What are the best ways to improve your life with the least amount of money? The FIRE movement is about much more than the 4% rule, compounding returns, and house hacking. It is in large part about how to create a low stress, meaningful life with the freedom to do what you want.
However, the journey can easily take a decade to complete if you don’t make a large salary or aren’t particularly entrepreneurial. It’s easy to say people should juice their savings by taking a second job and working 60-70 hour weeks when they’re young and single. By the time they’re in their 30’s or 40’s though, or have small children, the energy and drive simply isn’t what it used to be. They might also be a young bachelor like me, and the thought of sacrificing their social life at the very time when they need it to meet a spouse is a bridge too far.
So what can we do to reap some of the benefits of FIRE while working towards that final blissful moment where you are financially independent and can retire early? I believe that the benefits can be broken down into three parts: flexibility & peace of mind, free time, and beauty. The first two are well-known, but the third is much less clear.
Flexibility & Peace of Mind
The first benefit of FIRE is the flexibility to do what you want, and the peace of mind that comes from being able to handle whatever situation is thrown your way. This is the result of decreasing debt and increasing savings and you can learn about millions of ways to do this online.
I’m personally a fan of the debt snowball, where you throw money into your smallest debt or highest interest debt and then cycle the money through to other debts as they are each paid off one at a time. You don’t need to have tens of thousands of dollars immediately available to pull this off, and as each debt disappears your stress over having enough money in the bank for all of them fades away. I used this method pay off my personal and school loans, and the end result is that I can keep an extra thousand dollars in my pocket every month.
Once you’re able to reliably save and put money away, you can use it to change jobs and escape bad work situations, re-train for something you’re more interested in, or simply fix issues proactively (e.g. replacing tires) before they break on you. Life is much more enjoyable when you no longer feel like a drowning victim struggling to keep your head above water!
The next benefit of FIRE is the ability to have more control over your time, and fortunately there are many ways to gain back your time even before you retire or hit financial independence. For example, once you’ve paid off your smaller debts you can hire someone to do tasks that you despise. Wouldn’t you enjoy hiring a landscaping service if you hate having to spend another hour mowing the lawn? Wouldn’t you be thrilled if you could afford to have groceries delivered rather than waste time in a crowded store, surrounded by haggard adults and screaming kids? You could do a lot of things if you got that time back. In my case, I hate cleaning bathrooms and sweeping or washing floors. I did that for 10 years during high school, college and grad school and would be a happy man if I never had to do it again. My sister knows this and bought me a cleaning robot for Christmas to sweep the floors, but I still dream of the day when I can hire someone to come by once a month for the bathroom.
An even better method though to maximize your time is to absolutely crush debt – especially a home mortgage. Once that is out of the way your monthly expenses will drop like a rock and you can start down-shifting your career or moving into a less demanding job. Work is way more tolerable when you’re not spending 50-60 hours in the office. It’s much easier to sit back and watch your 401k dollars compound over time when your day-to-day work life doesn’t make you want to put a gun to your head.
The final benefit of FIRE, and the one that is least talked about and the least apparent, is beauty. Let’s think for a moment just why work sucks. Obviously dealing with bad managers, corporate rules, and self-righteous customers is a large part of it. You can deal with this by maximizing your flexibility and time as described before.
Another aspect though is that the average work environment is simply not beautiful and does not speak to what the human spirit finds joyful in life. No one has ever felt a sense of awe looking at a row of cubicles. No one’s heart skips a beat on entering the clattering factory floor. No one’s eyes tear up at the sight of a store’s linoleum flooring. To put it more bluntly: modern work environments are like modern art. It’s where the soul goes to die.
Compare these places to others where people use to work for nearly all of human history. The woods where people hiked among the trees as they hunted, gathered food, and chopped wood for fuel. The plains where they tilled the soil, planted seed, watched rain fall from the sky, and the earth spring to life. The fields where they tended livestock, helped bring new animals into the world, cared for the sick, and finally culled them for food – feeling creatures, all of them. The churches and temples where for millennia civilizations dedicated their greatest artists and craftsmen to pay tribute to the divine and help bring meaning to the world. The beauty of all of these places is enough to drop you to your knees and thank God for being alive to see them.
It’s clear that one of the biggest reasons why people enjoy FIRE so much is that they can escape from a physically soul deadening environment, to a physically soul enlivening environment. Every hour they’re not in the office or factory they’re out appreciating the world for what it really is.
The task for those of us who are still years away from retirement then is how to bring the beauty of the natural and divine world to the artificial and mundane work environment. This is very easy if you can work from home, possible if you work in an office, and a bit more difficult in a factory setting. Working from home, you can work everywhere – including outside if you have a power source. My coworkers are very jealous on our conference calls when they can hear the wind blowing and birds chirping in the background. You could also get a pet to provide some stress relief over lunch if you’re feeling like killing someone. Dogs are always happy, and if the cat’s being a dick at least it’s a natural kind of jerk-itude and not office politics.
If you are in an office environment, see if you can keep a couple of plants to bring some life to the cubes. The more you can get the better, to more closely resemble the world outside. If you have too many documents in your area for plants, see if you can find some light weight art or posters you can attach to the walls. Anything that makes you happy is fine, but the more beautiful the better, so that it truly stands out from everything else that you are doing and everything else in the environment around you. It’s the rare bird that sees the glory of the world in an Excel spreadsheet.
A factory environment is harder to make more humane than the other two, simply due to the amount of equipment moving around and the need for concentration to produce precise work. That being said, one option is available on the factory floor that is not available in quieter office environments – music. You play anything over a speaker in the office and you will quickly receive death glares and a talk from management. Some factories though may be open to having a speaker in some areas, as research does show that it both improves output and keeps up morale for people engaged in routine, familiar or monotonous tasks. If you work in such an environment, you should bring it up with your manager.
With the exception of getting a pet, all of these options are a dirt cheap way of bringing some of the joys of the FIRE world to everyday work and should be pursued.
To close, although FIRE brings many benefits to its practitioners – flexibility, peace of mind, free time, and beauty – you don’t need to be a full-fledged millionaire to start enjoying these perks. They become possible as soon as you become even the least bit financially solvent. When your money is under control, your options expand, and what used to be a life changing disasters becomes only an inconvenience. You become the decision maker on how your time is spent. You can change your environment to make work a place of joy and not a place of dread. It’s a philosophy that’s a win for everyone.