Is the Pursuit of Financial Independence Inherently Selfish?

the word help on a chalkboard

I wish I could say I was one of those philanthropic folks who always used her powers for the betterment of mankind. But nope, in my twenties and thirties that would not have been an accurate assessment.

In high school I volunteered for all sorts of community efforts. I cleaned up streams, rallied for causes, volunteered at a psychiatric hospital and lobbied for legislation. In college I was even known to pull my hung over butt out of bed so I could prepare food at soup kitchens on Saturday mornings. Unfortunately, once I graduated I stopped doing all of those things.

Many of my friends went on to become teachers and social workers, but not me. I dove into the world of software development. My company had a mission to better the lives of others, but I’m not sure the software I wrote had much of an impact on that. I hopped on the fast track after graduation. I stopped volunteering and started focusing on my career. The effort paid off in the form of raises, bonuses and promotions.

My vision became narrowed as I began to see the dollar signs growing and multiplying before my very eyes. For the most part, the harder I worked the more I earned, so I worked harder and earned more.

I didn’t know about financial independence or FIRE back then. I just knew that I wanted to be the best at what I did. It was important to prove my worth, so I put in long hours to accomplish difficult tasks and improve my technical skills.

My career was my primary focus. The money my prize. I strove to succeed above all others. I wanted to receive the highest ratings at review time and I worked my tail off to ensure I received those rewards.

Looking back in the rearview mirror I can see my twenty and thirty year old self moving quickly. I was in a huge hurry to accomplish greatness, but along the way I lost sight of many important goals outside of my career.

I stopped volunteering. I stopped helping. Heck, some days I started working at 8 am and didn’t stop until 3 am the next morning. On the majority of teleworking days I didn’t even stop to take a shower, get dressed or eat. I was constantly fixing problems, tracking down bugs and building new features as quickly as my hands could type.

When I focused on one thing, (in my case the desire to earn and save), it was hard to shift my attention towards anything else. If I spent nearly every waking minute thinking about earning more and spending less than how could I make time for other non-financial ventures?

I didn’t know about FI and FIRE during my quest to save, but I think today’s online forums make it even harder. According to the Internet we all need side hustles, roommates, rental properties and blogs. How can we expect to pad our pockets if we aren’t productive every minute of every day? Oh sure, we’ll relax in the future, but for now we must press on, work hard and build our legacy one dollar at a time.

How can we find the time to help others when we are working so hard to help ourselves? Isn’t it naturally difficult to part with money when we spend our days ultra-obsessed with the accumulation of it? Isn’t it hard to volunteer when we could use that time to earn money instead?

As I pondered these questions I began to wonder… Is the quest for financial independence inherently selfish?

Am I self-centered if I want to avoid working thirty years in a 9-to-5 job? Am I selfish if I invest all of my money in the stock market? Is it wrong to plow cash into the same big companies I wish to escape from? Sure I don’t work for the man anymore, but shouldn’t I feel guilty getting rich because other people go to work?

As I thought about the questions above I was ready to declare my final thoughts on the matter. I was so sure I had the answers, but then I paused. I reframed my thoughts.

I decided to ask my friends if they supported charitable causes. I inquired about the number of hours they volunteered and I found myself asking a different question, “Am I more selfish than my non-FI seeking peers?

It seems many of us travel through phases of life without ever giving back. I may have worked twelve hours a day, while someone else watched 6 hours of Netflix or traveled the world, but when all is said and done we both served our own best interests.

So I had to reframe the questions. Does the act of seeking financial independence dissuade individuals from giving back? Is the FI community more stingy with their time and money than others of similar age and income tax brackets? I don’t know. We are a broad community of individuals so the answer may differ depending on who you ask.

The pursuit of FI and FIRE may seem selfish, but I’m not really sure those searching for the holy grail of financial awakening are any less likely to give than the general population. Studies have shown rich people give proportionately less than poor people, but I’m not sure about those chasing FI. In fact, if anyone knows of such a study, I would love to see the stats on that.

What I do know is that being selfish in the pursuit of FI doesn’t mean you have to be selfish after you’ve reached your goal. In fact, I believe members of the FI community can become huge proponents of generosity!

I cannot say what the rest of the FI population will do once they reach their financial goals, but I like to hope that they will schedule opportunities to help others. Of course, we can all continue to grow our net worth, but we don’t have to focus all of our attention on acquiring greater wealth forever.

Now that my husband and I have reached FI and attained increased job flexibility we can volunteer infinitely more than we ever did before. These days we cook for the homeless, visit our children’s classrooms, assist our communities and help with fundraising events. For the past two decades we donated money, but failed to find the time to help. Now we can do both.

When I worked in a 9-to-5 job I didn’t dedicate time or energy to volunteering and giving. In my mind, that gives me hope. Perhaps there are others like me who will give more of themselves when their quest for financial gain ends.

So now I’ll ask you. Do you think the pursuit of FI or FIRE makes you more selfish than the average person? Does the quest to increase your net worth make you less likely to share your time or money? Do you think you’ll give more after you reach your goals?

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