Do You Need Good Luck to Achieve Financial Independence?

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Do you need to be lucky to achieve financial independence and retire early (FIRE)? A popular narrative says you do. 

Emma Pattee expressed this point of view in a recent article. I found it when it was shared and praised on social media.

Praise of the need luck to achieve financial independence narrative

Pattee achieved financial independence in less than 10 years by following FIRE principles. She opined, “I’m personally responsible for 20% of my current situation, while the other 80% is just plain good luck, circumstance and privilege.”

This “lucky and privileged” narrative comes from a place of good intentions. Completely ignoring the roles of luck, circumstance and privilege can lead to a lack of empathy. This in turn can lead to judging others unfairly.

But there are two big problems with the “lucky and privileged” narrative that I’ll address.

  1. It is incorrect. 
  2. It is harmful.

The Role of Luck

Personal finance is all about taking action to control the things you can control to change your financial position in life. Luck, by definition, is success or failure brought about by chance, rather than by your own actions.

Focusing on luck is to focus on things you can’t control, rather than the many things you can. If we want to get on the path to financial independence and a secure retirement, then we need to do the exact opposite. Acknowledge the role of luck, but keep it in perspective.

Luck as a Lottery Analogy

If 80% of financial success is “luck, circumstance, and privilege,” then why even try? Just buy lottery tickets. Better yet, run out to the nearest casino for better odds and a good time at the craps table or slot machines! At least when your money is gone you’ll have enjoyed the “free” drinks and festive environment.

Luck plays a role in the ability to achieve financial independence. However, using casino or lottery-type odds is the wrong analogy. It misrepresents the role of luck and circumstance.

Luck as a Poker Analogy

A better analogy is the luck involved in the game of poker. Can you be dealt a bad poker hand? Absolutely. Is it possible to be dealt a number of bad hands in a row? Yes!

Pair of Aces

But a good player with bad cards can remain in the game long enough for his luck to turn. And a bad player with good cards will inevitably run out of luck and lose if he plays long enough. In both poker and personal finance, your outcomes are a combination of circumstance (or luck) and what actions you take given your circumstances.

I apply the concepts written about by professional poker player Annie Duke in her book Thinking In Bets to evaluate my financial decisions. Another excellent resource linking poker and personal finance is this Financial Mentor Podcast episode with poker player Billy Murphy exploring the expected value formula

Expected value is the probability of a positive or negative event occurring multiplied by the payoff of a positive outcome or cost of a negative one. This requires acknowledging any single decision or action comes with an element of chance. 

You can seek out positive expectancy bets and minimize negative ones. Doing so repeatedly shifts the odds so far in your favor that you can virtually eliminate the role of luck on your outcomes.

Expectancy math is pretty simple. Not taking time to understand it is one of the most expensive mistakes you can make in life.

The Role of Privilege

The second aspect that makes this narrative harmful is the idea that financial independence is a product of privilege. Imagine believing you need to be born to the right parents, in the right location, with the right skin color, the right combination of X vs. Y chromosomes and perfect health, and sent to the right school while having it paid for by mommy and daddy to have a chance to succeed financially. 

This is an extension of the idea that your success or failure is dependent on luck and circumstances. It’s a depressing and disempowering way to go through life. It breeds hopelessness and resentment, rather than inspiring the action necessary to create personal change.

Pattee wrote, “I don’t know what would fix the enormous inequality that exists in our country and in our world. All I know is that, if you look at the data, personal responsibility is largely a sham (emphasis hers).”

I agree that there is inequality in our society. I also don’t know what would fix it on a societal level. But I completely disagree that personal responsibility is a sham. 

Taking ownership of your situation is hard, but possible for anyone who chooses to do so. It is a necessary first step for making any meaningful changes in your life

Taking control of your finances provides the ability to take care of yourself. This is a prerequisite to having the resources to meaningfully help others. When you’re financially independent, you’re free to become an agent for change in any way you see fit, unconstrained by the need to work to advance anyone else’s agenda.

Universal Principles > Luck

That doesn’t mean achieving financial independence isn’t easier or harder, the path shorter or longer, for some people than others. It doesn’t mean the formula will be exactly the same for each of us. 

In the Choose FI book, we explored a variety of stories and tactics to identify universal principles that are applicable to help anyone create their own unique path to financial independence. When I released the book, I shared that my only regret with the way the book turned out was that we weren’t able to share even more stories with greater diversity. 

We relate to others in a similar position in life with shared struggles. Seeing people like us  achieving things we would like to achieve makes the unlikely seem possible. 

I try to share a variety of ideas and perspectives in my writing because I know that stories inspire action. It is vital to take action to control the things we can. 

The more I study varied stories of others, the more I find the same common principles. There are really only three levers we can pull that enable financial independence: spend less, earn more, and invest better. 

Spend Less

Most people should start with the spending side of the equation because it allows for some quick wins. Earning more tends to take more time.

I acknowledge that frugality is not exciting or sexy. So for someone looking for a reason to not follow this advice and take action, opinions like Pattee’s would certainly be attractive. She wrote, “it’s clear that frugality is not what enabled me to be financially independent. I owe my financial independence almost entirely to being lucky and being advantaged.”

In my case, and the case of every other person I’ve studied who has achieved financial independence, their financial independence was because they lived frugally in relation to their income.

This is elementary math. Being ignorant of math is possibly the most expensive mistake you can make in life. So let’s look at the math of spending less.

The Big Three

There is no rocket science here. Start with: 

  • Housing,
  • Cars,  
  • Food.

These are typically the biggest expenses under your control, thus the best opportunity to have the maximal impact.

Recurring Expenses

Next look at recurring expenses such as:

  • Phone, 
  • Cable, 
  • Subscriptions, 
  • Utilities.

Look for ways to make a decision or take action one time that will automatically save you money every month going forward. 

Saving Gets Fun

As you achieve a positive savings rate and degree of financial independence, focus on minimizing:

In my opinion, this is where frugality and fun intersect. You can structure your finances in ways that you automate saving thousands of dollars a year. That money can then accelerate your path to financial independence or be spent in ways that improve your quality of life sooner.

Earn More

Earning is the other variable that allows you to create a gap between what you spend and what you earn. Again, some people think earning more is a matter of luck. 

Pattee wrote in her essay, “If my wages hadn’t been somewhat falsely inflated by the tech boom, but instead had increased only by the national average since 2011, I would still be making less than $50,000. I mean, there’s a reason so many FIRE followers are tech workers!” 

Passion Hypothesis

This is consistent with the type of faulty thinking that Cal Newport in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You calls the “Passion Hypothesis.” The idea is to figure out what we’re passionate about and then find a career that matches our passion. 

Combining the lucky and passion hypotheses reduces everything to pure chance. If you’re not passionate about the right things, you’re destined for poverty. It’s depressing and disempowering.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Just because the “Passion Hypothesis” is widely accepted conventional wisdom doesn’t mean it is true. Newport proposes an alternative idea. Focus on getting good at something “rare and valuable” and then cashing in the “career capital” to increase your earnings and improve your working conditions.

This is exactly what I did as a physical therapist, a career where education requirements and costs are steadily increasing. Simultaneously, reimbursement and salaries are stagnant.

Using domestic geoarbitrage, I moved to a rural area where supply and demand worked in my favor, making me more rare and valuable. I stayed with the same company for nearly 15 years and focused on building relationships in the community and with key referral sources. That’s the most reliable way to build a busy practice and become more valuable.

Applying these replicable principles allowed me to also increase my salary much faster than the national average while improving my working conditions greatly. 

Actionable Principles to Earn More

In the Choose FI book, I outlined how people who achieve FI quickly earn more while creating a better life along the way. This was able to be reduced to reproducible principles which each got an entire chapter of attention. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:

  • View education as a value proposition: Embrace continuous learning and growth, but consider the price tag of your education and find ways to get the best value possible.
  • Manage your career: Your work is the product you’re selling. As such, you should make it as valuable as possible. Market it so others are aware of your value.
  • Build a network: Constantly look for ways to help others without expectations of anything in return. Over time, you will inevitably create a community of people who will want to help you when and where they can.

Invest Better

The third lever we can pull is investing better. Many people lack the knowledge of how and where to invest their money. They have no idea what reasonable expectations for rates of return are.

Adding to the sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless by emphasizing luck is counterproductive. Instead, focus on identifying things we can control and setting realistic expectations.

In the Choose FI book, I identified three valid investment paths utilized by those who have achieved financial independence. They are:

  1. The Simple Path: A high savings rate combined with investing in index funds,
  2. The Active Path: Investing in your own business,
  3. The Hybrid Path: Investing in real estate, which incorporates principles of both the simple and active paths.

Pattee’s investing approach fits this pattern. She achieved financial independence by utilizing real estate and stock market investments. Since leaving her tech career, she has become a solopreneur with at least some success as evidenced by a byline that notes she’s written for major publications including the New York Times and Elle.

Of her real estate investments she wrote, “if I hadn’t bought real estate during one of the hottest growth periods in Portland, Oregon’s history, I wouldn’t have reached financial independence at all.”

Of investing in stocks, Pattee wrote, “That doesn’t even take into account the stock market, which has nearly doubled my contributions since I started investing in 2009.”

Was she just lucky? Are all of us espousing FIRE principles just products of market conditions of the past decade? When the bull market comes to an end, will the FIRE movement end with it?

Evaluating the role of luck requires a bit more nuance and another look at expectancy.

Stock market return expectations

If we want to judge whether we got lucky in the stock market, we need to know more. 

  • How did we allocate our money? 
  • What were our goals? 
  • How did a similar approach perform historically?
  • Is it realistic to expect to double your money in the stock market in a decade?

It helps to first understand the rule of 72 which gives a good approximation of how long it takes to double the value of an investment. To double your money in a decade, you would need a little more than a 7% annualized return.

Does that require luck? Vanguard reports the average annual return for the S&P 500, which is often used as a proxy for the stock market, was 10.2% between 1926 and 2019. 

The Vanguard 500 Index Fund returned 13.85% annually over the ten years ending 12/31/2020. So, if you are defining luck as getting greater than average returns, then investors over the last decade have been lucky. However, you could have been equally “unlucky” and underperformed the market by the same 3.5% and still come close to doubling your money.

Far more important than focusing on market returns and luck, which are out of our control, we should be focusing on things we can control:

I saved and invested through the “lost decade” of 2000-2009, continued through the bull market of the 2010s, and I’ve built a portfolio I’m confident will do reasonably well in the coming decades regardless of what the S&P 500 does.

Making Money With Real Estate

Assessing luck with real estate is an equally pointless exercise. Instead, try asking better questions.

  • How can you make and lose money with this strategy?
  • Does it fit with your skillset, time constraints, and interests?
  • Will this strategy allow you to meet your financial goals?

Chad Carson uses the I.D.E.A.L. acronym to explain five ways to make money with real estate investments. They are:

  • Income,
  • Depreciation,
  • Equity,
  • Appreciation, 
  • Leverage

Appreciation is one way real estate investors make money. There is an element of luck in owning property in an area where prices are rapidly increasing.

However, you can also “force appreciation” by buying properties below market value, improving them, etc. The other four income drivers provide a great deal of control of your outcomes. These areas are where you should focus your attention and energy.

Luck and Business

Successfully investing in a personal business certainly has an element of luck. If you disagree, ask anyone who was optimistic about owning a bar, restaurant, or entertainment venue at this time last year how they’re doing now.

However, this doesn’t mean we’re at the mercy of luck and circumstance. In the Choose FI book, we highlighted the ideas of Alan Donegan and Todd Tresidder. Donegan emphasizes using creativity rather than debt to help overcome fear and manage risk when starting a business. Tresidder teaches how to safely apply leverage to profitable ideas to grow quickly. He also teaches avoiding leverage in unknowable or unprofitable situations to manage risk.

Applying these principles, many businesses can remain viable through tough economic conditions. Even if awful luck destroys your business, proactively applying solid financial and risk management principles to your business and personal life means you should be well-positioned to try again when conditions are more favorable or try a completely different idea.

What Can You Control?

A variety of recovery groups teach the Serenity Prayer. These organizations continue to teach these simple, yet powerful, words because they’re such an important first step in the process of overcoming challenging circumstances and creating meaningful change:

God, grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Overcoming obstacles and changing your life is hard. Don’t waste time on things that are out of your control. If you want to achieve financial independence, focus on things you can control rather than luck, which by definition is everything you can’t.

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to chris@caniretireyet.com. Financial planning inquiries can be sent to chris@abundowealth.com]

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61 Comments

  1. Enjoyed your reply to this all too typical “helpless me” whine. Rather than focus on what they can do for themselves and delay gratification, everything is someone else’s fault. So they then turn to telling everyone else how to live so they get more as a perverted form of socialist “work”.

    Yes it takes some luck. Being born recently vs 400 yrs ago is great. But as attributed to Ben Hogan when someone called him lucky, “ yes, and the more I practice the luckier I get.”

    1. Joe,

      I’ll push back a little. This is the idea of lacking empathy for people who are really struggling that I mention in the intro. If someone is truly struggling, it is understandable that they may feel helpless.

      The thing that irritated me when I read this article and saw it shared and praised by people I respect and like is that the person writing it was not struggling. And she offered no actionable, helpful advice to others who are.

      There is a middle ground between kicking people when they are down and feeling bad for those who are down on their luck and making them feel more helpless. That’s what I was hoping to show.

      Best,
      Chris

    2. The cynical part of me wonders if she wrote her article not so much to identify a clearly insurmountable obstacle to financial independence, but rather to embellish her brand by co-opting some fashionable social-justice mojo? She is a writer by trade after all?

      While there is undeniably an inequality of baseline financial condition in the US (and the world), her article is extremely disempowering to the very demographic she purports to help: by invoking concepts such as privilege, luck, and entitlement, she provides would-be saver/investors with a built-in reason for doing nothing to better their relative situation. “Why even try if the system is rigged against people like me?”

      I personally believe application of the principles which underpin the FIRE movement would be incredibly helpful to folks of relatively modest means. They might not become billionaires, but It might be the most effective way for them to rise above their circumstances and ultimately get out of the rat-race. The discipline and self-assessment required is quite empowering, regardless of the continued existence of wealth inequality in our country.

      1. Mike,

        If I’m being fair, why did I bother to write a response. I honestly asked myself if it was worth publishing this b/c I feared people would just read it with their predetermined bias or if it would be something that would actually help people see a different way.

        I honestly don’t know if it will help anyone. I agree with you in believing the principles are life changing for for ordinary people when they’re able to be delivered in an effective way to a receptive audience.

        Best,
        Chris

  2. Hi, I’ll be unsubscribing- but for the interest of future readers: you make a lot of super privileged assumptions in here. For example: you don’t acknowledge that ~2/3rds of bankruptcies can be linked to medical issues. (As a reminder, in many cases, workers don’t have the ability to decide which health insurance plan they will receive, assuming they’re eligible.) You assume that everyone can just be eligible for a higher paying salary if they choose different skills- despite an extraordinarily well documented gender and racial pay gap.

    The blog post you cite isn’t saying success wasn’t due exclusively to luck, just that it played a major part. And the fact that you can’t acknowledge that suggests that you really don’t understand anything beyond your own lived experience. Your post is a perfect summary of why so many people feel the FIRE movement is limited to white tech bros lecturing people about bootstraps, and heartbreaking for those of us who believe that the underlying message of frugality and mindful financial planning are important for everyone.

    1. You’ll be leaving since this article didn’t jive with your victimhood mentality? Excellent. Thanks for making the blog even better than it was previously.

    2. Sorry to hear that Gretchen. Yes I hate our medical system and I’ve written and talked about it regularly.

      Regarding the rest of your comment, I acknowledge luck just as she acknowledges effort. We just disagree about the role that each plays. This is why I presented a counter argument that I hope actually helps people rather than make them feel even more helpless.

    3. I’m not of the mind that this piece warrants “unsubscribing” but you make noteworthy points, Gretchen. I’m totally in favor of controling what you (think you) can as the I Can mindset is a powerful thing. Disagreement need not be isolating though–we’ve got enough of the latter as it is. As a matter of fact, I’m going to practice what I speak in my own personal life at lunch in an attempt to repair a bridge! Good on Emma for her introspection and thanks Chris for the reminder that despite odds drive can help us overcome much. Stick around and keep sharing Gretchen 🙂

      1. Reloaded,

        Thank you. I appreciate this. As you can see from the date of the original article I’ve gone back and forth on whether to publish this b/c I know people feel strongly on either side of the “luck/privilege” vs. “bootstraps” arguments.

        Honestly, I think both extremes are vast oversimplifications. I appreciate what I assume to be the purpose of the article I referenced which is that we shouldn’t feel superior and judge others, as I noted in the introduction. But I think it’s important to not go so far as to attribute everything (technically 80% to be fair) to luck when there are so many things we can control.

        I don’t want to offend anyone. At the same time, I don’t want to be afraid of writing about topics that I feel are important to people who genuinely want to better themselves and don’t know where to get started and feel helpless.
        Best,
        Chris

    4. Gretchen: Before you unsubscribe, go back and re-read his response. I think he’s saying exactly what you say in your last sentence? He’s just choosing to emphasize the positive aspects of FIRE theory, realizing the extreme dangers when people allow themselves or encourage others to be derailed by “monsters” such as luck and entitlement.

      Personally, I am a blue collar worker who comes from a long line of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” thinking. Somewhere along the way I was mentored in thinking which led me to take more personal responsibility for my situation. It certainly hasn’t been easy, and I’ve had lots of luck (no major health crises, like-minded spouse, etc.) but we are now there. Not billionaires, no Ferrari, but we can now choose how we spend our days.

      I want (and actively work for) the same thing for ALL my fellows, and I continue to believe strong opportunity is there for virtually everyone. There will always be relative inequality in every society, as well as those who are impeded by factors beyond their control. Ask yourself who helps more: those who chronicle inequality, make excuses, and quit; or those who inspire and encourage others to stick with it despite setbacks and obstacles?

    5. So many of us have made our FI by way of hard work, working more than one job or working extreme overtime as my husband who was an hourly worker for General Motors and as myself who worked full time as a hospital RN and parttime at nursing homes and private duty. We enjoyed a decent lifestyle but saved sooo much of our income. We did not order out constantly and eat out constantly, I never craved the 400 dollar boots and purses. Young people get caught up in the “I want” “I deserve it” “they have it, I should too”. They get indebted trying to live way above their means. My parents worked jobs that did not pay much, they paid for their small 2 bedroom home that I grew up in. They only had one new car later in life when they could afford it. They stopped at trash piles constantly and brought home so many good usable items that they did not need to buy. They raised a garden every year, bought their clothes at thrift stores and yes, I wore some thrift store items as a kid to school while the other young girls wore their beautiful villager dresses. You have to be willing to sacrifice to get ahead. Beacause of our sacrifices early on we were able to help our daughter with a down payment for her house and last year gave our granddaughter 10 percent down on her new home. And yes, I put myself through nursing school and paid it myself. No white privilege there for myself or my husband. Hard work, being frugal, savings and common sense. I have never received financial help, not even unemployment. If I could not get the hours I needed to save I found another job to add to it. The cancel culture of today are lazy, feel entitled to free healthcare, free education, free housing, etc. It totally disgusts me.

    6. Good bye Gretchen!!!!..maybe no one should put themselves through school to get the better skills to be able to negotiate better pay or seek a better place of employment for better benefits. You are assuming that employees don’t have any rights to leave a place they don’t like or don’t have a choice in benefits. I have worked (both temporary and full time) for different hospitals and not one that I have worked at didn’t have at least 3 different health plans to choose from. But if I would have had an attitude like you, I wouldn’t have put myself through school to get a nursing degree and would have stayed being a data processor making $9/hr instead of the six figures I now make. Also what do you call it when the Vietnamese people I work with had to struggle to ESCAPE their country by boat (10 to 12 days with no food/water) because of communism, go to a different country, put themselves through school, move to the USA, become nurses, buy houses, save money??? I sure as heck wouldn’t call it LUCK.

  3. Great article. I do think maybe she is thinking that inherently if you are born in the US, white, and don’t grow up in poverty in the grand scheme of life you are more privileged and lucky to have been born into the right circumstance.

    But beyond that there are always factors that we do control. I took the active plan and started business that were bootstrapped. This allowed our business to always be profitable and be able to withstand economic cycles with relative ease and long term thinking.

    As a result, I was able to earn an extremely high income for many years that led to FI. But I don’t think it was ever luck. The luck was being born to my parents having a stable childhood, etc. the rest was hard work and having a business plan that wasn’t overly aggressive and reliant on debt or venture capital.

    You don’t need to get lucky to retire early. You just need a plan and to stick to that plan over the long term. Your poker analogy is spot on.

    1. Thanks AR. If your first paragraph was all that was being said, I would have nothing to disagree with.

      Thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment.

      Best,
      Chris

  4. Totally agree with Gretchen’s comment above and you’ve lost another reader. This piece is so incredibly tone deaf to the experiences of others. None of us got to choose where we were born, and if you don’t think those of us born in a first world country to white, middle-class parents are luckier (through no effort of our own) than someone born in poverty in Guatamala, then I don’t know what to tell you. The message of the piece this is in response to is not “I may as well not even try because it’s all luck,” but rather those of us lucky enough to be in the FIRE community should acknowledge that we did not get here solely on our own because we were frugal or hustled – sure that played a part – but we all needed to catch some breaks to get here.

    1. I never said some people aren’t born to more fortunate circumstances than others or that I got here entirely based on my own frugulity or hustle or that I didn’t catch some lucky breaks along the way. Those are all your words, and not mine.

      To the contrary, I specifically said “Completely ignoring the roles of luck, circumstance and privilege can lead to a lack of empathy. This in turn can lead to judging others unfairly.”

      All that said, there is nothing you can do about luck. But there are many things that every single one of us can control. If we want to live our best lives (and if we genuinely want to help others), then we need to acknowledge the things we can’t control while focusing on the things we can.

      Best,
      Chris

    2. You sound like Obama when he said “YOU didn’t build your business” meaning if you came up with an idea, plan, and executed it, built a business that YOU own, it’s not really yours….you owe everything you made to everyone else. Glad you’re leaving with Gretchen.

  5. Hi Chris, good article and thanks for pushing back on this type incorrect logic that tries to bring things down to some other factors rather then the self discipline and hard work most employ to achieve FI.
    I give you credit for addressing this type of thinking that many just go along with since they feel it is politically correct.

    1. Thanks Bruce. To be clear, as apparently I was not in the article, I know luck in the form of your circumstance, parents you were born to, race, gender, timing, etc. matter. The point is that we all face unique starting points and will have unique paths and challenges. We are not helpless in how we deal with those situation.

      Best,
      Chris

  6. First let me set the stage- I am 66 and retiring at the end of the month, so not necessarily a FIRE devotee or advocate. Also, grew up in The Bronx, NYC (relatively poor), got an education and had a successful career.
    I think both positions are on the extreme, and there is a middle ground. It is pointless to whine about your given circumstances, the goal should be to strive for improvement in whatever endeavor. Success is relative; the hope is each generation succeeds a bit more than their parents. We can all dream of being a superstar athlete, movie star, scientist, politician, or whatever. But focusing on a dream at the expense of the fundamentals is a road to failure. Budgeting, investing and working hard at your job (after a good education) are the building blocks, no matter your starting point. I do believe there is some luck involved in stock selection, job mentors and even spouse selection. In many respects we make our own luck by taking opportunities and making something out of them. This should not be a discussion on white privilege-too easy to play the victim when there are myriad opportunities for all out there. Overall, set realistic goals, implement a plan, and I think you will find “luck” meeting you at the starting line.

    1. The use of the word ‘whine’ in the context of explaining why it is that many people aren’t born lucky – in the context of the world, this means, white, middle-class, to educated parents and in a country with infrastructure that gives people choices – primarily the US, Europe, and some parts of Asia – is unfortunate to say the least, and smacks of a lack of empathy.

      This is the essence of white privilege: a lack of understanding how privileged an individual is who is born into that environment. Of course there are examples of those who get lucky and manage to haul themselves out of a poor situation they were born into. Statistically, however, they are a small minority.

      But to the main feature: yes, you can overcome luck in many circumstances but let there be no doubt that it is much much harder for a significant proportion even of those people born in the US or Europe. If you don’t fit white expectations, study after study has shown, for example, that job interviews and promotions are harder to come by, similarly bank loans to start businesses, and the ongoing grind of daily racism in white societies that can impact mental health.

      This is fact, not whining. And not to recognise that society throws curveballs at millions of people who are not in a poition to avoid them is shameful.

      1. You cannot solve the world’s problems. Can only do the best you can with your opportunities and resources. Whining is when you compare yourself to others and say “woe is me”. That will get you no where. This has nothing to do with empathy. Too many self-righteous people want to make those of us who have worked hard and been successful feel guilty. To that I say STUFF IT!
        Get over yourself and encourage people to practice the fundamentals as outlined in the article.

    2. I agree with Bob. This great country provides endless opportunities if only you want to work hard. Just take at look at Elon Musk (and many others) journey of life when he immigrated to the U.S. I retired in 2019 at 61 after 35 years and I invested in my companies 401k from the beginning in small amounts and constantly increased it. I attended our local university because I was not fortunate to attend a school in the Northeast or West coast. I worked very hard and long hours and volunteered for projects to improve my career. It all comes down to taking responsibility for your actions and stop blaming the world. Unfortunately this is where the current politics is taking us.

  7. I believe most of our above-average amount of wealth is mostly due to luck. A lot of us can try hard all we want, but we may be born with a disability or in poor circumstances that may make achieving financial independence much harder.

    I did a poll on my site, and people think luck has 50% or less to do with achieving above-average wealth. I disagree.

    However, the one thing I’m proud of is growing Financial Samurai as a minority who isn’t a public figure.

    As we know, the PF blogosphere, it is dominated by white folks who help each other. This is completely natural, since we tend to help those people who look like us and come from similar backgrounds. It’s the same thing with financial journalists, who are predominantly white highlighting other bloggers of the same background.

    Just look at the people who you’ve linked to or highlighted in this post. All white. And it’s just the way it is.

    I think I would have had a much easier time growing Financial Samurai if the majority of Americans were Asian. However, I can’t change reality, so I’ve done my best to fight the odds and compete with what I have. And you know what? It’s been a fun challenge!

    Best,

    Sam

    1. You should be proud. We need more opinions and diversity. I think of you as diverse not only in ethnicity, but in your opinions and viewpoints.

      As you know, I share your work when I think it is valuable and original. An example that jumps front of mind is your idea of “true safe withdrawal rates” that I highlighted here.

      Re: highlighting people in this post, they were examples I took directly from the book. Again, the lack of diversity of people featured was a self critique I made of my own book when we released it. To be fair, who else uses their own platform to critique their own work that they spent nearly 2 years on? But I believed it, so I wrote it.

      Best,
      Chris

      1. True. And thanks for highlighting my work several years ago.

        I want to make clear that I don’t begrudge you for sticking with your own people. I understand it’s simply the way things are, including podcast hosts and their gusts.

        I recently had an epiphany that it is due to my Asian heritage why I think a little differently about retirement, spending, and withdrawal rates than many Americans. It was a good introspection.

        Further, because I know I’m different from most PF bloggers and journalists, I know I will have fewer opportunities to be recognized. Therefore, this situation has made me work harder and approach things differently. It feels rewarding.

        Finally, I also know my children will have fewer opportunities growing up in America as well compared to the majority. Therefore, I’m more motivated to build a sustainable family business and a rental property portfolio just in case they are discriminated against. Hopefully not, but why not build more wealth and more insurance if so right? I don’t like to complain. I just like to do.

        See my post: Three White Tenants, One Asian Landlord: A Story About Opportunity linked in the URL.

        Best,

        Sam

        1. “I also know my children will have fewer opportunities growing up in America as well compared to the majority.”

          That’s hard to square with the fact that Asian-Americans have higher per capita incomes and higher levels of education than all other U.S. population groups, including whites.

          But the faux victim pose seems to work for you, so by all means keep at it.

          1. Thank you Roberto. I really enjoy having the underdog mentality and trying to do everything possible to overcome.

            You’re not a victim if you do something about your situation. Keep fighting. Good things will happen if you hang in there long enough.

            What is your background? And do you have children?

    2. Sam,

      First of all, thanks for the work you do. It helps a lot of people. Keep it up!

      But…a quick review of financial demographics in the US seems to demonstrate that Asian Americans are financially outperforming their white counterparts DESPITE the existence of social inequality! For example, higher overall household incomes despite lower average single-earner incomes than whites (ie: a greater percentage of Asian Americans work).

      Rather than focusing on that which they cannot control, Asian Americans appear to be busy “making their own luck”.

      1. Hi Mike,

        Yes, as an aggregate Asian-Americans are doing well. However, Asians are not a monolith. Some of the poorest people come from countries in SouthEast Asia with much higher poverty rates and lower incomes. Beware of the “model minority myth.”

        I, for one, didn’t do very well on my SATs and went to a state school. I’ve encountered plenty of racism and lost opportunities growing up. And still to this day, I receive the monthly or bi-weekly racist comment from a reader on my site or on FB.

        It’s ongoing, probably forever. But it’s motivating to reaching FI!

        Sam

      2. IMO, Sam’s post is reflective of upper middle-class challenges of Asian Americans. My observation is that Asians do quite well in the technical ranks and lower to mid management ranks due to their education degrees and work ethic. This success brings the overall average of Asians to a high level. But senior positions, which seem to rely more on relationships/likability/experience, are still elusive to Asians, unless they founded their own organization. With the exception of Asian Indians (mostly in tech), I believe there is an unrecognized glass ceiling for Asians in America.

        But everyone has “unfair” challenges if you look hard enough. And I fully agree with you, Chris and Sam that it’s a total waste of energy to dwell on these. Instead, spend energy on things within your control.

        1. Maybe. I think I’m a pretty likable guy and rose through the ranks when I was working. However, if you don’t look like your boss or don’t come from the same background as your boss, it’s a little harder to continue getting ahead when he has created closer relationships with those who are very similar to himself.

          It’s really just numbers. As soon as the big boss Changed to a Korean man, all the desk heads around the world became Korean or came from the Korean office.

  8. Did you “unsubscribers” even read this article? Where exactly is it tone deaf? Every step of the way, Chris acknowledges that privilege, luck, timing etc certainly do play a factor, but that you can and should focus on the things you can control. Can EVERYONE get to FIRE? No. But the principles still apply.

  9. Only I can judge my life because nobody else has been there with me the whole time. I can appreciate the help I received along the way and thank the people that were there for me. But again, nobody else knows that story but me. So as many people have noted, as individuals we have to be honest enough to assess our own situation and give back where we can or should. But it’s such a slippery slope to think anyone can tell me what I deserve or how privileged I should feel. Or define how much of my life was due to luck vs. hard work and commitment to some goal, belief, etc. It’s really scary to me that anyone would even think they should try.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Michael. That was honestly one of my reservations of writing this critique. The author of the original article states that HER financial independence was 80% luck. So maybe she’s right. Who am I to judge. If she invested in real estate banking on a hot market remaining hot with no other fundamentals, maybe that was luck. And if she wrote the piece as a self reflection and a way of getting others to self reflect than good for her.

      Others can, and have here in the comments, assumed to know my motives. If they missed my point, then I have to take ownership as a writer as well for not being more clear.

      I agree with you that we should avoid judging others luck, privilege, motives, etc. However, I hope this piece and my writing in general inspire people to look inward and judge themselves fairly, as this is a prerequisite for making meaningful change and improvement.

      Best,
      Chris

  10. I’m split on this topic – and it’s one I’ve even written about! There’s another way to look at the poker analogy: it’s the difference between having a seat at the table and being a waiter. One could win it big, but the other isn’t even in the game.

    It’s the difference between making good choices and having good choices. Many of us (as in high income earners reading this) had a choice of which college to go to. That’s a lot difference than the choice of community college or dinner.

    Like you said, focus on what’s in your control. In all cases there’s some next step that brings you more happiness. Some are just starting a bit higher on the stairs.

    1. Appreciate that viewpoint Adam.

      I grew up in a household where neither parent was college educated. My perspective was shaped by watching them succeed, in large part due to the principles I outlined of continuously learning and bettering themselves, starting and building a successful small business, being frugal, and consistently investing in appreciating assets (the business, paying off the house, and mutual funds at a time when a lack of access to indexing, the internet, etc made investing much harder).

      My perspective is also shaped by observing my wife. She had zero parental assistance with college, but was able to put herself through with minimal debt through frugal living and working full time while going to school full time. She struggled for a several year stretch during her career, dealing with indescribable harassment from a co-worker and employers who wouldn’t take the situation seriously.

      In both my and my parent’s case, we had very different circumstances. Different challenges and obstacles to overcome. But we followed the principles outlined above in a way that made sense for our situations. I had much more privilege and it resulted in being able to become financially independent in my early 40’s vs. in their early 60’s.

      But we each got there. And we each made a lot of mistakes and could have gotten there faster had we been operating with better information. I believe in my heart that many other people can do the same, if they get the right information and truly believe it so that they will apply it to their own lives.

      Cheers!
      Chris

  11. I thought you wrote a good and balanced article here.

    Vanguard, in their literature on investing, often makes the same point that you do here: “Focus on the things you can control.”

    In other words, “Start where you are.”

    I’m not a member of the “FIRE” movement at all, but I enjoy following your content for the perspectives and utility I can apply in my own life (still working for a living and happy being able to do so).

    1. Thanks for the feedback Scott. I think these principles transcend the original audience of people finding them in their 20’s and 30’s to reach FIRE in their 30’s and 40’s, so I appreciate hearing your situation and having you as a reader.

      Cheers!
      Chris

  12. The privilege conversation is a difficult one as it relates to FI. It’s always going to have strong opinions on one side or the other. the discussion can easily turn into a political football, which I fully expect if my comment is posted.

    I think it’s a bit simplistic to use the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra to say anyone can achieve FI. The path to get there just isn’t going to be the same when you compare races. The data proves this out. just one example: Black men with the same education level as whites earn about 25% less (Pew Research center) and this wage gap pretty much hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Yes, white people can be as poor as black or brown people, but there are a ton of systemic issues minorities face that provide an uphill battle to FI. No, it’s not impossible, but it’s just not an even playing field. It’s a very complex problem that I don’t think can simply be solved by financial education. It will take broad policy change to solve. In the end, if we can solve it as a society, I think we’ll all benefit financially with a stronger overall economy with more American’s participating in building wealth.

    1. Wade,

      Your comment is 100% fair. And I agree with basically 100% of it.

      But reality is I don’t know have a clue as to how to change the system. I think if we can step back and take a 30,000 foot view, things are improving generation to generation. But if we’re zoomed in we don’t see change happening as fast as we would like. It would be great if things could change faster, but that’s out of our control.

      So it is vital to focus on changing the things that are in your control. That was the whole point of writing this. To try to share principles that provide hope when we have an epidemic of hopelessness in this country and world.

      Best,
      Chris

  13. Just want to show my support. No unsubscribing here. Good article and a much needed point of view. “Personal responsibility is largely a sham.” Good grief. Bad things happen to good people. It wasn’t until recently that this fact became a justification for scrapping centuries of culture and values.

    I’ve seen several financial blogs self-destruct when identity politics took over the comments section or forums. I hope that doesn’t happen. Your site has been one of the best and I’ve been a follower for many years.

  14. Patrick,

    I’ve raised my children with a similar mantra: luck involves being prepared when an opportunity presents itself.

  15. “I’ve found that what most people call luck is often little more than raw talent combined with the ability to make the most of opportunities. (Talon Karrde)”

    -Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire

  16. Chris,

    I can say that this article was one of the weakest of your writings (or probably the weakest).
    Very superficially researched if at all, was this a click-and-bait maneuver by criticizing another FIRE article? She expressed her opinion and now you’re expressing your opinion. The title of your article could have been addressed in one paragraph the way you wrote it.
    All you did was mention inequality, luck as a lottery ticket or a game of poker and decided to teach us how to strike the American Dream: make good money, save it, and invest it. Woohoo LOL! Oh, also, don’t forget to look back at the historical returns of S&P500 and you’re golden… To expand on this, I would suggest reading “The Diary of the Great Depression”. This is definitely not to scare anyone from the stock market, but ‘hearing the voice’ from that era (from quite an ordinary person – a lawyer at the very beginning of his career) is very different experience than reading nowadays “you just keep money in the stock market and you’ll be fine”. Hope nobody gets to experience the GD.

    What I do agree with you is that ”personal responsibility is NOT a sham.” No clue what data the other writer was referring to.
    I think I liked a lot of comments and some of them are quite insightful and more empathetic than the article itself so there was that.

    I think I’ll wait for the next reader case or the end of the month summary. Those are more interesting. So, no, I’ll remain subscribed because I’m not obliged to read every article.

    Sorry if sounded harsh, but this is my opinion and entitled to it as much as the ones telling others who disagreed with your blog that it’s their own fault that they happen not to earn enough or were not born in the right family. I still call this luck to some extent (not 100% though) and it’s up to you to control it wherever possible.

    1. S&M,

      I know you’re a regular reader and commenter so I value your input. You’re entitled to your opinion.

      Just to be crystal clear, I cited the S&P 500 b/c it is often used as a proxy to the stock market. Again, it is easy to build straw man arguments, but I never said anyone should invest 100% in the S&P 500 and hope for the best. I freely share my portfolio which is diversified across asset classes. And it has underperformed over the past decade, not because I’ve been “unlucky” but because I made a conscious decision to not rely on luck of relying on one asset class. I also share freely that we aren’t retired in a traditional sense, so we’re diversifying outside of paper assets by investing in ourselves to continue to have some earned income. We also openly share that we own our home as an inflation hedge and a way to keep expenses low and thus manage inflation risk and sequence of returns risk. So if the S&P 500 has another decade long bull run, we’ll benefit. And if we have another “lost decade” we’ll do OK as well.

      We’re controlling what we can and not relying on luck. I don’t tell anyone what to do, but I do share what we do with transparency so others can apply it to their own situations in a way that makes sense. Writing a piece to tell people that I’m lucky may gain me more praise for acknowledging my privilege, but it wouldn’t actually help anyone who I want to help.

      Best,
      Chris

  17. I have to agree with some of the other commenters on here about luck playing a huge role in financial independence. I was even tonight watching a documentary about a young man living in assisted living in the UK, having been taken into care at 12 years old because both his parents were heroin addicts. He had virtually no money, his electricity had been cut off, and he was living on noodles. I watched and thought how lucky I was to have a parent who cared about me and supported me, encouraged my education, gave me a helping hand and consequently a head start. Definitely I can look back and commend myself on good financial decisions – but I had no real control over the outcomes of those decisions, much was down to fortunate timing. I had (still have) my own business and years ago I used to think “I have done this all on my own, no one has helped me build this business” – it was only later I realised that this was not true. I had so much help along the way, it is impossible to ‘do it on your own’. Someone built my school, the roads to get there, someone developed a language and books to teach me, I was given clothes and food when I was born: we come into this world with nothing and everything is given to us.

    1. UK Dave,

      We’re all entitled to an opinion as to how much of a role luck plays in achieving FI. You can easily build a straw man argument about kids being born into a home with two heroin addicted parents. And I’ll gladly agree that those kids have a major uphill battle in life. But let’s be honest, that’s not at all what I’m writing about here.

      I’m writing about the fact that aside from people that write to me because they find the blog or hear me on a podcast, I’ve met exactly zero people from my profession who have achieved financial independence at a young age as I did. I grew up in a neighborhood with many friends and no one who has done anything similarly to what I’ve done.

      I certainly had a better home life, grew up with more money than some. But others had more advantages than me. What is the difference in our outcomes?

      When you answer, don’t tell me about people being born in third world countries or to parents with two heroin addicted parents. I’m talking about people with similar backgrounds and similar means, who have drastically different outcomes. What is the difference?

      And if you want to help people with a harder path, the principles are the same. It will likely take longer b/c they’re starting from a less advantaged position. But is it not possible that it won’t take them longer if they can learn these principles instead of having all the reasons they can’t better their situation force fed to them? I (and many other people) are sharing these life changing principles that weren’t available before blogs, podcasts, etc. just a decade or two ago. I was on my own to figure things out through a lot of trial and error. I’ll continue to share these principles with anyone who is willing to listen and help anyone who is willing to take action to make change.

      Best,
      Chris

  18. Seems like a lot of people are awfully quick to whip out their “victim card” these days. It gets tiresome.

    I’m sure I can find my “alas poor Irish me” card around here somewhere if I look hard enough …

    1. Ha ha…I’m Irish too and come from a long line of “functional” heavy drinkers, often called alcoholics. I choose not to call them that. Got my show together 30 years ago. Never knew about FIRE until recently, but I’ve done some things right. FIRE saves lives! I use the word alas a lot.

  19. Chris (and Darrow) – please stay the course. Your writings are relevant, insightful, well-balanced and appreciated.

  20. When reading comment sections with a wide range of opinions on social issues I usually think of my great grandmother, a native american from northern MN. When confronted with a wide range of opinions on politics/how the world was working, my cousins/uncles/aunts would voice a wide range of opinions on how the government/world was doing and how it could be better done. She and her siblings had experienced near starvation in living memory, and her comment on such experiences always stuck with me: “Things are either getting better or worse. They are getting better”. She said this regardless of the subject because we had just had dinner. Her main “life hope” was that would be true for all humans. I agree with her.

    To the main point of why I am commenting is to say that in this comments section She would have been on both the “bootstraps” side and the “luck/born well” side. She would also have said it’s good to see both sides of any situation.

    Chris, keep doing the good work you are doing.

    1. Thank you. I appreciate your perspective. Mine was also shaped by a close relationship with my grandparents who were products of the great depression and had similar outlooks.

      Cheers!
      Chris

  21. I did get lucky. Rather my mother did. She hit a small-ish lottery in NJ fir $1.6 million and split the ticket with her three kids (me being one). For 20 years, I got my inheritance early. Not I. A Prodigal Son early. I used it as the main vehicle to pay for college tuition at Villanova and at Tulane. Both of our daughters (again luck?) graduated in the four year plan and were able to fund their graduate degrees with scholarships. That meant we were able to Max our retirement savings and CUC sooner. Combine that with driving new cars into the ground. We buy Toyota cars new and hold them for 15 years. Some basic frugality and we are at FI. But I am still working because I live my job and the mission it accomplishes. Expect to leave in two years with enough for a beach house on the moon (or someplace closer).

    1. Francesco,

      Thanks for sharing your story. This is a fascinating perspective!

      I actually know a family from my home town that won millions in the lottery. And within a few years they were divorced, filed for bankruptcy, and had other serious issues. While this is a single case, similar stories are prevalent with lottery winners, professional athletes, entertainers, etc. who receive a sudden large windfall and then blow it quickly, ending back where they started or worse.

      You literally won the lottery, the ultimate stereotype of “good luck” in the eyes of many. Yet you still needed to spend less (“driving new cars into the ground) earn more (used the initial money to invest in education that allowed earning more) and invest wisely (in your education/degrees, maxing out retirement savings, etc).

      Congrats on your good luck. More importantly, kudos to you for using it to your advantage when so many others don’t.

      Best,
      Chris

  22. The people that insist that financial success with investing means your were lucky are usually the same people who believe that there is only one big pie and all of us are competing for a bigger piece of that pie. So your bigger piece means you took it from somebody else. So not only are you “lucky” but then you are also privileged. And in today’s world you cannot challenge the privileged narrative – if you do you must be cancelled or in this case unsubscribed. Don’t let them stop you.

    Unless you are day trading Game Stop stock, which I do consider gambling, then investing long term with growing companies is creating bigger pies (or more pies) so every one can share in the economic growth. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The privileged narrative has taken hold so deeply in this country that many people who’ve seen success must be made to feel guilty for it and state their shame, or in this case chalk it up to being lucky.

  23. Like Sam, I do ascribe a lot of my success to good fortune. I was taught to find things to like and appreciate in everyone I met, I never heard a racial epithet or any unkind gossip from my parents about their coworkers or acquaintances. Consequently I can’t say there is a single person I’ve ever met that I did not find likable in some way. I was also born on the far end of the IQ scale so I never studied hard or worked hard in school and even at work it always felt like play to me. So I can’t chalk anything up to hard work or grit or work ethic. I was just super nice and super smart and liked winning. So I won at the careeer game way past my expectations without ever working hard or long hours. It sure felt like luck, I was surrounded by others who were hard workers and pretty smart but not nice, or nice and hard working but not smart. The one element that didn’t ever seem necessary was the hard working part, it just isn’t needed if you can pull off the other two. Talent and being liked are all that matters, and generally speaking those are genetic or gifted from good parents.

    1. I’ve lived a similar experience to you Steveark. That was a big piece to having built a solid foundation of having an above average household income and living well below our means.

      My wife had a different experience. She didn’t have the advantages of such a solid foundation from her parents so she worked full-time while going to school full-time and still graduated with student loan and car debt. She also was working full-time plus hours while getting an MBA to advance in her career. Then after working so hard, she suffered horrible workplace harassment that was not taken seriously by her employers. So she dealt with that while continuing to further her skills and education in order to move on. Once she completed her second master’s degree, the department she was working in was essentially shut down. So she was laid off, while pregnant which made finding another job difficult. So in her case, success was mostly hard work and overcoming what many people would consider pretty lousy luck.

      Finally, we bought into the narrative that investing was complex and we were helpless. So despite being responsible and living well below our means, we were given advice that led us to pay tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees and taxes before we found the FIRE principles I am now so passionate about. So, I have to take responsibility for our decisions and I don’t consider that luck. But it does play into the narrative that we felt helpless and didn’t even try.

      So some people are almost all “self-made, hard workers, who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Others are indeed mostly lucky. For most of us, it’s not nearly that simple and easy to put it in a little box with a bow on it. It is a combination of the cards we were dealt and how we played them. So to focus on that part we can control is extremely important in my opinion.

      Best,
      Chris

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