I love the How to Money podcast. I listen to it three times a week most weeks! But I was irked enough by an anecdote a recent guest recounted that I figured it might be worth writing about — with its implications for money and life choices.
Ken Honda, also known as the “Zen Millionaire,” frequently tells the story of how he came to his second career. He was at a park with his daughter when he witnessed a mother and child fighting. Mom wanted to leave the park. Mom said she had to go to work, and the daughter wanted to play longer. Ken spoke and has written of feeling so terrible that mom “had” to work. If only she had handled her money better! He needed to teach people how to have a better relationship with money!
And so even though he had “retired” at the age of 29…he needed to go back to work teaching mothers that if they don’t want to spend all day pushing their kids on the swings it must be because they are terrible with money. OK, that last bit is my editorial comment. He sounds like a lovely person in general, and I know his advice has been helpful for a lot of people — men and women.
But… I have been pondering why that story bothered me so much. As I think about it, my annoyance goes beyond the particular men-judging-mothers-who-are-not-100%-available-for-their-children’s-every-desire angle, to a problem I have with parts of the “FIRE” movement.
FIRE stands for “financial independence, retire early.” I am a big fan of financial independence. I’ve talked before about how my husband and I are both naturally frugal people. We’ve also both been working for decades. This has happy results in terms of resources — something I am profoundly grateful for. When we have more resources, we have more choices in our lives. This includes a lot of choices about work — for both of us!
So why aren’t either of us at the park all day? Retiring early is a different matter. Some of the loudest voices talking about FIRE can come across as stridently anti-work. Work is that evil thing keeping you from pushing your child on the swings for three hours in the park. Work consumes your life force, and thus all expenditures must be measured in terms of the amount of life they suck away from you as you make the acquisition. But for this to make sense, we have to define work as “something you don’t want to do.” Or “something someone else makes you do from at least 9 to 5 in a specific location every work day with only two weeks off per year.” So you’ll hear people talking about having “retired” at some ridiculously young age…and then gone on to do other income-generating, time-filling, productive activities such as writing books, hosting podcasts, giving speeches, running websites, etc. This sounds suspiciously like what I do for a living now.
It’s not exactly retirement, it’s trading one career for another. At least Honda calls it a second career. Some people don’t even acknowledge that. If you don’t have to do it, it must not be work!
But this isn’t exactly a workable definition for “work.” Following that train of thought, people would go in and out of work all day long as they do things they want to do or don’t want to do.
I think that there can be a more nuanced approach to this than singing the praises of retiring early. Yes, work toward financial independence! Better yet, achieve it. But also try to figure out what kind of work you wouldn’t want to retire from. For those just starting out, I’d note that there’s no law against having your second career first. Work can be a source of great joy in your life. I am rarely happier than when I am working toward a big professional goal such as writing a book, and really throwing myself into it, to the point of achieving flow. When you spend your hours doing work you find meaningful, time can seem to fly by and stand still. It really is magical.
I hope my kids find work like that too. I’m not working because I mishandled my money (I’d also note that according to this Pew poll, only 2 percent of mothers who work full-time say that at this point in their life it would be best for them to stay home full-time with their kids, with 14 percent saying it would be best to work part-time, whereas a full 25 percent of mothers who are not employed say it would be best for them to work full-time, with another 35 percent wanting to work part-time). I’m working because I enjoy it and think I have something to offer the world in addition to my ability to push children on swings. I get to do both! As did the mother in the original anecdote. I’d point out that she was there at the park before heading out — one wonders where the dad was. Working? Watching TV? Who knows — not there to get judged, I guess.
Have you made changes in your career to get more freedom and flexibility?