The Philosophy of the Personal Finance Community is Shifting

4 min read

I remember the initial excitement I felt when I first discovered blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, Early Retirement Extreme, and Mad Fientist. I was captivated by this idea of “Financial Independence Retire Early”, commonly referred to as F.I.R.E.

I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden formula that held the key to happiness in life: Grind for 10 years, save 70% of my income each year, then quit my day job in my early 30s and never work again. 

But as I began to research the psychology of happiness more and more, I kept noticing three variables show up. To live a good life, you need:

Autonomy: freedom over your time

Mastery: working towards becoming an expert at some type of work

Connection: meaningful relationships and belonging to a community

F.I.R.E. certainly promotes the idea of having the financial means to have autonomy over your life. It also grants you the free time necessary to develop connections and become a member of a larger community.

But F.I.R.E. doesn’t have much of an explanation for “Mastery.” It even contains the words “Retire Early” in the acronym, implying that you shouldn’t engage in active work or work towards mastery in a field.

The words “Retirement Police” are even thrown around in personal finance blog posts to suggest that you would be breaking some law if you declare yourself retired and yet still work in some capacity.

In recent months, though, I have noticed a trend in the personal finance community. More and more bloggers (myself included) are beginning to acknowledge that work isn’t the enemy, but rather meaningless work is the enemy. 

I have recently seen a plethora of tweets and blog posts that promote a new idea that is beginning to take hold in the community:

F.I. is essential. R.E. is optional.

More people are beginning to see that financial independence (or even partial F.I.) is essential to gain freedom over your time. Retiring early, however, is entirely optional. In fact, avoiding work entirely may have a negative impact on your well-being. 

One book that supports the idea that work is essential to a good life is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it, he argues that we actually experience life at the fullest when we’re doing deep work, attempting to overcome challenges, solve problems, and push beyond our limits.

From Flow:

“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Csikszentmihalyi points out that engaging in a difficult task forces us to concentrate deeply on that task, which helps us enter a “flow” state. This state is highly correlated with a sense of well-being and purpose. And the best way to enter a flow state on a regular basis is through doing work that we find meaningful.

It almost feels weird saying “you need work to make you happy” because many of us have negative feelings associated with the term “work.” We associate it with 9-5 schedules, deadlines, meetings, performance reviews, micro-managers, and frustrating commutes.

This doesn’t mean work is evil, though. It just means that most of us have never been in a situation where we look forward to work. After all, it’s tough to get excited about projects when we we’re sitting in soul-sucking cubicle environments with deadlines and managers looming around us. 

Personally, I surprised myself when I found a certain type of work that I looked forward to each day in the form of blogging. Each morning I sit at my desk genuinely excited to write an article or work on code for a new visual.

I probably enjoy blogging so much because it’s the exact opposite of my day job in many ways – I have no meetings, no manager, and no performance reviews. I choose my own projects. I can work from the comfort of my own home or go to my favorite coffee shop. I work when I feel like it and take breaks whenever I want.

I can imagine that most people could find enjoyable work if they had complete control over their schedule, with the freedom to choose exactly what projects to work on.

Perhaps the biggest perk of finding enjoyable work is that earning active income can help you exit your cubicle years sooner. Personally I earned over $1,000 in April alone from blogging. If I consistently earned $1k per month, that’s $12k per year, equivalent to a 3%-yielding stock portfolio with a value of $400k. That’s $400k I no longer need to sit around and accumulate through a day job.

Related: The Active Income Grid & The Ticket to a Shorter Cubicle Life

This is why I think it’s a good idea to spend your “wealth accumulation” years finding out what type of work actually interests you. Experiment with starting a blog, making an Etsy shop, setting up a tutoring side hustle, or whatever else piques your interest. I think you might find that it’s easier than you think to earn income from work you enjoy. 

Related: View the Years Leading up to Your Financial Goal as an Opportunity to Develop Self-Awareness

I think we’re witnessing a major philosophy shift in the personal finance community and I couldn’t be more excited. More of us are beginning to see that the end goal is happiness, not just a fat bank account.

And it turns out that work plays an essential role in happiness, as long as you have the freedom to dictate what that work looks like. If you can create a situation where you can do work on your own schedule, on your own terms, at your own pace, and produce meaningful products and services, it can simultaneously add value to the world and boost your own happiness.

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10 Replies to “The Philosophy of the Personal Finance Community is Shifting”

  1. I signed on when everyone started going the RE optional route and that’s what appealed to me. The pact with my husband is after he retires, he build something on his own and be tech support for me. I need that meaning there for me to feel useful and validated.

  2. Nice summary, Zach.

    I’m no where near ready to FIRE if I wanted to yet – at least at the lifestyle level that Mrs. BD and I would like to maintain. The FI part is also more achievable with viewing the RE part as optional or perhaps event just a nice-to-have (ok fine, a very nice-to-have).

    Thanks again. – Mike

  3. The community needs a better term than FIRE. Ive seen FIOR (optional retirement). Ive seen FinanceBuff say something like FI then Pivot. The “retirement” word is too loaded and has to be swapped out.

  4. Very true. I’m seeing a softer more encompassing attitude also, more of the ‘Personal finance is personal so take advice given with a grain of salt’ attitude.
    I remember reading a comic on joy/happiness once, about how one might find work satisfying, and hence worth doing. It doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, but one finds that work worthwhile anyway.

  5. Well said! I moved straight into side gig consulting after I left an extremely demanding job. I do not miss the old 9 to 5 but I’m glad that I was able to preserve some of the fun parts of working with my consulting roles. So far after three years it is all very good! And having several days off most weeks is pretty nice.

  6. I’m not even sure that the FI part is essential if you have work you love. We are well on the way to FI but we are not going to get there anytime soon because I work part time in a low paid job that I love. And the plan is to have enough flexibility in the next year for husband to do the same. To me it’s the journey not the destination.

  7. Good post!

    I agree that the lack of work isn’t the key. It’s the financial independence. I think I have even seen studies discussing the potential health risks of early retirement, with nothing else to do. People lose their sense of purpose, and then their sense of self worth, or lose the social circle they didn’t think of as a social circle (though it is). The key to a happy long life is meaningful relationships and keeping an active mind.

    I would feel much less inclined to quit my day job if it left me the freedom to take time off whenever I wanted or needed. Indeed, my idea of early retirement is purely per diem work, hoping I can find enough to keep me busy and give me purpose, but to be financially independent enough that I am ok if there isn’t any work available for a while. Of course, I’ve also added the blogging portion to try and develop some creative (and social) outlets. If they make some money that’s a bonus.

    In my personal life, I feel more productive and useful when I “work.” My husband on the other hand, with a large property to take care of and being a handy-person finds plenty of purpose in tending to the home.

    It can look different for everyone. But yes, the key is being positioned to do what brings you joy and purpose.

    1. I think the freedom to take time off when needed is something many Americans desire and are likely missing in their day job. It’s a great reason to pursue financial flexibility – not to quit working entirely, but to have the option to take time off when needed.

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