A friend who’s on the road to FI/ER has a sad story about discussing his plans with his in-laws, and he gave me permission to tell it.
He got engaged and his fiancée joined him in his FI/ER pursuit. Sadly, when he told his future in-laws about it, he got a terrible reaction. They were a career couple who were raised poor and now have money. He said straight-up: they’re good people and he loves them.
He’d observed something: they did what he thought of as “comfort shopping,” in which when they were feeling low they’d go browsing online for expensive gifts for themselves to cheer themselves up. Like he said, they were both raised poor so now they enjoy what they’ve worked hard for. Which he fully supported. Good on them for achieving the American Dream.
Anyway, when he told them about his FI/ER plans and that their daughter, his fiancée, was on board, they were 25-ish and her parents stared across the dinner table at him like he was fucking crazy.
My friend told me he already had a bad financial history with them: his fiancée had made some awful credit/loan decisions and he’d helped her work her way out of them, but one of the remedies was selling a thirty-thousand dollar car she couldn’t afford the payments on. Her parents didn’t like that; they were proud she’d gotten that car.
So on hearing his plans his future father-in-law asked him, “Why would anybody want to do that?” and when he told him one reason was so he could spend more time with his daughter, his future FIL pretty much snorted and looked away. Thought my friend was bullshitting him, it looked like.
My friend thought the whole thing took them back to their impoverished childhoods and they didn’t like the thought of him and their daughter abandoning their careers and blowing all their money and falling into the poverty her parents had started from.
So yeah, envisioning FI/ER was something they were ill-conditioned to do. Through no fault of their own. But what killed my friend is that their journey from zero to well-off was little different from his own journey from zero to well-off. Plenty of common ground, if you think about it. Many paths; one goal. Shame that he and his fiancée were missing that opportunity to draw closer together. The relationship is still quite tense.
He said that to be fair he felt responsible for a great big whack of that tension. As in any close relationship he’s said and done things that’ve crossed things up between them. Offended them, hurt them, disappointed them. He owns it. That’s how it is with family, of course. You do the best you can to make up for those things, but sometimes that’s not enough.
And that’s the current situation.
I’ve thought about his story a lot, and here’s my spin.
I don’t judge his in-laws against current cultural norms, I’m a GenX-er and my formative norms weren’t theirs, so I think it’s necessary to interpret their attitudes and behavior against a different set of values.
Viz & to wit: I’ve personally known Depression-era great-grandparents and grandparents, WWII-era grandparents, and Baby Boomer parents.
Based on my experiences with my own ancestors I think—and I’m indulging myself in being an armchair shrink slash sociologist, here—that my friend’s family’s relationship has been strained by a common inter-generational cultural clash, like so:
A) The parents of a great big whack of Baby Boomers endured the Great Depression, and therefore taught their BB children, at least to a degree, to believe financial security meant having a steady job and a pension and guaranteed healthcare.
B) To the parents of BBs, being poor and unemployed back then carried horrible social stigmas. Steinbeck’s Okie white trash. (Still the case, but let’s stay on point.)
C) The lifetime social contract between employers and employees was commonly the BB’s formative norm.
And so it looks to me like:
A) It disturbed my friend’s fiancée’s parents to see him and their daughter disregarding their deep-held conceptions with regard to financial and social security in life.
B) To that point I think of an epigram that may be too vague: “When you’re hungry you don’t gamble your food.” I refer to the idea that to my friend’s in-laws the idea of voluntarily surrendering a good job so they could take a flier (I know, I know) by investing in the stock market—which his future in-laws’ parents and grandparents deeply distrusted after the 1929 crash—is disquieting.
C) Materialism is highly identified with success and social status; perhaps even more among BBs than now.
To illustrate all this: I was in DC with my own mother-in-law one time and there was a homeless guy slumped across the sidewalk with his “Please Help” sign, and as we passed him by she muttered, “Get a job.” I was shocked; she’s a good person. At the time I wrote it off to a momentary flash of her being an asshole, but I’ve come to realize there may have been more to it than that. I mean, come on, how much current hostility towards the homeless arises from Depression-era thinking, anyway? And how do we get past that?
Interestingly, my own parents were taught a tight-fisted frugality by their Depression-era parents and grandparents. They handed a watered-down version of that to me; a version I believe is still very much considered tight-fisted by other people I’ve known, but that I credit for helping me retire when I was so young.
And all that said…
A different conversation: what prompted me to write this post was that I was chatting with a former Navy captain who’s now in his late fifties. Healthy, happy marriage, couple of grandkids, financially secure…and he asked me the inevitable cocktail party question: “What do you do?”
I said, “My wife and I are retired.”
”And you’re, what, in your forties?”
He squinted. “And how long’ve you been retired?”
“Since we were thirty-six.”
He shook his head. “You’re my new hero.”
I was, and still am, dumbfounded. I mean, Jesus, he’s had this great life and I’m his hero because I saved up a few bucks?
What does that tell you?