The oxygen mask

The first time I heard the oxygen mask metaphor was a decade ago. I was listening to a financial podcast, and somebody had called in: they had no savings and were in their forties, should they save for retirement or save for their children’s education? I’m sure you’ve heard this metaphor by now: on the plane, they say to put your own oxygen mask on first for a reason. You can’t take care of somebody else if you yourself are about to perish.

It made so much sense. At the time, I was in my early 30s, living just above the poverty line with about 70K in student loan debt and building a family. We were not going to be in any way prepared for retirement or putting our kids through college.

At the same time, my parents were reaching traditional retirement age and were not able to stop working (spoiler alert, now, ten years later, at 72 and 75 they are “thinking about” “semi-retirement” in the next year or five). Everybody was flying on planes that were headed for disaster.

Take care of your own retirement, so that eventually, you will be in a condition where you can help to take care of your adult kids, or, at least, not be a drain on them. They can take out student loans for college, you can’t take out loans for retirement. Yes, yes, yes.

I’ve recently seen that metaphor repurposed, as people are talking about FIRE. “Should I max out my retirement accounts first, or fund a 529?” “Well, on an airplane, you put your own mask on first.” “I’m thinking about buying another property, but that means halting our college savings.” “Put your own mask on first.”

There’s no nice way to say this. In this situation, the metaphor fails, and it is being used to justify selfishness. People who are intending to retire early are not on a plane headed for disaster. They are on a plane headed to a resort for a 50-year-vacation, with a pilot who has been trained exceptionally well and equipment that has been checked and rechecked and replaced when necessary.

If you are in a position where you are considering retiring when you are 35, or 45, or 55, you have every right not to fund your children’s educational funds. It’s your money. But to pretend like you are looking out for their best interests by taking care of yourself is a lie. You aren’t putting your own mask on first – you don’t need a mask. You are holding all the masks for yourself just in case you might need them later while watching the child next to you suffer from an asthma attack.

It’s not a disaster to have to pay for your own college – many people do. Children aren’t entitled to getting through education without loans. But so, so many in the movement are bitter about the loans that they were forced to take out, and at the same time doing mental gymnastics to justify setting themselves up not just for retirement but early retirement while setting their children up for the same exact obstacles that they are angry were put in their own path.

We don’t max out our retirement accounts, we are still in debt. We’re heading in the right direction but we are nowhere near FI. And yet – we are in a position now where we can contribute, and do contribute, to our children’s education funds. If all continues exactly as it is going now, we will be fine to retire at 65. Our choice is to set that up as the baseline – retirement at 65. As long as we can hit that baseline, it’s time to work on our other responsibilities, such as those attached to the human beings we created.

If moving the retirement timeline forward is more important than setting your children up for a better foundation upon which to build their own finances, that’s your prerogative. But pretending that funding your own retirement rather than their education is because retiring at 45 is better for your children is a farce.

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