“Playing with FIRE”, the documentary about financial independence and early retirement

“Playing with FIRE”, the documentary about financial independence and early retirement

In early October 2016, I flew to New York City to attend Ramit Sethi’s Forefront event, a weekend conference about entrepreneurship and excellence. As I always do when travling, I agreed to meet with a few readers and colleagues while I was in town.

One sunny morning in Madison Square Park, for instance, I sat on a bench and chatted with Travis Shakespeare. “I'm a film and television producer,” Travis told me. “But I'm also into the FIRE movement. I just got back from the chautauqua in Ecuador.”

The FIRE movement, of course, is all about financial independence and early retirement. And the chautauquas are annual gatherings for FIRE folks who want to dive deep into the subject. (I've now attended four of these myself.)

“I'm toying with the idea of creating a film about FIRE,” Travis said. We spent an hour or so talking about his vision and plans. When we parted, I never expected that we'd see each other again. I was wrong.

During the past three years, I've connected with Travis several times. (I've come to really respect and admire the man. He's a Good Guy.) And that idea he was toying with? The film about FIRE? Well, that project has come to fruition.

“Playing with FIRE” finished production earlier this year. Since June, it's been screened in theaters around the country — and the world. Today, at long last, “Playing with FIRE” is available for purchase (and rental) on various digital platforms.

  • iTunes ($9.99 to buy, $4.99 to rent), where the Rotten Tomatoes score is linked to the wrong film
  • Amazon ($9.99 to buy, $4.99 to rent)
  • Google ($8.99 to buy, $3.99 to rent)
  • Vimeo ($9.99 to buy)

To mark this occasion, I wanted to share some background on the film from my perspective. Here are a few of my thoughts on “Playing with FIRE”.

Behind the Scenes

Soon after I met Travis, he found Scott Rieckens, a San Diego film-maker with a similar idea. Scott too wanted to make a film about FIRE. They decided to collaborate. By October 2017, a year after our conversation in Madison Square Park, Travis and Scott had begun production on their project.

My first exposure to “Playing with FIRE” came in late October 2017. I was in Dallas for Fincon, the annual conference for financial media. “We're going to film a roundtable conversation about financial independence,” Scott told me by email. “I hope you can join us.”

Truthfully, I almost didn't attend the roundtable interview. Fincon is pure chaos for me, and this just seemed like more chaos. In the end, I decided to participate. I'm glad I did. I joined friends like Carl (from 1500 Days), Tanja (from Our Next Life), and Brandon (from Mad Fientist) for a couple of hours of talk about money.

Filming the roundtable discussion in Dallas

True story: Despite all of the time and energy devoted to this roundtable, only a minute or so of footage from the night made it into the final film. That's too bad. It was a great discussion. I was particularly impressed with Liz from Frugalwoods, whose contributions were deep and insightful. As ambivalent as I am about her book, I am not ambivalent about Liz as a person. She's awesome.

My next exposure to “Playing with FIRE” came in February 2018. On a cold, rainy Sunday morning, the film crew visited our home here in Portland. We spent a couple of hours recording in our living room and in my writing studio, where the conversation centered on money and meaning. (Trivia: In the final version of the movie, every scene in which I appear was filmed in my writing shed.)

J.D. with Your Money: The Missing Manual

Over the past eighteen months, “Playing with FIRE” has been a constant part of the background of my life. I exchange email with Travis and Scott. (Kim is a fan of “Life Below Zero”, the Alaska-based reality show for which Travis is best known.) I've read the book. I've attended screenings. And last year at Get Rich Slowly, Scott shared his own experiences with making the film.

Playing with FIRE

Here's how Scott described the impetus for this project on Reddit last week:

I was a content creator for marketing/advertising firms for nearly a decade, so making content that focused on FIRE was natural for me. I was scratching an itch with this project.

I was so inspired by the folks that had shared their wealth of knowledge on finance and investing. And I remember seeing the Minimalism documentary and thinking…if the minimalism movement has a documentary, then surely FIRE would too. But to my dismay, I was mistaken. So, after some serious deliberation and reaching out to a few mentors and even a few FIRE writers and podcast hosts, I decided to dedicate myself to the idea.

Then, after an appearance on the ChooseFI podcast, my world exploded and I was able to raise money, connected with a fellow FIRE fan and director from the BBC (Travis Shakespeare), ended up with a book deal and shit got super real, really quickly.

[…]

I decided that leaning into this momentum made sense. Because the framework of FI, while painfully simple, has not been introduced to the masses and is far too important not to share.

Naturally, Reddit doesn't like the film. Or, more precisely, /r/financial independence doesn't like the idea of the film. Those who have seen it do like it. Most redditors have not seen it…yet are happy to pass judgment anyhow.

This is Reddit in a nutshell: A bunch of people who are quick to have opinions and make judgments without having all of the information — or any of the information, actually. It's not just the FIRE forum. It's the whole site. Users are quick to assume the motives of others.

When I talk to people who have seen “Playing with FIRE”, their reaction is generally positive. It's not a film targeted at folks who are deep in the FIRE movement, folks who talk daily about saving rates and the four-percent rule. This film is targeted at people who are FI-curious, people who know that what they're doing doesn't work, but who haven't yet been exposed to the ideas of the financial independence community.

This movie is meant to introduce people to the world of FIRE. It wasn't made for the people who are already in that world.

Playing with FIRE screening

Money and Happiness

I've seen the film four times already this year, and I'll watch it again later today. I may force my family to watch it during the holidays. While I don't think “Playing with FIRE” is perfect, there are many things I like about the film.

I like, for instance, that it ultimately isn't about Scott's journey of discovery; instead, the story is about his wife's journey of discovery. It's about Taylor wrestling with these ideas and how they apply to her life.

And I like that, really, the film isn't about money. Scott and Taylor don't embrace this movement to become millionaires. They don't “play with FIRE” in order to become rich. They explore this lifestyle in an attempt to increase their happiness, to create more meaningful lives.

There's a scene early in the film in which Scott and Taylor, who are trying to decide what to do with their future, sit down in a San Diego park to talk about what's important to them. Taylor shares the top ten things that make her happy on a weekly basis. These are things like wine, chocolate, exercise, and (especially) spending time with family.

“Any surprises?” Taylor asks Scott.

“Well, first off,” he says, “I didn't hear the beach. The beach isn't on the list? When was the last time you were on the beach?”

“Everything on that list is stuff we can do pretty much anywhere,” Scott says. He's implying that there's no reason they should be paying to live in such an expensive city when they're not deriving value from that city.

“What's going to make us happy?” Scott asks. “Because we can't lose if we keep happiness in the forefront. I really think we should [change our lives]. I think it's going to be the best thing for us…moving forward into the future.”

This is, of course, the stuff I preach day-in and day-out. This is why people ask me to fly to Portugal to speak, why they ask me to be on their podcasts, why they ask me to write for them, why they meet me for lunch. They want to me to talk about the relationship between money and purpose.

Playing with Fire tackles this subject head-on and in a real, honest way. The film isn't sensational. It isn't fake. It's simple, authentic, and open-ended. It doesn't offer pat answers. While this is in some ways unsatisfying (we want projects like this to provide answers, not create questions), it's also genuine. I like that.

Final Thoughts

Projects like “Playing with FIRE” are important. As Scott said in an email yesterday: “Each copy rented or sold is a vote for improving financial literacy and eliminating conspicuous consumption.” It's a good thing to increase awareness about smart money habits.

That's why I've embarked on a similar project of my own. I don't want to make a movie (ha!), but I am creating a ten-part, five-hour audio course to introduce people to the world of FIRE. In fact, that's where much of my time and attention will be devoted this autumn and winter. It's an exciting assignment, one that I hope will reach a lot of new people.

For now, though, “Playing with FIRE” is really the only thing of its kind, the only mainstream introduction to the ideas of financial independence and early retirement that's targeted toward a general audience (as opposed to targeted toward money nerds).

As I mentioned earlier, you can buy or rent the film from the following sources:

  • iTunes ($9.99 to buy, $4.99 to rent), where the Rotten Tomatoes score is linked to the wrong film
  • Amazon ($9.99 to buy, $4.99 to rent)
  • Google ($8.99 to buy, $3.99 to rent)
  • Vimeo ($9.99 to buy)

If you have family and friends who might be receptive to the message of this movie, you might consider sharing it with them. I intend to!

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Brooklyn Money
Brooklyn Money
11 months ago

I pre-ordered it. Excited to watch!

Amy
Amy
11 months ago

Color me intrigued about the documentary. In considering FIRE I have thus far come to the following conclusions: – I like the idea of less time working, more time living and doing whatever things I love. – Despite saving, staying (mostly) out of debt, and some light reading on FIRE, I have no idea how to really pull it off. Whenever I come across blogs and websites providing the exhaustive details I zone out. I’m from a numbers background but have no tolerance for that much obsession. It also seems most of the FIRE movement is male, single or otherwise,… Read more »

Brian
Brian
10 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I feel that, like many things, the “white” aspect of it is there because the majority of the U.S. is white population. I’m Asian and know white coworkers who will likely never achieve FIRE. Just because many FIRE adherents are white doesn’t mean FIRE is a white activity. (Come on, I thought being frugal was an Asian stereotype! LOL) It has never once occurred to me that FIRE was a “white privilege” thing until this chain of comments. In the first place, FIRE is a process that creates privilege. Perhaps I could go as far to say that those who… Read more »

Selena
Selena
10 months ago
Reply to  Brian

I’m female, Asian, and have the means to retire before 40. I won’t though because I may need to support my parents one day (and, no, we don’t do retirement homes for our elderly). That’s how it works in traditional Asian families: your parents take care of you when you’re young and you take care of them when they get old.

From my experience, that’s not a common thing in Caucasian families.

Kathy
Kathy
10 months ago
Reply to  Selena

This is a great comment, Selena. I, too, think that most Westerners don’t have the obligation to cater for ageing parents, so they are more flexible to retire as soon as they reach a comfortable figure. I cannot retire early because I have to think of my retired parents who rely on me for at least 80% for their livelihood. I am African and have been giving my parents a “salary” every month for the past 16 years. I could easily retire, sell my farm (where I no longer want to live) for a very good sum, cash in part… Read more »

Girt
Girt
10 months ago
Reply to  Selena

Yes. I think a lot of the unheard voices are because there are many people who have massive obligations beyond their own needs. Meeting the endless, mundane but vital needs of other people who can’t carry on without help. These unheard folks are carrying others by drawing on their own energy, time, financial resources, attention and creativity. Their flexibility and capacity to change their lives is extremely limited. In contrast, so many of the people who are actively creating material have other people (often wives) carrying their worlds in important ways which frequently go unacknowledged. They are often recipients of… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

“I want to present FIRE as an option for everyone regardless of race or gender. And I want to reach people whose incomes might not typically lead to financial independence.” JD, I’m going to be blunt and say that this is a pipe dream. I’m a numbers guy, and first and foremost, FIRE is a math problem. Your life either supports the math or it doesn’t, which you acknowledge. Sure, you can change your life to change the math, but if you’re coming up short every month, in the mean time, you’ll just be listening to another white guy opine… Read more »

dh
dh
10 months ago
Reply to  Amy

“I think your plan of getting rich slowly is far more attainable for many more people.”

This is how I feel too. I think FIRE is worth talking about but not too much.

GJ
GJ
10 months ago
Reply to  Amy

I just watched it last night. Pros: – It is an easy starting point for those not into personal finance or unfamiliar with FI. In my case (as the money person in my marriage), it was a great to watch and have as a launch point for a good conversation with my husband on our values and finances. – I appreciate that it covered some of the more difficult to capture with a spreadsheet aspects of FIRE including evaluating your own entitlement, impact on marriage, etc. Cons: – It featured an educated white couple who were able to live rent-free… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
10 months ago

The rental prices seem kind of steep. Can someone who has seen the movie assure me I won’t be paying to watch several rich white tech bros basically say that poor people are lazy and out of control consumers? While very few people in the movement will actually come out and say it that way, clearly a lot of them think that.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
10 months ago

“Each copy rented or sold is a vote for improving financial literacy and eliminating conspicuous consumption.” LOL! That’s self-serving marketing BS, and a kind of conspicuous consumption in itself, but props to the guy for trying XD I’m all for people getting paid for their work, which seems to me happened already with the Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/firedoc/playing-with-fire-the-documentary?result=project But course this is a profit seeking commercial endeavor, so no blame there, but I’ll vote for my own financial independence and skip the charges for a documentary. I’ll watch it on some streaming service some months hence. I’m sure someone will pick it… Read more »

kevin
kevin
10 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

This.

Selena
Selena
10 months ago

“Each copy rented or sold is a vote for improving financial literacy and eliminating conspicuous consumption.”

Hmm. That statement is almost off-putting.

Kathy
Kathy
10 months ago

I was just thinking that I have probably heard most of the points that are made in the movie (if not all, in one way or another) and so I wouldn’t pay to watch it. I will just wait for a year or so and watch for free on Youtube.

Dave
Dave
10 months ago

My favorite part is when the father looks at his laptop and says: “its kind if underwhelming to have sacrificed for this wealth and all it is is some numbers on a screen to look at.”. welcome to my world XD

teinegurl
teinegurl
10 months ago

I rented a copy and watched it on Amazon. I liked it. I thought it was very well put together even had some emotional parts. You did awesome JD!

vanillagorilla
vanillagorilla
10 months ago

I loved your bit, JD! The movie as a whole should have been made in ten years, once Scott and Taylor achieve FI. Showing just the first year turned a ‘journey toward FI’ a ‘journey toward homeownership’. There were a few scenes that had me yelling at my TV in frustration. Specifically, a lightly used CRV is a lovely car, far lovelier than most of the cars I’ve ever owned. And I’m a year out from FI. You don’t get to complain about your car when your net worth is zero. You get to appreciate the fact that you have… Read more »

Sandy
Sandy
9 months ago

Where to begin with this awful film? I wasted $5 renting this tripe for a group of younger family members who I’d hoped would learn something from it. They learned something alright: this film does not apply to you unless you are a white, college educated (book smart, no common sense) overspending yuppie in the tech field. Talk about a narrow (and pointless) audience. One of my guests works at Home Depot, for example. FI is never going to happen for him unless he takes a cue from the subjects of this awful film and crash lands on the people… Read more »

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