When I first heard the term FIRE, I bristled. The more people I connected with in the FIRE community, the more I dug my heels in. In fact, when Ms. Our Next Life ran her Next Life series, “not for me” was the entire premise of my post (erm, spoiler alert?).
And that seems to be the common reaction of non-FIRE people. One only needs to look at far as the comments section on literally any mainstream news outlet that has picked up a FIRE piece to see a continuum that ranges from skepticism to vitriol. But here’s the thing. I actually think the majority of people are interested in financial independence. They just call it something else.
Growing up, my nana used to dream with me. She’d singsong, “Oh dear, bread and beer, if I were rich I wouldn’t be here.” And then a whole bunch of daydreaming would commence. When I first wrote my grown-up daydream post, I figured she was the only person to sing a song like that. Turns out, I was wrong. To this day, iterations of that phrase still draw traffic to my site. Why? Because people love the fantasy of it.
When I got a bit older, I started to be bombarded with “What do you want to be when you grow up?” by well-meaning teachers and other adults in my life. I think it was my dad who first told me that I should answer the question by saying two things: older and independently wealthy. Though I don’t know that I ever repeated either of those lines to a teacher (because I am such a rule follower, you guys), I do know that it garnered laughter and praise from other grown-ups in my life.
If you listen closely, whispers of FIRE surround us. “I wish this vacation would last forever.” “Who wouldn’t want to be able to start their day slowly?” “What if we could just take off work on a sunny Tuesday?”
Those echoes are proof of it. People want financial freedom. People don’t want to be chained to their debt or their jobs. In 2014, Forbes ran an article that compared a 61% job satisfaction finding in 1987 to a 52% job dissatisfaction outcome in 2014. While there are all sorts of probable explanations as to why three decades turned the majority of Americans against their work and survey results aren’t quite as dismal as they once were following the Great Recession, there’s an undeniable truth in the 2014 finding. Most of us are unhappy with our work.
And these people are not just the cubicle caricatures of Office Space lore. These are people who have all sorts of careers doing all sorts of things. And yes, these are people who make their passion their living just like me.
I can’t tell you the number of conversations that I’ve overheard from fellow teachers in recent years about saving extra or getting out as soon as they can. No one uses the term FIRE, but that’s exactly what they’re saying. They want to have enough money to walk away when they are good and ready. And if they don’t want to walk away, they want the freedom to know that they could walk away and are simply staying in the field to do the work they love.
In a career that has become increasingly politicized on both state and national levels, teacher burnout is practically pandemic in America. While I’m fortunate enough to work in a district that tries to mitigate the politics and keep the focus on kids, I know that mentality is increasingly rare. So when I hear people voice their concerns and air their complaints, I can’t help but think of FIRE. And on some level, the people that I’m listening to are thinking of FIRE as well.
So why the pushback? Aside from the fact that most working adults truly seem to have developed a healthy skepticism towards any new acronym they encounter (seriously, is there any initiative in education that can’t be boiled down to three letters?), we fear the unknown. It’s what we do. And whether it’s a situation we’ve never known, a lifestyle we’ve never lived, or even a term we’ve never encountered, we resist. Our mind throws up flags, posts caution signs, begs us not to get carried away with something that we don’t really know. Even if we already know it by another name.
So Tell Me…How do people talk about freedom from money in your real life? What other names or phrases might FIRE go by?
Ms. Frugal Asian Finance
I think one reason why many people have a negative perception of early retirement is because they associate that term with laziness (aka staying at home watching TV all day and doing nothing useful with one’s life).
Successful early retirees now show that if you can retire early, you have the option to do whatever it is that you love without worrying about putting food on the table. I think this is a new definition and is just beginning to permeate the internet and today’s society.
I think that’s definitely part of it! And I think identity loss is a big (and quite possibly very real!) concern that comes with retirement of any kind. But I also really push back on the idea that financial independence has to equate with stopping work altogether. I would love to be financially independent. We’re working really hard at that. But we already both love our jobs, so I can’t imagine us dipping out earlier than 52 or 55 (or 97 if our governor has any say in our pensions).
Matt @ Optimize Your Life
This is a great point. I tend to avoid discussing FIRE as FIRE in a lot of conversations. I’ll frame it more as “I want to save and invest enough that I could have the option to leave a job for more creative, lower paying work.” The idea of going from working on one thing to working on a different thing seems to sit better with a lot of people.
Cue ‘if I were a rich man’ from Fiddler on The Roof ?.
I didn’t know teacher burnout was a growing issue. It makes sense, though, unfortunately?
I told a work friend years ago about my plans to “retire early.” She said, “That sounds like a horrible idea.”
About a year after that, I mentioned the concept of saving up so we didn’t have to work — of being able to develop apps, work on projects, etc. She said that sounded great and wished me luck. XD
Ever since, I’ve been very careful with my word choice when talking about money. Most people are very receptive. ?
It’s a funny thing. We got a lot of push back at first because of issues with identity, adding value to the community, being productive (never mind the fact we are really good at doing those things even without a 9-5 job!)
But if someone mentions the idea of winning the lottery, then everyone seems to agree they would leave their job! Statistically, very few people who win stay on with their current job, even ones they claim to love.
We prefer the term Work Optional. As in we only do work we love, when we want to, in the amount that respects all areas of our life. Volunteer or paid. It’s all optional. That seems more palatable to most people.
In my personal experience, there have been two kinds of FIRE push back. First, I think that there is the perception that passive income/investment income is somehow dirty, or cheating. If I told my aunt about dreaming of living off of rental income I know exactly what she would say: Well, I have to WORK for my income. To many (her especially), if you aren’t working a 9-5, or for a paycheck then you must be taking from others something that is not yours.
Second, I also think many people’s identities are wrapped up in their job titles. How can they retire when being X is so fundamentally part of their identity? And because people are weird and can be really rude, if they don’t understand a life choice then it must be “wrong.”
I like framing the conversation to be more about options and less about “retirement” because most people are positive about having options.
Sarah @ Smile & Conquer
I completely get the desire to be independent and not have to go to work every day but I don’t think I’ll ever be on the retire early (at least not significantly early) track. I enjoy working and feeling productive and I would have to sacrifice a lot right now to be able to save up the kind of money for a comfortable early retirement. For me, work just isn’t that bad. My preference is for balance, I want to be able to spend money right now without the guilt, even if that means continuing to work for longer.
Mrs. Picky Pincher
It’s funny because I hear people talking about FIRE (without using its name) as an impossible, unachievable goal. It’s something that trust fund babies and bank robbers achieve–or people who inherit millions from a distant relative. It’s funny because I just snicker in the corner and nod along. I’ve found that people get VERY upset when I talk about FIRE plans.
I try not to use the term FIRE, because I feel like most of the push back comes from the RE part of that.
And I’m a government employee in a state where State Government employees haven’t had a raise in 12+ years, most new hires as basically “full time temps” with no vacation time, paid holidays, nor pension. Add in everyone’s complaints about government workers, and I have all of the motivation I need to reach FI ASAP.
I work with a lot of people who are driven by status. They are so focused on what they perceive to be symbols of success, like the nice office, fancy car, expensive watches, hanging out at the best restaurants in town – that they don’t really ever discuss retirement, let alone early retirement. Instead, they emphasize marketing and increasing profits so they can have more, more, more . . . it’s very difficult to fit in with these types of coworkers, when my priorities are so very different. I can only imagine the pushback and confusion that will come once we announce our plans.
However, these types are definitely the minority. Most others are “working for the weekend” and go buy lottery tickets with big dreams.
I don’t talk about FIRE in my “real life”, but I hear plenty of people who want to achieve – or have achieved – financial freedom. People who talk about leaving the security of their day job to start a business, or who want to retire early, or who wish they could win the lottery. The issue I see is that a lot of people think that it’s just not possible. And if you try to share how it would be possible, they get defensive because they feel like you’re attacking their choices. For example, if someone talks about how they “wish they could afford” to help their kids with college, you can’t point out that if they had stopped buying new SUV’s every three years as their kids grew they could have fully funded school. Or if they “could never retire”, pointing out how their lavish vacations and golf outings may have contributed to that doesn’t get a good reaction. Unfortunately it’s still taboo to discuss, and people want to think you’re just lucky-because that means they just aren’t as lucky as you. When in reality they just made different choices than you.
I don’t call it FIRE either – but sometimes I wish I did, just so people could find the blogs that helped me reach it! I also don’t talk about retiring early when people ask what I’m going to do next year. I just say I have options. I did see my first colleague talk about early retirement when she did a post about her “side gig” selling skin care products….
Amanda @ centsiblyrich
Since I share my time to FIRE on my monthly updates, people irl now know. We’ve had people express their doubts that we can ever do it. They claim with health care expenses and the “unknown”, it would be too risky and irresponsible. These people also assume FIRE means retiring in the traditional sense (no work). But, really, our FIRE goal is simply about choices – having the freedom to choose to take a lower paying job, work part-time, start our own business or whatever.
Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life
Despite my immersion in PF blogging all these years, FIRE as a goal crept up on me a bit. It felt like the natural evolution to all that we do here, though. The concept wasn’t new to me though, and I always thought it was cool, even if I didn’t dream it for myself for a long time.
It was a practical thing. If you always need healthcare like I do, and it’s always linked to an employer like it has been, and getting married was never in the plans, then I’d always have to work to afford to stay alive and functional. When PiC came into the picture, and stayed, and then more healthcare options started appearing in recent years, though I was hesitant, it became a real possible goal.
The inspirational first FIRE-y person I remember, though, that made this all seem like an awesome idea? You’ll be tickled to know it was a teacher. “Mr O” was widely rumored to be independently wealthy from the software world. He had simply chosen to use his wealth to leave a career he no longer cared about to start one that he did: as our teacher. And we LOVED him. He was relaxed in a way that reflected his choice to be there – he wasn’t trapped by his choice, he truly wanted to be teaching us and he truly cared about the materials and it meant that he was about 10X more effective than the lifers who were sticking it out for their pensions. They weren’t bad teachers, but you could sense the fatigue coming off them.
From that observed experience, it made sense to me that getting to choose to do something you really cared about, to put your whole heart in it, without also having your livelihood tied to it and possibly arbitrary standards of performance, well, who wouldn’t want to do that? He taught us programming, but I also personally learned a really valuable life lesson from him.
TL;DR: I’ve seen a few early retirees now and in exactly none of them has it meant idleness and boredom. They’ve had second and third “careers” instead and are the most fulfilled people I know.
Fear of the unknown is real, especially with a health scare, which makes the One More Year Syndrome so much more real.
Like most new ideas, though, FIRE can seem outlandish at first and it takes some time to marinate. With repeated exposure, it starts to seem more possible, more real, and thus more acceptable.
Imagine what people thought when they first heard about sending people to the moon! There had to be disbelief and resistance, then with more knowledge they believed it could be possible, then they were hopeful and finally it happened. FIRE seems just as preposterous to many people who haven’t considered it before.
Mel @ brokeGIRLrich
I think a lot of pushback on the FIRE side is how unachievable it seems to people who don’t have a good grasp on their finances.
Also, early retirement does have a lazy stigma because we’re psycho workaholics in America. It’s really alarming and ridiculous. But I think almost everyone does love the idea of Work Optional or a better work/life balance.
Envy is also behind some of the pushback. The ones who feel trapped in their lifestyles, with no way out, are bloody mad because they feel they can never retire or become FI. The reasons they give YOU are the reasons for they way they feel they could never achieve either. For some, it would take a series of small but important steps, over a number of years, to reach either goal. But many are afraid of change, or are so comfortable in their routine they’re not capable of stepping outside of what they feel is expected of them.