09 May The Two Sub-Cultures of FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early)
In the heyday of Your Money or Your Life’s original best-seller status, Joe rarely made public appearances. He agreed to join me in 1993, though, for a talk to 200 people at the venerable Elliot Bay Bookstore in Pioneer Square in our hometown, Seattle. He was wearing his one suit – the one he’d donned for every live seminar since 1980. I was wearing my uniform at the moment, the purple belted dress with shoulder pads I’d worn on Oprah (both times).
In the question and answer part of the evening, a young woman rose to say, “I can’t seem to keep track of every penny I spend. Do you have any suggestions?” Joe looked at her like an alien creature. He reached into his chest pocket (the one with a plastic pocket protector like engineers have worn from time immemorial) for his ever-present little notebook and his pen. “You take out a notebook. You take out a pen. You write it down.” His voice was dripping with sarcasm. In 2018 that might have been Mr. Money Mustache telling someone spending on something they don’t need, “Go punch yourself in the face.” Minus the sarcasm.
The young woman drooped like a daisy and sat down. I intervened.
“I know how hard it is to change a habit. Sometimes we’re embarrassed. Sometimes we don’t want to be the odd duck in our social circles. Tell me, what makes it hard for you to keep track?” Watered with a bit of compassion, she came alive, talking about what made it hard and we problem solved and she smiled and the evening moved on.
The Two Sub-Cultures of the FIRE Community
There you have the two flavors of the FIRE community: the hard-nosed (has to be if it gets punched), clear edged goad to get your sh*t together and the supportive encouragement for the financially endarkened to walk what looks like a tightrope but is really a lit path out of the woods.
Joe was an introvert, I an extrovert. He was an engineer, I was a writer with a social work bent. He’d rather stay home and tinker in his workshop. I loved travel. He hated parties and sat in a corner. I circulated and connected. He called people out. I called people in. Fortunately, we respected, admired and relied on one another’s strengths. I am fairly sure it was out of this partnership that his seminars that found an audience of 10 thousand became a book that found an audience of a million.
Broadly speaking, here are some differences. Libertarians believe in personal responsibility and freedom. Social democrats believe in society’s responsibility to its members to create fairness and cohesion. Libertarians believe that if everyone takes responsibility for their own lives, everything would work itself out without the over-weaning welfare state. Social democrats believe that without the moderating force of government, we’d end up with unfettered capitalism where the rich get richer and the poor get screwed.
Libertarians believe the money they make is theirs to keep because it was their genius and hard work that earned it. Taxes are stealing from the job and wealth creators. Social democrats believe that society’s investment in infrastructure (from roads to scientific advances to the internet) and education of workers and orderly markets undergirds everyone’s ability to prosper; taxes, invested wisely, have always made American great.
The journey to FI requires clarity, sharp attention to opportunities, every tax trick you can find to keep more of your money, a focus on one’s own life and prosperity. Hard work. Dedication. Clear goals. Cleverness. If others want to get on the FI bandwagon, it’s their responsibility, not your job to bring them along. This phase leans towards libertarian values.
Life After Financial Independence
After FI, and after the recovery time and a few years of ticking experiences off your bucket list, some FIers discover that service – doing something that helps others – is more fun than one more winter on a beach. They don’t deprive themselves of beach time – they balance it with volunteering and creativity. Some find themselves teaching FI to others; they are the experts and others flock to them for advice. What a great service that is! And it is what Joe and I did at first. That’s what many of you reading this do. That’s what the various FI gatherings support. And blogs and groups.
Eventually, though, Joe and I discovered that we didn’t want to just teach FI. We wanted to help people, projects and groups we’d met that were working on raising consciousness both through spiritual teachings and through environmental activism. We started charging for the seminars and donating all proceeds to such groups (eventually giving away a million dollars from our teaching and other donations). Someone once asked us cynically, “Are you save the world types?” Yep. Our motto was “We want to leave this campground (earth) better than we found it.”
I believe many FIers get to this juncture. They luxuriate in time out of the cubicle. They travel the world. They meet an amazing range of people, including those who could use some of their talents to increase literacy or justice or health or political causes or the arts or access to nature or protection of natures and on and on and on. They talk about the “helper’s high” – and this is what FIers have time to discover and live.
Often they will discover that problems can’t be addressed one kindness at a time. There is structural poverty, structural racism, structural hunger, structural injustices. These people start working on… yes… social change. This is when they seem to tip towards a more social democrat point of view.
Mind you, this isn’t everyone. But it is a recognizable pattern. Mr. Money Mustache had a yen to create a community space out of an old warehouse-y space – with a lot of help from mustachians just for the fun of it.
Lest it seem like I’m putting socialism above libertarianism, and the common good above individual achievement, I also see that as FIers mature into this freedom they find a balance between focus on themselves and service to community. They extend themselves and then retreat into themselves. My years of healing cancer were such an inner journey.
So whether it is temperament or sequence, I see both tendencies in the FI world: libertarian and social democrat.
From Personal to Social Responsibility
In fact, widening the frame, I recognize this pattern in many religions and spiritual traditions – from personal responsibility to social responsibility. In Buddhism, there is the Hinayana (Thervada) branch and the Mahayana branch. Hinayana says that the only person you can save is yourself – and do so with focus and diligence. Mahayana says that until all are enlightened none are enlightened. Our nation has both: entrepreneurs and activists. Socialist Eugene Debs said to a judge, “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Consider the Koan of the United States Declaration of Independence, the dynamic tension out of which this country was formed: “… with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty: personal responsibility. Justice: social responsibility. Is that also the Koan of the FI path as well? Sometimes personally focused. Sometimes wanting to make a difference in our communities with the free time we’ve earned.
What do you think? Do you tend towards one or the other of these poles? Have you changed over time? Is it okay that some people on this path are very pragmatic and concrete and some are dreamers and environmentalists, some are all about the money and some are all about the meaning? Do you find yourself shifting between these two poles, not attached to either?