Workplace

'It’s pretty hard to make that much money': Why FatFIRE won’t be the next quiet quitting

Can you live a lavish lifestyle and still retire young? FatFIRE folks think so.

Pile of money

FIRE stands for “financial independence/retire early.”

Image: John Lund/Getty Images

Just when you thought the viral onslaught of “quiet quitting” might be dying down, the internet has birthed an annoying alliterative trend that is neither new nor representative of the feelings and actions of a majority of workers. But like “quiet quitting,” the fatFIRE movement is sure to cause controversy and disagreements among the “extremely online.”

What the heck is fatFIRE?

FIRE is a financial acronym created in the 1990s that stands for “financial independence/retire early.” Traditionally, this means making frugal decisions early in your career so that you can save and not spend the rest of your good years working.

According to the fatFIRE Reddit (the definitive source, I guess), fatFIRE means FIRE, but fat, as in you make a lot of money, you spend a lot of money and then you retire with a big fat stash of cash. “If you want to pursue early retirement, but don’t want to live on a tight budget, the Fat FIRE approach may be what makes the most sense for you,” writes Nick Wolny of NextAdvisor. Because cost of living varies so much, there’s no agreed-upon number that officially constitutes a big fat stash of cash. But many experts agree that fatFIRE folks live on around $100,000 a year in retirement.

A user on the financial independence Reddit claimed to have “FIREd” last July after only a 15-year career in tech. He lives in New York City, is married, has one kid and says he has “$2.3M in investments, zero debt and a paid-off place.” Here’s a calculator that will help you figure out your fatFIRE number. Protocol does not recommend you quit your job if you reach this calculated FIRE number, especially since the calculator is from a guy named Andrew who describes himself as “a 27 year old living in the SF Bay Area that is passionate about fitness, design, and personal freedom.”

‘The anti-quiet quitting’

FIRE and fatFIRE have entered the workplace conversation lately because we’re tired of talking about “quiet quitting” and we want to swing wildly in the opposite direction. That’s what we do. But the connection between fatFIRE and quiet quitting is hollow at best. “Comparing quiet quitting to fatFIRE is like comparing buying a house in California to buying a house in Narnia,” Ed Zitron, CEO of EZPR and writer of the tech, culture and labor newsletter Where's Your Ed At, told me.

In case you’ve been without internet access for the last few months, quiet quitting is deciding to work fewer hours or care less about your job in order to combat burnout. FatFIRE is the opposite — sort of. The idea is that you work as hard as you can at a job (whether you like it or not) as long as you’re making a ton of money.

But as Zitron insists, comparing the two doesn’t make a lot of sense. “FatFIRE suggests that the amount of effort you put into your job or your work is directly correlated to the amount of money that comes out. People are suggesting that you simply aspire to your ‘FIRE’ number — which can be $150,000 to $2.5 million to whatever you dream — and somehow in the numerous articles I'm reading I do not see a single person saying, ‘Hey, it's pretty hard to make that much money!’” he said.

Blame the pandemic

Our perspective toward work has radically changed since 2020, and it has much more to do with whether we are back commuting to an office or remote forever. A few years at home made many workers reevaluate their relationship to work and their personal lives. And many Gen Z professionals who graduated from college and started working after 2020 have little or no experience of what work was like in the before times.

Cara Brennan Allamano, chief people officer at HR platform Lattice, has over 20 years of human resources and leadership experience. She told Protocol that from her perspective, “FatFIRE is really just the latest eye-catching name for one of the new employee pathways we’re seeing emerge as the impacts of the pandemic and new generations entering the workforce have created ways of looking at what a career can and should look like.”

But is this really a trend?

“It’s hard for our data to determine if this is truly a trend or not,” said Rob Austin, vice president and head of research for HR consulting company Alight Solutions. According to Alight’s 2022 Universe Benchmarks report, a lot of folks are, indeed, stockpiling big fat piles of cash. But whether they’re going to use this cash to retire at age 40 and Scrooge McDuck it for the rest of their lives is harder to determine.

The percentage of people with more than $1 million in their 401(k) has more than tripled over the past five years. But it's still only 3% of all people Alight surveyed. The percentage of people who save to the IRS maximum amount ($20,500 in 2022 for people under 50) has increased from 6.5% of all savers to 11% of all savers between 2016 and 2021. “Much of the growth of these ‘super-savers’ has been among people who are younger than 40 years old,” Austin told me.

What do HR experts think about fatFIRE?

Given that the major concern of many CHROs these days is managing and preventing worker burnout, an idea based on working as hard as you can solely for a big paycheck is a bit of an anachronism for many of them.

“While it may encourage hard work and strong engagement with the job, it also sets very high and possibly unattainable goals that could result in burnout and [mental] health issues,” said Jo Deal, CHRO of GoTo (the SaaS company that owns GoTo Connect and Rescue). “Amassing a large amount of money when you are unable to enjoy it doesn’t seem like a sensible approach,” she added.

“Though it may be appealing at age 25 to retire in 10 years, it is hard to plan properly or precisely for a long life, with future family responsibilities or health requirements, while also anticipating macro and market factors too,” Deal said.

Traci Chernoff, director of employee engagement at workplace management platform Legion and host of the “Bringing the Human Back to Human Resources” podcast, agrees. "We all get one life to live; I couldn’t imagine taking that privilege and wasting it on something that doesn’t bring me joy outside of a high salary.”

But if an employee wants to work like this, it’s not the HR department's business to say that they shouldn’t or can’t, insists Lattice’s Brennan Allamano. “An employee focused on making the most money in the shortest period of time is actually something that could work well for both parties — as long as everyone involved is clear-eyed on what that will look like.” Overtime or lots of travel for work “could be the perfect opportunities for fatFIRE individuals to own as an opportunity to push harder and stash more cash,” she said.

Brennan Allamano’s colleague Maurice Bell, head of people operations at Lattice, agrees. “It’s important to realize that stashing cash as quickly as possible doesn’t need to automatically equate to hating your work experience,” Bell told Protocol.

So, does money buy happiness or not?

According to the 2022 Alight International Workforce and Wellbeing Mindset Report, workers between the ages 24 and 49 who make more than $105K were more likely to say they have high stress than people who make less than $105K (24% versus 20%).

“This stress doesn’t appear to be stemming from financial matters,” Austin said. “70% of higher-paid workers say they are in control of their financial situation versus only 33% of lower-income workers.” Higher-paid workers are also much more likely to describe their work experience as “awesome” or “great” than lower-paid workers (50% versus 30%).

And even if an outsized paycheck is all someone needs to be happy, that doesn’t make it great for a company’s bottom line. “While someone might find their paycheck rewarding enough to put up with a job they hate, the reality is that they likely won’t be producing great results,” Chernoff said.

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