In my last post, I wrote about how the personal finance community, and FIRE community in particular, uphold systemic racism and oppression. I was heartened by how many people shared the post across social media, but it still spoke only to a limited slice of the community: those who create content. So today, let’s go broader: let’s talk about what every single one of us can do to ensure that we’re not achieving big financial and life goals at the expense of someone else, especially not someone else who has historically been oppressed, especially because of their race or ethnicity.
Related post: How the Personal Finance Sphere Upholds Systemic Racism
How do our choices in planning for and living in early retirement or some work-optional life contribute to the oppression of people of color, poor people, immigrants and would-be immigrants, women and other marginalized groups? And what are better choices you can make that will result in less harm, while still allowing you to pursue your dream work-optional life?
The unfortunate truth is that a lot of the choices we make, especially those lauded within certain circles of the FIRE movement, result directly in harming someone less fortunate than most of us here. The very fact that we’re able to talk about early retirement or work-optional life as a realistic goal puts us socioeconomically ahead of virtually everyone on the planet, and I’ve written about that plenty of times so won’t repeat the stats here. Our collective financial privilege is something most people reading here have accepted.
But what we haven’t discussed much at all in the community is how our choices might actually make others worse off.
We aren’t making our choices in a vacuum. Those choices ripple out. We can choose to ignore those ripples. Or, if we’re serious about engaging in the anti-racism work that much of the country and world are finally talking about and taking seriously, we must confront the impacts we may be having, however unintentional those impacts might be.
Much of what’s in this post aligns to my next book, which has the working title of Spend Like You Give a $h*t (that will probably change!). I can’t go into nearly the detail here in a single blog post that a book allows, and I’m still very much in the research phase for the book. But consider this a preview of a few portions of the book, and expect this to be a topic I revisit here.
In my last post, I quoted Ibram X. Kendi talking about how we only become anti-racist if we can stop making it about who said what racist thing, which only triggers defensiveness and shuts down the discussion, to instead talk about the impact on the victims of racism and to foster empathy for them. So the same applies here: this isn’t criticizing or blaming anyone for choices you’ve made or planned for, it’s asking us to look at how those choices affect others in ways we might not have considered before, so we can actively make better choices.
Not blame for the past, but resolve to do our best now and in the future.
I can’t speak for you, only for myself, but I know that I never want to get richer because someone else is becoming worse off. It’s why I started the petition years ago, after the Parkland shooting, to get Vanguard to offer gun-free index funds, because I’m not interested in profiting off the murder of children. That’s an extreme example, of course, but there are many ways large and small that we can profit off the misfortune or mistreatment of others. I’d always rather know about those ways so I can make the most clear-eyed choices possible, and truly understand the consequences of my actions (or inaction). If you approach your decisions the same way, then keep reading. This post is for you.
Psst. If you want to do more to fight racism as a white person and aren’t sure where to start, check out this conversation I had on the Earn & Invest podcast.
- 1 Where You Choose to Live
- 2 What Programs You Opt to Use
- 3 How You Invest
- 4 How You Earn
- 5 The Taxes You Pay (or Don’t) and the Money You Donate (or Don’t)
- 6 Conclusion: How to Move Forward
Where You Choose to Live
The choice of where to live at various stages in your life has a far bigger impact than you might think on other people. And there are two primary stages to consider: where you live while you’re in the accumulation phase of saving for your “next life,” and where you live after that next phase begins. Let’s start with the “after.”
Where you live in retirement
A common story in the early retirement world is the person or family who lives in the U.S. or Canada while saving, but realizes that they can save way less money and still retire securely if they choose to move to a different country after retiring where things are cheaper. The appeal of this plan is obvious: a much faster timeline to the work-optional phase of life, and a future home that’s likely a tropical locale where it feels like vacation every day. We often use the word “geoarbitrage” to describe this: stretching your dollars earned in one place where things cost some amount by relocating to a place where things cost less and that same amount of money goes farther. It sounds innocent enough.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not.
What international geoarbitrage actually is is taking advantage of the hardship of people in other countries, most often countries where the people are Black, Latino or Asian, to feel wealthier yourself. It’s their hardship that makes things cost less there, because people cannot afford to pay more for things. It’s econ 101: supply and demand. And most of the places that are popular with early retired expats are communities that have whole enclaves of American expats who largely stick together and don’t engage meaningfully with the community. Yes, there is some benefit to the community of having (relatively) wealthy people move there, but the primary effect is to cause prices to increase without any accompanying source of commensurately higher income for the locals. Remember: it’s not like most people who retired early based on FIRE principles are dining out every night and tipping lavishly, and even if they did, that wouldn’t benefit everyone.
We see this effect happening within the U.S. as people move out of California, for example, because of the high cost of living here. Ask anyone living in Oregon, Nevada or Arizona what they think of Californians moving in, and virtually everyone will complain about how they’ve made the prices of homes skyrocket because the local prices look like bargains, compared to what those former Californians are used to. I’m sure plenty of Texans will tell you that, too. Californians moving there raises home prices, but it doesn’t increase wages. So the money folks who’ve lived there for a long time have no longer stretches as far, and they are worse off. The economic effect of geoarbitrage is real, and it harms people.
When we were in Ecuador last year, we saw some of this with our own eyes. Cuenca, Ecuador, is a charming city that Americans love to move to, and we overheard some of these Americans when we were out at restaurants. By their conversations, it was clear that everyone in the group lived there, they’d clearly been there for some time, and when it was time to order, it was clear they couldn’t speak much Spanish at all. Perhaps it was just the expats we saw, but that felt appalling. Moving to a country to take advantage of the infrastructure built without any tax contributions from you (because your high earning years were spent paying taxes elsewhere), driving the prices up for locals who can’t afford to pay more, and you don’t even try to learn the language? (Especially one as easy to learn as Spanish?) Of course, not all expats are so insensitive, but I’m sure this sort of thing is not a one-time fluke. It was clear that these Americans were spending all their time within their own little community while taking advantage of the local services.
When immigrants to the U.S. do that, staying mostly within their own communities and speaking the language of their homeland rather than English, we criminalize them. We call them terrorists, or we lament that they refuse to assimilate. We make it incredibly hard for more people from their country to move here, if we even let them in the country at all. (That’s even pre-COVID, before all the temporary travel bans from the virus.) Moving to a country to take advantage of their low cost of living when the U.S. won’t let citizens of that country move here is hypocritical at best, and exploitative at worst. It’s modern day colonialism.
If you’ve been planning a retirement overseas, I know this is not a welcome perspective. But it’s important to confront what geoarbitrage really is: using our socioeconomic and geographic privilege to take advantage of others’ worse conditions without changing those conditions for them.
If you wish to move abroad in retirement, toss out the expat blogs and magazines that gloss over the harm created by wealthy (mostly white) people moving into an impoverished nation, and instead do some real soul searching about what you would be willing to do, both economically and socially, to contribute meaningfully to that country’s and region’s enrichment. And warning: there aren’t any easy or convenient answers.
Where you live while saving
Of course, not everyone planning for early retirement is planning to leave the country, and we all have to live somewhere while saving for the next chapter of life. Unfortunately, that choice is also not without consequence.
For most of us, our very largest expense is housing, and of course we want to try to minimize that expense as much as possible. So it’s logical that many of us seek out the most affordable living situations we can find, which often means moving into “up and coming” neighborhoods, or moving to an entirely different place where the cost of living is less. (See geoarbitrage above. It applies here, too.)
Gentrification is the process of a neighborhood shifting from predominantly lower socioeconomic status residents to residents who are generally wealthier and whiter, and it’s happening in virtually every city in the U.S. No individual resident feels like they are the one making gentrification happen, but in the aggregate, wealthier and whiter people moving into a historically lower income and more Black and Latino neighborhood has the effect of pushing people out who can’t necessarily afford to live anywhere else nearby. We tend to think of gentrification as Starbucks and yoga studios coming to a neighborhood, but what it really is is large-scale displacement of people with very few options, certainly many fewer options than FIRE aspirants have.
Gentrification is not always entirely bad. It often increases density in the urban core by replacing single-family homes with high-rise condo and apartment buildings (though those residents of the homes are now without a place to live), which is good from a climate change perspective, because more people can have short commutes. And it often brings services like grocery stores into neighborhoods that were previously food deserts. But those grocery stores are often upscale ones that the remaining locals can’t afford to shop at. But even with some of those potential positives, the displacement effect is significant.
Before you move to a neighborhood, ask yourself who you’re displacing. Is it someone who looks a lot like you, socioeconomically speaking? Or is it someone who’s leaving because they can no longer afford the neighborhood? Or someone who didn’t get a say in the matter at all, and was forced out by eminent domain, when their home was razed to build a new high-rise? And consider if that’s really how you want to save money on housing.
Even if you opt to live in a neighborhood that’s not transitioning to high-income, but is composed largely of lower income folks, if you’re not contributing to making that neighborhood better in some way – by advocating at the local government level for better services for residents, for example – then you are benefiting (in the form of paying less) from others’ hardship (the neighborhood being not great, and everything that typically goes along with that, like worse schools, food deserts, few parks, etc.).
It’s too big a topic to tackle here, but the question of where to put kids in school is relevant in this discussion, too. Leaving a neighborhood to move to a “better” (usually meaning whiter) school district, while the other residents can’t afford to do the same, is also benefiting from the hardship others experience. Same goes for staying in a lower income neighborhood while sending kids to private school. The more socioeconomically comfortable families leave a school, the worse off the kids left behind there are.
What Programs You Opt to Use
Another big choice at your disposal is what sources of government funding you opt in to. (This section is U.S.-specific, and does not apply to countries with universal health care and college.) I do not expect everyone to have a fully functioning knowledge of the many different ways dollars are earmarked at the state and federal level, and I’ll provide some info here that you might find helpful. But the core consideration is that we as a country specifically earmark certain dollars in certain programs for our lowest income neighbors. These funds are always capped, and for most programs, they usually run out. For example, public schooling is a subsidy everyone is eligible for, regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, but free or reduced school lunch is a limited pool of dollars meant for the poorest subset of children and sometimes their families. Two programs covering the same area, but with very different intents and resources. It’s important to note that these programs like free and reduced school lunch – those meant specifically for poor people – are also notorious for being especially hard to enroll in and stay enrolled in, putting those with lower literacy levels, those whose address changes frequently (I highly recommend the book Evicted if you’re unfamiliar with the epidemic of illegal and quasi-legal evictions happening all over the country, preying on poor people with no recourse) and those with limited fluency in English at a distinct and deliberate disadvantage. In short: lots of politicians want to make it very hard for people to access these programs. And even if you can manage to get on a program like food stamps, for example, they do not provide remotely enough to cover most people’s needs. Google “food stamp challenge” if you aren’t familiar with this.
Where we have a major problem is that quite a lot of early retirees and other FIRE fans take advantage of some of these programs without understanding the difference between a government program meant for the poorest among us and one meant for the middle class. You can have a totally fair conversation about whether someone who has acquired enough wealth to retire early should be on any of these programs, but that’s not what we’re discussing today. This is about the harm that you can do if you take advantage of specific programs and pools of funds that aren’t meant for you, because that directly means someone who truly needs those funds is not getting them.
Health care is a great place to start the conversation, because it’s something we all need. If you don’t have employer-provided health insurance available to you, as most early retirees don’t, you’ll need to buy insurance off an exchange, either the federal Healthcare.gov exchange, or your state’s exchange (these are mostly in bluer states). When you apply for insurance through the exchange, the income you enter dictates the plans that are offered to you, and there are two distinctly different options that you might see: private health insurance plans for those with middle class income (perhaps with a tax credit offered to offset the premium) and public plans for those with income in the federally-determined poverty range.
Those public plans can have a variety of names, but they are all a part of Medicaid, the federal program specifically designed for people with limited resources and options. It’s meant to be the safety net for our poorest neighbors. I’ll not go into all the policy details of the program, and it’s important to note that the funding was expanded for it under the Affordable Care Act in the states that chose to opt into Medicaid expansion (again, mostly bluer states), but it’s now being shifted to a block grant model that gives a fixed amount to each state, meaning: if more people want to get on the program than there is funding for, some of those people simply will not get health coverage (or the more people on it, the worse the coverage will be for everyone, because there’s only so much funding). And the people left out are likely to be those who already have many disadvantages, not those with the savvy and opportunity to retire early. Given the vastly higher rates of poverty among Black, Latino and Indigenous folks, chances are good that’s who’s not getting health care if you opt in to Medicaid. If you enter a higher income, however, you’ll be offered a “normal” health insurance plan with perhaps some “discount,” depending on your income. That discount is also from federal dollars, but it’s a tax credit and comes from an entirely different funding mechanism that is essentially bottomless. No one will be left out of those tax credits unless they’re eliminated entirely. So while it’s easy to say that you paid a ton of taxes while working, which offsets the money you’re now getting back to cover your health care, it’s important to know whether you using a program means that someone else likely won’t get to.
I wrote in Work Optional about how to get the absolute cheapest health insurance should you fall on hard times and need it, but that’s truly what Medicaid is intended to be for everyone: emergency coverage until you can get “regular” insurance, not a permanent solution because you happen to know how to game the system.
Financial aid for college
Financial aid for college is another area where this applies. There are numerous forms of federal student aid, but some are meant for essentially all but the richest students, while some are extremely limited in funding, and are meant for the very poorest students. Being offered a federal direct loan doesn’t take a loan away from another student, but accepting a Pell Grant does mean another student isn’t getting that money. The Pell Grant program was specifically designed to help the poorest students, usually first generation college students, to afford college. As of the most recent data, 31 percent of white undergrads received Pell grants, while 57 percent of African-American/Black undergrads did. Black students received 23 percent of all Pell grant money even though Black students make up only 13 percent of undergrads. That’s as it should be, given the massive gaps in income, wealth, home ownership and educational attainment between white households and Black households. (But it’s worth noting that Black students also come out of college with significantly more debt than white students, for these same reasons.) I included the racial stats here to underscore the point that accepting a Pell Grant for yourself or a child as a wealthy person who figured out how to game the system isn’t just about denying that Pell Grant to a poor student. It likely means denying that grant to a poor student of color, a student who is more likely not to be able to attend college at all without that Pell Grant, not one who can figure out some other way to pay. Just because you can optimize your FAFSA that way you optimize your finances doesn’t mean you should.
Health care and financial aid aren’t the entirety of government programs an early retiree might take advantage of, so when considering a program, ask Google these questions: Who is this program designed for? Is my presence in the program keeping someone else off it? If this program was wealth-tested and not just income-tested (looking at your total assets, not just your income or only certain parts of your assets), would I likely still qualify?
If you care about not hurting others on your path to financial independence, the answers to those questions matter.
Related post: How Subsidies Make Early Retirement Possible
How You Invest
Investing is a tricky subject for those who care about not harming others while building wealth, and the truth is that there are no perfect options. If you opt out of standard investment vehicles altogether, you’re unlikely to find comparable options in terms of both risk and reward. You could choose to invest only in local businesses started by Black women, for example, but the failure rate of all small businesses is extremely high, and you’d be taking on a lot of risk to do so. That’s not going to be an appealing option to most investors, and I’m not going to try to convince you that high-risk investing is the way to go. (Though I also wouldn’t try to talk you out of earmarking some small part of your portfolio to this type of investing that comes with higher risk but also contributes to social good and economic inclusion.)
There are two main approaches to investing that we talk about in FIRE land, so let’s get into each of those separately.
Rental real estate
Investing in rental real estate – becoming a landlord – is often touted as the fastest route to a quasi-early retired life (quasi because the “passive” income earned from it is rarely passive). And it’s true that rental real estate can generate enough cash flow to live on, especially if you live a low-cost lifestyle, with relatively few properties, but with a big “if.” That’s only IF you’re willing to carry a great deal of mortgage debt, and perhaps to make some ethical sacrifices.
Buying a property to live in yourself and then renting it out instead of selling it when you move to your next home is the least fraught way to invest in real estate, but it’s not the approach promoted most frequently in the FIRE community. Instead, people talk in numbers and codes: the cap rate of a property, the one percent rule, a class C building, etc. All of those codes put investors and aspiring investors into a mindset of maximizing profit and ignoring that being a landlord is ultimately providing a home for a real person or family with real lives and real needs.
Being a landlord is not ethically good or ethically bad. But how you approach it can turn it into either one. If you manage a property yourself, you make an effort not to let implicit bias affect who you’re willing to rent to, you set the rent at a fair market rate and don’t raise it every chance you get, you maintain the property well and you work with tenants in good faith when disputes arise, then you’re probably doing it the right way. But if you’re selecting properties entirely on the basis of maximizing profits (which usually means buying in more working class or low-income areas where home prices are lower), you’re hiring a property manager to deal with tenants without vetting them for racial bias or a history of tenant harassment or even illegal evictions, you’re not putting enough money into the property to properly maintain it, you’re raising rent every time you can legally do so, you’re not willing to work with people when they fall behind on rent in hard times, or you’re letting numbers make all the decisions for you, then you’re very likely harming people who are much worse off than you in your quest to get wealthier.
I’ve long been concerned about the FIRE community’s discourse around rental real estate, and how so many proponents of it downplay the risks of it to investors, and if there’s anything positive to come out of this pandemic, I’m hopeful that it will be people taking a more skeptical eye to all of the fanatical enthusiasm for rentals. Taking on all the debt of buying multiple properties extends you really far financially, and if all of a sudden, multiple tenants can’t pay rent, you could be in a tough spot. While that’s bad for a landlord, it’s worse for the tenant, because of how the power structures are built. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight just did a piece last night on all the eviction hearings proceeding right now, during a pandemic and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. When something bad and impossible to predict happens to all of us, we don’t share the impact equally. Tenants, those with far less wealth to begin with, can be evicted from their homes at a time when it’s not safe to be anywhere but home, while landlords, who have far more wealth, can kick those folks out, maybe garnish future wages to pay for back rent, and get new tenants. And then we tell ourselves this story about how those tenants should have planned better and saved more for a rainy day, without asserting that perhaps the landlords should have also saved better for that rainy day.
Of course, not every landlord is actively trying to evict tenants during the pandemic. Some are negotiating lower rent until people can get back on their feet and others are waiving rent entirely. Both of those are great ways to recognize that, though this time is hard on everyone, it’s harder on those with less wealth and fewer options. So if you’re considering whether to invest in rental real estate, this moment in history provides a perfect example of the questions to ask yourself: If we found ourselves in a situation like this again, what would you do for tenants? Could you stomach having to dip into your own savings or investments to cover mortgage payments when tenants aren’t able to pay? Could you handle forgiving rent entirely so those tenants don’t go deeper into debt each month while they’re out of work and unable to pay? Or would you simply say, “Hey, you committed to paying, and while I understand it’s hard right now, you didn’t meet your obligations and therefore I’m kicking you out”? If you can’t imagine working with folks on this – or during any time of tenant hardship, because that’s going to happen inevitably, not just during a black swan event like this one – then it’s important to accept that you’re making life worse for someone already worse off than you to protect your own profits. That’s a moral choice.
Stock market investing
I will say right off the bat that there are no perfect options for investing in stocks, whether individually or through mutual or index funds. Picking individual stocks is notoriously fraught, and tied to doing worse over the long-term. Buying index funds or diverse mutual funds gives you a far better chance of investing successfully over time, but takes away your ability to avoid investing in certain companies or to avoid further enriching their executives by contributing to raising the share price (or profiting directly through dividends). On top of that, many of the so-called “socially responsible” funds include lots of obviously bad guy companies in them, like tobacco and firearms. Others charge enormous fees and provide terrible returns in exchange for eliminating the worst corporate actors in your holdings. Others are through roboadvisors, which come with a whole host of issues, particularly for early retirees.
Fundamentally, investing in stocks is supporting corporate America. And corporate America has been notoriously unkind to people of color. Black Americans were (and some say still are) marketed to specifically to buy menthol cigarettes, which are more harmful than regular cigarettes. Fast food is directly marketed to low-income people, among whom people of color are vastly overrepresented, and those folks bear most of the health consequences of eating it. Certainly some folks reading this will argue that that’s a matter of personal responsibility, and I’m not debating that aspect of it. I’m simply stating the inarguable fact that corporate America has a dark history of targeting people of color with its most unhealthy products, and of forcing people of color around the world to deal with much more of the pollution and environmental impact caused by those companies (as well as being exploited for their cheap labor). So when we buy stocks, that’s the system we’re upholding.
Fortunately, the investing landscape for those who wish to invest ethically is improving, though slowly, and it’s not yet going deep enough. Without adequate regulation, most corporations will always put profits above people, and if you’ve ever watched a shareholder meeting, you know that we as shareholders are often the ones pushing the hardest in favor of this profit-first mentality, so we are not blameless in that. But if you choose to invest in stocks (as Mark and I do), there are two things you can choose to do differently: First, you can specifically seek out “ESG” (environmental, social and governance) funds to invest in rather than indiscriminate index funds, so that you avoid endorsing and profiting from the worst corporate actors. These are becoming more widely available, and have fees and returns much closer to traditional index funds. Second, you can take on the mindset of an activist shareholder and take action accordingly. For any company behaving badly in which you have holdings, speak up. Write to the CEO, speak up at shareholder meetings, ask your investment bank who owns the index fund to speak up, actually vote the ballot for board members that you receive and vote out directors letting bad behavior slide. Vanguard would not have introduced its ESG funds if investors didn’t speak up to demand better options. Same for Blackrock divesting from gun stocks. Things will only change if we agitate for better choices and better corporate behavior.
Additional reading: An open letter to my rich white friends by Jonah Kagan
How You Earn
While in the working stage of your life, odds are that you’re employed by a company, and that company makes money by selling something. But there are a whole range of practices that go along with selling that thing, and if you make your living from that company, you’re profiting off the same practices the company is profiting from. For a huge number of employers, that could include things like racial and gender discrimination in hiring (or in lending, for virtually all of the big banks), a refusal to pay frontline or “blue collar” staff more than minimum wage or provide decent benefits, an attitude of complacency around pollution and environmental impacts, a refusal to provide paid sick leave or maternity leave, gearing marketing specifically to historically marginalized groups or in other ways exploiting customers, etc., etc., etc. The list is virtually infinite. It’s clear as day to see this if you work for a defense contractor who makes bombs that get dropped on civilians halfway around the world, that you’re profiting off the death and hardship of others. But for most jobs, it’s a lot murkier. You may not know your company or industry’s full history. You may not know what lawsuits they’ve settled or what downstream impacts their products or services have had. But you can ask yourself some basic questions: How does the company make money, and does that rely on business from people who are better off or worse off? Does the company pay all employees a living wage? Does the company run some operations overseas so that it can exploit even poorer workers or pollute without penalty? How diverse is the staff? How diverse is the leadership? Do applicants of color (as well as women, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, etc.) get truly fair consideration, or are they frequently not hired because they “just wouldn’t fit in here”? Are employees of color relegated to particular roles, not distributed across roles and levels? If you Google the company plus “lawsuits” or “regulatory action,” do any red flags pop up?
No employer is perfect, and in a society like ours, it’s unrealistic to get to earn every dollar through only the most upstanding of means. But we can certainly choose to raise our ethical bar about who we’re willing to work for. Or, if you work for a badly behaved employer and can’t easily change that fact, you can agitate for change from within, like Facebook’s employees publicly protesting against the company’s laissez-faire attitude about hate speech and misinformation on its platform. If those of us with the most financial privilege can’t fight for what’s right, and walk away from those who refuse to budge, who do we expect is supposed to do it?
The Taxes You Pay (or Don’t) and the Money You Donate (or Don’t)
When we pay taxes, we pay for the things that keep society running. We can quibble over what the tax rates should be, what’s worth paying for or isn’t, and what tax mechanisms are most fair. But virtually all countries have a system whereby those who earn the most are supposed to pay the biggest share of their income in taxes, because they can afford it, while those who earn the least pay the lowest percentage, because they need every dollar they earn just to get by. That’s how it’s supposed to work in theory, but in practice, it’s quite different. In reality, those who earn the most also have access to the most tax shelters (see Warren Buffett frequently mentioning that he, a billionaire, pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary), and FIRE world loves to talk about all the many ways to avoid paying taxes. We max out tax-advantaged retirement accounts. We talk at length about required minimum distributions to avoid having to pay income tax when we don’t want to. We do Roth conversions in exact amounts to avoid triggering the next tax bracket.
On an individual level, it may not seem like it matters, but on a macro level, all of these well-off folks seeking out ways to avoid paying their fair share of tax shifts a deeply unfair share of our society’s tax burden onto our lower income neighbors – and results in a government with less funding overall to go around. And it’s important to recognize what that means: it means that richer people are benefiting from a society with free schooling, public parks, well-stocked libraries and an extensive network of roads (as well as a vast military industrial complex and prison industrial complex) without paying as much as we should toward those things. And especially within the FIRE community, which makes outsized use of the many government-provided services like libraries, parks and schools to live a low-cost lifestyle, we’re getting the benefit of society’s services without always contributing enough toward them, and without questioning why some neighborhoods have access to all the good services, while other poorer, less white neighborhoods have far less of all services. I’m not arguing that you should stop investing in your 401(k), but you can consider whether every little plan tweak to save a few dollars in taxes is ultimately serving only you while harming others by shifting the burden of paying for it to them (or denying them a service they need more than you do altogether).
At the same time as we work to minimize our taxes, in the aggregate we’re doing very little to fund society through the charitable sector. Though there are a few notable exceptions in the FIRE world, most people who talk about FIRE don’t contribute much to charity. And that’s in line with broader behavior among Americans: those who give the most of their income are those with the least of that income to give away in the first place, and as people move up the income ladder, they give less and less. Six-figure earners give away the least of everyone.
If we’re not paying our fair share of taxes and we’re not contributing to the upkeep of society through charitable means, we need to accept that our lives are being subsidized by those worse off than us. If that bothers you, then change your behavior. Vow to pay your fair share. If you focus on individual responsibility in your world view, then take responsibility for what you cost society, rather than simply assuming that if can’t directly see someone being harmed by your actions (or lack of financial contribution) that it’s not happening.
Conclusion: How to Move Forward
I’ve now met many hundred people who are working toward or have already achieved a work-optional life, and I can count on one hand the number I’ve met who were obviously selfish and comfortable getting ahead at the expense of others. I believe that the problem here isn’t that we’re a bunch of selfish jerks who don’t care about others, it’s that we don’t always see the ways our actions impact others. So the intention of this post – all 6400 words of it – isn’t to point fingers or make anyone feel guilty. It’s simply to help us all be more aware of the unintended consequences of our choices. FIRE is about opting out of the traditional narrative, after all, and that means noticing things that others don’t notice. Our society normalizes getting ahead at the expense of others, and invites us not to look too closely or peek behind the curtain.
But we can do better.
If you’re conscious about your money in some ways, you already know you have the capacity to be conscious about your money in a few more ways. You don’t have to change everything about your financial plan, or do it all overnight. Pick one thing right now that you hadn’t considered previously and will vow to change now that you know better. And then, once that feels comfortable, maybe revisit this post and revisit your plan. Strive to keep improving over time, and to continue learning about the structures in place in our economy and how they benefit some people while harming others.
Because living with purpose isn’t just about how you spend your time in retirement, it’s about how you spend your money every day.
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