Over the last few weeks I’ve been delving back into the blogs, articles and podcasts posted by the FIRE community which I always find interesting, full of good advice and, occasionally, inspirational. But, after a month of it, I’m beginning to wonder if all that can be said about the subject has already been said? As ever, you can make anything over-complicated and repeat basic tenets in a million different ways, but it seems to me that FIRE boils down to a few simple concepts: avoiding debt, spending less than you earn (and the more you earn, the better) and investing regularly into passive Index Tracking funds over a longish term – so add to that the fact that the earlier you start, the better. Pretty soon it feels that it’s all rather obvious, common sense and hardly news to anyone.
Sometimes I have to pause and tell myself that no, hardly anyone is talking about FIRE and the subject is still a minority report. The evidence isn’t hard to find. List ten well-known blogs about FIRE – well, you could probably do that without too much difficulty. List ten well known UK blogs about FIRE and that’s a bit more of a challenge, although most of us on these sites could have a good go at it. I’m well aware, however, that I’m preaching to the converted here in the blogosphere – you’re reading this, no doubt, because you’re interested in financial matters and connected affairs.
What signs are there that the wider world is interested? A small test could be to go to the library and try to borrow five books on FIRE. Not Amazon, where you could easily find five books focused on the subject of the sex lives of Patagonian grasshoppers, but the local library. There will be a few books available that are devoted to investing and general money matters, but investing or being astute with money are not the same thing as Financial Independence, although they’re strongly connected.
As far as books on Early Retirement go, I’ve never found any at the local library. Sure, you’ll find a few books on retirement in general, but pretty much all I’ve seen are aimed at pensioners.
What other sources do we have in the mass market that are talking about FIRE? At the weekend, I always have a good two hours reading the Sunday Times and have done this for years. After browsing the main paper I turn to the supplements, and my second choice of reading is always the Money section. I often wonder how many people do likewise, because when I visit the gym (where they stock free daily newspapers in their cafe) it’s generally the Money section that’s available to read, sitting unopened and unloved on the rack while just about everything else is either missing or well-thumbed.
For a few years now I’ve looked forward to reading something about FIRE within the Money pages, but it’s yet to happen. I wonder why not? To me, it’s an interesting and appealing concept and I know I’m not alone in this. It touches on loads of the subjects that are featured regularly in the Money section – pensions, investments, property, taxes and so on – but as yet FIRE doesn’t seem to have a mainstream market even within the broader financial community.
This may be changing. I recently wrote about our guru, Mr Money Moustache, being profiled in the New Yorker and he’s recently been interviewed in the much downloaded Tim Ferriss podcast. I’ve also seen him being interviewed on American TV, so if the FIRE movement is going to have a Buffett-like figurehead and cheerleader then it looks like he’ll be the one. Which is great, but I’m not so sure that the coverage will necessarily be as focused on the subjects that most of us are likely to hope it will be. TV is much more interested in image over message and style over content. Nobody will really care about how MMM reached his goal, they’ll be more focused on what it means in terms of what he has got – how big is his house? What’s he got in the bank? What does his wife look like? Does he have a big flat screen TV?
Recently, like some other UK bloggers, I’ve been approached by a UK TV company who seem to be interested in making a pilot about Early Retirement. I doubt I’ll participate, but I would be interested in seeing the output of the show, and I would hope they’d focus on the simple principles that underpin FIRE which I outlined in the first paragraph. It’s about clearing debt, spending less than you earn, saving hard and investing simply but astutely. Even I’d admit that these aren’t very sexy or appealing concepts. They look like hard work and they are hard work, done over a long term. There’s no quick wins, instant celebrity, millions to be made overnight. Nothing that TV really likes. I’d hope it would be a positive show, but I fear it could be a “Look at this guy, living on lentils and knitting his own socks in an effort to retire at thirty five”. (Either that or “Matched Betting Ruined My Early Retirement Dream”)
In fact, thinking about it, I’m not sure I’d want FIRE to become mainstream. Would I want to be bombarded by adverts in the Money section promising to help me retire at forty? Would I want to see Mr Money Moustache torn to shreds in some sort of “You’re alright Jack” expose that unpicks the financial underpinning and background to his story? Would I want the Daily Mail to reveal how FIRE is just an upper middle class dream that’s basically impossible for anyone earning the UK average wage these days?
No, I think I like it as it is at the moment, where the people interested in the subject are interested in it for the right reasons. After all, isn’t it true that the best clubs are the more exclusive ones, the best bands were always better before they became popular, the best books are seldom bestsellers and the best films are either indie, arthouse or foreign? The mainstream ruins everything, doesn’t it, so maybe we should keep FIRE to ourselves?