The rest of the world only has to worry about keeping up with the Joneses – in the FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) community we have the Mustachians. Mr. Money Mustache retired in his thirties after nine years of saving a large portion of his income and investing it in index funds. There are now hundreds of personal finance bloggers who are pursuing or have already reached financial independence, with thousands of like-minded followers. We’ve replaced the archaic success markers of yachts and McMansions with bicycles and 50%+ savings rates.
At various times in my life I’ve stumbled on some pretty revolutionary ideas. Experiences are more important than things. Time is the most valuable resource. Personal finance is largely behavior. I’ve tried on more personas than hats. I’ve floated along on a spectrum from maximalist to minimalist. I’ve been a consumer, and a creator.
Whenever I discover an idea like financial independence, I feel like I’ve found THE idea. The new approach that will solve all of my problems. If only I could save up enough money to pursue my passions, I’d finally be content.
At first glance, the financial independence movement seems to be the answer to questions we’ve all been asking. We’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and surrounded by excessive consumption. Instead of a high income, the model wealth metric is now the ultimate luxury purchase: freedom. What could be a more fulfilling pursuit than that?
Since I found the FIRE community, I’ve cut my spending in half and paid off almost twice as much debt as I did the previous year. I’m in a much better financial position, but I’m still at about the same level of contentment. I tell myself that when I have a positive net worth, I’ll be happier. When I’m debt free, I’ll feel successful.
Actually, if I could fast forward 15 years from now and be financially independent, I’m not sure that I’d feel any more accomplished than I do today. In fact, I imagine that with all of my distractions stripped away, I’d be left searching for the next grand design. I suspect that some of you might have a similar experience, because I’ve seen it play out with many early retirees already.
The metrics may have shifted, but the mechanism is the same: we’re still looking to external sources for validation.
Instead of peering inside our neighbor’s garage at their shiny new BMW, we can read about the latest blogger who pulled the plug on their 9-5. We’ve traded scrolling through a feed of debt-fueled consumption for scrolling through a feed of debt payments and net worth graphs. I don’t even have to leave my apartment to compare myself to thousands of people who are undeniably smarter, wealthier, and better than me at everything.
I’m not denying that the Mustachians are a healthier aspirational model than the Joneses – they’re certainly better prepared for retirement! The Mustachians are still regular people though, and so are all of the other bloggers and their readers. They have flaws and insecurities, and they’re probably way less face-punchy than you might think. Sometimes we can get in the habit of pursuing the level of perfection portrayed online, forgetting that this information has been filtered and curated. We don’t often get to see the experiments leading up to the big invention, or the drafts before the final post is published.
Mustachianism – or any -ism really – isn’t going to change your life if you haven’t done the internal work too. Don’t distract yourself with the pursuit of social status or wealth and then wake up one day to discover that your insecurities are right where you left them, loyally following along regardless of your success. It’s important to pull back occasionally and ask ourselves if we’re striving and hustling and comparing too much.
Contentment is an internal marker, and depends almost entirely on our own perceptions of ourselves. It’s not about savings rates or net worth. It’s not having everything, or wanting nothing. You can’t math your way to contentment. It doesn’t depend on your job, the amount of money you have in the bank, the car you drive, the contents of your wallet, or your f*cking khakis.