Financial Independence is for Everyone (Part 3)

everyone

This is Part 3 in an occasional series. You can see Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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.

Risky 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!


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26 comments

  1. Here are the U.K. stats on deaths… Page 7… https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/fatalinjuries.pdf
    95% !!!
    And the people you were talking to were high on the list of industries with a poor record. Still, it’s a damn sight better than it was.
    A happy new year and coming from a construction background myself, please keep up the good fight.

      1. By the way, the Stats on death at work don’t include industrial disease deaths, whilst statistics upon these are harder to mine, an approximation of a 7:1 male to female industrial disease death rate is not too far away from what I have been able to find. It begs the question, why is such a gender imbalance in anything in life not making bigger news?

  2. This post really resonated with me, and I have come to view my upbringing on a council estate, raised by hard working parents who didn’t have a pot to piss in, as a privilege. 

    Living most of my adult life in affluent Berkshire, I had a social circle of good friends who were themselves raised in wealthy households, who were given private educations, generous helping hands onto the property ladder, and who now in their 50’s and 60’s have been the fortunate recipients of extremely large inheritance legacies from their late parents. Like you, I have been informed, through my upbringing, a pathological fear of ‘running out of money’ because I know that unlike many of my friends there never has been nor ever will be a large financial bailout safety net from the family to fall back on. 

    Throughout my adult life I have noticed how so many who grew up surrounded by wealth and privilege, seem to have an entitled and blasé attitude towards financial responsibility and security because they have always been safe in the knowledge that, if it all goes tits up, they could in the words of Jarvis Cocker “call their dad and he could stop it all”…..

    Many of my friends, far from commending me for eschewing their own obsessive consumer spending behaviour have largely viewed me with a degree of pity for not embracing it or of course, the hideous debt that goes with maintaining said ‘lifestyle’.

    Well done for spreading the gospel to those who never had the privileged educations, the hand outs and the hand ups that so many of the ‘middle classes’ far too often simply take for granted, totally unaware that many will never get those breaks.

  3. It’s all very true. We preach FI being for everyone but often forget to write for one of the largest sections of society earning below (and often way below) the average medium wage.
    FIRE initially appears to have an inclusivity issue if you’re looking from the outside or only reading mainstream media about it, but the principles it teaches are so applicable to any level of income.
    Another great post and a Happy New Year!

    1. Not Your Average Investor · · Reply

      I earn below the average wage and still dream and preach FIRE. Can be done.

  4. I came across the FIRE thing just a couple of months ago and binged on various blogs and podcasts, my mind whirring at the thought of early retirement and money in the bank.

    Then I remembered that as a 50 year old nurse and single mum working part-time with a mortgage and £20,000 consumer debt I would struggle to retire ‘early’ or rich. Got a bit sad about that briefly but quickly realised that actually I can still really benefit from much of the advice and tools. 2 months on I know what comes in (turns out more than I thought) and out and I have a budget. I have pared down my outgoings, switched and cancelled services.

    I finally sat down and read up on NHS pensions and got a forecast. I have a growing savings pot and a plan to reduce my debt. I am savvy with the lingo of stocks and shares and have researched which platform to start investing with. I have calculated the shortfall on my income and upped my overtime at work plus have a side hustle emerging. All early days and I will not retire before I am 60 but when I do retire I will be comfortable and health permitting I will be able to enjoy it without having to scrimp and save.

    Your post above is spot on. It is easy as an average Joe to feel despondent and powerless when it comes to finances. But the basics are so accessible and just so logical.

    1. 👆 This is fantastic

    2. Joanna your words resonate as do Barney’s. The methods are simple but why does nobody teach this. Sadly I don’t have an NHS pension however I did call TEA earlier this year and my question was ‘have I left it too late’ (I am touching 50) TEA response (blunt) honest as ever just like his articles went something along the lines of ‘well you either bury your head in the sand and do nothing…or try and do something about it’. I am trying, I know what I should/need to do, but there are still many hurdles…my unprivileged background helps me to understand that I don’t want to be penniless.

  5. Paullypips · · Reply

    Well done for taking the FIRE idea to the working class (and I mean those who DO work). They are the types who will gain most as they are the sort who actually get on and make the best of their lot. I really enjoy reading this blog as it has stayed true to principle and not gone off on a Brexit rant like some other websites have. Whatever the political situation we still need to be financially savvy. I sometimes feel despondent when I see good people who work hard wasting their chance for financial freedom because they don’t connect their spending on non-essentials to the long hours they work.

    Best wishes for a Happy & Prosperous New Year to all.

  6. Great post, and another angle is that a white collar worker could, say, break their foot bowling but still go to work. All they need is their mouse finger. For many blue collar workers breaking their foot means their out of work and possibly not getting paid. FI is more valuable to a blue collar worker in most cases.

  7. SurreyBoy · · Reply

    Happy New Year EA and thanks for the posts through 2019. They are motivating and informative. Please do keep it up.

    Best wishes to all.

  8. Excellent post! How did you get asked to be a presenter? I FIRE’d last year and would love to speak to more people about sound financial principles. I do one-on-one coaching with my friends, but I have more to offer. Could you share more about the principles you taught? A video maybe?

  9. Nice post.
    I too feel that blogging about our situation is maybe only of interest to people in the exact same situation as us – and to everyone else we must sound like entitled assholes who just moan a lot.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with people like you described. Some benefitted from a nice company in an industry that did well and their personal pensions are safe had happy families and life turned out ok.
    But others joined industries that died in jobs that no longer exist and their pensions stopped or or the new company screwed them over.
    And ex wives and child support still need to be paid.
    It’s a varied picture and after a whole you realise that everyone has their own path and story and much of what happens to us is chance / luck

    1. I totally agree… I think there’s an element of truth in that but I think by far the biggest thing that’s going on there is that the person doubting whether it is for them or not is being defensive of their position to date.

      I’ve had various conversations with friends whom I’ve encouraged to get on board with becoming FI. Initially lots of them have the “its ok for you to do that because….” response. When in reality almost everyone is able to lower their expenses and benefit in the ways your discuss.

      If anything the first few steps of FI are the most valuable not the final retiring from work early steps which get the headlines. I’ve found by focusing on those I’m better able to get my message across.

  10. John Peel · · Reply

    Nice one B. Time for a new acronym perhaps? FILMOL – Financial independence, living my own life. Not so snappy I guess but perhaps a better description of the goal for most of us. Living the life we want, rather than the one which our culture says we ought to aspire to.

    Keep up the good work Barney. It’s great to hear that more people are prepared to listen to this stuff and Joanna’s post is a real inspiration. One of my ongoing regrets is that so many of my friends back in the camp ignore my repeated exhortations to discover the salience of FI to their own lives. No amount of discussion or referral to other people’s stories seems to get them past the response that ‘it’s just not for me’; for whatever reason: mortgage, kids, chosen profession etc. I’ve begun to realise it’s not so much what I say, as how I say it. I need to change my message. Thanks for showing a way to do that.

  11. KiwisandFI · · Reply

    Thanks EA. Totalling our household after tax incomes over thirty years, we’ve been below the national average income.
    By following the basic rules listed above, thinking outside the box, looking for financially advantageous living situations, we were able to go from having a few thousand to our name in our late 20’s to being FI soon after 50.
    Best of all, by the time we were in our early 40’s, we were relatively confident of being on the right track, so this dude was able to be pretty much a stay at home dad.
    I’ll be the first to admit there was a bit of luck along the way, but mostly it was just slow but steady progress, all started when MrMM was in second grade.

  12. I often wondered if there are ordinary workers, like me who read about FI-RE or are pursuing FI-RE, or maybe not RE but the FI part only? I immigrated from the Philippines to the UK 3 years ago having offered a job as a nurse in the NHS. Nurses are not high-earners, but I am extremely frugal; I care about where my money goes.

    However, despite my frugality, I have very little knowledge about investing. People would say start a business – but what business? Not interested about that. I do care, however, about stock investing – something I really wanted to do but did not really pull the trigger because when it comes to stock investing, we Filipinos believe that it is only for the wealthy. With my savings slowly increasing month per month, a year ago, I decided to read about investing in the UK (maybe in the UK, it is different). I literally took matters on my own because (who is gonna do it for me?). And thru (researching, reading, YouTube binge-watching, podcast listening about personal finance), I stumbled upon the idea of FI-RE; and got hooked. Of course, delving into the FI-RE movement, I have noticed that those who are blogging about FI-RE are/were high-earners – software engineers, consultants, lawyers, etc. But that did not demotivate me from pursing FI-RE. I understood the concept of savings rate, budgeting, living below your means — straight away, I was already on it pre-FIRE knowledge, the only thing that was lacking for me was the investing part (a dreadful subject, and still is).

    You see, articles written by FI-RE bloggers are real life-experiences (at least that is what I believe), with real numbers; whereas, if you read about investment books or articles, it is very theoretical and thus very difficult to grasp (I am a nurse, not an accountant after all). I know exactly what my goals are and how to achieve them because of FI-RE. And what a delight it is to know that you, TEA is reaching out to ordinary people like me to spread the knowledge of financial independence, because you believe that ANYONE can do it.

    Please don’t stop doing what you are doing even if it is physically exhausting, you will never know who you will inspire. I got inspired by FI-RE and it is affecting positively my family and friends — my cousin just opened his first stocks account and showed me about his budget planning for the first time, my younger brother just mimicked my minimalist lifestyle and loved it, I taught a friend about setting up an Emergency Fund (something that she had no idea at the age of 32) and was very thankful about it, I gifted my pal an investing book last Christmas (he is an avid reader, why not read about investing, right?), and, I just received a few DMs on my Facebook from friends who wanted to know about investing. I didn’t preach to them the concept of FI-RE, I just made changes on my personal finances, saw it and they are keen to learn. That’s value there – and thanks to FI-RE. So, please keep on doing these talks. Mabuhay ka!

    1. 🙏 Thank you, lovely to hear this

  13. Including Dukes and Duchesses now it seems. Although I’m not entirely sure what they were doing before could be described as ‘work’.

    1. In the tradition of great tabloid headlines (e.g. FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER!)…how about “MEGHAN MARKLE CULTURALLY APPROPRIATED MY TERMINOLOGY”…or is that more one for The Guardian?

  14. I won’t be attending FinCon

  15. As part of your reaching out to a broader spectrum of society, perhaps you could wrote a post for Harry & Megan, as they are now aspiring to reach financial independence. There may even be something us middle-class folk could learn from it🙂

    1. Thanks! Yes, I could write a post for Meghan but Ricky Gervais has already said it far better than I ever could:

      https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

  16. […] me, the main value of the financial independence movement is what it offers everyone. I’m talking about the realisation that debt is a trap and keeping up with The Joneses is a […]

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