The FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community is a growing demographic still trying to find its way. The FI part of the equation is easier to understand than the RE part. The issues revolve around the definition of retirement and what constitutes the appropriate lifestyle once FI is reached.
Some of the wealthiest individuals of the last half century provide an example. When Sam Walton was the richest man alive on the planet he still drove a beat up old pickup truck. He saw no reason to spend money on a new truck when the one he had was comfortable, did the job and gave him pleasure (a bit of a status symbol). In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Warren Buffett confessed he has been semi-retired for decades. Charlie Munger, Buffett’s right-hand man at Berkshire-Hathaway, joked Warren is good at doing nothing.
Like Walton, Buffett doesn’t go for the extravagant spending so common among the rich. Buffett’s suit is off the rack and he eats at McDonalds. He also lives in the same home he bought in 1958.
This last week an email arrived chastising me for my frugality. I was reminded my net worth is at the top of the list on Rockstar Finance. (I haven’t updated my net worth status in a while so the number listed is a bit shy.) The sender was concerned over how it looked for a blogger like me with an eight figure net worth to have an annual spending habit in the low twenties.
I responded with the same stories on Walton and Buffett above. I also reminded the concerned reader spending more would not make me happy and I was in no way interested in what people thought of my spending habits. If folks think I’m cheap that is their deal and doesn’t concern me.
What the reader missed (and he was exceptionally polite, and worried my spending level might offend some) was what really mattered in my life: joy and happiness.
Living in the boondocks makes it easier for me to spend less. The nearest retail outlet is nearly a half hour drive. I could shop online, but I tend to break out in a severe rash when engaged in the shopping experience. (For Father’s Day — yesterday here in the States — I wasted spent $3 in gas to visit a restaurant in Forest Junction (my old haunt) for a free glass of milk and dish of ice cream for the whole family. Life really is good in boondock country.)
At the end of the day I really don’t want for anything. I have a beautiful, loving wife and two awesome and wonderful daughters. Books are on my shelves waiting for consumption. The level of contentment I feel is greater than any other activity or spending could bring me.
There is a difference between happiness and joy; joy is more important. I’m happy most of the time, but always joyful. I found the right path to a joyful life at an early age. I was lucky. The noise of urban living never distracted me. My grandparents lived downstairs of the farmhouse and we lived upstairs until I was in middle school. Growing up in the 1960’s and 70s with grandparents you were sure to hear the lessons they learned living through the Great Depression. Like most kids, the lessons had a hard time sticking. As I grew older I remembered the stories and took them to heart. It made a difference.
There is a significant difference between granddad and me. Grandpa, who we called Doc, would never in a million years have told anyone his net worth. It was none of your damn business. I’m more open, but experience is showing me I should have listened closer to my grandparents in that arena too.
Growing up on a farm in a very rural area of 1970 Wisconsin meant we did things differently. We had more fun than you can imagine. My brother, uncle and I played cops and robbers on our bikes every summer. The dog days of summer always had a water fight or two. Those were good days I miss tremendously. They are gone now and only exist in here (pointing to my temple).
As hard as life was we always found time to laugh and tell jokes. We worked and played hard. Free time frequently meant a quick run to the creek (we pronounced it “crick”) to fish. When we were older we raced around the back forty on mini-bikes. The best we could do was 40 mph; we could also jump ramps.
We missed out on nothing. Nothing! I was as oblivious to the world at large back then. Buried deep in the recesses of my mind I was aware of a brave new world that hath such people in it as I am now.
We were happy as a tight knit family. We felt joy with rare exception. These days we play cards Friday night at my parents’ house. Afterwards I hug my mother and father and tell them I love them. Yes, even my dad. You see, money will never buy you the things that matter, will never buy you joy. And the happiness money buys is fleeting.
Money, after a certain point, is nothing more than a game to occupy one’s time. Money is a scorecard in the grand scheme of daily life. Nothing more.
Back to the FIRE Community and the Nouveau Riche
The FIRE community is comprised of highly intelligent people with honorable intentions. Lately we see the focus turning more toward the FI part of the equation. I like to pretend I had a bit to do with that.
Retirement is still a hotly discussed topic! Professor Jordan Peterson said it best when he stated most people don’t have a career and will never have a career. What they will have is a job. A job is what you do to keep a roof over your head and put food on the table. It is rarely a lovely experience. It’s work you have to do to earn money. A career, on the other hand, is something you enjoy immensely. Only 5% of people ever have a career. Most only have a job.
That explains the reason why so many in the FIRE community want to save like crazy so they can check out of the job and into a life that fills them with joy. Too many people trade a traditional job for a self-imposed job: income properties, small business or side hustle even though it doesn’t bring fulfillment, only a bit more free time.
Warren Buffett is pushing toward 90 and still goes to the office. I understand his drive. There is a certain comfort in doing what one loves. Charlie Munger is 94 and spends a serious percentage of is waking hours reading. He, like Buffett, is still dedicated to learning daily even at their age. Some might argue it’s a waste of time, but Buffett has expressed on numerous occasions the pleasure he gets searching for good companies to buy at a good price.
Retirement is a trap! I see plenty of people in this demographic on my social media pages. They fill their days with all kinds of activities. Before long they are doing things that create value. This is no surprise. The human spirit is designed to build, grow, share, experience, create. One recently semi-retired member of the community is working on stained glass projects. Good for her. Many start blogs or podcasts. Many travel, at least for a while. Then they invest in real estate (the other RE) or start a business or fill their days with a variety of side hustles.
Hear the Wisdom
My grandparents imparted powerful advice to us kids all those years ago. It shaped and formed our lives. Warren Buffett admits he is semi-retired. What he is really saying is that he has to do something to fill his days so it may as well be something he enjoys.
The uber-successful seem to never want to quit. Elon Musk had it made financially and put it all on the line to start a litany of businesses which promise to revolutionize the world we live in. Steve Jobs worked until his body gave out less than a month before his death. Even then he worked as much as possible from home.
Here is an old and often told story:
A scorpion came to the edge of the river and wanted to cross. The river was wide and deep. The only way across was if he received help.
The scorpion said to a nearby frog, “Frog, please take me to the other side of the river. I can ride on your back while you swim across.”
“Are you crazy!” said the frog. “If I let you ride my back you will sting me as we cross the river and I’ll drown. Scorpions sting frogs; it’s what scorpions do!”
“Why would I do that?” said the scorpion. “If I sting you while crossing the river I’ll drown with you. My request is honorable. Let me ride your back across the river.”
The frog saw the logic of the scorpion’s argument. The scorpion would die if he stung the frog while riding his back across the river.
The frog relented and allowed the scorpion to climb on his back. The frog stepped into the river and started swimming across. About half way across the scorpion stung the frog. As the poison started working the frog began to drown. The scorpion fell into the water as well.
“Why?” asked the frog as he started to go under. “Why did you sting me? Now you will die! Now you will drown with me!”
The scorpion replied words of wisdom before he went under the waves, “I am a scorpion. Scorpions sting frogs. It’s what scorpions do.”
Do not be fooled. We are what we are. Our minds and bodies were not made to be unproductive. We play and work to our happiness, joy and health.
You and I are human. Humans play, love and create. It is our nature. It’s what humans do.
Don’t be in a hurry to RE. FI is an honorable and noble goal I strongly encourage. Find the things which bring you joy and happiness, then do them. And don’t let anyone convince you to live their version of life because therein lies sorrow.
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