In a popular post on his website, early retirement guru Mr. Money Mustache rails against the excessive time and money we spend on cleaning. “In my own life, I’ve rarely had much occasion to think about cleaning,” he says. “I sweep the wood and tile floors when I notice leaves or dust accumulating, and run the vacuum cleaner over the rug every month or so.” He considers laundry a particular time-killer, so he avoids it. “My button-up outer shirts can be reused five to ten times before they look grubby,” he explains, adding that his jeans get the same treatment because he only wears them around his “clean house and city.”
If this hack for spending less time and money on cleaning sounds like it involves being less clean, that’s because it does. “In the cool, dry winters I might need a shower every two to three days,” he continues. “With careful re-hanging, my towel will last at least 10 showers before it smells anything less than perfectly fresh.” The upsides to this approach, he says, is increased free time, saved money and a more robust immune system.
Mr. Money Mustache is one of the most recognizable figureheads in the financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) community, a group of bloggers, podcasters and authors who evangelize about escaping the rat race through the power of frugal living. The exact prescription varies from blog to blog, but the essential principles are the same: live on a small percentage of your income (usually 50 percent at most), invest the savings and retire in less than a decade. To do this, devotees must trim all the fat from their middle-class lifestyles: ditch cars in favor of bicycles, cook at home instead of eating out and cancel Netflix in favor of a library card. To those in the FIRE community, these changes aren’t painful sacrifices — they’re win-win techniques for saving money, slowing down and becoming happier, healthier and richer.
A big characteristic of the FIRE community is that it’s packed to the rafters with male nerds. The movement burgeoned in the mid-2000s in the wake of the dot-com boom, and many of its key figures are socially awkward men with backgrounds in STEM fields. For example, Jacob Lund Fisker of Early Retirement Extreme, who’s widely credited as the OG FIRE blogger (he published the blog’s manifesto in 2008), was a nuclear astrophysicist before becoming financially independent at 30 by living on just $7,000 a year. He also identifies as an INTJ, hates loud bars, lives in an RV and doesn’t take his wife on dates.
“We do not get our meals out, mostly because I hate eating out,” he explains in one post. “My wife cooks practically all of our meals.” Mr. Money Mustache also touts the benefits of scrapping take-out, bragging that he’s been known to eat from “containers of pure olive oil” to save grocery costs. Like most FIRE gurus, both men dress with flairless efficiency. “In the winter, I usually wear a [$100] suit and jacket and a Hawaiian shirt,” Fisker advises. “Can you tell I got style?”
“Where are the women?” is a question that crops up every few months in FIRE forums, comment sections and on the /r/financialindependence subreddit, which boasts more than 520,000 subscribers. The overwhelming maleness of the community tends to promote defensiveness among its male figureheads, who respond by pointing out that anyone can follow the principles of financial independence — and banning discussions about gender. “No gender discussions / comparisons / complaints,” reads Rule 10 of the aforementioned subreddit. “Early retirement is about finances, saving, frugality […] Discussions about the differences between the genders does not belong here.” In this way, conversations about the unique challenges of saving money while female — after all, women are burdened with increased costs associated with beauty, grooming, childcare and gender discrimination in the pricing of goods and services — are foreclosed.
Also, like most spaces populated almost exclusively by male nerds, the FIRE community is both overtly and implicitly sexist. FIRE bloggers almost exclusively recommend the work of other men and ground their understanding of gender and social relations in armchair evolutionary psychology and Pick-Up Artist logic. “For the girls, like with most things, it’s more complicated,” Fisker quips in a post on cutting clothing costs. “But I guess that did not come as a surprise.” There are frequent gripes about the “spousal problem,” i.e., the difficulty frugal males have in finding women who want a life as austere as theirs. “Do any males here have trouble attracting women? I certainly do,” user methpearice asks in a FIRE forum, adding that women look down on him because he saves 85 percent of his income. “There’s an online community called ‘Manosphere’ which is about positive masculinity,” one user replies to him, while another counsels him to avoid “gold diggers” and “primitive women.”
This overlap with the manosphere isn’t surprising: the FIRE community’s shared lingo (see “Complainypants” and “Badassity”) and griping about shallow women and normatively successful men echoes Incel culture. “I’m getting tired of the pervasive media articles that detail how people are ‘surviving’ or ‘barely managing’ on what qualifies as average or definitely median household incomes,” Fisker moans in one post. “It’s like writing articles about 5-foot-10 guys who are ‘struggling’ with their height issues.” In another, he links approvingly to a sardonic, sexist video about marriage, prompting his readers to muse about female nature. “Most women ARE this way and it depresses me,” one user comments. “I read a book last month called Why Men Marry Bitches […] I thought it was a great read.”
Like the manosphere, the FIRE community obsesses over masculinity: specifically, the strong, self-sufficient kind embodied by figures like the Marlboro Man. “Everyone knew how to drive a manual transmission, use a table saw, give a good haircut and set up a tent,” Mr. Money Mustache gushes about the more frugal days of yore, whereas Fisker quotes Robert A. Heinlein adoringly, chides those too weak to live without air conditioning and scoffs at men who drive expensive cars — and the women who are impressed by them. “Your new sports car is nice, but what really impresses me is a heavily self-modded truck or an electric scooter built out of conduit pipe, old frame parts and discarded golf-cart batteries,” he says. “Conversely, I understand that the L.A. dating scene is entirely predicated on the price tag of one’s vehicle.”
Women in FIRE, then, are often hypothetical and stereotyped. They’re desired as partners by the men who populate the community, but also cast as incompatibly frivolous with their makeup and love of fine dining — too shallow and stupid, in other words, to want frugal men. When real, flesh-and-blood women feature in the community, it’s frequently as wives. The few female bloggers with any prominence in the scene are usually part of husband-and-wife duos, and while Fisker and Mr. Money Mustache are both married, their wives are, especially in Fisker’s case, largely background characters. (Mr. Money Mustache announced at the end of last year that he’s divorcing; he was at pains to point out that his frugality wasn’t at fault.)
Although few of them will admit that their relationships are anything other than perfectly egalitarian, perhaps having wives who think about the cleaning they “rarely have much occasion to think about” and cook the meals they detest paying for makes life much easier for these FIRE figureheads than they suggest, freeing up their time to tinker with bikes, erect tents and blog about shallow women.
Joe Udo, another prominent FIRE blogger, is at least honest about the extent of his wife’s contribution and sacrifice. He boasts that he quit his computer-engineering career to start a blog named Retire By 40 and dropped the news on his wife while she was seven months pregnant. “Of course, she didn’t like that one bit,” he jests. How does he do it? Rental and online income, dividends and… his wife’s income. “Life has been outstanding as a stay-at-home dad, blogger and early retiree,” he enthuses. “On the other hand, Mrs. RB40 has been working full-time.”
“I’m extremely lucky,” he adds almost bashfully, “that Mrs. RB40 likes her job.”