In the three weeks since Suze Orman’s comments about FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) thrust the movement into the national media spotlight, I have been reflecting on a more philosophical level about why FI principles resonate so much with me. As a result, a new (and profound) reason has emerged from the back of my mind:
The principles of the FIRE movement have uncanny parallels with the core values of Star Trek!
The congruity between the communities is so clear to me now that, in hindsight, I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner.
My FIRE Background
My wife and I have had a dream of retiring early since pretty early in our marriage of 15 years. In the last few years, that dream became an actual stretch goal (with an accelerated timeline) that we were actively working toward and closely tracking. About a year ago, I became aware of the FIRE movement and the multitude of blogs and podcasts about the topic. I dug deeper into FIRE principles and started listening to a few favorite podcasts regularly.
The FIRE movement’s tenets and life philosophy immediately clicked with me and gave voice to my innate thoughts about how life “should be” in a (more) perfect world. We are pretty far along in our FI journey now and this year made pretty dramatic life changes to get closer to the “finish line” (which is a story for a future post).
My Star Trek History
Star Trek has been a lifelong passion for me and a meaningful influence on my life in multiple ways. As an elementary student, I watched TOS (The Original Series) over and over again in syndication (on KTVU/Channel 2 in the SF Bay Area). Around the same time, I watched TAS (The Animated Series) on Saturday mornings.
While I was in college, TNG (The Next Generation) premiered. Like many, I was dubious at first and turned off by the poor quality of the first two seasons, but eventually I came to love the show as much as the original.
I went on to become a huge fan of DS9 (Deep Space Nine) and consider it to be the “best” Trek series to date (even if it is not my “favorite”) in part due to its diverse cast of rich supporting characters.
VOY (Voyager) may not have been quite on the same level as its predecessors, but I still loved it and consider it worthy of the Star Trek name (especially after Jeri Ryan supercharged the show as the character of Seven of Nine).
I jumped off the Star Trek television bandwagon after the first season of Enterprise (a show I could never embrace and the only series I have not watched in its entirety). Happily, last year, I wholeheartedly leapt back on the bandwagon (bringing my son along) for the first season of DIS (Discovery), which is available on CBS All Access.
Along the way, not surprisingly, I have also seen all of the Star Trek movies at least once in the movie theater including the world premiere of Insurrection in Las Vegas (followed by multiple viewings of each movie on home video). I have also watched many of the major fan films (e.g. Star Trek Continues and Star Trek Phase II) and have even made one of my own. In my college radio days, I had the honor of interviewing Leonard Nimoy (not in person, sadly, but by phone).
Star Trek offers immense entertainment value and has earned indisputable respect as classic science fiction. More personally, Star Trek has always been near and dear to my heart as an inspirational and aspirational vision of humankind’s future (not to mention an extremely hopeful one). The mythology provides a core set of moral values to learn from and live by. I’ve always said that Star Trek is the closest thing I have to a religion.
Please forgive the deep dive into my fandom credentials, but this kind of info is important to the Trekkies and Trekkers who may be reading, and I wanted to highlight my level of passion for Star Trek to set context for the comparisons I’d like to make to the FIRE movement.
So, how does Star Trek relate to FIRE?
Let’s take a look at some of the core values and principles of Star Trek (and also examine its fandom community) and see what parallels we can draw to the FIRE movement.
Economy and Work
Star Trek mythology never deeply explains the details of the economic system in the United Federation of Planets, although we do have a few clues. The role of money and wealth, on the other hand, is a bit clearer in Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future.
Here is what we know (quotes courtesy of the Star Trek WIKI, Memory Alpha):
In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Captain Kirk, Spock and crew travel back in time to 1986-era San Francisco. During their adventure, Kirk tells Spock about 20th century Earth, saying, “They’re still using money. We need to get some.” Later in the movie, when Kirk can’t pay for dinner at a restaurant with the movie’s love interest, she asks sarcastically, “Don’t tell me they don’t use money in the 23rd century,” to which Kirk earnestly replies, “Well, we don’t.”
So, the first thing we know is that money seems to be a relic of the past for the Federation (but not for all denizens of Star Trek as we’ll find out later in the post).
In the episode The Neutral Zone from TNG, Captain Jean-Luc Picard explains to another character that “A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”
So, the second thing we know is that money is no longer required for core survival needs. Moreover, consumerism (“need for possessions”) seems to be an obsolete notion.
In the movie, Star Trek: First Contact, another time travel adventure to earth’s past, someone asks Captain Picard how much his starship cost to build. Picard explains:
The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.
In the DS9 episode In the Cards, Jake (a human) and his friend Nog (who’s Ferengi, a species consumed by greed) have the exchange below:
Jake: "I'm Human, I don't have any money."
Nog: "It's not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement."
Jake: "Hey, watch it. There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity."
So, the third thing we know is that humankind’s focus has changed from a pursuit of wealth and status to a pursuit of knowledge, enlightenment and self-improvement.
In 2016, Manu Saadia, a French writer with a background in history and economics (and the author of the book “Trekonomics”), reinforced this notion with his comments about Star Trek characters in an interview with Wired Magazine.
They are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption… You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature—the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art, and discovery.
If you are a member of the FIRE community, I hope the quotes above have you saying to yourself, “That rings a bell!” They sound remarkably similar to sentiments expressed by adherents of the FIRE lifestyle.
For me, the most important tenet of the FIRE movement is achieving liberation from mandatory employment to free up time for self-discovery, self-realization and self-improvement (and for many, also the betterment of others). Most advocates of FIRE do NOT define retirement as sitting on a beach all day or playing endless rounds of golf (unless that happen to be their life’s passion). More typically, the FIRE community pursues a wide variety of interests without worrying about earning income from them.
In a Lifehacker post by Kristin Wong entitled “The Basics of FIRE (Financial Independence and Early Retirement)“, Tanja Hester, of the award-winning Our Next Life blog, said in an interview:
Financial independence ultimately means that you can shape your life without taking money into consideration. Most of us have to consider our finances in nearly every decision we make, or maybe even make decisions solely based on money. But once we reach financial independence, we get the freedom not to be bossed around by what we earn or what we have saved.
In the same story, Deacon Hayes told Wong that FIRE is really about “the freedom to choose to work or not. It’s less about retiring early and more about having the freedom to pursue your dreams and ambitions.”
In a comprehensive introduction to the FIRE movement at Camp FIRE Finance, Ty Roberts wrote:
FIRE is so much more than budgeting, investments, or a math equation. FIRE is a way of life and a growing movement that is spreading across the globe and being embraced; not because people suddenly love budgeting and personal finance but because FIRE provides hope. For anyone that’s ever felt trapped by the thought of a working career that could last into their late 60’s or early 70’s, FIRE provides a feasible alternative to the traditional path that society peddles… At its core, FIRE is reclamation of one’s personal freedom.
Mr. Money Mustache (Peter Adeney), one of the biggest influencers of the FIRE movement, recently clarified his definition of FIRE on his blog in response to the Suzy Orman controversy.
Everybody uses the FIRE acronym because it is catchy and “Early Retirement” sounds desirable. But for most people who get there, Financial Independence does not mean the end of your working career. Instead it means, “Complete freedom to be the best, most powerful, energetic, happiest and most generous version of You that you can possibly be.”
The FIRE community’s aspirations for life after FI sound to me just like Roddenberry’s imagination of life after money in Star Trek.
Wealth and Consumerism
Despite the abandonment of money in the Federation economy, money DOES still exist in the future in Star Trek. The citizens of the Federation and crew members on Starfleet ships may not covet wealth, but many characters outside of the Federation certainly do.
Not surprisingly, Star Trek nearly always portrays characters who are greedy or pursue wealth as villainous or comical (or both).
In TOS, TAS and DIS, the character of Harry Mudd is a con artist, smuggler and swindler whose avarice causes trouble for Starfleet crews. More importantly, as a moral consequence of his greed, his money making schemes always blow up on him and leave him in a worse state. At least until DIS, Star Trek portrays his character more in a comic light than in a menacing one.
By far the best example of Star Trek’s view on greed and consumption is represented by the Ferengi, an alien species TNG introduced and DS9 extensively featured.
“They’re greedy, misogynistic, untrustworthy little trolls, and I wouldn’t turn my back on one of them for a second.”
– Kira Nerys from the DS9 episode “Rules of Acquisition”
According to the Memory Alpha knowledge-base:
Ferengi civilization was built on a caricature of free enterprise, where earning profit was the sole meaningful goal in life, superseding all other endeavors… The Ferengi culture was centralized around the concept of greed and profit earning. Ferengi society most notably was based on a list of rules for business ventures with other Ferengi known as “The Rules of Acquistion.” … Greed, deceit, distrust, and opportunism were highly prized values among Ferengi and all were represented within the Rules.
TNG mostly portrayed the Ferengi as buffoons, and they were not really credible adversaries. DS9 brought more nuance to the Ferengi mythology and made the species more intriguing and compelling. However, in both shows, their main purpose was to provide contrast to the principles of the Federation. And by the end of DS9, the Ferengi culture had started adopting some Federation values.
The main parallel I see in the FIRE community (and especially in “Lean FIRE”) is the somewhat widely shared value of anti-consumerism. Money in the FIRE movement is a means to an end but definitely not an end itself. The movement focuses on intentional spending, breaking away from mindless consumption and bucking the social norm of keeping up with the Joneses.
For me, the first definition of “financial independence” we give in the book – FI thinking or liberating your mind from the thrall of the consumer culture – is the crucial step that leads wherever the individual chooses to go.
On Quartz at Work, Khe Hy writes:
At first blush, the principles look like they’ve been copied and pasted from your garden-variety personal finance blog: spend less, grow your income, harness the power of compounding. But FIRE really is more of a life philosophy than anything, combining personal finance with a DIY work ethic, opportunistic side hustles, life hacking, and the tenets of anti-consumerism.
In The 10 Pillars Of FI at ChooseFI, Jonathan Mendonsa articulates his take on the core philosophy behind FI:
Instead of focusing on buying stuff to make up for my unhappiness, what if I just focused on happiness? What if I made a list of things that actually made me happy? … What we find out over and over again is that the list rarely includes stuff. Stuff is not a necessary prerequisite for happiness.
Finally, Grant Sabatier, found of Millennial Money, was a panelist on a round table discussion about the forthcoming documentary Playing with Fire at this year’s FinCon. In his write-up, he concluded:
The last topic of the conversation was the potential and power that FIRE has to change society and allow people to live richer, freer, and fuller lives… We all agreed that the FI movement is a response to an increasingly-fragmented, technology-addicted, consumerist society.
In Star Trek, villains amass wealth to accumulate things and status. In the FIRE movement, everyday heroes build wealth to buy freedom.
Diversity & Inclusion
Arguably, diversity and inclusion are the bedrock on which Star Trek is built, as evidenced by its thematic story elements and by the casting of the various series.
One well-known meme from Star Trek is the Vulcan philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC).
According to Fanlore:
Gene Roddenberry originated the IDIC philosophy as a Vulcan belief: “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations represents a Vulcan belief that beauty, growth, progress — all result from the union of the unlike.”
Starships on Star Trek are served by crews comprised of both males and females, species and races from different planets across the Federation, and even non-biological life forms like androids and holograms. Shared values unite these diverse crews, and they work harmoniously together toward common goals. Racism and intolerance are not part of the culture in Starfleet (though we certainly see those evils in civilizations outside of the Federation).
Looking at the casting for each series, we see that Star Trek has generally been a pioneer at pushing the TV industry forward toward increasing diversity and inclusion (especially when you consider the time period and social era during which each series aired).
- Star Trek (The Original Series) aired from 1966 to 1969, and the bridge crew of the Starship Enterprise included characters played by a black actress, a Japanese American actor and a Russian American actor (playing a full Russian) — which was notable since America was still in a Cold War with Russia. Star Trek is famous for including the first interracial kiss on television.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 to 1994) featured black actors as the Chief Engineer and Chief Security Officer, as well as Whoopi Goldberg in a key recurring supporting role. The show also featured women in key roles (such as Chief Medical Officer), but — to be fair — TNG is not well-regarded for its handling of the female characters (who got less spotlight and character development than their male counterparts).
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired from 1993 to 1999 and once again Star Trek showed remarkable diversity for its time. A black actor played the Commander of the space station, the lead part in the show. His son and girlfriend (also played by African Americans) were prominent supporting characters. A Sudanese actor played the Chief Medical Officer. And for the first time in Star Trek, the main female characters (e.g. the First Officer and Chief Science Officer) were forces to be reckoned with and got significant screen time.
- Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001) featured the most prominent and powerful roles for women on Star Trek to that point in its history. The Starship Voyager had a female Captain (the show’s lead), a female Chief Engineer, and a brilliant female Scientist. Also on the diversity front, a black actor played the Vulcan Chief Security Officer, a Hispanic actor played the Native American First Officer, and a Chinese American actor played an Ensign on the bridge crew.
- Star Trek: Discovery (2017-) stars a black actress in the lead role, a British Pakistani actor as her love interest, and a Malaysian superstar (Michelle Yeoh) in a key recurring role. Perhaps most notably, one of the main subplots of the show revolves around Star Trek’s first openly gay character and his relationship with his boyfriend (with whom he shares quarters and with whom he shares the franchise’s first on-screen gay male kiss).
Star Trek certainly does not have a perfect track record when it comes to inclusion (especially earlier in its history with the female characters), but strength through diversity is definitely one of its core values.
One stereotype of the FIRE movement is that it is dominated by white males, many of whom were previously in the tech industry (full disclosure: I am yet another from that camp). However, the reality is that FIRE movement is incredibly inclusive and values diversity.
To overcome the misconception that personal finance bloggers are primarily white males, Angela at Tread Lightly, Retire Early has compiled an extensive list of female bloggers and podcasters in the personal finance space. The running list currently contains about 200 entries with around half of them in the FIRE space.
On Our Next Life, Tanja Hester writes:
There are FIRE bloggers and aspirants whose work had nothing to do with tech, engineering or math (hi!), along with lots of folks in corporate America, publishing, realty, social work, education, academia, nonprofits, health care, finance, government, the military, applied science, consulting and insurance — and that’s just the people I know personally.
Which is to say: everyone is welcome here. Whether you love spreadsheets or not. Whether you enjoy math or not. Whether you love craft beer or not. Whether you’re male, female or nonbinary. Whether you’re financially coupled or financially single. Whether you make a bunch of money or not.
What matters is not your profession or what you majored in in college, but that you’re game to think about your money differently and work hard to achieve a big goal. That’s the only prerequisite.
One of the tenets of the FIRE movement is that anyone can adopt its best practices, as long as they can achieve an appreciable gap between their income and their expenses — and then be disciplined about saving and/or investing the money in this gap. (Paula Pant has a good introduction to this idea at Afford Anything.)
The movement is for everyday people from all walks of life. The community is anything but elitist and tries to demystify money management techniques and investment strategy so that anyone can understand and apply the principles.
Collaboration, Cooperation & Debate
Star Trek crews solve problems, make new discoveries, and sometimes even save worlds via exemplary collaboration and cooperation. The characters are mostly self-less and share ideas liberally. Even a precocious 15 year old civilian boy, who has not yet attended Starfleet Academy, can routinely solve a conundrum or save the day (and often did to the annoyance of some TNG fans). Ideas can come from anywhere, and the ones best suited to the problem at hand win out, free from political influence or selfish motives.
The FIRE community is not competitive. Members of the movement share knowledge, support each other, and celebrate successes together. FIRE Podcasters frequently appear on each others shows, and promote each other, which further builds the spirit of community. Bloggers amass and publish huge knowledge bases to introduce newbies to FIRE principles and practices. Community members gather to ask questions and discuss ideas in forums and in-person meetups.
One notable difference between Star Trek and the FIRE movement is that Gene Roddenberry had an edict forbidding interpersonal conflict among Federation crew members whereas I hope most members of the FIRE community would agree we should embrace healthy debate, listen to dissenting views, and learn from conflict.
When I was growing up, and watching The Original Series and its spin-off movies, Star Trek was one of just a few pop culture franchises in the science fiction/fantasy genre. In addition to Star Trek, you had Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and a few others.
Flash forward to today and Star Trek is arguably lost in the crowd — and just one of a multitude of sci-fi/fantasy franchises and extended universes. Star Trek competes for attention with all of the movie series I mentioned above plus the Marvel Cinematic/TV universe, the DC universe, Harry Potter, The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Terminator, Alien, Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse, and the Walking Dead to name just a few.
In my mind, Star Trek still stands out and is special compared to the others. However, the sad reality is that most of my kids’ middle school cohorts have barely even heard of Star Trek. You have to be a motivated fan to seek it out, unlike the glory days when TNG was one of the top-rated shows in first-run syndication and a pop culture phenomenon. (Over 30 million viewers watched the series finale in 1994 according to Wikipedia.)
That said, Trekkers and Trekkies are rabid fans, and they gather together to share their love of Star Trek in forums, at fan club meetups and at conferences (a.k.a. conventions).
Just as Star Trek is currently a niche subculture in today’s ever expanding universe of pop culture franchises, the FIRE movement could be considered a niche subculture within the larger universe of personal finance.
Until the recent Suze Orman controversy, which erupted after Paula Pant‘s interview with her on the Afford Anything podcast, I think most Americans had likely never heard of the FIRE movement. FIRE was outside of the mainstream, and you had to seek out the community.
Like the Star Trek fans, however, the members of the FIRE community are passionate advocates — and like Trekkies and Trekkers, they gather together in forums, at in-person meetups and at conferences (e.g. FinCon, an annual conference for personal finance bloggers and podcasters).
My hope is that Star Trek will one day warp back into the mainstream, but the reality is that I am far more optimistic that Financial Independence principles and practices will emerge from the shadows and take fire among the masses.
Live Long & Prosper
The Vulcan greeting for farewell is “Live long and prosper.”
I can’t think of a more fitting sentiment to sum up the shared philosophies of Star Trek and the FIRE movement.
For FIRE adherents, the sooner we can reach FI, the more time we’ll have to live the life we really want to live — i.e to “live long and prosper.”
Merriam-Webster defines prosperous as:
Marked by success or economic well-being; enjoying vigorous and healthy growth : FLOURISHING
Maybe the community should rebrand FIRE as PVFI (Prosperity Via Financial Independence).
On second thought, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or lend itself to incendiary metaphors, so maybe not.
But hopefully you get the point…
I created my FIRE TREK poster art featuring the fictitious U.S.S. Independence from the original U.S.S. Komachi artwork by Kurumi Morishita. Special thanks to Kurumi for permission to use her art extensively in this post.