Recently, my girlfriend has been sharing some videos of people who follow the FIRE principle with me.
FIRE is an acronym that stands for Financial Independence, Retire Early.
Some people describe FIRE as a financial movement involving frugality and extreme savings and investments. To do this, you work hard, save up to 70% of your annual income, and reinvest your savings into investments that will help you make even more. Eventually, you can retire early and use small amounts of money from your ongoing investments to live off.
It’s not a bad idea in theory. Who wouldn’t like to not have to work and do the things they would like to do instead of what they have to do?
I wonder how happy a life it would lead to in reality? The few videos I have seen show extremely driven couples working excessively for over ten years, spending very little money while they are doing this, and then retiring in their 40s.
While they are sacrificing so much in the present, what are they missing? Fun activities, school events or holidays with their children while they are young? Socialising with their friends and extended family? Even having enough time or being willing to pay for things that help them look after their health? Including healthy eating, gym memberships, massage or spa treatments, or a fun day out to a concert or movie? If reaching FIRE as early as possible is the primary goal, then most of this stuff will be seen as unnecessary or against the plan you are trying to achieve.
But who gets to the end of their life and looks back and thinks, “I should have worked longer and harder, especially when my children were young?”
And then once you reach FIRE, is the life that you are going to live suitable to who you are and your essential values?
In 2021, I had to take the first seven months off work while recovering from a severe health condition. Having no paid work to do each week or day was not as enjoyable or glamorous as other people may imagine.
Especially if you are in your 30s or 40s, most of your friends will be busy with work and family. So it’s not like you will have heaps of buddies that you can hit the golf course with throughout the workweek unless most of your friends are in their late 60s or early 70s. 70 something was the typical age of people I went on long bike rides while I kept rehabilitating my health last year.
Suppose a driven person is willing to sacrifice everything in the short-term for at least ten years to reach their FIRE goal. Will they be happy sitting around on a beach, doing nothing except relaxing and sipping Pina Colada’s every day?
I doubt it. Maybe for the first week. But then what?
So why do people do it?
I think it’s because we get the dream sold to us. We get told that work is a nightmare that we couldn’t possibly enjoy. But we are also told that we should study hard at school to get into a good University or College. Then we can get a good degree. Then we can get a good job. Then we can work hard in this job until we have enough money to retire. And then we can FINALLY enjoy life.
It reminds me of the story of the fisherman who is told by a Westerner on holiday in his coastal town that the fisherman needs to work harder to make more money. “But why?” asks the fisherman. “So that you can buy bigger boats and more of them!” says the Westerner. “But why?” says the fisherman. So that you can make more money and then retire after 20 or 30 years!” says the Westerner. “And then what?” asks the fisherman. “Well, then you can buy a boat and live by the beach and enjoy your life!” says the Westerner. “But that is what I already do,” replies the fisherman, as he shakes his head at the Westerner for having such silly thoughts.
Maybe we can stop trying to wait for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and see if we can try to enjoy our lives now? We may not need to have an excessive amount of money to do this. And we don’t need to retire early and do nothing every day.
Not all work is glamorous. And going to university and obtaining a good degree does lead to more considerable earning potential later in your career. Regardless of how much someone makes though, work does help provide a sense of purpose and structure for a lot of people.
My Personal Experience
Completing a Doctorate for me did enable me to work as a Clinical Psychologist. It is a job that I love but also one that I can find emotionally exhausting. Seeing seven or eight people a day, five days a week for individual therapy is not ideal even though it would be lucrative.
After working as a Psychologist since September 2013, I’ve learned to do whatever is sustainable and enjoyable for me.
Yes, I am volunteering in Port Vila, Vanuatu, as a Clinical Psychologist on the Australian Volunteer Program, funded by the Australian Government. I receive a stipend for this, or just enough money to get by here and pay for my accommodation and food and living expenses.
I am receiving way less money than I could get working back in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. However, I am also working in a way that feels sustainable to me. I am six months into volunteering here on a full-time basis again, and I haven’t felt the need to take any holidays yet. Weekend trips to beautiful beaches now and then is sufficient for me.
Even though I am working full-time hours each week, I am not wrecked when it gets to Friday at 5 pm. I am happy that it is the weekend and that I can do some fun things with my girlfriend, daughter, and friends. But I do not feel like I need to spend half the weekend by myself just recovering.
I am also happy. Happy to be working. Delighted to be experiencing all of these things. Glad to be meeting all of the people that I do. And happy that I am doing something meaningful and hopefully making a difference in the lives of the people I see.
No matter how hard I work, I do not get paid any extra, and I kind of like it that way. By choosing to volunteer, I highly doubt that I will be reaching FIRE anytime soon, or at all.
One of my favourite writers is the Psychiatrist Irving Yalom, and he was still seeing patients and writing a few hours on weekdays well into his 80s. Now that seems much more enjoyable and meaningful than retiring in my 40s.
What does everyone else think?