When my brother introduced me to FI, I hated it. Hate is a strong word. Loathed? Despised? Hmm, lots of strong words here. Oh I know why! It’s because my feelings were strong.
Disclaimer: the feelings I had (have?) didn’t have anything to do with the gurus or the content I was consuming, but with the movement itself, and the trends that I noticed in the followers. Okay, disclaimer is done, now to get on to the claimer.
There are three main reasons I hated it, all with subreasons and subsubreasons and subsubsubreasons. They can be summarized as such:
- The people in the movement are overwhelmingly massively privileged, and somewhat blind to it.
- Some of the deprivation narratives border on, or actually just plunge right into, unhealthy behaviors. At times I think the tenets can feed into mental illness.
- Many of the takeaways are self-serving and selfish.
So let’s unpack these, shall we?
1.Privilege: I know, it’s kind of a buzz word, and it can turn people off, but it is what it is. People in the movement are stereotyped as “single white straight men who are software developers,” and I can see why that stereotype exists. However, it goes beyond that. People in the movement are overwhelmingly from developed countries, who speak English as a native language. They have to be. They have to be because the kinds of tax tricks and investment options and travel hacking that make up the backbone of FI are not applicable to people in developing countries.
Why? Because the systems in developing country are not stable. Because access to credit cards is a luxury. Because access to the training programs and the companies that pay well and the blog/podcast audiences requires native English.
To say “I am a part of the FI movement” means that you are, necessarily, starting in a position of power. It is possible to retire early and move to Costa Rica, where the cost of living is low, because you did not grow up in Costa Rica, where the cost of living (and salaries!) are low. The opportunities available to those in the FI movement are breathtakingly unfair.
Drill down a bit farther, and you can see that, among this already-extremely-fortunate population, the majority were born on third base and thought they hit a triple (look at me, I made a sports reference!). Being a man helps. Being white helps. Being straight helps. Being Christian in America helps. Having parents that could afford to take you in when you were down on your luck or building your portfolio, rather than parents who needed you to take care of them when you were barely making minimum wage helps. Being educated, even though everybody bitches about all their student loans, gives you a massive leg up.
Why does this matter?
Because it is directly harmful. It is harmful because it propagates this idea that if you are poor, it’s because you are lazy or stupid or foolish with your money, not because you were born in a certain place, at a certain time, to a certain family, in certain circumstances. Somebody hit FI after being in prison! So anybody can do it! Except that somebody came out of prison to a safe and stable home, where any money he made was extra, with an education and circumstances that allowed him to take advantage of every opportunity. Does this mean he shouldn’t be applauded? Nope. But it does mean that the flip side of the argument – “people in prison should just do what he did and stop being such drains on society” – is harmful.
People in America, people around the world, are in shitty financial situations because the system is rigged against nearly everybody. To pretend like you got rich because you are smart and thoughtful and hardworking (which I’m sure you are), without any understanding of the system that was set up to help you succeed right from the start, means that you do not fight the system or the harmful stereotypes that come out of it.
2.Mental illness. Okay, not everybody who is pursuing FI should be seeing a therapist except yes they should because everybody should be seeing a therapist. But the activities and mentalities that we applaud in the movement are not always positive.
I have a close relative who has been diagnosed with OCD. I am here to tell you that obsessing is fucking destructive. It is not cute or funny or “I hate leaving the house without my bed made,” it is up-all-night researching cancer and unable to go to work because the panic attacks about indigestion are immobilizing.
So what? Do I think people in the movement have OCD? No. But I think people in the movement can get so focused on the teeny tiny details – saving $4.50 a month by using their own trash cans instead of renting from the trash company – that it can feed into unhealthy behaviors.
I am 100% on board with these behaviors. I thought of that example about trash cans because I do it and I celebrate it. But to have a whole movement of people who are celebrating such intently focused behaviors is…it can be unhealthy. We all need a little balance. So for many people, I think the FI movement can be directly harmful to their mental health.
Why does this matter? The same reason that it matters that the diet industry is harmful for those with anorexia. People who might already be teetering on the edge of control issues or obsessions can celebrate their “FI wins” rather than face the aspects of their personalities that are destructive. Pursuing financial independence doesn’t mean you are not living a balanced life; but it can mask, and encourage, destructive imbalances (not to mention control over other people in your life).
3.Selfishness. This problem comes in a variety of ways. I described it to my brother as “my future is more important than your present.” No, I’m not going to go out to drinks with you! I have to save my money for 40 years down the road, when I’m going to be laughing at how poor you are! No, we can’t take children on vacation, they are too young to remember it and it’s a waste of money! My money is mine and it’s for me when I’m 45 or whatever.
I’ve seen lots of examples of people fighting that impulse, but the impulse is there. So many times, what people spend money on is experiences with other people, and to go all in on FI means to go all out on relationships. Can you have a night in instead of a night out with friends? Absolutely. But you can’t re-create somebody else’s wedding and you can’t re-create Disney World with your kids and you can’t re-create that feeling of being at a concert with your best friend in the world.
It goes farther. I’ve seen multiple examples of people talking about stopping giving gifts altogether, do we have to give flowers to people who have just lost a loved one? Do I have to keep sending money to my nephew and niece when I hardly ever see them? Do I have to buy my kids birthday presents, or is it okay to just hug them and let them know they are loved? No, you don’t have to do any of that – but when the reasoning behind that is “I want to be able to spend this money myself, later,” well, it’s shitty.
And, something we are all guilty of, one of the main tenets of the movement: taxes. It’s so much a part of the movement as to be almost untouchable, but one of the goals is to “reduce taxable income.” Put all your money into pre-tax savings, so that you can pay as few taxes as possible and make your money grow. It makes sense! We’re all playing the same game!
But those taxes pay for food stamps and they pay for those libraries that we all use so that we don’t have to buy our kids new books that they read in one afternoon. They pay for roads and schools and health care for those who don’t otherwise have it. They pay for the meager safety net that might make it possible for some of those who are slightly less privileged than you are to maybe, maybe, get on a path to FI themselves.
I’m not going to stop contributing pre-tax income to savings, I’m playing the same game as everybody else. But I do understand that while this action is helpful to me, it is harmful to others. It’s my responsibility to make that up somehow, perhaps with charitable giving.
So I have trouble with FI. But here I am, somewhat reluctantly, swept up in the movement. The more I dig into it, the more I find people who feel the same way that I do. Maybe they aren’t the loudest voices, or the main ones – yet. We all have a responsibility here to fight the darker sides of FI.