firewomen

The Women of FIRE Are Blazing Their Own Trail in Early Retirement

Men may dominate the media coverage, but women are just as determined to live off five cents a day and move to Aruba at age 39

Financial Mechanic, a blogger in the financial independence and early retirement (FIRE) community who plans to achieve financial freedom by the age of 32, is explaining how she embarked on her money-saving lifestyle. “I was a frugal university student trying to leap into the world of adulthood,” she tells me. “I landed my first job as a software engineer, and I was making more money than I knew what to do with.” Finding herself with surplus savings, she wanted to make sure she was being the best possible steward of her cash, and started reading FIRE subreddits and blogs. “I found the Mr. Money Mustache blog and read it from the first post to the last in just a few weeks,” she says. “I was ravenous to read more about frugal people designing a life for themselves.”

As she got a grip on the principles of the movement — broadly, to significantly cut expenses until you’re living on a small percentage of your income, and invest the rest until you have the financial freedom to live your best possible life — Financial Mechanic wondered if she could add her voice to the movement. “Mr. Money Mustache had a post about how to start a blog, and I considered it,” she continues. “But his impetus for writing was frustration with the idiocy of the world, and he wrote about face-punching people in clown cars. I wasn’t sure if my voice would fit in this hyper-masculine space.” After discovering female FIRE members like Frugalwoods and Fiery Millennial, however, she realized there was more diversity in the movement than it first seemed. “The voices of women matter,” she says. “I realized that my voice and my story could matter, too.”

I’ve been fascinated by the FIRE community for several years now, especially the sexism, strange self-denial and straight-up batshittery of some of the most prominent men in the community, which I wrote about earlier this year. The article was widely read, but it received some criticism from women in the community that their presence was ignored or minimized. So to follow up, I spoke to four women about their experiences with the lifestyle, and found that they’re more moderate voices in comparison to notorious figureheads like Mr. Money Mustache and Jacob Lund Fisker.

One such woman is Tanja Hester, the “matriarch of women in FIRE,” according to the New York Times, author of Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way and creator of the Our Next Life blog. She tells me that the presence of women in FIRE is a complicated issue. “I don’t think the community is male-dominated in actual numbers, but the tone of the conversation has largely been set by the earliest bloggers in the space, namely Mr. Money Mustache, who proudly takes a ‘face punch’ approach to getting people to change their ways,” she explains. “So much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ in FIRE is very blind to the realities of many people, including women, people with disabilities — the advice to ride your bike everywhere you go is awfully ubiquitous, and leaves no room for those who physically can’t do so — and people on low incomes who aren’t caring for other loved ones.”

Felicity, creator of the blog Fetching Financial Freedom, agrees that the perception of FIRE as male-dominated is likely more to do with tone than numbers. “The media stories about the FIRE community trend much more male, possibly because men are more likely to make grandiose statements like, ‘I retired at 30, and you can too!’ that are stellar clickbait,” she says, adding that she knows of more FIRE women than men in Seattle, where she’s based. “There’s a larger gap for black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern voices, though. The FIRE community seems much more white than male from my perspective.”

All of the women tell me the movement needs more diversity. “Diverse perspectives make us think about our money in different ways,” Financial Mechanic says. “For example, as a straight, cis, child-free woman, I’d never thought about the costs associated with same-sex couples attempting to conceive, and how maternity and paternity laws apply. It wasn’t until I listened to a podcast where a couple called in to explain their situation that I realized that I’d never even considered it before, even though it’s a huge financial implication for many to consider.”

Tori Dunlap, a millennial money and career expert who founded Her First $100K, feels the same way. “FIRE is 100 percent a male-dominated space,” she says. “Although us ladies are making spaces of our own, the narrative that’s been perpetuated is one of the ‘tech-bro’ — high-earning, straight, white, no kids. So we still have a long way to go — not just in the FIRE community, but in society as a whole. We know about the wage gap — 78 cents to a man’s dollar, even worse if you’re a woman of color — but we’re not talking about the fact that women either wait to invest their smaller earnings, or don’t invest at all.”

It strikes me that for all this talk about diversity and societal inequality, though, the FIRE philosophy is uncritical of the current realities of capitalism, advocating for individual rather than collective solutions — i.e., the goal is to game the system by saving your way to financial independence rather than organizing collectively for workers’ rights and overhauling the system for everyone’s benefit. “The focus of FIRE is more on the individual level, which I’d have to say is a weakness,” Felicity agrees. “You have politics from libertarian all the way to liberal activists, and plenty of people who either don’t like politics or don’t like talking about politics.”

“The politics of people in the FIRE movement vary, because people are brought together by their goal of financial independence, not their political beliefs,” Financial Mechanic adds. “There are Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, moderates — you name it — all striving for financial freedom.” (When I ask, she says she’s not aware of any socialists within the FIRE community.) “When you’re looking at the FIRE movement as a whole, the mission is innately individual,” she says. “It’s about independence.”

Hester is acknowledged as a FIRE blogger concerned with systemic issues, although she doesn’t think that wanting to fix a broken system is incompatible with wanting to guarantee your own financial security within it. “In many ways, the FIRE movement is a response to our broken late-stage capitalist system, in that we see all of the broken social contracts that exist,” she explains. “Most of us no longer have the possibility of pensions or security in our later years, like our grandparents and even parents did. The approach of taking your financial future into your own hands is borne of the realization that no one at a broader level is looking out for any of us.”

Image via Her First $100k