Has the FIRE movement lost its way?

In a recent episode of ChooseFI podcast (a favorite of mine), a visiting host (Katie, from MoneyWithKatie.com) talked about buying “a very nice car [a pre-owned Porsche Macan with 8,000 miles].” She was quick to acknowledge that this decision was “breaking the cardinal sin of FI/RE” but the main ChooseFI host, Brad, quickly said that because it was something she “valued”, it was no problem. 

Hmmm. Is this still a FI podcast? Are these hosts even interested in FI anymore? We need to talk about this.

Over on her blog, Katie justified the purchase because she could afford it (thanks to her many devoted FI-minded followers, it seems). Buying new (or nearly-new in this case) cars, let alone high-cost luxury cars, is well documented in the FI community as a financial mistake.

It should still be recognized as a financial mistake, regardless of the changes in her income. 

She justified the purchase by claiming this was the least expensive car she had ever bought as a percentage of her income.  No.  It is still the most expensive car she’s ever bought because–and I would expect a personal finance blogger to be clear on this point–it costs tons more than any previous car she bought.

She wrote, “Sometimes I think we just want to buy nice things for ourselves. They become symbols of our hard work.” She’s not alone in using that logic, of course. That logic is why many Americans are in high credit card debt, thinking, “I work hard, so I deserve this purchase.” But she may be alone among FI-minded bloggers in trying to pass off this logic as somehow connected to FI. In the FI community, our hard work does not need a luxury status symbol to show off what we have accomplished (to ourselves or to others).

In short, I have a simple response to Katie’s position on her new Porsche: 

Buy what you want, but don’t try to change the definition of FI to justify it.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that she bought a high-priced luxury car. She can spend her money anyway she wants. It bothers me that she used her FI platform to justify her purchase in non-FI ways. 

She wrote about how much she enjoys her car purchase and how excited she is about it. If she were approaching this from an FI-minded perspective, she might notice that her Porsche is an example of the hedonic treadmill: We get a temporary high when we buy something, but the high soon wears off and the new thing becomes the new normal. What more will she need to buy in a couple of years to be a symbol of her hard work when the luster of the Porsche (and the warranty) wears off?  

But enough about Katie and her Porsche.I am bothered even more that Brad, the main host of Choose FI, a podcast that has been a great source of FI information for many, claimed a new definition of FI: that she should  buy what she “valued,” and since she could “afford” the car and wanted it, then sure, OK. 


ChooseFI is an influential platform in the FI community and this justification of a luxury car purchase is going to be confusing to many who are striving toward FI.  

The definition of FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) or FI hasn’t changed. Controlling spending is still fundamental to FI, and buying a very expensive luxury car (or any similar item) isn’t a FI-minded decision, even if we’ve always wanted one.

True value-based decisions are, of course, an important part of FI. Getting the best quality for the best price is a very good idea. For example, buying a high quality skillet that will last longer and cost less in the long run than a cheap skillet that will need to be replaced one or more times.  A Porsche Macan, however, is not. Katie described the car’s unreliable quality (it has already been into the shop for a cracked axle), high insurance costs, her concerns over knicks in the doors, paying more for garage parking because of weather concerns, etc. Does it represent a good value over time in how to move herself from one place to another? Of course not. 

We should not confuse buying anything that a person desires as an inherently value-based decision or as the new definition of FI. This is a dangerous slippery slope: we could kick our self-justification machines into high gear and say, “This X (put name of your favorite high-priced consumer good here) is what I value because I deserve it as a symbol of my hard work” regardless of X’s true value and its impact on our FI progress. 

And, if I can justify buying X, then I can also justify buying Y, and Z, and XX, and YY, and ZZ, and soon I’m back to square one with a closet full of rarely worn clothes, numerous subscriptions I don’t use, eating out frequently, daily lattes, etc., and I’m left to wonder where all my money goes each month. Did this redefinition work out for me? No, thank you. 

Just Because I Can Afford It Doesn’t Mean I Should Buy It

FI is different for everyone. Some people don’t want to live an extremely lean life to get to retirement or while they’re in retirement. But also, we can’t undermine the importance of controlling expenses when pursuing FI. By limiting what we spend, we can more readily put aside enough money in investments to produce perpetual income to cover our expenses in retirement.

I first learned of this concept through Vicki Robin in her book Your Money or Your Life, and Mr. Money Mustache hammered it home for me in his popular blog. The core of their messages is that we need to learn what is enough and resist all of the shiny trinkets that the American marketing machine pushes on our society. The result is a good life that is also good for the wallet and good for the environment.

Don’t touch my daily latte!

The Porsche Macan isn’t the only indicator that there are leaders in the FI community who may be eroding the concept of controlling spending. I keep encountering FI blogs and podcasts that have “evolved” in their thinking, and they now embrace a buy-whatever-you-value mentality. 

I first noticed the change in financial debates around the daily latte. With voices like Remit Sethi saying not to worry about the daily coffee expense (who Brad has echoed on ChooseFI).  I have seen many blog commenters who ask “Why can’t I spend $5 or more a day on coffee in a disposable plastic cup? It is what I value!” Or, “$5 won’t make a difference in my retirement if I focus on earning thousands more in income instead.” 

Many FI content creators appear to be persuaded by this pushback and have seemingly stopped mentioning the lattes, and softened their guidance on controlling costs for cutting subscriptions and eating out less often.

A basic tenant of FI is to spend less than you make. A person interested in pursuing FI needs to control spending somewhere and the non-essential categories like daily lattes — or any small luxury you indulge in on a regular basis, such as bottled water, fast food, beers at a bar — are a good first step. 

The daily latte is simply a good example of how many Americans can quickly save some money to pay off debt and start an emergency fund. This advice may not be getting clicks or new listeners, but the original FI advice is still the solid, simple, effective advice that is going to help get a person to their FI number. 

We could skip the daily latte and buy a decent coffee maker, get some quality coffee grounds and a reusable, good-for-the-environment coffee mug (with a no-spill lid), and make our own. We’ll achieve the same quality (if not better) coffee while saving money and making a better environmental decision as well. There is almost always a way to get the same or similar value for less money with a little bit of effort.

FI requires some effort and a bit of sacrifice

My favorite spending cuts are ones where you don’t end up losing much if any value from the cut back in spending (e.g., brew your own fresh coffee as mentioned, drink with friends at home on the patio/deck instead of at a bar, watch free movies through your town’s public library Kanopy account, negotiate discounts for the same service for less, etc.). Fundamentally, we need to control spending to make progress toward FI. Same as it’s always been.

But what if I just make more money, right?

Well, no. If we don’t control spending,  additional income can disappear just as fast. This is well explained in The Millionaire Next Door, where a person making $400K or even $800K a year can still be living paycheck-to-paycheck and not build much, if any, wealth. Authors Dr. Stanley and Dr. Danko refer to these people as Under Accumulators of Wealth. No matter how much you make, there must be some control of spending.

Even doctors married to doctors have to put a limit on the number of boats they own, and amount spent on luxury cars, eating out, high-priced luxury real estate if they want to be able to stop working at some point and enjoy a fat FIRE lifestyle. Controlling spending is a key FI tenant, and we content providers in the community should not shy away from this. 

We as a community need to continue to emphasize that controlling spending is essential to FI, even if it is not sexy or popular. Cutting daily $5 lattes is still a good example, and we need to help hold each other accountable on our discretionary spending so all of us can successfully make it to our FI goal. 

FI content creators in particular need to keep the definition of FI focused on controlling spending and having enough. Let’s not dilute the definition of FI to justify buying whatever we want in the moment. People just finding FI for the first time deserve to hear from us what really works. Let’s keep it real. 

*Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Calculating Functional Net Worth

Net worth is a key measure of building wealth. I have been calculating my net worth since 2011 so I can see my progress over time, and it’s a really useful tool.

Many people are familiar with calculating their net worth: you add up the value of all of your assets (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate, and savings*), subtract your liabilities (mortgage, loans, and credit cards),  and the difference is your (hopefully positive) net worth.

Of course, you may have other assets that are harder to account for in this formula. For example, a military pension. My military pension provides valuable monthly income and I believe it should be included in my net worth, but it doesn’t lend itself easily to asset valuation.

How to Calculate the Functional Net Worth

How do we calculate the value of a pension—or other benefit that provides monthly income (or reduces expenses)—and include that in our net worth? This is where my handy functional net worth calculation comes in.

To calculate the value of my pension, I use the 4% rule. This rule, first proposed by William Bengen in 1994 and validated in a 1998 Trinity University Study, is based on historical investment return research.

They found that investments in a combination of stocks (50-70%) and bonds (30-50%) historically returned 4%, annually adjusted for inflation, without running out of money over a 30-year period.

But Why Calculate the Functional Net Worth?

Before I get into the formulas, I’ll briefly explain why I believe Functional Net Worth is useful.

Many personal finance books, articles, and podcasts in the FI arena make the assumption that most assets are invested in stocks and bonds and real estate. Advice around diversification, spending limits, and other guidance often relates to a percentage of total assets invested.

But if I include additional assets, such as my military pension, I can treat the pension asset as a very stable (i.e., low risk) part of my portfolio. I can invest the cash portion of my portfolio in higher risk investments (e.g., stocks) as a result with less need for investing a large portion in lower-risk bonds.

When I view my entire net worth to include my stable (and inflation adjusted) military pension, the remaining portion of my investment portfolio can take on more risk.

Military Pension

Here is my calculation formula for my military pension:

annual gross pension income*25 or ((monthly gross pension income)*12)*25)

On my Excel spreadsheet the formula looks like this:  =((XXXX*12)*25)

where XXXX is my monthly gross pension income

If monthly pension income is $3,500 per month, the calculation would be ((3500*12)*25) and would result in a pension value of $1,050,000 – yep, if you have a military pension paying you $3500 gross per month, you are a millionaire in my book.

This formula takes the annual gross income (before taxes) and multiplies it by 25, or multiplies the monthly gross income by 12 and then by 25.

Tax Exempt Benefits (e.g., VA Disability)

For tax exempt benefits like VA disability payments, the formula is a little bit more complex to account for the tax savings.

annual gross disability income*25 or ((monthly gross pension income)*12)/tax rate)*25)

On my Excel spreadsheet the formula looks like this:  =((XXXX*12)/0.YY)*25

where XXXX is my monthly gross tax-exempt payment and YY is the tax rate subtracted from 100 (e.g., for 22% tax bracket the number would be 0.78, for 12% it would be 0.88).

If your monthly disability payment is $2000 per month in a 12% tax bracket, then the calculation would be =((2000*12)/0.88)*25 and would result in a disability value of $681,818. This number would be higher if you are in a higher tax bracket.

Military Healthcare Benefits

This same formula (minus the low annual TRICARE premium, if applicable) also works for calculating the net worth value of the military retiree lifetime healthcare benefits. To estimate this value, I estimate what I would pay for commercial healthcare, either through an employer or the state exchanges (adjusting for any subsidies I may qualify for).

With my military income, rental property income, and retirement account income, I wouldn’t qualify for much (if any) subsidy. For a $1500 unsubsidized monthly healthcare premium (using a 22% tax bracket), the functional net worth value would be ~$576,900.


Calculating functional net worth, not just net worth, is a very useful exercise for military retirees and others with pensions or disability payments.

By adding the projected value of pension income and other high-valued benefits into my net worth, I am able to better identify what portion of my FIRE number needs to be investments, and how those investments should be diversified.

I can also better manage the risks of my investments over time. Seeing the equivalent investment amount, I would need to provide similar inflation-based income, as my pension and health care benefits, is a valuable marker of the progress I have made toward achieving FIRE.

* I don’t include cars, furniture, clothing, or other household items in my net worth calculation, because I view them as depreciable expenses that will sell for much less than I purchased them for and will generally need to be replaced when sold.

The Meaning of “Millionaire”

When host Regis Philbin asked his game show contestants and audience “who wants to be a millionaire?,” he tapped into a belief many of us learned as children, that a million dollars was the pinnacle of financial success. 

I grew up on the rural eastern side of Washington State, and many people I knew were (and still are) ritual lottery tickets buyers. Almost every week since the 1980s, these folks have purchased $1 to $5 of lottery tickets. They are buying the hope of becoming a millionaire.

Author Morgan Housel in his book The Psychology of Money asserted that “[w]hen most people say they want to be a millionaire, what they might actually mean is ‘I’d like to spend a million dollars.’ And that is literally the opposite of being a millionaire.” This statement helps frame a common misconception of what it really means to be a millionaire.

The common image of a millionaire is someone who owns some amazing stuff – high end sports car, mansion, designer clothes, annual golf club membership, First Class airfare, Rolex watch, nice boat, snowmobiles, etc., etc. But that image doesn’t account for living expenses. In day-to-day living, it just doesn’t work that way.

To illustrate this point, I decided to calculate how much money I have earned–and spent–in my 54 years of life (so far). I pulled up my taxable earnings from the online Social Security statement, then I added conservative estimates of military housing allowances, military pension, and other income sources. (Note that I did not include my wife’s earnings in this thought experiment–just mine.) Since I started working in high school (37 years ago – 30 years of full-time work), it turns out that I have earned over $3.6 million before taxes. Taking out an average of 15% tax (a very rough estimate of my lifetime tax rate to date) leaves me $3.1 million. Wow! I must be crazy rich!

Ah, but alas, I do not have $3.1 million in the bank. My wife and I have been good savers, but we still spent well over $2.5 million over those 37 years. We don’t own the glitzy stuff I mentioned. We have an ordinary house (with a mortgage), very used cars (19 years and 8 years old), clothes purchased with function and durability in mind, furnishing and appliances I have repaired and maintained, and my $28 watch is a trusty plastic Timex. No Rolexes here.

A lot of high-end stuff is purchased on credit. Our choice to avoid such purchases also means we’ve avoided consumer debt and its high interest rates. Excluding a lean period when I paid my way through college, I have never since carried a credit card balance or taken out any payday or other consumer loans. I paid off my student loans in my first year of full-time employment. (I recognize that college tuition has increased so much that I would need to dedicate more time and resources to pay off a comparable amount of debt today.) Other than our first car out of college (paid in full in two years), we have only paid cash for our (few) cars over the years.

So where did the $2.5 million go? Living life. Mortgage payments, food, transportation, raising kids, and other middle class life trappings. Some highlights that come to mind: we bought a $3500 used pop-up camper and enjoyed numerous fun family camping trips; we traveled abroad for two weeks each year over the 9 years before the pandemic, using home exchanges and travel rewards hacking to keep costs down. We paid our two kids’ college tuition (in-state rates). Once, with my wife’s parents, we enjoyed an amazing 5-star meal at the Inn at Little Washington for their 45th wedding anniversary. Nothing too exorbitant (except maybe the 5-star restaurant – but hey, it was a 45th anniversary!). Spending a million, or two and a half million in my case, over four decades is just not the same as the popular image of a millionaire – being rich.

So, $3.1M minus $2.5M… you might be asking, where did the remaining $600K go? I saved and invested it. Not very good investing, mind you, during the first 19 years (spoiler: we lost money), but in the last decade I got a little smarter and much luckier. Today my net worth is over 7 figures. Wow, a millionaire, right? But what about the plastic watch, old cars, and ordinary house (no master bath or garage)?

It was a tradeoff. Yes, I could have spent that $600K on unnecessary stuff. Instead, I decided to save and invest. I’m a millionaire because I have a million dollars of net worth. A major lottery win, big inheritance, or sensational entrepreneurial idea aside, it takes saving and investing, not spending, to become a millionaire and to stay a millionaire.

Since I didn’t trade that $600K for stuff, what did I trade it for? Time. I will spend most of this money saved to buy back years of my life without working. My investments will pay me enough every year to forgo having to work an additional 15 years from traditional retirement age. Since I’m retiring early, at some point in the future I may no longer be a millionaire (but I will have enough). Instead of a million dollars, I’ll have years of memories of pursuing my interests and spending time with my family.

We all have the same 24 hours a day, and the older I get, the more precious those hours feel. I’m choosing not to spend 40+ hours a week working to pay off debt as I buy more stuff for the garage and attic or spend it some other way. Instead, I will live my same simple, mostly frugal life with more hours every week to spend with family and friends, to learn, to explore, and to just be.

In a way, I feel like I won the lottery.

Taking the Leap — Living The FIgh Life

On August 28, 2020 at 5:47 pm, at age 52, I declared my financial independence (FI), packed up my personal belongings and left my GS-15 job at the Department of Defense after 9 years of civil service and 20 years of active duty. How was I feeling? As you can see from the below video, I felt great.

My financial path to this point started long ago with frugal living, focus on savings, and 28 years of investing (not always smart investing, mind you). Before we discovered FI, my wife and I travel hacked with home exchanges and credit card hacking, cut the cable cord, eliminated our home phone, switched to much cheaper cell phone plans, minimized subscriptions, drove old cars (2000 and 2003 respectively), but my FI journey can be clearly measured from just 2 years and 5 months before when I laid out a 5-year plan to quit my job for good and go to graduate school using my Post 9/11 GI Bill. 

In April 2018, my son and I were touring a college campus on the last day of a week-long trip to the Pacific Northwest. On our trip home, I made a quip about not wanting to go back to work. My son, then a senior in high school, asked me, “why don’t you quit?” I told him that I didn’t have enough money to live on, and since Social Security was unreliable, I expected to work until I was 70. But he challenged that reasoning. “Why not live in another country where it’s less expensive?” he asked. This simple question was the beginning of my rethinking the parameters I had always accepted for how much money I needed to live. 

I began searching for inexpensive countries for expats and found a long list that I could afford to live with good healthcare. One question led to another, and I was figuring out how much I needed to save to stop working. I had the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits that would expire in 8 years, so I set 5 years as my goal to quit and go full-time to graduate school.

From that state of mind, it didn’t take long for me to find the FI community. I initially discovered The Money Habit blog and then the ChooseFI podcast that introduced me to numerous people thinking differently about money and time. I read their blogs, books, and articles, binged thousands of hours of FI-related content. I started closely tracking my spending with Mint and set-up numerous spreadsheets for monthly spending, cash flow scenarios, and how we would pay for our kids’ college after I quit. 

Seeing the numbers changed everything. The more I learned and shared with my wife who pretty quickly came on board, the more we extricated unnecessary spending from our budget, and the faster our FI date came. I didn’t need 5 years. It now became more of finding the best way to offramp from work and begin my new life. In the Fall of 2019, I applied to graduate school. 

Taking the Leap (my son is on the rock waiting to jump next)

Taking that calculated leap of faith to quit my job was exhilarating and reminded me of the time I jumped off a rock cliff on the North Shore of Hawaii. In 2017, we took a family vacation to Hawaii to visit where my daughter was born at Bellows Beach, Oahu, in the early 2000s. (She really was born at the beach, as we had a home birth on Bellows Air Force Station.) It was a great trip for so many reasons, but a highlight for me was a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump into the ocean from “The Rock” at Waimea Bay at sunset. 

Tourists and locals jumping from “The Rock” — there was also a strong current warning sign — Photo Credit

When jumping off the rock cliff, I had to trust that others had successfully and safely made the leap. I had to understand the risks and determine that I was prepared physically and mentally. Leaving my career 15 years earlier than the traditional social security age required me to trust my numbers and recognize that many others in the FI community had already made this leap–I wasn’t alone. This community was more than  great ideas to optimize investing, spending, taxes, safe withdrawal rates, and so much more. I found a community of support I could trust. 

I found virtual mentors in Brad and Jonathan at ChooseFI, Paula Pant at Afford Anything, Joe Saul-Sehy at Stacking Benjamins, Brandon (a.k.a., the Mad Fientist) at the Financial Independence Podcast as well as their inspiring guests. I also read articles on blogs too numerous to list (shout out to Carson at Early Retirement Now), and read a pile of personal finance books, such as Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life, J.L. Collins’ The Simple Path to Wealth, and Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung’s Quit Like a Millionaire. Each of these helped me confirm my numbers, but more importantly they helped me break loose from cultural constraints that were deeply ingrained in me.

I found my identity was closely wrapped up in my career, and it was hard to tell others (and myself ) that I would soon be unemployed. “What will you do?” was the common response. Being a graduate student helped me make the change by providing an acceptable transitional identity. “I’m going back to school,” I told people. I did two semesters during the pandemic, then decided I was done. Now I have developed the mental freedom to just say “I am financially independent.” Am I rich? no. But am I wealthy? More than I can count.