I have been interested in FIRE (financial independence, retire early) since before it was called FIRE. And it breaks my heart to hear people say that they think the movement isn’t for them, and it’s only for white male software engineers. Or only for those that earn a high income.
I’ve been pursuing FI for a long time – since I was a broke new graduate from college, making $35k per year, struggling to survive on a small income and care for a baby. Life hasn’t been easy, and my road hasn’t been a straightforward one. But I’ve gotten back up whenever I had setbacks, because I believe in the power of financial freedom.
No, it was a woman called Amy Dacyczyn and a book called The Tightwad Gazette (affiliate link). I call it one of the four books that changed my financial life.
The story of how I came to the financial independence movement is why I hate the current media-driven stereotype about FIRE being for white, male, software engineers who blog (I know I’m not the only one – my friend Our Next Life wrote about it recently too).
This breaks my heart, because I truly believe FIRE is for everyone. I call it “Financially Independent, Retirement Elective” for a reason.
I even asked Mr. Money Mustache himself about it. Stay tuned for his response.
And check out a list of just some of the many, varied sites of people pursuing financial freedom.
How I Loved FIRE Before It Was FIRE
You see, in the back of that book, Amy has a short article on the concept of financial freedom. She was the stay at home mother of six children, and they lived on her husbands Navy salary. While living on that salary, they saved money in every way possible so they could live their dreams of buying a lovely, large, older home in Maine without the two working parent/daycare craziness that was part of most couples lives at the time (late 80’s/early 90’s).
In that chapter, she talks about a book called Your Money Or Your Life (affiliate link) by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robbin. She discussed how she doesn’t think financial independence and early retirement is for most people, but for her family, they were able to do so because they lived below their means and scored a book deal through her gazette.
I was in my early 20’s when I first read that chapter, as part of the first of many times reading through her book. I can’t remember what year it was when I finally picked up Your Money Or Your Life, but I was in my early to mid twenties. This would have been in the early to mid 2000s.
There’s a reason Your Money Or Your Life is on that list of the four books that changed my financial life.
When I read the book, I was not an MBA, mother of three, or six figure earner. I was the breadwinner, but not by nearly as much as today. I was not broke, but I was far from wealthy. Something about the book just clicked with me. I can’t remember if it was the concept of the crossover point, where your investment income was enough to cover your expenses. Or if it was the idea of the freedom and security that financial independence represented. It may have been the concept of exchanging your life energy for “stuff”…or for freedom,
The book was filled with examples of ordinary people – single women, married couples, younger and older – who had done it. Joe Dominguez himself made his money on Wall Street and never profited from his books. He spread the message that a simple, frugal life coupled with saving and investing can bring you freedom, while consumerism will only trap you in the earn-to-spend cycle. Vicki was a follower of Joe, and together they founded an all-volunteer, non profit foundation to help bring the message of financial freedom to more people.
It was that message, and those stories, that resonated with me. There were people like me there, high income and low, with families and without, and it seemed like a very inclusive idea. I distinctly remember the story of a waitress saving for FI. Financial freedom was something anyone could achieve given time, money, patience, and a willingness to focus on the things that really matter in life rather than “stuff”.
This beginning is exactly why it saddens me so much to see the stereotyping of people who achieve financial freedom in the mainstream media.
The Birth Of The FIRE Movement
For a long time, those of us who adhered to the principles of Your Money Or Your Life sat by ourselves, bothering our friends and family with our crazy ideas. Then with the birth of the internet, we were able to find others who were interested in financial freedom.
I don’t know when the FIRE acronym first came up – who invented it or why. But it was Pete from Mr. Money Mustache that first became well known, and cemented the idea in the public’s head that FIRE was for white, male, software engineering bloggers.
I’m a big fan of Pete’s. I read his blog before he got big (I’ve been reading personal finance blogs since J.D. Roth was chiseling them into stone tablets back in the 90’s), and loved his ideas and writing style. I’m in IT, like him, so I’m a relatively logical thinker. And it was nice to find someone talking specifically about financial independence. Having virtual “friends” along for the ride helps you feel like you’re not alone.
Note – “Friend” is in quotes because until I started this website, I was strictly a lurker. Never commented. So it was a one-sided friendship.
I also don’t remember when, exactly, that happened. But I do know why. And it’s not because of Pete, or Carl of 1500 Days, Jeremy at Go Curry Cracker, or the Mad FIentist. They’re all amazing bloggers who wrote to tell their stories with the world, never intending that they would feed a stereotype that didn’t exist yet.
Why The Stereotype Exists
It’s because the mainstream media is inherently lazy, prone to the most extreme of headlines, and follows each other like a pack of rabid animals. When one big media outlet picks something up, the others ones do as well. And they tend to write stories about each others stories, seeking out the same source every time. Most don’t bother digging deeper to find other sources, and they write blithely about how the movement is mostly young, male, white, and in tech.
CMO Note- a reader kindly pointed out in the comments that this characterization isn’t true of the individual people who work in media. I thought that was a good point-I don’t want to reinforce stereotypes either. This might be what it looks like to us from the outside, but individual reporters within the media companies are mostly good folks doing the best job they can.
When they do this, they don’t realize (or don’t care) the damage they’re doing to peoples financial futures.
Those of us independent bloggers, hobbyists, and writers just don’t have the reach to successfully counter mainstream media with a different story. Nothing I write here on my site has the reach of a New York Times article. Even a hundred – or hundreds – of us writing together can’t match the reach of a single front page article. Not just because of the size of their audience, but also because of all the news outlets who will write articles about their article. The NY Times has 42 million Twitter followers, 16 million on Facebook, and 4.4 million on Instagram. Together, they have more social reach than us combined with even the biggest of bloggers.
What makes me think this? How do I know for sure? At FinCon, I chatted with someone looking to start a blog, and she told me how there were no female FIRE bloggers. This is after major media features of Bianca, a flight attendant; Lily, an AirBnb host, Tanja from Our Next Life, a former consultant, and Liz Frugalwoods, And these seventy blogs listed on the Rockstar Finance forums by women about early retirement. Let’s not forget about Angela from Tread Lightly Retire Early’s famous list of women in the financial independence movement, and her Facebook group with 2,000 women.
It’s not just women, either. I spoke with men at FinCon who have dismissed the FIRE movement because they’re not high income, or in tech. I also spoke with women who feel like the stereotype has stuck, and no matter what they do, they just can’t move the needle back in the other direction. There are people who feel as if because they’re lower income, FIRE isn’t for them. The list goes on.
And that’s what really makes me sad. Because financial freedom, financial independence, is very important to me. And I feel strongly that the pursuit of it is for everyone.
When people don’t see others like themselves – with a similar story, background, values, family situation, career, etc. – inside of a particular movement, they dismiss it. People make decisions very quickly, and if the first thing they read in that NY Times article where the author proclaims that the movement is mostly for young males in tech, they roll their eyes and move on with life.
Why is FIRE so important to me? Why do I care? After all, I’m fine financially. What does it matter what other people do, or think?
Because the concepts of financial freedom and financial independence, time, and patience are what has gotten me into the financial situation I’m in today. Without them, as my income increased from $22k to six figures, I would have adopted the lifestyles of my co-workers rather than deflating mine. When my husband got sick and almost died of septic shock six years ago, I would have gone bankrupt, or still been paying off bills today.
Yes, it’s true that my story will never be as headline-grabbing as “retired at 32 to travel the world!” I’m thirty eight, so without a time machine I will never retire at 32. My husbands illness and subsequent very long recovery did take a financial toll, although it did not derail us entirely thanks to our saving and investing habits over the years. And I will be able to retire long, long before a typical person – all because of those same lessons.
And that’s the real damage these stereotypes do. It causes other ordinary people – people who might already be in their 30’s and 40’s, who may have a lower income, in careers that have nothing to do with tech, and who otherwise don’t fit into the stereotype – to dismiss the whole thing without digging any deeper. Other ordinary people like I was, all those years ago.
I want them to find the strategies of financial independence, and pursue them. Not dismiss them.
What I Asked Pete (aka Mr. Money Mustache) – And What He Said
OK, you may be wondering what I asked Pete about at FinCon. It was about this exact topic.
My perspective, as someone pursuing FI for a very long time, is skewed. It’s even further skewed by the fact that I’ve spent the past two years diving deep into the personal finance blog world, where I’ve found people from every background. So I don’t pay too much attention to the mainstream media, unless I see my friends there. And when I do, I just get excited that they’re featured.
But I keep hearing the same complaints from others about the stereotypes, and I wanted to know two things:
- Why does this stereotype exist?
- What could we, as people at FinCon who write/podcast/blog about personal finance, do to help change it?
At FinCon, we all had the chance to ask Pete a few questions. So I thought I would ask. If anyone would have an idea of how we could tackle the problem, I figured that he would.
Pete was kind enough to answer both questions, in a very helpful way.
The answer to the first question was that the media tends to follow itself. When someone becomes a big, public deal, the media coverage follows them. I’ve heard someone call it “having momentum” before, and it’s why once someone is picked up in a major publication other publications follow suit. Pete, Carl, Jeremy, Jacob, and Brandon all have similar backgrounds and perspectives. They write about their lives, and for others like them. When they’re picked up as the representatives of the FIRE movement, and that coverage is spread widely (and repeated ad nauseum), people on the outside tend to think that this concept is only for those with a similar background.
For the second question, Pete actually turned the responsibility back on himself and the others who are frequently in the media. Frankly, they don’t always like doing interviews anyway. They could turn away some of that coverage and deflect it to others in the community who could showcase a different perspective. That would help those on the outside to see that this really is something anyone can do, in all different life circumstances/family arrangements/backgrounds/careers.
I thought that was generous, and a good idea. After all, I (and my fellow non-famous bloggers) are limited in what we can do. It’s easy to say that we could, theoretically, become just as famous and well known. And we could. But it’s difficult and requires a lot of work, as well as a lot of luck. A faster path is those already in the spotlight helping to redirect it towards others.
Asking the question caused people to come up to me for the rest of the conference to thank me for asking it. Frankly, I am a shy person (see: my FinCon and introversion article), and that was a bit…overwhelming. Even Carl from 1500 Days thanked me, and told me to let him know if I could ever use his help. I spoke with a lot of people who said one of a few things:
1 – I was thinking the same thing, but didn’t have the courage to ask.
2 – I’ve never looked into the FIRE movement, because I’ve bought into the stereotype (heard this one from a few men, actually)
3 – I was so glad you asked that, and loved Pete’s answer
Although the support was overwhelming for a person like me, I was happy about it. I didn’t want to come across as critical in any way, or negative. I happen to really enjoy blogs written by men in IT, probably because I’m a woman in IT. I don’t think that I would make the best representative of diversity in the movement, because really – then people will still think it’s a white/IT thing.
But bringing financial independence and financial freedom to more people is really, really important to me. And I do want to do what I can to help break down whatever barriers exist, so more people can find financial security.
Blogs That Break The Mold
So mainstream media, if you’re reading this and looking for your next scoop, check out this list of different perspectives on FIRE. You’ll not only get an interesting and fascinating story, but you’ll also be truly helping others at the same time.
Be sure to add your suggestions in the comments, so I can update this list.
Looking for a man not in tech, dad, retiring early in his 50’s? You want Fritz from the (award winning) Retirement Manifesto.
How about a female teacher, and mom, who retired early in her 50’s? Check out Vicki from Make Smarter Decisions.
Eight years sober, and on path to FI? Want some inspiration from someone on the same path? Try Ms. Fiology.
Female, teacher, world citizen, mom, pursuing FI and location independence? Laurie from Three Year Experiment is who you want.
Want to feature a female in tech who is financially independent and taking a break from work? Find Felicity from Fetching Financial Freedom.
A mom who doesn’t make a six figure income? Angela from Tread Lightly, Retire Early is who you want to see.
How about Erin from Reaching for FI, pursuing financial independence on a non-profit income in an expensive city.
A woman who’s actually cut the cord and retired early from a non-tech job? You want Tanja from Our Next Life.
Looking for large families who FI? Jillian from Montana Money Adventures is who you seek.
A family of five living on mom’s income, with a stay at home dad, pursuing FIRE despite huge medical problems? Give me a ring.
You can also check the many stories of the different Women on FIRE featured here on my site.
Luckily, people who write about personal finance and financial freedom on the internet know that financial independence isn’t just for one type of person. There are many people who consume content for every one person who creates it, I know this means there are many people out there that are on the journey to financial freedom that don’t fit the stereotype. I see it all the time in forums, on social media, on blogs, and elsewhere.
I sincerely hope the media picks up some of their stories, and shares them just as widely.
Only then can we help change the world, and set more people financially free.
Are you a woman on FIRE, or simply have a different kind of background and want me to share it with the world? Hop on over to my Be Featured page and fill out the interview form to be considered. Don’t fit one of those categories? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can chat.
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