Sunday, February 24, 2019

Take What's Useful, Ignore the Rest: On "KonMari" and "FIRE"


Back in December 2014, when I started writing here, I first encountered both Marie Kondo's book and the Financial Independence, Retire Early ("FIRE") movement at about the same time. Although one wouldn't necessarily know it from my writing (I started writing about "KonMari"-style decluttering immediately, but my first mention of FIRE by name was not until early 2018, though I did link Frugalwoods in mid-2016, so one could infer I had become familiar with FIRE by then), I was thinking about, and learning from, both schools of thought simultaneously, since the beginning. Both sets of ideas were major influences to me at the start of the money-conscious minimalism-ish journey that I've been documenting here all this time.

In my personal interpretation of KonMari method and FIRE, the two have significant traits in common. Although I don't think think this is clear from the Netflix show, Kondo's book explains that when a person goes through her "tidying up" process and learns what physical objects "spark joy", it often causes them to think about more abstract things, including how they want to live their life and spend their time. "The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life." To me, KonMari is about keeping the things (both physical and intangible) that you want in your life, that you like and need, or that you value, and then leaving the rest behind. And some of the ideas associated with FIRE are similar. Because FIRE is, to a large extent, about increasing one's savings rate, which often means reducing expenses, many adherents recommend aggressively cutting spending on things one doesn't need or value. Furthermore, the theoretical end goal is the "dream" of not needing a traditional full-time job, so it's very much about being able to spend one's time living the life one wants.

On my initial reading of these ideas, I thought of both as being the sort of flexible and relatively "friendly" type of self-help and advice that I favor. As a general matter, I prefer to be gently cajoled into doing things with light-hearted, supportive words and reassurance. I find any judgmental language in minimalism and personal finance discourse, anything harsh and lacking empathy for different people and their situations, extremely distasteful and off-putting (i.e. suggestions that if you ever wear or buy any "fast fashion" ever, you must be a decadent clotheshorse who hates the planet, or, that if you ever buy a latte or a more expensive piece of clothing or makeup, you're a profligate spendthrift). And to me, when one isolates the actual, required fundamentals of each concept, it seems clear that various important and helpful elements of each can be adapted to a wide range of lifestyle choices and circumstances.

Thus, when it comes to both theories, KonMari and FIRE, I've always thought it easy to take and learn what was useful to me from each and ignore the rest of the pieces associated with them. If there's something in either set of ideas I find unhelpful or unproductive, then that's fine. The ideas are flexible enough that I can continue on with the rest.

On KonMari Method and its Flexibility by Design 

I don't think it would come as a mystery to anyone here why I think of Marie Kondo's ideas as being flexible and welcoming. Even in writing, her ideas come across as cheerful and gentle, and I recall several mentions in the book about how readers should do what works best for them. The flexibility of her methods, and just how much of a sweetheart she is, also come across in the Netflix show.

There's not actually much I ignore from Kondo's methods because they're such simple and mostly common-sense ideas. There aren't a lot of firm rules to KonMari that could potentially need to be modified or ignored. The only concrete things, really, that I don't adhere to are some of her wardrobe storage suggestions. I'm quite lazy about folding anything, much less my socks (though once I do fold my clothes, I like storing them standing up in my dresser drawers the way she recommends). I'm also not sure her handbag storage method (storing one bag inside another) particularly works, but in my case, the bigger problem is that there simply isn't any one space in our home where I can store my handbags in a particularly logical or organized way, even if I put some bags in other bags, so there was never going to a winning method anyone could recommend.

Outside of that, the only other conspicuous way I deviate from KonMari ideas is that, while I fully believe it is a "do it once, apply the lessons forever, and never re-accumulate unwanted clutter again" process, just as she describes it, with regards to everything else, it simply doesn't work that way for my closet. I simply like clothes and accessories too much, and my tastes gradually shift over time. I went through several rounds of closet culling before I first learned about KonMari, tidied up my closet again using her methods, and have required further rounds of closet cleaning since. And oftentimes, items I was on the fence about (but ultimately decided to keep) several rounds of decluttering ago won't even get worn again in the months or years between the first time I identified the item as being a "maybe resell" or "maybe discard" and when I finally decide to let it go. Alas, I find it hard to be decisive about my closet, especially because I have certain work wardrobe needs for categories of items I don't particularly enjoy, including blazers or business formal.

Anyway, the inherent flexibility by design of Marie Kondo's ideas is why I was so shocked when people (and what seemed like a lot of people) responded so negatively or harshly to her Netflix show, especially because their reasons for it were so silly and inconsistent with anything she actually wrote or said. And some people were rather transparently racist about it, which was awful.

On FIRE... And its More Complicated Dimensions

It might be far more surprising, especially in light of recent events, that I think of FIRE as being at all gentle or particularly friendly. There's no way around how a lot of FIRE discourse, particularly on Twitter and Reddit, can sound extremely harsh and proscriptive. There are undertones of how "if you don't do x, you're probably a self-indulgent, undisciplined wastrel and your inability to FIRE is your own darn fault," or even more distressingly, "if you ever talk about 'privilege' or dare mention structural inequality, than you're an irrational, 'intellectually lazy' SJW who doesn't believe in personal responsibility" or other things like that. I'm being a bit facetious, but only slightly. And I could go on and on.* 

But there's also no reason, based on the fundamental principles, that FIRE needs to be that way, at least as far as I can tell. After all, the theory is simply about saving a lot of money (typically in the seven figures for Americans unless they have other reliable and robust sources of passive income, so it's a lot by any stretch of the imagination); enough to live indefinitely on investment returns (the typical baseline assumption is that one can perpetually withdraw ~4% each year, though I haven't researched the data supporting this for myself); taking a certain approach to investments to try and facilitate adequate investment returns (usually heavily featuring low-fee index funds such as VTSAX); and planning to stick to a lower-cost lifestyle that one can afford to sustain indefinitely based on what was saved and invested. That's really it, as far as I can tell, having followed the community on and off for years.

And I think it's immediately obvious that a successful application of FIRE could look different for every individual and their family. Just among the most famous bloggers in that space that I'm aware of (Mr. Money Mustache, Our Next Life, and Frugalwoods, and probably tons of others), as well as the bloggers I follow who self-report as being in the process of implementing concrete plans for FIRE (including YAPFB and Financial Mechanic), there's lots of differences to their lifestyle choices and how they approach things. 

As for me personally, I don't think of myself as a "true" FIRE adherent, mostly because I don't particularly enjoy math, and therefore have no inclination to calculate long-term projections about my money. Plus, I haven't even done the work to actually figure out how much I'd need to be "financially independent", in the FIRE sense of the word! Frankly, it's too daunting, and potentially depressing, to think about. I simply don't know how much I'd need to take care of the children I hope to have, in the way I believe is best (and K too; we've always had substantially the same values regarding these questions), with all the things we hope to provide for them, much less to help take care of all our other potential dependents, which could include our parents and some of our extended family at various points in our lives and theirs. Among many, many other things, I'd like to contribute a significant amount of financial support to my hypothetical future children if they choose to go to graduate or professional school, a thing a surprisingly large percentage of my law school peers had, though I don't expect to be able to pay anywhere close to full tuition. To me, if one doesn't have a "FIRE number" in mind and at least a vague sense of when it might be accomplished, it just doesn't make much sense to identify as actively working towards "FIRE". 

That doesn't mean I don't learn from FIRE ideas, taking what's useful to me and ignoring and leaving the rest. There's a lot almost anyone can learn from FIRE, I think, especially because the basic ideas are mostly about saving money and investing in a reasonably sensible way, things with the potential to help most people if they can be accomplished. The low-fee index fund-centric approach many FIRE proponents are fond of aligns more or less perfectly with my risk tolerance and expectations. All I really want from my investments, after all, is to more or less keep up with the market, I don't think I have the knowledge and skills, or the inclination, to do anything to try to beat it, so a total market index fund is a-okay.

Furthermore, I'll always credit FIRE-related online writing for being my first source of concrete information regarding a method for calculating how much I should save for retirement. And that's a pretty important and very good thing that's hard to find elsewhere! Previously, the only thing I'd seen anywhere about this question (neither of the introductory personal finance books I'm a fan of provided firm suggestions on how to do this math) was that terribly unhelpful "save __ percent of your salary by __ age" stuff, which simply isn't useful if you're taking a less traditional path. In my case, I expect dramatic salary fluctuations throughout my career, both downwards and maybe upwards again (though probably never as high as in these years I'm spending in biglaw-ish), so pegging retirement savings goals to my salary simply doesn't make sense. Given my tendency towards brief but recurrent bouts of sometimes irrational levels of money-related anxiety (a thing I'll maintain is rendered quite reasonable solely on the basis of the cost of medical care in this fine country), just having that reassurance, that if I've saved and tried to properly invest x, then I can probably withdraw 4% of x a year and likely not significantly deplete the amount I started out with in the long run, is extremely helpful.

And I understand why many people out there in the world might find FIRE, or some of its more outspoken proponents, rather alienating. Frankly, some people who identify with FIRE often sound like jerks, particularly on Twitter or Reddit. And I've seen some pretty wacky, sometimes rather extreme or nontraditional ideas espoused, which could cause people to roll their eyes and write off the whole genre. And I really do have a lot of empathy for how painful it can be to read about something that's necessarily and obviously going to be easier for people who earn extremely high incomes, maybe a six-figure salary and sometimes a very substantial one, even in the very early stages of their careers. After all, I've long had a complex about sometimes feeling "less than" in this profession because I originally come from a noticeably lower socioeconomic class than a large percentage of my peers. And I had so many privileges growing up, I wanted for absolutely nothing, and was also well-prepared to succeed in college and then at a law school with a great biglaw placement rate. It's just that there's still a huge gap between that and having parents or extended family who can significantly subsidize the cost of law school!

I see FIRE the way I see KonMari method, as something flexible and that is really, at its heart, just a set of common sense, sometimes aspirational ideas that might be helpful to try, even if one isn't fully successful in applying all of them. I also see both things as somewhat solitary pursuits, things for an individual (or sometimes a nuclear family) to put into practice without imposing it on others or necessarily needing to proselytize about it. Just as it would not be fair to try and declutter someone else's things for them, it would certainly not be cute or reasonable to run around telling friends or colleagues that their spending habits or money management skills are bad.

Relatedly, I'm often slightly confused when people get too angry or heated about things to do with FIRE and want to criticize all of it as being about tech bros from Silicon Valley, or to claim that it's categorically unrealistic and impossible. My feelings cut both ways however, and I'm even more confused by people who, er, want to write about "defending" the integrity of "FIRE community" from the feminist "SJWs", or whatever, to reassure themselves that they need not worry about their precious "FIRE community", that it's safe and protected from such dastardly "out there" ideas as feminism. Out of the vast sea of wackadoodle things I've seen written on personal finance blogs and Reddit, that particular set of comments at Bitches get Riches has always stuck with me the most because it's just so strange. It's very clear that was not the blog for them, so why feel the need to go there and make trouble?  (I'm always in support of people getting heated or intense about calling out racism, sexism, and other problematic behavior or writing, by the way, I hope that goes without saying, given some of the things I've written about here.)

*The "manifesto" being referred to in that discussion (don't worry, it's an link, so you won't be giving it any pageviews) is monstrous, for quite a few reasons, not least of all because it contains ~8,000 words of questionable coherence. And I thought I wrote excessively long and rambling blog entries! (This one is ~2,700 words.) For additional context, I recently contributed to a major legal brief filed in a case that could be worth millions in the end, possibly just in legal fees for both sides. It was around 40 pages (including the required table of contents, long list of cited cases, and signature block listing many attorneys), and it was barely 11,000 words, including things that needed to be heavily quoted from an opposing party's filing. 

Frankly, as someone who regularly reads through incredibly large volumes of fairly dense and sometimes unpleasant documents for a living, I couldn't even get through the thing, except to identify a few sentences inside it that were awful, and also factually incorrect. I'm reminded of times when federal judges are inspired to get snarky about certain unrepresented, or pro se, litigants and their filings (which isn't especially kind, nor befitting proper judicial temperament, though usually the situation is extreme, and the court's harsh language is not undeserved), especially when the filings are so "rambling, at times incoherent and nonsensical, disjointed . . .  not alleg[ing] any plausible claims" or consisting of a "labyrinthian prolixity of unrelated and vituperative charges that defied comprehension" that this trait of the papers alone may warrant dismissal of the case for failure to draft a initial filing that is sufficiently "short and plain". 

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