Is FIRE a Cult?

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Wanderer

The Wanderer retired from his engineering job at a major Silicon Valley semiconductor company at the age of 33. He now travels the world, seeking out knowledge from other wealthy people, so that he can teach people how to become Financially Independent themselves.
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At every Chautauqua we always have a certain number of reluctant attendees which we affectionally call “Drag-Along Spouses.” We call them that because that’s precisely what they are: spouses of the FIRE enthusiast, who get dragged along, and are often deeply skeptical about spending an entire week with a bunch of money nerds geeking out over spreadsheets.

This year’s was no different in that there were a number of Drag-Along Spouses present, but one thing that was different was the level of skepticism in those Drag-Along Spouses. One attendee in particular was apparently sent here by his spouses’ family who was convinced that this whole “FIRE” thing was a pseudo-religious cult. His job, apparently, was to watch over his wife and make sure they got the Hell out of Dodge the moment the branding irons came out.

Now that the Chautauqua is over, I am happy to report that not only did the branding irons not come out (I suggested that as an activity, but Jim vetoed it for some reason), our reluctant Drag-Along Spouse ended up having a great time as well and, dare I say it, might now be a FIRE enthusiast himself! Another successful indoctrination conversion!

That being said, his initial suspicion about us inspired me to consider how cult-like we must seem to people outside the FIRE movement, or “normies” as I like to call them. And that made me start digging down the rabbit hole of what the FBI, the ATF, and the American Psychology Association considers the technical definition of a cult. And what I found hit just a liiiiitle too close to home.

Is FIRE actually a cult?

Well, let’s explore that, shall we?

FIrst of all, there’s a big difference between a “cult” and a “movement.” A movement is simply any social group defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. And that’s a really broad definition. “Unusual” is subjective, and can mean literally anything, because what’s usual to one group is unusual to another. Depending on who you ask, this definition can encompass every political party, religion, or hobby people have. I certainly think it’s unusual for people to dress up in animal costumes and do each other using dragon-shaped dildos, but that doesn’t make Furries a cult.

So FIRE is definetely a movement now, but the big hairy question remains: Are we a cult?

To that, we turn to federal police forces like the FBI or the ATF. These guys aren’t in the business of breaking up cults just because they’re anti-cult, but rather they’re looking out for organizations that promote illegal behaviour amongst their members. The problem with that, of course, is that they don’t know if a cult is doing illegal things until they actually get in there and investigate them.

So what they did is reverse-engineer what they learned from dealing with groups like the Manson Famiy, Jonestown, and the Branch Davidians and develop a series of risk factors or warning signs that they use to evaluate whether an organiztion is a harmless movement, or whether it’s cult-like enough that they should probably get in there and see what’s going on.

So I went and dug through these warning signs and distilled it down to the 4 most “important.” These are the warning signs that in order to be considered a bona-fide cult, all 4 signs must be present. And from that, we can figure out how many of these that FIRE ticks off.

For every warning sign we explore, FIRE will be awarded either a sinister-looking pentagram if it meets the criteria for a cult, like so…

Or a happy little hippie-flower, if it doesn’t, like so…

Ready? A little nervous to hear the results? Me too…

Warning Sign #1: An Ideology at Odds with Normal Society

Every movement promotes a non-traditional ideology of some sort, whether it’s “Anime is great” or “let’s dress up as animals and do each other.” And often, these ideologies are considered weird or unusual by people outside the movement.

However, what makes cults unique is that the ideology they promote is not just unusual, it’s at odds with normal society. It’s not enough that members of the cult believe in something, they are taught that society is lying to them. Cults promote an “Us versus Them” mentality, where “We” know “The Truth” (whatever that is) while society/family are constantly feeding them lies in order to prevent them from knowing “The Truth.” This is part of a cult’s control mechanism. By painting non-believers as “The Enemy,” it allows cults to position themselves as the hero and the champion of their members. Follow us, they say, because only WE can “Protect You” from “The Enemy,” (i.e. everyone else).

Does FIRE do this?

Er…so this is embarassing…

FIRE definitely has a non-traditional ideology. The idea that you can retire in your 30’s is definitely radical, and lies in stark opposition to “normal” society, specifically consumerism. Consumerism, which basically states that happiness comes from spending your money, permeates almost every developed country in the entire world, and that is absolutely something that FIRE calls out as wrong. Consumerism, we believe, doesn’t work. Happiness comes from freedom, not consuming. And because consumerism is so prevelant, FIRE does have an “Us versus Them” mentality. We know “The Truth” (Happiness comes from freedom), “They” are lying to you (Happiness comes from spending), and only “We” (the FIRE movement) can protect you.

So…yeah. On this note, I’m gonna have to give FIRE it’s first pentagram.

Warning Sign #2: An Authoritarian Leader

When it comes to evaluating possible cults, it’s important to examine it’s power structure. Who makes the decisions? Who’s in charge? Are decisions made by a small council or commitee of individuals? Is it completely de-centralized in which everyone decides as a group by voting? Or is there a single leader that makes all the calls?

When it comes to cults, the answer is always the last one. A single un-elected leader that has absolute power. This person is revered, even worshipped in a cult like a god, and generally has no accountability to their members. This leader can’t be questioned and demands absolute loyalty. Often, this leader uses the threat of physical violence in order to keep their followers in line.

Does FIRE have this?

That doesn’t sound like us, right? I mean it’s not like we have a single person that everyone reveres like a…

Oh, right.

Well, that’s not quite the same. It’s not like we’ve formed a cult of personality around him by adopting some silly salute or anything…

Photo By Mr. Money Mustache @ MrMoneyMustache.com

Uh…well at least he doesn’t use threats of violence to keep his people in line…

Photo by Alan Donegan @ FiChautauqua.com

Er…well at least he doesn’t call himself a cult leader?

Well…shit.

SIGH. Second pentagram awarded.

Hoo boy, this is starting to look not-so-good for FIRE isn’t it?

Warning Sign #3: Indoctrination/Brainwashing

A major step of any cult is indoctrinating new members into whatever the belief system is, which typically involves blasting people with infromation that exclusively supports this new lifestyle. To a certain extent, indoctrination is simply the process of learning about new concepts, and is a normal part of life. Education is a form of indoctrination that our governments perform. Religious institutions also do this.

Where indoctrination takes on a more sinister role in cults is when questioning the information is forbidden. Blind acceptance is required when cults indoctrinate. And where it crosses the line into brain-washing is when deception, coercion, or intimidation is involved.

Showing a child how to add is education. Screaming at them to do it or their dog dies is brain-washing.

Does FIRE do this? 

OK, I did joke earlier about indoctrinating our reluctant drag-along-spouse with the principles of FIRE, but this is where we start to depart from how cults operate. We definitely allow (and encourage) people to ask questions, and for the most part, we don’t use branding irons on them when they don’t understand things right away.

The concepts behind FIRE are relatively simple, but as I’ve said before, there are a lot of things to learn. That’s why we created the Investment Workshop, which tries to break down the process of building and managing an indexed investment portfolio into a series of step-by-step guides. And that’s why we wrote a book, which puts everything you need to know about FIRE into one entertaining resource.

And at no point do we use deception, coercion, or intimidation. There’s enough liars out there in the finance world. You won’t find any here.

So on this count, FIRE gets a happy little flower. Phew.

Warning Sign #4: Exploitation

The last, and most significant warning sign of a cult is the presence of exploitation. Specifically, every cult exists to exploit their members, either financially, physically, or sometimes sexually. Everything a cult does, presenting the dire world-view, creating a strong-man leader, and indoctrinating/brain-washing their members, is meant to pursuade them to let themselves to be exploited.

Cult members will often give up their values, their relationships, and even their own identity when joining a cult. Their finances are usually completely controlled by the cult masters, and they cease to operate as an individual. And if the cult happens to be a sex cult or a doomsday cult, things just get weirder and weirder from there on in. If they’re lucky, cult members might escape with their lives, but usually little else. Say good-bye to whatever money they had going in, because they would have given all of it away already.

Does FIRE do this?

On this count, the answer is a resounding NO.

FIRE does not exploit people. It makes people free.

Readers of ours who have decided to pursue this whole FIRE thing have found the money in their bank accounts multiplying exponentially in just a few short years. Some now travel the world full time like us. And others find the courage to live the life they want to live rather than one dictated to them by society.

And quite frankly, there’s no incentive for the FIRE community to exploit people. What’s the point? We don’t need the money.

In fact, a few weeks ago I got an email from some financial company (who shall remain anonymous) that created a crappy high-fee actively managed fund literally called “FIRE Fund” and were offering us an ungodly amount of money to help them get suckers to buy it. We told them to F off. We are not for sale.

I later discovered that nearly every major FIRE blogger got the same offer. And all of them gave the same response we did. Why would we deliberately hurt people just to make money, when we already have all the money we’ll ever need?

The FIRE movement exists to help people live a freer, richer life, and make a bunch of money while doing so. It’s the polar opposite of exploitation, and for that we get a happy little flower on this one.

Conclusion

So is FIRE a cult? According to this analysis, no. We checked off a few more boxes than I thought we would (I was getting a bit nervous halfway through this article, I have to admit), but in order to be considered a cult, we have to hit every one of these warning signs.

So I am happy to report, FIRE is emphatically NOT a cult. We are a movement of young, happy, and wealthy retired people, and of all the communities I’ve ever been a part of, FIRE is by far the coolest one filled with awesome people that I just love hanging around.

So thank you FIRE community for being so damned awesome, and I’m happy to declare us NOT a cult.

For now.


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22 thoughts on “Is FIRE a Cult?”

  1. Thank you for your research and clarification about the Cult topic.😁 Kristy’s writing is enjoyable and it’s makes a difference, she illustrates her perspective well! I’m in the middle of reading their book “Quit like a Millionaire” and I
    L💓ve it! Thank you for supplying life changing content.

  2. #1 made me chuckle… #2 cracked me up. I think you have made a good argument that the FIRE community is not a cult… just a bunch of wierdos 😋. Personally, I never try too hard to recruit anyone to the FI way. We need plenty of thoughtless consumerism to keep the economy running and growing our index funds.

  3. This is the second time I’ve heard “dragon-shaped dildos” in 48 hours…Fascinating. Also furries use those?! I thought they were for separate, dragon enthusiasts! Shows how much I know…Anyway, thank you for doing this analysis – I’ve been meaning to look into how much culty-ness our community has and haven’t gotten around to it. I’m going to refer someone to this the next time they claim FIRE is a cult.

  4. Can you give a hint of which Financial Firm has the Fire Fund? Just out of curiosity, I want to look up the ER and if it charges AUM.

  5. I’ve got to disagree with you; I do think it’s a cult albeit a non-detrimental one. I’ve been a FI guy all my life (FIRE after learning about it but more recently back to FI) and simply didn’t know there were more folks out there like me. Ever since learning of the movement about 3 years ago, I immersed myself in it. Now, I think the ship has sailed for me. While MMM is revered, other than popularizing it – I’m not much of a fan. I think your book and/or JLCollins are all that someone needs to sort themselves out.

    One of the most telling aspects of a cult is the ability of it and its follower’s to endure scrutiny and competing ideas. I don’t think the FIRE community does that well at all. Seriously, other than people arguing about whether to buy a house in cash, mortgage it or be a lifelong tenant, where is there any true debate about anything? There’s a smugness to it that’s hard to quantify. If folks say anything against MMM, it’s heresy. Likewise, if FIRE folks (or aspiring FIRE folks) hear from someone that they like their 9-5, like splurging more than occasionally on things/vacations and are fine having 20-30k in the bank (maybe with a little bit of debt) – there’s a weird “you ignorant idiot” kinda vibe given off by those in the movement. Likewise, it has never truly addressed those who enjoy permanently living in a big city or having kids (everyone points to the same 2-3 people as examples – none of which live in a high COLA and most who had one spouse working for a year or more after the other declared them both FIRE) to my satisfaction. Some people like to stay put in expensive areas, that’s not often discussed.

    All that being said, there’s no harm in FI/FIRE. It’s not telling you to give all your money, autonomy or loved ones away. It’s just an anti-consumerism and save-centric philosophy/practice/cult. No harm no foul but reasoned critical analysis or disagreement is generally not encouraged by the larger FIRE community.

    1. You’ve nailed it.

      Speaking as someone who is FI (but not yet retired – by choice) in Europe, it’s hard not to look across the pond in bewilderment at the rabid worship of MMM. It’s as though Tony Robbins and an Amway meeting had a lovechild…

      1. Ha ha ha. Absolutely, but I’m not hating on MMM – I admire the hustle and he’s living his dream – good for him. As a self- employed parent and someone who is fine with their job (it has good days and bad days) and enjoys living in a big city with tons to do and all my adult friends, I’m good. The issue I take is that MMM’s folks don’t like any type of critiques of his views. I look at the FI/FIRE blogs and their views as a cafeteria plan – take what you like, leave the rest. My family doesn’t want to and thus can’t live on $2x,000 a year and doesn’t have to – we’re cool with that. FI is good enough for us. We’re so FI we can catch on FIRE at any point (see what I did there) if we had to but doing so would mean giving up things we enjoy as opposed to living a life with a watchful eye on the 4% rule. Maybe later, not now.

        The idea of total freedom with FIRE is truly just a choice if you have the means to live according to the 4% (or whatever % you set) rule and you feel constrained by it then that feeling of total freedom is an allusion. Just my 2 cents.

  6. I have just finished reading “quit like a millionaire” and I’m really excited to learn more and start my portfolio. I have always wanted to learn how to make my savings grow bigger and faster. Now there’s a way to do it. Can’t thank you enough for sharing this.

  7. FIRE is cultish. I can see it becoming a real cult if there is a narcissistic leader Trump-like figure. Luckily, we’re all pretty relaxed and don’t want to take advantage of the plebians.
    BTW, I think it’s good to have a lot of skeptics. We need those people to drive the economy, right?

  8. I always thought that fire was actually a pro capitalist movement. FIRE basically tell people to get better on the job market so that they can buy companies (stocks) and others people debt (bonds).

    Pretty mainstream capitalist stuff no?

  9. I’m sitting in front of a year 8 English class while they write their essay drafts on ‘The Hunger Games.” I enjoyed reading this post – it made me smile.
    Good to see some light-hearted stuff about FI every once in a while!

  10. *Puts glass down*

    So I’m NOT supposed to drink this Kool-Aid then? But Mother FIRECracker told me that I was supposed to.

    Sincerely,
    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

    1. Also, you may want to let Jason Fieber (Dividend Mantra, Mr. Free At 33) know that his FIRE Fund is so popular that finance companies are now using the name to promote their own products.

  11. Do you maybe think we’re not the cult but that they are (you know who “they” are). Hmmmm…..something to think about.

    🤷🏻‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤷🏻‍♂️🤦‍♂️👍

  12. FIRE is actually closer to the prevailing attitude towards credit and consumerism that existed up to the ’80s. The shift towards buying on credit, instead of cash, and the notion that shopping could be a hobby grew hand in hand. Full marks if you noticed that this time period coincides with free trade pacts and increased globalism. The middle class opted to drown their off-shoring sorrows in cheap imported crap, bought on credit.

  13. Hi,

    Another excellent analysis on FIRE. If FIRE is a cult, it will be a beneficial one. This is not enforced regime. One will make the decision in accordance to his/her preference. Furthermore, there is no path in which one knows how to take in the route to FIRE. One will have to plan his/her investment strategy along the way. I feel that this creates the sense of independency for one. A great learning aspect as well.

    WTK

  14. Thanks for the entertaining post! I think you nailed it with the FIRE community not having anything to sell. A vast majority of content producers in the FI space are giving their content away for free. And if someone is going to be brainwashed, there are worse things to be conditioned to than living a life of freedom with the time to travel and spend time with friends and family.

    I find the FIRE fund idea entertaining as well. Obviously, they didn’t read any of the FIRE bloggers’ content prior to making the offers! Everyone loves the idea of high fee, managed funds…

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