Living a FI is like living a double life. You’ll to keep a large part of yourself a secret from people in order to maintain professional relationships.
But wait, you say. I want to be who I want to be all of the time. People should accept me for who I am!
I’m here to tell you that they won’t, and the sooner you get used to the idea, the better. And it’s not their fault. We’ve evolved to reject people who follow significantly different standards from what we perceive to be the cultural norm.
It makes complete sense. We learn primarily through emulation, not thinking and reaching our own conclusions. It’s easier (and sometimes even better) to absorb tradition and culture, and then teach (replay) what we’ve learned to others than it is to cogitate, reach your own conclusions, and follow a unique path.
Back in the day, acceptance from others could easily be the difference between life and death. When folks had to worry about being attacked by wolves and there was the ever-present danger of starvation, fitting in was critical to survival. Your crew had better like you, or they won’t support you when the shit hits the fan.
Today it doesn’t matter, though. Your similarities to your neighbors — your like or dislike of one another — no longer correlates with your survival rate. There are no more sabre-toothed tigers coming to get us, no more warring clans that might invade our borders. And, at least in America, no resource shortages that affect one person any more than another. Yet, for some reason, we still strive to be similar everyone else, mostly for the purposes of being liked. We can’t help ourselves.
In the modern age, we are taught that our likeability directly correlates to how closely we follow consumerist norms. In America, we all watch 34 hours a week of television. Every single week. This is far more time than we spend socializing with real human beings, so the images and standards that we see on the screen trump everything else when it comes to decision-making. Video has become our cultural educator and it teaches us to spend. You must go out to eat. You must own clothes that look like they’ve never been washed. You must see the latest blockbuster movie, watch the next big sporting event, drive an awesome new car with stupendous horsepower. If you don’t do these things, you run the risk of not being liked, being unaccepted, shunned.
So it’s tough to ignore these messages. To make it even harder, when you go into work, you’re surrounded with people who have been absorbing this messaging. This manifests itself in conversations with co-workers. Someone might tell you that they just started to lease a new SUV because they feel so much safer driving now. And leasing is a good deal because they’ll have a new car ever three years, guaranteeing that they have the latest life-saving features. Someone else might show off a new watch, or tell you that they’re much happier now that they have the latest apple device.
The problem is that if you follow all of this guidance and buy your way to social acceptance, you’re nothing more than a popular slave. You’ll be tied to working for the entirety of your existence because every single month you’ll find that certain purchases are essential in order to maintain your status.
In order to break out of the worker-slave model, you must consciously resist this trap. The math behind becoming free is simple. You must save and invest a large percentage of your earnings. The way to do this is to cut back on spending. In many cases this means that you must consciously defy social expectations. To refuse to buy the largest house you can afford, or the most cable channels possible, or the newest, coolest gadgets.
The worst part of doing this isn’t the sacrifices you’ll make. In terms of physical want, there will be no deprivation whatsoever. You will still have an incredibly comfortable place to live by historical human standards. A super-fast way to get from point A to point B. Lots of food to fuel your body, and as much entertainment as you have free time to spend on it.
No, the worst part is that you won’t be like everyone else. When other people in the office are discussing their financial decisions, you’ll feel apathetic or irritated. Someone may be talking about their $250/mo family cell phone package that they think is a great deal, and you’ll have to bite your tongue, even as you die a little inside. Another will tell you about a 10K vacation to Europe that they funded with their bonus money. Or people will ask why you don’t want to go out to lunch with the gang every day. Someone might say that they can’t wait until pay-day so they can take care of their bills. Because they have mouths to feed. The list goes on and on.
It’s difficult to tell people that you don’t want to do this stuff because you’re saving up for your own eventual freedom. It’s not a concept that most people understand. After all, financial independence is not pitched as a product on television the way that Coors Lite is. If you try to explain your goals to people, they’ll think you’re nuts. In the few instances I’ve shared the endgame behind my frugal choices to people, they become skeptical at best, hostile at worst. What, you think you’re better than me?
So it becomes necessary to hide part of yourself, for the sake of continuing to be liked by co-workers, to allow the social machinery of office existence to continue without conflict or disruption. You must learn to not share with people what you really think. That buying the complete boxed set of Harry Potter on Blu-Ray is a ridiculous waste of money, no matter how awesome you think Hogwarts is. That commuting 40 miles to and from work is an absurd use of both time and earnings. That the latest iPad (or any tablet at all) is something that you don’t want or need because you already have an internet-connected computer at home, and so-on.
The end result is that anyone who has an office job and is keen on achieving FI will need to keep a large swath of their life completely secret. I’m not saying that you need to pretend that you’re just like everyone else in order to fit in. But you can’t just come out and tell people the real reason behind your frugality, or you’ll be at risk of alienation, which can also correlate with poor raises or career stagnation. Social acceptance is (and probably always will be) part of the equation when it comes to excelling professionally, or heck, even keeping your job.
I’ve found there’s a trick to this game, and that is to not mention money as a reason behind your decisions, except as a last resort. If people ask why you don’t go out to lunch with them, say that you have dietary restrictions and that’s why you bring your own food. And when someone wants to know why you drive a compact car to work, tell them your significant other drives the nice vehicle in the family. Maybe you have an old model phone because you can’t be bothered to learn how to use one of the new-fangled devices. When you tell folks that it’s any reason other than money, they don’t take it personally. But when you tell them you’re saving money, they think you’re judging them. You’re telling them that they’re being stupid.
Nobody likes that. So bend the truth. Lie, if you have to. Let people think that you’re just like them — that you want to make the same choices — but your personal situation dictates that you can’t. This allows people to accept your differences as a matter of circumstance rather than choice, and they’ll continue to like you just fine.
It helps to remember that you’re not living a lie, exactly. Mostly you’re altering the way you talk to people about a small set of specific things. The rest of you, your personality, your technical skills, your attitude and level of friendliness — it all stays the same.
And hitting the goal, of becoming a financially independent super-hero, is worth this small compromise on your personal integrity. Because soon enough, you’ll be capable of doing something others can only dream about.
Being yourself, free and clear.
Would be interesting to hear what your thoughts are about revealing FI to family and friends as well? Thanks.
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I found this post incredibly useful. Thanks for sharing your perspectives! I’m going to implement these ideas, especially avoiding being a “popular slave” and never giving money as an excuse for making different choices. GOLD.
My coworkers think I’m too broke to go out to eat and that I am on a diet. I don’t mention finances to them. I ogle their expensive cars and listen raptly at the Bluetooth enabled back scratcher. I then say something to the effect that one day I could afford one.
If they think you are broke, they don’t use you as a payday loan center. Sad way to live, but if my brother is any example, you can’t give that type of person enough money to get them out of debt or the cycle. My brother got 20k to pay off his debt, he immediately stopped a motorcycle shop and put money down on an “investment” plot of land.
Sometimes the lies are all we have.
I thoroughly enjoy your blog. Thanks for spilling your soul and finances for the betterment of us all.
Sadly I think you are very correct. I realized that if it is common knowledge that I want to be retired in 10 years, my advancement at work may drastically slow, as I won’t be worth the “investment”
“People should accept me for who I am!
I’m here to tell you that they won’t, and the sooner you get used to the idea, the better.”
Exactly this. Thank you for understanding. I feel like the journey to FIRE is pretty lonely in real life, and the Spiderman double life metaphor is at least a way of thinking about this social paradox that makes sense.
Its kind of shocking that you’re an ex programmer when your social and writing skills are phenomenal. I hope you update your blog when you figure it out, but I suspect you will be too busy living. If you decide to update just a few readers, add me to the list. But this post resonates with my biggest problem post-FI, which is that family and friends want to fill my “free” time with random errands. They assume I will do things for free and that I’m going to get satisfaction out of it. For example, I like to go for a longish walk in the neighborhood, and a couple of neighbors have gotten in the habit of using me as free therapy. Its not reciprocal or entertaining, and I’m not outside to complain about life’s random annoyances. My brother expects me to drop my plans to attend to last minute taxi rides for his kids, which then take up half the day. I try to help my parents but if I make, say, an extra pan of spanakopita because that’s what I’m making for my own dinner, mom will expect me to customize her pan and serve it up hot from the oven at a precise dinner time that’s hours later than my dinner time. Aunt announces that she’s coming by, expecting a meal and hours of conversation and food from the garden.
>>They assume I will do things for free and that I’m going to get satisfaction out of it.
On this note, several of my friends have already started to assume that I will always visit them, rather than the other way around, simply because I can afford the time spent on the road to see them and they cannot do the same for me. Eh. I suppose it makes certain kind of sense. If it gets too irritating, I’ll tell them that it’s their turn now, and it’ll be fun to mix up the venue, so to speak. But to your point, yes, it’s a danger: Folks may increase expectations of you now that they realize you have virtually limitless time to spend (and they misconstrue this to think: this time should just as well be spent on them… ahhh, us humans are endlessly selfish). You’ve got to manage this somehow.
>>They assume I will do things for free and that I’m going to get satisfaction out of it.
I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. Period. Not saying you should follow my example here, but this would just piss me off and result in disengagement.
>>Its kind of shocking that you’re an ex programmer when your social and writing skills are phenomenal.
Not shocking. In my experience the best programmers are quite good with the language (albeit perhaps a bit stiff). Consider the overlap of skills: Syntax, problem solving, workflows, creativity, and attention to detail (to name a few).
>>Aunt announces that she’s coming by, expecting a meal and hours of conversation and food from the garden.
This made me laugh. But I have to say, this seems more like an “Aunt” problem than a retirement problem. My own mother has a similar set of expectations on visits. I’m her son, and I will listen to her for as long as she feels like talking. To correct this issue I tell her in advance that I have (generic thing to do) at a certain time. This sets time boundaries on our get-together. That thing can be exercise, a visit with my in-laws, grocery shopping, auto-maintenance — whatever I’m able to come up with that day.
Also, say what you want, but I haven’t told my family that I’m FI or ER’d. And I’m not sure I ever will.
Maybe. The timing was terrible, as I was frantically trying to do my taxes, and my head was filled with a dozen different regulations and trying to optimize. She wouldn’t have done that pre retirement. I do think its better to tell everyone that you’re consulting but that ship has sailed for me.
I feel like I’m living a double life right now too. I’ve told a couple of people that I have a blog but that’s about it. They’d probably shit their pants if they know what it was about. I can totally relate. Great read
Nice post with some great tips 🙂
I would say you could be a bit more honest with co-workers rather than making up stuff like dietary requirements and the like. For example taking lunch to work just say you prefer to know what it going into your meals, it’s more healthy, or say you prefer to choose exactly what you are having each day rather than choosing from a set menu, and so on. There are plenty of other benefits for most of the things FI’ers get up to other than the money thing.
Like riding your bike to work, say you are doing it for the fitness, this is an acceptable goal for 99% of people even if they are not into it themselves.
I also don’t really give much of a shit about “making people feel bad” by telling them what I am doing. Not saying I am into making people feel bad of course, but if by telling someone I saved a bit of cash and am getting healthy they feel bad about themselves then boo hoo, pull yourself together and do something about it. I am always happy to help out if people ask! 🙂
I think it’s ok to talk about investing in general as well. If you mention you are saving money to invest (don’t have to say the reason why) then some people are interested and it is hard to get offended by that I think.
I also use the efficiency angle as well. I’m an IT nerd as well so it’s quite easy in that feild I think. Efficient code = efficient life, they go hand in hand. I make it clear to people I hate waste whether that be food, money, energy, time, whatever. I think this is a reasonable viewpoint that most people can probably relate to. This also dovetails nicely with the environmental angle as well i.e. sustainability and all that jazz, which I have found actually rubs people up the wrong way more than if I just say “I hate waste” or something more generic, because they are used to environmentalists telling them that everything they do is bad, and let’s face it I probably do sound a bit more preachy when I talk about that stuff.
It’s certainly a fine balance to keep but it’s also a fun game to play 🙂
I just started reading your website from start to finish. I cannot tell you what a great reprieve it is at work to take a break and read another episode of your blog. Thanks for the effort you put into creating this site, and thanks twice for not turning it into another half-bullsh*t monetized website with scrolling advertisements for all the crap in the world.
At work, I do a lot of one-on-one training of new graduates. With each one, I try to determine if they are open to getting a bit of financial education. I feel like it is my duty to evangelize for frugality and freedom. My experience is that three out of four think they have a good bead on the finances and do not want anything from me. The ones that are interested want help in understanding how to set up their 401K. I have yet to meet anyone that is interested in alternative viewpoints about buying brand new cars or buying big new houses in distant suburbs. (The early decisions out of college like home ownership and buying a brand new car are coded into our young people as children.) My experience is that offering an alternate point of view about these decisions is at best like offering to teach them basket weaving. I turn aside before getting to how bad could such a discussion go. I do not talk to people about their house and car purchases anymore.
Well said. I agree, you can’t really fully divulge to people that you are on your way to critical mass or FI. Some will treat you differently with either resentment or perhaps envy. I recall when someone referred to me as lucky regarding my savings. Nothing lucky I just saved a fair amount of my income over an extended period of time. So I longer share situation or goals with others. (exception kid brother- who is own his own FI journey)
Reading this 6 years later after walking the FI path, the entry feels like the best therapy possible. Thank you for sharing.
I bring my own lunch, drive a simple car, wear simple clothes, no fancy gadgets etc since day 1 at work so people seem to have accepted that as who I am. I think it will be more of a problem if I was fancy then all of sudden became frugal. Then the questions will come.
Now my daughter was in private school and we go on vacation a couple times a year because those match our values. I downplay them by saying “we live a simple life so we can spend on these things”. Anyway most of the vacations are road trips so nothing fancy either.
I took a couple of mini-retirements and even though people didn’t try to waste my time, they were questioning me why I don’t take a part-time job or start a business. I just said “I’m just taking a break”.