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It’s Time to Retire FIRE (and to Split It Up)

Perhaps we should have always known it was coming, but I’m calling it: the time has come to retire the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) movement.

Even when a social movement’s ideals still hold lots of appeal, it’s inevitable that the movement will eventually end, so there’s nothing unusual about my argument. If you read academic literature about social movements, there are multiple theories out there, but scholars agree that every movement ultimately recedes one way or another — because it succeeded, because it failed, or for a whole host of other reasons — and it’s time to accept that that’s what’s happened with FIRE.

Goodbye FIRE, Hello ______

In the four-stage social movement model, the four stages are emergence (the central idea comes to light), coalescence (the movement comes together around the idea), bureaucratization (lots of things get built around the movement and more people profit), and decline. Within that final stage, one of routes the decline can take is co-optation.

FIRE has been co-opted by the “get rich quick” crowd, and you can see it in the increasing amount of content that’s behind paywalls, rather than offered freely. The massive proliferation of costly courses, often from people who have virtually no credentials to offer those courses. The explosion in overpriced, self-published (meaning: no one has reviewed them for accuracy or credibility) ebooks. The growing list of paywalled blogs and email newsletters on Substack. We’ve always had content that was monetized, whether through ads on sites or bloggers urging readers to do business with companies offering those bloggers big affiliate kickbacks. The questionable affiliate links leading to enthusiastic recommendations part wasn’t great, but there’s nothing wrong with being compensated for your work, and the spirit was still to offer everything to readers for free. (Unpaywalled blog content, free podcasts, books you could get at the library, content with optional Patreon programs but mostly still free, etc.) Because FIRE was not about accumulating more money just because you could.

And it certainly wasn’t about guarding the knowledge only for those who could afford it.

Now, however, so many of the loudest voices are pushing products at every turn, reminiscent of the “I got rich buying real estate, so now come to my seminar so I can take a bunch of your money that I claim to not need.” (It all gives me flashbacks to my childhood in an MLM, and the circularity of getting rich by taking the money of people who believe your promise that they’ll get rich, too.) There are those who do it right, like Paula Pant of Afford Anything, who doesn’t claim to be retired, offers tons of resources for free (blog, podcast, social, etc.) and has clearly done the work of making herself an expert in her subject area. Or Amanda Holden of Dumpster Dog Blog, a veteran of the investment industry who offers a ton of scholarship spots in her Invested Development course (and also wouldn’t say she’s part of FIRE). But then there are so many more who think that having had a combination of good luck and good sense one time in one very specific set of circumstances qualifies them to charge ridiculous sums to people who don’t know better, never questioning the ethics of that practice. These are the folks who have co-opted FIRE. (Do you question whether I fit into this category, too, because I have published an early retirement book? Here is my transparency page. Decide for yourself.)

How can you spot these co-opters? They’re the ones who claim to have reached some goal number, but then keep chasing.

Continuing to work after reaching a goal number is fine! Continuing to earn money is fine! Continuing to have a hobby that pays you something is fine! We as humans are not wired to sit around and do nothing, which is why I’m such a huge proponent of thinking through your future goals before you leave your career. You’re still allowed to pursue goals!

The problem isn’t the doing, it’s the chasing.

You innately know the difference, and you can spot it from a mile away. You can sniff out the folks who are clearly doing something for the love of it versus those who are primarily trying to enrich themselves.

Maybe it’s not so bad, you think. All the free content is still out there. Has the movement really been co-opted? Good question! But unfortunately, it is a big problem, because the co-opters and chasers are providing a lot of bad and harmful advice, and are shouting over a lot of the folks offering more balanced advice. That’s because continuing to chase money after claiming to be set for life is a dead giveaway that at least one of the following things is true:

  • The person didn’t actually save enough and needs some cash (in which case, why would you follow their advice, especially around how much you should save to be safe?)
  • The person didn’t plan well for contingencies or life circumstance changes, which they’ve now experienced (so maybe they aren’t the best judge of what should be in your financial plan?)
  • They can’t define “enough” (or, they define it flippantly, but then can’t actually live off that budget, so again, why should you listen to them?)
  • They are trying to fill a hole that no amount of money will ever fill (what they need is therapy and self-reflection, not your hard-earned money or attention)

At the very least, we should ask why people who claim to be selling a path out of the hustle can’t seem to escape the hustle themselves.

I believe that, at its core, the idea of pursuing FIRE or FI or a work optional life, or whatever else you want to call it, is about knowing what “enough” truly means, and stopping there. (It’s why we deride “one more year” syndrome, and talk about cutting expenses, not just earning more.) Whether you’d put it in these terms or not, FIRE is about leaving the rest of the money for others who need it, not hoarding it for yourself. Likewise, it’s not hoarding or gatekeeping the knowledge of how to better your financial situation.

As author Kim Stanley Robinson said to Vicki Robin on her excellent podcast, the idea of “enough” is itself deeply anti-capitalist, because capitalism pushes us to accumulate forever, or at least to try to. But, continuing to chase more and more is the opposite: it’s unabashedly capitalist.

So, in essence, what began fundamentally as an anti-capitalist movement within a deeply flawed capitalist system that defines us solely by our economic contributions – focusing on accumulating only as much as you truly need and then opting out of that system as much as you can – has been co-opted by the out and out capitalists, those who have no desire to opt out, maybe ever. While there are plenty of empathetic and diverse voices in FIRE, the loudest shouters of FIRE today embrace every aspect of capitalism with no caveats or nuance. “I got rich and I’ll teach you how to get rich like me if you just give me more money for my course or my totally unvetted ebook. Do I need that money? I’ll tell you no, but my course isn’t free, so that tells you something. Am I qualified to give this advice? Have I done substantial research to become an expert in the topic? Maybe just stop asking so many questions.”  It excludes people, it leads those who can pay astray, and it’s anathema to the movement it claims to represent.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the movement has been co-opted, but we can refuse to participate.

RIP FIRE.

A Good Time for a (Metaphorical) Divorce

Of course, just because the get rich quick crowd has co-opted the FIRE movement doesn’t mean that anyone has any less desire to make mandatory work a smaller part of their life. I’m every bit as committed as I ever was, maybe more, to taking the power out of the hands of employers and put it into the hands of workers. Some scammers co-opting FIRE doesn’t change that. As I wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, this major upheaval would only make people want more control and flexibility in life, not less. All of that is still true. But it’s time to reimagine this movement.

In addition to bidding adieu to the FIRE moniker, it’s also time to recognize that we have two distinct groups here, and it no longer makes sense to try to force everybody under the same umbrella. It’s not just a tiny difference of opinion that distinguishes us.

The first group is what I’d call the capitalism embracers. If you want to get as rich as possible, and if you’re not especially interested in sharing the wealth with others or using your privilege to help more people have the opportunities you had (or if you measure your self-worth by how much you make and therefore won’t ever stop chasing more money even if you intend to), then go forth pursuing those things. I wish you the best, but I’m not writing content for you anymore.

The second is those who accept that we live under a capitalist system but refuse to use it for our own benefit and others’ detriment forever. If you want to stop hoarding wealth when you’ve saved a modest definition of enough, and you want to use your wealth and time to create real change that makes a work optional life (or, frankly, just a more financially secure life) more available to more people, especially those who’ve been historically excluded from that opportunity, then I encourage you to stick around, because there will be a lot more for you.

There’s really no reconciling these groups. If you love and believe in capitalism, I’m not going to convince you to look at it with a much more critical eye, and you’re not going to convince me that a system that inevitably creates worsening inequality is a-okay. So let’s respect each other enough to stop pretending that we’re all after the same thing.

I don’t have a name for either group, and I believe that naming things is often a big part of the problem in the first place. Naming something emboldens the gatekeepers, those who appoint themselves to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. Naming something leads to the evolution of a strict set of rules or even dogma, leading to judgmental attitudes and worse. I’d much rather let people choose for themselves which group they are a part of, and to keep judgment of anyone else’s choices out of it.

Moving forward, I’m here for those who can’t (and don’t want to) separate their concern for other people and the planet from their financial plans. Those who don’t share that worldview are plenty well served by ample ad-filled blogs and podcasts, and unvetted ebooks, courses and paid newsletters. If you consider yourself part of the pro-capitalism first group, but you want to stick around, that’s cool, too. Maybe I’ll change your mind about some things.

A Note on Actual Divorce

It’s not just the FIRE movement itself that’s ready for a divorce, it’s lots of people in the FIRE movement. With the recent announcement after a long silence from Living A FI that he and his wife split, we have yet more anecdotal evidence that divorce is every bit as common within FIRE as among the overall population. (I’ll not name drop, but it’s easy to find plenty of well-publicized cases. Divorce in FIRE is far from rare.) I’ve long urged people to build their number around the expectation that you might need to get divorced one day (and I think it’s romantic as hell to do that, not anti-romantic, because it means there’s not one bit of you and a partner staying together that’s financially motivated. When you plan your finances that way, you can stay together purely for love). If you’ve resisted that advice, here’s your wakeup call.

If you have thoughts on this post that you’d like to share with me, you can reply to this post on Twitter or Instagram. I’m always happy to discuss! Just keep it public, not in DMs. (And while the posts also show up on Facebook thanks to cross-posting from Instagram, I don’t use the platform, so that’s not the place to go if you’d like a response.)

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