I read a lot of blogs about frugality, minimalism and FIRE (financial independence, retire early). These philosophies appeal to me the way kayaking in an Alpine lake or doing a 3,000-mile Wild-inspired hike appeal to me: aspirational, but more theoretical than likely in my life. A common thread I’ve noticed is that these bloggers and/or lifestyle/financial gurus are often able to achieve financial independence by investing heavily in the stock market early in their careers, and then withdrawing a certain percentage of their investments every year to live off of.
The part that makes me uneasy, the part I have difficulty reconciling is the following: Many of these individuals value extreme frugality and appear to wholeheartedly believe that capitalism and the ensuing culture of consumption it entails are a major part of what’s wrong with America, and, increasingly, the world. Yet, these individuals are often able to achieve financial independence and early retirement by taking advantage of our collective consumerism, the very consumerism they often rail against. What is the stock market but consumerism embodied?
I’m not personally against investing in the stock market. I’m not against buying stuff. But is it ethical to achieve your personal financial independence (when rooted in the ideas of frugality, minimalism and anti-consumerism) on the speculation that the rest of us will continue buying so much stuff that the stock market will continue going up over the long-term? Is it OK to benefit from a system you believe is deeply flawed? Sometimes I feel like some of these individuals have shunned “the system” in their day-to-day lives, but depend on the rest of us to continue with our conspicuous consumption in order for them to continue living off of their 4% portfolio withdrawals.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the ideas espoused in these blogs are intelligent, inspirational and retro-radical. We really don’t need to buy so much stuff. It wouldn’t hurt us to be more deliberate about our purchases. We can probably live on a lot less than we think. We are destroying the environment with our festering piles of bottomless stuff.
But to rail against — and simultaneously rely so heavily on — a financial system? Maybe these people are just pragmatic. Or maybe you can have your cake and eat it too?