It’s no accident that I chose a military theme for this website.
When you are fighting a war, the stakes are too high for political correctness, waffle and wishful thinking. So there’s a directness about the military that I’ve always admired.
But there’s much more to it than that. The military mindset combines discipline and planning with creativity and the ability to flex and change as the circumstances require. The military teaches strategic thinking, resilience and stoicism.
My first introduction to stoicism came at primary school when we learned about the trenches of WW1: the mud, rats and body parts. I realised that, but for an accident of timing, that could have been me. That perspective means that if ever I’m feeling sorry for myself, I remind myself
not to be a whiney little bitch that things could be worse. A lot worse.
There are 2 ways to feel rich. One is to get more. The other is to expect less. This means letting go of consumerism and being less of an entitled little prince / princess. You need some combination of both elements.
The Enlightened Warrior provides a mental model for this, combining offense (risk-taking, controlled aggression and taking action) with defence (caution, economy and the ability to live simply on limited rations).
Like any sub-culture, the military has its own lingo. Apparently when soldiers are deployed on overseas operations in sunny places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the resulting suntan is known as “Op Bronze”. In between
trigger time operations there are long periods of inactivity, so many soldiers pass the time by lifting weights. The resultant state is known as “Op Massive”.
So what would you call the healthy state of your finances when you’re earning extra money (there is an allowance for overseas deployment) and yet there is nothing to spend your money on (the shopping is rubbish in Afghanistan)? Let’s call that “Op Loaded”.
It’s not just me that saw the links between the military mindset and that required for financial independence. And when a serving army officer emailed me, offering to write me a guest post about this, well I pretty much bit his hand off.
The Escape Artist
I have served in the British Army as an Officer for four years.
The Army and the other armed forces provide excellent employment for anybody interested in pursuing financial independence. There are also a large number of transferable lessons from military thinking to the world of FIRE.
First, a bit of background. The Officer Corps of the British Army is drawn largely from the educated middle classes. About half of my colleagues who commissioned from Sandhurst with me were privately educated – this is probably a higher percentage than can be found in almost any career.
Consequently, when recruiting officers, the Army competes with the traditional professions – law, finance, accountancy, etc. Clearly, your earning potential in one of those is much higher than that of the Army where you are a government employee on a (fairly) uncompetitive salary (the Army website publishes this information if you are interested).
However, the Army has one huge advantage : cost of living. This makes a high savings rate possible.
My friends from university earn much more than I do. However, their ‘disposable income’ is often significantly less than mine once London rent and other costs have been factored in.
To live in the Officers’ Mess, I pay £180.90 per month. On top of this, my Mess bill (which covers any food and alcoholic drink I consume) usually comes in at around £150-200 a month. Significantly less if I have been away, sometimes more if I have had a few big nights and been generous at the bar. In addition to this, I pay £16 a month for poor Wifi access through a monopoly contract, and £10 to Giff Gaff for my mobile phone.
For transport, I have a ten year old Skoda car which I insure and put about £50 worth of petrol in a month. The Officers’ Mess is located on camp, around which I cycle. It takes me approximately 3 minutes by bicycle to travel from my accommodation to my place of work.
The Officers’ Mess is an excellent model of communal living. Each officer has a modest room with a small en suite bathroom. Other living spaces are communal and we all eat centrally in a dining room. This develops community spirit (and a cheap bar helps). I have often pondered the feasibility of something like this in civilian life to lower the cost of living in high cost areas.
But the benefits of being an Army Officer go way beyond the financial. Just as pursuing FI is often one aspect of an overall ‘life overhaul’, in which conventional wisdom is challenged in several areas, the Army has taught me several valuable lessons.
Let’s start with health and fitness which I see as a platform from which all other positive life change can be launched. It’s obviously important to be physically fit in the Army. Soldiers who do not will struggle and there is stigma attached to it. This is because it affects not just the individual, but the team – an unfit soldier can get those around him hurt if he cannot perform when required.
The relationship between physical and mental well-being is fundamentally important. Firstly, the evidence is overwhelming that exercising maintains hormone levels, eases stress and improves mental clarity. But there is a deeper connection. Physical fitness requires self discipline, self respect and accountability – all vital traits in a soldier. But actually these are essential for any person, and there is no better way to develop them than through fitness.
The more sensible writers in the FIRE movement recognise that there is more to it than just money. It’s about becoming the best version of yourself – and this starts with the thing over which you have most control; your own body. In this way, Army life holds an easily transferable lesson for the pursuit of FIRE and for life in general.
The Army also requires the ability to get on with a wide range of other people. One thing I have observed about civilian life is that people often have little contact with anybody outside their own social class. In contrast, the Army is one of the few workplaces in which all classes work together and socialize closely.
Many people would be shocked to discover just how close to destitution many in the UK actually live. Most soldiers are drawn from the working class, but a significant proportion come from an underclass – their backgrounds are often a sad tale of broken families, neglect, foster care, alcohol and drug abuse and crime.
In some cases, the decision to join the Army is the only difference between them and their teenage peers who are now behind bars. Yet these people are the most incredible I have ever met – tough, resilient, kind, insightful, witty and hilarious. Had I remained in civilian life, I would never have had the opportunity to get to know real people living real lives in Britain in 2019.
The pastoral side of my job can be the most difficult part. The dramas in which some of the soldiers find themselves are humbling and eye-opening. An officer sometimes has to act as surrogate parent to his soldiers: mostly keeping them out of trouble but occasionally dealing with the police / legal system when they have gotten into trouble.
Although instances of combat-related PTSD do occur, childhood experiences are more likely to be the source of mental health problems among soldiers. It is clear that some of these formative experiences continue to have a huge impact on them.
One example can be in the area of money. Having little financial education combined with a sense of fatalism can be disastrous. Wages for soldiers are actually very competitive, and cost of living is low – a Corporal or equivalent can be paid north of £30,000 per year depending on trade. I have seen this rank achieved as young as 21. This can provide an unimaginably large amount of take home pay for some, resulting in a spiral of ridiculous spending ending up being funded by pay-day lenders.
Leaving the Army and adjusting to civilian life can also be difficult. One of the major challenges is how young many have joined. The problem with this is that many soldiers don’t realise until it is too late just how much the Army supports them. People can become institutionalised so that when they do leave, they can struggle with the practical details of civilian life – some will never have paid a utility bill.
The other challenge is the nature of the civilian workplace. It is no exaggeration to say that several times in a day I will hear a conversation taking place that would, in an office environment, probably lead to instant dismissal of the individuals involved.
[TEA note: It is not that civilian workplaces are kinder or better. Often the petty rivalries and the office politics are far more vicious in civilian life. Its that unpleasantness is covered up in the modern office and this can confuse people used to straight talking.]
Contrary to stereotypes, the Army is meritocratic and welcomes ambition. Soldiers are encouraged to commission as officers if they demonstrate the right qualities (Note that the right qualities for an officer are not exactly the same as the right qualities for a soldier – the two roles are different).
In many ways I see less snobbery in the Army than I do elsewhere – the Army brings people together and accepts their differences far more readily than most other work environments. This fosters genuine understanding and cohesion between people, rather than simply a collection of disparate individuals who are forced together for 8 hours a day but have nothing to bind them aside from their common need to pay the bills.
But beyond the very real practical advantages of an Army life for the FI enthusiast, there is also the enormous value of applying military training and theory to this quest.
As a long time reader of The Escape Artist website, I began to notice that many of the concepts were eerily familiar – discipline, conservation over consumption, the importance of action and so on. I eventually realised that many of these ideas are the same ideas that military training is designed to instil.
After all the journey to FIRE is a long campaign. There are adversaries, obstacles and disinformation that must be overcome. You will probably find yourself fighting on many fronts and it will require determination and resilience. Treat your journey to FIRE like a war.
The British Army has a number of foundational ‘Principles of War’ as a framework around which to plan and conduct its operations. Let’s look at how these are relevant to financial independence.
Selection of the Aim
A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim is the master principle of war.
In military operations the concept of ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’ is vital because it focusses time, people and resources effectively. The Army ensures that the overarching mission is hammered home at the lowest level in the hope that it will influence all decision-making.
Military operations fail when the aim is too disparate, resources are spread too thinly and nobody quite knows what victory looks like. The ‘Global War on Terror’ has seen examples of this. In fits of populist fervour, large scale military operations were hastily launched to ‘punish’ or ‘overthrow’ one villain or another. Before long, these missions grew arms and legs and became about ‘making [insert country] safe for liberal democracy’ and ‘spreading freedom’ and other such dangerous nonsense. In the end, nobody could really be sure whether the mission had succeeded or failed because nobody even knew what the mission was anymore.
Similarly, when thinking about your finances, set a target and be consistent. Is your aim financial independence by the age of 40? Then be clear and maintain this aim. Make all of your micro decisions with this macro goal in mind. This will help you to resist short-termism, keep calm in the face of market fluctuations and generally rise above the noise.
Maintenance of Morale
Morale is a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, well-being, perceptions of worth and group cohesion.
Morale is crucial because it draws the required performance from people. Low morale breeds ill-discipline, slackness and a lack of motivation. The key phrase in the above definition, for me, is ‘a positive state of mind’.
It can be a lonely business trying to remain frugal and money savvy when most people around you are spending like drunken sailors on shore leave. You could even find yourself questioning whether life in The Prison Camp is that bad after all…maybe you should just give up trying to escape?
That is why FIRE blogs, podcasts, meet-ups and discussion groups are of such value – they play a vital role in the maintenance of morale.
Control your environment and surround yourself with the right inspiration.
Offensive action is the practical way in which a commander seeks to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative.
Your instinct should be to seize the initiative and aggressively pursue the mission. In war, you should attempt wherever possible to harass and disrupt your enemy. This is achieved through Offensive Action.
Financially, you should seek opportunities wherever you can find them to streamline your finances. You should chase down and destroy debt mercilessly. Take offensive action against your expenses, waste and indulgence.
A ‘wrong’ decision is better than no decision. At Sandhurst it is hammered into you that in a military operation, there will never be a situation in which you are in possession of all the facts. When making a decision that might cost the lives of those under your command you will be lucky to have 60% of the information that might permit you to feel ‘comfortable’ with doing so. Guess what – you still have to make that decision.
In the world of money, the same is true. Many people are paralysed by indecision and never get started on The Path to FIRE. Whilst they are dithering about which Vanguard fund is best, or whether perhaps it might be better if they did this, that, or the other, they are losing the initiative. Meanwhile the enemy (debt, lifestyle creep, conformity etc) creeps up on them as they lie dozing in their sleeping bags of complacency.
This is why you must take the fight to The Enemy.
Security is the provision and maintenance of an operating environment that affords the necessary freedom of action, when and where required, to achieve objectives.
In military operations, a safe base from which to plan, prepare and launch operations is fundamental. If you are always under attack, you have neither the space nor time required to seize the initiative and take Offensive Action.
Financially, you can never seize the initiative if you are surrounded by threats. Threats come in the form of debt, financially unhealthy peer groups (who drink in expensive bars every week), spendthrift spouses, costly car commutes, and all of the fripperies of life in this absurd and complacent civilisation.
Think about the Security of your situation. Shore up the defences, post sentries and start to dig a well before you are thirsty – you have a long war ahead.
That’s why you should take practical steps to shield yourself from threats and build an emergency fund. This could be cash in a bank account that could cover 3-6m of your spending.
Economy of Effort
Economy of effort is the judicious exploitation of manpower, materiel and time in relation to the achievement of objectives.
In the military, resources are finite and care should be taken to ensure that only the minimum needed to complete a task is allocated to it. Simply put, if only an 8 man section is required to complete a task then only 8 men will be sent.
This is something that comes up a lot in the FIRE movement, and I see it as relevant in two crucial ways. Much is rightly made of the importance of automating your finances – this is economy of effort in practice. Why spend more time than necessary? Your time and headspace are resources which needs to be used wisely and not wasted.
The concept of Economy of Effort also reminds us to keeping expenses low. Less spending inevitably results in less pointless shit to look after and worry about.
Flexibility – the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances – comprises agility, responsiveness, resilience, acuity and adaptability.
If I had a pound for every time I have been told that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’, I would have retired already.
But this is a serious point – military operations take place in an environment of extreme uncertainty, or more accurately, chaos.
Unfortunately the enemy is unlikely to act in the way in which your plan anticipates (or hopes) they will. This is why selection and maintenance of the aim is so important – it provides soldiers with a handrail for coherent decision-making when the initial plan breaks down. This is Flexibility.
When thinking about financial independence, flexibility is also vital. The slings and arrows of life mean that your best laid plans will not always come to fruition and your circumstances will always be changing. This is why a mindset of flexibility and resilience is crucial.
To sustain a force is to generate the means by which its fighting power and freedom of action are maintained.
This one is often overlooked. Soldiers (people) are not machines and cannot fight indefinitely. Historically many good plans have failed on the battlefield because commanders have overestimated the resilience or sustainability of their manpower.
In the quest for financial independence, there are those who are capable of living the ‘warrior monk’ lifestyle with few if any indulgences. I am not one of these people, and I suspect that most people also are not. In order for my frugal lifestyle to remain sustainable, I accept that there are areas in which I am prepared to be flexible (see above!).
While keeping in mind my aim of FI, I increase my chances of long run success by paying attention to sustainability. I protect the asset (me) with relaxation, rest and recuperation.
For me, this means paying to go fishing on a local river. There is nothing remotely frugal about this hobby, but the value I get from that time is worth every single penny and makes other economies easier to stomach.
1. Edinburgh Meet Up : Friday 23 August. From 6pm – 11pm at The Shakespeare Pub, 65 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH1. Come along for drinks and chat…meet other people interested in Financial Independence. All welcome!
2. Podcast. I went on The Meaningful Money podcast. The show episode is here and you can see the interview on Youtube here: