Desire Paths: The Unconventional Way to Live Your life

[Hey guys! Re-sharing this post from I Dream of FIRE back in the day because not only is it just damn good, but it’s also something I’ve never stopped thinking about ever since first reading it… I see these “desire paths” everywhere now and they’re so fascinating! See how many you can find in your community!]


Near my house there are two well-worn dirt paths through the grass.

The first cuts just a dozen feet from one sidewalk to another, and the second travels down a small slope to meet up with an asphalt park trail below.

I live in a master planned community, where the roads, trails and sidewalks are meticulously designed and maintained to direct travelers along a predetermined route.

Yet the people who take those dirt paths have a different idea.

desire paths map

Anywhere you walk, you can almost always find these bare dirt paths leading away from the pavement. They may be a few feet long or hundreds of feet, but enough people have taken this same unofficial route that it has become an obvious option – the proverbial road less traveled.

We often just call these shortcuts – and indeed Wikipedia suggests they are often “the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination” – but they have an official name in the urban planning lexicon: Desire paths.

Desire paths are not created by design; rather, they are the natural result of people who look around and see a better way to get where they’re going. Over time, as these trailblazers prove this new route’s success, the path becomes visible even to those who wouldn’t naturally think to take it. Now they can see there is another way, and they can choose to follow it or stick with the more conventional path.

Clearing The Way

I heard about desire paths on the 99% Invisible podcast and was immediately smitten with the name and concept. The phenomenon originates in urban planning, but it also crosses into technology. Twitter’s hashtags and @ mentions were not functions created by Twitter’s developers, but rather conventions it adopted after seeing how its users were communicating with one another.

It’s also a perfect metaphor for the FIRE movement.

What we’re seeing now with the proliferation of personal finance blogs and podcasts that have a financial independence and early retirement theme is a digital desire path. Enough trailblazers have proven there’s a faster way to get where they are going – a shortcut to retirement – and we can choose whether to break from the expected path and follow their lead.

Is that the right choice for everyone, however? Of course not.

But there are some who spy that developing shortcut and think, “I’ve got better things to do with my time than take twice as long to get where we’re all going.”

The Pioneers, The Early Settlements, And The Railroad

Perhaps the most famous desire path in the U.S. is the Oregon Trail. From 1840-1880, nearly 400,000 people loaded up wagons and headed west to a brave new world.

“As the Oregon Trail evolved, thousands of wagons wore ruts into the ground that acted as an ad-hoc road for the settlers who followed. But they didn’t follow a single solid path. Rather, wagon wheels left ruts across the country as pioneers found various shortcuts and easier routes along the way.” –  Smithsonian Magazine

There were desire paths sprouting from desire paths – just as there are many paths to early financial independence! (By the way, do you know where The Oregon Trail officially began? Independence, Mo. How’s that for an FI tie-in?)

So obvious was the success of The Oregon Trail, along with other similar trails, that it became a more permanent path that future travelers would take as riders on the Transcontinental Railroad.

The history of the financial independence/early retirement movement is very similar. As Early Retirement Dude writes in his brilliant “The History of the FI/ER Movement (2.0)”:

“It hasn’t been that long since anyone who was pursuing it was operating in a near-total vacuum: one where you had to collect and assemble your plan’s components without much, if any, outside help… You’re living in a perfect storm: a moment in history when circumstances have never been more favorable for achieving financial independence and early retirement.”

He talks about the early pioneers whose footsteps today’s FI seekers walk in. People like Amy Dacyczyn, Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, Jacob Lund Fisker, and those posting on Their contributions in the form of “The Tightwad Gazette,” “Your Money or Your Life” and Early Retirement Extreme were the original waypoints along the trail where travelers could stop to rest and commiserate. They inspired others to keep going.

There’s No Stopping an Ingenious Mind With a Deep Desire

Later travelers of The Oregon Trail created alternate routes from the original path to shorten the trail or to get around obstacles. These “cut-offs” would themselves become established options for those who came behind them.

In the FIRE community, people like The Mad Fientist guide people in tax optimization and Roth conversion ladders – laying out cut-offs for financial obstacles others just accept as part of the journey.

Many of the voices in the personal finance community are software engineers and entrepreneurs – people whose nature is to create something from nothing. Such was the constitution of the pioneer stock, who were undeterred by what was because they saw what could be.

The FIRE writers, bloggers, podcasters, and forum members are the equivalent of the Transcontinental Railroad. They offer a proven, relatively safe, way to reach an endpoint at a speed once thought impossible. Big names like Mr. Money Mustache help spread the word and get curious people thinking about what such a trip might be like. His “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement” article is essentially a railway fare board, showing people the price of a ticket to freedom and a life they currently only dream about.

But, of course, there are many vehicles and routes to financial independence. Not every path suits every person or every situation.

Which Brings Us Back to Desire Paths

We may share many of the same predictable, paved roads along the way. But each of us has a chance to pick up our head, look around, and decide which way we’ll go. For some, that rock-solid sidewalk with its well-defined edges and overhead lighting is soothing and secure.

For others, the allure of a well-worn path and a little adventure is a chance too hard to pass up. And then there are still those who envision an entirely new way to their dream destination, whose desire to create one may someday inspire others to follow.

This passage from Robert Frost perhaps says it best:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

desire path mountain range

I Dream of FIRE is written by an early 40s married father of two adult stepchildren and a 10-year-old daughter. He works in financial education and coaching, and explores the realities and challenges of seeking financial independence with a family.

[Desire path up top via Duncan Rawlinson / Others by the author and Google Maps]

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  1. Accidental FIRE January 26, 2018 at 6:04 AM

    Love this man, great article. I took some urban planning classes in college and I remember not thinking about how people move until then.

    So if the early pioneers like Vicki Robin are the Oregon Trail, and modern FIRE thinkers are the Transcontinental railroad, what will the next crop of folks be?

    I’d like to think there are still new ideas and tactics to employ to make financial independence happen, they just haven’t been discovered.

    1. G January 26, 2018 at 6:08 AM

      I think automated financial planning services are putting us somewhere around the US highway system, pre-interstate though.

    2. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 7:33 AM

      That’s the most exciting part, I think. Looking at where we are today, in terms of maturity of our travel infrastructure vs. those days, there is so much growth yet to happen.

      I like G’s idea that the automated stuff is the next big improvement. As those get better and more in use, they could become the map that everyone uses to see where they are and where they’re going, and then figure out which route they want to take to get there.

      1. Miguel (The Rich Miser) January 26, 2018 at 11:14 AM

        Yes! When I think of how much easier investing (and choosing investments) has become, I am hopeful that the path towards our financial goals is shortened. Even a simple, low cost, automated investment strategy with a robo adviser is a huge improvement over the options availabe in the past.

        Awesome, insightful post!

        1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 11:56 AM

          YUP! Other things that can completely change the game:

          — Internet of Things
          — Blockchain / Crypto
          — And from what it looks like everywhere you turn – AMAZON! I swear they get more and more innovative by the second, haha…

          It’s an interesting time to be alive for sure :) (and speaking of “living” – imagine all the technology that will come around for health/diseases too?? I swear there’s going to be a cure for Cancer or AIDS out there at some point in the near future! Imagine that??)

  2. G January 26, 2018 at 6:06 AM

    I would remove the Robert Frost quote. It’s frequently misinterpreted, even in his own lifetime. The poem is actually about it not mattering which path you take because they are both basically the same, and the pointlessness of thinking too much about it or regretting your choice.

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 7:36 AM

      Come to think of it, we probably covered this in my Intro to Poetry class way back in college.

    2. JoeHx January 26, 2018 at 12:02 PM

      true, but the misinterpretation of Robert Frost’s poem is like a desire path in it’s own right. And the idea that getting to the west via an ad-hoc road made by wagons or a train is the same, or whatever path you take to FIRE (or even just the R) seems to fit in with the poem

      1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 12:07 PM

        (I like the way you think :))

  3. Miss Mazuma January 26, 2018 at 6:20 AM

    I love the fact that all the planning experts in the world can’t plan for what we as humans want most…to color outside the lines. To rebel against conformity – sidewalks be damned! :)

    I am actively pursuing financial independence which in itself is a Desire Path to a traditional retirement. But within the FI community, there is also a traditional route to FI – make more, spend less, invest invest invest. Yesterday I veered off that route onto a one month road trip away from all of the above. I won’t get a paycheck, I will be spending, and I won’t be saving shit. BUT, I will reenergize the things inside me that make me be able to do those external things and I’ll still make it to my destination of FI (and be happier along the way). It just goes to show that there is no right or wrong way – even when one of the ways is paved in concrete.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 7:40 AM

      Yes! Mini-retirements are even another desire path. And geo-arbitrage, too. So many options, but finding the one that works for you and makes you happy is the important part. That’ll be awesome for you to reenergize with a road trip! I’m pondering hitting the reset button myself to see what happens.

      When you’re on the traditional FI path, other ones open up along the way.

    2. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 11:57 AM

      Enjoy your coddlewompling, friend ;)

  4. Lily @ The Frugal Gene January 26, 2018 at 6:25 AM

    I like the quote! And even more so after G’s clarification of it in the comments. They’re both meaningful and beautiful to me :)

  5. Jason@WinningPersonalFinance January 26, 2018 at 6:50 AM

    Your right that the resources out there today make the path to FIRE much easier than in the past. Still, it’s the road less traveled. Most people don’t know it exists or is possible. Maybe for the next generation that road will be paved and lit up instead of a hardly noticeable desire path.

    1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 11:58 AM

      That’s why you can never have too many blogs in the industry trying to get the word out!! We need as much help as we can get because there’s only a couple thousand of us but BILLIONS of others across the globe!

  6. Prudence Debtfree January 26, 2018 at 7:06 AM

    This post was moving. I’m not a FIRE type – I’m more a reformed “consumer sucker” who after 6 years of debt-reduction will be debt-free this year. Although we won’t retire early, my husband and I have still taken the road less traveled, and I occasionally receive shy, tentative approaches from people IRL who realize what we’ve done. I’ve come to recognize the stare, the light bulb going on behind the stare, and the “Is it possible for me too? Can I bring this out of the dark” step towards trusting me enough to say, “I’m in a crap ton of debt, and I feel hopeless.” I’m so grateful for the desire path, and I’m happy to wear it down a bit more and help others navigate it.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 8:52 AM

      Congrats on having debt-freedom in sight! That’s really exciting. I’m sure your story is far more relatable to the masses than wunderkind banks $1.5 million in 8 years that often gets played up. It’s hard for people to see themselves in that 20 years into a career and 20 years into consumerism, but seeing someone who was like they are make the switch shows that it’s totally possible.

    2. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 12:02 PM

      Wowww – I can’t believe this is the year you’ll become Debt-free, Prudence!! I remember when you first came on the scene years ago and were still deep in it :) CONGRATS!!

  7. Ms. Frugal Asian Finance January 26, 2018 at 7:46 AM

    I know there’s definitely at least one desire path or shortcut on my way home.

    People walk on it so much to save time that it’s now visibly a path although it’s not cemented like the official yet longer path. FIRE is just the destination. We can all get there using our own ways ;)

  8. Gwen @ Fiery Millennials January 26, 2018 at 7:52 AM

    I think my favorite example of a desire path is Michigan State University. They built the campus, covered everything with grass, and then when desire paths had formed paved those over into sidewalks.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 8:55 AM

      There’s a great metaphor for academics in there somewhere :)

      1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 12:04 PM


  9. Chris @ Duke of Dollars January 26, 2018 at 7:57 AM

    Such a well-written article!

    This is so true though especially in the days where YouTube let’s younger generation see the entertainment lifestyles that aren’t real. Rappers who are renting jewelry, cars, and clothes to show them as bigger than life. Aspiring to be the same way, people are shown the way to be consumers.

    Along comes reading Mr. Money Mustache…LIFE CHANGED! He shows it isn’t necessary…then you start reading other personal finance blogs and create your own, and now you’re commenting and tweeting with others in the community.

    It has come a long way and MAN doesn’t that make me HAPPY!

  10. Budget On A Stick January 26, 2018 at 8:11 AM

    Mind Blown.

    What an amazing article! I never thought to draw parallels like this. …Let’s just hope no one dies of dysentery :P

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 8:59 AM

      That only happens to people FIREing on Bitcoin. (bah dum crash)

      1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 12:06 PM

        haha… good one ;)

  11. Joe January 26, 2018 at 9:59 AM

    Time has changed too. Life in the old days were much more predictable. You could hold down one job the rest of your life and you’d be financially secure. Now, people don’t like their job. Companies don’t care about their employees. Jobs are not secure. The toxic environment drove more people to seek an alternative.

  12. Krystal @ Simple Finance Mom January 26, 2018 at 11:54 AM

    Such a well written post! The age of technology has made modern investing much easier. Unfortunately so many people allow their ignorance to stunt their growth or fail to act at all. The more and more people share their experiences, hopefully these will be the “ruts” others follow when it comes to investing. I know I’ve learned so much from reading how other people handle their money.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 1:05 PM

      I think part of it is ignorance and part of it is fear. It takes courage to leave the road and go off into the wilderness a bit, even if it looks like others have done it before you. You’re right, though, the more of us who share experience, the more defined the “ruts” become and the less courage it takes to go that way.

  13. Sean @ Frugal Money Man January 26, 2018 at 12:09 PM

    The crazy thing with personal finance is that these “desired paths” are published all over the Internet now, yet most of the folks around my age (25) still ignore them. They understand what they must do, and these shortcuts are literally right in front of them, yet still refuse to take these routes.

    I am still not sure how to flip this mindset in the average person, but I guess continuing to lay these “desired paths” for future generations is a start!

    Great post!

    1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 5:13 PM

      Haha yup – pretty much.

      People have to really *want it* in order to change their habits, and unfortunate it takes some of us longer than others to finally have that epiphany :(

  14. mike January 26, 2018 at 12:20 PM

    Read a little. That’s interesting. Read more. Man, this is thought-provoking. After reading the whole thing: What a well-written article. Thank you for an excellent article.

    1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 5:17 PM

      (That was my exact same impression too, Mike :) The more I read the more I was itching to hurry up and get it out the door! Haha… Took me two weeks to finally do so, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since…)

  15. Rocky January 26, 2018 at 1:06 PM

    This is awesome! When I was in the military there was a desire path that cut through a field. Unbeknownst to many people in the civilian sector walking on the grass is actually against some base regulations. In turn this particular desire path was getting a lot of people in trouble until one day a commander took over command of the base and decided to put a sidewalk there.

    The FI desire paths work the same way. We see a lot of people taking them on their own and forging a way ahead until one day someone decides to turn it from a desire path into a path others can follow without feeling like they’re breaking the rules. Excellent work connecting these seemingly unrelated ideas!

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 1:09 PM

      Thanks, Rocky. Another great example of how these things go from haphazard to recognizable to bona fide options.

  16. Mr. Tako January 26, 2018 at 1:29 PM

    Errm…. one problem with your metaphor J$. If the path is worn down like that, it means this *is* a conventional path.

    An unconventional path is one where the grass wouldn’t be worn down. Just saying ;)

    1. J. Money January 26, 2018 at 5:16 PM

      Guess it depends on *how long it takes* for the paths to show up, eh?

      If it happens in a week – then yeah, it’s a solid bet that more people are traversing it than not :)

      If it takes years though? The majority is still using the boring ol’ sidewalks…

  17. [HCF] January 26, 2018 at 5:10 PM

    Man, you are surprising me all the time. Until now my favorite post of yours was the “I got my MBA on the flea market” but you are tempting me with punk songs and this post. Keep up the good work and thanks for J$ that let you present this awesome analogy.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 8:29 PM

      I guess I’m “eclectic,” or maybe I should try out “renaissance man” :) Glad you enjoyed this one (and the punk song one, too). Hopefully I’ve got more surprises in store!

  18. Frankie January 26, 2018 at 8:23 PM

    What a beautiful name – Desire Path. Might be called a ‘short-cut’ to some people, but I don’t think that’s quite right – it’s more about the path itself, rather than trying to get somewhere ‘quicker’. All these trails that many FI bloggers have blazed just show us other ways of travelling through live we may never have considered.

    1. Dreamer in Chief January 26, 2018 at 8:30 PM

      I know, right? As soon as I heard the term I was like, wow, that sounds so much better.

  19. Mrs. Groovy January 26, 2018 at 9:32 PM

    Reading this, I thought of the little I learned about stage coach exploration out west. I thought of the notes of caution and the directions left by those daring enough to go, for those who followed. Today we have the websites of our FI forefathers for reference and knowledge. But who knows what will blaze those desire paths for the next generation of FI explorers? I hope I get to find out.

    Beautiful post, Dreamer in Chief.

  20. Ty Roberts January 27, 2018 at 4:13 PM

    Dang – this is my favorite FIRE post that I’ve read in a long time – great analogy. I’ll be sharing this one for sure.

  21. ZJ Thorne February 6, 2018 at 10:25 AM

    Those desire paths also show that Really Smart People don’t always understand what they are doing. Humans almost always walk the shortest amount. Not designing your path appropriately means that there is more soil erosion on the path people actually choose.

    1. J. Money February 7, 2018 at 6:24 AM

      It’s possible too that they *do* know they’re not always the best paths for humans, but since it wouldn’t look as pretty in the design they just completely ignore it thinking we’d play by the rules :) And then get a nasty surprise when all the dirt paths show up, haha…

  22. freddy smidlap March 11, 2018 at 1:46 PM

    it works really fast if there is snow on the ground.

  23. Deanna January 17, 2019 at 6:21 AM

    This is a beautiful analogy for the FIRE community. It’s kinds like as the crow flies, right? Birds get it, they just take the most direct flight to get to where they are going but then again, they don’t have pre-determined paths to consider.

  24. Rita November 1, 2022 at 5:35 PM

    What a great article. It reminds me of my goal to be an action column writer. After research, I found out the best place to try was Anchorage, Alaska, which had two daily newspapers with consumer action columns. I moved up there, taking a job as a reporter with Senior Voice, a monthly publication for seniors. It was emotionally heartbreaking to tear myself away from Washington state, my home. However, I did it and got the action column job at The Anchorage Times, my dream job. A desire path for sure.

    1. J. Money November 2, 2022 at 12:39 PM

      Love it!! You found the hack and went for it :)

      Reminds me when I wanted to move to NYC years ago after college but didn’t have a “real” job yet. So I started working at Old Navy in my hometown while I was applying, and then realized there are Old Navys in NYC (multiple of them!) and got them to transfer me! Then BOOM – I was living my dream, even though I could barely afford it lol… (it would eventually lead me to a kick-ass Airlines job though that let me travel around even more!!! Also keeping me very much broke! ;))


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