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.