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The Protestant Reformation taught us that “vocation”—a calling from God—belongs to all Christians, not just clergy. Often this vocation expresses itself in our work, and in the last few years Gene Edward Veith, Tim Keller, and others have written books that help Christians develop a theology of work and vocation. At the same time, another movement has spread in America with a different perspective on work. Its followers call it FIRE.
FIRE stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” and when people say “early” they mean very early. Many people pursuing a FIRE lifestyle dream of retiring in their 30s. Most workers in developed countries labor for 40 years before retiring, but the FIRE folks want their own lives to be mostly retirement.
People in the movement often trace FIRE’s rapid spread to a single blog post. Pete Adeney worked as an engineer for 10 years before retiring at the age of 30 thanks to a high savings rate and a frugal lifestyle. In 2012 he wrote a post, “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement,” that advises consistently saving half of one’s income. By his calculations a typical working career need not last more than 17 years.
Adeney’s blog post went viral, and the FIRE community developed a rule of thumb: Have 25 times your annual expenses saved in investment accounts, then retire. But what will early retirees do? In a 2016 post called “Happiness Is the Only Logical Pursuit,” Adeney describes the human person as “nothing more than a complex machine made of meat,” and he suggests people should do whatever gives them a hit of dopamine.
One person at a FIRE meet-up in Houston, former car seller Chris Stam, told the group that anyone not working toward a 50 percent savings rate is not making progress. Stam retired last year at age 47 so he could “live life” while still young enough to enjoy it. He struggled to articulate what he does all day, but he assured everyone he stays busy: When he retired he gave himself “self-care” and likes choosing what he does and with whom he does it.
Tristan Sarremejane, a 29-year-old structural engineer from France, also was at the FIRE meet-up. He likes his work but doesn’t want to do it for the next 30 years because it leaves him insufficient time for leisure. He and his wife, a Texan, don’t have children yet, but he says a desire for family prompted his interest in FIRE. He fondly remembers his own childhood in France: His parents, who were teachers, had months of vacation time each year.
Some people note that focusing on early retirement can become a selfish squandering of talents. Vicki Robin, 73, wrote Your Money or Your Life in 1992, years before FIRE existed, but many leaders in the movement cite her book as inspiring their journey. In the book, Robin advocates getting out of debt, building wealth, and having a life of service to others: “We are not just lone wolves out there for our own personal agenda—for our own personal needs, wants, and desires. Lives shine when people discover how to be of service.”
Robin defines jobs as what we do for money, but “work” is something we do to improve our community and the world. Her emphasis on work echoes the Christian doctrine of vocation, and she’s right to reject the goal of retiring early to focus on ourselves. Christians can prepare for paying careers that satisfy and also allow us to be of service in business or nonprofit work—but there’s nothing wrong with seeking financial independence. What matters is whether our heart’s desire is to love God and our neighbors through our work, paid or unpaid.
—Collin Garbarino is a World Journalism Institute mid-career graduate