Ben Franklin: The OG of FIRE?

by Guest Author - Published October 28, 2019

ben franklin close up $100 bill

[Morning! Please welcome to the site today, B.C. Kowalski from FrugalWheels.com! Who challenges my notion that Warren Buffett was the original Early Retiree from our country, haha… But nope! Apparently ol’ Benny Franklin was ;) Take it away, B.C.!]

*******

Did Ben Franklin invent FIRE?

When Ben Franklin was 42, he worked out a deal with his partner in the print shop he built from the ground up. His partner would buy the business from him, and part of the payment was 650 pounds per year for 18 years.

Franklin decided it was time to retire from the printing business so that he would have “leisure to read, study, make experiments, and converse at large with such ingenious and worthy men as are pleased to honor me with their friendship.” Franklin, living in Philadelphia, wrote that to his friend in New York, who eventually did the same. Funny, his reasons for pursuing FIRE sound pretty close to my own. (Quote taken from Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.)

It would be very hard to verify this, of course, but I think Franklin might have been the first person in the history of our country to FIRE.

Aristocracy of course lived lives of leisure that could at least be close to what Franklin described, but their money came from inherited generational wealth. Franklin started as a runaway from Boston and became an apprentice printer, eventually starting his own print shop and later newspaper in the city of brotherly love.

He’s also well known for Poor Richard’s Almanac, responsible for many of his well-known quotes that survive today, such as “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Franklin was no slouch – he valued both frugality and industry, and worked long hours at the print shop to make it successful. He was also no stranger to appearances: He insisted on hauling the rolls of paper through the streets in wheelbarrows, just to show how hard working he was. An odd combination of doing the work and making sure people saw he was doing the work.

So basically, Franklin worked hard and saved in his early years so he could enjoy the fruits of not needing full-time work to survive. Sound familiar?

Franklin’s status as FIRE hero of old matches in so many ways. One of my favorite quotes of his was “…after getting the first 100 pounds, it is more easy to get the second.” I’m sure many of you have heard the notion that getting to the first $100k is the hardest.

Franklin also illustrated the idea of FIRE that your real work begins after your 9-5 ends for good. Had Franklin simply retired with his 650 pounds per year plus his real estate (at the time, a clerk earned maybe 25 pounds per year, so this was a fortune) he would have barely been a footnote in history.

But Franklin had also become postmaster, a role that gave him great access to news around the colonies and world, and a high status; he became involved in the Pennsylvania Assembly, served as a representative for the Assembly in England (no word on whether he travel hacked his ship tickets to London), and became world famous for his experiments with electricity. He apparently could hold his postmaster role while serving for years overseas, somehow pulling off 18th century remote work. Well done, Ben Franklin! Cue the harpsichords.

All of this, of course, happened before the revolution. And in his latter years, Franklin didn’t entirely live up to his principles. He spent a lot of time with ladies other than his wife, who as far as anyone knows never left Philly and refused to accompany Franklin overseas. (In fairness, though he was a flirt, he seemed mostly to view these relationships more like a father figure than anything.) He lived it up in his later years and was the delight of the French ladies in France.

He was, overall, frugal, industrious, wise and inquisitive. He also made some mistakes, especially politically, and particularly because he lived in England at the time when revolutionary descent began to take hold, was a little slow getting on the revolutionary band wagon.

Naturalist writer Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century later espoused some very FIRE-like principals in Walden, particularly toward the beginning of the book. The line “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” came from a passage where he talks a lot about the consumption work cycle. Funny that he saw that back then, when consumerism was nothing like it is today.

And then as mentioned previously by J. Money, Warren Buffett continued the charge into the 20th century after realizing he’d become financially free at the age of 25, only to then have his retirement plans dashed by a group of friends reaching out for financial help.

But who knew FIRE went back all the way to Benjamin Franklin? The OG of telling us how to be healthy, wealthy and wise!

******
B.C. Kowalski is the founder of FrugalWheels.com, and a writer and photographer for City Pages in Wausau, WI. His writing has been featured in publications such as USA Today, GoldenBloggerz and previously on Budgets are Sexy as well (“The best FIRE gift I could have given my father“). He blogs about biking and pursuing financial independence, and can be found on Twitter at @BC_Kowalski.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Long time readers will also know that B. Franklin was the inspiration for my 5 a.m. wake ups too! Based on his daily “scheme” (schedule) that I once found on Twitter and have since been going strong on for over 4 years straight… He was also responsible for my blog’s tagline that you’ll find below the logo on the homepage ;)

benjamin franklin schedule

*Links to books above are Amazon affiliate links…

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JP October 28, 2019 at 10:00 am

Another fun fact about Ben Franklin and Fire is his Philly Boston Compound interest experiment/endowment.

https://moneymastery.com/benjamin-franklins-experiment-with-compound-interest-will-astound-you/

Reply

2 BC | FrugalWheels October 28, 2019 at 10:42 am

Dude that’s awesome! Franklin seriously had some things figured out. He also did a little real estate investing – probably a super smart prospect in a land that was growing exponentially.

Reply

3 J. Money October 29, 2019 at 6:55 am

Such a baller.

Reply

4 Joe October 28, 2019 at 10:20 am

Ben Franklin is the OG. I’m sure there are others before him, but he gave FIRE pizazz. As for the ladies, what would you do in his shoes? If you’re traveling around the world and your partner won’t leave town, you probably would flirt with other people too, right?

Reply

5 BC | FrugalWheels October 28, 2019 at 10:37 am

Totally agree. And look at all he accomplished because he FIRE’d! Apparently he renegotiated his terms after the 18 years was up too.

Totally true about his traveling, and in fact his wife had passed by the time he was assigned to travel to France. So for sure can’t blame him for enjoying the attention of the French ladies haha Having time to explore science led to a lot of his fame, and by the time he got to France he was a celebrity. He gained a lot of influence over French officials which greatly helped persuade them to aid the Revolutionary cause (first secretly then overtly). All because he FIRE’d!

Reply

6 Jen October 28, 2019 at 1:48 pm

My understanding was that the marriage was always a bit troubled. However, when he and his wife lost a child stemming from a disagreement over getting the child vaccinated it seems like it basically broke the marriage. I believe the wife was against vaccination (which was very new at the time), and Franklin was for it. The child later contracted the disease and died.

Reply

7 J. Money October 29, 2019 at 7:06 am

Oh damn, never knew any of that… And still a debate people have today!

Reply

8 Mr. Tako October 28, 2019 at 1:13 pm

Franklin certainly wasn’t the first to do it, just the most well known. In the 19th century it was fairly common for young men to go ‘abroad’ or into business to seek “a competence”. In other words, generating a big stash of money they could live in luxury on without needing to work.

Usually this was around $100k (remember this is back in the 1800’s!), but what I find most surprising was that most of them never stayed “retired” for very long. After a few years of relaxing they were usually back at it — buying a business, shipping goods across the ocean, and the like.

Reply

9 BC | FrugalWheels October 28, 2019 at 2:54 pm

But Franklin did this in the 18th century. Franklin was old news by the 19th century. And I would say Franklin FIRE’d in the Mr. Money Mustache sense in that he freed himself from mandatory work but still pursued work that was meaningful to him. That he did this in 1748, and by working from the bottom and through frugality as well as industry, I think puts him pretty squarely in OG of FIRE territory.

Reply

10 Menard Solve October 28, 2019 at 2:18 pm

If you google “Benjamin Franklin Fire Movement”, one really cool dude wrote about how Franklin pioneered the movement. His points are:

1. He treated his debt as an emergency (ala MMM).
2. He lived frugally in terms of time and money (ala Vicky Robin).
3. He understood risk vs reward.
4. He became F.I. and retired early to pursue other passions.
5. He leveraged the power of compounding.

Not only was he playing with fire (with the lightning rod and the Franklin stove), he was living the FIRE lifestyle!

Reply

11 BC | FrugalWheels October 28, 2019 at 2:57 pm

Yeah, for sure! I agree with all those assessments and it really struck me reading the biography I cited in the story how much his words and action resembled the modern day FIRE movement. I always liked Ben Franklin but this biography really brought it home for me.

Reply

12 J. Money October 29, 2019 at 7:09 am

I of course had to google that, Menard – very smooth ;)

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: