Neal Chambers is a 39-year-old electrical engineer with a problematic work-life balance.
Basically, the balance is off: Work is winning, and Mr. Chambers wants to change that. For advice and moral support, he’s attending a three-day gathering of people who are part of a movement known as F.I.R.E., for financial independence, retire early.
The mid-September retreat has attracted 75 Canadians and Americans in their 20s through 60s to Waterford, a town 90 minutes southwest of Toronto. Speaking after a communal lunch of chili, salad and brownies, Mr. Chambers explains his rationale for seeking financial independence. “In my current job, I commute an hour and a half each way,” he says. “I’ve been doing that for nine years and I’m tired of it.”
F.I.R.E. is a slow-burning trend in personal finance, particularly with young adults in their 30s. The game plan is demanding: Avoid debt, cut spending and invest diligently enough that you’re able to live off your investment income and work less or not at all. No one knows how many F.I.R.E. followers there are, but the trend is big enough to have attracted sharp critiques from some U.S. personal-finance authorities.
The knock on F.I.R.E. is that it’s naive, even foolish, to think you can achieve financial independence and retire in your 30s and 40s. Some people have done this, but writing off the trend as wishful thinking is to miss the point that F.I.R.E. is a protest movement as much as anything. Its followers just want to be more in control of their lives.
F.I.R.E. involves sacrifice – you have to resist the fear of missing out that drives spending on cars, houses, trips, restaurant meals and more. For Mr. Chambers, that’s no barrier. “If there’s one thing I fear missing out on, it’s my children growing up,” he said. “I have hours of commuting every day on top of a nine-hour job. By the time I get home, my kids are just going to bed.”
The F.I.R.E. retreat, frugally priced at $275 for food and accommodation, is officially called Camp Mustache. That’s a reference to Mr. Money Mustache, a blog written by a U.S.-based Canadian named Peter Adeney, who built a school of personal finance based on self-reliance and financial independence. His followers include Chris Potvin, 46, a Whitby, Ont.-based traffic engineer who organized Camp Mustache and is basically head counsellor for the weekend.
Mr. Potvin says he discovered Mr. Money Mustache after some financial setbacks that occurred when his free-spending lifestyle was derailed by a divorce and then a labour strike at his workplace. For him, F.I.R.E. offered a path to balance balance and independence. After selling a nice car and a boat, he and his family focused on eliminating debt and building savings. They still travel, and own a house and a car, but they pay cash for all purchases now.
“The notion of reaching financial independence isn’t saving huge gobs of money, it’s reducing needs and wants down to as little as possible for you to maintain the ethics and lifestyle that you care about,” Mr. Potvin said.
Camp Mustache is mainly about networking, but there are some guest speakers (I was one) and recreational activities. Among the attendees who have come a long way is Suzanne Carrière, a 42-year-old citizenship judge from St. Adolphe, Man., which is just south of Winnipeg. For her, the trip to Waterford is about networking with other F.I.R.E. followers. “I want to meet my tribe – people who think the same way,” she said. “I can’t walk up to my regular group of friends and be like, ‘Hey, what’s your savings rate?’”
F.I.R.E. has some Canadian roots – besides Mr. Adeney, there’s Kristy Shen and her partner, Bryce Leung, authors of a best-selling F.I.R.E. how-to manual called Quit Like a Millionaire: No Gimmicks, Luck or Trust Fund Required.
Together, Ms. Shen, 36, and Mr. Leung, 37, saved $1-million while working in the software industry and then retired to a nomadic life of travelling the world with no fixed address. In an interview in Ottawa, Mr. Leung said F.I.R.E. resonates with people when you explain it as a solution to the lack of job stability in today’s economy, particularly for younger workers.
“F.I.R.E is saying that I’m not going to wait for politicians to come save me, and I’m not going to whine about job instability,” Mr. Leung said. “I’m going to create income stability myself.”
Ms. Shen said Quit Like A Millionaire advises people who want to pursue F.I.R.E. to start by paying off debts, then move on to building an emergency fund and investing. She and Mr. Leung use low-cost exchange-traded funds for their investing, a widely followed F.I.R.E. practice.
One thing Ms. Shen wants people to know about F.I.R.E. is that it’s totally flexible and not just a way to drop out of the work force. “Some people have downshifted in the number of hours they work, there are people who have flat out quit their jobs and there are others who are spending more time with their families.”
F.I.R.E. followers have to accept that they’ll be criticized by others. The U.S. personal-finance guru Suze Orman described F.I.R.E. in an interview as “the biggest mistake, financially speaking, you will ever, ever make in your lifetime.”
Ms. Carrière, the citizenship judge, said her own mom has been a bit judgmental. In Ms. Carrière’s family, kids 10 and older get matching money from their parents for every dollar they receive in money for birthdays and other occasions. All the money goes into an investment account rather than into toys, an idea that Ms. Carrière’s mother wasn’t crazy about.
“It’s the whole deprivation idea – she thinks we’re withholding something from our kids,” Ms. Carrière said. “I said, ‘Mom, you’re at our house all the time. We’re drowning in toys.’”
F.I.R.E. followers usually have a target age for when they’ll achieve financial independence. Ms. Carrière says her target age is 50 and then listens as both Mr. Chambers and Darren Brabazon, a 32-year-old Camp Mustache attendee, set their sights on 45. “I started too late,” she jokes.
PERSONAL FINANCE COLUMNIST
The Globe and Mail, October 6, 2019