It is time for another financial confession this National Financial Planning Month. I confess that Financial Independence (FI) is not for everyone. Actually, if they ever start, most people will fail.
The personal finance community likes to preach that FI is for everyone. In reality, FI is for the few. FI takes work. FI takes discipline. And, what we really hate to admit is that FI takes luck.
This post will summarize ten of the usual suspects you should interrogate in your own life to determine whether FI will work for you.
Our first priority as bloggers in the financial space is to help the world get smarter, happier, and richer. – Nate Wallingsford, The Motley Fool
Men Lie, Women Lie, Facts Don’t Lie
I won’t spend today’s post rehashing the definition of FI and FI/RE (Financial Independence / Retire Early). Despite the echo chamber that is the Personal Finance Community, a recent survey found–outside of Twitter–barely 1 in 10 people have ever heard of The FIRE Movement. If only 13 percent know about your movement, your movement is more like a niche. To be fair, most movements start as whispers before building into a chorus of ardent supporters.
For my own FIRE hot takes, you can read these posts here, here, or over here at GoBankingRates.com. You can find a list of actively practicing FIRE men, women, parents, and individuals of every age, race, and creed here.
If you came to this post expecting to have your mind changed about the financial independence movement, you will be disappointed. Whether you believe FIRE is good, bad or this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it, this post will only serve to leave you more entrenched in your original position. My goal today isn’t to change your mind. My goal is only to open your third-eye to other views.
Humans are irrational. They are also predictable. For example, people say they hate clickbait, but I have the SEO data to prove clickbait works. For instance, when I named a post “How to Retire a Millionaire,” it did OK numbers. But, when I renamed the exact same post “How Much You Need to Save by Age 35 to Retire Comfortably,” it surged into our top 10.
How can we explain this phenomenon?
Herein lies another confession: I do this all the time. I release a post. I monitor the data-analytics behind the scenes and across social media. I review your responses, comments, and most importantly, your clicks. Every click is a vote. The failure to click is also a vote.
Based on this information, I try various social media copy and revise post titles until I feel comfortable that I have tapped into your deepest, darkest desires to click. You fall for the bait. I get my clicks, and everyone leaves happy. Just last month, three minor SEO edits to a two-year-old post helped it go from zero views in the previous month to 17,000 views in one week.
If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, argue emotionally. – Carl Sandburg
You like clickbait. Admit it. FIRE is the latest clickbait. Like all clickbait, it will burn itself out, eventually. A closed mouth don’t get fed. An unclicked post don’t get read. I don’t make the rules. I follow them. Facts don’t lie. But, that doesn’t make the truth any easier to swallow.
Facts Don’t Matter
When it comes to FI, you can make money. You can make excuses. You can’t always make both.
Professionally, I have spent over a decade of my life mastering a particular set of skills. As an auditor and a financial analyst, my career is dedicated to using facts and figures to validate or invalidate the available evidence. In these fields I can confidently say that I am an expert, bonafide and certified.
However, I obtained this wealth of career experience while concurrently spending an exorbitant amount of time on social media aka the e-streets. Between these two master degrees in hard-knock life, I have learned one fact is universal: #FactsDontMatter.
Don’t underestimate how frequently we see this narrative. It is quite literally the premise of a 19-year-old show. Maybe you’ve heard of it: Survivor Island?
The premise of Survivor Island is that people go to “survive” on an “island” where people are already surviving on a place that is not always an island. The relative hypocritical example for personal finance is people who swear on they mama-and-dem life that it is impossible to live on only $30,000 when millions already live on $20,000.
How can both realities exist? Well, #FactsDontMatter, but if they did…
10. Improbable Is Not the Same as Impossible
Anybody could but most people won’t.
My father has offered me 37 years of advice. Most of it is unsolicited. All of it is valuable. Sometimes it takes me years to appreciate his wisdom. For instance, when I was far too young in years to appreciate the gravity of his insight he often reminded me that “improbable is not impossible.”
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years. – Mark Twain
I have gone on to repeat his advice to many naysayers. I imagine they leave just as baffled as I was in my youth. I like to imagine that one day they will realize the wisdom of these stolen words.
As it relates to Personal Finance, it is fascinating how often people will participate in improbable activities, like spending hundreds on lottery tickets each year as LendEDU found. Many of these same individuals draw the line at the idea of living on 90 percent of their own income.
These lottery ticket buying folks will argue FIRE is “impossible,” even though the probability of winning the lottery is even less probable. You are more likely to get attacked by a lion, a tiger, and a bear all while receiving personally tailored investment advice from the Oracle of Omaha than to hit the lottery.
What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history. – Warren Buffet
We are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. The lottery is a multi-billion dollar industry, and only 13 percent of people know about The FIRE Movement–a Financial Independence movement dedicated to helping people define their own journey to responsible money management. This anecdotal case study proves people are perfectly willing to use opinions to conjure up facts. Unfortunately, when it comes to a person’s own financial independence conjuring is best left to witches, not B***hes who Get Riches.
9. Survival of the FIREest
I do not actively practice FI or FI/RE.
I practice investing whatever I can, spending whatever I want, and praying there is a gap between the two at the end of each month. One of the most important parts of personal finance is “personal.” Know thyself, a Good Book I once read advises. Who am I to argue with Him?
My back-up plan: I am content with the traditional career model. Whereby, if things go right, I work 40-45 years and retire around age 67 to a beachfront home. If things go wrong, I retire to a van down by the river.
Don’t be so quick to bite the hand that feeds (or pays) you. To date, most of my income has come from a traditional 9 to 5. Only recently I have (successfully?) explored multiplying my income streams through more active investing and real estate investing for passive income. Why did I choose these investments? Your question is the answer.
Why not choose them? After all, doing something (or anything) is better than doing nothing.
I didn’t do anything special. I made a choice, then I acted. The pursuit of FI and FI/RE are choices. So is the choice not to pursue them. The pursuit of this lifestyle is not an affront to me, unless I choose to be offended. While I might not understand their lifestyle choices, I respect the FIRE Community’s right to make them.
Financial Independence is a great system. Like all great systems, it is not without flaws, and the barrier to entry is not the same for everyone. When I’m not an expert on a topic, I defer to the experts. For example, Kevin Matthews of Building Bread breaks down how race factors into FI/RE in a Twitter Thread.
Matt Lane of Optimize Your Life wrote about why politics should be included more in the Personal Finance Community and FIRE Discussions.
“A conversation about money without discussing politics is only developing part of the picture. If we really want to help our readers, we should be giving them the full suite of tools to take control of their money and their lives” – Optimize Your Life
8. All Money Is Not Created Equal
We’re not in Cash-Basis anymore.
As part of my review of the best 15 personal finance and investment books, I read a great book by David Bach, The Automatic Millionaire. David went on to dedicate another book to the theme of his previous work called, The Latte Factor (I haven’t read this one; though I’m not the only one that took exception). In my review I explained that I had an issue with this premise.
Specifically, David and, by extension Suze Orman, argue that if you give up coffee (latte, for our bougie readers) you’ll be able to accrue millions of dollars in retirement savings. It’s that simple!
Yes, mathematically they are both correct. But, there is a logic gap in common sense if you believe the cents used to buy coffee is the only thing standing in the way of a financially secure retirement for millions of Americans.
In the real world, even people who never drank coffee in their life don’t suddenly save the “spare” five dollars in the stock market for the next 45 straight years. In fact, MarketWatch found the average American spends 80 percent of their income not including taxes.
The average American earned $78,635 in 2018 and spent $61,224 of it, which means we’re spending about 80% of our income. – MarketWatch
1 in 3 Americans have zero dollars in retirement savings, including 28% of Baby Boomers. I’d venture to guess that at least one of those mature-aged people didn’t spend 60 years’ worth of their retirement savings on Starbucks lattes.
It’s like we live in two Americas. We certainly live in two financial Americas: just four individuals hold more wealth than 160 million Americans. And, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans own 80 percent of the wealth held in the stock market.
Maybe that’s why the average coffee-drinker isn’t worried about the ups and downs of the market. That would be like worrying about the ups and downs of high and low tide on Hawaii’s North Shore. Unless I surf, or I am actively surf-ing (presumably in Hawaii), then why in all of the infinite f***s would we give any about something that has zero impact on our daily life? As a point of fact, f***s are infinite. Yet I can barely spare any to give about what the stock market does from day-to-day.
Yes, technically all individuals have access to the stock market (the fact), but the wealthy benefit way more from the ebb and flow of the market day-to-day (the same fact operationalized in the real world).
7. Show Me The Money
Money doesn’t buy happiness. But, it makes for a great downpayment.
Harvard survey of 4,000 millionaires found that people worth $8 million or more were scarcely happier than those worth $1 million – The New York Times
I remember a small audit firm I used to work for back in my day. We had a catchy motto, too. “In God we trust. Everyone else we audit.”
We tried to get this slogan printed on office shirts but my boss–perhaps gifted with the psychic ability to see the forthcoming rise of Woke Culture and the accompanying Woke Culture Critic Olympic Games–wisely canceled our order before we got #Cancelled online. Wokeness is bordering on insomnia these days. Besides, it turns out that even the catchiest slogan and sound math can’t suddenly remedy generations of systemic problems.
Look, I get it.
Most retirement advice is more parable than math. It is not meant to be taken literally. It is meant to make a point. The point the FIRE Community, David Bach, and Suze Orman want us to “realize” is that small purchases add up over time. Do you know what else adds up over time?
BIG ASS PAYCHECKS!
For some reason, the personal finance community took a silent blood oath that forbids us from giving equal weight to any solution beyond our own personal sacrifices. This deafening silence screams at a time when CEOs make 1,000 times their own employees. This wage gap includes employees, I assume, who don’t drink lattes.
If Cash (Doesn’t) Rule Everything Around Me, then why aren’t CEOS, executives, bosses and shareholders asked to sacrifice 50-percent of their wages for the movement? I have a simple personal mantra: when in doubt, take the money.
From 1980-2014, the 90 percent got nothing. None. Zero. Zip. Not a penny in income growth. Instead, for an entire generation, the top 10 percent captured all of the income growth in the entire country. 100 percent.” – The Two Income Trap
For many FIRE practitioners, the most appealing part of the financial independence “movement” isn’t the financial part. It is the pursuit of independence. Even the people striving to be the most responsible stewards of their money realize work sucks? Independence is the idea that one day an employer will never force them to choose between putting a roof over their family’s head or another 1 to 3 percent raise when Employees Who Stay In Companies Longer Than Two Years Get Paid 50% Less. All this for the privilege of maintaining a stagnant paycheck that would have been great to live on…in 1978.
There is always a catch in the fine print.
6. You Can’t Pursue FIRE and Have Nice Things?
Whether it is for the short- or long-term, there is no version of FI or FI/RE that does not require delayed gratification. Plus, in most cases, it is easier to live on 50 percent of your income when your income is $300,000 versus $30,000. More on this later.
Unlike Twitter, in the real world, two facts can be accurate even if they originate from people with differing opinions. For example, I think it insensitive to suggest people in debt take No
Surely there is a middle ground that allows us to enjoy our spending and our saving? After all, you can afford anything, but not everything, right?
Money is not the goal. Money has no value. The value comes from the dreams money helps achieve. – Robert T. Kiyosaki
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Some people do not make enough money to practice FI, period.
This is less an affront to FI than it is an appreciation of math. Some people have an income surplus, but it is surpassed by their spending splurges. Others have an ample amount of money to pursue FI/RE but they would rather live a life of immediate gratification. They choose to enjoy their money within the guarantees of the present day rather than waiting to enjoy 25x their income when they’re elderly. After all, today isn’t promised and tomorrow isn’t a guarantee.
It is disingenuous to say Financial Independence is for everybody. Math is for everybody. The Movement is exclusive. And, it’s ok to own both narratives.
5. FIRE is (Mostly) a Math Problem
Remember when I said, “more on this later” above? Welcome to later.
In many cases, the Venn Diagram of people who don’t like FI/RE and the people who don’t like math is a perfect circle. If you never budget, spend recklessly, and don’t know where your money is coming or going today or tomorrow, then the first person you should challenge to a financial debate is located in the closest mirror you can get your hands on.
These people don’t want to live in between the gap of their income (salary) and their outcome (spending). This is a perfectly fine choice to make.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. For others, life is less about a plethora of financial choices and more about simply trying to survive their current circumstances.
Those who had suffered an income drop of 50% or more between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s were much more likely to suffer heart problems. – MarketWatch
Depending on your cost of living, even a “good income” might not stretch 31 calendar days. It certainly doesn’t stretch as far as it did twenty years ago, and in some expense categories, it doesn’t stretch as far as it did one year ago.
Further, when you live in poverty, the suggestion to live further below your means is offensive. What do you live on after you reach zero? This is a very real question a lot of people ask themselves every month (or every day).
4. Financial Independence Is Easier for Those With Lots of Money
This is not to be confused with easy. Remember when I said more than one fact can be true at the same time everywhere on Earth, except Twitter?
Nearly 8 in 10 individuals live paycheck to paycheck, including 10% making over $100,000. Therefore, while money is a significant part of the wealth formula, it is not the only secret to financial success. There is no scenario where you can spend all of your paycheck each month and pursue financial independence. It is impossible.
The third scenario, which most live, is to work until you or the money runs out.
There are certainly Everyday Millionaires, and the volume of millionaires (new and old) is larger than ever before. Money might not be a panacea, but money does solve all our money problems.
But, the easiest way to save more money is to have more money available to save. The best way to guarantee wealth is to be born into wealth; not to accumulate it over your lifetime. Statistically, the rich really do get richer!
On the road to wealth, money is premium fuel. Like gas in your car, money ensures you have the ability to reach your financial destination. Sure, it will not stop you from running off the road or replace you as the driver. However, in this analogy, the wealthy are in another class. For us, the sky is the limit. For them, the sky is the starting line.
Wealth offers a multi-lane highway of options. Sure, FI is the road less traveled, but that is partially informed by the fact that most know they need their financial road trip to go exactly to plan. Why even bother making the treacherous trip if one wrong turn in Albuquerque (i.e. healthcare crisis, family emergency, or hell a bad hangover-style weekend in Vegas) means starting over, bankruptcy, or worse?
The wealthy don’t even have to concern themselves with these type of financial trade-offs. Whenever they run off the financial road map of life–while we struggle with how to get back on track or pay for the repairs–the wealthy can just buy another vehicle and get right back on the road, repeated indefinitely.
The option to make financial mistakes and recover within the same lifetime doesn’t exist for most of us. And it never will.
There is no FI or fee-fi-fo-fum that will save an average worker, living on average wages from an unexpected financial cliff. In the money game, most people will spend a lifetime fighting uphill, both ways, and they still won’t reach the mountain top. Some even believe Millennials face the most difficult financial future since the Great Depression.
3. My Family and No One I Know is Wealthy
Hello, welcome to the party. I’m sorry it’s already so crowded here.
Many (correctly) conclude FI/RE isn’t for them before they ever start. They believe the movement is limited to individuals that make six figures or who were born into wealth. For the record, according to Business Insider, if you were born after 1980 you need to make $287,000 to make the equivalent of $100,000.
There are data and merit to support the more money, less problems belief system.
Because of its complexity, I won’t go in-depth on the prevalence of entrenched, generational, and limited economic mobility that has often been perpetrated by the very laws that govern all of our finances. I would do it a disservice. I don’t consider myself an expert (we will book experts on an upcoming podcast), so instead, I will stay in my lane.
Most white boys raised in wealthy families will stay rich or upper-middle-class as adults, but black boys raised in similarly rich households will not. – Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Men, Even if They Grew Up in Wealthy Homes
Here are two thoughts I feel somewhat comfortable offering. Admittedly, they are difficult–yes, even for me–to accept in coexistence:
1. Generational wealth and wealth inequality are real societal problems that prevented you, your family, or someone you know from attaining and building wealth in the past up to and including present day;
2. Including the present day and every day thereafter, there are few barriers (physically) stopping most individuals from making a personal change in this narrative timeline starting with their own savings, and preferably, an individual retirement account (IRA) or investment account. This is why I often purposely point to the fork in the road when we are discussing personal finances (Micro) versus economic finances (Macro). In the former, the symptom is usually much easier to diagnosis: personal inaction. Procrastination keeps more individual’s savings account balances at zero than even the most dastardly devised national policy.
Another perspective I respect:
A conversation about money without discussing politics is only developing part of the picture. If we, as personal finance writers, really want to help our readers, we should be giving them the full picture and the full suite of tools to take control of their money and their lives. It is also a severely under-covered part of the personal finance discussion. – Personal Finance and Politics
2. Personal Finance and Political Finance Are Related, They Will Never Be One in the Same
For what it’s worth, I worked in a government office once. We wanted to update a two-page document that everyone agreed needed to be refreshed. It took us sixteen weeks to fight through the bureaucracy to get all the necessary approvals. To restate, it took 16 weeks to update a 2-page document EVERYONE AGREED NEEDED TO BE UPDATED!
When it comes to government remedying today’s problems, I won’t hold my breath. Probably because I would be dead several decades before the government gave me permission to exhale.
If you’re not contributing any money to retirement, even $50/mo will make a substantial difference: adding to nearly $24,600 after 20 years, $56,700 after 30, and $119,800 after 40. That’s still not enough to retire on, but it’s $119,800 more than $0. – Motley Fool
Instead, some (not to be confused with all) individuals can immediately improve their own personal finances with a simple walk–or, assuming you used the internet to access this post, a download–that ends in any scenario allowing for an early, often, and consistent saving and investment plan. I believe both personal and policy accountability are needed.
You can choose to fight the power. You can dedicate a lifetime to the remedy of the policy, political, and structurally systemic issues that prevent generational wealth. Does the world of personal finance need more politics? The Washington Post says yes. Yes, the same Washington Post that forbids vacations for the indebted.
They say the system works, but I’ve seen it fail me too. Am I going to believe their promises for a brighter future or trust my lying eyes in the face of darkness?
I’ve chosen to go out swinging rather than hoping on a prayer that some wealthy policy-makers, quite literally on a hill, grant me financial mercy at some mystery date ETA TBD. I guess I’d rather be carried by six friends than wait to be judged worthy of a handout by twelve strangers.
1. Financial Independence is For Somebody But It Aint For Everybody
Sometimes I think I’m too old to Millennial. Aren’t we exhausted from being offended by everything, yet? I know I am. FI isn’t for everyone. Ok, and?
I am so old that I can remember when other people’s achievements were considered to be an inspiration, rather than a grievance. – Thomas Sowell
I hate to be a cynic, but maybe I am in denial. My profession, or my life, has trained me to follow the data. When people ask me what’s the first step to FI? My honest response is, “Step 1: don’t quit your day job.”
As Boyz II Men ominously warned a generation of Millennials as they danced at prom or walked across the stage at a high school graduation this isn’t The End of the Road. It’s just the end of your journey to one version of FI. There are infinite paths to a financially secure retirement.
Yes, by ratio, business owners and entrepreneurs are more likely to be among the ranks of millionaires. Lucrative as this option is for clickbait, it doesn’t take into account that these same people sacrifice bi-weekly paychecks, employer-sponsored healthcare coverage, and many other benefits most white and blue-collar workers take for granted.
Are you bout that life?
People preemptively declare defeat because they can’t figure out how to save $1,000,000 when they haven’t even figured out where their first $100,000 will come from. One leads to the other; and solving for $100,000 is easier than solving for $1,000,000. Put another way, most individuals are better served locking in a $30,000 baseline paycheck–adjusted based on the cost-of-living for the city in the United States where you live–rather than pouting because they can’t find their last $300,000.
A consistent paycheck from a regular 9 to 5 is still the most common (and easiest) road map to Financial Independence.
The facts, which as you will recall from when we began this post, do not matter. But, not liking a fact doesn’t change the merits on which the fact is based. The facts are it is easier to pursue and make more money when you already have the security of, well, making money.
In the end, these choices aren’t very glamorous. They’re not even that complicated. You and I both know simplicity doesn’t get headlines. Simplicity won’t even get the title of this post. Because then you would have never clicked this “clickbait.”
And, the only thing I hate wasting more than my valuable money is my precious time.
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