Why I'm a FIRE Movement Convert

The FIRE movement of Financial Independence, Retire Early has some flaws, says Morningstar's Christine Benz, but there are also benefits that can't be ignored

Christine Benz 6 July, 2020 | 12:39AM
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Over the past few weeks I’ve been part of a lively discussion about the best way to get young people engaged in investing.

I posited that young investors building individual-stock portfolios (and worse yet, dabbling in options) are cruising for trouble. It feels the 1990s, when many inexperienced investors purchased individual technology stocks only to lose badly during the subsequent crash.

And even setting aside the risks of investing in a high-priced basket of technology stocks (or a grab-bag of beaten-up travel and leisure names), I’d argue that buying individual stocks is a sub-optimal way to break into investing no matter the market climate. Reams of academic literature point to diversification as one of the key principles of successful investing. So why shouldn’t we tell beginning investors to move straight to a well-diversified portfolio? Rather than pursuing overnight riches by trading individual equities, I’d much rather see young investors get started with practical, commonsense strategies.

Indeed, there’s an investing movement that stands for all of these things—and one that I wish young investors would learn about - the FIRE movement.

Financial Independence, Retire Early

For the uninitiated, FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. Coached by FIRE advocates on websites like Mr. Money Mustache, Our Next Life, and Can I Retire Yet?, FIRE adherents focus on spending mindfully on what they find important, saving early and often, and broadly diversifying their investments across a globally diversified portfolio, usually consisting of inexpensive index funds. While the movement has increasingly emphasised the “financial independence” piece and downplayed early retirement, many FIRE practitioners aim to retire by 40, if not sooner.

In a lot of ways the FIRE approach is the polar opposite of the trading mentality. It emphasises discipline and hard work over short-term profits and a betting mentality. “Winning” for FIRE proponents means finding a way to live life in a way that aligns with your values and your joys.

I’ll confess that I was initially sceptical about FIRE. The movement’s preoccupation with thrift put me off. Youth and good health are gifts to be cherished, I thought, so is it really wise to spend those precious days pinching pennies? 

There’s also a certain sense of entitlement that goes hand-in-hand with FIRE. In order to be able to save as much as you need to retire early, you generally need to have a pretty high-paying job to begin with. Many people can’t save enough to tide them through short-term job loss, let alone an early retirement. While proponents insist that FIRE is inclusive, some people could never contemplate it because their budgets are too tight to allow for aggressive saving, full stop.

I was also concerned about how these very young retirees were approaching the topic of portfolio sustainability. Many FIRE bloggers use the 4% guideline to determine their in-retirement spending plans. But most of the research about portfolio sustainability has looked at a far shorter drawdown period of 25-30 years, not 50. Young retirees also contend with risks that aren’t usually a big deal for older retirees (not having enough years of earnings to get a full State Pension, for example) and FIRE strategies also often revolve around property investments, which make me nervous because of their inherent lack of diversification.

Perhaps my biggest objection to FIRE was a philosophical one. I’m still bothered by the notion of work as something to be gotten over with so that you can do what you really want to do. While there are, of course, days when I’d rather do something else, I’ve generally viewed my work as a place a place of friendship, mandatory intellectual stimulation, and purpose. My advice to people who view work as something they need to get through so they can get on with enjoying their lives is that they should look for another career.

FI Even if you Don't RE

I haven’t completely put those reservations aside. I’m not a fan of the uber-thrifty sect of the FIRE movement, for the reasons noted above. I’m still concerned that some FIRE practitioners haven’t thought through the financial implications of retiring early. I still believe in my bones that we’re meant to work in this life and get stuff done, though that work certainly needn’t be paid work.

But the more I’ve taken time to learn about FIRE, the more I’ve found to admire in this movement. I've realised that the best FIRE practitioners are incredibly sober in their financial planning. They’ve thought about everything from State Pension to low bond yields and laid out contingency plans in case their early retirement is derailed. They know they’ve been lucky, and they’ve thought hard about what they would do if they became unlucky.

I was quickly disabused of the notion that FIRE equals a life of extreme deprivation in the accumulation years or laying about in retirement. Some of the leading lights in the FIRE movement are incredibly productive, in their communities and in their personal lives. Some “FI” practitioners continue to work, but the difference is they work because they want to, at jobs they enjoy and that give them meaning.

In the end, I’ve concluded that the “retire early” part of FIRE is a bit of a distraction from the really important part of the movement: the value of mindfully allocating our precious time and money in a way that aligns with our values, life goals, and joys. From that standpoint, even those of us who don’t plan to retire early can learn something from FIRE, and young investors with their whole lives ahead of them can learn even more.

This article originally appeared on Morningstar.com

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About Author

Christine Benz

Christine Benz  is director of personal finance at Morningstar and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances.

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