Five lessons I learned while making a documentary film about FIRE
When J.D. decided to spend three weeks in Europe with his family, he asked a few people if they'd be interested in contributing articles during his absence. He even asked me!
My name is Scott Rieckens, and I'm new to the world of smart money management. I'm new to the world of financial independence and early retirement. I'm new, but I've totally immersed myself in it. I've immersed myself so much, in fact, that I've spent the past eighteen months creating a feature film about FIRE. (FIRE is the clumsy abbreviation for “financial independence/retire early”. Basically, the FIRE movement is all about saving big so that you can choose to live however you want.)
“You've been in a unique position over the past year,” J.D. said when I asked him what I should write about. “You've had amazing access to a variety of people who think and write and teach about financial independence and early retirement. You've been able to hear what they think and say in private as well as public. What about sharing your biggest takeaways from this experience?”
Perfect! I can dish out everyone's dirty laundry and avoid posting those embarrassing stories on my own site. It's a win-win for me, really. J.D. is such a sucker.
You ready? Let's go behind the scenes of the early retirement movement. Here are five things I learned while filming Playing with Fire.
Lesson #1: The FIRE Movement is Polarizing
When I started down the rabbit hole of early retirement blogs and podcasts, I was swept up in the euphoria that many others have experienced: “Holy moley, I'm going to retire in less than ten years!”
Coming from fifteen years of a spendy, financially-illiterate lifestyle, this was a huge revelation that gave me hope, joy, excitement, and…butterflies. Imagine the control over your life! Imagine the freedom! Think of all the ideas I will chase, the whims I can explore! Think of what this means for my family!
Somehow, though, I missed the blog post or podcast episode that explained just how difficult it can be to live within the FIRE framework while the people around you wonder what the hell you're talking about.
- “But I like my job.”
- “That sort of lifestyle sounds terrible.”
- “Are you joining a cult?”
These reactions dampened my enthusiasm. Nobody had warned me that there might be people who thought we were crazy for pursuing financial freedom.
Now, as FIRE is spreading through the mass media, there's been push-back from unexpected corners. Financial guru Suze Orman says she hates the FIRE movement. The comments on articles and interviews around the web are often negative — even hateful.
I wasn't expecting that. How can something so positive be viewed with so much negativity?
Since starting our project, the number-one thing we hear from early retirement folks is: “I really hope this film makes it easier to share FIRE with my friends and family. Every time it comes up, things get weird and my already-socially-anxious-self gets all clammy.”
I can say unequivocally that we have the same hopes.
Our society's relationship with money seems completely broken. When the best-selling vehicles are full-sized $60,000 trucks, yet 70% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, it seems the general population is managing money at a fifth-grade level. (And again, that used to be me before I found FIRE.)
We've got a lot of work ahead of us.
Lesson #2: The FIRE Movement is Here to Stay
As part of this project, my wife (Taylor) and I had a chance to share an afternoon with Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life, the 1992 classic that has inspired many Get Rich Slowly readers. We were beside ourselves with excitement.
We first heard about Vicki Robin on the Mad Fientist podcast, where Brandon introduced her as “one of the founders of the Financial Independence movement”. Like J.D., Vicki wants people to devote themselves to their own potential and to a finding a purpose greater than chasing “things”.
I assumed that she would be well-versed in all things FIRE. Instead, I learned that she had only recently discovered the newfound resurgence of interest in her previous life's work. So when we met with her, she was still assessing her place in all this, and whether she had the energy or desire to “jump back in”. She had aspired to use the concept of financial independence as a means to halt rampant consumerism and, in turn, improve our relationship with the environment, our community, and ourselves. Clearly, despite her decades of work, those goals hadn't come to fruition.
Throughout the day, Taylor and I had been talking about the FIRE “movement”. But Robin challenged our assumptions. She reminded us that a movement is defined as a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.
Robin wasn't convinced that anyone was really working together in the financial independence community, or that real change had taken place. Instead, she believed we have a collection of bloggers (and other media figures) indirectly competing against each other for views, clicks, and subscribers. There existed little coordination — just a handful of loosely organized events with major paywalls and/or a small number of tickets available.
Since our conversation, however, the winds of change have blown in. People are starting to coordinate. FIRE is growing up, gaining popularity, and those in the lead are starting to work together.
- Look no further than the united response to Suze Orman's wildly condescending and inaccurate rant on Paula Pant's “Afford Anything” podcast.
- Look at our own project, Playing with Fire. We've enjoyed participation in our Playing with Fire documentary from everyone we've asked within the FIRE community (including Vicki, who has updated YMOYL and spent time and energy contributing to the community).
- Look at Tanja Hester's CentsPositive retreat for women.
- Look at the CampFI retreats held all over the country. Or the ChooseFI Facebook Page that continues to flourish. Or the FI subreddit, which has nearly half a million subscribers.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.
J.D. bought back Get Rich Slowly and continues to drop knowledge bombs. Mr. Money Mustache's keynote talks remind us that we all have the power to be rich, happy, and change the world. And J.L. Collins' talk at Google regarding the simple path to wealth is more popular than Oprah's talk at Google. (By a factor of ten!)
I believe that this is just the beginning.
The internet age presents an opportunity to easily organize, inspire, educate, and stick. When Vicki Robin first appeared on Oprah, millions of people watched. But Oprah didn't have a YouTube channel. And daily talk shows didn't broadcast re-runs.
Robin enjoyed a brief burst of interest from that appearance, but she had to continue working to get coverage. She estimates she's conducted over 2,000 interviews in her lifetime. That's a mountain of work to get her message across!
Fortunately, we've learned her effort wasn't in vain. She was just ahead of her time.
Lesson #3: The FIRE Movement Embraces an Abundance Mindset
When I set out to raise money to make Playing with Fire, I had one nagging worry. How was I going to get a bunch of frugal people to cough up their hard-earned, hard-saved dinero to support a film that covered the mechanics that they are already so well-versed in?
Funny enough, the team at Kickstarter felt the same way. Below is a response I received from them hours before I hit the launch button to our now wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign.
I'm excited to see how you get along and how in hell you manage to get FIRE fanatics to unnecessarily give away their hard-earned, hard-protected cash. But watching the trailer I looked at my colleague and said: I want to see this film. So hopefully that's everyone's response and – bingo, film funded.
My heart and the Kickstarter team's hearts were in the right place. We were half kidding, but seriously curious. Would this work? Does frugal equal cheap?
Turns out that frugal is not the same as cheap. In fact, from my perspective, it seems like frugality facilitates excessive generosity. Brad Barrett from ChooseFI considers himself a valuist, he ensures whatever he accumulates or devotes his time to will bring him value. So we consider the overwhelming success of the Kickstarter as a sign that this community values the work we are doing, and the stories and perspectives we aim to share. An obvious observation in hindsight!
It costs money to make movies, but money is merely a tool. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. And when I first kicked off this project, my inbox was inundated with offers of time, expertise, places to stay, stories, etc. to support this film. I've welled up with tears more than once over the past few months, overcome with emotion as the generosity continues to pour in.
The FIRE community has been sharing their most precious resource — time — since day one. Imagine the impact the community could have if all this generosity were organized with greater clarity and intention!
J.D.'s Note: Over the past couple of years, I've noticed the same thing: The FIRE community has an amazing abundance mindset. The folks I meet are the most generous, sharing people I've ever met. It's mind-boggling, actually, how much people are willing to give — and without the expectation of any sort of return.
Lesson #4: Once You See the FIRE Framework, You Can't Unsee It
I used to feel bad about myself.
When it came to investing acumen, and general understanding of personal finances, I was lost. It was so bad, that I'd sweep anything financial under the proverbial rug.
Luckily, my parents were raised frugal and instilled the fear of debt into me at an early age. I respected debt and stayed away from the most egregious debt mistakes one can make. But, like so many, I had the idea that financial skill was something complex, something beyond my ability to understand. I excused myself from the task altogether. Boy, did that cost me!
If Taylor and I had known what we know now when we graduated from high school, we'd be retired today.
Once we got past the sunk-cost fallacy, we picked ourselves up by the britches and realized something fairly profound. The secret to financial success is simple: Spend less than you earn and invest the rest. Duh.
Although this fundamental financial truth is obvious to me now, I'd been blind to it before. But once you see it, you can't un-see it. It's not as complex as I had once believed, and with a changed belief system in place, new possibilities were born.
Taylor and I have started looking for other aspects of our life where we can apply this lesson. What other seemingly complex issues do we avoid in our daily lives? Are there simple solutions to these problems that have perhaps been overlooked?
We've found that taking the emotion out of our arguments is easier if we think about conflict resolution more simply. Assume your partner isn't out to get you. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less conflict ensues! How simple?! [J.D.'s note: Preach! This is one of my personal mantras: Always give the other person the benefit of the doubt.]
The more we crush complexity, the more we can simplify and enjoy our lives.
Lesson #5: Get Rich Slowly HQ is Pretty Darn Cool
Okay, this final lesson isn't really about FIRE. It's more meant for long-time Get Rich Slowly fans who want a glimpse behind the scenes at GRS HQ.
The Playing with Fire crew visited J.D. and Kim last February on a typical gloomy Portland morning. Grey skies and misty rain set the tone as we drove over gravel roads and beautiful rolling hills, the perfect kind of day to sink into your couch and read a good book.
We were greeted by warm smiles and open doors, and a few friendly-looking but apparently murderous animals who all share a roof. [J.D.'s note: It's true. Our three cats and one dog make up a murderous crew that wreaks havoc on the local rodent population.]
First, we drank coffee and shot a scene in Kim and J.D.'s living room. Here, J.D. and I are both taking photos of the same scene from opposite sides of the room:
After we cut, the crew tore down to reset for a sit-down interview with JD in his “office”, the shed that serves as Get Rich Slowly world headquarters.
Apparently, this peach-colored “shedquarters” is built from cocktails and dreams. It contains J.D.'s collection of books, comics, and personal-finance paraphernalia from thirteen years of writing about money. It also contains several bottles of whisky.
Most of all, the shedquarters reflects J.D.'s love for learning, collecting, and enjoying. For me, it was a literal FIRE library mecca. Thrift: A Cylcopedia first caught my eye, but then I was distracted by an old copy of Your Money or Your Life. Then a stack of books about the history of retirement. Then a collection of Malcolm Gladwell hardbacks. Then a well-worn copy of J.D.'s own Your Money: The Missing Manual. [J.D.'s note: True story. I refer to my own book all of the time. Although it's gradually growing outdated, it's my most-used reference book.]
If I'd had my way, I would have brought a six-pack of pale ale and spent the rest of the afternoon soaking up knowledge and J.D. vibes. But alas, we had to head to another shoot on the schedule. Perhaps Taylor and I will make a pilgrimage back to J.D.'s FIRE library sometime next year once our lives have settled down.
These are just a few of the many life lessons I've learned on this journey over the past two years. But I just realized that I didn't indulge in the promised FIRE gossip!
That's because there isn't any.
These folks are a bunch of nerds. They're money nerds, just like you.
Sure, when they're together, they talk about frugality. They give each other tips on shopping for quality clothes at thrift stores. They discuss what they'd do with a $100,000 windfall. They dream about which new car to buy — while they continue to drive twenty-year-old Hondas. They practice house hacking and building Roth IRA conversion ladders. They argue about whether a SEP or Solo 401(k) is best. They debate whether it's better to rent or buy your home.
But they are also traveling across the country (and the world) to meet up and chat. They talk philosophy, the latest side hustle they've embarked on. They enjoy delicious meals at fancy restaurants (when I'm paying) and they drink an awful lot of beer and wine. They go for epic hikes and take long dips in ice cold water according to the methods of Wim Hof.
The people I've met while working on this project are supportive, generous, and delightful souls, trying to squeeze the most out of this one wild and precious life. They've figured out that spending time playing board games with your friends and family is far more beneficial than preparing for tomorrow's board meeting. And they cook up plans to create their own FIRE-centric cities. Basically, they are the most interesting damn people I've ever met.
Now, I find I'm part of this “cult”.
If you're not careful, you'll get sucked in too. For my money, drinking the FIRE-flavored kool-aid has never been more appealing.