FI without the RE

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?

29 thoughts on “FI without the RE

  1. Thank you for writing this! I LOVE my job/career, and feel that I’m in the small percentage of people who doesn’t have a desire to “retire early”. I also think that I could easily have told a child I “had to get to work” in an effort to leave the park, more so to facilitate the actual leaving of the park! HA.

    1. @Krista Yes on both points! I Love my career and feel I bring a lot of good to the world through my work. I think I am good at my job. I also have a 97 yo grandmother who worked into her 80s at a job she enjoyed and that she was well-suited to. I have no desire to retire anytime soon. ANS I too would totally tell my kid we had to leave the park because I had to go to work, just to get them out of there…

    2. @Krista – totally – the mom probably knew that saying “I have to work” was the one thing that would get the kid to leave! The park is great for an hour. After that…

  2. Laura,
    I too have been irked by that comment and am so happy you spoke out about it! It didn’t sit right by me. A few other stuff he said also didn’t sit right by me. And yes, work does not have to be an evil thing. I do scientific research helping companies develop new, better wound care products. And I can tell you that the patients that get the products we help develop are very thankful for the hard work we put into it. This is just my example but where would the world be if everyone just stopped doing “work”. Where would we get food from, clothes, medicine? As far as I know we still don’t have replicators! Or maybe just the women should stop “working”…Ugh, clearly I am still jaded by that podcast episode.

    1. @Nina – yes, work isn’t just making widgets for a soul-less corporation. I’m glad that my doctors, dentists, kids’ teachers, our first responders, etc. have all decided to spend time doing what they’re doing!

  3. Thank you for this! I work in the nonprofit field, and I get similarly irked when people have the mindset that they’ll work hard in high-paying and high-stress field for a few years while socking away as much money as possible, and then “retire” into a job that offers more meaning as if it’s stress-free over here. Their retirement sounds suspiciously like an idealized, naive version of what I already do (and truly enjoy doing, 98% of the time) so I’ll just do that instead of being miserable for a few years to achieve what I’ve already got!

    1. @Jackie – yep, I imagine it gets frustrating when people assume they can do what you’ve built a career and built up a lot of expertise doing…just because they did something else first. A lot of people tell me they plan to write books…

  4. I can see why that would irk you.
    I actually come at FIRE from an angle where I’m also skeptical of the RE part, but moreso because when I see people taking on second careers and new income streams it makes me suspicious that they haven’t actually achieved the FI part.
    I like my job well enough, it’s meaningful but very inflexible (healthcare). My husband and I are saving and would like to retire early, but only if it means we have true financial independence and what I’d consider a true retirement. I’m sure we will both take on volunteerism, passion projects, hobbies, but if I have to take on paid work (likely at a fraction of my current hourly rate) then to me that’s a sign I wasnt in a position to retire yet. I’m not knocking it for anyone who feels comfortable with that scenario, but to me — if I have to work for money tohave an enjoyable standard of living, that means I haven’t retired yet.

    1. @Christine – I think what happens is that “FI” is really subjective. Achieving it for a bare bones budget is one thing, but then people decide that they don’t actually want to live on that. Or costs wind up higher than expected (e.g. health insurance when you retire long before 65).

  5. Amen! Your comment about the FIRE proponents doing pretty much what you are doing now was spot on – and kind of amusing. It really is all about choices.

  6. I’m a fan of the FI community, and have learned a lot about managing my finances well from them, but I also have a lot of the same frustrations that you mention here. I think of FI as insurance- if I can’t work or don’t want to do work that will earn as much in the future (or if my expenses go up & I can’t save as much of my salary), I’ll be OK because of my savings. But that is the back-up plan. Plan A is to make sure I enjoy my career!

  7. Oh, on a similar topic – Do you have resources you would recommend on choosing jobs/careers/etc?

  8. Great title, great post Laura. We need voices such as yours, loud and clear, to not RE as if work is a punishment.
    I am a SAHM, it was a very conscious choice based on my circumstances, but still I never spent endless hours pushing the swing in the park 😅

    1. @Kamala – yes, my snarky thought was that this was a very earnest newbie parent take on the situation, even if it somehow became a foundational anecdote. I don’t know any SAH parent who wants to spend all day at the park either!

  9. I don’t listen to this podcast but that line of conversation would have bothered me, too. Like others have said, maybe she used that as a reason to leave the park. I don’t understand why “work” has become something to avoid. I liked what I do and the people I work with, so I find my careering very fulfilling. Also, when I hear about the FIRE movement, I always wonder what they are doing for health insurance? This is top of mind for me because I have a chronic condition that requires incredibly expensive medication. So having good insurance is really important. If I was healthy, maybe I would be less concerned, but I feel more comfort having a great insurance plan for my family.

    My husband and I focus on FI – mostly because we work in a very volatile industry that is shrinking (financial services/asset management). Also, I had to relocate for a job in 2013. I did not have the balance sheet at that time to say no to the relocation and risk not finding a job before the 4 month severance ran out, so I moved and hated it. I vowed to never be in that position again! But the retire early part? It’s not our goal.

    1. @Lisa – health insurance is a huge consideration. None of us has chronic conditions (yet, thank goodness) but since we are on my husband’s insurance and he is older than me and we have young kids, this is something I really think about building into all my financial models. Medicare doesn’t cover family members – so even when he turns 65, we’ll have to pay for 11 years of coverage for me and at least a few years for our youngest kids. It is not a small number.

  10. I love this!! I completely agree with you and I am an embracer of FI…. Not FIRE for me. I love my work. I can exercise creativity, solve problems, and provide value to my organization and clients. It brings me satisfaction. I think there is something to be said for FI though. My husband and I are also frugal. We live in a modest house. We drive paid for used cars. We make frugal choices with food clothing travel etc. and we also have well paying jobs. As a result I have the luxury of not feeling like I “have to” work. I realize this is a privledge. But I enjoy my work and plan to continue to do it indefinitely. Retiring early has no appeal to me for whatever reason.

  11. I love my job (M.D.) and as long as I stay in good health I have no desire to retire early. I tend to get depressed when I spend too much time at home. My husband is super restless and has a lot of energy so I have told him multiple times that he is not allowed to retire early. He would drive me crazy.
    I wouldn’t spend 3 hours pushing a kid on the swing either. Today I am on vacation and I could still only handle 30 minutes of mind-numbing playing with Matchbox Cars with my 7-year-old. Lack of time is not keeping me from playing with my child…

  12. Amen to all of this! Thank you for writing it. That mom could have been me 100x – and I hope my girls are learning that work can be something that you enjoy, not something you want to get out of as soon as possible; that there’s more to work than just money; that they, too have value both at the park but also beyond it; and that they should always ask “why don’t you make this assumption about my husband also?”

  13. Yeah, that is totally ridiculous. I like to work, my kid likes to do his work (preschool). We took the week off to do some hikes and some DIY and generally rest, and my son opted to go to preschool, because it is definitely more fun than home.

  14. Preach!
    I listened to that episode and I got really annoyed at that comment too! She took the time to go to the park on the way to work, rather than not going. And he absolutely did come across as judging her because she had to work because she was bad with money!

  15. Yes to all of this! I’ve never really understood the FIRE movement for me personally. FI? Absolutely. But it assumes everyone wants to retire early if they can. I’ve spent a long time in grad school because I’m passionate about my research. And I’ve been working several years in a lower-paying job to gain experience and because I LOVE the work. When I transition to a higher-paying job, I really hope to continue to do work I genuinely enjoy. Since I’m starting my career later than many, I’m sure I’ll be retiring “late.” But I hope that I will enjoy my career so much that I won’t even want to retire, at least not full-time. I know plenty of professors working well into their 70s. If you’re doing meaningful and fulfilling work, why retire early?

  16. I honestly find that anecdote ridiculous! Thanks for calling bs and continuing to share your very worthwhile views.

  17. Yes, thank you! Double thank you! Being at the park for many hours can get boring!
    My spouse follows the FIRE folks, but I feel like 1) I worked really hard to get the job I have. I spent 5 years working on my doctorate. Years teaching before that. Very few people get to be professors. And of those who get to be professors, very few enjoy where they work. Also, 2) I do not want to be super frugal anymore. I want to enjoy my life while I am young. I don’t want to eat ramen and rice and beans. I want to buy pretty clothes that make me happy and I want to have a beer at an open-air bar on a summer day even if it would be cheaper to drink one at home – and hire a babysitter for two hours just ’cause.
    But, I like the idea of financial independence (or stability) bringing options. The challenging part I find is acting on those options. When you no longer need to raise your hand for all the things to get the next promotion, how do you stop doing it? Or from picking up extra work, even when it is for money? It is a very hard habit to break.

  18. A mom who’s at the park with her child in the middle of a workday has created a beautiful mosaic! I consider it a great achievement when I can be at the park with my daughter for a short time after picking her up from school. We might have to leave after 45 minutes so I can be on a zoom meeting with one of my PhD students, but we’ve squeezed a bit of adventure and activity into our day.
    It didn’t use to be that way for me, in the years when I worked solely on campus (then park time was reserved for evenings and weekends), so I am grateful for the flexibility. We are great with money, but we still need some … and I love how I earn it!
    Here’s to all the parents who are working, playing at the park, earning money, and loving their kids!

  19. Late to the party for this thread, but so glad you mentioned it because that episode really irked me. I like my job, and am financially responsible, and play with my children. It’s not a zero sum game.

    Another thread from that conversation that irked me was when he mentioned that if you have 52 friends, you can stay with each for a week and be housed for a year if you fall on hard times. How is that financial independence? It just didn’t add up!

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