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.