When Allison and I got laid off from our tech jobs at the beginning of 2015, we thought we would take a little break to travel and recharge our batteries, and then head back to the workforce.
Our “little break” went from a 3 month vacation, to a 6 month sabbatical, and finally to a full-blown early retirement. We had no idea at the time, but we had achieved what many people now refer to as FIRE (Financial Independence / Retiring Early). I joke that we “stumbled into FIRE” by accident.
The FIRE movement has been around for years, but Allison and I only learned about FIRE at the beginning of 2017. I first heard about it from Andy Hill, a podcaster who runs Marriage, Kids & Money.
During our conversation Andy brought up the acronym "FIRE." I had never heard this term before, but I played along because it seemed like a concept I should know.
Afterwards, I consulted Google to get the lowdown, and my mind was blown. I had no idea there was a whole movement working towards what we had already achieved on our own. There were other people like us out there. We had found our tribe!
FIRE & FinCon
Fast forward to 2018 -- we have fully embraced the FIRE movement and community. Allison is an active contributor on the ChooseFI and other similar Facebook groups. I now use the FIRE acronym in most of my blog posts to describe our financial situation.
Andy also turned me onto FinCon, a financial content conference for “money nerds,” mainly bloggers, podcasters, and the like. He was going to his second FinCon in Dallas in September 2017, and he was very enthusiastic about it. At the time, Retire By 45 was still pretty new, and I wasn’t sure if it made sense to spend the money for the tickets and travel.
I was still on the fence about going to FinCon18 in Orlando. Even though Allison and I are FatFIRE, we are still very frugal by nature, and expenses for an event like this can add up after paying for tickets, hotel stays, airfare, food, transportation, etc.
We figured we would let fate decide. We were traveling to China in the spring of 2018, so on a whim, I applied to be a speaker at FinCon. If I got invited to present, it would certainly make it worth our while to attend. When we returned from China, I got the great news that my presentation was selected. FinCon was a go!
Our Epic 6-Week Trip
As is our nature, Allison and I decided to go all in and turn our trip to FinCon into a full blown 6-week adventure. Both of our 30-year high school reunions bookended FinCon. Mine was in Columbus, OH at the beginning of September, and Allison’s was in NYC at the beginning of October.
After my reunion, we tacked on a road trip to Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Cleveland for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Then we flew to Florida, spent six full days at Disney World (with 95 degree temps & 90%+ humidity), and took a side trip to Cape Canaveral to visit the Kennedy Space Center.
When we got to FinCon we were a little tired, and our minds were on lots of things other than money and finances. We were still in vacation-mode. That was about to change real quick.
We checked into the conference, went to the First Timer orientation (which was a great way to get our bearings and meet some other newbies), and then to the first round of Keynotes.
After listening to Talaat & Tai McNeely, Jean Chatzky, and Rachel Cruze, we were pumped and ready to go! It also got me stoked about my presentation. The keynote speakers were (obviously) very good, so I needed to bring my A+ game to hopefully inspire some people (and get our name out there in the community).
Over the four days we were at FinCon, we met some amazing people, hopefully inspired some folks with our story, and learned a lot about the FIRE community. Here were our top takeaways….
1 - It’s not your parents' old, stuffy finance community anymore
When you hear about a “finance conference” you probably envision hoards of very serious, buttoned-up business people from large banks and investment brokerages talking about stocks and selling financial services.
This year’s FinCon was sponsored by the AARP, which seemed like an odd pairing at first glance. While other large financial institutions also attended FinCon (Schwab, Vanguard, Fidelity, etc), they all seemed more interested in what our community had to say rather than just trying to sell us on their products.
AARP interviewed Allison and asked her what they could learn from the FIRE community. I spoke with several reps from larger firms who said they were relieved that this conference was so different from what they were used to. There were pink flamingo dolls, a DJ from L.A., and folks in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
I’ve been to a number of professional conferences over the years, but this one was unlike any I had attended in the past. I could sense a feeling of wonder and excitement about this new sector of the financial world, driven by young people who want more choices in life, especially when it comes to investing, managing finances, and careers.
2 - The FIRE community comes from all walks of life
You might also think people who go to finance conferences are mostly older, wealthy white males from New York City. On the contrary, I met so many people who didn’t fit that mold. They were from places like Colorado, North Carolina, Minnesota, as well as other countries. They were men and women, young and old, and all races and ethnicities.
And they were from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Some were brand new to the FIRE community. Others were well established and had been blogging for years. Some were parents with kids, and others were single people or couples living in a van.
But the one common thread was that everyone was super friendly and very eager to learn more about this movement, as well as share their stories and insights. Overall, the vibe was that of being part of new global community of people from various walks of life but with similar interests around FIRE and money matters.
3 - FIRE movement is still trying to figure itself out
That being said, the FIRE movement is still relatively new and, in many ways, in a state of flux. Allison and I sat in on a very interesting panel discussion with some of the bigger players in the FIRE movement.
The conversation centered around a documentary, Playing with FIRE, due to come out in 2019. Filmmaker Travis Shakespeare (yes, that’s his real name) follows 35 year old Scott Rieckens and his family as they embark on a year-long odyssey to understand the rules of this sub-culture and test their willingness to reject the standard narrative of adult life.
Panelists included Pete Adeney (aka Mr. Money Mustache), JD Roth (from Get Rich Slowly), Paula Pant (from Afford Anything), Brandon the Mad Fientist, Brad Barrett & Jonathan Mendosa (from ChooseFI), Doug Nordman (from The Military Guide), and Julien and Kiersten from Rich®ULAR.
Right off the bat, Doug Nordman declared “I think we need to drop the RE from FIRE,” essentially saying that “retiring early” is the wrong message and it should be more about “FI.” Pete (MMM) replied that his philosophy was based on the premise of early retirement first and foremost, and that leads to the financial independence.
The discussion also delved into areas like whether the FIRE community should take on solutions for the burgeoning costs of healthcare, how to better include people of color, what happens after the next major bear market, and how to use our financial expertise to better society. It was all very interesting to listen to, especially since not everyone agreed on many of the topics.
4 - FIRE “celebrities” are normal down to Earth people
That panel helped illustrate that these FIRE “celebrities” are all just regular folks who happen to have interesting ideas and passions about money and finances. I was able to meet with a few of them in one-on-one conversations around the conference, and each one was friendlier and more approachable than I expected.
One day around lunchtime, Allison and I were walking to one of the meetings we pre-arranged and I saw Scott from "Playing with FIRE" walking in front of me (his t-shirt gave him away). I caught up with him and just wanted to say a quick hello, but it turned into a very enjoyable conversation about the film and the movement.
Another mini-celebrity I wanted to say hello to was J Money from Budgets are Sexy. His mohawk makes him look kind of intimidating, but he was the nicest guy. He gladly posed with Allison and me at the wrap party (and this was before I gave him some extra drink tickets on our way out).
5 - Everyone wants to learn & share
One of the cool things about FinCon is that they promote mentoring. If you are a speaker, you are asked to also be a mentor and are matched up with mentees in your field of expertise. I love participating in activities like this, and was more than happy to share some of my knowledge with a couple of people in a more intimate setting.
Allison and I were matched up with two mentees who were in early stages with their blogs (plus a third friend who tagged along). We also adopted a fourth mentee who sat at our table by accident. It was great to share some of the best practices I learned over the years with these enthusiastic young writers.
I am also very glad I was able to get up and speak in front of a crowd. I wanted to talk about something that I found effective for blogging but isn’t talked about much -- using Quora for traffic and content ideas. From the reaction I got afterwards, I think I was able to offer some inspiration and new ideas to the audience.
(NOTE: To see my presentation, the keynotes, and all the other panels and sessions you can get a Virtual Pass with my affiliate link)
And just as we were able to share some of our knowledge, FinCon was a learning opportunity for us as well. Where else could I meet and hear from the leaders in the industry and experts in a variety of niche personal finance areas, all in one setting?
6 - Achieving FIRE is not about never working again
One theme that came up in a number of panels and discussion was the notion that FIRE was much more about FI than RE. Like MMM, I personally embrace the RE portion just as much as the FI portion, but I also agree that our version of “retirement” is much different than the traditional one.
It still is always interesting when I tell someone what it is we do (in fact I wrote a whole article about it). Sometimes I say “I’m retired,” sometimes I say “self-employed,” and other times “semi-retired.”
At the end of the day, the label does not really matter. It’s all about the lifestyle you create for yourself. I can honestly tell you I’m never bored, and I’m constantly striving to do things in life that are interesting, challenging, creative, and worthwhile.
Everyone I met at FinCon, whether they have achieved FIRE or are at the beginning of that journey, are passionate about doing more with their newfound freedom. Whether it’s writing more, teaching others, creating products and services, or volunteering their time, retiring early is much more than sitting in a hammock all day (although that’s fun to do occasionally too!).
7 - It’s all about the journey
One last thing I learned at FinCon is that getting to FIRE really is all about the journey. The destination is great, don’t get me wrong, but the vast majority of those in this community are still in the early stages.
At one point during my presentation, I asked the audience of about 50-60 people how many had already achieved FIRE. I expected maybe 5-10 people to raise their hand, but only one person did ("Big ERN" from Early Retirement Now). BTW, Karsten is another mini-celebrity who I really enjoyed meeting on several occasions, and we discussed a variety of topics (including slow travel with family, insurance, real estate, and living in SF).
So if you think getting to FIRE is way out of your reach, think again. Even the vast majority of the bloggers and podcasters who write and talk about FIRE are not fully there yet. It takes a lot of time and dedication, but it’s worth the effort, and the journey can actually be quite fun and rewarding!
On to FinCon19
If you want to see what all of this about for yourself, check out FinCon19 in Washington, DC from Sept 4-7, 2019. Allison and I have already purchased our tickets and would love to meet you and talk about nerdy money stuff!