Someone Else’s FIRE Journey [Review]

This weekend I watched a documentary about a couple’s FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) journey. FIRE is a lifestyle choice that involves:

  • Deciding on life priorities (necessities and what makes you happy)
  • Mapping your budget to those priorities
  • Maintaining a high savings rate – often 50% of income or more
  • Investing to generate passive income
  • Eventually living off passive income alone (reaching financial independence) when savings reach 25 times one’s annual expenses
  • From that point, traditional employment is optional

The book Your Money or Your Life (1992) sparked the FIRE movement. The authors were the first to crystallize the idea that in the work world, we trade our life energy for money. Wouldn’t we be happier if we spent less energy making money, or if we required less money to live on? These ideas were taken to their extreme in The 4-Hour Work Week (2007): Get rich by outsourcing your work to the poor and being as hands-off as possible! Yes, I have read both books.

So, I watched Playing with FIRE, featuring Scott and Taylor Rieckens. As the documentary begins, they are a dual income couple in their early 30s with a toddler. They have lived in ultra-pricey Coronado, California (near San Diego) for the past 6 years. The average home costs 1.8 million USD. We have no idea why they chose this location or how it fits in with their goals. Scott is a brand strategist and video producer for big business and Taylor is a corporate recruiter.

The film reveals little about their income and expenses except that they enjoy the good life, and he’s stressed. Their new book, also called Playing with FIRE, may provide more details. They note housing (32% of income), cars (2 luxury vehicles) and food ($2000/month) as their 3 biggest expenses. They state a savings rate of 8%. My first question is, what about childcare? It is never mentioned.

From online sources, their income and expenses look something like this:

$142,000 combined after-tax income ($11.8K/month)

  • $3200/month housing
  • $2500/month nanny
  • $2000/month food (mostly dining out)
  • $1000/ two leased cars
  • ~ $1000 / savings

Leaving $2100/month for everything else (including a boat club membership and stellar vacations). The same online sources say they had $190,000 in savings.

Scott was inspired by The 4-Hour Work Week and by Mr. Money Mustache (blogger / FIRE ambassador) to question his lifestyle. In short order, he convinces Taylor to overhaul their life and adopt FIRE. She believes she’ll gain more time at home with their child. The film follows how it worked for them over the first year of changes.

Here is the sequence of events:

  1. Scott quits his job, making Taylor the family’s sole breadwinner. My jaw dropped! His reasoning is that he wants to start his own business that is not location-dependent. This business turns out to be making a film about their FIRE journey. The next step could be becoming a lifestyle guru, or it could be making more (non-corporate) films. On their blog, he says, “We spent a pretty penny making this film.” He and the other producers raised $200,000 to make the movie. It is not clear if Scott put up their personal savings. They ran a Kickstarter campaign which raised another $102,000. This enabled Scott to pay the crew and to travel around the country to FinCon (Florida) and Mr. Money Mustache’s home (Colorado), while the director and all the featured financial influencers worked for free. Meanwhile, Taylor can and does work remotely.
  1. Scott and Taylor need to save for a down payment on a home in a less expensive area. Why can’t they use the equity from their current home? They were renting. So, they live rent-free with her parents in Seattle OR for a month and with his parents in Bellevue IA for two months. They learn basic skills like grocery shopping and meal planning!

An aside: Scott’s dad was an excellent role model (not his fault his advice was ignored) and their Iowa home looks like heaven!

Lots of people live with their parents to save for a house, or they receive a gift of a down payment. But it’s unusual to do so after earning such high incomes and quitting a job to follow a dream.

Here is where my anger starts to grow, because Taylor works full-time (secluding herself in a home office) while Scott spends extra time with their toddler between road trips. So much for Mom’s goal of getting to “be with her baby”. It appears she has given up her lifestyle for exactly zero benefit.

  1. Next, they rent a home in Bend, Oregon to see if they like it. Nothing is said about moving from a beach town to having to shovel snow all winter! They offload their leased luxury vehicles and buy a used SUV, which Taylor finds humbling. They reach a satisfying goal – filling up their first Emergency Fund. They’re tempted to buy a $500K house because it’s so much cheaper than Coronado, but they decide to hold off, eventually purchasing a more affordable (but still over-budget) home.

Another aside: My favourite moment is when 2-year-old Jovie checks out the new house and squeals, “Right across the street – Library!”

That is the story. They’re now a year into their FIRE habits, they’ve increased their savings to 54%, and they expect to become financially independent in 10 years.

It is unsaid that Taylor’s salary alone has funded the emergency fund, the down payment, all their expenses, and their 54% savings! Scott has no income and could even be spending down their old savings to make his film. At this rate, little Jovie will be 12 before Mom gets to spend any more time with her.

I just realized that Taylor single-handedly supported their family for a year on 25% of their former combined salaries (her salary minus half to savings). That is impressive! But I wonder how long she is expected to remain selfless while Scott either turns Playing with FIRE into a big brand, or he develops other projects that will bring in actual income.

I think the FIRE movement has some good qualities such as learning budgeting and life skills, living within your means, increasing savings, and planning for retirement (at any age). Significantly, it is better for the environment. My beef is that it disparages “normal” 9-to-5 employment and promotes a belief that anyone who works for a traditional employer is a mindless drone who hasn’t woken up yet; and that no one is happy unless they work their own hours and on their own terms. Fortunately, there are millions of nurses, pharmacists, police officers, firefighters, teachers, social workers, electricians, truck drivers, and others who serve the public when they need to be served. Many of them even derive joy from their work, and don’t choose to limit their career to a 10-year window. Another issue I have with FIRE is that most adherents are willing to live in any number of locations with a cheap cost of living, and usually settle far from extended family and friends. I’ve done that, come full circle, and I prioritize extended family relationships over most other values.

I enjoyed watching Playing with FIRE even though I did it with a critical eye. Rom was quite inspired by the FIRE message. He said Scott should have tried out his business idea as a side hustle for a while instead of quitting his job so soon! Link thought it was about rich, privileged white people and completely unrelatable. We had a good discussion about how often women make sacrifices to put a husband or boyfriend through school or otherwise support someone else’s dream.

All in all, it was thought-provoking. As a bonus, I enjoyed seeing so many appearances in the movie by personal finance bloggers/influencers: Millennial Revolution, Millennial Money, The Minimalists, Mr. Money Mustache, Mad FIentist, Get Rich Slowly, Daily Stoic, Rich and Regular, Our Next Life, Afford Anything, The Scholarship System, ChooseFI, and more.

[This is not a sponsored post. I paid to rent the movie online!]

Do you have an opinion about FIRE? Is it for you?

17 comments

  1. https://monthlycritic.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/capone/ My latest review if you fancy reading. Much more on my blog too.

  2. Hello Dar
    I’m well and truly past the time for FIRE but do enjoy some of these blogs….and sometimes have a laugh at the ‘antics’ (good as well as ludicrous) they get up to trying to achieve their goal.
    There is a blogger here in Melbourne who has been ‘entertaining’ us for many years with her life and times of being a single parent….a teacher raising four boys…. – a few years ago she became attracted to the FIRE movement- something she’d been planning for all those years ago.
    A fun interesting thoughtful blog – https://burningdesireforfire.com.
    Also her personal one – https://dancingwithfrogs.wordpress.com
    When you’ve got some spare time ‘look her up’
    Cathy

  3. Your review alone makes me less likely to watch it – seems somewhat self indulgent on the guy’s part. Sucks that Taylor didn’t get at all what she was looking for, yet… I liked Link’s assessment!

    I like ‘flirting with FIRE’, but also acknowledge I need to fill my time somehow, and being paid to fulfil that time is good for me. I like travel, but around other fulfilling things like work. I like the social interaction and the ‘greater goals’. I’m glad I had six months not working, where i was able to have unstructured time and live in savings, but I couldn’t imagine never working again (and I know, FIRE people say you can work, but it’s a choice, or you can volunteer).

    • I can’t imagine decades of pre-old-age not working. If I were able to maintain my lifestyle without paid employment, I would want to work for a charity or contribute somehow – but reduced or flexible hours would be nice!

  4. Karen

    I agree with your assessment. I really liked my job and didn’t retire until 68. I can’t imagine retiring at 40. A lot of FIRE proponents seem to dislike their jobs but travel and hobbies might cost more than they imagine in the future. Also in the US healthcare will be a huge issue as they get older.

    • Hi Karen, That was my thought – most health care in the US is through employers, and without a group plan, individual insurance must be prohibitively expensive. I hate to think of younger FIRE devotees believing themselves to be so healthy they don’t need insurance. They’ve saved and invested for a lifestyle they can afford without employment – then their debts and expenses could skyrocket with just one accident or illness.

  5. I’m with Link. (Self-indulgent, rich, white people.) And you. (Why is the woman still working? FIRE can be disparaging for those working regular hours in regular work.) And Rom. (They should have saved their money while both working.)

    There’s lots that I like about FIRE – save more, spend less, own your time. I can imagine wanting to leave a job that doesn’t really contribute to society – one that gives little fulfilment except a pay cheque and is about selling things – couldn’t imagine staying in one of those jobs for decades. I suppose part of the issue is “what’s early?” For me it will be in my early 60s. (Suppose the other thing is what is enough? I don’t want to be away from extended family and friends.)

    Second Cathy’s recommendation for Frogdancer’s blogs.

    • A lot of it comes down to whether one’s field of employment is a choice. I live in an economically depressed area with a lot of educated folks who have to take jobs they are over-qualified for, if they want to stay local. There seem to be two firm camps about this – one believing that people should always go where the jobs are so they can be economically self-sufficient, the other that people should value their roots and make sacrifices. I have done both (in various decades). I’m with you – I plan to work and want to work until I’m in my early 60s, and I plan to stay local, near family.

      Frogdancer’s blogs were a happy discovery; thank you!

  6. Well done. I would emphasize the living within your means and saving more. But, start saving early. I recall a young colleague around the age of 25 saying he wanted to retire when he was 50. I asked him if he was saving in the company savings plan which matched from 50% to 100% of the first 6% of pay you saved. He said he was not. I told him ” then there is no way in hell for you to retire at 50.” I wanted to get his attention, which I did. He started saving. That compounding impact of investment earnings is huge, as you know. Keith

    • As they say, the best time to start saving is when you receive your first income. The second best time is now. I can understand someone not taking an employer match if they actively find ways to invest that will outperform the employer plan. But not many have ever done that!

  7. Nice review, I had heard of this film, but forgot all about it. I like the idea of FIRE, but alas I don’t think I’m going to manage it. Hopefully I’ll be able to retire in my 50s though. I really want my time to be my own. I would love to do some freelance writing and volunteer. Though I’m not going to manage retiring super early, their philosophy has encouraged me to save more, which reallly provides peace of mind, especially in troubled times such as these.

    • Agreed. My plan in times of low interest rates and market downturns is: save more! 50s is young. Not all of us are Silicon Valley types who amass a fortune by 35.

  8. My issue with FIRE is that their income depends on a growth economy, ie their investments increasing over time. This is one of the issues at the heart of living on a finite planet – the importance of recognising the limits to growth. Also, is that investment ethical? I don’t often see a discussion of how FIRE people may be living off the backs of exploited labour or environmentally damaging corporation profits.

    • Excellent points, Jo. I have had great trouble finding ethical investments. And some of the sustainable products I’ve tried have been very low-performing (one even negative). My solutions are to spend less and save more.

  9. Mary

    Not heard of FIRE and already old/post-retirement, so not an issue for me. Can’t say the premise of the film entices me much (retire early and then what?). Link appears to sum it up nicely. Have to wonder just how the couple is faring with this new lifestyle in the Covid-19 environment.

    • The couple was trying a novel approach to creating income from the film, by bringing it to various cities, renting a venue, having a showing, a live Q&A with the filmmakers, and a local FIRE meetup. Good concept, but will not work in COVID times. Maybe they will be able to sell the streaming rights to Netflix!

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