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?

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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.

Why?

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 contentmentIt 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.

54 Replies to “Keeping Up With The Mustachians”

    1. Me too – it’s human nature! Comparison can be useful, we just have to be careful not to get weighed down by it all. Thanks for reading!

  1. Bravo! The contentment part is the hardest part. The math stuff is easy, really, and much easier when you know which direction you’re heading. The “why” is the component I haven’t quite gotten a good handle on yet. But I’m going down the FIRE path in the hopes that when I do get it figured out, I’ll be in much better shape to act on it than if I were doing the normal American spending thing.

    1. You will absolutely be in much better shape! I’m still figuring out the big WHY as well.. but I know for me it involves freedom and choice. Either way I think contentment will still be tough, no matter what stage we’re at!

  2. Excellent post. I think this is why I want to be financially independent, but don’t want to necessarily retire early. I don’t think my life would really change that much! I do like Mr. Money Mustache because he raised awareness what saving half your income could do. But I pick and choose certain aspects of guru’s philosophies that are relevant to me, instead of blindly following them.

    1. I’m not sure what I’ll do either. It’s a long way out! I do want to have the ability to make choices, and that’s what financial independence means to me at this point. Mr. Money Mustache was (and still is!) legendary, but I didn’t completely subscribe to all of his (or his followers) ideas. It’s so important to find our own path.

    1. Very true. Early retirement is a great option to have, but it won’t necessarily bring contentment if you’re not already content.

  3. “Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Teddy Roosevelt

    I think you will find contentment with FI and the freedom it brings, and you’ll feel a weight lifted from your shoulders when you’re debt-free. But reading daily about the progress of others who had advantages you didn’t isn’t going to help you enjoy the ride.

    I feel fortunate that I didn’t discover MMM or the concept of FI until I had more or less attained it. I had been earning and saving, but I didn’t know exactly what I was saving for. If I had FI as a goal ten years earlier, I might have gotten there a little quicker, but probably would have had a little less fun if FI were a primary focus.

    Best,
    -PoF

    1. Great quote! I try to keep that one in mind. I think a part of me will always be comparing myself to others, which can be a helpful motivator to an extent. I need the reminders that I’m on my own path and my life will look different than someone else’s! I’m glad I found FI when I did, but part of me wishes I found it earlier. Starting so far in the hole means I’m fully aware of how far I have to climb. I just have to remember to look around and enjoy the journey!

  4. What a great post! This is one of the things that concerns me most as I commit to reach FI. If I’m not content with life now, will I be content with life after achieving FI? Probably not…
    Personally, I am trying to work diligently on practicing gratitude. For me this seems to be one of the best antidotes to “Comparison Syndrome.”

    1. Exactly! Find contentment now, don’t wait years for financial independence to somehow turn things around. Gratitude is everything! Any tips on working gratitude into your life? I try to catch those negative thoughts and counteract them with a positive one. It takes a lot of habit building, and some days are easier than others, but it definitely helps.

  5. Ah, I wish I could math my way to contentment! Math was my best subject in school (shocking that I’m now an engineer). And so true, everyone has to find their own path!

  6. I’d be curious if your neighbor falls into a certain category of drivers I wrote about last month, specific to BMWs. 😉 As a die hard mustachian convert going on four years now, I’m trying still to ensure the money part stays on the utility side of the equation. So much more to life…
    Nice post!

    1. I live in an apartment building and I don’t have a vehicle so I actually never go down to the parking garage. 😆 I’m sure there are a lot of BMWs though. Off to check out your post!

  7. Love this post! I agree that FI has kind of turned into this subtle competition. It’s hard to read about folks a decade younger than me already “retired.” While it’s meant to be aspirational, sometimes it does make me feel a bit crappy. 🙂

    1. Definitely! It’s tough to read about someone retiring when I’m just paying my student loans off at the same age.. it’s human nature to feel discouraged sometimes. Just have to remember that being aware of our finances puts us ahead of the curve!

  8. You know, I couldn’t agree more. I sometimes feel like I should have done OMY like, this FIRE person, or started a side hustle like that one, or this or that….
    I love reading other blogs, but sometimes I have to stop and talk myself out of feeling inadequate.

    1. True! There are so many options and different paths.. it’s tough not to get overwhelmed. Sometimes too many choices or ‘what ifs’ can be paralyzing.

  9. I was 31 when I lost my job and ended in a pickle: big debt and no possible job in the media industry. I turned to my web design hobby and made it a successful business. OK, I don’t have a fancy office and employees, I’m actually as one-(wo)man-show, but I have enough time to spend with my daughter, cook some nice meals, travel as much as we want, renovate a village home and just taking each day as it comes. After almost 10 years since that faithful moment I can say that what I value the most is TIME. My freedom to schedule my work around our family plans and not the other way around. Used to keep up with the Joneses, now I really don’t care about them anymore. Or the mustache guys in this article (since we’re not that strict with saving/frugality after all) 😀

  10. A corollary to your validation syndrome argument is that of the happiness set point. There are some who say that you can move it around by a few points, but really, we’re mostly just stuck being as happy as we were born to be (or teach ourselves to be). So, if you’re not happy now, there’s a chance you won’t be much happier in FIRE, with a million bucks, with all the freedom in the world. So instead of looking for the ‘fix’ to your happiness, you should work on yourself now — and that’s where the two arguments come together to the same conclusion. Thank you for the good article, reminding me to work on myself as I work on my future. 💚

  11. Great Post!

    This is a very thoughtful take on FI. Thank you for these important views we all need to consider.

    The analogy the immediately comes to mind is people who play the lottery. They are hedging their future happiness on a scratch ticket. They’re thinking – “If I just can hit $1 million my life will be different.”

    It won’t. I had a co-working who hit that $1 million. He had a drinking problem before and it just got worse after. He eventually ended up with pissing away the winnings (new car and greedy family).

    Reaching FI is really winning the lottery long form (except the cash prize is self built).

    So applying your lesson: If my happiness/contentment Life Meter ‘ain’t reading positive before FI, it’s likely not to after.

    Steve

    1. So true! I often think about lottery winners and those in professional sports or entertainment who are actually less happy than before their lives changed. It reminds me of that Jim Carey quote: ‘ I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.’ The internal validation is so much harder than making money, but it’s the most important.

  12. This reminds me of a guest post I did awhile back about minimalism and people wanting to make a strict rule book on it. People get so involved in it, they feel they must attach certain metrics or standards, a “rule book” if you will.

    People feel if they’re not saving 50% of their income or have a six-figure net worth, then somethings wrong. Nope! Progress is progress. Do things the way you want to do them. Carve your own path.

    1. Absolutely! I found minimalism prior to Mustachianism and the environment is very similar. It’s important to take what is useful from the dialogue and then let the rest go. We won’t all be living out of a couple bags like Colin Wright, but that doesn’t mean we’ve failed somehow.

  13. This is brilliant. It’s true: we need to measure ourselves with an internal yardstick instead of an external one, not just use ultra-frugality as a replacement for status symbols.

    Mr. Money Mustache (admittedly one of my role models) is way into Stoicism, which centers around purposefully finding joy in what you’ve got. It requires focus to look around your modest apartment and say, “This place shelters me. It has running water, a comfy bed, indoor plumbing, and even a heating and cooling system. I am living better than 99.9% of humanity ever has. It is nothing short of amazing.”

    That’s where happiness comes from. Not your savings rate, your investment return, or amount of free time.

    1. I have major respect and appreciation for MMM, he was the person that inspired me to make so many positive changes. At the same time, realizing that it’s not productive to compare myself to him, or anyone else really, was key. Gratitude is huge for happiness, and you’re right, even the fact that we’re online right now shows us how good we have it!

  14. Nice post.
    FOF stated the obvious from my perspective.
    The whole point of what I do is create the formula for developing a life on my own terms. Defining those terms becomes the process. The FIRE community has been helpful by providing a framework of concepts and ideas without any of the ‘upmanship’.
    As for, Comparisons to others, they are one dimensional and will not lead to anything productive.

  15. I’ve found myself doing the same thing on many occasions in life, but I hadn’t thought about the impacts from the FI peer group. It is a group of high achievers for who a comparison won’t feel as rosy as the rest of the world. The jealousy and regret sides of the comparison are a slippery slope for sure.

  16. It’s funny because I recently wrote that I’m embarrassed to share my expenses online because of fear of judgment from the online community. I already live in a city where it’s easy to feel poor living in a multi-million dollar house. So sometimes I feel it’s hard to “win” but that’s not the point right? I’m just trying to find that nice balance – enjoy what we have right now, but keep an eye on the future as well. I think I’m doing an okay job 😉

    1. As long as you find the right balance for you, that’s the important piece! I feel embarrassed about money sometimes too – there are certain mindsets (hair on fire emergency via MMM, gazelle intensity via Dave Ramsey) that believe you shouldn’t spend money on ANYTHING unessential until you’re out of non-mortgage debt. On my remaining 3 year timeline, I might be able to reduce it 6 months by completely slashing discretionary spending. I’ve already cut 6 years off by scaling my lifestyle back, which was absolutely beneficial. It’s not really worth it to me to get the last 6 months at this point though, and I think that cost/benefit analysis is really for the individual to decide. At the end of the day, I’m the one that lives with the decisions so I should be the one who’s comfortable.

  17. Stuff envy, savings-rate envy, experience envy–at various points in my life I’ve suffered these maladies. But happily I’ve learned to subdue these beasts. My only problem is now I’m a blogger and I possess the most insidious envy there is: great freaking post envy. Thank you Veronika for ruining my day.

    1. So much envy! I hear you. Blogging resurfaced a lot of those feelings for me as well with all the new metrics it introduced – followers, page views, etc. I’ll often be writing drafts and then see someone else publish essentially the same post! Sorry I ruined your day, but rest assured that I’m in the same boat!

  18. Nice post. I prefer to save for the future than present pleasure. I started reading books on finance to create my own financial freedom. I too have read many finance blogs and then went out and created my own greenbacksmagnet.com. Keep up the great work.

  19. So true!

    FI is a great thing to strive for but it is not the silver bullet to happiness. No one thing or goal likely is.

    I’ve had a post brewing in my mind along that theme for a while so I might go and write that one up soon… Thanks for the inspiration!

  20. “If only I could save up enough money to pursue my passions, I’d finally be content.” What a powerful statement. I loved this article. We must all realize that true contentment can never be fully realized from within (at least that’s my opinion). True contentment is the result of realization and pursuit of a higher purpose (ymmv):)

  21. Ha! Love this. As they say – you’re the expression of the 5 people closest to you, so if you focus on the mustachians and move on from the Jone’s, you’re going to be living the high-life a lot sooner!

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