The recent hubbub in the financial independence and early retirement community has been all about personal finance celebrity Suze Orman and her declaration that she “hates” the FIRE movement. (Though she partially retracted that statement this past weekend, with posts on Facebook and LinkedIn.) Her words clearly felt like a personal attack to many in the movement, including Pete, who wrote an impassioned argument against it, and Chad, who wrote a more measured response, among dozens of others.
This post isn’t a response to Suze, but it is about what happens when naysayers come around saying nay, how we usually respond to that and how we should respond instead.
Early retirement, financial independence and any variation thereof are not things people feel lukewarm about. Those of us who read early retirement blogs and books, who track our spending and saving in earnest — we are true believers. After all, this is a huge lifestyle change most of us are making or have made, we’ve made peace with being different from many of those around us, and that’s bound to change our personal identities and how we see ourselves. And when you’re a true believer, and that fact is part of your core identity, any negative words about your choices can feel like an attack on you personally.
My Talk With Suze
Around the same time Paula Pant interviewed Suze for her Afford Anything podcast, well before Paula’s interviewed went live, Kara and I interviewed Suze for The Fairer Cents. (That interview will air in January when we return for season 3. It’s mostly not about FIRE.) And full disclosure: I love Suze. I don’t agree with every word she says, and I absolutely think she’s lost touch with how much things cost for non-super-rich people (for instance, most people will never pay multiple millions of dollars for a few years of nursing home care), but she helped me big time when I was just starting to get my finances in order. And I told her as much when we got on the line with her, before we started recording: about how I’d had debt higher than my annual income when I first started watching her show, and how I’m now early retired, a massive change in only about 13 years. (In her very Suze way, she reminded me, “I. didn’t do that. YOU. did. that.”)
We spent most of the interview talking with her about how she got her start, how she became such a strong advocate for women and what being gay means to her. (She brought the last topic up and what she said was pretty amazing. I can’t wait to share it.) But at the very end, I asked Kara if I could sneak in a selfish question, and I asked it: “Suze, you must have heard of the early retirement movement. What do you think of the whole idea?”
Probably because we’d been talking for 45 minutes at that point and she knew a bit more about my story, but she responded with much more empathy. “I’m concerned, I’m sorry to say,” she said. If she’d started with “I hate it. I hate it hate it hate it.” maybe I would have put my guard up a little more, but because her answer felt like genuine worry, I really listened. And the substance of her response was pretty close to what she said to Paula: there are so many unknown unknowns (I agree), we can’t assume the stock market will always perform to historical averages especially over a 50 or 60-year time horizon (I agree), we can’t rely on things like Social Security to be there for us (I agree), without work we risk feeling aimless or purposeless (I agree) and a few catastrophic events could wipe us out (I agree).
The Silliness of the “Retirement” Debate, and the Injustice to Traditional Retirees
The internet retirement police are folks who like to accuse bloggers in particular of Not Really Being Retired on the basis of various sins we supposedly commit, mostly daring not to spend our entire retirement in a rocking chair, contributing nothing to society. That random bored people on the internet care to debate the semantics of retirement is not too surprising, but what is surprising to me is how many bloggers themselves get tied up in knots trying to avoid saying retirement, or to stress that all of this is about “financial independence” instead. If financial independence was well understood, that might make sense, but outside of this niche community, it’s not. Financial independence can mean anything from no longer relying on your parents for financial support after you leave home to being able to buy a private island whenever you damn well feel like it, which is not the hallmark of a clear term. That’s why I’ve always talked about early retirement instead, which most people understand innately.
I think bloggers getting hung up on what “counts” as retirement is silly, but it’s actually reinforcing a much larger and more damaging notion that old people are of little value and are irrelevant. Because if you argue that choosing to do a little work after leaving your career because you no longer need the money somehow makes you not retired, what you’re saying — almost certainly not intentionally — is: Retirement means no longer contributing to society in some way. Retirement is when you disappear. Imagine having this debate with a 70-year-old retiree who works a passion project on the side. Imagine telling that person he or she isn’t retired, but is merely financially independent. While no one would do that, because we’re oddly less strict on what counts as traditional retirement compared to early retirement, it’s all part of the same negative message that I’d frankly like to do away with entirely: you’re only retired if you’re irrelevant in an economic sense. (And if you’re economically irrelevant then let’s just go ahead and say you’re entirely irrelevant.)
Knee Jerk Reactions and Missed Opportunities
Given the ridiculous stereotype of all forms of retirement that many of us carry around, it makes sense that Suze interpreted early retirement to mean “never working again.” And it also makes sense that her retraction was based on coming to understand that most people who retire early go on to earn some money in retirement. And while I’d still argue that you shouldn’t have to work in early retirement to make your plan viable, if your goal is total early retirement, her knee-jerk reaction was that young people should not stop working under any circumstances (unless they have $30 to 50 million saved, per my conversation with her), and she therefore missed an opportunity to have an empathy-based conversation that the FIRE community might have actually listened to.
But in turn, much of the FIRE community had a knee-jerk reaction to her, and that has been our missed opportunity, which is truly too bad, because there was important content in Suze’s message. For example, though I’ve written for years about how we can’t count on Social Security and therefore aren’t including it in any of our projections, I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that we might not have Medicare either, something she warned about. I’ve been kicking myself for that oversight ever since, given my intense focus on health care. If, when she’d said that she thought early retirement was a bad idea, I’d had that knee-jerk reaction and put up a mental wall, I would have missed out on absorbing a hugely important consideration for our future planning.
Listening to Naysayers Instead of Dismissing Them
It’s so hard to listen and stay open when someone is saying something negative or critical. Especially if that negative or critical thing feels like an attack on our identity. When when perceive things as an attack, it’s incredibly easy to lose the substance of the message and focus on the way it was delivered, or the way that we feel hearing it. But sometimes even when the delivery is bad, the substance is good — or at least it’s something we need to hear.
If we dismiss everything every naysayer says on the basis of it feeling like an attack, we risk two things:
- That we miss out on some good cautions that are worth considering, and
- That we dig in even more into our own beliefs, become that much more dogmatic and thus can never hear any criticism ever.
While I would never argue that we should all listen to every random hater or online troll, because that’s deeply unproductive and maybe even harmful to our mental health, I never want to be a person who can’t hear any criticism, or who feels attacked by anyone who raises questions about my choices.
In fact, I hope we continue to have early retirement naysayers, because I learn something new from every one of them, something I hadn’t considered before that’s useful to plan for. Thanks to Suze, I’m going to think more about what happens if Medicare goes away and do more research than I’ve already done on the costs of nursing home care. Thanks to naysayers who came before, we strengthened our contingency plan, paid off our mortgage and built a two-phase retirement plan that requires only minimal long-term stock market returns to work. Every naysayer has given us the gift of a different perspective, and the more perspectives we can incorporate into something as complex as early retirement, the better.
Because we may not like what naysayers are shouting, or how they’re shouting it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. If we can’t — or won’t — hear that, we’re the ones losing out.