If you read a lot of FIRE blogs, it might seem bizarre to you that anyone would work once they were financially independent. Although the bloggers themselves will often discuss how FI can be totally separate from RE, when you get into the comments or the forums it becomes quite clear that many Americans are just waiting to hit their number before punching entirely out of their jobs for good.
Why Work Beyond FI?
There are several reasons why someone might work beyond financial independence. The most commonly trotted out ones are
- They really love what they do or
- They would be bored without their job.
These two reasons are all fine and good. It’s your life, do what you want.
Are There “Bad Reasons” to Work Beyond FI?
A third reason that nobody ever seems to want to discuss is that they simply want to spend more money. Sure, you could live just fine for the rest of your life on $50K/year (or $100K, or $400K, whatever), but if you kept earning, you could live in an even nicer house, churn even nicer cars, have a nicer boat, and go on nicer vacations. Maybe they just want to be able to spend without thinking or budgeting; i.e. it’s easier to just keep working than do the work to manage the money better. Or perhaps they treat money like a security blanket. They figure if they feel secure with $4 Million they will feel even more secure with $6 Million. Maybe people don’t want to talk about that because it makes them feel guilty or they are worried they would look bad to reveal that is their reason to still be working.
Moral Reasons to Work
However, what I want to talk about today is a fourth and a fifth reason, both of which have one thing in common–morality. Is it morally, ethically, and/or religiously correct to work less than you can when additional work will produce so many benefits to the world, both from the work itself (reason number four) and by using the money earned from work to do good (reason number five).
Now, if you are a moral relativist (whatever you feel is right is right) without any belief in any kind of a supreme being, these issues may not bother you in the least. After all, you only get your 6-10 decades on this sphere and you might as well use them as best you can to eat, drink, and be merry. As we often say in the ED at about 5:30 in the morning, “That’s a day shift problem” (i.e. something for someone else to worry about.) For the rest of us, these two issues may matter more than the top three combined when it comes to working after FI.
Helping Others Through Your Work
Let’s look at reason # 4 first:
It is morally wrong to not use the talent, ability, opportunity, and knowledge you have to help your fellow man.
Where does this sort of idea come from? Who knows, but at a minimum it was taught by Jesus Christ in the Parable of the Talents:
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.
After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.
Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Most high-income professionals who read this site are doctors, lawyers, business owners, and others who are highly talented and knowledgeable. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. Of course, they also get paid the big bucks because their jobs are stressful, hard, and involve significant liability — all factors which may lead them to wish to cut back and/or retire early. But their work has significant benefits for society at large. How many arteries that should be stented are not because a cardiologist went part-time or retired early? How many cancers are missed because a talented body CT specialist hung up her monitor? How many life-improving products or services never spread around the world because the business owner decided he had “enough” at 51?
Now, obviously, if you carry out this sort of thinking to its logical extreme, it becomes nuts. While it might be morally wrong not to operate on an emergent patient to go to your kid’s birthday party, it is also probably morally wrong to miss all of those parties. It’s probably morally wrong to compel someone to work in a career they hate or to shame them for cutting back or leaving a career that is a bad fit for them. It’s often a balancing game–it’s wrong to neglect your patients but also wrong to neglect your partner. But to retire at 50 to “spend more time with my kids” who are in school 35 hours a week and will be out of the home in a couple of years anyway? Maybe you ought to think twice about that.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers here, but I think the questions are worth spending some time on if you are in the fortunate position of being able to cut back or even retire completely while still physically and emotionally able to serve others.
Helping Others With Your Earnings
Now let’s talk about reason # 5, the real purpose of this post:
It is morally wrong to not earn the money that could really help your fellow man.
Once you have enough money for yourself, including any additional spending you do just because you can, you are left with a dilemma of what to do with that money. One of two things is going to happen with it eventually–it will either be given away while you live or after you die. But your hearse will not have a trailer hitch.
Most of the people reading this blog post already or soon will earn a lot of money. Probably at least $100,000 per year and often $1 Million or more. There is a lot of good that can be done with that money. The pressure to be a good steward of it can be astounding. We gave some money away to a family member in need a while ago. That person wondered how best to use it. It was wonderful to be able to say, “That’s your problem now. I have passed on the stewardship responsibility for that money to you.”
Giving Earnings to Charity
Consider a doctor making $600K a year who is truly already financially independent. Maybe 1/3 of that goes to taxes, leaving $400,000 per year. She can do one of two things — earn less or use that $400,000 to do good. In Niger, malaria is responsible for 30% of all illnesses and 50% of all deaths. Its incidence can be dramatically reduced by the use of mosquito nets, which cost $4-5 apiece delivered and installed. That $400,000 could buy 100,000 mosquito nets. How many cases of malaria could be prevented with that $400,000? Certainly thousands and maybe tens of thousands. What kind of a jerk are you that you would rather sit around and play Super Mario Brothers with your kid than save thousands of Nigerien children from certain death?
The Benefits of Taxes
And why ignore the taxes? Your willingness to work and pay taxes allows the government to provide more services than it would otherwise be able to. A stronger military, better roads, expanded Medicaid and food stamps, and more environmental protection. Thank you, early retiree, for making our nation just a little bit weaker, our children just a little bit hungrier, and our water just a little bit dirtier.
Even avoiding these sorts of extreme ideas, think about your own extended family. You can work for just a month and give what you earned to a family member and essentially double their standard of living. You could buy them a car or pay off their medical bills. And how about your own children. Instead of having $80K for their college so they could get their undergraduate degree without debt, maybe if you would work a little longer they can now have $400K, and graduate debt-free from dental school. If you work 5 more years, maybe your kids never have to work at all and can then spend their lives creating incredible art or installing mosquito nets in Niger.
The possibilities are endless, and they’re all paid for by you continuing to work after financial independence. Obviously there is risk here of giving someone too much. The Millionaire Next Door was careful to warn about the effects of “Economic Outpatient Care.” Sometimes giving money can do more harm than good (although I wonder how often that fear is used to justify miserly behavior.)
Things become even “worse” if you become financially successful doing something in addition to medicine. Imagine you’re a real estate gal with 200 paid-for “doors.” 20 doors probably cover your living expenses for the rest of your life. 40 gives you a luxurious life. What are you going to do with the rest? And that doesn’t include the people your business is serving. Think of how much discounted rent you can give to people in need. Think of how many people that would be homeless in your community no longer are because you developed that property, increasing the supply and lowering the cost of housing in your community? Or what if you developed a successful business helping doctors stop doing dumb stuff with their money? If you quit, maybe thousands of doctor families will never become financially literate, in turn preventing them from being able to use their excess money to improve the lives of dozens of others.
A few months ago I was really feeling some WCI Burnout and wanting to just walk away and spend my days between shifts skiing, climbing, and playing video games. Then I sat down and thought about what that would mean. Over 2.7 Million people came by this website in 2019. If I made just a $10,000 difference in the lives of just 1% of them, I may have just paid for 68 million headnets. Put in those terms, it seems morally wrong to quit. If you really did go into medicine (or business or whatever) to help people, why would you stop doing so right when you get to the point of being able to help the most people?
Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers or know all the secrets of life, but I think each of us should carefully consider the value of our time and money. Neither is endless, but maybe we have a responsibility to put both of them to their highest and best use instead of simply maximizing our own happiness.
Now it’s your turn. If you’re financially independent and still working, which of these 5 reasons apply?
What do you think? Is it morally wrong not to work more and earn more if you are able to? How do you balance that with your other moral obligations and desires? Comment below!