When I was seventeen years old, and I was leaving to attend college, I made the fateful decision that would one day put me on the path to Financial Independence and Retiring Early (FIRE).
I chose to study music.
Not what you expected to hear, right? That’s what this post is about: how those cynical of whether FIRE is possible jump to conclusions about those of us on this journey… and how we do the same to them. First, let’s examine the “typical” early retiree, as imagined by legions of snarky internet commenters, Redditors, and those generally skeptical about the possibility of early retirement.
The Easy Path to FIRE
The average retired personal finance blogger (ARPFB) is a software developer, of course. He’s male, and he grew up an only child, showered with attention by wealthy parents. His childhood consisted of idyllic summers abroad and years of private bilingual elementary education.
When it was time for college, the ARPFB was courted by many Ivy-League schools. He had scholarship offers to all of them, and even if he didn’t, mommy and daddy were perfectly willing to bankroll his entire education. He decided to attend the best of those schools, where he lived “frugally” on mom and dad’s monthly stipend. He graduated without loans and accepted a six-figure salary at Google, Apple, or Microsoft. Stock options drive that income figure over $200,000, and he saves over $100,000 per year by living on “only” half his income.
The ARPFB may be married, but if so, his wife is either a mail-order asian bride or a workaholic fellow engineer. Their dual-income, no kids household is a money printing machine, and thus it is no surprise at all that their net worth is quickly several million dollars. This is helped along by the timely death of at least one set of parents, who leave the ARPFB a sizable inheritance.
Despite being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the ARPFB is also a frugal jerk. He clips coupons, haggles with vendors at the flea market where he does all his clothes shopping, and complains about every meal he eats in a restaurant in an effort to get his food taken off the bill. He orders water when he goes out to drinks with coworkers.
In short, the ARPFB has no business lecturing others on how to achieve early retirement, because he was born on third base and went through life thinking he hit a triple. Financial Independence for the rest of us is impossible, and early retirement is just an amusement of the already-rich.
Music, Loans, and Retail
The truth is, for most people, it’s easier to believe the fantasy above than it is to develop self-awareness and challenge oneself to improve. Even though I may actually have been born on first or second base, the truth of my story isn’t anything like the above. The story of literally every other personal finance blogger that I enjoy reading isn’t anything like the above either. To show you what I mean, I’ll share some details of my life with you.
I was born into a family of nine kids (we were Christmas and Easter Catholics). My dad is an engineer and my mom is a homemaker. I was born in the midwest, but grew up mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area. My dad spent his entire career in startups that he founded. None of them ever achieved success, and my parents have always had some money struggles. What money they did have, they spent on giving us a good life. In this sense, I was born at least on first base– into a stable home where food, shelter, and education were never a concern.
When I was just entering high school, I lost a sister to cancer. This left my parents in an even more critical financial situation that would last for a number of years. The fallout of that experience also made it necessary for my parents to focus on one of my other siblings, who had some severe behavioral and developmental issues. In a lot of ways, I was left on my own to figure it out in high school. I ended up fitting in with the drama and music kids, and lacking any other direction, I went to college for music.
The best school I got into offered me no financial aid, and out-of-state tuition. I wanted to get away from home anyway, and being completely financially ignorant, I took out all the loans the school would authorize to pay for my education. It turns out I was pretty decent at music, so when I finished college, lacking any other obvious career path, I went to grad school, too. You guessed it, another round of loans was the order of the day!
Throughout school, I had to pay for food, shelter, and the now-looming $90,000 in loans, so I took a series of retail jobs, rising to the FIRE-friendly post of manager of a vitamin store. I had always been good with computers, and got the odd job maintaining someone’s virus-ridden PC. I started to get into software development, and contribute to open-source software projects, where any shmoe can submit a patch to fix a bug, get some mentoring, and otherwise learn the basics of computer science. Eventually, after submitting literally hundreds of applications, I got my first IT-related job. I felt lucky to be making $27,000 per year (2005 dollars) in a majorly expensive East Coast city. I shared an apartment with a minimum of two other people at all times, but I was happy.
I had always been into law enforcement, and my passion for that led me to apply for a job with the police department where I grew up. I was hired and returned home, where I did that work for a few years. When I left the department, I was making about $60,000 per year, after all overtime and holiday pay were included. To explain how little I knew at that point, I bought a $406,000 condo in the Bay Area, in 2008, just before the Great Financial Crisis. I bought because everyone I knew told me, very convincingly, that I had to get into a home right away, before I was priced out of the market. It was okay to take on two mortgages and put nothing down. I needed to act, fast!
Lucky for me I took that silly $27,000 per year job back in 2005, and spent the intervening time learning about software development! Otherwise, I would have ended up with no job and an extremely underwater condo! Instead, I just had the extremely underwater condo. I managed to find work immediately after leaving the police department, and have remained steadily employed since then. I’ve never had a stock option worth a dime, I’ve never been paid a bonus of any kind, and I’ve never received a raise without finding another job. I’ve never received an inheritance. I’ve got tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. I don’t have a degree in a “desirable” field, and the degree I have has been more of a liability than a help when I have applied for jobs in the past.
There is nothing particularly special about me, and my circuitous path to FIRE only further convinces me that almost anyone with the will to do so can achieve financial security.
And Yet I Am So, So Fortunate
The cynics I referenced above would probably point out that compared to so many people in the world, I have it made– and you know what? They are absolutely right.
I have never had to worry about where my next meal was going to come from, except in cases where I made stupid financial decisions. I was born in a fortunate place, at a fortunate time, to parents who loved, fed, and clothed me. I had access to the education and resources I need to improve myself. I haven’t experienced bias because of my gender, race, or sexuality. I was born on the easy side of each of these coin-flips. You could safely argue that if I was born on first base, it sure was easy to steal second.
On a scale of one to ten, my challenges on the path to FIRE might be about a three. Not a total slam dunk, but not a lot of obstacles in my way (aside from my own choices) either.
So yes, it’s only fair to acknowledge that FIRE comes easiest for those who have it easy. We don’t have to deny the role that good fortune has had in our success, but we also have a right to be proud of what hard work and discipline has done for us, too.
So Don’t Tell Me You Can’t…
Whether it’s hard or easy, I think that in most cases it’s possible to achieve financial security in a developed nation. I’m careful to use “financial security” rather than “financial independence” because I want to be realistic about the severity of the issues some people face. People face endemic racism, sexism, classism, and other “isms” that I will never encounter. They have to feed multiple kids that they had before having the maturity to know how hard supporting them would be. Those are obstacles that require working way harder and way smarter than I ever have.
I just believe that it can be done.
…And I Won’t Say It’s Easy
We as a community have to be incredibly careful not to cast those not yet on the path to financial independence (or at least financial security) as idiots. I (and probably you) have made so many mistakes. I am lucky enough to have had the tools to recover from them, and not to have made mistakes that seriously compromise my ability to achieve FIRE. Who is to say that if I had not gotten my act together as soon as I did, I wouldn’t have ended up a cautionary tale about the impossibility of FIRE?
Is the message of financial independence only for those who can drastically and easily cut their spending, adjust their lifestyle, and supercharge their earning? I don’t think so. I think it’s for everyone.
If you’re one of those who are already on the way to financial independence, consider how you could help someone on a harder path. If you’re one of the cynics, consider whether your circumstances are so bad that you can’t at least start by making small changes and see where it leads you.
Don’t tell me you can’t.