Can Everyone Achieve Financial Independence If They Just Try?

If you follow the online FIRE community you’ve no doubt read a blog post or two that said something like “anyone can retire early”, or “I retired at 30 and you should too!”  Recently there’s been a lot of talk by some of the more popular bloggers about privilege. 

The Happy Philosopher just did the best post I’ve read on that topic.  I personally prefer the term “won the ovarian lottery” over the privilege moniker as the latter has negative overtones.

So, let me state for the record, everyone cannot achieve financial independence and retire early

Blasphemy you say?



I have what might be a bit of a unique story in the FIRE-blogging space.  Like many (most?) in this space, I’m seemingly just another winner of the ovarian lottery.  I’m male, white, and was born in America.  I’m also healthy for the most part and blessed in many other ways.

However, I grew up in Baltimore City, where the majority of people certainly did not win the ovarian lottery.  Just being born in America doesn’t necessarily make you a winner when places like Baltimore exist.  I was surrounded by crime, drugs, poverty, and the stark realities of a downtrodden city that frankly will kill you if you let it.

How bad is Baltimore City?  Well, bad. Really badThis list only puts them at #2 behind St. Louis in murders, but this year Baltimore is fighting back to get the crown in a grisly race to the bottom.  As of this post, 314 people lie dead from murder this year, almost one every day. (by the time you click that link it will likely be higher… it’s a live link, give it a try)

Drugs?  Yeah, they do that well too.  STD’s?  Yep, got it, they’re up there.

What else is Baltimore known for?  The Wire.  Homicide.  Two of the most popular crime shows in history were set in Baltimore for a reason.  The place is hardcore.  The stories are plenty.

Just being born in America doesn’t necessarily make you an ovarian lottery  winner when places like Baltimore exist.

Take a gander at this video.  If you don’t have 5 minutes to invest just skip to this sad scene.  Yea…. he has no hope of retiring early.

Ok, you get it, enough Baltimore trashing.  My point is, I saw this stuff, I grew up in this stuff.  I’ve had guns pointed at me, had friends who were shot (one right in front of John Hopkins hospital, kid you not…), and have been in all sorts of undesirable situations that I’d not care to relive by typing them out.  I’ll repeat for effect – 


Everyone Cannot Achieve FIRE, And Saying So Doesn’t Make It So


Right Around The Corner From Where I Grew Up

Imagine your mother is hooked on crack, your dad is in prison and you’ve never met him anyway, and you’ll have the shit beat out of you or possibly shot if you even try to go to school.  

Now imagine trying to hold down a job after all of this, muchless get out of poverty, muchless achieve financial independence. It really sounds impossible and frankly absurd when framed this way, and likely is.

But is it possible to be strong enough to overcome such despair?  With no role models?  No mentors.  Seemingly no hope?

Yes, it is.  But you can’t expect everyone to be Ursula Burns.  She grew up in the tough housing projects on the Lower East side in New York, but went on to become CEO of Xerox.  Inspiring indeed, but an outlier in reality.

Some in this world are dealt cards so bad that no amount of advice, inspiration, or luck can overcome.

This blog is about financial independence, smart spending, and early retirement.  It is not my wish or desire to dive into the root causes of social issues as it opens the door to politics and all of the intolerance and vitriol associated.  I do however feel it’s important to remind everyone that no, everyone cannot just buckle down, spend less, achieve financial independence, and check out of the working world.

If you disagree, do yourself a favor and take a drive down Monument Street in Baltimore or through the Penn North neighborhood. Ten minutes will likely change your mind.  Some in this world are dealt cards so bad that no amount of advice, inspiration, or luck can overcome.


Gratitude And Self-Awareness

Privilege, winning the ovarian lottery, or perhaps just plain luck – use whatever term you’d like.  But those of us who drew a winning card in life should understand that no amount of “just do this” or “follow these 10 rules” will guarantee financial independence to those who drew a losing card.

If you did win the lottery, remind yourself of that from time to time.  Have gratitude, give thanks.  Not just on Thanksgiving, but as a regular practice.


It Only Takes One Thing

If It Were Only That Easy

Highlighting the horrible realities of those in the worst situations like the ghettos of Baltimore is one thing, but remember the world is full of infinite greytones.  

It could just be one thing – an abusive partner, an alcoholic parent, a debilitating medical condition, a mental health issue – that can keep someone from being able to “easily retire early”.  Even those who look like they drew a winning card on the outside could well be struggling with demons you’ll never know.

As I said in my journey post, I think we need more FIRE bloggers because we all have a story.  My story (or movie) is different than yours, and my background and upbringing exposed me to things that most in this community likely never saw.  That doesn’t make me better or worse or in a position to preach, it’s just my story.  

So I’m telling it, and hopefully it’ll help someone or change a perspective.  I grew up exposed to poverty and despair, and ended up surrounded by seemingly unending disposable wealth.  I have a good read on the massive chasm between the two, and even though I realize it’s impossible to expect many to be able to bridge that chasm, I hope to do my part to help.


19 Responses

  1. Team CF says:

    Inspiring post AF! Watched the video, that is pretty bad indeed, unfortunately. Being grateful for “winning’ the ovarian lottery I most certainly am.

  2. Brilliant post! I’ve been to Baltimore but stayed in the safer part of the old town. Love the row houses, but man, there is a whole other side to that town that is in desperate need of help. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan – essentially Flint’s little brother a few miles north. I know what it’s like to grow up surrounded by blue collar scraping by in a land of GM layoffs. Makes you want to up and get out of there if you can. Which I did, thanks to the ovarian lottery.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Baltimore does have some gentrified areas, it’s not all dire. But they are relatively small, and if you wander literally one block too far from some of them you can find yourself in a dangerous area.

      I remember the first time I went to Detroit, my friend who had been warned me about it. I laughed at him and said “I’m from Baltimore, not much scares me”. But yes, Detroit is pretty similar in many ways except much of their misery was a result of the loss of the auto industry. For Baltimore it was multiple industries, including steel.

  3. Wowsers. I knew Baltimore wasn’t great (my wife grew up, until 7th grade, around Frederick, and we’re going to Ijamsville in February to visit friends) but didn’t know it was THAT bad.

    I think it’s definitely important that we realize how fortunate we are to be able to pursue the things in life that we can and give back and help however we are able and feel most compelled to.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Ha, don’t know if you’re aware but ‘city-folk’ from Baltimore often call Frederick “Fred-neck” since it’s so far away and relatively rural. I love Frederick, it’s grown a lot over the years and has a nice micro-brew scene now.

  4. ReformedCCD says:

    Great read, as was THP’s post on privilege. It’s so true– blind luck in the circumstances you’re born into plays such a critical role in how easily achievable FI is. It’s something to remind ourselves to be grateful for if the journey ahead ever feels long.

  5. Arrgo says:

    Good point you bring up. Many people are a product of their environment and just dont know any better or have bad circumstances holding them back. Its not even mentioned in school. I had a decent lower middle class upbringing but no one ever coached me on finances, retirement or FIRE. Fortunately I opened IRA’s during the mutual fund rally days back in the mid 90’s after watching CNBC but didnt even think about FIRE until a few years ago once I stumbled onto MMM and other blogs. I never made a lot of money but the investing part has really worked out for me to my surprise. One thought I keep in mind : Things are good, and we have to keep them that way.” Just because you made it to some extent, you have to live smart and continue to make good decisions so as not to sabotage what you’ve worked so long to achieve.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      You’re right, elementary schools teach relatively useless things like what’s the longest river in South America, but nothing about money. I didn’t have an economics class till high school. I think it should at least be discussed in Middle School.

      Sounds like you have your act together, huge congrats. Isn’t that compounding interest wonderful 🙂

  6. Mr. Groovy says:

    I hear ya, AF. I’m so torn on this subject. I have two cousins who were born with severe mental retardation. From day one, their chances in life were extremely constrained. And the people in Baltimore’s ghettos can’t figure out how to do more with their lives than my two ovarian-lottery losing cousins? So what the eff do we do? (I’m saying this out of frustration, not anger.) Do we legalize drugs and eliminate a lot of friction between the ghetto community and the criminal justice system? Do we tell ghetto residents to stop blaming whitey for all their woes, and stop having kids they can’t afford to have? Damn, this is one tough problem. Thank you, AF, for addressing this topic in such a thoughtful manner. This post was one of the best things I read this week. Very sobering.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      So sorry about your cousins. To be born with something like that is tragic.

      In a nutshell, Baltimore’s situation is a classic case of the “cycle of poverty”. So what the eff do we do? …. well I hear your frustration and I think anyone who sees these things would, no should, be as frustrated. As I said, I will be pretty strict about keeping this blog away from politics, so it’d be practically impossible to answer that question or continue this conversation without violating that. Anyone who’s even glanced at social media in the past 5 years knows that doing politics online is a recipe for nothing but BAD. Hope you understand.

      But yes, it’s one tough problem indeed, as evidenced by the blatant failure to fix it by anyone over the years.

      And thanks for the kind words on the post as well as the compliment on Think Save Retire. I really appreciate it!

  7. Thank you for posting this! I agree. And I know MOST PF bloggers who want to inspire based on their own success mean well, and are telling A LOT of people our there who are reading those blogs that there are things they can do to turn their financial life around, most well-meaning and hardworking folks will have a tough time going after FI. I think it’s OK to have those kinds of “inspirational posts.” My beef is when the title end with “and you can too” or “you should too.” It’s way too self-righteous.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Tonya. It’s tough because I know the VAST majority of PF bloggers are awesome people who just want to help. But I think what happens is they get so caught up and excited about their message that they don’t see the other side. It’s not done with bad intentions, they don’t mean to be smug or self-righteous.

      Another thing is the “bubble” factor. The last election showed us how real it is. My unique experience is that I grew up in one bubble, and I now live in a very different bubble. But many PF have only been in one bubble their whole lives. That doesn’t make them bad in any way and I’m not trying to be accusatory, it just is what it is. And it’s hard to see life outside of that bubble. But they have tons of experiences that I can and do learn from as well.

  8. Thanks for sharing your story! I love that more and more bloggers of different background are getting into the PF space, it is so interesting to see and hear different peoples’ stories. I grew up near Youngstown, which had some very rough patches from the steel mills closing as well. But it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Baltimore seems to be. The cycle of poverty is so heartbreaking, and it makes one feel so helpless in the face of crime/poverty/ignorance/anger. This: “Have gratitude, give thanks. Not just on Thanksgiving, but as a regular practice.” <3 So, so true.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      I’ve been to Youngstown once, years ago but yes, it was pretty rough. That whole Northeast Ohio and Northwest PA area was devastated. The Springsteen song paints the picture well.

      Baltimore had Bethlehem Steel which I believe was the largest single steel mill in the country at one time. The loss if it was huge. When I grew up, every other kid on the block’s Dad worked there. That stopped in the 80’s

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  9. Great one man, and thanks for the shout. It’s also tough because everyone has a story of how someone made it out of poverty or overcame whatever disadvantaged situation they were in. We assume because someone can do it, everyone can do it, but this is just not the case. It’s not a simple topic.

    • Accidental Fire says:

      Thanks! It was totally inspired by your post. After reading yours I wondered what parts of ‘my movie’ might be beneficial to pass on to others. It’s a very tough topic indeed and one I hope other bloggers in the community would address. There’s probably some really good viewpoints out there waiting to be expressed.

Drop Me A Comment - What's On Your Mind?

Follow on Feedly
%d bloggers like this: