It’s always fun to unearth some esoteric piece of personal-finance history. I know there are only a few nerds out there who care (hello, Grant Sabatier!), but those of us who care really care.
Two years ago, I published an article exploring the history of financial independence in which I noted that the earliest reference I can find to the notion of financial independence comes from an 1872 book called Money and How to Make It by H. L. Reade. And it wasn’t until the 1950s that the concept of early retirement (at least in the sense we mean it today) gained traction. But despite my research, I still have questions, such as: What’s the source of the modern FIRE movement?
Who Coined the Term FIRE?
Recently at The Retire Early Home Page — a site so old that it existed (and still exists) at the dawn of the web — John P. Greaney answered the question: Who coined the term FIRE?
If you’ve never visited The Retire Early Home Page, you should. I’m certain that it’s the oldest FIRE site on the web. It’s quite possible it’s the oldest general personal-finance site too. Greaney has been publishing quarterly updates since 01 April 1996!
Greaney offers a bit of context and history, writing:
In May 1999 the “Retire Early Home Page” discussion board appeared on The Motley Fool website, and a vibrant conversation on early retirement topics ensued. Before The Motley Fool shut the board down in May 2022 (and converted it to “read-only” status) it had accumulated almost 900,000 posts. […]
One early topic of discussion was the definition of “early retirement” — and the consensus was that some form of financial independence was a prerequisite. Quitting your job with an insufficient nestegg, and risking an early return to paid employment, was more of a “job change” than early retirement.
According to Greaney, on 23 August 2000 a Motley Fool forum member with the handle “fzabaly” was the first to shorten “financially-independent, retired early” to FI/RE in this board post:
One non-monetary decision that has helped me line up FI/RE is attaining a graduate degree (in ComputerScience) while working. Along with the better pay came a higher confidence re: employment that allowed me to become a ‘Moderately Aggressive Investor’ (70% stks/Mfunds) from a Conservative Investor (50% stks/Mfunds).
And, says Greaney, the first person to move this abbreviation from FI/RE to FIRE was a board member going by the handle “wanderer0692”. On 19 January 2001, wanderer0692 made a terrific (and long) post entitled “Things That Are Stronger than Death and Fear”. (The post is worth reading even today, 21 years later.)
“This is the essence of FI/RE,” writes wanderer0692. “Freedom from financial want. It is a tribute, in our case, to luck and a bull market, and to our adherence to what we refer to as the six fundamental principles of FI/RE.”
Those six fundamentals of FI/RE are:
Have a motivating purpose.
Take a high-paying job.
Live below your means.
Slash your taxes.
Invest in low-cost index funds.
The fundamentals of the FIRE movement haven’t changed much since 2001, have they? These are still the basics that most of people preach and practice today.
“A Fire That Burns in Me”
Anyhow, as a sort of addendum to his excellent post, wanderer0692 makes an observation:
Has anyone else noticed how “FI/RE” looks like the word “fire”? I remember attending church (a long, long time ago) and, during the benediction, the preacher saying, “Take our minds and think through them. Take our eyes and see through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.” I always liked that turn of phrase.
I’m not much for religion, but I do believe in the sanctity of the human spirit. FI/RE is a fire that burns in me. Maybe it consumes me, but I like to think I am that phoenix, rising from the ashes, to fulfill his special mission of realizing his true potential.
So, from now on, I’m gonna drop the slash. A “FIRE” it is. May it be ever thus.
And so it has been ever thus.
So, there you have it. Until somebody provides evidence otherwise, I’m willing to accept Greaney’s version of early FIRE history. The dude has been writing about this stuff online since 1996, after all. He knows his stuff.
There’s another interesting insight from this FIRE origin story. Today, most people (including me) believe that the FIRE acronym stands for “Financial Independence/Retire Early”. That’s pretty damn clumsy, and we all know it. In actuality, the FIRE acronym originally stood for “Financially Independent, Retired Early”. That makes a lot more sense!
That said, I know it’s a losing battle to try to convince people that we’re mis-labelling what FIRE stands for. Hell, I’ve spent two years trying to get people to stop saying “savings rate” when they mean “saving rate” and I seem to have made zero measurable difference. I suppose I’ll have to resign myself to failure on this one too.
Want to read more about the history of personal finance and financial independence? Well then, you’re a nerd. That’s okay. I’m a nerd too. Here are a few pages that might interest you, weird-o:
The history of financial independence at Get Rich Slowly
What early retirement was like in 1957 (according to Life magazine) at Get Rich Slowly
The Retire Early Home Page (here’s a chronological index)
“Saving rate” vs. “savings rate” — What’s the difference? at Get Rich Slowly
And please, if you know of any other interesting books or articles about the history of financial independence (and/or personal finance), please let me know. I want to read them.