If the FIRE Journey Makes You Miserable, You’re Doing it Wrong

The FIRE Journey should NOT make you miserable

In recent times, I’ve noticed stories popping up with a similar theme.

That to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE) means extreme sacrifice that inevitably comes at a cost to your happiness today.

Because what’s the point of being miserable now, waiting so long for Financial Independence and then still missing out on the good life?

Let’s explore this topic.  Because if one thing is certain, it’s that we don’t want to create misery for anyone!  We all want to live a great life, get our freedom back and power ahead with a strong set of finances.  All empowering, joyful things.

But do we have to choose between happiness now and freedom later?  Is frugality simply a necessary evil that we endure to reach our end goal?

 

The argument against the FI path

Multiple stories have now surfaced of folks who ventured down the FI path, hoping to attain freedom in their lives, but later decided it wasn’t such a good idea.

Basically, they state that saving lots of money made them unhappy and so they decided the FIRE journey simply wasn’t worth it.  Many have quit the journey altogether or greatly pulled back and extended their timeframe out much longer.

Should we be worried that this lifestyle is going to affect us in negative ways?  Will we regret saving so much?  Or will we regret leaving traditional full-time work so early?

I can’t speak to all complaints because, as is typical of the internet, these are never-ending!  But let’s break down some whiny stories I’ve seen recently about the FIRE movement, along with other common complaints.  Some points here are taken from a media article which I won’t link as it doesn’t deserve recognition.

Now, forgive me as I channel my inner grumpy-old-man today!  He’s much closer to the surface than you might expect 😉  And like any good ribbing from an old bloke, I’m bound to repeat myself.

 

“The sacrifices you must make, such as turning down weddings or skipping date night, may end up eroding the happiness you experience now.”  

Wait, what?  Show me one blogger who said you MUST avoid these things!  Your friend’s wedding and spending quality time with your spouse?  FI computer says no, apparently.  What a load of shit!

The biggest principle of the FIRE philosophy is to axe spending on stuff that is NOT important and optimise the things that are.  If you chose to cut something genuinely important to you, there is no-one else to blame.

 

“FIRE follower X… sacrificed weekly coffee dates and Friday pizza nights after marrying her husband to stick to their 70% savings rate. She also let go of her aspirations of buying a home in the suburbs two months in advance of her wedding to save for that special day.”

Hmm, okay.  So she decided to save for her wedding instead of buying a house?  That seems reasonable.  After all, it would be ridiculous to expect to be able to pay for a (likely expensive) wedding and buy a house within the space of two months.  No clue what this has to do with the FI journey though.

Sacrificed weekly coffee date and pizza one night a week?  What would that cost?  $10 for two coffees, and $20 for a fancy pizza.  That’s $30 per week.

What would that do to their savings rate?  For a dual-income couple who is likely earning $150,000, their savings rate would drop from 70% to… 69%.  Do the math yourself here.

Oh no, Financial Independence is ruined!  Are these people serious?  1% difference.  This has roughly NO IMPACT on their retirement date.  So in this case, have the damn pizza and coffee and get on with it!  But no need to abandon ship.

 

“Another route for passive income championed by FIRE followers is buying real estate. But it’s not as simple as some suggest. One IT support professional bought a triplex to earn additional income.

She took a chance on an ex-convict who was recovering from an opioid addiction. But within a couple months, he quit his job and wasn’t paying rent. Before she could confront him, he left the building with the house keys.  Her real estate setbacks and recent relocation have made her rethink her early retirement goals.”

Renting to an ex-con and recovering drug addict, and managing the property yourself.  What could go wrong?  But of course, this is all the FIRE movement’s fault.  With risky investing problems like this, how is anyone supposed to reach FI?

Maybe by investing in something that’s DIVERSIFIED and, you know, ACTUALLY PASSIVE!

An index fund or LIC, for example.  Where income is paid like clockwork, there are no bills, no vacancies, and where everyone else is working hard except you!

 

“I’d love to be FI.  But why live like you’ve got no money, just to retire early and continue living like that?  I want the good life!”

What people really mean by ‘the good life’, is essentially consumerism on steroids.  To live a shallow, material, celebrity-like lifestyle.

But that’s okay, because celebrities are known to be about the happiest most content people around, right?  No mental health issues, drug dependence, empty relationships and misguided values there at all!

Let’s step back for a minute.  I propose that WE’RE ALREADY LIVING THE GOOD LIFE!  It’s just that nobody bothers to take a minute to see how ridiculous this all is.

We’re living at the richest time in human history.  In one of the most prosperous countries in the world.  With record levels of personal wealth, material luxury and the highest ever living standards!

Don’t believe me?  Okay.  How would you like to be living back in the early 1900s?  Or, how would you like to live in rural Africa?  Oh, doesn’t sound so good?  Well, there’s your answer.

Our perception of ‘the good life’ is completely skewed by the tiny fraction of the world around us, with no context for how other people live and those who’ve lived before us. 

Much of the world could subconsciously think of us (and rightly so) as extremely spoilt pieces of shit, if they knew we regarded living a seemingly simple life in Australia as anything less than ‘absolute heaven on Earth’.

Now, you might point out that people don’t think like that.  Exactly, that’s the problem!  Despite being in the top fraction of luckiest/wealthiest people in the world, we still look at those just above us and think we’re somehow missing out.

This is a wildly inaccurate view of our true standard of living.  If we’re going to measure ourselves against others, it should be against all other 99.9% of human life.  Everywhere.  Alive and dead.

 

“FIRE is only possible by spending like NO money and saving nearly ALL of your your pay”

Nope.  The maths don’t show that at all.  Below are figures for how long it will take to reach FI, based on various savings rates, assuming 5% annual returns (after inflation) and then living off 4% per year.

These figures don’t include using superannuation, which could justify retiring even sooner if you make that part of your long term plan.

 

Savings Rate Years to Retirement
10% 51
15% 43
20% 37
25% 32
30% 28
35% 25
40% 22
45% 19
50% 17
55% 14.5
60% 12.5
65% 10.5
70% 8.5
75% 7
80% 5.5
85% 4
90% 2.75
95% 1.5

 

You’ve probably seen this before!  As you can see, FI is doable in a relatively short amount of time.  Starting at 25 and saving a fraction over half your pay, you’ll be done by 40!

If you want to spend more and do it in 20 years, then you can.  And you’ll STILL reach FI in your 40s!  The truth is, you can set this up for any age you want.

The FIRE movement isn’t about extreme sacrifice.  It’s about freedom and choices.  But mostly, it’s about turning down the dial on consumerism and building a life with more meaning.

The reason this works without extreme sacrifice, is because of the already fortunate, envy-inducing lives we have in modern-day Australia.  Oh, and the fact that full-time incomes are much higher than the actual cost of our needs.

Nobody wants to admit that, but it’s true.  When it clicks, people start scrambling for the big book of excuses, and furiously shuffle the pages, trying to find the best comeback they can.  While countless others sit back and think, “holy shit, we can do this if we try!”

Our own life of deprivation involves living in an unnecessarily big 4 bedroom house, which backs out onto a gigantic regional park, with a huge lake and abundant wildlife.  We eat tasty and nutritious food, get plenty of exercise, have a lovely (yet expensive!) dog and take numerous in-state and out-of-state trips.

We also enjoy excellent and mostly-free healthcare, visit friends, regularly indulge at cafes and restaurants and have these ridiculously convenient smartphones just like everyone else.  And of course, a luxurious near-new vehicle which now sits idle most of the time.

Far from living in the sticks, our suburban town centre has an abundance of shops a 10 minute walk from our door.  And there’s a mini-city 10-15 minutes drive away.  The CBD is just a half-hour trip.

The annual cost of this satisfying lifestyle is around $40,000-$45,000 (see a breakdown of our spending here).  That’s including rent!  We could always spend much more in every category.  But we could easily spend less if we needed or wanted to.  In fact, here’s where we’d cut back in a disaster scenario.

It’s no stretch to say there is even plenty of excess in our spending.  So you can see, even with a good life, there is typically a huge flow of excess income for many working households.  This cash can either be squandered (as is the norm), or put towards a higher purpose (like FI).

You might argue that you live in a more expensive city than me.  To that I’d say, so what?  We each get to choose where we live.

By living in an big expensive city, it’s possible to save just as much, if not more, by taking advantage of high salaries and keeping expenses moderate, by going car-free and choosing sensible housing.  If not, then step off that glorified hamster-wheel and move!

Again, you’re not forced to give up anything.  You craft your own journey.  Create the healthiest most enjoyable lifestyle you can, while minimising waste, so you can save and invest to buy your freedom!

 

“But my spending makes me happy.  Without it I’ll be miserable”

What… all of it?  I highly doubt that.  If someone thinks their spending is what makes them happy, they probably haven’t got a clue what actually makes them happy.

What we get from spending is effectively the same as a sugar-high.  A rush that makes us feel good in the short-term, but ultimately, makes us dependant and sick in the long term.  Not only that, but it doesn’t satisfy us – we always want more.

The constant quest for more crap, for a better, fancier lifestyle is unproductive at best, and downright destructive at worst.

Many full-blown consumers still haven’t figured out what matters and what doesn’t.  This results in using their limited free time to chase these short-term highs, to make the work-spend treadmill of life as palatable as it can be.  When instead, they can learn to short-circuit the system, by recognising the disconnect between our level of spending and a genuinely contented life.

If you’re new to FIRE, it’s totally okay to still be in this camp.  We’ve all been there!  But do some soul-searching on this topic and come back to it regularly.

My point is, what people actually need to live a happy life is dramatically less than what they think they need.  That’s what I and many others have found.  Maybe you will too.  Test it out for yourself.

 

“When the market crashes, all these early retirees will come crawling back to the workforce”

This one usually comes from disgruntled, middle-aged career-slaves, for whom investments are scary and the ultimate safety is a good job.

Now, it’s fair to say that most of us have only invested through relatively good times.  So what will happen when we have a genuine economic downturn and the shit hits the fan?

Well, that’s anyone’s guess.  But what can early retirees do in that scenario?  Lots of things.  We can easily spend less for a start (remember many of us are unusually flexible).  Use the typical backup of cash or bonds to top up income until the market recovers.  We could also look at earning money through part-time work, freelancing etc.

It’s worth noting that the often-quoted 4% rule (or rule-of-thumb) has shown to be a relatively safe amount of your investments to spend, even through market crashes over time.  Given just a bit of flexibility on the income and spending side, I see no reason for future retirees to panic during a downturn.

Will some get scared and want to go back to work?  Sure, maybe.  But whatever happens, the FI community will fare much better than the rest of the population!

Why?  Because not only are we adaptable and good at managing money.  But we’re going into the downturn with a large pool of investments and relatively low spending.  Contrast that to the pampered high-spending household, who relies 100% on salary income to get by, and has little savings and zero investment income!

 

“But I want to give my kids the best education/a head start in life/help buy their first property etc.”

If you make room for this in your plan, you can.  Funnily enough, this is usually said by successful high-earning people who got to where they are WITHOUT expensive private education.  Bit ironic, don’t you think?

These people studied hard, paid their own way in the world and are now affluent adults.  They learned to work hard for things, to manage money sensibly and now have a great source of pride in their progress.  So it makes perfect sense to help their kids get a head start in life, right?

Wrong!  By paying their child’s way and giving them ‘the best’, they are robbing them of learning these same valuable lifelong skills for themselves.  Not only that, but the huge sense of accomplishment their kids will feel by doing things on their own.

If everything is paid for them, and they pick up on regular subtle messages implying, “we’ll look after it,” how will they ever learn to manage their own money?  Why would they bother?  The answer is, they probably won’t.

I’m no parent.  But the way I see it, the aim of being a parent should be not to give your children everything you can.  But to teach your children everything you can.  A pampered lifestyle is only going to grow a sense of entitlement and they’ll become more disconnected from the reality of their insanely lucky place in the world.

Give them your time, your knowledge, your guidance.  And focus on buying your freedom.  The result is, your kids get their parents back.  That’s the best possible gift you can give them.

After they’ve established themselves as a successful adult, then it’s fine to help.  But the irony is, if you’ve taught them well they won’t even need your help!

 

Revisiting the FIRE Philosophy

By now I hope you can see that most of the complaints about the FIRE journey are complete nonsense.  You’re not supposed to give up things that are extremely important to you.  How dumb would that be?

It just turns out that most important things in life don’t have much to do with money at all!  So it’s really about getting better at prioritising what’s worth spending on, and what’s not.  And if we value our freedom or care about how much of the planet we’re consuming, many things aren’t worth it.

That means we can get ruthless in areas which deliver no genuine benefit for our dollars.  Daily takeaway food/coffee.  SUVs with car loans attached.  Houses too big for our needs (guilty).  Constant upgrades of everything.  The list goes on.

After you’ve learned what matters, here’s a shortcut:  Cut out the crap.  Optimise everything else.

For nearly all of us, there is a way to get the same level of happiness and life satisfaction (or more) that we currently have, for much less than we currently spend.

Remember, we’re changing our relationship with money.  So it won’t always be easy.  It’ll be a little uncomfortable, sometimes difficult.  But that’s how we grow as a person and what helps us develop better, healthier values.

 

Final thoughts

The FIRE journey is certainly not about deprivation or sacrifice.  Rather, it’s about conscious spending, priorities and simply getting our financial shit together.

If you feel deprived, miserable and are wishing the days away, you’re doing it wrong.  Maybe you need to revisit your values, or make room (in your life and your budget) for what’s important to you.

But we get to enjoy the best parts of life that everyone else does, in a more logical and less destructive fashion.  Health, nature, relationships, learning, hobbies, and finding meaningful work.

The biggest benefit of being rich that’s missing from this list, is not luxuries.  No.  The only remaining benefit worth striving for, is freedom.  And fortunately, for those who adopt the FIRE philosophy, that freedom can be created surprising quickly.

 

*** In other news, a massive thanks to YOU for reading this blog.  Strong Money Australia recently ticked over 1 million total pageviews since 2017!  Tons more juicy content coming your way in 2020, so make sure you sign up below…

33 comments

  1. Congrats on the 1 million views and as usual, great read.
    “We’re living at the richest time in human history. In one of the most prosperous countries in the world. With record levels of personal wealth, material luxury and the highest ever living standards!”

    It boggles my mind how so many people are oblivious to the above. We are indeed lucky to be living in OZ at a time like this.

    As for consumerism, don’t get me started… I’ve given up talking to friends/family about it as it’s a lost case in most situations.

    1. Thanks mate! Haha sounds like you could go on a rant of your own – here I’ll pass you the mic… 😉

    1. Who needs a therapist when you’ve got a blog!? Such a great way to let loose. Oh yeah, posts like this are always fun to write! And they don’t even feel optional, the frustration just builds up sometimes and HAS TO come out lol

  2. I haven’t come across these negative sentiments myself but yeah, what a load of bollocks. Let’s see how badly we are “suffering” while we (me, wife and 3-year old) save 65% of our income:
    – annual overseas holidays
    – takeaway coffees most days, pizza night on Friday, Sunday cafe meals
    – rent a 2-bedroom, hardwood top floor unit at the beach in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs
    – go to a paid for gym once a week
    – drive (weekends) a preowned luxury version SUV (paid $16K cash with 78,000 km on it)
    – combined income is average

    So with that we are powering our way to FI. I know this because I track total wealth on the first of every month with 3.5 years of data now. It’s there staring me in the face how easily this snowball has grown by simply not throwing money away on shit we don’t need.

  3. Love your thoughts about supporting kids through teaching them rather than giving all the time. Totally agree. I wish I’d known back then what I know now!
    Great article which I’m sharing out!

    1. Thanks very much Jo! Shame nobody will listen to parenting advice from someone with no kids lol – that tends to be a dealbreaker! So I’ll be relying on you to spread the word on that one, that handouts are no substitute for guidance and teaching 🙂

    2. Love this post Dave. And, with three kids going ok, certainly agree about less is more when it comes to giving freebies to kids. A hand up not a hand out!

      My approach is to firmly lay out to myself what I think is reasonable to provide my three kids over their childhoods and early adulthood, and then to make sure I am consistent inwardly and outwardly with that.

  4. Great article Dave ! someones been reading Mark Manson
    Another take on the downturn survival strategy is to look at a very long term chart of the asx , its about 7 years from high point – crash – recovery then continues climbing again, the GFC was a particularly severe event about 12 years to recovery without dividends that is if you continued to live on them and not switch on the DRP during the down turn when all prices are at there cheapest. The symmetry of black swan event duration’s is remarkable as they say history doesn’t repeat but it rhymes.
    I plan to have some cash possibly 7 years worth tied up bonds or proxy’s that way I will switch on DRP’s during the next downturn and use the cash till the good times return then continue the journey.
    just my take for what its worth.

    1. Cheers Josh. Yep have been a fan of Mark for a good while now and often link to his articles. I really like his view on things.

      Your approach is interesting. 7 years of cash seems like a bit much to me. There’s a huge opportunity cost there. I’d simply live off the (reduced) dividends and use cash to top up. It’s not like dividends will be zero. And if still accumulating, I’d be buying as much as I could afford to at all times.

      GFC was definitely a brutal (and rare) event. If one is living off the income, do the prices really matter? Dividends fall too of course, but typically less than prices, and much less if invested in quality LICs.

      1. Speaking of Mark Manson, in a recent post of his he basically said: “most people suck, so if you do the exact opposite of what most people do, you’ll be ahead”. That’s an interesting take on life… You bought a new phone? Okay, I’m gonna hang onto mine a bit longer. You traded in your three-year-old Ford Ranger for a brand new one? Okay, I’m gonna hang onto my hand-me-down Corolla a bit longer. As a result, financially speaking, I’ve got myself ahead of the curve. Doing the opposite of what most people do is essentially the best life hack there is. Cheers Mark!

        Love your work here Dave, and congrats on the million views. Net worth vs Page views would make for an interesting match race!

        1. Haha awesome Chris! Wholeheartedly agree. Funnily enough, I have a half-written draft post which is essentially the same thing – how playing the opposite game is a great strategy for nearly everything in life! I wrote it a few years ago in my notebook but that’s where it’s stayed… the blog post ideas list is already insanely long, at this rate it may never see the light of day lol.

          Interesting idea – pageviews would absolutely crush net worth tho. Net worth has actually gone down since we retired (thanks property 😉 ), yet pageviews will probably clock up another million in a year and a bit!

  5. Thanks Dave, agree 100% with your comments. As someone on the other side of FI (I retired at 54 years 11 months) I can honestly say my husband and I don’t live any differently financially than we did pre-retirement. We’ve had a shared view regarding money management that aligns with your approach and that’s probably the key to a seamless life whichever side of FI you’re at! Don’t spend more than you earn, don’t get ripped off by sellers, distinguish between must have and like to have, become mortgage free asap and avoid credit card debt. We research best value for everything from utilities to replacing the fridge to health insurance, shop at Aldi, go out for breakfast rather than dinner and have dinners out at the local RSL! It’s more about sensible financial practices formed early in life that become a habit, not so much a huge change in approach which I think many critics struggle with. The prize of FI is waiting for those who deserve it!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment Rita, appreciate you sharing that!

      Well done by the way! Sounds like an very sensible way to live. And you’re totally right that building the right habits early makes a big difference. Because once something is a habit, it’s effortless. Hopefully we can get more people building better habits over time!

  6. I think it’s astounding just how much our family’s savings rate increased just by being more conscious of our spending, cutting down bills where we could! Valueless spending prior to the full- so wasteful!

    1. Great to hear about the progress Doc! As you’ve shown, it’s really about the right attitude, being accountable and taking action. Nothing super difficult, often just different to what people are currently doing 🙂

  7. Totally agree! I’m in the US, but your lifestyle sounds similar to ours. It’s completely possible to become FI(RE) without having to miss out on life. I’ve saved and saved, yet I’ve also traveled the world and have built friendships. Sometimes that means having friends over for tea or coffee instead of going out. Sometimes it means hosting a dinner that I cook and share. But I have to cook dinner anyway, so why not enjoy sharing it with someone? And there’s plenty of fun to be had for free! Get creative!

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for the comment! Awesome example of how to approach FI to maximise enjoyment as well as still killing it with your finances 🙂

  8. Hi …
    Another small non-sacrifice which may seen insignificant in the total scheme of things to most consumers ; SWITCH of ROOM LIGHTS or other electrical appliances whenever one leaves a room / outhouse !
    When l first arrived in OZ , l was absolutely astounded at the way the average house was lit-up in every room , as it appeared to me directly arrived from Europe .
    Yours switch-offedly , Ramon .

    1. Ahhh good one Ramon! A pet-peeve of mine (out of many lol) is stuff like this, thanks for pointing it out. It’s just dumb, has zero benefit and is 100% waste. You wouldn’t leave the shower on after you get out or the car running after you get out, right? Once you’re done with something you turn it off!

  9. As the great Peter Griffin once said…

    “Pow, right in the kisser!”

    Love love love this Dave!

    I’ve yet to see a mainstream media outlet publish a story on FIRE that doesn’t go down this narrative. As if we’re all living like Spartans on nothing but baked beans on toast, counting each cent until we get to our magical number so we can be happy 🙄.

    Next time I see one of those stories, or a youngin whining about how terrible living in modern-day Australia is I am going to send them to this article.

    1. Haha thanks mate! Always good to quote Peter Griffin 😉

      Man it’s sad they go down that path, but they’re just peddling what they think their audience wants to hear – that old ‘life is hard’ ‘everything is expensive’ victim mentality. It’s up to us to straighten out the nonsense! Cheers FB.

  10. A different take on the pizza date night. Regardless that it is only 1%, maybe they replaced it with something cheaper but better? What about a walk around the park? Or a picnic? Not only cheaper but better for your health and just as good for your relationship. Cost does not correlate with value.

    1. Totally K! They could easily optimise date night. I was just being overly generous to show it still made basically no difference to their outcome, and as a result, makes no sense to use as a whiny example of why FIRE is restrictive and means missing out 🙂

  11. Wow Dave this article is outstanding. So many valid points. You should write a book. A little late reading your blog as I am enjoying a planned snow holiday. Thanks to 12 months of conscious spending and saving. So agree with your sentiments about FIRE. We have been applying some of the strategies (still learning heaps) in our finances and discovered the satisfaction and confidence of managing our money rather than money managing us. Just wished we had discovered FIRE earlier. My husband and I are about 7 years off retirement but in the last 12 months seen positive changes in our finances that will help us in retirement. Keep blogging you are doing a great job and congrats on the 1 million views.

  12. hi Dave, I have only been a recent finder of your blog. So much stuff to read and learn. Why were there not people like you years ago? Perhaps there were but no one led me to those directions or maybe i did not have an interest back then, just living and paying bills and enjoying life at that moment( spending).
    Years have gone by quickly and now not that far away from retirement i feel its all too late.
    I did pull my finger out a little when in my late 50s back 3 years ago, and now with not many years left to retirement, only a casual job after being made redundant after spending 25 years in my last job its not getting any easier.
    But now one of my kids around 30yo i do not want them to make the same errors as i did. Perhaps with your blog, i can get them to do some reading and set themselves up on FIRE. As i said , only a recent finder of your blog so for my benefit and my kids benefit where is the best place to start reading up on your website. Keep up the good work.
    ps: There maybe something i might want to ask that i do not want to put up publicly , so wondering if take any personal emails? Thanks

    1. Hey jdc. Haha I dunno mate, there wasn’t many bloggers years ago, especially in Australia! At least we’re here now 🙂

      The best place to start is perhaps the Start Here page, from there your kids can read what it’s all about and get the idea of how it works, and on that page they can download the free ebook I just created which spells out the key lessons to this FI stuff.

      You can send me a private email through my Contact page and I’ll get back to you. Cheers!

  13. Pingback: If they came to hear me beg – More heretical thoughts on cutting costs | Aussie HIFIRE

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