it, and this post verifies that there is indeed some unintentionally disingenuous messages out there. All readers want is transparency and context.
You also asked what else bothers you about FIRE bloggers and I have a few more comments (sort of venting here, so sorry):
(1) dichotomies. Many bloggers have this kind of arrogant and unhelpful way of discussing their values that can be a huge turn off. i.e.: the mall is bad and consignment shops are good, diy is always the way to go and hiring help is lazy and dependent, our investment strategy of investing in low-fee index funds is the key to early retirement and any other investment plan is stupid, early retirement is amazing and working is awful (I could go on and on). This kind of simplistic thinking is obviously problematic and one thing I have appreciated about ONL is that it tackles nuance and complexity.
(2) The “frugal weirdo” posts that discuss savings strategies as these real “weird” things that aren’t actually that weird to people who are truly middle class. I’ve seen variations of this on multiple blogs and it always strikes me as odd that the bloggers think meal planning and perusing craigslist are “weird.” Writing about these things is great, but the labeling of behaviors as “weird vs. normal” is not helpful (seems like click-bait) and the humble brag can be irksome, too (probably trying to be funny and self-deprecating, so I get it, but again…awkward when the blogger is using their high-income colleagues to define “normal.”)
(3) Not including quarterly, semi-annual or annual reports (at least some kind of big picture information) so that a reader can have more context when you talk about your savings rates)
Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts on this and thanks for creating a kind of manifesto.
Thanks for these terrific thoughts! I agree big time on #1 and #3 (if you’re going to share savings rate, that is. I think it’s fine to share nothing, but you can’t cherry-pick which numbers to share without giving full context). And #2 is something I hadn’t thought about before, but which feels entirely true. You’re right that fetishizing frugality or certain behaviors is oddly out of touch and tone deaf to those who do those things to survive. Here’s a favorite post of mine from the wonderful She Picks Up Pennies that addresses similar ideas: https://shepicksuppennies.com/the-privilege-of-pretending-practice-poverty/
This is old, but this bugs me a bit. While worrying about post-RE income is potentially a valid complaint, like you said about your objections to the 4% rule, you’re focusing on the wrong thing.
While true that if someone is earning some decent money in retirement, that is giving them a boost. But I think unless it was a deal in place before heading into an early retirement, and were counting on that money to get you through, then I don’t think it matters. While it could cover up or patch a risk or flaw that they had in their RE plan, it’s likely small in comparison to the elephant in the room.
And that elephant is the cyclical market returns, and the great returns that have been seen off the bottom over 10 years ago. It’s like stock picking in 1999, where people were getting all hyped because their picks were doing so great. There was no wrong bet. And with gains like that, if can cover up a lot of risks, flaws, or missteps. One could have retired early 5 years ago, claiming that an 8-10% withdrawal rate was perfectly safe. And right now, after these last few years, they would be fine….and down to around a 4% rate.
So the big risk is that the market is not steady, and things will change. What worked for someone is not necessarily going to work for someone else 2-5-10 years later.
That is where contingency plans or safety nets come in. I know I always felt that worst case scenario, I could get a job back in Silicon Valley, commuting down there once a week. As two engineers, even being away from work for a few years, we knew we could get a job if we didn’t mind moving or commuting.
But that’s the key, reminding people that things aren’t always so golden in the markets. $20k or whatever is small potatoes to the difference in a +36% vs -25% year, when talking about portfolios in the 6 or more likely 7 figures. I realized that the most likely potential point of failure was those times where ER starts with a downturn. And so when 2007-2008 hit, 2 years after initially planning on staying away from work, I was looking for a job and got one for a few years until things got better.
Very interesting thoughts. I agree FI bloggers should disclose how they are doing also they need to talk about their safety nets.