Judging by the numbers of comments and e-mails I receive every day, there’s a lot of folks out there looking for information on financial independence and how to achieve it, preferably sooner rather than later. Of course, for every believer of financial independence and early retirement, there are a thousand non-believers out there. I’d like to respectfully call these people cavemen.
Don’t think I’m jumping on my financial high horse to look down upon the rabble, of course not. I’m simply applying the insights of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to personal finance and investing. Even though Plato, one of the best-known Greek philosophers, died over two millenia ago, he wrote a remarkable volume of allegories and metaphors that still apply to our modern day world.
In the Parable of the Cave, Plato presents the reader with a dialogue between his brother and his mentor Socrates to explain the effect of education. Socrates describes a cave which holds a group of imprisoned people, unable to move and facing a wall. Shadows formed by objects and noises from passing people make up the prisoners’ reality. He then explains what happens when one of the prisoners is set free.
When reading the Allegory, it becomes quite clear that the people chained inside the dark cave falsely believe that the shadows and background noises constitute reality. Of course, they are not to blame because it’s the only reality ever known to them. A curious thing happens if we release one of the prisoners though.
Because the prisoner is not accustomed to the strong lighting outside of the cave, it’s likely that he won’t be able to properly see the objects that previously cast the shadows. On top of that, the harsh light possibly hurts his eyes, which makes him run back inside the cave, the only safe reality known to him, to look at the things that appear clearer to him because he is accustomed to them.
Now imagine that we drag the prisoner into the direct sunshine and wait for his eyes to adjust to the strong light. Ultimately, his eyes will adapt and he’ll be able to look at the objects and people that previously made up the shadows inside the cave. Only now does he understand reality and is he able to properly reason about it. He’ll also think that the real world now shown to him is vastly superior to what he experienced in the cave.
Financial independence works very much the same way.
Many of the people around me live their lives like the imprisoned cavemen described above. Day-in day-out they enjoy the shadowy reflection of what their life should and could be like. They wake up in the morning, work at least 8 hours, spend their money, then go to bed. Rinse and repeat – ad infinitum.
And when you drag them out in the direct sunlight and try to show them how frugal living, saving, and investing could drastically enhance their experience of reality, they scurry back to the safety of their caves. Back to the weak imitation of living they perceive to be the norm.
Like our prisoner couldn’t see and understand the objects outside because his eyes became accustomed to the darkness in the cave, many people can’t grasp the concept of building a passive income stream because they are used to living by the work-reward criterion.
Contrary to Plato’s Allegory we obviously can’t force people to see the light of financial independence, nor is that necessary. What we can do, however, is educate others that show interest in what it has to offer. Above everything, the Parable of the Cave explains what education and the lack thereof does to us.
Socrates believed that the remaining prisoners are likely to kill anyone wanting to drag them out of their false reality because they probably believe the first prisoner, who now cannot properly see in the darkness of the cave, was hurt when dragged out. I believe that to be true to a certain extent. Not everyone will be open to the idea of financial independence, but show your friends another way than what they think is normal and their perception of reality will slowly start to shift.
You’ll be surprised to find how many of my acquaintances think that I’m stupid for living car-free, until they hear I save about €400 every month. If that’s not enough for them to see huge Euro signs everywhere, you should see their reaction when I tell them I use that money to make even more money.
That’s why you and I are possibly the biggest force behind getting other people on board and propelling them towards financial independence. All too often I receive messages from people who show a genuine interest in living within their means and financial security, but who simply lack the education to get there on their own. It’s up to us to share and expand the knowledge required to get there.
I hadn’t noticed it at first, but last week marked the sixth month of my blogging effort. An effort I undertook because I wanted to show other people what I had learned. I wanted to help them throw off the shackles of their past caveman-like existence so they too could start to enjoy real living instead of the consumerist shade they were accustomed to.
And it’s been an absolute blast. Not only have I grown as a person, I’ve also met a couple of new friends along the way and motivated some readers to start their own financial independence journey. Leading by example is one of the few principles I always make sure to uphold while at work, but it applies here too. In doing so, I hope to show the feasibility of financial freedom and help others see the light.
Do you remember when something or someone kicked you out of the cave and onto your own path towards financial independence or early retirement?
Having only recently started my journey, I can relate with the cavemen, as I was one of them until recently. For me, it took an open mind and the right information at the right time (discovering the DGI blogs for example).
It’s find that it has been difficult to explain the concept to friends and family, as money is a taboo subject for many people. They think you’re either going to lose all your money in the “scary stock market” or that early retirement means I just wanna be lazy…
That’s one of the main reasons why I started my blog. I – like you – want to reach people and try and educate anyone who’ll listen (or at least point them in the right direction!).
Keep up the good work!
I’m glad you’re no longer a caveman! Even though I already thought of some of the basic concepts behind FI, it was only until I discovered information and other blogs online that I truly saw the light. For that I’ll be eaternaly greatful, which is why I decided to return the favour to others out there.
What you experience with friends is something a lot of us go through, I believe. My friends also think the stock market is a great formula to lose all your money, but that’s because they’re used to only hearing about huge market events or extremely volatile periods. Many of them believe you have to be a daytrader, whereas we’re going for the long-haul!
Best wishes and good luck with your blog,
Happy Half Blog Birthday! I hear that that’s a big hurdle to reach, I’m looking forward to getting there myself.
We’re cave people for now. We do plan on becoming financially independent early, but my husband’s plan is to keep working. It will be interesting to see how that all changes as time passes. (I got granted early retirement so to speak when our daughter was born)
Thank you! I’ve read that too and I’ve definitely experienced moments that I didn’t feel like blogging, but overall it’s been a blast. I’m sure you feel the same way!
I don’t think you guys are cave people. You know what you want and how to get there, you’re just not there yet. Also, never say that being a stay-at-home mom is not working, because it takes a lot of effort to keep a household and take care of the children. My mother always stayed home for my sister and me, and without her being there I never would’ve gotten as far in life as I have now.
This is an excellent and tightly-reasoned post.
I often wonder about whether our society’s chronic overspending reflects a lack of education or more likely reflects the result of ingrained behaviors that have been long reinforced by peers, media, and western logic loops (if some is good, more is better, even more is better yet, and so forth).
Some recent studies suggest that while financial education is certainly a good thing, it isn’t very effective at changing real world spending behaviors. Here’s a good article about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/business/financial-literacy-beyond-the-classroom.html
Given the apparent shortfalls of the educational approach, what are frugal evangelists like you and me to do?
I believe the answer to this question has many components: some education, some inspiration, some story telling, and perhaps most profitably the construction of some monkey wrenches (or “hacks” if you will) that cavemen everywhere can use to bust apart ingrained habits and open up new behaviors—behaviors that in the long run cannot help but deliver greater happiness and well being.
I love your site—and i assure you that my love is purely “platonic!”
Thank you for the kind words, means a lot to me coming from you!
You’re probably right that education isn’t a silver bullet to get people to live within their means, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to increase the level of financial education among our peers. If it’s a conscious choice to spend everything you make and not save anything, I can live with that, but if you’re simply oblivious to your spending habits because you lack the necessary background that’s a problem.
Many of my friends enjoyed university education, yet don’t know a single thing about compounding interest or different investment vehicles. How is that even possible? That’s why I sometimes try to explain these concepts, without pushing them in the direction of frugal living and financial independence because that’s a choice they have to make for themselves.
I absolutely agree that we have to educate, inspire and tell our own story. People love success stories from common folk like you and I!
Also, dammit, I should have made that joke in my post! Well played, sir, well played! 🙂
This is so true in so many ways, people want to be FI and have free time. Yet, they refuse to put in the work and effort to become such, they think everything they have they need. It is mind boggling, and I used to worry about friends and family like this. I just let it slide now, and when push comes to shove I just let the actions speak for themselves. And that requires time.
I have brought the idea to a bunch of people and a few have acknowledged it and have actually starting doing it. Though most are preoccupied with paying off debt first, they still see the rationale behind it. Most however think its a novel idea, but that in the long run they think the stock market is just gambling and they will lose. They think they have to be Gordon Gecko buying and selling all the time.
However, I more or less stumbled out of the cave on accident. It was only have discovering how awesome dividends were and happening upon the DGI community did I realize how I wanted to pursue FI effectively.
Thanks for the good article,
Everyone probably wants to be financially independent, but putting in the work to get there – and trust me, it won’t be easy for everyone – isn’t something they want to do. “It’s much better to live in the here and now, right? Because you could be dead tomorrow.” They see frugal living as not fully enjoying life, even though I enjoy every single second of it.
Great job getting a couple of your friends on board! Paying off debt is moving towards greater financial security, so in my book that’s a great move on your friends’ part. Too bad they don’t believe in the long-term return of the stock market. I guess it’s up to you to show them!
You’re a lucky fellow for stumbling across financial independence and dividend growth investing just like that, but it’s still you who made the decision to effectively go for it rather than running back into your cave.
I love the Allegory of the Cave. I wrote a post about it and how it applies to financial independence years ago. Always enjoy reading another perspective on it, which is similar to my own. Takes time to adjust to the light, but once you do, you realize there’s a big world out there.
As far as cavemen go, I don’t personally have a problem with cavemen. I don’t think financial independence is for everyone, and neither should it be. Some people just prefer the “easier” path where they sit and stare at shadows. That’s probably actually the more difficult path when you look at it from a high level, but I say to each their own. I surely aim to inspire those interested in this path, but I wouldn’t say it’s right for everyone. I think flexibility is wonderful to have even if you love your job, but some don’t find any value in financial independence.
I discovered long ago that changing others isn’t possible in an external way. You can only be the change you want to see in the world. If others want to change, they’ll change. But they have to want it, as it has to come from an internal source. So when they’re ready, I’m there to help guide them along. But I want to provide inspiration, not dogma.
I think it’s through our personal results and experiences (and then publishing them online) that we provide the best possible value to the world and the greatest source of inspiration to those with their own individual aspirations.
Didn’t know you wrote a post on the Allegory of the Cave yet – no wonder, it’s from late 2011 already! I just read it and we definitely have a similar view on the subject. Great minds, right? 🙂
You’re right that financial independence shouldn’t be for everyone. However, what bothers me sometimes is how oblivious people are to what frugal living and building a financially secure life actually means. That’s why I feel like we at least should try and educate everyone on the subject, then leave the choice to join or not up to them.
We can provide all the inspiration and motivation we want, but others will indeed need an inner drive or even fire to get there themselves. And when people have that inner drive, it’s amazing how ingenious they become to reach their goals. As such, I believe your statement that you don’t want to provide dogma is spot on. There are so many ways to reach financial freedom, and a thousand more ways to live your life, who are we to judge?
Hope everything is well over there,
Again, great article! I enjoyed reading it.
Thank you for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed my post.
Based on my calculation I must spend another 10 years in the cave so I am trying to make the cave more hospitable. I know what is outside and I will do what I can to get there but in the meantime I`ve brought in a lamp and peak outside to remember what I am doing it for.
Here`s to life outside! Great post.
You may still feel like you’re living in a cave, but at least you know what’s outside and you know how to get there. Personally, I believe you’re already out and enjoying the sunshine, especially when compared to our peers!
That’s actually a really good way about thinking about FIRE. It makes sense the more you think about it. At least most of the people I encounter aren’t too scared to leave the cave. Unfortunately, that sunlight burns too much sometimes, and away they go, but the desire is there, you know? In response to your question: my first glimpse of sunlight, as it were, was reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. That book first introduced me to assets and liabilities, and I just took it from there. Heh, I even remember where and when I first started reading. And here we are! Really life-changing.
I understand what you mean by “the desire is there”. Who wouldn’t love to be financially free or even a millionaire? The problem is that many people don’t want to put in the effort, like mentioned by some of the commenters above.
Life-changing moment indeed if you still remember when and where you read Kiyosaki’s book. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my readlist because so many people have come into contact with financial independence through it.
Glad to have you on our journey to FI and ER,
I use to be so ignorant when it came to my finances that when I look back I can’t even recognize that woman that looked like me. I can never really comment on others because my mindset had to change before I decided to get up and do something about becoming financially fit.
I guess a lot of people feel that way! I too sometimes feel stupid for past expenditures and I’ve always considered myself pretty frugal and financially literate.
Glad you had the fortitude to change your mindset, get up and do something about your finances!
You took me back to college philosophy with this post! I love how you related it back to personal finance. I do think it’s better to be “sneaky” about how we try and show people that being financially responsible is actually fun. Talking to people about investing and budgeting might be boring, but as you said, telling them how much we save and how that impacts our future seems to work better. People always want more money!
Glad you liked this post and that I took your back to your college years! I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in Plato’s Allegories that applies to all sorts of areas in life.
Many people don’t like talking money, especially when their own wealth and income is concerned, but you’re absolutely right that we should play on their greed sometimes to get the message across. Now, we don’t have to manipulate people, but money can be a very powerful motivator.
Excellent metaphor towards financial freedom. One that me and my friend use for being able to see financial freedom is taking the red pill (the matrix reference).
Many people are so used to the rat race, they get trapped in it and some even start to develop a liking for it. It is sort of like a never ending cycle. They become very comfortable with job security and end up not wanting any more than that.
You’re right! All we can do is share our financial perspective with those who are interested but I guess that’s as far as we can go as we cant force people to change if they don’t want to. At the end of the day, it still doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else. 🙂
The reference to the choice given to Neo in the Matrix is a popular one I’ve seen used many times before in the financial independence community – rightly so, it’s really good. What I like about that metaphor that Neo can only move forward if he actively chooses to do so, which is what FI ultimately is all about.
Currently I’m kinda liking the rat rate, but I’m sure it won’t be that way forever. Working until 67 just isn’t something I wish to do, so that’s why financial independence is an absolute must to me. And I bet it is for you too!
I’d never heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, so thanks for an interesing post and for educating me!
I would say that prior to starting my blog in April last year, I had taken a step or two out of my cave, having cleared my consumer debt, not gotten into any more debt and started saving a bit.
But I didn’t actually ‘see the light’ properly until I came across MMM – I have no idea what I was googling when I came across his website but I’m glad I did whatever I did!
Glad you found my post interesting and that you learned something new, because that’s what my blog is all about! 🙂
You’re one of the very few people who actually had the courage to get out of the cave on your own and see what’s what outside. Even though you racked up debt in the past, you should be proud of doing something about it.
I think MMM opened the eyes of many people, myself included to some extent. Even though what he preaches isn’t always correct or even a bit exaggerated at times, it’s the punch in the face many people need.
Happy to have you aboard and on route to FI,
I definitely agree with your post! I like how you said we should tell people about how we save money, not so much about investment. I’m trying to work my way up to financial independence, with student loans, it is going to be tough but I have cut back a lot on costs to reach those goals in the future. If you want, you can take a look at my story on debt2retirement.weebly.com, and let me know what you think about my thought process! Overall, I agree with everything you’ve put here. I can’t wait to continue to read your blogs!
Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment, much appreciated.
I hadn’t come across your blog just yet, but after briefly checking it out I believe you definitely have left your cave. With the right mindset and enough dedication I’m sure you’ll be able to crush your student loan and reach financial independence before you know it.
Looking forward to see if you manage to get to $700 in passive income this year. Good luck!
I wish one day I will be able to make post like yours, inspiring, humorous and full of truth!
As Jason (dividend mantra) said, FI is not for everyone and it’s a challenge to leave frugally to obtain something bigger in return, which I will say is real life!
Keep going as you continue to inspire me and make me better blogger.
Thank you! Writing posts like this one definitely isn’t easy – especially in a non-native language – but it’s worth the effort. Glad you like it.
FI definitely isn’t for everyone, but there’s no harm in telling people about it. They have to make up their own mind and decide to go the saving and investin route, otherwise they won’t make it anyway.
Hope everything’s OK over there in Switzerland,
Just to join my praise to that above – this is a great connection to make and it really “works” on all sorts of level.
I’m a pretty old cave dweller myself, who has only recently started to think about getting out, but I’m now working hard to do just that as soon as. possible – hats off to you younger ones for seeing the light so much sooner. 🙂
Thank you for joining the praise! 🙂
Better late than never right? For everyone the best day to start saving and investing wasn’t today, but yesterday, so don’t feel too bad about it. I’m just really lucky that I have the internet and excellent FI blogs at my disposal, otherwise I’d probably never gone down this path.
PS: do you have a blog on your own? I Googled for it, but couldn’t find anything.
Nice read, NMW.
I studied Philosophy in university and the Allegory of the Cave is definitely one of the best pieces around. It’s so true that the people we try to share this improved way of living with will actually resist us vehemently. In fact, you can even be perceived as a snob for talking about personal finance to people!
Still, as with the escapee of the cave, there is a responsibility that comes along with the heightened awareness of the world. On our journey to financial freedom we have an obligation to share what we’ve learned with others to help light their path as well. Sometimes we’ll face pushback, but that’s part of the process.
Thanks for writing this,
– Ryan from GRB
Awesome that you studied Philosophy! Many people don’t value a program like that, which truly is a shame. From my experience some of the greatest and brightest minds at our University studied it.
I wouldn’t call it an obligation to share our ideas and experiences, but personally I love spreading the FI message to as much people as possible. Some people get it, many more don’t or just don’t care. And that’s fine too, of course, as long as they respect my choices too.
Thank you for dropping by,
Wonderful post NMW.
I’ve been reading your blog for a while now. This is the first time I comment, though.
What really got me into FI was reading “The Bogleheads Guide To Investing”. I was simply astonished by the magic behind compound interest.
Regarding this post, I just want to say thanks. You reflected perfectly my thoughts. I always wonder why I wasn’t taught things like this at school but was forced to learn the rivers of my country by heart instead. I guess being inside the cave is what the system wants us to be.
Thank you for following along and commenting, much appreciated!
Ha, The Bogleheads were one of the first stops too when I discovered financial independence. The graphs and numbers on the Bogleheads Wiki blew my mind, to be honest. I always knew what compounding was, but did I underestimate its effect in the long-run.
It’s like you say; why aren’t we taught more of this in school? I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it to anyone willing to listen, but law and finance are seriously lacking in our education system before the age of 18. Of course, schools can’t teach us everything, but the basics would have been nice.
Best wishes and good luck to your own FI journey,
Last year I did several talks at work about FI to people willing to attend. We call them lightning talks and they can be about anything. I didn’t get many questions on it and I suspect most of the cavemen just went back in their caves (or out to lunch to spend money they didn’t have).
It’s great that your work provides you the opportunity to do have these lightning talks, excellent way of informal learning. And good on you for trying to educate your colleagues even though they obviously weren’t willing to listen or aren’t interested in financial independence. We can’t do more than try and show them, they have to want FI for themselves.
Very interesting concept. And so eloquently written. Mr. Maroon and I get a little giddy when we tell people about FI and what that lifestyle can do for you. We try to keep it casual conversation so as to not come across too pushy. But it can be hard to hide our excitement when we talk about the life we WANT to lead and how we plan to get there. I see so much potential that it hurts me to watch others remain enslaved to the rat race!
Thank you for your comment. Really appreciate it that you specifially mention my writing style as that’s something I put a lot of effort in.
The Maroon household and I seem to be no different. Everytime I’m able to tell someone about financial independence I become as excited as a child in a toy store. There’s indeed a fine line between enthusing people or being downright pushy, but once I feel a little push-back I ease off the gas.
Glad to share your views on life and FI!
I love the Stoics and the allegory of the cave. As always I enjoyed the post.
Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoy my writings.
I enjoyed reading your post and how you have used the caveman as an example of people who resist financial independence. I feel pity for some who’s closed-minded to this kind of issue. If only they would come out, get exposed and become financially independent.
Thank you very much, I appreciate that!
I understand why you would feel pitty for someone who’s closed-minded for financial independence, but that just means they’re not the right kind of people. Even if they tried to become FI, they would most likely fail.
Financial freedom is not for everyone and it shouldn’t be, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy when I inspire someone new to give it a try.
Very good article that you wrote!
I think we have the same motivation to change people mind sets: you for big Europe and me for small Switzerland 😉
To answer your question: two people kicked me out of my cave => Jesse Mecham from YNAB and MMM!
And for you, who was it before you start to go for FI/ER?