The FIRE Movement: Mammon Masked as 'Mustachianism'?
"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." - The Gospel According to St. Matthew
The FIRE Movement, which is the focus of a hot new documentary, is spreading like, well...
FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early, and Mr. Money Mustache is arguably the FIRE Movement's figurehead. I don't remember which came first last year: visiting Mr. Money Mustache's website or hearing him on The Tim Ferriss Show. Either way, when I learned about his way of life, I immediately became a card-carrying 'Mustachian' and quickly plowed through most of the 500+ posts on his blog.
What is Mustachianism?
Pete Adeney, a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache, a.k.a. MMM, retired at age 30. He shows that, when we shape our lifestyle to optimize for happiness, one pleasant side-effect for many of us is a huge jump in our savings rate and the ability to achieve financial independence (FI) in a short time, because the lifestyle that is actually satisfying to us as humans-here-under-the-sun also happens to be dirt cheap and doesn't require all the costly luxuries and conveniences we assume deliver happiness.
For example, riding your bike to work is more enjoyable AND more cost-effective than driving. Sharing power tools with your neighbors is more fun AND more affordable than buying new and owning all the tools you use. Make happiness-aligned shifts like these several times over, while investing the loads of money you'll inevitably save, and financial independence and the ability to retire will come shockingly quickly.
We're talking years, potentially, not decades.
This approach to life, which Mr. Adeney calls Mustachianism, struck a chord with me on many fronts, since optimizing for happiness entails embracing values like critical-thinking, community, minimalism, and struggle!
In fact, voluntary hardship is a pillar of Mustachianism, and I'm thankful for Mr. Adeney, who's helped me see how resistance (e.g., the inconvenience of bicycling to work) unlocks satisfaction and strength.
Throw in the very real possibility of financial independence, and Mustachianism produces nothing but flourishing, I thought. So I put our family on a course for financial independence, which didn't require huge changes, as it turned out that we were already about 60% of the way toward a Mustachian lifestyle without realizing it.
And then this happened:
Godliness with contentment is great gain.
We bring nothing into this world, and we take nothing out of it.
We who call JESUS LORD devote ourselves to resisting greed,
which plunges the human heart into ruin, and pierces it with many griefs.
We are determined to practice generosity with free hearts,
fixing our hope on GOD and not the uncertainty of wealth.
We desire to be rich in good deeds and willing to share all that we have,
laying up for ourselves treasure that will not decay
but will shine in the age to come.
Every Sunday morning, our church recites the 'Generosity Creed' above, which is adapted from 1 Timothy 6.
This liturgy, along with multiple conversations with my wise, patient, and steadfast wife, has me unexpectedly re-assessing Mustachianism.
Is Mustachianism good...or is it greed?
Is Mustachianism good?
While the ultimate goal of Mustachianism is happiness, the primary goal of Mustachianism is financial independence. I'd venture to say that it's Mr. Adeney's belief that true happiness requires financial independence.
"This is why Mustachianism is mostly about money and health – it’s supposed to be a bridge over the traps laid out by consumerism, so you can step over and move on up to the happier parts of the pyramid: family, confidence, and self actualization." - Mr. Money Mustache
So what is financial independence, anyway?
Mr. Adeney says financial independence is “complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, energetic, happiest and most generous version of You that you can possibly be.”
Here's my definition: paychecks are optional.
You're financially independent when you no longer need income from employment. Thus, financial independence makes retirement a possibility.
Culturally, we think of retirement as The Great Cessation of Work (in favor of boats, beaches, and seashells in Punta Gorda, of course) that people opt into around age 65, but that's not the Mustachian definition.
"Retirement is earning the privilege of being free to enjoy the balanced lifestyle of our dreams, without 'working for a living' getting in the way too much. You don’t have to quit working altogether, you just have to feel secure enough to be choosy about your work, and your schedule." - Mr. Money Mustache
In Mustachianism, you're 'retired' as soon as two conditions are met:
You're financially independent
You begin choosing your work and your schedule for reasons other than income
When you're retired in the Mustachian sense, according to Mr. Adeney, it's just the 'money-directed' phase of your work life that's over, not work itself.
Is financial independence good?
To be financially independent, you almost certainly need wealth. Some have pointed out that Solomon's Proverbs affirm the wisdom of building wealth:
“The crown of the wise is their wealth.” (14:24 ESV)
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance.” (21:5)
“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” (13:22)
“Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine” (3:9–10)
Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” (13:11)
“Go to the ant, O sluggard, and consider her ways … she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” (6:6–8)
“The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.” (10:22)
Let's assume then that at least some wealth is wise (emphasis on 'assumption'). The person acquiring wealth may inadvertently become financially independent. Therefore financial independence would not, on its own, be bad.
Remember, though, that Mustachians don't just inadvertently become financially independent. Mustachians seek FI. For Mustachians, FI is the primary goal.
Is the pursuit of financial independence good?
The steps Mustachians take in their pursuit of financial independence aren't complicated:
Reduce your spending by adopting all those happiness-producing lifestyle changes we talked about earlier (e.g., the car-to-bike switch)
Increase your savings rate - a savings rate north of 50% is not uncommon among Mustachians
Invest your savings in low-cost index funds
When the chunk of money you've got socked away - your 'Stash' - is equal to 25x your annual spending, congratulations, you're FI!
Reach step four, and you can live off the income your 'Stash produces, in the form of investment gains and dividends, indefinitely. No more need for income from employment.
To be crystal clear, Mustachianism entails quickly storing up lots of wealth and then living off that wealth for the rest of your years.
Is it good to quickly store up lots of wealth, then live off that wealth for the rest of your years?
This is what what we need to wrestle with. To know whether Mustachianism (and, frankly, the FIRE movement as a whole) is good, we need to reckon with this question.
And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” - The Gospel According to St. Luke
Yikes. At first blush, based just on this parable, Mustachianism ain't lookin' so hot.
Can true Mustachianism, which, one more time, involves laying up a huge wad of money over a short period of time, then living off that chunk of money forever, be defended?
How do Mustachians who self-identify as 'Christian' defend the Mustachian pursuit of a big pile of money and financial independence?
I was curious about how others might square Mustachianism with Jesus' parable. Thankfully, many have been wrestling with this question too, and a sampling from their conversation in the MMM discussion forum offers some helpful considerations.
"the closest connection between my faith and my economic practices is...questioning the costs of materialism, of consumerism, and with environmental practices" - Cranky
"There is good reason the early Christians admired the Stoics and adopted their clean admirable philosophy." - Wise Virgin
"Seems most people are trying to FIRE to better their communities and do some pretty awesome stuff" - CheapScholar
"If you use [the time you gain in retirement] to give back even more - including to the people you love - then I think you're showing God honor there." - Finances_With_Purpose
"In my mind, financial independence unbinds me from wage slavery" - Rufus.T.Firefly
"The end goal for me is to "retire" early in a way that allows me to pursue the things I am gifted at full-time in a meaningful way without financial constraints." - Finances_With_Purpose
"Obviously, 'hoarding' in the sense of greed is wrong, but saving for the sake of freedom can be right" - alewpanda
And how have I defended the Mustachian pursuit of a big pile of money and financial independence?
The most compelling defense I've come up with is that, in taking the Mustachian steps toward FI, I'm practicing wisdom without decreasing generosity.
A picture might be helpful.
Say I've got some income.
Aside from taxes 'n' stuff, I can essentially do one of three things with my income: spend it, save it, or give it. Think of these options as the three buckets into which I might put money.
Most of us spend most of our income, and my MO has, historically, been no different.
I've always thought that spending is, in general, the worst thing I can do with income...that it's irresponsible, not admirable. That saving is better. And giving, better still.
Left side, bad. Right side, good.
And since I've tended to spend most of my money, I'm a bad boy.
Now, as a Mustachian, I drastically reduce my spending and simultaneously increase my saving. My giving is unchanged (for this post, let's ignore the fact that Mr. Adeney seems to prioritize financial independence over giving away money).
If left is bad and right is good, then Mustachianism, which on the surface simply moves a chunk of my money rightward, can only be an improvement, right? I'm diverting money from spending to saving, not from giving to saving, so I'm justified.
I'm not greedy; I'm just more responsible.
SO I'M NOT A BAD BOY FOR SAVING AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE TO BECOME FINANCIALLY INDEPENDENT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!
This is how I've justified the Mustachian way of pursuing financial independence.
A more holistic way to think about what one can do with income
I've been assuming that spending is bad, giving is good, and saving is somewhere in the middle, but let's test this assumption (a Mustachian behavior if ever there were one) using the same framework and see how Mustachianism fares under a little more scrutiny.
What else might we need to consider?
What, exactly, am I doing with my money in any of the three buckets? Some uses are probably better than others, right?
Clearly, the idea that spending is bad, saving is better, and giving is best is a little simplistic. In fact, some spending can be very good, while some giving can be very bad.
Mustachianism teases out these distinctions and promotes objectively good, even wise, uses of money in the spending and saving buckets, and we saw hints of this earlier in the quotes from other Mustachians. Recall how several noted that Mustachianism helped them become better stewards of what they've been given (by eliminating wasteful spending, etc.) and freed them to do work for which their gifts are better suited.
Score one for Mustachianism.
Now let's turn to the potential methods by which one might free up money to move it to the right.
This is where Mustachianism really excels. Remember, Mustachianism involves reducing spending and increasing saving. It'd be counterproductive to reduce good spending, though, wouldn't it? Thankfully, Mustachianism leaves good spending largely in place and eliminates bad spending, like waste and non-necessities.
And Mustachianism has the potential to eliminate loads of bad spending.
As a bonus, the methods themselves used by Mustachians to reduce bad spending have beneficial byproducts. For example, sharing with neighbors not only eliminates the need to spend money yourself, it also strengthens neighborhood bonds and increases happiness. Again, many of the Mustachians quoted above mentioned the genuinely good fruit born of Mustachianism
Another win for Mustachianism.
Finally, we turn to motive.
Ah. Now we come to it.
In my spending, saving, or giving, am I being rich toward others, or am I being rich toward myself? Clearly, I can put my money to good use in each bucket, yet deep down do it all for myself.
In reducing my spending to save more, am I being rich toward others, or am I being rich toward myself? Clearly, I can eliminate all my bad spending, and do so in ways that produce positive fruit for me and others, yet deep down do it all for myself.
As I've considered the possibility of financial independence, I've rejoiced at the prospect of increased health and better relationships for my family along the way. I must confess that I've also daydreamed about being the envy of our friends and neighbors as they continue to trudge to their cubicles for many more decades while, for us, every morning during the same period is like Saturday morning.
Whom am I loving in quickly storing up a big pile of money so I can live off it for the rest of my years?
Whom are you loving?
As adults, we must do our best to avoid 'splitting', i.e., thinking of something as either all good or all bad. Mustachianism is wonderful in many ways. With Mustachianism, we can acquire powerful tools for putting our spending and saving to good use. With Mustachianism, we can eliminate bad spending to save or give more and get additional goodies for us and our communities.
In fact, I celebrate Mr. Adeney and his merry band of Mustachians for promoting a lifestyle that, in its prudent use of money, cultivation of neighborliness, care for creation, rejection of consumerism, and embrace of risk-taking (among many other worthwhile values), seems in some ways to be closer to the biblical ideal than much of the 'typical' Western lifestyle so many of us have passively adopted.
But Mustachianism also contains a real question mark, and the risk is we point to the ways in which Mustachianism is good and use them as a cover for greed, potentially hiding the greed even from ourselves.
By all means, explore Mustachianism and leverage the good bits. Mustachianism can probably increase your well-being in several dimensions. Since Mustachianism can also enable you to lop several decades of toil off your working life, make sure that, if ten or fifteen years from now, you find yourself still in a toilsome job or doing work you don't like, it's because you've happily decided to be rich toward others, not because you've continued to unthinkingly or irrationally spend money on costly luxuries and conveniences that don't, in the end, make you any better off.
And if you decide to pursue financial independence the Mustachian way, you would do well to heed this advice: “We should only seek [wealth] with the counsel of friends and in the context of a community that’s constantly re-calibrating our sense of true [wealth] to the [wealth] found in Jesus.”
Take Mustachianism 101 TODAY
Read the Mr. Money Mustache blog post identified by MMM as the best intro to Mustachianism.
What are some luxuries or conveniences that have crept into your life because you've assumed they lead to happiness or assumed they're necessary?
When you eliminate those luxuries, what will you do with the money you save?
An important note
I'm not a financial adviser.
Another important note
In a blog about struggle, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that sky-high savings rates and early retirement will not be possibilities for everyone, especially for folks in difficult situations. While everyone can learn from Mustachianism, its sweet spot is the 'middle class'.
Resources I like
Mr. Money Mustache, because, as MMM himself says, "Your current middle-class life is an Exploding Volcano of Wastefulness, and by learning to see the truth in this statement, you will easily be able to cut your expenses in half."
The Simple Path to Wealth (or Kindle) by JL Collins, because the simplest investment strategy tends to be the most effective
'The Generosity Matrix', by JD Greear, because, as Mr. Greear says, "We like rules, formulas, and black and white prescriptions. Instead, the Bible gives complementary values we should prize in our hearts."
Like what you read? Feel free to feature this in your own piece - just be sure to cite me bruh