It was the week before Christmas, it was 4.45 in the morning and my alarm was going off. Time to get up and go to work.
What?!? Aren’t FI bloggers supposed to preach the benefits of
loafing around leisure after reaching financial independence?
Well, it’s certainly a joy to be able to live life without an alarm clock wrenching you out of a blissful slumber.
So why did I go a week with my alarm set for 4.45am in the cold, dark rainy mornings of December?
Well, I was giving a talk about money. Or, to be more accurate, 5 talks on money. On Monday to Friday, each day at 7.30am, I spoke to a different room full of people. But these were not your usual gatherings of financial independence people. There were no accountants, software developers, doctors or lawyers in the audience.
Nope, I was talking to construction workers drilling a huge tunnel underneath London. The talks were delivered not in some slick modern office but rather in in the canteen area of temporary buildings (think Portakabins) on various building sites. The audience were dressed in steel-capped boots, orange high viz jackets with hard hats to hand.
One of the criticisms of financial independence is that its most popular with software developers, lawyers, digital marketers and other high income knowledge workers. This gives critics of financial independence a stick to beat it with.
But as I’ve said before, its even more important for people on ordinary incomes to ditch consumerism and pick up the tools of financial independence. When you’re paid less, there is less safety margin. You can’t just burn cash safe in the knowledge that you’ll be bailed out by a high salary in less than 31 days time. For a dentist or lawyer, paying 25% annual interest rate on a credit card is an own goal. For a low income worker in debt, its a financial disaster.
It’s no fun to be poor…but what a tragedy to be poor and brainwashed by advertising etc into thinking you’d be happy if only you could spend more money on crap. It’s bizarre…do the critics of FI really prefer a world where everyone just gives up on saving and self-medicates their unhappiness with retail therapy and over-consumption?
The Escape Artist believes in reality over ideology. It’s obviously much easier to save a high percentage of your income when you are a higher earner (as I was). And, as I’ve said before, I don’t claim that everyone can get to financial independence and stop working aged 30 or 40 (or whatever arbitrary age). Whilst it may be true in theory that almost anyone can do “it”, the reality is that hyper early retirement will remain out of reach for many people. As someone smart once said:
In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice…but in practice there is.
But here’s the key point: everyone can benefit from the tools, techniques and mindset of financial independence. So in my talks to the construction workers, I kept things actionable and talked about things that EVERYONE can do to improve their money situation.
I talked about paying yourself first, tracking your spending, not getting tricked by advertising, how spending does not equal happiness, the power of compound interest, the problem with debt. I talked about getting your pension sorted out, investing in the stockmarket via index tracker funds, tax-sheltering and so on. Essentially, I did a talk on financial independence without mentioning financial independence.
Nor did I mention early retirement. I think that some people are put off the whole FIRE thing by the idea of frugalistas lounging around, meditating in their trailer park or bedsit and never working again. The irony is that I agree: I don’t think that super early retirement is particularly healthy unless its (eventually) replaced by a new reason to get out bed in the morning. I don’t even think Mr Money Mustache and Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme really believe in early retirement if that means doing nothing.
Talking of gurus, The Escape Artist does not claim to be Martin Luther King but I do have a dream, brothers and sisters.
My dream for financial independence is not a world where a tiny minority of middle class people quit work aged 30 to spend their time fiddling with their portfolio, writing blogs and
bickering commenting on Reddit / Facebook discussions.
Nope, The Escape Artist’s dream is for EVERYONE to 1) be out of expensive consumer debt 2) have an emergency fund of 3-6m cash in a bank account and 3) know what’s going on in their pension. Plus a world with more natural wilderness where people realise that
buying shit spending does not equal happiness and where we join the dots between our choices and the environment.
Let’s be realistic. There will always be people that are broke, because human nature is flawed and different people make different choices. The price of living in a free society is that some will make choices that aren’t good for them or their finances.
I don’t tell anyone else what they must do. I just say what I do (and what I think). Readers are free to ignore this or put some of the ideas into action in their own lives. Either is fine with me.
The FIRE will keep spreading because much conventional financial advice is rubbish: its biased, expensive and ineffective. The problem with conventional financial advice is that it tells you what to do with your money (this is the easy bit) but not how to make and keep more of your money (the hard bit). The tougher your situation, the more you need to go hardcore and adopt the “full on” FI mentality to achieve financial stability…let alone financial freedom.
Going back to the construction workers, I couldn’t help but notice a gender gap in the audiences. There were one or two women (and very welcome they were too) but the audience was overwhelmingly male.
We’re often told that we live in a sexist society because only a minority of the top jobs (CEOs, judges, surgeons, top civil servants etc etc) are taken by women. But we hear much less about the % of construction workers that are women. I wonder why not? It’s almost as if middle-class journalists and gender studies graduates don’t want to get their hands dirty doing the tough and dangerous jobs.
The beauty of doing workplace talks like this (as well as my financial coaching) is that I temporarily get out of my own middle-class bubble and meet all sorts of people.
Some of the workers came and talked to me after the talks. I spoke to former coal miners who, back in the day, used to work in the pits up north and who’d moved to follow the work down south. I spoke to hard-working men who were sending money back home to support families they only saw at the weekend. These were people doing whatever it took to put bread on their table, men taking responsibility and working hard. To be honest, it was downright humbling.
A fair criticism of many personal finance blogs and websites (including this one) is that they’re written by the middle class for the middle class. The problem is that many online discussions on Twitter, Facebook and blogs have turned into echo chambers. That’s an observation, not a criticism…its more fun to live in an echo chamber than in the middle of a fist-fight on a troll farm.
What I do know is that there’s a vast gulf between the politically correct world of the middle class office worker and the more plain-speaking world of the blue collar worker. And that’s partly a communication issue. If you want to reach people, you have to be able to talk their language.
I don’t really do New Years Resolutions (they’re a bit like diets: things we say we’ll do…and then don’t). But one of my ongoing goals is to write as simply as possible about money. To take advanced concepts and explain them as clearly as possible.
I could write long
dull articles about the arcane details of investing that would be more likely to impress my middle class peers. I could stop swearing, use more caveats, longer words and be more boring politically correct. But I won’t because I want to write stuff that’s capable of reaching a wider audience…even if most of the 7 billion people on Earth continue, quite blatantly, to NOT read my blog (after 5 years blogging I’ve made my peace with that 😉 ).
Here’s the bottom line. Financial independence can be thought of in many different ways. It’s an environmental movement, its a path for self development, its a way of achieving greater freedom. But, at its most basic, its about getting better with money.
The less you earn, the more careful you have to be with your money. It’s ordinary people on average incomes (or less) that can get the most benefit from the tools of financial independence. This is why I say that financial independence is for everyone.
Happy New Year!