Uruguay. Most people know about the FIRE movement: “financial independence, retire early.” The idea is that if you work and save early in your career, you can potentially retire on savings invested wisely.

Early on in my marriage, my husband and I discussed different approaches toward work, time, family, and our life trajectory. What if there were other ways of thinking about retirement?

We really hashed out our greatest priorities in life. What’s the point of all this? We knew we didn’t want to be wage slaves, selling our bodies in an office and spending our lives with strangers, our coworkers. We also knew that our highest priority was our not-yet-born kids. We wanted to provide them with the best possible start in life, providing them the best opportunity to flourish.

This conversation was part of a larger approach we had toward marriage that feels in some way traditional: we think of our marriage as a project. Some of our peers center emotional connection as the priority in a marriage, whereas we tend to think of what we can accomplish as two individuals joined into the project of making a family and a home.

Before we were married, I nannied for a lot of wealthy people in Chicago, and they literally left the house at 6 a.m. and got back at 7 p.m. Kids were asleep when they left and getting ready for sleep when they got home. They often had work events on the weekends, too.

By every measure of our society, these people I nannied for were wildly successful. They were extremely wealthy, lived in mansions, and drove fancy cars. But they were slaves to a system that robbed them of their own lives and the relationships that matter most. I truly felt sorry for them.

So Patrick and I wondered: maybe we can work long hours before kids arrive, save up enough to get established in a home, and do a mini-retirement while they are all under 4 years old. Why spend our children’s most vulnerable years at work and retire at 65? It seemed plain to us that our kids really need us when they are young and we are just hitting our stride in our careers, in our late 20s and 30s.

What if there could be a new model for retirement? We imagined a mini-retirement for a period in our life course where we want to be rich in time, and the money can be just enough. Maybe others would like to dedicate a period to caring for young children or a sick parent. Or to spend time in pursuit of a creative goal that is not paid. Maybe you want to build a home with your hands, or go on a sabbatical to write a novel.

Neither my husband nor I are particularly afraid of thinking outside the box. We considered lots of potential options for how to structure our lives in order to maximize our priorities. We settled on purchasing some land in Uruguay and working very part time while our children are under 4 years old.

So this is what we’ve done. We worked and saved before having children, enough that we were able to buy our land and build a home outright. Being debt free with regard to a mortgage affords financial freedom because the monthly cost of living plummets.

We racked up graduate degrees that would open the door for remote work, and after our eldest daughter was born we settled into a work life wherein we both work very part time, live very frugally, and are around for these most essential years for our girls. It’s a trade off. We are constrained financially. But we are rich in time and relationships.

It’s trite to say, but does anyone look back at life and say, “I wish I worked more?”

What is the goal of life? Cultural messaging has tricked many of us into thinking it is wealth and status, or career advancement. For us, it is the project of our marriage, our family, friends, and the good we can do in the world.

No one will ever be able to take those early childhood memories from me and from our children. The first steps, the lullabies as we rocked to sleep, the early words, and first time in a swing and the giggles with glee. We were there. We felt it all. Not only were we there for the kids, we were there alongside one another, sharing in the full glory as a family.

Making this kind of mid-career break work is indeed complicated. Even while being with my kids, my part time work was writing my dissertation/book, completing my PhD, starting an international field school, a podcast, and a writing career. I have not been idle. But working in this way, in the in between moments, I’ve been able to be fully present.

My youngest daughter is two years old, and I am truly looking forward to ramping up my work life as she grows old enough for school. I have a lot I want to accomplish in my life’s vocation, and I want to provide materially for my kids, too. I want to turn my focus toward building a legacy for them to inherit.

And part of my vocation is to empower people: that’s why I offer our story as one example to show that you don’t have to believe the dominant narrative about work, life, relationships, and retirement. Corporations want to keep us in a hamster wheel where they control us. But we get to choose our life.

So maybe we can let go of the standard approach to retirement, and we can also evolve past FIRE, toward an approach to work that balances all our greatest hopes for what our lives can accomplish if we live intentionally.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Anecdotally, many FIRE adherents become landlords, which A) is still work, and B) is contributing to many of societies ills. They “invest” in out-of-state homes and charge onerous rents. They have no sense of connection or belonging to the place or their tenants, so they shirk on maintenance and contribute nothing to the local economy where the home is located, merely extract from it. We should all aspire to better.

    A good life doesn’t require the absence of work. I’d say it does require meaningful work. The fact that many people seem to want to do a job they don’t particularly like because it pays a lot of money, allowing them to leave it as soon as possible and then be a rentier, is a symptom of a troubled society IMO.

    • I kind of resent your negative attitude towards landlords, which is a broad category and often villainized. Am I correct in reading your comment that being a landlord is not meaningful work, or work at all? I have to wonder what experiences/anecdotes fuel these broad strokes.

      As a young woman who just purchased her first rental property, I also highly disagree with your generalization of landlords. I see it as a way to cultivate localism, invest in my community, and–greatest of all–create a lovely, safe place for people to live and create memories. I have fixed up the historic home with my own hands, restoring it after careless owners destroyed it. I live where I own my house and I take great pride in that ownership and the responsibility it entails. It is also an unbelievable amount of work.

      If we continue to bash and neuter small landlords, we are feeding the giant corporations that are the true bastions of greed and placelessness. You’d be shocked to find how many landlords of integrity exist in our country. Don’t let your generalization poison it for portion who are trying to build something good. It wounds me terribly and spits in the faces of those who work so hard to provide fair housing.

      Additionally, you need not be rich to own a rental property or work “a job they don’t particularly like because it pays a lot of money, allowing them to leave as soon as possible and then be a rentier…” Most mom-and-pop landlords have a job in addition to their property/ies.

      There is nothing more rewarding in any of my work than being able to a) fix a neglected, destroyed house (also by employing local people to help) and b) provide a reasonably priced, safe place to live for people who cannot or do not want to purchase their own home.

      Additionally, do you know where the money goes? Back into the house, mainly. The rest of it is money I’ve earned that goes into cultivating localism and my goal of a virtuous life. Not every landlord drives a BMW and is a jerk. It is a way that I can use my money to live out my values and work for myself and my family.

      Please fight the megacorporations buying up thousands of properties before you decry small landlords and investors. We have bigger problems on our hands. If you have a problem with what you think is a majority of landlords, you should buy your own rental property and do it “right”. It is a true privilege and very rewarding work, and you can compete against those who are glutinous vultures.

  2. Great essay, Ashley, and sage comment by Larry.

    I confess that I never heard this use of FIRE as an acronym until I read your essay. I am more familiar with this usage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_for_Individual_Rights_and_Expression

    I particularly liked the depth of your contemplation combined with a summary of practical applications.

    You ask, “Does anyone wish they worked more?” Well, having been in the gig economy for 24 years, yeah, I wish I’d gotten more work assignments.

    I also was a bit surprised to hear you declare that “marriage is a project” is a traditional concept. I don’t see it that way. I see my marriage as growth and adaptation rooted in commitment, not as intentionally planned.

    The notion of “project” seems more fitting for how people view their kids, micromanaging their destiny with minimal attunement to what the kids want. That seems to be a non-traditional (or maybe traditional for nobility) view that probably describes the people you nannied for.

  3. I enjoyed this essay. We prefer the term “work optional” which is our goal. I don’t want to retire at 52 but I want the freedom to work how much or how little I want and being choosy about what I do.

    In response to the question if anyone wishes they’d worked more, maybe, maybe not depending on how you look at it. What I’ve seen in my own family line is that people have not retired with dignity. Retirement is a time of stress and fear that you will outlive your money. Watching my grandmother torn between having to say goodbye to my grandfather or having to say goodbye to all their savings so he could move into a care facility was frankly terrifying. They retired before they should have and had gone to part-time before that. I see this with my mother-in-law now as well and my parents who are retired but both work quite a lot because they have money to live but not really to do anything else.

    Do they wish they had worked more or saved more? Probably both.

  4. This is an interesting take. I find that much of what you describe is what many FIRE adherents value. Take the Frugalwoods for example. FIRE has allowed them to live a Wendell Berry-esque life and take control of what they value. Financial Independence is what you and your husband have accomplished, and you are thus technically a FIRE family. Financial Independence, as the FIRE movement defines it, is the ability to take that kind of sabbatical. The “Retire Early” is just another portion of the movement. I find your article very in line with my understanding of FIRE (which is, granted, a very broad movement).

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