Time and Money Part 1: The Trouble with FIRE

How focusing too much on the future can rob us of our present

7/22/20235 min read


Between attending my fifteenth law school reunion, yet another birthday, and my mom’s diagnosis with a terminal illness, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the concept of time. Somewhat ironically, time got away from me in writing this post, which I have to split into multiple parts because time is complicated. How time relates to money is only a small piece of that complexity.

One common issue with time and money is not valuing your future self enough – that is, failing to save sufficiently for retirement. I’ll address that issue in a separate post. The issue I’ll grapple with here is valuing a long-term goal – perhaps a number you’re striving to hit for retirement – at the expense of living fully now.

Living in the Future

One of the movements I came across in my financial journey is Financial Independence, Retire Early (commonly referred to as “FIRE”). There are many different permutations of this movement, but a common premise is striving to reach a savings number at which you can retire early and, presumably, live your best life.

The problem with this approach (in some more extreme forms) is that it can lead to a future orientation that prevents one from enjoying life now. If I’m analyzing every purchase based on how much I could have saved ten years from now by investing the money instead, it’s hard to really live.

In Four Thousand Weeks, an excellent book on time, author Oliver Burkeman describes the problem with a “instrumental relationship to time” – i.e. focusing “exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are – with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the ‘real’ value of your life at some time that you haven’t reached, and never will.”

This is something I’ve struggled with throughout my financial journey. It can be hard to strike the right balance, because really thinking through each purchase can be very effective at increasing savings and also can reduce the amount of pointless stuff we accumulate. On the flip side, it can sap all the joy from the things you do decide to buy. When I was practicing law, I grew used to thinking about time valued in six-minute increments, all with a monetary value attached. Breaking free from that type of thinking can be difficult.

This is where a reasonable budget with built in, guilt-free spending parameters can be helpful. There’s no way around placing reasonable controls on spending if you want to save for retirement, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in a place where you’re questioning your spouse every time they buy the kids a Happy Meal (at least, not based on the money part of it).

More fundamentally, in grappling with my mom’s diagnosis, I’ve come to realize that we need to share experiences with the people we love when we have the opportunity. What that looks like will vary – and I’m not suggesting spending beyond your means in a way that will create financial stress – but we can’t assume that our time horizon is infinite.

We May Misjudge Our Future Selves

The balance between our present and future is further complicated by the fact that we as humans aren’t great at judging how happy or unhappy we’ll be in a given scenario. Those who practice a lot of self-deprivation in service of a financial goal may find reaching that number has not cured underlying financial anxiety. Those who retire early may find that they miss the social connections they had at work, that they don’t actually feel less busy, or that all this leisure time isn’t as great as they thought.

On the first point, I’ve heard plenty of people talk about how they thought that when they reached a certain financial goal, they would feel secure, only to find that underlying financial anxiety remained. Burkeman describes this as follows:

“This future-focused attitude often takes the form of what I once heard described as the ‘when-I-finally’ mind, as in: ‘When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.’ The person mired in this mentality believes that the reason she doesn’t feel fulfilled and happy is that she hasn’t yet managed to accomplish certain specific things; when she does so, she imagines, she’ll feel in charge of her life and be the master of her time. Yet in fact the way she’s attempting to achieve that sense of security means she’ll never feel fulfilled, because she’s treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state—and so the present moment won’t ever feel satisfying in itself.”

People can find a lot of satisfaction in their work if they find the right career path. Martin Seligman, one of the most influential researchers in positive psychology, talks about three kinds of happiness: the pleasant life (which is mostly heritable and based on positive affect), the good life (experiencing flow by building life around your signature strengths), and the meaningful life (knowing your signature strength and using them in service of something larger than yourself). Rather than escaping work altogether, it may be possible to find a career path (or reframe your current path) in a way that allows for both happiness and financial remuneration. I personally find a lot of satisfaction in my work because it allows me to continuously learn new things and work with a great team.

Part of the reason that financial independence – and presumably increased leisure time and control over one’s schedule -- can seem so appealing, even with a great job, is that we’re so busy day-to-day. But Burkeman argues – convincingly I think – that the solution to this is just to accept that we can’t fit everything important that we may want to accomplish into our lives. In fact, as we try to improve our efficiency, we can end up making things worse. Limiting the number of in-flight projects we take on – a strategy both Burkeman and Warren Buffett advocate – is one way to focus our efforts and limit the overwhelming sense of busyness. While we’re busy, there are also options for freeing up time by spending money on things like household support.

To summarize, rather than chasing a future retirement, a better option may be finding a career that draws on our strengths and accepting that we can’t get everything done we might want to do. Right-sizing the amount of work we’re taking on in a career we enjoy, rather than burning out for a couple of decades and then shifting abruptly to an early retirement, seems like a more sustainable solution to me at this point than focusing on FIRE (at least for my family). The idea of financial independence still feels attractive – in part because I don't want to be dependent on anything – but I recognize that is partly rooted in insecurity that won't be solved by reaching a given threshold.

To the extent possible, I’m trying to build the life that works for our family now, rather than looking toward an unknown future point that may or may not ever materialize. This is easier said than done, and I do my fair share of swinging back and forth between present and future orientation. Ensuring that I’m building financial security to support my future self and family is always top of mind, but I’m working on how to savor the now as well, rather than thinking that there is a future event upon which I will magically start to feel in control of both my time and my money.