The first time I encountered the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community I had an uneasy feeling. Sure, the people were friendly and nice, but their message sounded familiar, like I had heard this all before and it ran a shiver down my spine.
The original goal was to start a business partnership with a popular blogger where the income would be shared on an affiliate program unavailable to most bloggers. I had access to this program. Now I needed to find a blogger willing to work with me.
I discovered what is probably the most popular blog in the demographic and found his frugality appealing.
I attended one of the now numerous camps in the FIRE community to meet the populist blogger. He took to my message and passion quickly, but didn’t want to participate in the affiliate program, a DIY online tax preparation alternative to TurboTax.
Instead, he wanted me to be his tax professional. In a few moments this new offer would change my life in two fundamental ways. First, my small tax practice was swamped beyond human understanding by people wanting the same tax guy this blogger had, and second, I was thrust into the center of the FIRE movement, a movement never my own.
As an insider I saw things differently than Suze Orman. I didn’t hate the FIRE community for frugality and dreams of financial independence; I hated the FIRE community for what they planned to do with their new-found freedom and power.
Everything Wrong with the FIRE Community
Suze Orman felt the FIRE philosophy promised the good life with too small an investment account to enter retirement, especially the early kind.
That isn’t even a problem with FIRE. Depending on your temperament and lifestyle, you can retire on almost anything, even nothing if you so choose. Nobody has the right to tell you your preferred level of expressed affluence is wrong. If you want to live life large, do so; if you want to live a Spartan existence, you have my blessing.
The real problem of FIRE is arrogance; the all-consuming desire to let the world know you are right and everyone else is wrong. There is no room allowing people to live life on their terms if it doesn’t fit the FIRE canon.
Perhaps the most egregious sin is the desire to turn the movement into a cult. Yes, one of the leading bloggers in the demographic brags he has started a cult!
This is a serious allegation and requires proof. Without calling anyone out, it doesn’t take long to figure out who I’m speaking of. A quick Google search should assuage your curiosity.
The term cult does not imply good things. A dictionary definition begins with the religious connotations. Since a large percentage of FIRE members claim no religious faith these explanations can not be the ones implied.
The only explanation remaining is the “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person.”
Cults are not pretty things. I thought it was cute or at least worth pursuing to grow this blog. The instant I crossed that line a reader explained to me what his family went through when caught up in a cult. I could never be something so evil. That was the last I desired to have a cult or cult-like following. I care about my readers more than that.
And cults tend to end badly. Think Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians. Sane people do not want to belong to a cult.
I’m not picking on only one blogger, either. This illusion of helping people while helping yourself to an over-sized helping is not endearing, it’s sanctimonious. Another word with less than a honorable meaning.
The fake-ness and hero worship bothered me from the beginning. Most in the community are wonderful people, yet too many acted in a manner I found disturbing.
There is a level of entitlement in the FIRE movement. There are bloggers who use their position to get as many goods and services for “free” as they possibly can, justifying the behavior as deserved due to their position. Sounds abusive to me. Sounds like a cult, all right.
Some handouts are okay. Getting free travel by working the credit card system is acceptable as long as you acknowledge you are not frugal when doing so; you are just shifting your spending to someone else.
Many bloggers advocating frugality are far from it when you consider all the spending they do by getting other to pay their way.
It is even worse when the attempt is to shift spending to someone who doesn’t want to make your payments. Banks trying to get your business want to issue rewards as an enticement for patronage. Individuals and small businesses are less inclines because it hurts more when forced to give in this manner. And if you act entitled to special treatment . . .
Every expenses should be included when you review your budget. You are spending even when someone else pays! Acting self-righteous by claiming frugality when your carbon footprint is higher than the average of the highest polluting nation on the planet is not frugal; it’s vulgar.
But all this is background noise to the greatest crime of the FIRE movement:
People in FIRE want to retire as soon as possible so they can demand others do a job they refuse to do themselves. They become the boss they would never work for. They lack humility, demanding respect because they learned to game the system better than most.
My mind is numb watching these people retire as young as possible to travel the world, sending a steady stream of photos to Instagram so friends and family — but mostly strangers — can have their faces rubbed in it. The news feeds are filled with these stories, encouraging the unhealthy hero worship.
Back in my day (I walked to school uphill both ways in snow) the equivalent was when grandpa brought out the slides and projector at a family gathering.
Slides are an old technology where pictures are imposed on a plastic slide, used in a projector to show the photos on a large screen.
Everyone dreaded the slides. Grandpa would go through a long line of pictures of their last vacation. Nobody cared and if they did it wasn’t to celebrate with grandpa, but to loath him. It was boring!
Instagram is the modern version of the slide. The only reason people show up is because they want the opportunity to flaunt their pictures, too. It really is about bragging and jealousy. Life is too short for that.
I suggest people enjoy their round-the-world adventure. Keep the updates for close family and friends so they don’t worry about your well-being. If the rest of us wanted to go we would have. Write a nice article later, fleshing out the details (with photos), for people planning a trip to where you have been.
There is a hedonism in FIRE. I’ve enjoyed working with many people in the demographic. It amazes me the level of incredible people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with. I am equally amazed at the level of solipsism. No humility whatsoever. Can this really be setting a good example for the world at large?
Let us not be desirous of vain glory. Provoking one another, envying one another.
Pointing out the emperor has no clothes is a sure way to lose your card-carrying status within a community. The alternative is to deny the truth and be part of the problem. If I’m out, I’m out. At least I was honest.
This brings us to the scariest part of the movement no one wants to talk about: phalanstery.
At the turn of the 19th century the French utopian socialist thinker, Charles Fourier, created the term phalanstry to illustrate the arrangements for living in a future communal society. Dostoevsky alludes to this in Crime and Punishment*.
You would think 200 years would lay such foolishness to rest. It hasn’t.
There is a group within FIRE that wants to create small communities without roads, only bike paths. The language and terminology of these plans is what finally triggered my memory. A quick search of my bookshelves verified my fears.
The FIRE community is made up of the most intelligent and educated people in our society. The same can be said by contemporaries of Fourier and Marx.
Need I remind you the utopia promised by these intellectuals gave us a 100+ million body count in Stalin’s Russia and perhaps as many as 130 million dead in Mao’s China.
These utopian bike cities** could be the new Gulag Archipelago in the not so distant future.
Before you protest this would never happen, remember that is exactly what was said in the 19th century. This new world order was supposed to bring in a worker’s paradise. FIRE promises a similar paradise of world travel, ecology, environmentalism and early retirement paid for by the backs of those outside the movement. It never turns out as planned when everyone wants to play and no one wants to work. Hedonism is a bad ingredient in any recipe.
FIRE saw its reflection in the water and fell in love with itself. Remember, this was a curse placed on Narcissus by Nemesis, the god of revenge.
We must always be cognizant of Solzhenitsyn’s warning.
Hope and a Bright Spot
Everything wrong with FIRE still does not make it a deal-breaker. Spending less than you earn and investing for the future is the best financial advice you can receive. If it stopped there it would be a helluva movement.
But it never stops where it should. Yet, in all the debauchery and self-aggrandizement there are beacons of hope.
Before J. Money sold Rockstar Finance he had a charitable arm to that blog. Even thought the funds were small they made a big difference. Best of all, they were given to people who had no chance of ever paying it back (the only real charity).
J. Money isn’t the only one walking the talk. Several bloggers are paying-it-forward in heroic fashion without fanfare or chest thumping. It gives me hope in humanity.
Utopian bike cities will not solve the world’s ills if you hop on a plane and travel the world on someone else’s dime. The carbon footprint is still outsized.
We need more J. Moneys. Giving without expectation (or possibility) of repayment is the only real giving. I wish a blogger with massive traffic would spearhead this. It would show real leadership. This blog manages an average 70,000 page views per month. If nobody wants to pick up where J. left off I will take the lead. It would be truly sad if the jet setters sending us constant Instagram updates didn’t make this a priority.
Of whom much is given, much is expected.
I imagine my membership in the FIRE community is revoked after this rant. I didn’t expect anything different.
My choices were to remain silent and allow the insanity to continue or to say what I think (and know) without calling anyone specifically out.
We are all guilty of hedonism now and again. It’s natural. When it becomes your whole lifestyle and you flaunt it as “the only correct way” to live life you have crossed the line.
Believe it or not, I like most people in the FIRE community. Many are clients. My guess is I will not be welcome around the FIRE anymore. I’m okay with that. It was never my tribe anyway. I’m more of a country boy who enjoys a good card game Friday night with neighbors and family. None of them care a lick about FIRE and what it stands for, yet they are financial set. And it is a short 1 1/4 mile bike ride.
I’m not alone in pointing out issues with FIRE. No one has mysteriously disappeared for calling the FIRE community out on its cult-like behavior and utopian bike cities.
I’m serious about the benevolent fund built in a similar style J. Money used on Rockstar Finance. If we are so rich we need to show more gratitude by paying-it-forward to those who have no ability to pay back. That makes the world a better place than any self-serving bike city ever can.
If a big-name blogger doesn’t take this project I will quietly (no self-aggrandizement allowed) start the program myself.
Jordan Peterson said the meaning of life is to end “needless suffering.” Viktor Frankl ended his book Man’s Search for Meaning with: the meaning of life is to help others find meaning in theirs.
I could not have said it better.
* Note 7 of Part Three of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation gives a short description of Fourier’s phalanstry in action, something that got Dostoevsky in trouble with the law.
** Of course bike friendly cities are a good idea. A city built with the environment in mind would also have retail and office space within walking/biking distance as well. If you want to see a city designed around sound environmental ideas and bike friendly go to your library and check out the April 2019 issue of National Geographic. Best of all, Nat Geo will not try to sell you something. Just good reporting.
Final Note: After finishing the rough draft of this post I sent out a trial balloon on Facebook to see the reaction to a post on Everything Wrong with FIRE. To my surprise the leading suggestion involved health insurance. Many felt FIRE doesn’t deal with the health insurance issue appropriately.
I solved this problem some time ago for my family. I use health sharing. It does require faith, but shouldn’t we have faith in something?
In the Resources section below I have a link for Medi-share. It is an affiliate link.
After careful review, my family signed up with Liberty Healthshare. For $399 per month we get 100% coverage after a $1,750 deductible. That alone is enough to build faith in God. If you mention this blog I might (not certain how their referral program works) get a referral fee.
More Wealth Building Resources
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