Right now, FIRE blogs and stories abound. Honestly, it seems to me like it’s taken over the personal finance blogosphere.
The potential danger of FIRE
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with preaching the value of financial independence.
But it can get wearying to read story after story of young people retiring early to travel the world, start their own business or some other ambitious project — or just to read about the huge leaps and bounds they’re making with their usually-high incomes. Especially if you’re on a more traditional path to retirement.
And if you’re not all that into hustling, it can feel downright exhausting just reading about the many ways people are scurrying to bring in even a few extra bucks to pad their retirement progress.
So all in all, we’re flooded with inspiring tales of epic savings and epic living, whether it’s about extreme frugality or just grand adventures in retirement.
And again, having the goal of financial independence is great. Besides, I’m sure that, much like extreme frugality blogs did during the Great Recession, these big stories are inspiring many people to save for retirement. (Though I worry that they may fall well short of these people’s progress — especially if they have a more average income — and get too discouraged to continue.)
Still, even if I’m a little worn out reading about RE, I’ll admit these stories probably help people make progress. And given that so few Americans are ever financially ready for retirement, that’s a big deal.
What if we’re not into it?
But the thing is… some of us don’t aspire to epic lives or epic progress. (Yes, I have pretty darn good saving rates a lot of months, but compared to what’s out there… definitely not “epic.”) Some of us just want to live our lives. We don’t have dreams of exotic travel (or even more mundane, but near-constant travel). We don’t even necessarily want to retire early.
And I think all these tales of 35 year olds retiring with $1+ million… Well, it can start to feel like there’s maybe something wrong with us for not wanting that. Some folks might start to wonder if they’re just not dreaming big enough.
So I’m here to remind everyone — myself very much included — that it’s okay to just be… okay. Because that’s pretty damn fabulous for some of us.
Progress of a different sort
It took me 40 years and a lot of soul-searching to be in a good place mentally, emotionally and financially. Thus to be stable — let alone happy — for an extended period of time is huge.
So… yeah, I don’t need a big life full of big things.
I like spending time with my friends, going to social events, casually dating (when the world isn’t quite so dangerous) and spending quality time with my good buddies, Netflix and Hulu. I like indulging in small things like takeout and yes, also seeing big savings gains at the end of each month.
It’s admittedly kind of a small life. But honestly, I’m okay with that.
Aspirations are fine but…
I talked to a guy recently who said that he’d led a cool life but overall a mediocre one — and he refused to die that way. He wanted to make his mark.
And good for him, I guess. But honestly, that just sounds exhausting.
Look, I used to think I would do big things. I never wanted to be an actress or otherwise famous like that. But I wanted to be an interpreter. I wanted to learn five languages: Spanish, German, Italian, Russian and Japanese. (Please don’t ask why that five. I couldn’t tell you. Those are just the ones I settled on.) I thought maybe I’d work for the U.N. or otherwise do something important.
So maybe it was less about doing big things than being remarkable? I dunno. I just knew I wanted to do big things.
‘Twas not to be
Obviously that didn’t happen. As it turns out, my brain can only deal with about two foreign languages. I did Spanish and Japanese and then tried to add in German. Any time I didn’t immediately remember a word in German, my brain would keep trying to give me the word in Japanese or Spanish.
Then because I got sick mid-year with Guillain-Barre, I had to wait until the following winter to get back into the next Japanese 202 course. By then I’d forgotten a lot of what I had learned, so I ended up not getting back into it at all.
As for Spanish, I’m not sure why I let that leave my school schedule, but I did.
Ordinary is (mostly) our destiny
So being U.N. interpreter (or any interpreter, for that matter) wasn’t in the cards for me. And frankly, I think that’s probably a good thing. Just thinking about all of the stress and pressure a job like that could bring makes me want to lie down.
The fact is, most of us won’t lead remarkable lives. We can’t, really, because if everyone were remarkable then pretty much no one actually would be.
No, most of us won’t leave a huge mark on the world at large — just on friends’ and family members’ worlds. But is that really the worst fate in the world?
First of all, making a difference for or even just being important to anyone is kind of a huge deal. Someone caring about you or just remembering you is big.
Second, a noteworthy life is rarely a calm one. And maybe that’s not entirely healthy.
Busy isn’t always good
Looking back, I couldn’t imagine a life at anything less than a maximum level (stress, pressure or just pace) life. And I think that’s because — being an undiagnosed depressive living with an emotionally abusive father — every time I did have down time, I would retreat into… Well, melancholy at the very least, pure misery at the worst.
So I think I envisioned a hectic, pressure-filled existence because I knew that otherwise some very unpleasant emotions and thoughts would catch up to me. (Spoiler: They would’ve anyway. I just probably would’ve had a full-on breakdown. But when you’re in denial, you think you can outrun the bad stuff forever.) I think I was genuinely afraid of too much downtime, where I’d have to sit with my feelings. So I had to be on the move, doing important things and generally trying not to think.
To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone who wants to lead a remarkable life is depressed or trying to escape something. I think that many FIRE folks will be very serene in their retired lives. Certainly, based on some of their comments about their jobs, they can’t be more unhappy.
But for someone who did spend a good chunk of her life trying to run away from her feelings, then another large chunk trying to process and make peace with them and then the most recent chunk (until age 40) learning to prioritize her own happiness more… Well, I think a quiet, emotionally stable life is absolutely blissful.
Content in myself
And while I think fame or at least notoriety is probably rewarding in its own ways, I also think that some people chasing it — not all people, but some — just need the external validation that comes with the public knowing who you are. And even those who don’t need it could easily become addicted to it.
Meanwhile, I am surprisingly (to me, anyway) happy with myself. Obviously, validation from others is nice, but I don’t need it the way I used to, back when I was desperate for teachers to praise me and give me high grades and generally help me prove to my parents (or whoever, I guess) that I was a good, worthy person.
I know I’m a pretty decent person. I mean, there are certainly far more impressive people, even in my day to day life. They’re a little less judgmental than I am (I’m working on it), donate more of their time/money to good causes, etc.
But still, I try to be a good person, and I think overall I succeed pretty well (most of the time). And since I’m no longer striving for perfection, that’s good enough for me.
Meanwhile, I also have good friends, both online and in person. I have my blog as a creative outlet. When the world isn’t terrifying, I usually have a good/fun social/dating life. And at least for now, I have a good job and financial stability and am on track for a comfortable retirement — if one at the (gasp) traditional age.
But then again, I suppose I’m a little different from the average FIRE aspirant.
My job is fine
First, I don’t hate my job. Some of these folks really dislike their jobs. Me, not so much.
I mean, no one loves customer service. But most of the people I deal with are neutral or even downright pleasant. The majority of the folks who are grumpy, I can appease. Very, very few are downright nasty.
And with customer service, when you’re off the clock, you’re completely done with work. There are no projects to stress about or other things that linger in my mind during my off hours.
Also, I like my bosses. They’re great, supportive and give me a lot of discretion in handling customers. Plus the one who decides my pay is more than generous.
So that’s one big impetus to FIRE off the table. And the rest don’t quite apply either.
One reason people cite for wanting to retire early is to travel. They may even want to move to another country entirely — one that’s cheaper and thus allows them to retire even earlier than normal.
It’s a little different for me.
While I wouldn’t mind doing some traveling when the world is safer, trips can take a lot out of you when you have chronic fatigue. Plus, my Restless Leg Syndrome acts up on planes. Meaning long plane rides (which are necessary to visit most other countries) are pretty unpleasant for me.
So yeah, I don’t want to travel a ton like some aspiring early retirees. And I definitely don’t want to move to a different country. I like being with my friends here.
Thus I don’t want to be an expat, nomad or even part-time traveler. Plus if I kept leaving for grand adventures, Josie would be maaaaad.
I mostly own my time
Another reason for people to retire early is that they want to reclaim their time. They feel like their lives are being wasted with — or even sucked away by — their jobs. They hate their commute, that they can’t dictate how they spend their time, etc.
And yeah, that would definitely suck. But that’s not the case for me.
First of all, I work from home. No commute eating up my day.
Second, customer emails come in off and on throughout the day, so I’m not constantly toiling away. Honestly, most of my blogging gets done while I’m on the clock, which leaves me free from 3 p.m. til bedtime most days.
So if anything, I have too much free time on my hands as it is.I don’t feel the need to take ownership of my time the way so many other workers do.
Finally, a lot of early retirees say they want to be home for more of the time during their kids’ formative years.
Makes sense, but for better or worse, I didn’t end up having kids. (I go back and forth about my feelings on this fact, but honestly/selfishly, most of the time it’s a relief not to have to take care of anyone else since the divorce.) Meanwhile, all of my relatives live elsewhere, and my mom comes down twice a year to see me. Obviously, I wish she lived closer so we could visit more. But still, it’s not like I never see her.
Besides, she and her DF don’t have a spare room for me to stay in, meaning that if I went to them, I’d have to pay for a hotel. And of course, the cost of a plane ticket to Alaska isn’t cheap either. Meanwhile you’re on a fixed budget in retirement. So even if I had the free time to visit, it wouldn’t be financially feasible to go all that often.
Thus all in all, time with family wouldn’t change much with early retirement.
Living in the now
So there’s not a lot of compelling reasons for me to want to retire early. But there are a lot of detractors.
Like once again being on a fixed income. While it would of course be an easier life than when I was living on Social Security Disability ($700 a month), it wouldn’t be anywhere near what I make now. Meanwhile, the thought of home repairs and other unexpected expenses makes me nervous to willingly lower my income.
But the biggest drawback is the heavy hustling so many aspiring early retirees go through.
Yes, I could spend that free time hustling toward more financial independence. (Within reason, thanks to chronic fatigue.) But I like to enjoy my life now because until around 40, I spent most of my time living for the future.
In elementary school, it was junior high/high school. Then it was working toward college. Then it was at college, studying for some sort of career.
After that… Well, my 20s were spent trying to find a stable life for myself to have any kind of future. So maybe I did live in the moment then, but it was a pretty miserable one.
In my 30s, it was working toward paying off Tim’s student/medical debt. Then toward saving for Tim’s teeth. Then for finally being able to just generally build up savings so I’d feel safe.
There was always another goal to work toward. And I was so busy focusing on that, I didn’t have much time — or at least emotional bandwidth — to reflect on, let alone enjoy, my life at the time.
Now I do. I can stop and enjoy what’s happening in my life now. (Well, when there’s a not pandemic ruining a lot of that.) I don’t live for it. And certainly not to the exclusion of appreciating the present.
So no, I don’t want to hustle hard to work toward imminent early retirement — especially when “imminent” usually means another 5-10 years. I don’t want to put off my life for that long. Or at all.
I want my pleasant, quiet, non-stress-filled life now. And pandemic notwithstanding, I want to enjoy the hell out of it.
As I said before, I have plenty of free time. I have good friends. When it’s safe, I have a fun dating life. And I’m mentally, emotionally and financially stable.
Why would I stop enjoying that just to fixate once again on some future happiness? What I have now is enough.
You do you
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to swing for the fences, then by all means do it. But the reality is very few people become famous, have a huge impact, wildly successful business, etc. And I wonder if people dreaming big are prepared to handle not making it.
I also wonder if all of those people retiring early for more time with their kids are prepared to handle all of their downtime once their children are in school full-time. And especially when those kids want to hang out with their friends — not their parents — most of the rest of the time.
But perhaps I just lack imagination or drive. It’s entirely possible. And of course, as I said it’s fine for other people to want more than they have now — whether they want more free time, self-employment or full-on making a name for themselves.
However, I want to remind the rest of us that it’s also okay not to live for some amazing future but instead focus on the now — even if that leads to what some people would consider a relatively small life.
Being content is a huge accomplishment — and one many people don’t ever quite achieve. So it’s understandable — if not downright good — to be happy with/proud of that.
Are you gunning for early retirement, or are you living more in the now? Or are you able to manage both?