If you surveyed a group of people that claimed to be pursuing financial independence and asked them —
“What is it about financial independence that makes it worth the sacrifice to you?”
I think you’d almost certainly hear a common response: freedom.
But what does “freedom” really mean?
So many of us in our modern, digital world still feel somehow chained to a desk. Even when it’s a virtual desk. Or even where that desk is represented best as a set of tools you’ve mastered and you feel obligated to follow to their bittersweet end.
It’s an identity. A routine. A cycle we want to break out of.
It’s freedom from dictation. A schedule. An alarm clock.
Freedom from someone else directing your day.
Freedom from worrying about credit card bills. It’s having enough money in the bank to meet not only your needs but also your wants.
Freedom from dependence. It’s the realization that smacks you right in the mouth when you’re suddenly jobless. As Dominic commented on my last post:
…after being suddenly laid off just after starting what promised to be a stable, rich career I learned I can’t depend on a MegaCorp for financial security.
That initial spark that leads us into searching for frugality tips on the internet or why the words “money mindset” peppered into an interview jump out from the other musings and pique our interest is this idea that we can obtain a level of freedom we don’t currently have.
We recognize something is missing.
But is that really all there is to it—escape?
Is financial independence just escapism?
Is there value in financial independence beyond achieving freedom from life’s stressors, external direction, and the shackles that debt brings?
Joe connected the escapism that financial independence brings with, well, something more than just that in another comment:
[Some people] can fit in and be happy with the program. They don’t mind putting up with some BS as long as they can be “normal”.
There are always a few people who don’t fit in. If they’re smart and tenacious, they can figure out how to live life the way they want. FI is just one way to escape.
Why? I just want to do my own things even if they are pretty boring. I don’t like people telling me what to do or telling people what to do.
Financial independence removes hardships from your life. Achieving it can break you out of a cycle that keeps your time someone else’s to leverage and direct.
It can let you escape.
But once you’re there, once you’ve removed those weights on your mind, you’ll find space. Emptiness.
Something is missing.
Where once you were weighed down by a need to fit your social role in the hierarchy you find yourself in, you’ve discovered how to be yourself and to be comfortable in who you are.
You’re free from expectation.
Once money is no longer the motivating factor behind your day-to-day work and how you fill your time, you can reevaluate why you’re doing the work you do.
You’re free from income and money being your motivation.
Financial Independence lets you escape. It gives you “freedom from” countless undesirable parts of life.
It’s the removal of these elements of your life that can leave you with the feeling that something is missing. It’s easy to see these as new holes, new emptiness in life.
This is the problem newly minted financially independent folks find most difficult to overcome. And unexpected.
What FI takes away
Read through FIRE forums and you’ll find plenty of quite wealthy and “free” people tripping over the holes that financial independence creates. Losing your sense of self and identity can make anyone uneasy. And it becomes really apparent when you’re asked: “so what do you do for work?”
I’ve got an even better follow-up question for you, too.
So what do you like to do besides work?
Don’t underestimate how much achieving financial independence will remove from your life.
But it also creates.
We might think of the first stage of FI as the removal of what you don’t like. It’s “freedom from”.
And if that’s the case, I’d argue that the second stage is rebuilding. It’s creating a new identity no longer around how you filled your days with labor directed by someone else, motivated by money. Instead, it’s exploration.
It’s “freedom to”.
Once you’ve escaped all your demons and freed yourself, what are you going to do with your freedom?
Instead of thinking of financial independence solely as an opportunity to create “freedom from” hard parts of life, there’s a more constructive way to create a longer-lasting and meaningful purpose behind FI.
As Noel commented:
I’ve noticed that the discipline of FI; the saving, the streamlining, and the constant learning and self-reflection, are just awesome habits to have and serve a bigger purpose than a number. For me, it’s living intentionally.
One of the initial motivations to chase financial independence for many of us is to free ourselves from aimlessness and external dictation. Once that’s removed, you’re left with a choice in how you spend your time and energy.
That doesn’t necessarily mean leaving work and telling your boss to take a hike. It can, but for you, maybe what you value and what you want to focus on is a different part of life.
When you have complete confidence in your lack of dependence on your job as a source of money, you can also mold the work to better fit your priorities. You can push the edges and say no to schedules, projects, or instructions you don’t like. You can take a risk more confidently.
Counterintuitively, for a lot of people, small changes and greater confidence in the workplace yields an atmosphere they’re happy to stick with.
With work on autopilot, you’ll have more room in your head, your heart, and your life to focus on the challenges and journeys that really drive you.
That’s freedom to live intentionally. It’s more than just freedom from dictation. It’s what you add to life.
Who will you be?
Someone once told me that you become an entirely new person every ten years or so. While that’s at least somewhat accurate scientifically speaking in terms of our mass, what my friend was really talking about is you and me as people. Our desires, interests, and passions.
What we were a decade ago is almost certainly pretty far from who we see ourselves as today.
Back in 2011—a decade ago—I was just getting into running (now a 3-5x/week habit).
I was living and working in the Washington DC area.
For some reason, I had two cars yet commuted to work (yes, I was employed by someone else!) every day on the subway.
I was still getting my FIRE-bearings and falling into the trap of lifestyle creep.
My investments ran the gamut from precious metals to individual stocks.
The truth is, that guy back then, he’s a totally different dude. Sure, I came from him. But he’s not me. My preferences are different. What I want from life is different.
And, undoubtedly, ten years from now I’ll look back and laugh a little at the me of today.
You will, too.
What you think your purpose for financial independence is, something that takes most people several years—typically more than a decade—to achieve, won’t be the reality you see in the world and yourself once you reach it.
And that’s okay.
Financial independence offers you the freedom to recreate yourself without the weight that money worries anchor you with.
Relish the opportunity.
What will you add?
In my last post, I had a short section that was the inspiration for this post. It was about freedom.
– Freedom from a tyrannical boss.
– Freedom from a work-life balance that looks like a seesaw with a mopey adult on one side and three kids trying to yank down the other end.
– Freedom from a scheduled, repetitive day.
But if FI is truly about freedom, then it’s about adding as much as it’s about the removal of what we don’t like.
- Freedom to create a mentoring relationship — either to learn or teach
- Freedom to choose how much work and how much home life should balance your day
- Freedom to direct your day as you see fit, with novelty and serendipity its impetus
Mrs. RFL hit the nail right on the head with her comment about why she’s pursuing FI:
My “why” is freedom to live the life I want to live, which involves being present for my family, indulging in the simple things in life, giving back in ways that feel meaningful to me, spending time finding and fine-tuning my passions (once I figure out what those are), and being able to spend more time appreciating nature.
For me, I think one of the greatest values I’ve found in financial independence is the freedom to be inspired.
Inspiration is a fickle mistress and if you’re not ready for it when it decides to come knocking, it won’t bother. There’s a thousand—a million—a billion—other people out there just begging to find inspiration.
If you don’t have the space, autonomy, energy, or interest in bringing inspiration’s idea to fruition—why should it take a chance and time with you? Perhaps it’d do better burying itself in someone else’s head or heart.
And so it will.
But if you’ve found the freedom to be inspired?
Inspiration might strike you as it passes, find the room you’ve made in your mind to be inspired, and take you by its stranglehold. It’s that intoxicating idea that’ll push the edges of your boundaries and penetrate your full mind.
It’ll demand you bring it to life.
And it might become the source of your greatest passion or deepest love.
Financial independence offers the ability to escape. It’s an opportunity to earn your freedom from a job you hate, a cycle of dependence, or simply from having your time taken from you.
But it’s more than that.
It’s the freedom to choose what’s important in your life. The purpose isn’t escapism, that’s just the ad in the window to get you in the door. Once you’ve done the cutting, it’s your responsibility to create an identity of your own choosing.
You’ve got the freedom to do that, if you can get there.
Thank you so much to several commenters on my previous post that gave me the motivation to expand on my idea about the two types of freedom. Including:
- Joe @ Retire by 40
- Mrs. RFL @ Rich Frugal Life
- Noel @ Happily Disengaged
- Freddy Smidlap
- And plenty of regular readers!
You all are one of the most joyous parts of writing TicTocLife. Thank you for being there!
What do you think about this dichotomy between freedom “from” and freedom “to”? Do you think FIRE is just a means of escape? Let me know in the comments!