When I started this blog a primary goal was to share the worldview from my side of the desk. Over the years I’ve seen things I would never have seen if I were not in the profession I am in. And now I’ve seen things in the early retirement community I can no longer keep secret.
Many secrets have been shared over the last few years while new secrets have emerged as I sit smack-dab in the middle of the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community. In many regards I represent an anti-FIRE philosophy. I espouse frugality while venting disdain for travel and anything that echoes of retirement.
As an odd apologist for the FIRE community I watched on as Suze Orman set the community on fire when she exclaimed she HATED! the FIRE movement. While card-carrying members were up in arms I muttered under my breath, “I know what you mean.”
Yes, you heard that right. I actually agreed with Orman on something, a rare occurrence. Orman’s insistence you need $5 million to retire is absolute rubbish. But there is something deeply disturbing about the FIRE community and it has the power to rip it apart.
To make matters worse, I may be the only one in the community who understands what is happening under the surface. And how I know this is due to my unique position in the community.
As readers may know (and they will now if they didn’t), I prepare taxes or advise a number of A-list bloggers within the FIRE community. I also consult with several people each week from this blog. And a concerning pattern has taken shape.
Feelings of Failure
It didn’t exactly start with Mr. Money Mustache, but the FIRE community solidified around Pete and his work. Pete retired at the ripe old age of 30 and set a new standard in early retirement.
News feeds have a litany of stories of 30-somethings living the good life as they travel abroad. Coupled with the stories of people paying off a gazillion dollars in debt in four and a half minutes and it starts to look easy.
Except it isn’t that easy! It’s actually damn hard. Personal circumstances play a vital role. Where you live, your health and education opportunities determine at least a part of the outcome.
I’ve been consulting with members of the FIRE community for close to 5 years now. At every personal finance (PF) conference I’ve attended I conducted consulting sessions. Tuesdays and Thursdays are consulting days at the office and I’m usually booked months in advance. (Okay! Sometimes I get caught up because I say “no” for a few months to every request.)
You would think consulting sessions with a “wealthy accountant” would focus on taxes. Au contraire. Personal finance issues and retirement are front and center as well.
People pay a lot of money for what frequently turns into a therapy session. Fully half of all consulting sessions start with an apology that sounds something like this: “I’m 37, but I haven’t retired yet.”
Your 37 and and haven’t retired? The inhumanity. But I have to take their words seriously! The words come out as contrition. These people feel like complete failures because they were still gainfully employed the day after their 30th birthday.
The steady stories of early retirees living the good life, traveling the world and loaded with cash has warped the worldview of many young people.
Another 15% or so of consulting clients already reached financial independence and partook of early retirement. Traveling grew old or they didn’t care for running around any more. They need guidance to get back into life.
Which leaves at best a third of my consulting clients who ask what I would consider normal questions of a tax guy.
Tears in Heaven
On more than one occasion it came to tears. Earlier this year a young man needed a consulting session bad. He started the session with an apology; he was 32 and still was working out of necessity. His voice broke and then the tears came.
This is why I felt somewhat the same as Suze Orman said she HATED! the FIRE community idea of frugality and early retirement. There is more to it than that. Some people take it to heart and experience depression when the extraordinary doesn’t come to pass.
Orman is wrong on many levels. She is too much of a self-promoter for me. But she does get it right often enough. That is why she reached the position she has as a trusted (by many) financial resource.
Orman is also right on a few things. A singular goal of early retirement smacks of narrow-mindedness. Exactly what do you plan on doing with all that time if not engaged in creating value? (Now you know why I’m an outlier of the FIRE community. Many stay far away due to my opinions concerned they may rub off. A recent visit to the doctor confirms I’m contagious.)
But if a community causes depression in some people it might be time to rethink the mantra. I’m only one guy and I have only so many therapy session time slots. There has to be a better way.
A few weeks ago I was talking with Pete (Mr. Money Mustache) when I shared these facts with him. He was aghast. He had no idea people were experiencing these kinds of negative emotions due to the FIRE movement and his work.
But it’s not Pete’s fault! Like many people Pete had the opportunity. Unlike many people he went for it and succeeded! His story resonated and for a reason. The MMM story provides a template for how it can be done.
Saving hard and investing gives you an advantage. If others are distressed it isn’t your fault!
I wish I had an easy answer for people struggling with FIRE community concepts. If you reached your 40th birthday, or God forbid, 50, before you retire there is no shame! Even if you retire at 70 or older there is no shame.
But the older guys are not the problem. When a 70 year old asks for a consulting session he doesn’t worry about early retirement; he wants guidance on financial issues, legacy planning, investments, taxes and medical problems. The pressure to retire early left the station long ago. And thank God for that. Pity is not a good place to begin a PF plan.
For the younger guys feeling the weight I need to convince them retirement isn’t the issue; financial independence is. Clients in their 20s want a firm game plan to reach the finish line no later than their 30th year. It’s an insane request.
Up to this point I just said what needed to be said, but the only way to get the message across is with an allegory. And I start with a joke so their minds open to options.
Here is what I say:
I’m not afraid of public speaking; I’m afraid people might actually believe what I tell them.
Public speaking is the number one fear for most people. People would prefer a root canal than to speak before a group.
Not me. I’ve never had an issue with speaking to a group of any size. I guess I’m weird that way.
What does scare the living bejesus out of me is that someone in the crowd may actually listen and take my words to heart. And that too is a bit strange. (It seems your favorite accountant is often half bubble off center.)
From the inception of this blog to today I’ve worked hard to outline where I failed and how I dealt with the issues. But no matter how hard I try people seem to think it was easy for me.
History seems preordained to future readers. The same applies to me. Readers know the outcome even when reading the struggles I faced and anguish I felt. There was no chance of failure. The outcome was known.
It was never easy and it certainly wasn’t a sure thing at the time. The nights I lay awake in bed in a cold sweat trying to figure out what to do did not guarantee an acceptable outcome. There were a few times when I thought I was finished for good. Business can mete out some bloody lessons.
And that is why public speaking doesn’t scare. I faced far worse deaths than dying on stage.
But what about my fear that people might take my words to heart?
That is where the real fear lies. When I accept a podcast or speak to a group (or even when speaking to a client in a consulting session) there is no guarantee my best advise will work. Like everyone else, my past is littered with good ideas that went bust!
My concern when working with any client is to prevent further harm. A victim of assault (yes, I’ve had a few sessions where personal safety was the primary issue) needs good advise, but the risks already exist and it is imperative I weigh my words carefully to prevent further harm.
Even when it comes to business, money and taxes I take great care. The mistakes I’ve made over the years are legend and a reminder of how fallible I am . Yes, a tax professional with my experience can get it wrong. (I know, it blows my mind, too!)
But it happens. The best laid plans often go awry. Standing in front of a group of people doesn’t cause the fear. The fear is later when I realize some of the attendees will take my words and use them. Using history as a guide I know some of those concepts will not work as designed.
Lots of Money
By now alert readers will point out the title of this post promised a happy retirement with money; lots and lots of cash.
I didn’t forget my promise and it wasn’t a click bait title either. Before I could deliver on the promise I had to expose you to the riptides under the surface of the FIRE community; a riptide even the fearless leaders of the community are probably not aware of.
Then I needed to share an allegory to illustrate the problem the leaders of the community face. The winners have a jilted view. They made it happen. They saved, invested and it worked. It is hard at times to see what is happening on the ground floor when sitting at the peak
There are many with serious medical issues not so lucky. Educational and business opportunities also play a key role.
Still, nearly anyone (I leave room for the possibility some have little to no chance of living the FIRE fantasy) can reach the goals espoused by the FIRE community.
Suze Orman was wrong to HATE! the FIRE community when she later admitted she didn’t fully understand the movement. (I think Suze Orman is a very smart lady and knew exactly what the FIRE community stood for. She also understands human psychology. She said exactly what she wanted and the FIRE community promoted her most recent book better than $100 million of advertising. We need to be smarter than that FIRE community and not be so easily baited.)
She did get one thing right. The FIRE community leaves many feeling empty when the bar is set so high that only a few can reach it (retire by 30 that is, not financial independence which is attainable by the vast majority).
The pursuit of financial independence and attaining said goal at any age is awesome! Feeling bad because some 30-something has his/her picture in the news feed enjoying another adventure around the world is the wrong impression to take.
Remember who I am! I consult with many of these people and speak with them periodically even if they aren’t clients. More than you think return to a “normal” job or start their own business after the shine comes off the bauble of early retirement.
So how do you reach financial independence? How do you get the loads of money I promised?
As my old friend Doug Nordman once said, “Your net worth is a product of
- your savings rate,
- investment fees and
It’s as simple as that. The more you save and invest the better off you are, just give it a little time. The larger the percentage of your income you invest in low-cost index funds mixed with time determines your net worth. To reach your goals you only need to plug in the numbers and wait a bit.
If you want to retire sooner you have to increase your savings rate. The earlier you start the earlier your reach financial independence. Then you can toy with retirement until it gets old and you decide to start creating value again.
Of course your income will also plays a role. The higher your income the easier it is to save a larger percentage of your income. A good six-figure income can take you from zero to FI within 10 years. Minimum wage will take longer.
The most viewed post of this blog was published years ago in April of 2016. In that post I share how I met Mrs. Accountant and how our relationship grew. I concluded the best way to have a rich, happy life (the best kept secret of early retirees, the wealthy and happy people) was to have a nurturing relationship with the one you love for life. In other words, I stayed married for over 30 years now (to the same woman, if I need to point that out!). This one fact is largely responsible for my level of wealth, happiness and contentment with life. (Every morning I wake and feel stunned by level of awesomeness my life has been. That same moment every morning I realize the relationship with the woman sleeping next to me is the most valuable asset I have.)
Money is the easy part! This blog and many others provide plenty of ideas to get rich. Even when I speak to a group and I fear someone might think I actually know something, I still utter a few golden nuggets you can use to have a better than even chance at knocking the ball out of the park.
Happy is the hard part because people don’t listen to what I say. There is no fear on my part when I explain what has made me happy in life.
And it’s more than happiness! Happiness is an event and fleeting. Winning the lottery or having a child or achieving early retirement at age 29 (eat your heart our mustachioed man) will bring happiness. Happiness creates a giddiness. And it is fleeting. Once the newness of the experience begin to fade, so does the happiness.
Instead, I encourage joy. Joy is much more than happiness and not dependent on an external event. Joy comes from in here (pointing to my head and heart) not out there. I imagine I will feel joy on my deathbed as I say goodbye to my children, family and friends. This isn’t happiness. I’ll miss the people I love and dying doesn’t sound like fun. But I will feel joy.
Joy is a more powerful emotion. In a world where people are brought to tears over a delayed retirement (delayed to some age less than 50 especially) it is important to spend less time on happiness (retiring at 30 brings happiness for a while) and more time experiencing joy. You can feel joy in any situation in any location. The choice is yours because joy is internal.
Joy is contentment, a coming to terms with oneself. Joy is gratitude for the gift of life. Even if it means a life of hardship and poverty.
Pete did a good thing when he set a goal of retiring by his 30th birthday and reaching said goal. His example can provide us with tools to achieve our own goals. (All those young people in the news feeds telling their story of early retirement provide the same material: a blueprint to help us design our own goals. Our goals; not their’s.)
If for some reason you manage to retire by the time you live 30 years on this planet I’m sure you’ll feel happiness. At least for a little while.
If you want to know the secret of happiness then you need to feel gratitude for whatever life has dealt you. Then you feel something even more powerful than happiness: JOY!
And nobody can take that away from you.
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Over the years I have retired many times. So have you.
The demographic of this blog leans heavily toward early retirement. This has always bothered me. I always feel like I have to be an apologist for all the folks enjoying their work. Life would be less bright for me and my brethren if we were forced to do what we enjoy most, less. Why is this? What is the hang-up with this retirement thing?
Zig Ziglar, God rest his soul, pointed out to me 30 years ago what retirement really means. I only met Zig once and it was enough. We talked and shook hands. In that short meeting I confessed to Zig I was going to cash it in and sit around reading all day. Now Zig is a good guy. He didn’t say nasty things to me, but for the smallest fraction of a second his face had a tell. I knew Zig was going to tell me something profound.
He told me to go home and verify what he was about to say. He said, “Look up the definition of retirement in the dictionary. It means used up, worthless, ready for replacement.” Worthless! I am not used up or worthless!
I did go home and check the dictionary and Zig was right. This whole retirement thing was a BS story. Years later, when it was cool to retire early, I came across the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) crowd. I love the concept of simple living and frugality. It was frugality that led me to the community, not the early retirement thing. Now CNBC and the Yahoo newsfeed have a story of somebody who retired at 12 while working through middle school on a regular basis. I’m still not buying it.
Retirement is a stupid goal. Sorry. But it really is. Who works hard, saves and invests, only to reach a goal of worthlessness? An idiot, that’s who. I’m NOT used up! And neither are you. You retire (or is that expire) when you take your last breath. We need a different meaning for retirement.
We need a word—don’t wait for me to provide one because I don’t have one that will sell as good as “retire”—which will convey what we mean better. I’d sue CNBC if they ran an article saying I was retired, used up, worthless, ready for the landfill. (Okay, I wouldn’t sue. The additional traffic to this blog would allow me to swallow my pride.) Those smiling faces in pictures in the articles saying these people retired at 32 are really grimaces. To imagine the world looking at me with a headline over my face saying I’m retired, useless, past my prime, would irritate me to no end.
New World Order
If we can’t find a better word, we need a better definition for the word we are using. I recommend we lobby the dictionary industry until they add one more definition to the word retire. Here is my recommendation: Definition #38: A change in career path.
It is simple, easy to understand and captures what is really meant.
I see so many people now in this community doing the retirement thing and with rare exception they are only doing something different. It was only a career change! I met husband and wife teachers a few years back at Camp Mustache as they were in the last throes of gainful employment. Their goal was to travel the world and travel the world they have.
But they still earn money while traveling! She writes romance novels and is making money doing it. Last I checked writing took work. It might be easy pushing nouns up against verbs; the real problem is knowing which nouns and which verbs. Another retirement foiled and I am happy to share it with the world these, ahem, retired teaches are not used up or worthless.
Pete over at Mr. Money Mustache catches hell on a regular basis for being a hypocrite. You call somebody a hypocrite and you’re asking to get your beak busted. The argument against Pete is simple. Hey, buddy, you’re not retired. You write a blog. Pete is a gentleman. Me, I’d send a return message with the international sign language of my middle finger. Christ, people! If anybody embodies the FIRE community it is Pete! He gives us Definition #39 to the word retire: Doing whatever the heck you want with your day.
Pete is not used up, people! He walks a different path, a path where he spends inordinate amounts of time with his wife and son. That is not retirement by the dictionary definition. It’s the exact opposite. A dad raising his own kid? What has the world come to? This is what we call worthless now?
The Real Early Retirement
There is only one real retirement and it is six feet under. Nobody I know of has a goal to reach the finish line in life. (Okay, there was a nut job over in Tupelo back in 38, but I digress.) Life is a journey and we need to stop getting hung up (nice choice of word, huh) on quitting our jobs. Seth Godin wrote a short book on the subject: The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). It’s a good book. You should read it.
Life is grainy. We do things for a while until we get sick of it and then go do something else for a couple years. There are been so many phases to our lives.
I grew up on a farm and after a short stint in town returned to where I felt most at home, the countryside. Before long my 10 acres of the world had chickens and steers. The work was hard, yet satisfying. I did it for more than 15 years. Then one day it ended. I had a blog to write and other things I wanted to try in life. I fought back tears as the last of my boys were loaded on the cattle truck. I promised myself I could have steers again someday. We both know the odds of that are long. I retired from farming for good. (Unless you count the 25 chickens running around the place.)
My tax practice evolved over the years. In a way you could say I retired several times from the tax/accounting business. I retired from doing taxes by hand back around 1988. Didn’t fight tears when that one hit the trash can. Go figure. All my verbiage about loving my work and nary a tear for a tried and true method of tax preparation used successfully for millennia. (It worked for the Sumerians it should be good enough for me.)
I played janitor for a year and retired from that one mighty quick. Okay, I guess a guy can get used up in certain cases.
The whole point of this discussion is to convince you, no, impress upon you it is okay to change course in life. Experiencing new things is NOT retirement. Ms. Olson enjoys traveling with her husband and writing novels. Not used up! Pete loves telling his story and spreading the gospel of frugality and responsible resource utilization. Not used up! I found my calling early in life and kept doing it. Not used up!
And you, my good friend, are not used up. You are not retired; just tired. You need a nap. Go take one. You need a change of venue. So change it. You want to experience something else, something new. By all means, experience it.
Stop worrying about retiring young or at any age, for that matter. It’s not about getting used up, or whatever definition you want to apply to the word retire. It’s about living life right, with meaning, with purpose. The truly retired disappear, never to be seen again. You are not retired and never will be until your dying breath. And that is a good thing.
It’s about living the life you choose. And if that is what you meant by retire, then you keep smiling from the news feed. I’ll smile with you.