Rethinking the R in FIRE

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I’ve noticed there seems to be a rift in the personal finance world when it comes to the idea of early retirement.

You have one camp that is pursuing early retirement with gusto and saving and sharing their plans, and then you have the camp that is somewhat cynical about early retirement.

To out myself, I think I used to be in the latter category. It is not because I didn’t believe people can retire early, but because it didn’t seem to me like the people who claim to be ‘retired early’ were really retired. I did believe they may be financially independent, but truly retired?

Many of these people left work to raise children, or write books, or volunteer, or pursue passive investment business ventures. Ask any stay-at-home parent and they will tell you they work very, very hard. And ask a full-time author if they don’t work… they would tell you that they also work very hard indeed. I knew other stay-at-home parents who did not consider themselves retired so what was different between them and the early retirees? Is the distinction simply that those who call themselves ‘retired’ have more money in their bank account to fall back on?

Maybe the more relevant question is, “What does it mean to be retired?”

I don’t ask these questions to be obnoxious or disrespectful. Many of these early retirement bloggers introduced me to the world of personal finance blogging and I admire their work and their success greatly. I believe their success is legitimate and hard-earned. But, I am also genuinely curious about what this means to be ‘retired’ and I’m finally gathering up the courage to voice my questions.

Our culture has a definition problem when it comes to the word ‘retirement’. In its simplest definition, retirement means ‘to cease work’. But is it even within human nature to cease ‘work’ for decades at a time?

Maybe to define retirement, we need to define work.

To illustrate some of the difficulties with these terms, here are a few scenarios for you to ponder:

  • Is a 70-year-old man who regularly volunteers building houses with Habitat for Humanity retired or working?
  • Is a 32-year-old mother who earns some income from freelance writing but spends most of her time caring for her children retired or working?
  • Is a 54-year-old guy who quit his corporate job to purchase a money-making website retired or working?

You want more information, right? You don’t want to base your decision on just their age and what they are doing.

To work used to mean leaving your home for 40 hours a week, being loyal to a company for 40 years and then quitting in exchange for a pension and playing shuffleboard in Florida or wintering in an RV in Arizona. That definition of work was not sustainable for many people through their later years.

However, nowadays work may have a more fluid definition that can include more flexibility, autonomy, and longevity. Self-employment has never been easier.

The changing nature of work has largely been driven by the technological era. The idea of location independence has sprung up in less than a generation and new technology has created countless jobs that didn’t exist previously.

How many app developers did you know 15 years ago? What currently unimagined jobs will exist when my 1-year-old graduates high school?

If work no longer has the same meaning, perhaps retirement no longer has the same meaning as well…

Even so, I don’t know if I ever want to retire! I want to create a life from which I don’t feel the need to retire.

Is that realistic? Is such a thing even possible?

Maybe that is the actually the new definition of retirement: living out the rest of your life on your terms.

It definitely does not mean I’m going to stay at my current job forever. And it doesn’t mean you don’t need to save or have a long-term financial plan. My job is fine for now, but I do want many of the perks that traditional retirement includes: autonomy over my time, flexible schedule, the ability to travel and pursue leisure activities as I see fit.

My goal is to find that through self-employment and passive income. I want to pursue meaningful work ventures as long as I am able. I think there is a great value to be found both personally and for your community from meaningful work.

That doesn’t answer my question about how much money you need in your bank account to call yourself ‘retired’ if you’re doing the same work as someone who doesn’t call themselves ‘retired’, but in the end that question doesn’t even matter.

Perhaps ‘retirement’ is a subjective term

Some people may call my vision of lifelong work ‘retirement’ at some point, while I may look at someone else’s retirement and think it looks like work. Neither is right or wrong. We may both be ‘retired’ from one activity and have simply moved on to another. 

So this is the point where I need to take back what I said in the beginning. If someone wants to consider themselves retired, who am I to judge? I have no right to be cynical about it because their interpretation of retirement is probably different from mine. After all, we don’t have a consistent definition of what it means anyway.

Rethinking the R in FIRE | Femme Cents

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  1. There is a another aspect to this. People often retire from something, which isn’t the same as collecting a gold watch and shuffling off to the nearest old folks home 🙂

    Michael Jordan used to play basketball, then stopped.

    Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be a body builder, then stopped.

    Both “retired” from their current professions, but neither stopped doing productive things with their time.

    How many ex-military folks move on to other things? It is pretty common.

    I think these days most people will work in multiple “careers” during their working lives. There is nothing wrong with retiring from one thing and moving on to something new.

    1. I completely agree, and that’s what I point out in the end. I like your phrase “Doing productive things with their time.” Retirement and productive time are definitely compatible! But I think there’s a cultural sense that they’re dissonant.

      1. Exactly. I retired from my engineering career to be a stay at home dad/blogger. I work much less now and life is 10x better.

        Being a SAHD was tough at first, but it got a ton easier once our son started school full time. It is nowhere near very very hard work. It’s actually pretty damn easy now.

  2. Here is my $.02. Retirement is broken.

    If you look at statistics, the average person has well under $100k saved outside of home equity by the time they reach traditional retirement age. If we use the assumptions of the 4% rule, this means they can safely take <$4k/year to live on, so basically nothing. They're living on SS.

    Then you have people that live their whole lives to save for retirement. They devote the vast majority of their healthy years, the time when their kids are growing up, etc to a job and a stressful existence of running from one thing to the next with no intentionality. Then they retire when they may no longer have their health, their kids are grown and gone on to their own lives, etc. So the people who do retirement planning "right" miss out on a lot of life to free themselves from work at a time when many can't enjoy it. Thus high rates of depression, declining health, and even increased incidence of divorce among retirees.

    I think the FIRE community has figured out a way to do life better. We tend to use the word retirement b/c most people understand it and can relate to it. Arguing over whether or not it is "really retirement" is a waste of time. We need to let go of the current perceptions of what retirement is and should be. Why do people latch on so tightly to a system with such obvious flaws?

    People need to learn from the lessons from FIRE that apply to your situation, throw out the ones that don't, and go start doing your own life better rather than worrying about who is and who isn't "really retired."

    1. Love your take on this. I agree the traditional work till your 65 and then retire can make you miss out on a lot of things (children growing up) as well as not enjoying life when you are most physically capable.

      I hope to retire early (shooting for 53-55 range (I’m 47) and this will give me at least a decade more of enjoyment while both my mind, body, and finances are at their peak before the inevitable decline of the former 2.

  3. The definition of retirement as “stepping away” does always seem incomplete to me. As Slow Dad mentioned, stepping away from one career to still work in other ways doesn’t feel like the spirit of the term.

    I’ve always like the term “semi-retired”. It conveys that work isn’t the primary focus, but there are still responsibilities of some kind. For people who “retire early” with the plan to do it the rest of their life, the overwhelming number of voices in the community are much more “semi-retired”. FISRE anyone?

  4. I think it’s totally fair and not at all disrespectful to ask these questions, but I do think burning energy on the question of whether someone is retired or not is a waste of energy ultimately. As I’ve learned, retirement is really more a feeling than anything. I know I never need to work again, if I choose to work it’s because I care a lot about it and it’s on my terms, which feels a world away from what I’m often accused of which is just “changing careers,” or becoming self-employed. I mean, technically, yes, I’m self-employed. But I’m earning very little and working very little, which is much different than the hustle most self-employed people are doing. I also think the word choice of “full-time author” doesn’t really fit to those who are retired early. If my book, for example, makes zero money, my ego will be bruised but I’ll be just fine financially. Folks who are truly full-time authors NEED to make money and pay the bills, and folks like me who happen to write a book in retirement don’t, and therefore have no timeline pressure or the need to be thinking about the next book as soon as one is done. All of that makes a big and important difference. 🙂

    1. I plan to buy your book, so you’ll make at least that much (hopefully more). 😆 But you are right, “full-time author” was probably a bad word choice.

      In the end, the conclusion I reach is what you describe, if someone believes they are retired it’s not anybody else’s business to question it. The word ‘retirement’ just seems to elicit such strong reactions from people. I like how you describe it as not needing to make money anymore though.

  5. So… It sounds like we need a new word. Retirement has so many existing connotations already associated with it that don’t convey exactly the state of life where ‘work’ is mandatory. I’d love to hear some suggestions of additional words that can capture the essence of a newly relaxed future state that takes need for money out of the equation, and connotes (conjours?) a purposeful existence.

    How about: Contentment?

    I’ve seen people detach the word ‘Retirement’ completely from discussion.

    “I’m F.I.’d.” doesn’t flow well…

    I used to talk about “lifestyle change” but when that is combined with talk of “my partner, Terry” people think I might be going the Bruce-> Caitlyn Jenner route. The image in their brain of me as a bald, bearded, hairy, 250#, woman really messes them up…

    1. I agree, we do need a new word! Haha I wasn’t able to come up with one though. I will probably just use the term financially independent, although I’m not there yet!

  6. Yes, we need more discussion about the R word. Its definition seems changing and variable.
    I work part-time now and am enjoying the balance. I may never “retire” at this rate.

    1. It sounds like if you work part-time and enjoy it then that’s living life on your terms! Whether you call it retirement or not, if you’re happy where you’re at, then that’s the best place to be 🙂

  7. Great post and important questions.

    Two parts to what I think about this.

    First, Slow Dad at top touched on this.

    Retiring from something that you don’t mind but brings in money to doing something you want and like, but that may or may not bring in money. That’s my definition of retiring.

    The “bringing in money” in the first phase is crucial, as without that income coming in now, one wouldn’t be able to retire in the first place. Same as the “may or may not bring in money” in the second phase – my work can absolutely bring in money when I retire but that’s not why I will be doing it.

    Second, I think we get too hung up on the RE – Retire Early part of FIRE. To me, the FI – Financial Independence – part is more important. FIRE just has a nice ring to it, and so it stuck 🙂

    1. I agree, the FI part is probably the most important part, but you’re right that FIRE just sounds better 🙂

  8. I think the dissonance relating to the word “Retirement” comes from the historical view that work has been, at least in modern times, something we had to do to survive. Something that we did not necessarily enjoy, but that was a requirement to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. The concept of “retiring” from that was leaving something we did not enjoy and spending time not doing it anymore.

    The RE part of FIRE is really an homage to that experience. I don’t think it is intended to imply the same thing that the word meant to our parents. It just means we are not going to spend our time doing things we don’t like, just to meet our temporal needs.

    1. I like your interpretation of retirement in the historical context and I think it’s very true. To me though, being able to describe ‘retirement’ as something different than our parents definitely signifies a shift in the meaning of the word.

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