Why the FI Movement Sounds like a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme

Who wants to live a monotonous life void of fun and adventure? Who wants to feel like they wasted their time on this earth working in a cavernous, thirty or forty year career? Um, I’m pretty sure no one.

We can all be sold on a better life and there are plenty of people touting supposedly proven methods to help get us there.

A few months back I read the following message from an acquaintance trying to drum up business for her latest MLM scheme:

If you have had even an inkling that this might be a way for you to create options in your life, I’m telling you, NOW IS THE TIME! This company is on FIRE.

Have you received similar solicitations?

Yes these are the words plastered by a so-called friend urging Facebook users to join her Rodan Fields sales team, but you know when I read that Facebook update I couldn’t shake the thought that those words sounded eerily familiar.

Take out the word company and you’ll find similar mantras on hundreds if not thousands of FI websites and blogs out there. Turn up the volume and listen to any FI or FIRE podcast and you’ll hear the same. The quote above even includes the word FIRE.

Multi-level marketing companies use phrases like these:

  • Live your best life.
  • Find your purpose.
  • Travel the world.
  • Quit the rat race once and for all

But so do FI writers and podcasters.

I listen to financial podcasts while working out on the elliptical machine at my local gym. I spend forty-five minutes pumping my arms and legs back and forth in a strange, running-type motion all the while listening to voices who promise me a better life. The life most, if not all, of us yearn for.

With earphones plugged into my ears I cannot hear anything going on in the real world around me, yet every once in awhile my own voice startles me. Out of nowhere I’ll hear myself say, “That’s so true,” “Oh yeah, ” or “Definitely.” Its hard not to agree with the thoughts and feelings of those marching toward financial independence beside me.

While those MLM phrases may sound the same as those used in the FI community I can assure you they are reached by very different means. To reach FI you don’t need to hawk products on unsuspecting acquaintances.

In fact, I would argue that you aren’t living your best life if you are asking your friends and family to spend money on products they don’t need or cannot afford. If you want to live your best life, find your purpose and quit the rat race you don’t need to be part of a multi-level marketing scheme that depends on putting other people into debt.

Yes the FI movement will help you dream big dreams, but they’ll do so by teaching you that money is not the end goal. You’ll hear bloggers say money should be used to free your time for purpose and passion.

While MLM asks you to promote consumerism FI will teach you to spend less and save more. MLM asks you to pray on desperate friends, while FI encourages you to find like-minded individuals searching for real relationships and camaraderie.

Naysayers will tell me the FI community is all about money. They’ll say you cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that proponents of FI also earn a lot of money by enticing others to read their blogs, listen to their podcasts or pay to see them speak live at conferences.

So one group is selling ideas and the other is selling cosmetics, right?

Well first I would argue that you aren’t required to pay for any FI services. You don’t need to click on any ads, download any special software, pay for podcasts or buy any books. All information related to FI is available entirely for free on the Internet. Feel free to be wary of websites asking you to pay for online courses or media. You don’t need it. Pick up that book from the library or simply read a synopsis from blogs written by those authors.

We all want options in life. We all want to find our purpose. We all desire something better. It’s human nature to reach for more.

The excitement that invites others to join multi-level marketing schemes is similar to the enthusiasm you feel when you learn about FI.

It’s like being asleep and waking from a dream. You envision the movie Groundhog Day. You picture waking up to the same series of events day after day and then someone says it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be different. And you cannot wait to join the movement.

But before you begin your journey think carefully about how you race to achieve your goals. Don’t burn bridges or risk friendships in an attempt to make money.

It may sound hard to believe but financial independence can be accomplished and you don’t have to buy or sell anything to get there. If fact the less you buy the quicker you’ll achieve your goal.

You may have to dig through the podcasts and blogs that are touting FI solely to make a buck, but when you do you’ll find a community ready to share their stories for free.

8 thoughts on “Why the FI Movement Sounds like a Multi-Level Marketing Scheme”

  1. Interesting point about the verbage used in both MLM and FI. But in the end, yep, they’re very different. One is about recruiting in order to make a profit. Selling products isn’t where the real money lies. The other is about helping people take charge of the finances and focus on their dreams — usually for free, as you said. So definitely very different. And this is coming from someone who isn’t part of the FI community!

    • I’m so thankful they aren’t the same. I started this blog in 2006, but I stopped awhile back. I kept in touch with a few bloggers over the years, but now that I’m writing again I realize just how much I missed the camaraderie of personal finance nerds out there supporting one another. I wish the rest of the world was as supportive of one another. Friendship should be based on many things, but how much I can sell to make another person rich shouldn’t be one of them. Thanks for the comment!

  2. The other thing is that people buy self help ideas, like the FI or FIRE movements to try to fill a void in their lives. Unhappy people often think they can just find this one thing, maybe it is a free trip because they sold a bunch of Tupperware, or maybe it is just having no debt and/or lots of money. But my experience is that unhappy people are unhappy with who they are more than with their financial situation. Sure more money means more choices and less stress, up to a point. But I don’t think it will make a chronically unhappy person happy. It is a worthy goal to be FI, but I was always happy, even when I started out adulthood with no money. I have plenty of money now and am still happy but it isn’t the money. It is my relationships and my sense of fulfillment that make me happy.

    • That is so eloquently stated and so very true. It’s so easy to be swayed by big ideas of who you will be once you have money, but the important thing is to be who you want to be right now. If you can find happiness now why wait until you have money?

      As I get older I place so much more importance on the parts of my life that have little to nothing to do with money. Like holding the door open for someone. Saying thank you when someone holds the door open for me. Talking to the little old lady who seems lonely and sad at the bus stop or in line at the grocery store. Picking up the trash that I come across on the street. Sometimes we strive for the big moments while completely missing the small ones along the way. Happiness, gratitude, kindness and so many other attributes of life can be had right now. There is no need to wait for the future to receive them.

      Thank you for such a beautiful reminder.

  3. Well when you put it that way… hey go buy the book I just reviewed on my blog

    I think that’s really what makes MLMs so insidious though – they are selling a real hope for a better life, but what they’re selling to get there is just air at best and a nightmare that plunges you in debt and severs your friendships at worst.

    • Ha. I think it’s fine to share information and to make money doing so. As long as you sell what you believe in or put disclaimers in those things you don’t. MLM is all about selling the “hope for a better life” but in the end you are left with nothing but empty promises.

  4. There’s a show that recently started airing on Showtime called “On Becoming A God in Central Florida”. It’s all about an MLM – in this case one that just sells consumer products. The pitch they use for recruiting though is basically the same as the pitch for FI, with some self-employment jumbo jumbo thrown in. “Be your own boss!” “Quit your j-o-b!” “Retire early!” Etc.

    Coming off like that is easily one of my worst fears when writing about FIRE. I have a feeling the MarketWatch/mainstream news articles are much more likely to appear that way – especially for people who just read the headlines.

    • That’s interesting. I’ll have to check it out. FI sounds so similar to MLM! They are both promoting the same lifestyle. Living a life that’s enjoyable, laid back and care free. And with the good comes the bad. There are plenty of people trying to hawk products that really won’t help people. A lot of the information for FI/FIRE can be found for free. I think it’s helpful for readers to search through the free stuff, before paying for information they really don’t need to pay for.


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