Where Are All the Tradespeople In the FI Community feat-min

Where Are All the Tradespeople (In the FI Community)?

A couple of days ago I ran into an article on Mr. Money Mustache's blog called A One-Question Survey–Who Are the Mustachians? The survey asked readers what their fields of work were. Among the choices were such illustrious occupations as Software Engineer, Lawyer, and Teacher.

Naturally, I proudly placed my vote in the “Trades” category, and then the results came in. Guess where the trades are on the list? If you guessed absolute bottom, congratulations!

What's Up With That?!

The trades worker population is dwindling fast. People are retiring out of positions and there simply isn't enough interest in the youth to join this lucrative and rewarding field.

For a long time now, people have been ushering their kids into college with the thought that a career in the trades was for someone who wasn't smart enough or who didn't have high enough social status. This, as a certain podcast host likes to say, is what's known as a “limiting belief”.

Time To Hypothesize

I've gone over the whole employment gap issue elsewhere; today I'm going to get into my theories as to why we don't see more tradespeople in the FI community.

For one thing, there is a tendency in the trades worker population to spend whatever is left after essential bills on “toys”. Big, expensive, motorized toys, to be exact. Literally, every person I've worked with or known who is in the trades has either a speedboat, snowmobile, ATV, or some combination thereof. Not only are these vehicles expensive to buy, but they also require registration (cha-ching), maintenance (cha-ching), fuel (cha-ching), storage (cha-ching), a dedicated trailer that also needs registration, and so on.

The pervasiveness of this lavish consumption means that, according to the social norms of those around you, it is not only okay, it is expected that you have some kind of high-maintenance recreational vehicle parked behind the garage.

As we know, when everyone in our circle of concern is engaged in a particular activity, that activity becomes normalized. When an activity is normalized and even expected, questioning its usefulness is an act of societal separation.

And Another Thing

Expanding on the idea of cultural norms, the trades have been in a bit of a cultural “bubble” as far as workplaces go. For the most part, the work performed in the trades involves travel to the job site, which tends to be insulated from anyone but those performing the work.

In an office setting, a culture develops based on how the company is managed, how they handle employee disputes, and the cultural influences brought in by the various employees. Therefore, the office culture tends to be more professional than the trades culture.

This has been made apparent to me during several side jobs and time spent under a contractor doing work in an office setting, where the stereotypically crass trades worker can experience a bit of culture shock.

What About The Money

To bring all of my smarmy cultural babble back around to my original point, here is the main reason we don't see more trades workers in the FI community. According to me, anyway.

Companies that operate through a typical office tend to offer benefits packages that include retirement accounts, perhaps even with a company match. They also tend to have HR departments who create employee handbooks for new arrivals which spell out all of the options available.

Companies in the trades, on the other hand, lean more toward getting new hires out and on the job as fast as possible, and if there is an employee handbook, it is likely to be kept in the boss's desk where it is sure to go unread.

These companies are also less likely to make much of a show about any retirement plans they offer, at least according to the experiences of those around me and my own. Especially in the smaller shops, which are a huge part of the overall trade economy, things that are an expectation in the white-collar world may not even be available.

Take direct deposit, for instance. When I worked for a contractor, I tried to open a new bank account so that I could get the generous incentive they offered. One of the requirements was that you sign up for direct deposit. When I approached my boss (the owner), he said they didn't do direct deposit. The checks came out on Friday, and you did whatever you did with it on your way home.

Obviously, without direct deposit, it is a whole lot harder to automate your savings, which is a time-tested and proven tool to help bump up one's savings rate.

A Recipe For No Retirement

Combine the various obstacles in the way of retirement saving, the pervasive culture of incredible consumption, and the general lack of financial education in our schools, and it's no wonder trades workers make up such a small segment of the FI community.

Without things like Choose FI, Afford Anything, BP Money and others, the bulk of the trades population has no idea about the possibility of financial independence even exists outside of a pension.

I'm not sure that we'll see any huge insurgence of trades workers in the community any time soon, as they also have a tendency to watch TV as their “wind down” activity rather than peruse the web for financial advice. Not to say trades workers are better or worse than anyone else; I think it stems mainly from the exhaustion of a long day of hard physical work.

Really, I think that is a huge reason why trades workers should be the most prevalent group in our community. I only had about six years working under a contractor before I landed my cushy state job, and those six years took a toll on my body. That's why you see these old-timers who can barely stand up after decades in the business, and yet most of them have next to nothing saved for retirement.

Aggregation Of Marginal Gains

If you're a trades worker out there reading this, congratulations, you are ahead of the game! You are also a black sheep in your immediate community, as you have decided (or maybe you are currently deciding) to get off the hamster wheel.

See if anyone around you is open to the idea of joining the FI path with you! Sure, most of your coworkers probably won't go along with it, and that's fine. But maybe, just maybe, you can hook someone in with you, and then you can be partners in the journey. As Charles Duhigg reports in The Power of Habit (incredible book, by the way), having a like-minded support system of both strong and weak connections can make the difference between success and dropping out.

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14 thoughts on “Where Are All the Tradespeople (In the FI Community)?”

  1. Captain, you hit the nail on the head! I started my construction career as an apprentice Bricklayer.
    Back then the journeyman wage was almost 7 times as much as minimum wage, with good healthcare and a defined benefit pension. If I was smarter and more aware of my excellent path to FI, I would likely be there already. Luckily I stumbled on some of strategies on my own and have implemented some ChooseFI strategies which should get me retired by 55. There are challenges to this particular path, one of them being a total lack of support / interest from coworkers. There is a strong desire to work overtime and make money but as you pointed out it’s all for consumption of depreciating assets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen my coworkers become journeymen and go out and buy a top of the line full size truck. Consumerism is the religion of the typical trades person. Anyway please write more articles relating to trades and FI. There are a few of us out here trying to learn, thanks

    • Thanks for the thoughts James, I’m glad to hear from a fellow trades person! I’m excited for you to have found a way to responsible living, and I definitely hear you on the consumerism problem. Every tradesperson I know has an enormous truck that is rarely used as it should be, and they all complain of not making enough money.
      There will definitely be more articles coming out here, and you can also find some more on my blog at diy2fi.com.

  2. Good observations, Captain. I used to work for a general contractor and saw the same thing – top of the line trucks with the top of the line payments to match, beautiful power tools that went off to the pawn shop when work was slow. Fast food lunches every single day

    BUT! I would also say that those in the trades have huge advantages to capitalize. I haven’t yet read your blog, but by the description in your bio, I imagine you think the same. The skills are easily translatable into side-hustles. The hours can be flexible. They also have the knowledge and connections to keep expenses low while owning rental real estate.

    Thanks for the article!

    • You are absolutely right, Cassandra! People in the trades are surrounded by an extreme culture of consumerism, and it can be really hard to break out of the shell of “normalcy”.
      The skills that we as trades workers develop not only make for easy side hustle opportunities, they also allow us to retain higher savings rates through increased self-reliance and sustainability. No need to shell out a few hundred bucks when you can fix the problem yourself!

  3. Definitely agree!! I’m an apprentice in the electrical trade and everyone banks on turning out, putting in decades and then retirement. The prospect of an early retirement is viewed as it its a pipe dream and yes, consumerism is status quo. Super stoked to have read this article.

    • Minnie, good for you for learning about this while you’re in your apprenticeship! I am an electrician as well, and if you have any questions or need anyone to talk to about the process, hit me up!

  4. Thank you Captain DIY for writing this! It is the first piece i have seen for those in the Trades pursuing FI.
    I have worked in the trades in Australia since i was 15. I made excellent money over the years but i fell into the trap of buying lots of toys and spending money on cars…all the wrong things, But it is the culture you’re in when you work on job sites surrounded by other trades talking about their latest purchases and the jetskis for the weekend and who won last nights game of their favourite sports team. Its toxic to a young person with the ability to make money but not the ability to manage it.
    And you’re right, the long commute to site, the long physical hours do lead to just wanting to come home and sit and watch TV which we all know is not going to help you to a healthy and free life.


    • I’m glad you liked it, Anthony! Just like anything else, the trades can be seen as a trap from which the only escape is a 40-year working career, or they can be seen as a path to financial and emotional wealth. It all depends on whether or not you have a growth mindset and are able to view the positivity through the haze of flashy consumerism around you.

  5. Hey there Captain DIY! I’m gonna start off by telling you a little about myself. I’m a 23 year old union sheet metal worker. I got into a sheet metal tradeschool at age 18 and became a Journeyman at age 22 (debt free thankfully). From my experience so far I can attest to the fact that many trades-people are not very FI-minded. Often times people in the shop I work at spend money frivolously because they believe their pension and 401k will take care of them once they retire. The average train of thought is work for 30 years and retire. I was fortunate enough to have a family friend give me the book The Richest Man in Babylon when I was 20 which got me thinking about finances. From there my thirst of financial knowledge grew and I eventually stumbled upon Set for Life by Scott Trench which completely changed my views of how I spend money. I’m now at a 50% savings rate thanks to this book and tips from the FI community. Also fortunately for me, I bought a pair of Plugfones Earplugs, which are headphones that look just like the Earplugs at work, so I am able to listen to Audible or podcasts for 35-40 hours a week(without my bosses or coworkers knowing). This allows me to learn at an exponential rate compared to many other of my co-workers or tradesmen in general. I hope to hear more from other Tradesmen, and if anyone has questions or more helpful tips I would love to hear them!

    • Wow Marquez, 23 years old and you’re already building up your financial skills and knowledge in the FI community? You are crushing it! Keep on growing, learning, and optimizing, and you are going to find yourself in a very good position in the near future!

  6. Im a starting overhead electrician apprentice and though im only a year in i find myself teaching even the old timers about their 401ks. You would be SHOCKED at how few people know about their retirement/investments here.

    • It’s true, tradespeople in general really have no financial education at all! I get asked all the time about retirement accounts at my day job by guys that have been there 20 years longer than me!

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