You Can’t Fail at FIRE

Attempting to achieve financial independence and/or retire early is an audacious goal. It takes grit. It takes gumption. It takes perseverance. It takes patience. It is an audacious goal, a lofty one, but here is the truly crazy thing about it:

You can’t fail at FIRE

Seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? If a goal is a difficult one, it stands to reason that only a few will stick it out to the end, the unfortunate rest will fail, and will sit around licking their wounds. Not so with financial independence. Not by a long shot.


What Does Failure Look Like?

Meet Geetha. Geetha is 26, and has just stumbled upon the tribe of folks aspiring to financial independence. Enthusiastically, Geetha joins the party. She starts to save with enthusiasm and invest with gusto. She scribbles on the back of envelopes and spends an unhealthy amount of time with cfiresim. She determines that her journey will be 15 years long and that she will retire at 41 with a stash of $1.2 million dollars.

Let’s say that Geetha never makes it to $1.2 million dollars at 41. Technically, Geetha has failed at achieving her goal. Or has she? What might this “failure” look like?


Scenario 1: Geetha has $800,000 at the age of 40, and is still striving for FIRE

With $800,000 on her 40th birthday, getting to $1.2 million when she turns 41 seems like a stretch. What happened? Life happened. Geetha got married, and then divorced, and is now a single mother. Or maybe Geetha got laid off along the way, and was out of a job for a year and a half. Or maybe Geetha’s mother back home in India got cancer, and Geetha took some time off to care for her, and spent some of her savings on getting her mother set up. They say that there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and when it takes fifteen years for the cup to get to the lip, there is much opportunity for life to bump your elbow.

But would we consider calling someone with $800,000 stashed away at the age of 40 a failure? I think not.

The possible outcomes for Geetha from this point are many, and all of them are good. Her rate of saving could accelerate again, and she could get to financial independence at 45. Would a 45 year old retiree sit around bemoaning the fact that they failed because they didn’t get there at 41? Nope, I don’t think so.


Scenario 2: Geetha has $300,000 and has fallen off the wagon for good

Geetha had a number of years with a savings rate of 65%. She amassed $300,000. Then one day she was presented with the opportunity to work her dream job. It was a risky move and would require a complete shift in career paths. It would mean a salary cut. You know what allowed Geetha to jump off that cliff and fly? The giant $300,000 cushion waiting at the bottom to break her fall. Geetha loves her job. She no longer has any interest in financial independence or retiring early. She intends to work till she drops.

Look at her now, fulfilled and happy, with a solid nest egg in place for when she does get too decrepit to work any longer. If that is what failure looks like, sign me up.


Scenario 3: Geetha has $15,000, and the road ahead seems long and steep

While the idea of scaling the financial independence wall sounded like fun, the truth is that Geetha has a job that does not exactly shower her with money. She finds talk of sky high salaries, giant bonuses and restricted stock units both alien and annoying. Her life seems filled with altogether too many sacrifices, and the reality is that she struggles to put away $1,500 a month. She has kept at it for a while though, and has built up $15,000 in savings, but she is sick of feeling so far behind. At this rate it is clear that she will never hit her goal in 15 years. It will probably take double that time!

At her current savings rate early retirement may not be a reality for Geetha, but should we label her a failure? She has a solid emergency fund in place – car tires blowing out, small medical emergencies, a sudden flight due to a death in the family, a few months of unemployment – she is in a position where she can handle a lot of stuff without coming financially undone. Even if she decides to abandon the goal of early retirement, and save only $1,000 a month from here on out, her small nest egg will grow to comfortable proportions in time for a regular retirement, and that is more than what most people can say.


Getting Off The Highway Isn’t Failure

You may start off on the highway to financial independence, pedal to the metal. The truth is that you may not ever get there. There are many turnoffs, and they can lead to wonderful places. You may decide to take the scenic route, or meander off to a completely different destination.

Can't fail at FIRE

The pursuit of financial independence will teach you how to manage your money. It will result in a stash, though the stash may end up being smaller than what you originally set out to amass. It will teach you to consume less, and appreciate all the things in your life that aren’t stuff. It will strengthen your spine, and allow you to disregard the Joneses. It will likely teach you life skills – you may learn how to cook, how to fix things around your house, how to travel-hack. You will learn that there is much fun to be had without opening your wallet.


The result of pursuing financial independence is that even if you never get to the finish line, you are very likely to get to somewhere worth going. So get on the road, and rest assured that failure is simply not an option.


27 thoughts on “You Can’t Fail at FIRE”

  1. I agree with this take completely. I recently wrote a series of posts about why I am pursuing FI, and part of that is buying options. The further along the path to FI you are, the more options you have. You do a great job here of illustrating how starting along this path puts you in a better position in the future, whether or not you actually hit your initial goal.

  2. Life’s about changing and its the only thing that stays the same. I think there was a country song about that that I heard at least once.

    Love your posts! Keep up the inspiration, please 🙂

  3. I have absolutely no doubt that my plan with be changing many times in the next few years. I take a bit of solace in the fact that I am older and the big life changers (houses/kids) are past me already. That being said, as we age the health factor comes more into play. But who cares?! This FI idea is about quitting the “have to’s” in favor of the “want to’s”. I know I will be working after FI – I hate the thought of not contributing to the planet in some small way. Will it be exactly what I am thinking at this moment…probably not. Will I have as much saved as I am aiming for? Maybe…or maybe not. I think the one thing we can all agree on is the lifestyle that seems to go with FI seekers. Deliberate, intentional, often frugal with less consumption and more action. If that is where this life takes us then we are all winners! 🙂

    1. I like how you put that – replacing the have-tos with the want-tos. A life replete with want-tos sounds pretty damn awesome. And of course we are the winningest winners that ever there were. I’m just waiting for someone to show up with a nice shiny medal : )

  4. This is what I love about FIRE

    “What if you don’t make it?” – I’ll have a massive nest egg and a wealth of knowledge
    “What if you hate it?” – I’ll have a massive nest egg and a wealth of knowledge (and I’ll go back to work)
    “What if you change your mind” – I’ll have a massive nest egg and a wealth of knowledge

    There is no downside to me.

    1. Ha! Exactly. There are so few things in this life with no downside AND WE HAVE OUR HANDS AROUND ONE OF THEM. I, for one, am never letting go. Cue villainous laughter: Muhahahahahhahaahahhaahah.

  5. Standing ovation for this article! Great metaphor on how life can change your initial plan, throw curve balls, show you opportunities to live the ideal life already now,…

    Not taking these opportunities because you have a money goal would be the complete opposite of the original intent: live life like you want, according to the needs you encounter.

    And in the end, the system will stay in place!

    1. Why, thank you sir! (Bows repeatedly)

      Yep! Failing to adapt is just silly. We didn’t get to be the super successful species we are by stubbornly refusing to change our minds about anything.

  6. I love this line “even if you never get to the finish line, you are very likely to get to somewhere worth going” – you are so right! Life gets messy at times, but if you keep learning and have FIRE as your goal – you will definitely have wins along the way. Those wins may be incremental but they will keep you motivated for more – but on your own timeline.

    1. Thanks Vicki! And congratulations on being one of those precious few who did in fact make it to the finish line. I hope to join you there in a few short years.

  7. Love this post, makes me feel better about where we are at. FIRE is not in the cards for us, as I just discovered it a couple of years ago and there are not that many years to go until senior status 🙂 Love your blog.

    1. Thanks so much Val, and I much appreciate the fact that you took the time to comment. Though the ‘E’ of FIRE may not be on the cards for you, if you get the FI and R, that puts you way ahead of the vast majority of the population.

  8. You are absolutely right!!!!!

    “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

    Even if we don’t retire by 45 my wife and I will still be way closer than if we had done nothing. More likely than not we will still be able to retire before 65!

    1. Yes, this exactly. I had this same epiphany one day when I obsessing about missing my ‘date’ for reasons beyond my control (a market downturn, loss of a job, illness of a parent, whatever). And then I realized that the ‘date’ is an artificial deadline set by me, and while it is a good motivator, I can’t let it determine my happiness. Even if I miss the date I need to remember that up until one year ago I thought I would be working till 65!

      P.S. I don’t intend to miss my date.

  9. Interesting post and something that has been on my mind lately. I agree that you can’t fail at fire but sometimes I wonder if I didn’t have my pedal to the metal, maybe I’d just enjoy life more. We already naturally frugal and don’t consume much. Also, with a stable pension and other retirement accounts, we could coast toward semi-early retirement at age 55. I’d love to FIRE by like 45 though but it’s tough when you live in a high cost of living area and have no plans to leave (our family and friends are all here). Great point on the map with part-time work, mini sabbaticals and chasing a dream job. One obstacle is my employer isn’t flexible with part-time work and the pension (state government) is a bit of a golden handcuff.

    1. This is a valid consideration and a great point. We save a lot (on target for over $200k this year), but we also spend a fair amount. We could trim our budget back even more, there is plenty of fat in there, but we choose not to for this reason. We want to build the life we want now, and then save for it. So we make sacrifices, but not too many. It is a constant balancing act. Of course, I fully realize that this is easier for us to do because of our high incomes, and I am grateful for that every day.

  10. This is such a great take on FIRE. I sometimes feel anxiety because random expenses come up and I feel like I may never reach my goal. But the positive spin is that even though I may not reach my goal, the work I’m doing puts me in a much better position than if I didn’t even try. So maybe I retire at 48 instead of 44 – if that’s the worst that can happen, I don’t really have much to worry about.

    1. “if that’s the worst that can happen, I don’t really have much to worry about.” You got that right. That is one of the many wondrous things about this journey – the worst case scenarios are pretty damn rosy.

  11. I like artificial goals best of all because I can know deep down that it’s a conscious choice to challenge myself and that if we miss the mark, it’s still ok because we aim high. And if we’re so motivated, or lucky, we can adjust our sights even higher as our situation changes, as it so inevitably does.

    Who knows, maybe in ten years we’ll find that we want a brood of five and to travel with them full time. Or we’ll find my health magically improved and our appetite for risk and adventure to be vastly increased. Or we’ll finally move out to the ranch that I pie-in-the-sky dream of with fifty dogs we’re taking good care of and finding good homes for. Who knows what’s going to happen? I’m ok with not knowing and planning to give us the choice from all kinds of possibilities.

    1. All of those possibilities sound awesome. Except the 5 kids. That is altogether too many kids for the likes of me. I think it is awesome pants that you are working to give your family such a plethora of possible futures.

  12. I love this. I think so often we (I really mean me) get so down on myself for being “behind the curve.” But I’m only comparing myself to a very small portion of the population…the MMM’s of the world. I wonder if it’s sometimes worth the effort. But then I look at my net worth and smile. 🙂 Because just recently being where I’m at has given me an option that has helped my health and sanity.

    1. Our world of FIRE blogs and all the forums conspire to give us a skewed view of the world. It is easy to forget that we are the 1%, or probably less. I don’t know if you ever visit the FIRE subreddit, but that is a great place to make you feel bad about yourself if you aren’t careful – simply swarming with 20-somethings with obscenely high NWs. I’m glad to hear your NW recently came in handy to improve your life – that right there is your money working for you.

  13. Really great post! Sometimes in trying to explain FIRE to others they get so focused on 1 goal only… early retirement. But your goal may be something else or it may change. Who cares?!?! A high savings rate gives people options, security, peace and the ability to take chances. I’m definitely going to be sharing this post.

    1. Thanks Allison. “A high savings rate gives people options, security, peace and the ability to take chances. I’m definitely going to be sharing this post.” Well said! This path gives us choices, more the longer we stay on it, and those choices empower us and allow us to be the best version of ourselves.

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