How Benjamin Franklin Pioneered the FIRE Movement


The “Financial Independence Retire Early” or F.I.R.E. movement is gaining traction among millennials, and for a good reason. The idea that one could retire in his prime through a high savings rate and frugal living, as opposed to waiting until you’re old enough for Social Security, Medicare, or your funeral, whichever comes first, is particularly enticing.

But do you know that the concept is older than the founding of the country we call the United States of America? And the real poster boy of badassity is none other than the founding father himself?

Besides being a statesman, scientist, inventor, author, and publisher, Benjamin Franklin was a “badass” FIRE practitioner in many senses of the word. This was centuries before Mr. Money Mustache started his blog and Your Money or Your Life book was published.

Consider the following…

He treated his debt as an emergency

Not exactly sure what he was indebted to early in his life as Benjamin Franklin had no formal education. He certainly didn’t have the ridiculous student loans that modern-day Americans often have.

But Franklin wrote in his autobiography about his own struggles with debt.

It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.

One of the extreme examples is eating a “hot-water gruel with bread” for nourishment, every day, in an attempt to avoid paying for the overpriced beer that the rest of the city seems to be hooked on. Back in the day, beer was a dietary staple as water can easily be tainted with bacteria.

Related: Forget Debt Snowball, Payoff the Ugliest Debt First

He lived frugally in terms of time and money

He also understood that cutting your spending rate is much more powerful than increasing your income.

  • Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship
  • Buy what thou hast no need of, and before long thou shalt sell thy necessaries

And that frugality also applies to your time as well as your money— time is money. Money is something that we trade our life energy on.

Remember that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence…

He understood risk vs reward

The popular quote “A penny saved is a penny earned” is often attributed to Franklin. But what he actually penned is “A penny saved is two pence clear”, which is far more profound and insightful.

It meant that the risk-free penny saved today is worth more than a penny riddled with uncertainty (since the plural form of a penny is pence). This was centuries before the Risk-Adjusted Discount Rate formulas were published!

The same argument can be made about paying off your mortgage before investing in the stock market. Many will argue against paying off low-interest debts in favor of investing without taking into account the risk.

In a way, you can say that Franklin was risk-averse. But keep in mind that he wrote this in the colonial times where it was far riskier to invest in stocks. Any wise FIRE practitioner or Mustachian would have done or recommended the same.

He became F.I. and retired early to pursue other passions

At age 42, Benjamin Franklin had enough passive income from his printing business to cover his expenses— he became financially independent. Specifically, he signed a co-partnership agreement with his foreman, David Hall that enabled him to retire early.

According to an article in the Harvard magazine, the term of the agreement was so lucrative that “Franklin’s annual dividends averaged over 450 pounds, about three times the earnings of a prosperous lawyer and almost 20 times a clerk’s wages.”

This newly found independence freed him up for new forays into science and politics. In fact, it was in this period that he invented the Franklin stove and experimented with the lightning rod. Think about literally playing with fire!

He leveraged the power of compounding

As if other experiments weren’t enough to extend his legacy, Benjamin Franklin set up a money snowball experiment in the form of a 200-year trust. Upon his death, he bequeathed approximately $4,400 each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia.

One stipulation is that money is loaned at five percent interest to young apprentices attempting to start a business. Any interest earned will have to be reinvested in the fund in order to leverage its compounding effect.

Money makes money. And the money that money makes, makes more money.

Some 200 years after his death in 1790, the combined value of the fund grew to an astounding $6.5 million!

Like present-day FIRE practitioners who are aiming to leverage this power to achieve financial freedom, Franklin understood the amazing power of compounding interest, way ahead of his time.

Not only did Benjamin Franklin fought for your freedom; he also pioneered the FIRE movement— a lifestyle movement that can set you financially free.

Benjamin Franklin Pioneered FIRE movement

This post was inspired by a visit to the One Liberty Place Observation Deck in Philly (that’s my brother and daughter in the picture).

Great post and very interesting. Didn’t know all that about Ben Franklin, but he definitely had it right. Multiple streams of income is the way to go!

Besides his printing press, he had the Poor Richard’s Almanac, Pennsylvania Gazette, franchises, etc… What’s surprising is that he didn’t have any royalties from his inventions because he didn’t file any patents.

A lot can be learned from scouring history for lessons in life and finance. This is a great example.

We’re lucky today with the information revolution we are experiencing that this stuff is easier to come by.

Thanks for sharing, kabayan!


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