A new documentary follows the growing move to save big & retire early



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.

Published February 12, 2019|4 min read

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The FIRE movement, short for Financial Independence, Retire Early, is having a moment. Financial luminaries from Suze Orman to Clark Howard have weighed in on the trend. Now FIRE (no, not Fyre), will be the subject of a documentary.

"Playing with FIRE" follows Scott Rieckens and his family for a year, as they leave their jobs and their California home and, with their toddler in tow, journey across America to learn about FIRE and achieve financial independence for themselves.

What is the film about?

The Rieckens had lived in an expensive San Diego suburb, but were spending much of their money keeping up with the accompanying lifestyle — owning a luxury car, eating at nice restaurants.

Scott and Taylor both worked full-time to support this lifestyle, which limited the amount of time they could spend with their child. They wanted a change. The film documents the sacrifices they make to free themselves from financial obligations. During their year of travel, they aimed to live as close to rent-free as possible, which includes a two-month stint in the basement of Rieckens' parents.

What is FIRE?

The key to FIRE is saving — a lot. Practitioners set aside as much as 70% of their income to invest in low-cost index funds for a decade or so until they have enough to stop working. FIRE is also a community, said "Playing with FIRE" director Travis Shakespeare, who considers himself part of it. Its members reject the idea that taking on lots of debt and working for decades to pay for retirement is the route to success.

"It's a group of people who've realized that happiness comes from living a values-based life rather than through consumption and working for other people indefinitely," Shakespeare said.

Their goal is freedom from financial obligations, not necessarily from work. Many people who achieve financial independence continue to work, Shakespeare said, but they don't need to earn money to pay off expensive cars and homes.

FIRE has drawn a lot of attention in recent years. The financial independence forum on Reddit has more than half a million subscribers. FIRE has gotten writeups in the New York Times and Washington Post and received a mention - a disparaging one - on Suze Orman's podcast. Shakespeare believes the attention stems from increasing uncertainty, especially among millennials.

"They know the government is not going to take care of them," he said. "Social Security is constantly at risk. Companies no longer care for the individual the way they used to. Pensions are being dismissed out of hand."

In response, people are trying to become more self-sufficient, he said.

Why tell this story?

Shakespeare learned about FIRE after his father died at age 40 and left him $75,000. He paid off student loan and credit card debt, but didn't know what else to do with the money.

"I was basically financially illiterate," Shakespeare said.

His research led him to read "Early Retirement Extreme" by Jacob Fisker and the Mr. Money Mustache blog written by Peter Adeney, basically sacred texts to FIRE followers. (Adeney appears in the documentary.) What he learned changed his life and turned his financial situation around, Shakespeare said.

"I decided the best way for me to give back was to create a piece of storytelling that would encourage more people to investigate what this whole movement was about," he said.

Shakespeare heard Scott Rieckens talk on a podcast about his plans to start on his own FIRE journey. Shakespeare, an Emmy-award winning filmmaker, got in touch and offered to film Rieckens' story.

Making the film has changed the financial lives of the people who worked on it. One crew member started paying off his student loans after listening to an interview. Another started buying food in bulk to save money.

"Every single person that comes in contact with the film beings to change their relationship with money," Shakespeare said.

He hopes the film will inspire viewers to take control of their finances as well.

"There's a lot of shame for people around personal finance," he said. "It's a combination of the messages that come from our culture broadly and also ignorance around the way money actually works."

Shakespeare is working on a distribution plan for "Playing with FIRE." He hopes to screen it at universities and local groups of FIRE participants. Visit the Playing with FIRE website for updates.

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