Is The Financial Independence Movement A Triple Package Group?

crispydoc Uncategorized 5 Comments

I recently spent a weekend visiting my parents, and as other compulsive readers may relate to, I found myself sifting through their bookshelves in search of brain fodder. I became intrigued by the book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain The Rise And Fall Of Cultural Groups In America.

The authors were Yale Law professors Amy Chua (who wrote Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother) and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld. I got a kick out of reading her last book, and decided to dive in despite the click-baity title. It makes for an interesting if controversial read.

The book's premise can be summarized by stating that groups exhibiting the following three traits succeed in the fertile soil of the United States as measured by educational attainment, income and influence:

  1. A superiority complex
  2. Insecurity
  3. Impulse control

There's plenty to argue over and find fault with. The authors take evident pleasure in writing, at times abrasively, always with great conviction. They also take pains to distinguish their argument from the concept that groups who lack these traits are in some way deficient or somehow to blame for their lack of success.

If you can move past the controversy (and many understandably have no desire to do so), I thought it might be fun to see if the Financial Independence (FI) movement meets the criteria. There is no survey to refer to or prospective trial, just my experience dating back to FinCon 18 having met and been taken under the wing of the FI tribe.

A Superiority Complex

The FI tribe ranges from self-effacing (Mr. 1500 has a sweet shtick along the lines of, "If a schlub like me can do this, anyone can!") to encouraging (B.C. Krygowski whispering "You got this!" to newbies) to outlandish self-mockery (the venerable Mr. Money Mustache). And although preaching is generally looked down upon, there is no doubt that there is a sense of being in the know.

The FI tribe encompasses folks from every income level. Physician finance bloggers represent the late start / high debt / high income subset. There are engineers with early start / high income / high cost of living angles. There are working stiffs with college jobs looking to live lean and invest in real estate. There are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who live the lives of really happy-go-lucky college students when they are not launching a venture. There are wunderkinds who seem bred to be frugal and invest wisely. Finally, there are folks who worked their way up entry-level jobs, then sipped the Kool-Aid and never looked back. It's harder to reach FI on lower incomes, likely explaining why professions are over-represented among bloggers.

FI preaches the gospel of abundance mindset. This can take various forms: It might mean abundance of income streams (real estate, W-2, 1099), abundance of side hustles, or abundance of scalable ideas for supplemental online income. It might mean abundance of activities that bring joy without depleting net worth. It might mean abundance of deep personal connections or avenues for contributing. Above all, it preaches the abundance of time and the value of choosing how ti spend it.

If the hubris of the FI movement could be encapsulated by a single blogger, it might be Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, among the earliest and most influential high priests of the movement. He's an astrophysicist who demonstrated proof of concept by spending about $7k per year while a graduate student living in Berkeley, California - an expensive city in an expensive state in an expensive country.

There's an unapologetic streak to Early Retirement Extreme - you either get it or you don't. And despite the charming personalities whose gentle, non-judgmental approach represents the majority of FI bloggers, there's an underlying current that there is a better way - and we've found it!

I'm going to say yes to FI folks having a superiority complex, however diplomatically disguised.

Insecurity

To pursue FI is to eschew mainstream consumer culture. Often it means rejecting the money blueprint you inherit from family and peer group. Your co-workers misunderstand you, perhaps outright reject you. Your old friends can't understand why someone who spent gobs of money on shared expensive hobbies now prefers picnics and hikes. Your parents the maximalists can't abide your new minimalism.

Insecurity as used by the The Triple Package authors has more to do with social status and the need to prove oneself good enough. It can have aspects of feeling slighted or excluded and desiring vindication for the perceived slight or exclusion.

FI tends to breed a different type of insecurity - you are paving your own yellow brick road as you walk it. It can be scary. You have to search for role models who resonate with your specific situation. You'll be uncertain a lot of the time.

The DIY investor component of pursuing FI means assuming responsibility for your financial life instead of having a designated hitter. The prospect of being responsible if it all goes to crap is terrifying.

So are FI folks insecure? Yes, but not in the sense that the authors intended. I'll give this one a qualified yes.

Impulse control

Outside of medical school, I'd be hard-pressed to identify a group of people more dedicated to the practice of delayed gratification that the FI community. These are folks who are betting on tomorrow.

Some are going to keep productive, but want to choose to do it regardless of whether it generates income. Others are looking to save up and opt out. All have this long-term goal in mind and an incredible ability to maintain the fiscal discipline required to pull it off.

You must have impulse control to even consider this pursuit. So I'm going to give this one a hell yes.

From Triple Package To Triple Threat

So is the FI community a rising cultural power? The increasing media attention would suggest it is. As would the increased number of trolls who comment on every article, attempting to discredit the unconventional choices that enable a FI lifestyle.

In my sub-community of physician finance, there seems to be a pent-up demand for learning what med school and residency fail to teach. I offer newbies in my group open-ended invitations to coffee to discuss finances, and every year one or two take me up on the offer.

Recently, a couple of forty-somethings have approached me based on what they heard from the newbies asking if they might invite me to a coffee and finance talk.

I am cautiously optimistic there will be a cultural shift ahead where the eventual power amassed by the FI community will be used to exemplify an alternative path from the consumer-debt complex that most people support.

It's my sincere hope that teaching how once can wisely earn, save and invest; modeling how to live an unconventional life for those who lack role models; and supporting those who want and need to hear this message will be the triple threat that results from the rise of the FI tribe.

Comments 5

  1. Wow interesting post. You obviously put a lot of thought into this and it strikes a resonance. I had a Uncle that owned a resort in Michigan back in the 40’s on Lake Mich directly across the lake from Chi. It was a summer get away for rich people in Chicago to come and hang out before the advent of AC, the sell in May and go away crowd. He closed after Labor day and headed to Ft Lauderdale where he had a second home. Always drove a big Caddy never had any debt but neither was he a big spender. Early Bird specials and played an organ for fun. He probably had a 150 IQ and no kids and a good hard working wife who helped run the resort. It didn’t fall off the trees but he had himself a money machine good enough to live an alternative lifestyle. He was FI in the 40’s and died at age 94 and never spent a day hungry.

    I journaled my entire family tree like this. I journaled the financial life of each uncle aunt cousin grandparent and it was fascinating. There is nothing new under the sun, absolutely nothing. The idea that FI is somehow extraordinary or a movement is simply a trope that proves WNL– we never looked. Somehow all of those relatives managed to retire and live out their lives in relative comfort given the tools they had at the time to create wealth. So what’s the deal? Education? Inheritance? High paying career?. The answer is they were willing to bust their asses and persevere in their responsibilities.

    My grandfather was VP of A&P when it was a national food chain in the 60’s. He started out at age 12 with an 8th grade education. He started out at one store where he lived pushing carts in from the parking lot. He didn’t have a job at that store he just pushed in the carts. It was probably 1915. Soon enough he had a job at that store. He made his opportunity. He rose through the ranks and became a meat buyer in the Chicago stocks yards for the chain and eventually he was building shopping centers. He probably had a 150 IQ and a hell of a lot of moxie and drive and didn’t wait around for stuff to happen, he made the stuff happen. Again the point being FI is nothing new it’s just a matter of learning to play that tune.

    I think there is a biology for FI and a sociology. When my kid was 6 she learned to weave bracelets. I bought her some supplies and she wove her little ass off. After she had a couple dozen bracelets different makes and models, she would bring half a dozen with her to Church. My congregation was probably 10K people sub divide among several masses and very cosmo with 30 nationalities at each mass and of course there were kids galore. My kid is adopted from China so she fit right in. After mass we would head for the hall for coffee and doughnuts an R would go find some “friends”. She would show off her bracelets and then go stand by the parents and the little girl would look up and pretty soon R was stuffing a dollar in her purse. I’m an entrepreneurial dude but I didn’t teach her that, she came that way. My other kid started a photography business and she’s a church musician on the side. She has an account with a national company to photograph food and restaurants and she makes 1K/mo playing some masses and filling in at some church’s while she goes to grad school. She has a web presence and does weddings etc all self taught. I did buy her a good camera. I don’t much worry about either of these kids they both are totally competent to make it happen and neither is lazy. They have an advantage though, NO DEBT. Not a lick of debt I saw to that. No debt = freedom. They also have pretty high IQ’s and took education seriously. They didn’t study just for the test but to know.

    There is a theme here and the theme is hard work, resourcefulness, engaging in seeking knowledge, figuring a way to monetize that knowledge, exercising the freedom they possess, and creating their money machines and both are driven to succeed using natural talent, the biologic component PLUS no debt.

    FI is a thing because of social media and adverting and people trying to monetize their experience but it’s no different than selling time shares in Orlando. Wouldn’t it be nice to retire at 30 and live on the… Ya it’d be nice, but it’s a mirage. It’d be nicer to come up with a plan no mater your state in life and build some wealth. It’s easy to become FI if you make 500K/yr harder at 40K but not impossible. The median IRA account size at one of the brokerages is about 600K for 40 years work and persistent saving. No it ain’t 1M so what. If you monte carlo 600K in a 50/50 AA 2 fund for 20 years you can pull 30K/yr and have a near 99% chance of success, that plus a dab of SS is a pretty good living, certainly well above the Alpo diet. This points out the folly of FIRE. The same portfolio over 50 years has a 70% chance of survival. It’s all about the proper analysis of the probabilities. Don’t eat your desert first, eat the meat.

  2. Nice post CD. The FI community can certainly be a triple threat. I think it might be cool to write a post about the questions and the responses from your coffee sessions

  3. Hmm . . . so many thoughts! First of all, regarding insecurity, I don’t think it’s a “qualified yes”, but a definite yes – at least in my case. The idea of not having enough money makes me stressed and anxious. This drives me to save more, spend less, and invest as wisely as I can. So, it is a financial insecurity rather than a social one.

    I’m glad you included the authors’ definition of success: ” educational attainment, income and influence”. These things are great, but not my personal definition of success. I wonder how the FI crowd would fare in terms of integrity, innovation, social contributions, and environmental stewardship (admittedly much harder to measure!). Just an observation that there are plenty of “successful” slime-balls, but also loads of struggling saints 🙂 I would suspect, however, that FI fosters “success” in many areas.

  4. I would agree with Matt, that the desire for financial independence for many of us comes from a background of financial insecurity.

    For myself, it was a childhood of financial scarcity, with all the baggage and unpleasant memories that goes along with that. All thing being relative, I know many had it worse than me. But at the time, foreclosure and difficulty affording groceries were more than enough to leave some nice scars and cause a permanent fear of financial insecurity.

    So hell yes on financial insecurity. Social insecurity?

    Maybe… stop looking at me like that!

    — TDD

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