Saturday, 2 November 2019

FIRE and my Discontents (part 1)





Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I was told the way life should be lived by my parents: go to school, get a good education; find a job and then get a job and work your way up. For the vast majority of folk this makes sense. That said, over the past decade bloggers (mostly from the US) have been mapping out alternative ways to live life, ones in which good old Victorian ideas of thrift combined with savvy investing, have culminated in people retiring in their 30s and 40s. This post looks at some of the ideas and if they are all they're cracked up to be.

Something I notice when reading random FIRE blogs is how easy it appears to be to achieve financial independence. All you have to do is save, tighten your belt and dump your money into index funds. Done. Life for me hasn't been so clear cut. How many of you reading this have had times when your bank balance took and unexpected battering: there could have been a health emergency, a family issue that required a lot of travel, redundancy, a car accident, bad investments etc. etc. The list goes on. As I rapidly approach forty years of age, I know never to underestimate the unpredictability of life. Shit happens when you least expect it - as a wise man once said - and these are words to live by.

Many FIRE bloggers that I've read seem to be content with getting by on a thousand dollars or so a month of passive income, but life is a slippery fish to hold on to and I wouldn't be so confident that this cash is enough (4% Rule or not) You never know what's round the corner. I suppose it's fine when you are in your twenties, glowing with confidence and health, but as the decades roll past, fate may have an expensive surprise lying in wait. And, when it rears it ugly head, you better be ready to delve deep into your savings.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that FIRE fails to prepare for future emergencies, but I do think as the sands of time continue to fall, a person's idea of what constitutes the good life changes too.

In your twenties and thirties, investing in bog standard healthcare probably seems like a good idea. You know, you eat well, you exercise, you feel great, so why shell out a fortune on fully comp insurance. All this extra money saved should be invested in your value dividend portfolio after all. But as a person begins to approach forty years of age, life no longer feels like a endless game.

How quickly does a decade slip past with with barely a care? Fast eh? For sure, and a man approaching this age begins to look towards the horizon and think 'In another decade I'll be fifty, and then again 60 and...then what.'

When I was a kid, my family used to drive to my cousins' house in a town an hour and a half from our hometown. About halfway through the journey we passed a large clock tower which has an inscription in large black letters just below the clock. It said 'Time is Short'. I'll never forgot that tower and the impact those words had on me. Time is indeed short and for the unlucky among us shorter still. Thus, faced with life's uncertainties is it a good idea to live so close to the poverty line as some of FIRE exponents appear to do? Of course, the counter argument to this point is why take life so seriously when it is so short? If we're here one minute and gone the next, surely we should leave the job we dislike and live a little.

I understand this point 100% but how many FIRE proponents live the dream lifestyle they like to display on Instagram? I'm sure there are quite a number of them who live on the breadline with drastically reduced options as a result of their tightly pulled purse strings. Again, I'm not saying all members of the FIRE community as this way, but when so much idealism and optimism froths up around an idea, I start to get cynical. It's one thing painting a beautiful picture of life on social media, with pool side snapshots and vlogs on the way to the gym, and then coping with the financial reality of a terminal illness or tragic accident. Life isn't all sweetness and light, but after reading various bloggers work you might be left wondering why all the good stuff is happening to them and not you.

Comparing yourself with other people and their idealised lives on social media is a wider problem, and we have seen depression rates among teens (especially girls) sky rocket over the past decade as they compare their body with app enhanced photos of their friends. I feel the same way about some bloggers within the FIRE movement as they propagate online the version of themselves most gratifying to their fevered egos.

I'm sure you'll agree this type of shameless ego massaging is not only undignified but also corrosive to the mental well being of all involved. Having enough passive income to live on is one thing, but gratuitous displays of what other people don't have (time, happiness etc) are bilious to say the least.

If your a FIRE blogger and you've achieved your goal of financial independence (which is about as nebulous a phrase as you can get) then fair play to you. Well done. But I'd leave matters there and get on with life rather than writing about it and making others feel inadequate with plastic smiles and self-congratulatory posts about the good life.

I want to add a caveat at this point in case some people feel I'm anti-FIRE, I'm not. If a person can earn enough money passively and live well, that's amazing. Some even use their new found free time to do more charitable work etc. and this I admire. But what's shitty is when this is broadcast to the world as if the heavens have opened and divine gifts have fallen into their lap. This in turn causes many people to feel even worse in their jobs and lives that inevitably last the same spark. 

FIRE is amazing for many, for sure, but how many of its proponents are bluffing themselves about its infallibility?

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FIRE and my Discontents (part 1)