FIRE Without Smoke

What’s up, folks?! The last time I published here was on New Year’s Eve announcing our big decision!  You must have been back to your daily grind – whatever it may be – after a good holiday season.   

These breaks often remind us why getting back to full-time work is harder after retirement.  So, to avoid this fate, isn’t it better to be conservative in your financial independence/retire early (FIRE) plans….in other words, hello 3.27% SWR! But that’s not the point of this article.

The worldwide community of financial independence seekers has grown substantially over the last 10 years.  A large part of the credit can be attributed to popular bloggers, particularly Mr. Money Mustache or MMM. 

He has created a cult-like following withbadassity, which he defines and that in turn, defines his blog.   To the legions of bored cubicle workers and tired road-warriors, his in-your-face posts are entertaining and inspirational enough to belong to the MMM tribe.

Part of MMM’s appeal is the counter-culture messaging where consumerism is shunned with the same contempt, say, a homeless person in rags faces while trying to enter a five-star hotel.  Even what’s considered “normal” lifestyle choices by developed economy standards meet their arch-nemesis in the “Mustachian” life, a term that has been elevated to an adjective level by his followers.   

This is somewhat like how Apple nurtured the anti-establishment ‘cool’ factor with their first Mac product against the much larger IBM (remember the cool kid vs. suit ads of Apple in the 90’s?).   It works, till you become so large that you become the establishment within your own industry.  That’s what MMM is among all the FIRE-seekers.  

Sidebar: Speaking of Apple, who can forget this iconic “Think Different” ad?   As a long-time Apple shareholder, this flashback is my small tribute to this outstanding company.   

 

 

The older FIRE blogs became successful largely because the idea appeared so novel at the time. And as the Apple ad says, “the only thing you can’t do is to ignore them”.  

The carefully-nurtured ‘badassity’ and messaging that reinforces this Mustachian lifestyle are so popular among MMM’s large readership that his blog reportedly makes over $400,000 a year in income!  Not bad for a family that proudly documents how they live on less than $24,000 a year!  And MMM satirically denounces all others who spend more.  Several examples are used to show that even ‘average’ lifestyles are decidedly wasteful, and how embracing the Mustachian culture is the right way for the planet’s population to live.

As a reader of MMM posts for several years, I admit to his definite appeal and the value of frugality that he advocates.  I think some of the messages are absolutely valid, and if that is the wake-up call people need, so be it.   At times, I have been put off by the face-punching style of writing and an almost prescriptive way for people to live – failing which, you get the impression that FIRE is an impossible dream to achieve or sustain.  And it’s hard to ignore the irony of a blogger making $400,000 a year while talking about living on peanuts.  

When counter-culture becomes dogma, you ought to be careful.   And dogma leads to hubris, which is just a fancy word for excessive pride, or creating a lot of smoke about yourself.  I thought the title of this article sounded better if I used ‘smoke’ instead of ‘hubris’. 🙂  

I get it.  There is a clear momentum and ‘persona’ of any long-running blog that you cannot ignore.  Once you create an aura about who you are, you have no choice but to maintain it.  

Otherwise, the readership will dwindle, and the gravy train will stop.   Who wants to risk $400K/year by toning down?  That’s one massive gravy train that will tempt any blog owner, even one who can ‘happily’ live on $24K/year.  I admit that is life-changing income even if your life depends on not changing it!

We all learn to wade through our own life.

Take working or retiring abroad, for example.  I am comfortable with the idea of living abroad, and even working abroad, and have even extolled some of its benefits (like health care), but I try to present a counter-view of the factors you must consider and the low odds.   Why?  Because it is not for everyone. 

How can any internet blogger be qualified to judge your life choices?  This website shows how one person thinks and I share my insights for benefit of others (assuming you see the benefit, of course).   If you learn from reading my articles and they work for you, great!  If not, at least you will know there is one more way for FIRE to be achieved.  

My articles are written to be informative and descriptive, not prescriptive.

It is one thing to show people a way to live a better quality of life and share your experiences, but it’s entirely another matter to imply that your way is the best way.

I also admit that my family will not live on only $24K, even in India.   Yes, it is possible to live within that annual figure in India and have a relatively good standard of living compared to others, but that isn’t the driver.   You can’t start with one living expense figure and have that define your life. 

Granted, I find MMM entertaining.  What he does clearly works for him (you don’t get to a million unique readers without doing something right), but it doesn’t apply to me and I can’t ‘adjectify’ (is that even a word?) it.  Especially not when it comes with shaming labels attached to otherwise normal life choices for majority of folks.  

It is indeed smart (or even sexy as my buddy J$ believes) to budget, but a budget should not be allowed to define you.  I started this website citing ten factors, which continue to guide our thinking and way of life.   Achieving a sizable net worth is only one part of it.  If I allow it to define everything else we do, then there is not much to learn in exploring this vast, beautiful world and its myriad cultures and mores.   

A FIRE blogger at 30 writing against the grain will undoubtedly catch the world’s attention rather than a FIRE blogger at 50 because the former is an exception and not the rule.   It’s like a 12-year old graduating college as opposed to a 20-year old graduate (still impressive, but not rare enough).   Yet, that 20-year old has more life experience, particularly having crossed the turbulent teen years which, the 12-year old smart kid is unable to relate. 

If reasonable spending for your family or paying for your kids’ college or even caring for your aging parents prevents you from achieving a FIRE’d life that catches eyeballs in the blogging world, so what? You should be proud of yourself.  

You are a real person with real issues to address.  In many ways, your attempt-to-reach-FIRE story will be closer to the world’s majority than that of the celebrity bloggers.   Ultimately, the FIRE journey must be customized for each person and family.   My FIRE will certainly be different from your FIRE.  

Besides, FIRE isn’t the ‘end all’ objective, but merely a milestone in a life worth living or giving.   If you don’t achieve financial independence or retire early but you pursued life choices that gave you immense satisfaction and new learning’s, who is anyone to judge?

Your life may be better than many frugal early retirees obsessing over safe withdrawal rates.

I am financially independent, but chose not to retire now because I value other experiences my job provides (including life-enriching, international cultural immersions for my family).  As of now, I value them much more than simply counting myself a member of the successful early retiree ‘club’.  

have deliberately not earned the right of patting myself on the back whenever I see hundreds of headlights on a cold, dreary morning rush hour, inching forward on the freeway.  That’s not to say I won’t retire ‘early’ in the future, but I don’t think that entitles me to any bragging rights over hardworking people earning their living from demanding jobs, and struggling to reach retirement at 65.      

It is easy for a FIRE’d blogger to claim some form of superiority over the millions of people who get up early, get their kids ready, and go to work after long, tiring commutes and then return home exhausted after a hard day, only to help their kids do homework, drive them around to classes, make dinner and finally tuck them into bed.   As I have also experienced bad days at work, I know the feeling. 

Hee-ha, you should plan better, losers!  is how some of the famous blogs’ tone strikes.   I sensed this patronizing message in some personal finance blogs and even covered it in one of my articles.

Just because you are FIRE’d doesn’t mean the world should suffer your bad-ass attitude.  

Some have written to me wondering when I will write a book.  There are plenty of books on saving and investing, so I don’t see why I should write a book just because my name appears among the Top 10 in the Rockstar Finance net worth directory.  But my sincere thanks to some readers for encouraging me!

Most of the recent books are simply different forms of saying the same message copied from original personal finance studies and analytical research reports, from independent researchers decades ago.  Sure, some improvements in modeling and tax-related advice need to be kept current, but the basic financial principles of FIRE haven’t changed.  

Of course, if you save more, you will have more money.  Avoid debt as much as possible or pay off faster by cutting down expenses.  If you invest your savings efficiently in low cost equity funds or a portfolio of high-quality dividend stocks or even positive cash-flow real estateand be patientyou will accumulate substantial wealth to retire on.  

Don’t obsess about this formula.  Image source

 

There, I summarized more than 10 books and 200 articles for you!

So, what’s new here?  Do you need books after books and posts after posts to repeat the same message in different words?  We are living in a world where even trivia is masquerading as useful advice.  So, I guess even repetitive advice on personal finance looks better by comparison. 

Personal finance is entirely personal.  So, I only believe in one-on-one consultation.   I don’t care if only 10 people work with me to improve their income and net worth, or 500 queue up.  My satisfaction comes with each person I individually help and see them improve in areas that matter for them.

It doesn’t matter to me how little I earn from my consultations or from my blog, because it will never be significant enough for me to replace my active professional income or even amount to a fraction of my investment income.  

There is simply nobody else in the world exactly like you are.   No one else has the same situations, challenges, dreams and worries that you face.   

As a mid-40’s man who grew up, studied and worked in different countries, I have had enough hard knocks in life to know they are more common that the curated pictures of Facebook, Instagram or slick personal finance blogs show.   

Each hard knock teaches you a lesson in life but often also delays your journey to FIRE.  That’s part of the twists and turns that each one of us face.  C’est la vie!

I know several good folks who are sensibly frugal but are unable to reach FIRE because they have difficult marriages, care for sick family members, believe in paying fully for kids’ education and/or provide for aging parents – every one of this takes serious time and serious money.  

In so doing, they sacrifice their own FIRE prospects, coping with the hand their life has dealt them with.  It is insensitive for a personal finance blogger to “prescribe” the right way in all these cases. 

But worth it…

This is why I believe personal consultation is the best way to get practical advice.  You allow a trusted but unconnected person to see your life, temporarily wearing your shoes, and give them an opportunity to think and suggest what they would do if they were in the exact same situation. 

It is still not the same as being you, but it is the closest equivalent I know of.   That’s why I offer personalized consultation though I don’t really need to.

Once you are FI, this is how you can feel even while the Boss is yelling at you!

No matter how educated, talented or hardworking I am to have ‘earned’ my FI, I will never forget the good fortune along the way.  If you are spiritually inclined, you can count God’s blessings; otherwise, you may just call it luck.   

Whatever your inclination, being humble enough to acknowledge that factors outside your own contribution played a significant role in your success in the first step towards becoming a more complete human being.  There is no growth – spiritual or otherwise – without this sincere acknowledgement.  

As long as this blog exists, you can count on me sharing my straight views on various topics as I see them.  If you see any slant towards arrogance, do smack me on the head with a comment or mail. No matter where we all are on the FIRE road, it will serve us well to stay humble and kind.   I will count on you all to keep me balanced!

Have a wonderful 2018!  My move to India is actively happening and will keep you posted after we settle in.  

ADDED LATER:  Some weeks after I published this article, I across this excellent podcast with Todd Tresidder on ChooseFI.   I was pleasantly surprised to see similar viewpoints expressed by Todd, who I respect a lot in the FIRE community.  Though my article isn’t about high expense living, the concept of ‘FatFIRE’ is based on the same math as regular FIRE but without the constant optimization of expenses, which in my view, simply exchanges stress of one kind (doing work) with another kind (doing ninja-style cost optimization).  

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10 comments on “FIRE Without Smoke”

  1. By ZJ Thorne Reply

    Prescriptive jerks who think they have the one true way to live in FIRE and elsewhere are just not fun to read or learn from. I don’t want to ride a bike in winter or otherwise. I’ve chosen a city based on my very particular desires for how life should look best for me. I’m a lesbian and have lived many places and have felt unsafe in many places. Feeling safe in (most) of my city is worth the HCOL every day. Other folks don’t have to make that choice, but they should be more aware that not everyone wants the same version of life they have.
    ZJ Thorne recently posted…Net Worth Week 94 – Conference EditionMy Profile

  2. By Mrs. Groovy Reply

    Pete (MMM) got some criticism on Twitter. He basically tweeted out that he was happy to see Bitcoin plummet. Some even said that the fact he was trying to get a rise out of folks, was not coincidental — his current post is about Bitcoin.

    It feels sometimes like bloggers (myself included) are drinking the Kool-Aid. What I do know about myself though, is that I care about people. Some bloggers though (not you) make me wonder if it’s all about their ego — and that’s where it ends.
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…Geoarbitrage Is a Great Way to Reinvent YourselfMy Profile

    • By TFR Reply

      Thanks. I admire Pete for what he has accomplished, but I can never subscribe to his Mustachian life. I also want to help people (like youj that’s why I started this website. Else there was no reason for me to start a blog with a demanding (and globe trotting!j full time job.

  3. By WealthyDoc Reply

    Thought provoking!
    I think we need to separate the FI from the RE of FIRE.
    Everyone should know about the FIRE option. Getting to FI early gives you a lot of options. RE is just one of those options.
    RE wasn’t the option I chose. I am enjoying my work. I agree it doesn’t make me any better or worse as a person. Just a good place for me to be.

  4. By freddy smidlap Reply

    arrogance sure is off-putting. makes me cringe every time i smell it on one of these blog sites. a conversational tone is always nice. well, anyhow, i like this article. my latest pet peeve is the dogma of “index investing is the way and the only way! you’re clearly a philistine if you dare disagree!

    i’m not sure if i’m a rube or a philistine but gladly accept either or both labels from some stranger on the internet. oh, and i have absolutely nothing against index investing, only certain tones.

    • By TFRadmin Reply

      Thanks Freddy. Nothing wrong with indexing but any recommendation becoming dogma is what we should watch out for. In the stock market, we are in the rising tide period lifting all boats but it will be interesting to see how many remain truly confident once the bear strikes. I have seen grizzly bears enough times so I like to temper my enthusiasm for rising net worth or even FIRE!

  5. By Triplet Mom Reply

    Please keep writing. I have been feeling out of sorts (as if I’m running out of gas or enthusiasm) trying to imitate FI bloggers. You helped me appreciate my hard work and note my progress instead of just seeing what else I’m missing from the FI checklist. If patience is an important element to being FI, then being burnt out is counterintuitive. I appreciate the informative discussion you provide in your articles. I learn better this way.

    • By TFRadmin Reply

      Keep on Tiplet mom. You may be doing better that many in your same situation. Persistence is more important than anything else.

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