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Is the Pursuit of Financial Independence Inherently Selfish?

Is the Pursuit of Financial Independence Inherently Selfish?

I wish I could say I was one of those philanthropic folks who always used her powers to better humanity. 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 better legislation. In college, I even pulled my hungover 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 people’s lives, but I’m not sure the software I wrote impacted 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 essential 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, 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 most 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, 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 challenging to part with money when we spend our days ultra-obsessed with its accumulation? 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 about 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 we both served our own best interests when all is said and done.

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 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. If anyone knows of such a study, I would love to see the stats on that.

I know that being selfish in the pursuit of FI doesn’t mean you have to be selfish after you’ve reached your goal. I believe members of the FI community can become limitless cheerleaders for generosity!

I cannot say what the rest of the FI population will do once they reach their financial goals, but I hope 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 others will share 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?

Frugal dad

Monday 20th of July 2020

I guess I a am a year late. This is another of your great posts. There is no easy answer and people sometimes seem to look for a quick fix. After reading many of your entries it seems pretty clear that money is not even the answer. FI has been criticized rightfully so that the principal of FIRE often does not leave room for our contribution to society including paying taxes, sharing healthcare costs and doing things that don’t enhance your net worth. I feel you are correct to keep frugal in your blog name even though you are not skimping by anymore. You took control of your life and created options, congratulations. Now the hard part begins. Figure out what your legacy to your kids and this world will be. To me you just decided to live within your means and that raising your children was actually important to you. The Bible says love thyself as you love others. 2000 year old wisdom works even for atheists. Be proud.

One Frugal Girl

Wednesday 22nd of July 2020

Thank you for this comment. FI can be such a selfish pursuit. If we aren't careful we continue focusing on piling money into our bank accounts when there are so many other important things in life to pursue. It's tough to see this while we build our bank accounts, but I hope once people reach FI they will see the beauty in helping others either with their time or money. It's so much more fulfilling than staring at a large spreadsheet full of numbers.

Mary

Thursday 18th of July 2019

This question usually keeps me up most nights. I am happily married with two kids: 3-year old boy and 7-month old baby girl. My husband and I are both working, although he takes home 4x than what I do. Now my problem is, my side of the family is always in need of money. Medical emergency, tuition fees, school supplies. Among my siblings, I was the only one who got a permanent job with good pay. I used to shoulder these things when I was still single, but it's different now that I have a family of my own. I come from the typical Asian family where the one with the good pay is the one who shoulders almost everything. Yes, children's financial dependency to parents or parents' financial dependency on their children is a very common culture from I am from. It came to a point where my mother wanted to shoulder my sister's home repair "if she (my mother) had the money" as if saying that I could do it since I do have the means to do so. But no, I did not and definitely will not. Where I'm from, this is usually frowned upon. I kept thinking that I must be so selfish for not even bothering to lend my sister money to repair their house. My sister doesn't have a job, and relies on her spouse (who earns on minimum) for their daily expenses. If I offer to lend money, I might as well say goodbye to that money since I know I will not be paid back. Or if I do get paid, I will not get paid in full, like it has always been.

One Frugal Girl

Sunday 21st of July 2019

Hi Mary, Thank you for your comment. I do not have societal expectations to help my family members, but I do believe I will need to help my parents one day. It is difficult to decide how and when to help, especially when external forces are pushing us in specific directions. You are not alone in your thoughts and feelings. A lot of people feel the same burdens and struggle with these decisions, especially when spouses are involved. Having already reached FI I will say that it's easier now to give than it has ever been for me. The reason is two-fold. First, I simply see the need to acquire less stuff. Second, the less stuff I buy the more my money is freed for other purposes. Of course, it is much easier to give now that we aren't still trying to accumulate the pile of money too.

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Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

Tuesday 21st of May 2019

I tend to think the pursuit of FI just enhances whoever you were before.

The inherently selfish will always find reasons not to give back and to justify it, often using their pursuit of FI as one justification. "I'll give later" they say. (Later never comes.) The inherently generous will always find ways to give - time, money, activism, something.

Those of us in between the two poles figure out where to be depending on our nature.

I have a scarcity mentality and so I combat that with giving because I know it's the right thing to do, because I remember that others were generous to me when they didn't have to be and that made an enormous difference in my life and later on, in my family's lives. I don't need to know that we were that difference for someone else. I just need to do my part to be a giver in the ecosystem, not just a taker.

OFG

Wednesday 22nd of May 2019

I think of life as one big circle. Life is not a straight line with a destination pointing to one place, it is a round line that encompasses our past, present and future. What kind of a world would we have if everyone simply took and no one had any time or money to give? You know sometimes I don't even think it's huge acts of compassion. Sometimes it's noticing the elderly woman in the grocery store that needs help getting a cart or holding a door for an extra minute for the mom with a stroller. When we come from a place of giving we can see those tiny acts and build a compassionate life moment by moment. Sometimes we need to set aside busy and accomplished for being human.