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:
- A superiority complex
- 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.
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.
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.