When it comes to your finances, there are two extremes to model yourself on, FIRE or FART (acronyms below) — that is if you want to be an extremist. The third option is neither, and that’s completely fine.
The choice to quit the rat race at either 35 or 95 is completely your own prerogative. It’s called personal finance for a reason. What bothers me is when PF gurus preach FIRE as gospel, like there’s no other way.
Financially Independent Retire Early (FIRE)
Being a huge fan of becoming FI early, this is the obvious choice for me. However, some people bring frugal to an extreme level by eating dog food, skimping on shaving cream, biking their way to work, living in a tiny house, or saving 70% of their take-home pay to be able to retire in their 30s that it’s sometimes difficult, even for a frugal guy like me to relate.
But overall, the effort makes perfect sense especially if the goal includes paying-off toxic debt. And rightly so– it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to achieve extraordinary results. This is especially beneficial when you’re young because your savings have time to compound.
If the goal is to merely retire early, however, you better be sure that you’ll continue to contribute to the community in a positive way, or you’d end up disappointed. You may have a couple of million dollars in your retirement account, but that alone won’t make you happy. True happiness can only be found when you continue to become a productive member of society while sharing the fruits of your labor with others.
I wasn’t aware of the existence of the movement, nor did I know what the acronym stands for, but at one point in my life I’ve genuinely been on FIRE, for example:
- I’ve spent $400 for a wedding when I have $50,000 saved
- Rented a room instead of an apartment when I can afford the latter
- Worn a bonnet inside the house during the winter to save heating costs.
Some typical characteristics of someone who is on FIRE:
- Brown bags lunches regularly and very seldom go out for lunch
- Drives a beater car in order to avoid monthly car payments
- Saves 30% to 50% of their take-home pay
Once you reach a certain level of wealth, however, you’d be crazy to stay on FIRE. You should become a moderate, if at all. You should start reaping the benefits of your labor.
Financial Assistance Required Tomorrow (FART)
This option obviously is as stinky as it sounds. Only an insane person will intentionally choose this path. People unconsciously fall into this trap by living beyond their means having been brainwashed by society into thinking that buying on credit is the norm. They are content paying the minimum monthly payments on their enormous student loans or credit card debts.
Some are perceived as well off by the equally clueless as they often drive leased cars, wear signature clothing, watches, or handbags when in reality they are a ticking financial time bomb. They are one paycheck or pink slip away from insolvency.
They often have a relatively high income, enough to justify spending $12 on daily lunches, $600 on monthly car payments, and $300 golf lessons. Delaying gratification is not in their vocabulary as they fear missing out on something, may it be attending that expensive Maroon 5 concert, wearing the latest fashion trends, or coolest tech gadgets.
A few perceive themselves as victims of a society that favors the wealthy and the privileged. They practice self-pity and over-reliance on the established authority or divine providence to improve their lives instead of developing a workable plan to get ahead in life.
Oftentimes they treat their children as retirement accounts– they expect financial support from their children in old age because they took ‘great’ care of them when they were young. This utang na loob (debt of gratitude) mentality is rampant among Filipino culture hiding under the guise of having close family ties.
Other typical characteristics of someone who is on FART:
- Maxing out their credit cards
- Little or no emergency fund
- Not investing for retirement
- Not adequately insured
- Don’t plan ahead/ messed-up priorities
The Third Option
A third option is to be like my big sister who is completely indifferent about her finances yet still ends up becoming a millionaire.
I have come to know a lot about her finances after she asked me for financial advice the other day.
Some facts about her:
- She’s a single 60-year old psychiatrist who has never married and with no children.
- She currently lives in California, but spent most of her career in Texas, a no-income-tax state.
- Buys on impulse (once bought a $5,000 infrared sauna over lunchtime)
- Does occasional irrational spending (like the $20,000 infinity pool she no longer uses)
- Doesn’t cook, relies on her microwave, and eats out often
- Owns stupid timeshares, but seldom uses them
- She contributes a substantial amount to her retirement accounts but doesn’t maximize them.
- Has a lower risk tolerance as she prefers investing in annuities over stocks
- Earns $250K on average for the past 15 years
- She has no student loan or significant credit card debts.
- She once got punched by a patient with mental issues.
Her assets as of this writing:
- $481,000 in real-estate equity (including her primary home)
- $258,000 in Thrift Savings Plan
- $200,000 in 401K / 457 Plan
- $108,550 in other retirement savings
- $203,836 in money market accounts
- $15,400 in an IRA account
That’s over $1,266,000 in net worth. Not too shabby for someone who doesn’t budget and pays little attention to her finances until recently!
She may be a UAW according to Dr. Thomas Stanley’s definition, but I think she will be okay considering that she’s in good health and plans to retire at age 70.
Here are four things that we can learn from her…
Your income is your most powerful wealth-building tool.
She earns $250K a year. That’s more than what most families in America can hope for. If you earn less than 100K then this option is probably not for you. If you want to become a millionaire, you need to be on FIRE. Either that or find a way to increase your income.
Your savings rate is more important than your investment returns.
This is a no-brainer. Saving 50% of your take-home pay is a sure way to increase your net worth. Your mutual fund may be returning 20% on average, but if you’re only investing your spare change through your mobile app, you will never become a millionaire.
You still need to live within your means.
My sister may be a big spender, but she still lives within her means. She only buys things that she can afford. She uses credit cards but pays the bills in full every month.
Paying attention to your finances does make a big difference.
Her net worth would have easily grown from $2M to $3M had she paid more attention to her finances. If she simply invested 25% of her take-home pay in the S&P 500, one of her retirement accounts would have easily grown to more than a million dollars in 15 years.
So what advice did I give her?
I told my sister that I’d use the enormous stash of cash that she has in a money market account that is earning little to no interest to pay off her mortgage for the house in Florida.
I also told her to seek financial advice from a qualified professional, which she can very much afford– given that she can spend $5,000 on a time machine that happens to look like an infrared sauna.