Financial independence is the worst of budget culture (but it can be salvaged)
Financial independence is a position of not relying on work to make a living. Here’s why the related FIRE movement is so dangerous to a healthy money mindset.
About the author: Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and founder of Healthy Rich. She’s written about work and money for publications including Forbes, The New York Times, CNBC, Insider, NextAdvisor and a column for Inc. Magazine.
Financial independence, in broad strokes, is a position of not relying on work to make a living.
In its most extreme iteration, the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, that “independence” is defined by having accumulated enough wealth to cover your living expenses for the rest of your life.
That stereotypically comes in the form of investment income from maxed-out retirement accounts and packed brokerage accounts after years of extreme budgeting in favor of saving. Search the FIRE hashtag on Instagram, and you’ll find tons of people in their 30s bragging about their early retirement.
Between the extreme deprivation and the emphasis on wealth accumulation, you can probably guess where I stand on this version of the FIRE movement. That’s a big no from me.
This form of FIRE, popularized among white men working in tech or finance in their 20s and “retiring” by their 30s, is the worst of budget culture: toxic, competitive, obsessive and starkly individualistic.
Healthy Rich is a platform for inclusive, budget-free financial education. Become a free or paid subscriber to support our contributors and get the latest posts in your inbox.
Worshiping at the feet of financial goals
My friend Jen Smith, a personal finance expert and content creator, was drawn to FIRE through what she calls a “debt-payoff hangover.” In an episode of the Healthy Rich podcast, Jen explained that she and her husband spent two years following Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps to aggressively pay down student loans and consumer debt. When that debt was gone, she craved another financial goal.
“I had created this idol in my life of the debt,” Jen told me. “It was a negative idol, but I had still been kind of worshiping this idol for two years, and then it was gone and I had nothing left to worship.”
Her new financial obsession? Like many in the personal finance space around her, Jen turned her sights on early retirement. She contributed so much to her 401(k) that an HR rep checked in to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. When she was laid off a year later, eight weeks before giving birth to her first child, she and her husband finally paused to ask whether this was a goal they actually wanted to pursue. They realized they’d been inflicting so much restriction on their life for a goal someone else had defined.
“That was very much the catalyst for me, re-examining the FIRE movement and looking at it with renewed eyes,” Jen said. “And I see a lot of people [saving for FIRE] just to have another idol to worship.”
A slight reimagining of financial independence
I dismissed the FIRE movement in utter disdain pretty quickly when I came into the personal finance space. It feels like one more way for white men to leverage privilege to compete with each other over meaningless trophies.
As I’ve been searching for more stories about varied relationships with work and money, I’ve learned about a spinoff concept called Slow FI, which sounds like it hits a little closer to the mark.
Jessica at The Fioneers defines Slow FI as “a philosophy that focuses on using the financial freedom that you gain along the path to FI to design a life you truly love.”
“People on Slow FI paths are focused on working less (or doing something they actually enjoy to generate income),” Jessica writes. “They do this, so they can invest more time in the things they enjoy and value: health, relationships, hobbies, travel, learning, curiosity, etc.”
So, first of all, I thought that’s what we were all doing — trying to live a life we enjoy? Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the sad state of a world that requires a movement to encourage people to live lives they value. Now, let’s return to this definition of Slow FI. I’m not immediately dismissing this.
Slow FI, like budget-free living, is about designing a life you love. Money is one piece of that, not the end goal. Designing a life you love includes doing good work that makes a positive contribution to your world, participating in your community, and using your time and money in ways that bring you ease and joy.
Because it sprung from the personal finance industry, Slow FI is, unfortunately, still influenced by budget culture: there’s a focus on “debt freedom,” some prescriptive saving advice and budget-in-disguise spending practices.
But the spirit is good. And, you won’t be surprised to learn, Slow FI and similar philosophies, like what Jen referred to as simply “financial security,” are largely influenced by women in the personal finance space.
‘My next dollar’s not gonna change my life’
I recently caught a clip of Mark Cuban on the Daily Show explaining why he’s truly in a position to create companies that can disrupt entrenched industries: He can’t be bought out like most founders.
“My next dollar’s not gonna change my life,” Cuban told host Trevor Noah.
Regardless of your feelings for Cuban and the bros who worship him, this line is striking.
This is what financial independence means to me, and it has nothing to do with your wealth or income. It’s about your relationship with money.
It’s about releasing the power money has to determine your path in life.
Cuban feels this independence because he’s a billionaire. But anyone can feel it simply by releasing the power that dollar has over you. It’s not more important than your happiness, health, relationships, free time or comfort. It’s not worth your sacrifice.
I haven’t joined the FIRE movement or Slow FI or any iteration of financial independence mired in budget culture ideals. I have a negative net worth (pending student loan forgiveness!). But I feel financial independence in the way I work, live, travel, shop, eat and spend my time. I don’t determine my next move in an attempt to earn or keep the next dollar. I do what feels like the next right thing, and I live with the dollars that brings.
I understand that’s not exactly what Cuban meant. And I know many in various FI lifestyles have dismissed my attitude as quickly as I’ve dismissed theirs.
But it’s working for me.
Find your own financial independence. Release the power the dollar has over your experience through our inclusive, budget-free personal finance classes. We’ll show you how to earn, save, manage and spend money with ease and joy — so you can choose your next right thing without money weighing in. Upgrade to a paid subscription for full access to all of our classes.
Image by RODNAE Productions via Pexels.
I agree with you that extreme budgeting can result in an unhealthy money psychology.
FiRE is broad tent, and it seems most of your criticism is specific to a limited swath, "fast lean FIRE" (I added fast as a contrast to slow but "lean FIRE" is a common term).
"Slow FIRE" or "slow fat FIRE" doesn't have the same budget fixation. In fact, check out Paula Pant's concept of the "anti-budget" (allocation of savings/investing off the top and don't budget the rest). I'd argue that fat, or for some people, even normal (non-lean) FIRE expressly allows not focusing on budget more than lack of FI, both vefore and after achieving FI, since it breaks the connection between a paycheck and living expenses, allowing for a reduction in focus on money. If you listen to people who have achieved FI, many say that they hardly think about money after having achieved FI.
Slow FI sounds like a much healthier approach. My problem with FIRE is twofold. First, it smacks of privilege, as you point out. Second, tomorow is not guaranteed to any of us. While I’m a big believer in saving for the future, it can’t be at the expense of enjoying the life you have today.