What the FIRE movement gets wrong
And what it has to do with part-time work
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The FIRE movement has picked up steam in the last decade. Made popular through subreddits like r/financialindependence and bloggers like Mr. Money Mustache, it’s a movement that preaches frugality and financial freedom versus the common ethos that you have to work til you’re 65+.
FIRE stands for Financially Independent Retire Early. Proponents of the FIRE movement believe that frugality combined with years of high earning careers can result in early retirement rather than waiting until your 60s.
The formula is relatively simple: if you have 25x your yearly expenses (based on a 4% safe withdrawal rate) in savings, then you can retire early and go do whatever you want. For instance, if you spend $50k/year, your FIRE number is $1.25m to produce that income year over year without losing the initial nest egg.
Traditional FIRE approach
While I am a fan of some of the ideas behind FIRE, I have a few qualms with the movement:
People don’t know what to do when they retire. The type-A personalities that tend to be attracted to this movement and the careers that pay well enough to enable it often have their identities wrapped in work. Even if they achieve their financial targets, they’re even more lost when they retire. You just spent all your life getting pressured to go to a top school and get a high paying job and you’re just gonna quit after 20 years? If you’re simply running AWAY from something rather than running TO something, it can be difficult to find your footing in life.
You do what you’re trying to avoid: To chase this goal of FIRE, people often pour everything into pinching pennies and doing everything they can to advance their careers and compensation. Everything starts to get a dollar value attached to it. Even if you reach the FIRE goal, in retrospect, the sacrifices weren’t worth it. Many FIRE chasers tend to have an imbalanced view of the world where the only goal is to retire, so they sacrifice everything else to climb in their career. By trying to eschew the career driven mentality by retiring early, they end up digging even deeper into it.
Some people LIKE work!… just not 40+ hours of it. Work can be valuable for society, helps provide structure, intellectual stimulation, and a social life that many people do not want to leave behind completely. But that 9-5+ often comes bundled with corporate politics and other baggage.
The Working Parent’s Paradox: Many parents hit their career peaks when they have young families and need flexibility and time the most. This mismatch means it’s hard to actually find a true work/life balance. You end up sacrificing the child rearing years working too much when you’d want flexibility to spend more time with them instead. If you asked most parents, they probably would want to spend more time with their kids when they are young, and not when they’re already out of the house and grown up.
The Working Parent’s Paradox
FIRE - the Part-Time Tech way
What the FIRE movement needs more of is “retirement in installments” or “semi-retirement”. Instead of going 100+% effort for X years and then going to 0% suddenly in your career, what if you could find ways before you hit that FIRE number that let you ramp work up and down to match the ebbs and flows of life? What if you could still make some income without having to rely completely on savings, and not put your career or intellectual pursuits completely on hold?
Part-time work enables this path.
In addition to the financial benefits, ramping down to part-time and flexible work helps you figure out how you might spend your time on non-work pursuits before you hit 65 and have an existential crisis that ends in a bright red Ferrari.
For me and my family, this ‘semi-retirement’ has been ideal. While we can’t completely retire (nor do we want to), we’ve built up enough savings where we don’t have to worry about emergencies or bills in the short term. My spouse continues to work full-time because she enjoys it. I’ve been able to consult, write this newsletter, and work on building software as a solo developer.
We have less income now than if I was working full-time, but that’s ok. I’m able to be the parent with maximum flexibility if a kid gets sick, volunteer for causes important to us, handle the miscellaneous chores of life, and still work hard… but just a bit less than before.
…But how can I do that?!
Ok this all sounds great in theory. But the missing piece is that most people can’t take this path because they don’t know how to ramp down and find these opportunities. All they know is the 9-5 W2 life and most companies don’t have part-time options.
The whole purpose of this newsletter though is to shine light on these options and how to find them. So if you’re interested in FIRE but don’t want to quit completely, here’s some of the ways you can do so:
Convert your FT job to PT - If you have enough savings and leverage to know you’d be ok without your FT job, you can try to negotiate part-time.
Become an independent consultant/freelancer - As an independent consultant you can set your hours, projects, and rates. If you’re relatively senior and have a valuable skill set, this could be a great option, especially if you don’t need to fill up a full-time slate of clients.
Start a non-VC funded startup - Plenty of businesses can support a single person when they don’t have to chase venture scale. There is a graveyard of VC funded startups that are actually really good money printers, just not at unicorn scale. While running a business CAN be all consuming, if maximizing profits and growth isn’t your top priority, you can build it around your desired lifestyle.
Barista FIRE - Barista FIRE is the concept of semi-retiring before you hit your FIRE number to work part-time jobs outside of your normal career field. The job may not be super high paying, but it should be less stressful than your ‘normal’ career. I don’t think most techies who have worked cushy office jobs are willing to dive into retail jobs that pay 10% of what they’re used to, but jumping into something you might enjoy or be passionate about without salary being your top concern is a noteworthy idea. I’ve met Barista FIRE folks monetizing hobbies, teaching, and coaching youth sports.
I ’ve written more about how to find these opportunities for software engineers and other tech workers here.
These options are not easy in the traditional sense. It’s much simpler and the options more plentiful in the full-time world. But I believe we’re on the cusp of a generational and cultural change in attitudes towards work and life. Over time, I believe we’ll see more of these options arise and these ‘alternative’ paths will become more conventional.
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