Playing with FIRE: my review

Thanks to a friend who’d been in on the first wave and donated to Kickstarter, for once I’ve seen a movie before it’s available on Netflix!

Playing with FIRE has been heavily anticipated by the FIRE community and anyone else who listens to podcasts about financial independence. The first time I heard about it was when I was first listening to a Choose FI podcast, and since then I’ve been listening on in the Pod-osphere as the excitement around the film grew and the FI Media community has been lifting up the project.

It’s been a long time since my review writing days, but this seemed like a good reason to give it another go.

First of all, I really enjoyed watching Playing with FIRE. Everyone I know who is a part of the FI community or who is FI curious was looking forward to it. For a lot of us seeing a piece of ourselves on screen was exciting, and just having a way to show other people that this little cult we’ve joined is totally normal was a fun prospect.

It’s hard to explain the FI-way to normies. “So, you make more money than you used to and and you’re never gonna touch a penny of it so you can shoot for living on only 50% of what you make?” It sounds weird. “You’re not coming to happy hour anymore because you want to retire in 8 years?” Also not a popular stance. The looks us waste-weary frugal freaks get when we reuse ziploc bags and sew holes in our socks is also apparently “a thing,” but that’s a story for another day.

The film did a great job of explaining what FI might look like for a “typical American couple,” first through a conversation between Scott and Taylor and the Mad Fientist where they just start looking at their finances and talking about priorities. That started out like I imagine a lot of “How do I get my spouse on board” conversations might go: moving from “I don’t want to get rid of my luxury car,” to “Hey babe look at this spreadsheet,” to “If it means I can retire XXX sooner, then maybe I’ll reconsider.”

This was, in some ways, probably the part of the movie that will speak to viewers the most. Hearing about what kind of attachments people have to the things they own and why, and then watching them do the math to see how much they’re actually paying for those things. . . it’s powerful. I know; on a not so grand a scale I’ve done that, too.

Scott and Taylor’s situation was certainly a little more extreme. They lived a pretty luxury lifestyle. A house in Coronado, a boat, two luxury cars. They took the basic lesson to look at your housing, transportation, and food costs very seriously and, shockingly, ditched their house to move in with their parents. As a person who’s made some pretty extreme moves in my life, some of them not so popular, I was really impressed with how wholly they threw themselves into the project and how completely they really lived the path, from zero to, well, all the way, almost overnight.

I found that really inspiring, and I also really appreciated that they didn’t hide the hard parts. When you make money changes, it can be really painful, financially and existentially. Just on an individual basis, having discipline about any long term project is hard. It’s hard to change a habit, it’s hard to do things in a way you aren’t used to, and it’s especially hard when you’re part of a partnership. PWF did not hide the tears and the anxiety and the uncertainty, or even the ambiguity of knowing what’s gonna happen or how to decide if it’s really what you want. It was very genuine and very generous of them to reveal so much about what the changes meant to them as a family.

Something that was particularly moving was watching them talk about the top ten lists they made of the things that are most important to them and realizing that, as much as they loved their lifestyle, the beach that they worked really hard to live so close to did not come up on their lists of the things that made them the happiest. It’s actually an exercise I’ve never done, and something I think I’ll do soon. It seems like a good practice to be in, not only to reinvigorate the values that fuel the FIRE, but just as a way to see if you’re living an intentional life. Touching base never hurts.

One of my favorite parts of the movie was the FI date tracker that moved up and down with the different choices they made, going from several decades to only several years to Financial Independence in conjunction with indulgences, sacrifices, hardships, and adjusted priorities. It did a really good job of illustrating the really, really real impact every single choice has on our lives and how much freedom we have. I wished that I had my own Mad Fientist forcing the math of my minutiae on me every time I pulled out my wallet. It was a huge inspiration and a huge motivation, one that actually inspired my partner to spontaneously pay off our car at 11:30 on a Thursday night with no notice (Thanks for that, guys!)

That said, there were also some things the movie was not, at least for me.

For one, I had hoped it might be a movie that I could show to people to get them to understand this little cult that I’ve joined, and maybe could get them to join me. Perhaps this is different for different sets, but most “people like me” who I think would benefit from FI have things like student loan debt, precarious jobs, and the cheapest apartments they can find. They’re frugal out of necessity because they do not make high incomes and might not ever. Most of them live in high cost of living areas that they escaped to because the small towns they grew up in were dying, economically and culturally, and they could never imagine going home, even if they had parents who could help house or support them, which most don’t.

On the one hand, the idea of living with other people we might not want to live with is pretty common for us, since people in our cities have roommates into middle age these days. But the idea that someone would have the extra space for a family of three and be totally fine with you living there rent free just so you could save money is hard for a lot of us to imagine. Sure, we are the kind of people who would never say no to a friend who needed a couch to crash on in a crisis, but we’re also all from working class families in which we’re more likely to be doing the helping than the other way around. And for some of us, like me, that’s part of what got us here in the first place.

I had hoped the movie might appeal to a broader cross section of social classes. I suppose that someone in the middle class might have a house in Coronado and a boat and two BMWs, but from where I come from, that looks straight rich and tv-style inaccessible. I can imagine friends for whom selling the two cars and the boat could be the ticket to financial independence itself: if you’ve never had the privilege of lifestyle creep that’s a lot of money. It mean no more student loan debt, a real emergency fund, or maybe an apartment without a Craigslist roommate.

I don’t think I’ll be recommending this movie to those friends, but maybe this critique has more to do with my expectations than what Taylor and Scott delivered.

I was struck by another feeling when I was watching this, and that is that the movie sort of seemed like it was made for me, particularly. It validated weird choices I’ve made, got me really wanting to go to Camp Mustache, and made me really glad I bought FinCon tickets this year. It was interesting to see the faces connected to so many voices I’ve heard on podcasts, and made me google a couple of names because I was surprised that there could still be FI people I haven’t heard of yet. But would most people have that same little spark of media dopamine when they see themselves in others?

I’m not sure.

I did a deep dive into the FI world, and it still took a little while to know and care about who everyone was. Vicki Robin, Paula Pant, Mr. Money Mustache, the Mad Fientist, JD Roth, JL Collins. . . if I weren’t a couple of years down this road, would I get who these guys are? Would I care? I’m not sure.

Still, for me, Playing with Fire gave me a sense of belonging, perhaps not so much in Scott and Taylor’s social strata or the specifics of their story, but in the weirdo worlds of the FI gatherings and the subversive take on (not) spending. And I needed that. As a relative newbie just a couple years FI-ward, I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to about what I’m doing, or how, or why. Not too many people care beyond the random useful travel hack or sadly obscure knowledge about student loan repayment.

Like I’ve said before, one of the reasons I started this blog is because I felt lonely. FI seems like a place I’m going on my own, without being able to take a lot of my friends with me. Playing with FIRE made me hopeful that, although that might be true, I’m bound to meet a bunch of new weirdos like me along the way.

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