The Shockingly Scary Difference Between Healthy FIRE and Unhealthy FIRE

How do you know if you’re spending too much time thinking about money? A certain amount of financial literacy is important, but it’s also possible to stress yourself out way too much.
Adam

Written by Adam on November 7, 2018. Updated April 25, 2019.
7 min read. Financial Independence, Personal. 13 comments.

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A few weeks ago at FinCon, I was excited to see the trailer for the Playing With FIRE Documentary.  At FinCon in 2017 there were already rumors about an upcoming documentary about FIRE – something everyone was interested in seeing. The trailer was amazing and left me wanting to see it right away!

Campfire in mountains

When I got home, I immediately showed the trailer to Mrs. Minafi. She had a different response:

Is that healthy FIRE?

Mrs. Minafi

The question referred to Scotts journey in the documentary from a full-time employee to becoming financially independent. Before jumping into the answer to this question, you should probably watch the trailer.

The Trailer

If you haven’t seen the trailer for Playing with FIRE just yet, you should check it out! It features so many names from the retire early community in only 3 minutes that I couldn’t list them all without missing someone.

The story follows Scott and his family as they make a number of major life decisions in the pursuit of FIRE including leaving his job, moving in with parents and finding more frugal ways to live.

Mrs. Minafi’s question about “Is this healthy FIRE?” sparked a conversation and got us wondering: what does “healthy FIRE” even mean?

Our path to financial independence is focused around a specific ideal:

Build the life you want then save for it.

MrLlamaSC on Reddit, thread on this topic

That is “our healthy”. For us that means a number of things:

The focus in this is to find out what makes us happy, excited, exuberant human beings and then save money to where we can do that for the rest of our lives.

Life is about more than money. If you’re pursuing FIRE first above all other things in your life, then it’s possible some other area of your life is suffering. Does that sound at all familiar for your life? What could you pay more attention to?

Build Your Life

One quote from the Reddit post stands out to me:

I built my savings, but I never built my life.

MrLlamaSC on Reddit, thread on this topic

This is “unhealthy fire”. This idea of attaching your concept of self with money and building wealth. There is so much more to life than investing and money, and those things will be the bedrock of what makes you happy long-term.

I personally struggle with attaching my identity to my work far too often. When asked “who am I?” the first idea that pops into my head is always my role at a job, my position, the company I work for, or the creator of something I’ve worked on.

None of these things are me. Being “financially independent” wouldn’t be me either. For me, having enough money or being financially independent is about one thing and one thing only: earning time.

It’s having time to explore and do everything I can in life. It’s travel, creation, family, food, exploration and more all wrapped into one idea of time

This isn’t a time in the future – it starts today. All of those areas don’t start when you retire. They start today. If you’re waiting until you retire to finally “have time” then you’re missing the present.

There will be things you can’t do if you’re working, sure. Not many employers are going to love it if you take 6 months off to hike the Appalachian Trail. Taking a few days off for a multi-day camping trip with friends could give some of the same feel and help understand if your dream of hiking for 6 months is something you would actually enjoy, or more of a romantic ideal.

Unhealthy FIRE is often portrayed in the media as extreme frugality. When I read articles about cutting extreme corners to retire early they don’t resonate with me. It seems as though the most common target demographic for these articles is people who hate their jobs and want to see what corners they can cut to quit as soon as possible.

If you hate your job my advice is to find a new one rather than unhealthily obsess about FIRE.

Back to Playing with FIRE

So what about the documentary – is that healthy FIRE or unhealthy FIRE?

My guess is that Scott and his family do have many dreams, life goals and ideas on what will make them happy, but that just doesn’t make for a good movie trailer. Trailers are about a conflict that draws you in, which is much different from day to life.

One of the major conflicts in the movie is how many things Scott and his family are trying to change at once. They’re cutting spending deep, getting a cheaper car, freelancing from home and learning all about the FIRE movement (all while making a documentary!).

Would he pursue all of these life changes at once if not for a documentary being a catalyst? I’m not sure. For most people, I wouldn’t recommend it. For some, it will be necessary though. If you lose your job or can’t work then these tradeoffs for FIRE quickly become tradeoffs just to get by.

I’m super excited about the documentary, and I can’t wait to see it. I’m crossing my fingers it gets into the Sundance Film Festival here in Utah to be able to experience with a large group of people who have never heard of FIRE before.

Motivations for FIRE

One common misconception I hear about FIRE is that it’s for people who hate their jobs and just want to leave. I don’t get that impression from Scott from this documentary, but I do hear it enough.

Being unhappy in a job can be a great motivator to help you save and drive towards change in your life. That can be a chance to other careers, change to save more and a chance to explore other things that could make you happy.

It’s when the conversation never gets past “I just need to leave this job, then I’ll be happy” that I get concerned.

This reminds me of winners of the lottery. The overall happiness level of lottery winners is not fundamentally changed by winning millions of dollars. Happy people stay happy, unhappy continue to struggle. FIRE is the same way.

If you’re unhappy now, taking steps to find a way to increase that happiness should be a priority. Consider talking with a mental health expert (it may even be covered by your insurance for free!). Try journaling. Talk to your friends and family about what makes them happy. Find ways to practice gratitude. Make a list of goals you want to accomplish.

There is no prescription for happiness, and FIRE isn’t one either. Find what makes you happy and find a way to do that the rest of your life.

What would you describe as healthy fire or unhealthy fire?

Adam

About Adam

Hi, I'm Adam! I help millennials invest to reach financial independence sooner than they ever thought possible. Want to see what you could do to reach FI sooner? You're in the right place!

13 Comments

I could not agree more. People that hate, hate, hate (sorry Suze) their work may not be ready to early retire. I loved my job for most of my career and since I retired I love my new life even more. But I had already found a way to be happy every day, and I fear that people who are chronically unhappy have a bigger issue than a crappy job. That was an excellent post!

Sounds like a key point for sure – finding a way to enjoy things you don’t love.

I LOVE this. You are so right about building your life first then saving for it. I really like my job now, and when I tell people about my FIRE goals, they’re often shocked since most people don’t think loving your job and “being retired” make sense in the same sentence. But its not that I want to quit- its that I want the ability to not have to work to live. I want to have more time to do the things I want to do though, so even if I’m working, I would love to be able to cut back to part time or less stress to spend time with my family.

I really hope this documentary gets that point across- that FIRE is definitely more about the FI than the RE.

> its not that I want to quit- its that I want the ability to not have to work to live

Sounds like a great way to think about it for sure. Much more healthy to work towards options rather than work towards quitting.

That’s a great way to think about it and it’s how I describe my approach to people all the time. Sitting around doing nothing is not an appealing thought for me, although I could see myself doing something totally different and unrelated to my current career someday. It’s all about the freedom of choice. Maybe I’ll keep doing what I’m doing forever, but having the option to change my mind about that is what I’m working for.

It’s an interesting conflict, because a lot of the high-paying jobs that will get you to FIRE quicker (law, tech, finance) are also the ones that actively make people miserable. Conversely, the choices that make a lot of people happier (going part-time work, staying home with kids) cut down on the income, and push out the FIRE date.

Very true. More flexibility usually means lower income, but higher satisfaction. For those that are in those jobs they’re miserable in (or maybe miserable in the lack of flexbility / high hours) there’s sometimes the option of finding lower-paying jobs that have fewer hours.

Not always an option at the same employer, but if there are other employers out there that could offer this it can be an option.

I like the concept of healthy FIRE. One issue I have is that personally, after 8 years out of the workplace, I prefer moving from one challenge to another. The variety is very exciting. Because of that, I can’t say that I knew beforehand what I was going “TO”. Your idea of earning time is good. But I have to say, at least for me, much as I enjoyed my job in engineering, the long hours and commute left little room for finding that healthy spot. My work was unhealthy. FIRE has been very healthy.

I can definitely identify with variety as something that helps keep interest. Finding hobbies with a bunch of variety as part of them has been helpful for me, but few and far between.

What’s important about money to you?” I asked a prospective client who came to me for some advice. To which they replied “Well I’d rather be rich and unhappy than poor and unhappy”.

On the surface this sounds a valid and reasonable response. It also reflects our modern day society’s appetite and drive for achievement, however rather than helping us it may be deceiving us of what maybe a better way.

In a radical experiment to embrace wholeness in my life rather than happiness, so far I have experienced less stress, greater focus, a higher tolerance to say no, greater enjoyment and energy to do the activities of a person fulfilled.

Wholeness simply means complete, lacking nothing, entire, undivided and uninjured. It evolves, gives and is regenerative. Wholeness “becomes” rather than “strives” and by default it naturally purges itself from impurities, through ones thoughts and actions.

In the past my pursuit for happiness was a roller coaster of emotions that left me exhausted, burnt out and depressed.

Today I am inspired to exercise daily because it make me feel more whole. The by-product of this is I drink more water, eat healthier and by default (not focus) my weight is reducing.

I am also inspired to write about my discoveries and journey because it also makes me feel more whole. The by-product is I feel more accountable to myself, I personally grow and have the opportunity to positively help others.

So many great personal insights here. Finding that keystone habit (exercise & writing in your case) have so many great cascading results. It feels as though thinking about a “happy future someday” becomes a placebo that doesn’t actually improve current life.

You raise some great points for discussion.

A lot of the blogs I’ve read lack the balance necessary to have a better life. I love what you said to those who use hate for their jobs as the reason for FIRE. How about finding another one that’s better? It seems to me there are far more people happy with their jobs than not. I realize that’s almost countercultural to FIRE. In my experience, it’s true.

If we’re running FROM something rather than TO something, my guess is we’ll be unhappy when we arrive.

Balance is the key IMO.

> If we’re running FROM something rather than TO something, my guess is we’ll be unhappy when we arrive.

That’s a great description of it! You might run fast when you’re running FROM something, but if you’re running TO something you’ll be able to go so much farther.

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