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The Last $Monday: Dumpster Dived FIRE

The cursed year 2020 is finally ending! Let us warm our cold, tired bodies beside this dumpster fire and, before it goes out, dive in to salvage the embers that will spark new joys in 2021. For example, this is the last $Monday post I am going to write for "Money Money 2020," but it won't be the last time I write about money at all. I am simply going to change my focus to clarify that money is a means, not an end--and that personal finance isn't the only means to achieve our ends. During the 2010s, many of us were briefly interested in the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) and ultimately discarded it as neither practical nor joyful for most people, because it only works if you can score yourself a six-figure income as a young adult (unrealistic for most Americans) and if your big life goals can wait until you're middle-aged (in other words, if you're willing to risk running out of time before running out of money). 

There are components of FIRE that can serve anyone, even the poors and the debt-burdened bourgeoisie (planning ahead, prioritizing needs and wants, living simply, reducing waste, working hard, investing wisely). But these practices alone won't make us rich, and getting rich alone won't grant us health or happiness.

In fact, one of the lessons I am taking from the 2020 dumpster fire is that private wealth is not the only way, or even the best way, for individuals to achieve life satisfaction. It is lovely to have one's needs met and not have to worry about money every day. But no one should need to compile millions of dollars in private assets to feel able to retire with their basic needs met. Learning to enjoy a lower cost of living is easier than hoarding riches that must be constantly managed to cover a complicated, expensive life.

The pieces I'm taking with me out of the FIRE movement are practices that can help people achieve their dreams regardless of whether they ever get rich. The ability to plan ahead, delay gratification, and trust in a long-term strategy is a skill set that virtually anyone needs to be able to do anything of worth. Poverty can create barriers to developing those skills when people are denied opportunities to make safe investments of time and patience and achieve successful results. But wealth can also rob rich people of those skills by letting their brains and constitutions atrophy with the assumption that they can just pay for whatever they want on demand. It can rot a formerly intelligent, well-loved, healthy, attractive, successful person so thoroughly that they die a miserable and lonely death at a young age. Yikes! 

Fortunately, you don't need to get personally rich and then start to work on accomplishing whatever it is you want to do with your one wild and precious life. If you add collaboration to the skill of long-term strategizing--gathering an emotionally invested team of people and a borrowed toolbox of resources such as good old "OPM" (Other People's Money)--or identify clever ways to avoid costs, you can achieve a big goal without waiting to get rich first. In the non-profit world, we value the skill of grant writing, and we understand that volunteering benefits the givers of time and talent as well as the community at large.

Prioritizing needs and wants isn't just a way to save money either. It's a way to maximize your enjoyment of life. Pruning away your annoyances, low-value work, unhealthy relationships, draining commitments, and self-sabotaging habits aren't just ways to save money, they are ways to spend more of your life on what is actually important and fulfilling to you. Yes, you can save money by working on your impulse control issues. But money is not the most important thing you'll save. It is possible to regain lost wealth, but you can never earn back lost time. If you blow your 20s on... blow, or whatever, you can't ever get those years back. Figure out what you truly want out of your life as early as possible--family? true friendship? adventure? contributions in your field of study? creative freedom?--and you'll get to enjoy more of it, for longer.

Developing a taste for simple pleasures and reducing waste are also quality-of-life issues, not just personal finance issues. It might be fun to splurge sometimes, but it isn't fun to be high-maintenance and messy. As The Olds are known to say, "Everything in moderation, including moderation!" There is a very big, roomy, welcoming, happy place in between taking a vow of poverty and requiring a staff to follow you around and clean up your vomit. During quarantine, many people discovered alternatives to bar-hopping and casual restaurant gluttony that they've ended up enjoying so much that they might never go back to their old habits, even when they can. People have rediscovered nature walks, picnics, cooking and baking, guilt-free rest, new or reinvigorated hobbies, and spending deeper quality time with fewer loved ones. Those who push through the initial discomfort of change and the disappointment of losing a familiar comfort sometimes find something they end up liking even better on the other side.

The ability to work hard is a solid life skill, but working hard at something you hate just for a paycheck sucks. It sucks the soul right out of your body. Again, how many years of your life are you willing to sell for what amount of money? Having a job that makes you feel good about what you do is important to your health and lifelong happiness, and that is tough to put a price tag on. Are you willing to give up your reproductive years, your marriage, the last years of your parents' lives, your children's childhoods, your own physical and mental health? Could any amount of money compensate you for years of miserable drudgery in service of a master you don't respect? If you have any choice at all (and most of us have more choices than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves), don't choose the highest salary if it's not worth the human cost. Yoke those hunched shoulders to the weight of your own dreams. Don't just "pay yourself first," work for yourself first.


In 2021, I'm going to continue making good financial decisions for myself and my family, and I'm not going to make my bank account my top priority. Through my work, which pays a living wage and not much more, I will continue to work on a team that advocates for economic justice and basic human rights, promoting the idea that our whole society and everyone in it would be better off if every person enjoyed guaranteed rights to clean water, clean air, nutritious food, adequate shelter, reasonable safety, personal freedom that does not impinge upon others', health care, and anything else necessary for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one should be forced to toil in inhumane conditions, for masters and missions they don't believe in, under the threat of losing their life or liberty to the punishing machine of late-stage capitalism.

My hope is that personal finance becomes less important in the 2020s as we learn to take better care of one another and to value the essential work that keeps us going, no matter how much it pays. I believe that a strong safety net supports personal initiative because it gives people respect, self-esteem, and the freedom to work according to their own values, not just the value placed on their productivity by a soulless marketplace. I want to witness the evolution from a mindless growth economy to a mindful culture that serves quality of life over quantity of profit. I sure hope we can all take away some valuable lessons from this terrible year.

By the sacred light of this dying dumpster fire, may it be so.


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