Burned by FIRE
A few years ago, I was leading the ultimate frugal life, or so I thought. I was plowing $6,000 a month into debt repayment, and I worked so much I didn’t have time to spend any money. I had no furniture in my house and when I forgot to pack my lunch, I would go hungry.
One forgotten lunch in particular stands out. Unfortunately, I am a human and humans get hungry. What if I bought lunch, I posited? Plugging this into my calculator it turned out that the potential purchase would delay my student loan repayment…. not at all.
If the choice was mathematically irrelevant and I was mathematically miserable, then why was I doing this?
Where’s the FIRE?
I saw this article recently where someone was attempting to debunk the glamorous lifestyle of a FIRE person. This surprised me because I had no idea FIRE was supposed to be an aspirational lifestyle. I thought FIRE was like the proverbial pie-eating contest, but the winner is whomever ate the least pie.
There are a lot of FIRE articles out there asking “Can I be financially independent and spend money on X” as if asking “Can I be FIRE and still spend money?” It reminds me of all these articles I used to see asking “Can I do [this thing I really want to do that works in my life] and call myself a feminist? Or should I do the other thing that I hate?”
I think with both feminism and FIRE, the initial purpose was about gaining the freedom to ignore cultural norms that led to misery – be it gender roles or consumerism. But this mantra may have gotten twisted.
Some groups now think you have to make the “right” choices” in order to deserve the label. The “good” feminists are CEOs of STEM-companies, not stay-at-home moms. The “good” FIRE retire early and live the most meager lifestyle. We’ve traded living in big houses to impress our neighbors to living in shacks to warm our FIRE. But we’re all still stuck.
The Problem with an All-Consuming FIRE
Those that only live for today neglect their future. But there’s also a problem with ONLY living for the future.
There’s this scene in 30 Rock where the audience gets to see how Jack Donaghy views the world – and everything has a dollar value attached to it, including people. I imagine some FIRE bloggers may also think this way – except it’s with values of time. If I buy this, then I will have to work an extra hour. If I take this vacation, I’ll have to add an extra day before my retirement.
I’m wary of people who have money and make all their choices based on money. This is what’s known as being cheap, my friends. I wonder if I’d like to hang out with other FIRE people. Will they nickel and dime me because those nickels and dimes mean seconds closer to freedom? Do they see a ticking clock where my face should be?
What people forget is that though “time is money,” “money is not time.” That is to say, you can trade all your time for money but you can’t trade any of your money for time. You can pay to do something differently with your time but you never get the time back. You never get to put time on hold. You don’t get to change how you spent your years.
Nothing is certain
You can scrounge and save miserably for 10 years and the stock market can crash on the eve of your retirement. Or you get ill. Or realize this is not what you want to do. You won’t get to the end of your working career and think, man I really shouldn’t have bought that sandwich on April 4, 2013. Probably.
The time you have now is infinitely more valuable than money
What I liked about early personal finance people is that they had simple lives but they seemed to enjoy them. It didn’t seem like they woke up thinking “what earthly pleasures can I withhold from myself today?”
If the pinnacle of your day everyday is looking forward to your retirement in 5-10 years, then change your life immediately. You don’t know if you have 5-10 years. Love your life now. You will not get this time back no matter how stingily you live.
And to those of you who say, you just love pleasure, I mean, yes. Yes I do. I’m not embarrassed about that. But my pain resume is very impressive. I’ve run two marathons (i.e. I ran one, knew how painful it was, and decided to run another without a gun to my head). I work at a law firm. I lived with a ruptured appendix for years. I can take pain with the best of them.
I’m not afraid of pain but there has to be some purpose to it (Ok the appendix thin was a fluke. If you have a ruptured appendix, seek medical help immediately). Making your life more painful does not guarantee more pleasure in the future. The pain will find you but the pleasure may not.
Set the world on FIRE
Tim Ferris once said that every time he gets on a plane, he thinks about if he died that day, whether he would have regretted what he was doing. As a paraphrase and butchering from a line from my favorite movie of all time goes, “would you be happy knowing you’re sitting in a token booth, planning vacations that you aren’t taking?” (Mega points if you can guess the movie).
Are you happy with the life you’re living right now? Are there things that you will regret not spending money on? Are you proud of the person you are becoming? Is your budget a good reflection of your values and what you want your life to be remembered for?
Now if your greatest love is out-frugaling your frugal frenemy, then frugal away. If you are in love with your simple lifestyle, then let that be your story. We don’t need to be the tribe of “the cheapest beans and rice.” I love my life AND it doesn’t cost a lot of money is a story that resonates. “I tolerate my life BECAUSE it doesn’t cost a lot of money” doesn’t.
The problem is when you get to the end, you may realize that none of the sacrifices mattered. You got obsessed with the dollars and you lost all your sense.