I have a nonconformist streak so wide it annoys me sometimes. I feel like a broken doll, meeting every message and assumption with the same question: Why? Why? Why?
Now, I’m drawn to similar questions being asked by Financial Independence (FI) advocates: why should I spend all the money I make? Why should I work until I’m 65 if, by living frugally, I can retire at 40?
As Sawyer Nyquist wrote in the last issue of Fathom, “Financial independence (or FI) is the financial status when a person has enough savings and investments that the dividends, or growth, each year from the portfolio are enough to cover annual expenses.” In other words, you work hard, save wherever you can, and build a small fortune that allows you to live on the interest without ever touching the principal. The possibilities of living this way fire up my imagination and the challenge thrills me. I’m invited to consider money and work, not as inevitable burdens, but as tools for attaining the life I want.
Still, like Nyquist, I have my misgivings. As he points out, for a group so quick to question cultural assumptions about money, the FI crowd is oddly steeped in its own assumptions.
The Medieval Theology of Money
In a capitalist society, we tend to view saving and investing as unequivocal goods, or even as sacred duties. But in earlier times, these activities were not only uncommon; they were considered morally suspect.
The attitude in medieval times, as R. H. Tawney summarizes, was that lending at interest “is contrary to Scripture; it is contrary to Aristotle; it is contrary to nature, for it is to live without labor; it is to sell time, which belongs to God . . . it is unjust in itself, for the benefit of the loan to the borrower cannot exceed the value of the principal sum lent to him.”
These evaluations applied to anyone who made money by having money, not only to those who extorted the poor. Do these ideas simply come from silly, outdated views of the world or overly literal interpretations of the Bible? Or can they contribute to our understanding of our personal finances?
What we call “financial independence,” after all, is actually dependence on the growth of capitalist economies to generate returns on investment. We’re encouraged to imagine that investing money causes more dollars to magically appear, but those dollars are in fact tied to actual goods and services moving around the world. Sometimes that money doesn’t move in morally acceptable ways.
The average diversified stock portfolio bets heavily on the healthcare, technology, and financial industries, for example; each of these industries has complicated histories. Without diligence and care, these portfolios distance us from the moral responsibility to care about the lives our investments are affecting for good or for bad. Can a Christian be satisfied to make money from these companies, even if they actually profit from exploiting people or the environment? Of course not, but unless we choose otherwise, we’ll never know how our dollars are helping or hurting anything other than the stock market.
And for theologians at the beginning of the Renaissance, the answer to questionable investing was also a resounding “no.” In their belief, it would be unnatural to make money without expending labor, and it would be unjust to finance others’ immoral activities. And while we may not be directly financing others’ immoral activities, we may be participating in it to some degree when we make our investments.
The High Responsibility of Financial Independence
Of course, today’s world is far more complex than the economies of medieval Europe, and many of these objections or considerations could be applied to the idea of retiring at all. So why point these questions at FI in particular?
The movement is already reevaluating much of what culture teaches us about personal finance. If we simply get wrapped up in the FI movement’s enthusiasm for saving, investing, and retiring from traditional work, we could easily adopt the norms of the FI subculture and end up as unfulfilled as we would have been if we’d stayed on the usual spending-and-saving schedule. In fact, as Jesus points out in the parable of the rich fool, one could work for years, driven solely by the prospect of early retirement, and die before ever reaping the rewards.
As long as we are asking all those why questions, we might as well ask the ones that question what we’d do if we achieved financial independence. Why does “retirement” have to equate to “leisure” instead of volunteering, serving, learning, or mentoring? Is “saving money” the same thing as living a simple life? How can we creatively invest our time and money into making the world better—not just making the economy bigger?
In general, being eager to escape the treadmill of working, overspending, hoping for pay raises, and counting down to a distant retirement is commendable. Still, the best critique of the consumerist lifestyle isn’t a brilliant FI manifesto; it will always be the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus calls us to a life of radical self-sacrifice, generosity, and love of others.
For those of us whose financial means give us a great deal of responsibility for the choices we make, the tools we might gain from the FI world are only a few of the options for creatively living out our own vocations while contributing to a truly prosperous world—one filled with God’s shalom.
 R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: John Murray, 1936), 66.
Cover image by Alice Pasqual.
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