If You Play With FIRE, Don’t Get Burned

Financial independence. Retire early. FIRE. It’s the dream, right? No one to report to. Nowhere you have to be. You live life completely on your own terms. But as much as this movement has been revered by some in the personal finance community, it also has its downsides which are discussed far less often.

I was reminded of this after recently reading this post about a retired FIRE blogger (“LivingAFI”) who was forced out of early retirement after five years due to unforeseen circumstances. The long story short is that LivingAFI and his wife enjoyed their first few years of early retirement, but then things went downhill. As both of them watched their friends get richer and go on fancier vacations, the wife started to feel like she was missing out. One thing led to another and she ended up having an affair which led to their divorce.

Unfortunately, LivingAFI also discovered that he had a serious medical condition that would require significant outlays into the future. As a result of his divorce and his new, ongoing medical expenses, LivingAFI came out of early retirement and rejoined the workforce. Thankfully the story ends on a good note with LivingAFI much happier now thanks to a new relationship and acceptance of his situation.

After tweeting about this particular story, I got an unsolicited Twitter DM from a man named John (not his real name) who had begun to feel disillusioned after living a nomadic FIRE lifestyle for a few years. I would summarize what John said, but I don’t think I would do it justice. I encourage you to read it yourself:

I left my occupation 2+ years ago and now travel around the world living out of Airbnbs for 1-3 months at a time…No matter how one pretends, it’s going to be a lonely existence. For me, I’ve lived and died with each place I’m at. If you are always on vacation, you are never on vacation. You are always seeing people and places that you will probably never see again. You make friends and routines that end with each change of location and relationships are next to impossible.

I’m not retired at all and to some my life would seem glamorous. While it suits my personality, because I never fit in anywhere anyways, it’s not going to work for 99.99% of people. Vegas is fun for a week, really tiresome for a year. Remote working sojourning around the globe will likely never be a big thing. People need a home and a social base. Embracing a nomadic FIRE lifestyle means accepting that you are no longer relevant or important and in some ways now operate in the ether between existence and non existence.

It’s a truly odd thing to feel like a ghost living mini lives that end with every move. One month can feel like a lifetime, six months can feel like a week. Time has no meaning and you are a traveler in between worlds waiting for death’s inevitable tap on the shoulder. It’s a terrible idea of a life for most, but for those that want to feel drugged while completely sober, there is nothing better.

The introspection is beautiful and horrific all at the same time. Like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I share these experiences not to rain on the FIRE parade, but to shine some light on the possible downsides. For the record, what John and LivingAFI have experienced are not the norm within the FIRE community. Most people who retire early live enjoyable lives. As LivingAFI stated in his post:

I looked at other FI bloggers who quit work and retired. They all appeared to be blissful. Stoic. Confident and without reservations.

But, as both LivingAFI and John note, FIRE isn’t for everyone.

This is an important point that society tends to gloss over when exalting one lifestyle over another. I’ve already written about how this occurs with entrepreneurship and the glorification of business owners over traditional careers. However, the same thing is true with early retirement and the Nomadic FIRE lifestyle as well. It just isn’t right for lots of people.

But, that’s not the message we tend to hear. Instead, we are constantly told that not having to work is the ultimate goal. It’s the highest form of freedom, right? But this idea misses a larger point—work is about much more than money. Work is part of your identity. It’s about your role in society and can be closely tied to your purpose as well.

If you think that work is only about collecting a paycheck, then you either don’t enjoy the type of work you do or you don’t like the people that you work with. In that case, I understand why not having to work can seem so great. It’s far better than a job you hate. But if you think that financial freedom will solve all of your problems, think again. There is too much evidence suggesting otherwise.

For example, Ernie Zelinkski wrote in his book How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free that “physical well-being, mental well-being, and solid social support play bigger roles than financial status for most retirees.” In other words, retirement isn’t just a financial decision. He goes on to say:

Regardless of how talented you are and how successful you are in the workplace, there is some danger that you will not be as happy and satisfied as you hope to be in retirement…What may be missing is a sense of purpose and some meaning to your life. Put another way, you will want to keep growing as an individual instead of remaining stagnant.

This is true whether you decide to retire at age 65 or 35. The issue seems to be that some of those on the FIRE path knew what they wanted to retire from before they figured out what they want to retire to. Unfortunately, that discovery process can be a painful one, as evidenced by the stories of LivingAFI and John. But it doesn’t have to be.

You can always give retirement a test drive (i.e. a sabbatical) before committing to the lifestyle permanently. No matter where your financial journey takes you, just remember that if you play with FIRE, don’t get burned.

Thank you for reading!

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This is post 235. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data

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