There have been many variations of the board game life. One version when I was a kid had two outcomes. The first is you become a millionaire and retire in wealth to a mansion. The second is you lost all your money and retired to a small house as a philosopher.
In a way Seneca the Younger was able to fulfill both. When Seneca wrote his Moral Letters, he was older and semi-retired from the affairs of men. As I am older and nearing retirement myself many of the writings resonate with me.
Growing up the idea of retirement was to work 40 some years get a pension and spend the sunset years in retirement. Retirement is a way of a life and is something that doesn’t usually happen for people until the age of 65. And for others, it happens even later. However, with the more and more 20-somethings looking to join the FIRE movement, that age is changing. Instead of retiring later, people are trying to retire earlier.
What is the Fire Movement?
The Fire Movement stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early.” Essentially, young adults start saving as much money as possible during their 20s and 30s so they can retire in their 40s. They want to spend more time working while they’re at their peak ages so they can spend more time traveling the world, lounging at home, and living their life how they want to.
In retrospect, this seems like a great idea. Why spend more time working than enjoying leisure time exploring the world and hanging out with friends and family. The problem with the Fire Movement, however, is that it’s nearly unattainable. Say a young adult decides to start saving when they finish Grad school at 25. Over the course of 15 years, they’re not going to make an exponential amount of money, nor will they develop a strong enough 401k.
The Dangers with the Fire Movement
Everyone knows that those who play will fire will get burned. The Fire Movement may seem promising, but what happens if those who try for it don’t reach their goal savings? And what if they are under budget and have to go into the workforce? A person’s 20s and 30s are meant for enjoying life, learning about oneself, and discovering what it is they want to do. They shouldn’t give that up working too hard in the hopes of retiring early. It’s much easier to live life and save money over a long period of time. Additionally, there are no guarantees that money will last as long as anticipated.
We will look at different ways this movement is not the best route and can be detrimental. I will use select writings by Seneca to try and illustrate this point. Some may say that Seneca may not be the best example as he was one of the wealthiest men in the world at his time. But Seneca faced many trials over his life including exile that are reflected in the writings of his Moral Letters.
Would that you had had the privilege of growing old amid the limited circumstances of your origin, and that fortune had not raised you to such heights! You were removed far from the sight of wholesome living by your swift rise to prosperity, by your province, by your position as procurator, and by all that such things promise; you will next acquire more important duties and after them still more. And what will be the result? Why wait until there is nothing left for you to crave? That time will never come. We hold that there is a succession of causes, from which fate is woven; similarly, you may be sure, there is a succession in our desires; for one begins where its predecessor ends. You have been thrust into an existence which will never of itself put an end to your wretchedness and your slavery. Withdraw your chafed neck from the yoke; it is better that it should be cut off once for all, than galled for ever. Seneca Moral Letter 19.5-6
Young people romanticize the idea of retiring early. They yearn for the day when they can do whatever they want and not work. Unfortunately, it’s much harder than it looks. The cost of living is rising every year. Even if they save the amount of money they want to, who is to say it will be enough in 20 years time. The Fire Movement promotes a lifestyle that everyone wants, but so few can achieve.
How it Works (and Why it Doesn’t)
In death there is nothing harmful; for there must exist something to which it is harmful. And yet, if you are possessed by so great a craving for a longer life, reflect that none of the objects which vanish from our gaze and are re-absorbed into the world of things, from which they have come forth and are soon to come forth again, is annihilated; they merely end their course and do not perish. And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day; and many men would object to this, were they not brought back in forgetfulness of the past. Seneca Moral Letter 36. 9-10
The idea with the Fire Movement is that the person saving will put away 70% of their paycheck into retirement. The remaining money will be used to pay their bills and for anything else they may need. Sure, this may work for high-class individuals, but not using 70% of a paycheck for people making under six figures or who have families leaves little room for things like rent, groceries, utilities, insurance, and more.
Another thing to consider with this concept are unexpected situations. Cars break down. Phone screens shatter. People get sick and have to pay hospital bills. Every single thing costs money. People cannot survive without it. By putting away so much money, there is nothing left for unexpected accidents. If something like that happens, will the Fire Movement individual take money from their retirement fund to pay for it? And if so, how many times can that happen before they have to defer retirement for a year… and then another… and then another.
Most Fire goals range from the one to two million mark. For others it’s less and for others it’s more. Calculating Fire over a 20 year time at a 70% savings rate, a person would have to make about $72,000 a year. They’d then only have around $20,000 to spend each year. They would be spread very thin, and would likely not be able to live in big cities with high expense rates. Overall, this seems like way too much work and effort to feel free in the future.
Getting Used to Living Frugally
What, then, do I now encourage you to do? Nothing new – we are not trying to find cures for new evils – but this first of all: namely, to see clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous. What is necessary will meet you everywhere; what is superfluous has always to be hunted-out – and with great endeavour. But there is no reason why you should flatter yourself over-much if you despise gilded couches and jewelled furniture. For what virtue lies in despising useless things? The time to admire your own conduct is when you have come to despise the necessities. You are doing no great thing if you can live without royal pomp, if you feel no craving for boars which weigh a thousand pounds, or for flamingo tongues, or for the other absurdities of a luxury that already wearies of game cooked whole, and chooses different bits from separate animals; I shall admire you only when you have learned to scorn even the common sort of bread, when you have made yourself believe that grass grows for the needs of men as well as of cattle, when you have found out that food from the treetop can fill the belly – into which we cram things of value as if it could keep what it has received. We should satisfy our stomachs without being over-nice. How does it matter what the stomach receives, since it must lose whatever it has received? Seneca Moral Letters 110. 11-12
Once a person gets used to living frugally, they can manage it. However, money management becomes more difficult when they come into large chunks of money. Once a lot of money is saved and it’s time for retirement to start, it will become hard to understand how to use that money and make sure it’s not being spent. The average person lives to be 79 years old. That means anyone wishing to start retirement at 40 probably has another 40 years of life managing the money they saved.
Fighting Boredom and Lifestyle Changes
Yet what is more foolish than to wonder that something which may happen every day has happened on any one day? There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind. There is nothing more wretched than worry over the outcome of future events; as to the amount or the nature of that which remains, our troubled minds are set a-flutter with unaccountable fear. Seneca, Moral Letters 101. 7-8
Many want to retire early so they can travel, but what happens when life gets in the way? The world is currently in the middle of a pandemic. No one can travel. Additionally, travel costs money– a lot more money than a person can save. There is no way of knowing what will happen in the future. Those wanting to travel would be better suited taking a month or two off every year so they know what their life holds.
Retirement also leads to boredom. Many come out of retirement simply so they can have something to do. Why give up at least a part-time job when so many aspects of life could change? Most everyone else that age is working, so it’s not like that individual could get brunch every morning with their friends or go on extravagant trips with their loved one (unless they retired early, too).
The Fire Movement may seem appealing on paper, but it’s not worth the struggles involved with it. Enjoy the young adult years, get a 401k, and wait to retire. It will feel so much better then. Enjoy life’s journey with its challenges and opportunities. Don’t try to cut corners in living.
Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. And I myself believe that the period which stands, so to speak, on the edge of the roof, possesses pleasures of its own. Or else the very fact of our not wanting pleasures has taken the place of the pleasures themselves. How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them! “But,” you say, “it is a nuisance to be looking death in the face!” Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence. And one day, mind you, is a stage on life’s journey. Seneca, Moral Letters 12.5-6
Stoicism is a life long journey. It is a practice of continuous effort to improve. You cannot corners to improve through Stoicism. The same is true of retirement.