Playing with FIRE follows 35 year old Scott Rieckens, his wife Taylor, and their toddler Jovi as they embark on a year-long odyssey to understand the rules of this sub-culture and test their willingness to reject the standard narrative of adult life, which basically prescribes: “go to college, take out tons of student loans, buy a new car, take on a mortgage, buy another car and lots more stuff you don’t need, then work for 40+ years to pay for it all. If you’re lucky you might be able to retire at 65 and not have to live on cat food.”
When Scott hears a prominent leader and “early retiree” in the subculture--Mr. Money Mustache—interviewed on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he enlists his wife to abandon everything they’ve been taught about the role of money in adulthood and instead focus on pursuing financial independence. But doing so requires an about face since their current path has them spending every dime they make living the “Instagram” life in an expensive San Diego suburb, driving luxury cars, and eating at fancy restaurants. Although everything they are doing is sanctioned by their friends, traditional education, and broad society, Taylor agrees something is wrong when it becomes clear she’ll need to sacrifice the precious hours of her daughter’s childhood and work 40+ hours per week to continue paying for their lifestyle. She agrees to uproot their lives and spend a year travelling around the country to meet the subculture’s mentors while living rent free to save as much as they can.
Increasing their savings rate at first seems easy when their $3000 rent payment disappears, but then things get harder. One mentor called The Mad Fientist suggests unloading both of their luxury cars in exchange for a single, cheap $5000 automobile to be shared between them. Doing so will amount to shaving 5 full years off their working careers. Despite the evidence, overturning the programming of feeling she “deserves” a luxury car proves to be a challenge.
From there, the ups and downs continue. Two months of living in Scott’s parents’ basement, and an ill-fated stint in Ku’ai Hawaii pummeled by a hurricane add to the pressures. But the insights, wisdom, and counsel of the sub-culture’s founders continue to hold sway. Despite some setbacks, they are able to radically increase their savings rate, at one point reaching 70%. It’s enough to keep them on path. Across the film, however, they must find a path they can live with for the 10-15 years it will take for them to reach true financial independence. In time, they opt for a modest but comfortable home in Oregon where they’ll be able to continue to save while raising their daughter. For the audience, it’s an understandable trade off. In San Diego, they might never have been able to afford a home at all. Here, it will only “cost” them 2 additional years of savings to but their freedom.
The “F.I.R.E.” subculture (“financially independent, retired early”) is a stunning phenomena that has emerged in developed Western nations thanks to the Internet and simple, efficient ways to invest and grow money. Rooted in cultural traditions of simplicity and values-based appraisals of what makes life truly worth living, the FIRE sub-culture was born from the minds of engineers and computer programmers who favor life optimization and personal freedom over “stuff.” Today their followers number in the millions, gobbling up every detail of advice on popular blogs and podcasts. These men and women have proven--through a series of simple life hacks and time-tested investing strategies--that it’s possible to buck the system and walk away from mandatory work decades before the standard narrative would suggest is possible. Once they reach “their number” (investments equaling 25x annual expenses), they are securely positioned to abandon mandatory work and pursue a life on their own terms. But getting to this place requires significant personal sacrifice, a radical reappraisal of the role of money in our lives, and what truly brings happiness. Not everyone is cut out for the challenge.