Financial Independence

Becoming Obsessed with Financial Independence Can Feel Like a Prison Sentence

Many that pursue FIRE become obsessed with financial independence. People will set a date when they expect to retire. Some shout it out to the world, while others keep it to themselves, afraid of jinxing it if they share it publicly.

We create excel sheets and compulsively check the numbers by running them through different retirement calculators. We zoom in on THE DATE and suddenly, it becomes the focus of our existence.

Suddenly, we find ourselves living in negative numbers.
Obsessed with Financial Independence

Obsessed with Financial Independence

Today it is day -3625. In three thousand six hundred and twenty five days I will retire. On that day I will have achieved my goal.

The result is that instead of living our lives and enjoying the journey to financial independence and early retirement, we turn the process into a prison sentence, where we are serving time.

The danger of focusing on the future

When we focus exclusively on something that can only happen in the future, we endanger our happiness in the here and now. Instead of celebrating our successes and feeling grateful for all the blessings in our present life, we yearn for a future date and despair about how long it will take to get there.

This definitely happened to me when I first set up Smelling Freedom two years ago. I started off really excited and I created lots of spreadsheets working out different early retirement scenarios. Next I realized that I would indeed get there, but that it would take a few years.

I set a date and even put a counter on my phone. The result was a disaster – I ended up obsessing about how long it would take to get there. In the end I took a whole year’s break from blogging in order to break the cycle of anxiety that I had managed to get myself caught up in.

Uncertainty and the Need for Closure

Research about the psychology of waiting has shown that people who are waiting for a specific date such as an examination result, a wedding or early retirement, exhibit a number of anxious behaviors.

  • Rumination: This involves thinking about the event you are waiting for and worrying about potential negative outcomes. The typical FIRE blogger would think about the markets or worry that he or she won’t find a tenant for a rental investment. They could also worry about sequence of events risk or whether the safe withdrawal rate is safe enough, or health insurance, or the myriad of other things that could put a spoke in the wheels of their plans.
  • Need for closure: People are usually not very tolerant of uncertainty, and they like to get things over and done with. This means that when they find themselves faced with a situation that could take them years to resolve, their anxiety levels spike.

We all struggle with the anxiety of uncertainty and waiting. However obviously people with different characters would be impacted to differing degrees. Those who, like me, dislike uncertainty and have a high need for closure, would struggle much more than others who are much more comfortable with the unknown and do not mind waiting. Our propensity for optimism or pessimism also impacts our outlook on life and the way we feel when waiting for a much desired future event.

Are you, or is anyone you know, #obsessedwithmonehy? Especially the #FIREMovement? #FI is addicting, be careful that it doesn't become the center of your world.

So what can we do to overcome these struggles?

I have found that it helps to force myself to stop ruminating on the numbers and reaching financial independence. Looking for and taking up different hobbies and focusing on my immediate successes helps. I run, I read and I knit. And I make time for my family and friends.

I also sit and think about the many blessings I have in my life and how great my here and now is.

In other words I tell myself that I do not need to wait till I retire in order to be happy. I can be happy today.

It’s good to plan and important to have goals. However we need to be careful that we do not allow these targets to become the centre of our existence. Aiming for financial independence and a happy and satisfying early retirement is definitely a very important and life defining goal. However for those of us who still have a long way to go until we get there, I recommend breaking out of the prison of our anxieties and expectations and focusing on being happy now.

Our journey to FIRE should not be just about the destination, but also about the journey.

Mrs. Smelling Freedom profile imageMrs. Smelling Freedom sold her business in 2016 and launched into a corporate career. She thinks the 4% rule is equivalent to killing and slowly eating the goose that lays the golden eggs, so her plan is to achieve Financial Freedom based on passive income streams alone.

12 replies on “Becoming Obsessed with Financial Independence Can Feel Like a Prison Sentence”

Very insightful post, Mrs. SF.

I’m actually grateful that I was blissfully unaware of the concept of FIRE until I discovered it and realized I was FI. I almost feel bad for the people just starting their careers with FIRE in mind. The ten years or so it took me to reach that milestone would have been a long slog if I had been focused on that singular goal throughout that time.

I might have reached it a year or two sooner, but the rumination and seemingly slow progress would have been a true struggle.


Your prison sentence analogy is really memorable. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s funny, I like seeing definite FIRE dates and counters on other people’s blogs, but I don’t want to have a firm date in mind for myself. Like you, I really crave closure, and I think it would make me anxious.

I ran into a coworker with a new baby recently. When I asked him how he was, he said, “I’m not wishing the time away, but it’s tough right now.” Especially because I have young kids who are delightful right now, I don’t want to get into a mindset where I’m wishing my time away and thinking that my real, better life will begin at some point in the future. Not all FIRE people think this way, I’m sure, but I would be prone to it.

I set a date, more a deadline…hence my name, MrFIREby2023. I feel no pressure. If the markets fall apart, especially real estate market, then I’ll feel pressure. Otherwise I’m planning to stick to this deadline. In fact, I am liable to pull the trigger at any time, if there’s a moment that arrives where I’ve had all the work-related (my boss) B.S. that I can stand! When I say, “enough is enough,” than Katie bar the door; I’ll call it quits!

I have found life to be wonderfully unpredictable. 10 years ago I was in a slowly falling apart 7 year relationship. I figured in 10 years I’d have kids etc etc. Instead I changed jobs local to where I was twice, moved out of state for a job, got a different job, bought a condo. I’ve gained some wonderful friends in the past 10 years, and held on to others. If the past 10 years were an adventure, how could I begin to predict the next 10? Therefore I’m saving for / towards FI. I’m targeting being out of corporate work by or before 50. I fully intend to have other things to occupy my time, for which maybe I’ll get paid for some? There is a good chance in the next 10 years jobs change again, I move again, I could get married or not, if company stock goes really high, maybe I take a grown up gap year, maybe that pushes my # to definitely below 50. 🙂 I’m going to save in the mean time and see what happens.

This was a lesson that was a long time in the learning.

4 years of high school.

4 years of college (or 5 if you were Mrs. BPR).

4 years of medical school for Mrs. BPR. 5 years of actuarial exams for me.

5 years of residency.

1 year of fellowship.

And now, 3 years to being vested in the 401k.

Each time we’ve grabbed one brass ring, another one has appeared. It’s not the hamster-wheel so much as it is a rat’s maze with little pieces of cheese being parceled out to entice us deeper into the labyrinth.

For me it wasn’t until I was on the cusp of obtaining my actuarial credentials that I finally realized I wasn’t going to get any lasting satisfaction from completing the gauntlet. I went ahead and finished it anyway, and yes, there was relief at the end, but then, of course, work grew ever more intense. Each project became it’s own special kind of struggle.

At first, I wanted to escape those struggles, or at least stop seeing them as such. But that drive itself only leads to more struggle.

Now, I simply acknowledge these trials and challenges when they arise. They are the sharp edges of the mold that form the contours of the life we cast. I find that the final product is cleaner if I try to fill every nook and cranny with warmth and fluidity.

That was very well written and does expose the dark side of one gets solely consumed with FIRE.

I used to have my net worth as the main focal point and when I got my paycheck and calculated it I only just looked forward to the next paycheck. During this process I forgot all about the journey and enjoying that.

Luckily at a certain net worth I decided that I have won the game and now although I still do a calculation of net worth to coincide with my paycheck it is just mainly used for tracking purposes and how to redirect future money into investments

By the way I love your philosophy of not slowly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs and concentrating in passive income streams. That is exactly how I am doing it too

I may have to work longer by following this philosophy but I think it will be worth it with peace of mind later down the road and a chance to pass on a legacy that could provide steady passive income for future generations

Great post-thanks! Now that my FI plan is in motion, I will get back to focusing on other priorities. The anxiety is real.

“Mrs Smelling Freedom sold her business in 2016 and launched into a corporate career. She thinks the 4% rule is equivalent to killing and slowly eating the goose that lays the golden eggs, so her plan is to achieve Financial Freedom based on passive income streams alone.”

I like this and plan a similar path. I want to reach a point where I can live on my investment income alone. Good luck to you as well.

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