A few weeks ago I went to a local (Pittsburgh) screening of the Playing with FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) documentary. I had been following the story of this documentary (and the accompanying book) through various FI blogs and podcasts over the last year and a half so I knew a lot of the backstory already but was very anxious to see the finished product. My thoughts on it are as follows:
This Isn’t a How-To for the Lower Class
The movie IMHO focused on pursuing Financial Independence (as popularly portrayed by Mr. Money Mustache, 1500 Days to Freedom, The Frugalwoods, etc.) as a middle to upper middle-class family option. This is both a pro and a con.
It is a pro in that it is honest – FI is available as a privilege for the true middle class and above.
A quick aside – one definition of the middle class is “Based on Pew Research Center data for the 2017 fiscal year within the Center’s parameters, an income range of $41,000 and $132,000 is considered to be middle class.”
Now obviously that’s gonna vary from area to area, but (and I don’t know Scott and Taylor’s financial history personally) but I’m willing to bet that living in the San Diego metro, doing the jobs they were doing, living the life they were living, that they pulled in on the high end of that spectrum if not over it.
This was not a tale of rags to riches in the same way that “Meet the Frugalwoods” wasn’t either. Nor is Mr. Money Mustache’s backstory. Nor is the Mad Fientist‘s backstory. Nor are the stories of pretty much any “subject matter experts” portrayed in the voice overs of the documentary. I have immense respect for all of the aforementioned, but their story and this story is not a how-to for the the lower or even lower-to-middle class to reach FI – it just isn’t. I don’t think it was intended to be.
Furthermore I don’t think that it needs to be.
When I started down this FI rabbit hole over 3 years ago, it was via Mr. Money Mustache (MMM). His no BS style of writing with no quarter given for being a “complainypants” truly spoke to me. If something he wrote or some behavior that he espoused seemed like not an option for me, then part of me felt that “Good. Change isn’t supposed to be easy“.
Obviously not everyone is going to be able to retire by 30 and bike to work and live in an energy efficient home, but bemoaning these things was like a gateway drug to “excusitis” to me. I changed what I could, where I could, where it made sense… and a lot of it made sense to me.
And not everyone identifies with MMM – I get that. That is the place where ChooseFI steps in. They have had guests that have walked the FI path from weaker starting positions, with less privilege. They talk about subjects that can help anyone of any financial means to live more intentionally (so does MMM and other FI blogs, but the way its presented with ChooseFI seems to be more palatable to a larger crowd)
I personally think that while there ARE obstacles that exist (whether by virtue of situations they were born into or the results of less than stellar early life financial decisions) to different people’s journey to FI, that if you truly seek change, you go out and make it.
Some people seem set in the lot they are currently in with statements like “Well I could never do X, I only do Y” and “Well that must be nice if you earn Z, but I only earn A… (and that will never change)“
These kinds of people are always going to find fault with stories like the Rieckens’, the Thames’, the Jensen’s, the Ganch’s (pretty sure I broke some grammatical rule about possessive apostrophes on last names right there). Some folks will always cite “privilege” and “an easier path” when reading about other people’s success.
Is it our job to sell the wisdom of living intentionally to the ardent opposition of such ideals… Yes and No.
FI is almost like quitting smoking or making a decision to lose weight (both things I have struggled with various times in my life). One has to almost come the conclusion by themselves that being financially responsible is something they need or should at least look into. I take great joy in telling people what relief making intentional financial choices has been on my life, but I can’t force-feed it to people.
IMHO, all I can hope to do is model and present our decisions in a way that may trigger something in another person that may speak to them more directly than I ever could.
Anyways, back to the movie. I loved it, but this movie was not an “everyman’s tale”. While I don’t think it was marketed as such, I think some in the FI community hyped it to be that.
Let me play the role of the naysayer for a moment here.
Evidence of privilege:
- They both had stable jobs, one of which was able to be completely remote with some tweaking
- They already lived in a really nice area
- They had parents who were alive, stable and willing to house them for 1-2 months at a time.
- They had the amazing opportunity to watch a friends’s house for some time in Hawaii. While it is true that tragedy struck while they were there, it was a unique opportunity that few others would have had.
- They were both healthy, with no other familial entanglements to keep them in one place, thus allowing them to travel around for what seemed a good portion of the year.
I do believe that privilege was addressed at some point in the movie, and that is more than enough for me, just like Liz Thames’ acknowledgments about privilege in “Meet the Frugalwoods” was enough for me. But the hot takes on Marketwatch and Yahoo Finance are going to focus on that privilege right away.
Humanizing the Story
With all of my analysis above, this is still a story of a real family. None of their decisions were fake or scripted, they had real profound effects on their lives.
Taylor’s reactions, specifically her second thoughts and conflict about their choices really made the movie. Her monologues about how these changes were affecting her and her mindset went a long way to humanize the story and really bring the audience in.
The analysis of how all of these changes were affecting her relationship with her husband, daughter, in-laws, friends, etc. bring to mind many things that I am sure all of us who make choices that go against social norms have weighed on our own minds. The bits with her and their daughter were priceless.
In the same vein, the scene with Scott walking through the woods wondering at how his decision to convince Taylor to go down this path has been affecting his wife’s happiness and ultimately their marriage hit home for me. It spoke to a lot of the same things I have thought in my own situation with my wife and four children – how to balance frugality with happiness to come to a life of intentionality.
- The score / music – except for the song during the end credits – was AMAZING.
- The scene with the Mad Fientist where he is analyzing their finances at the beginning seemed kinda staged. Knowing his backstory I highly doubt that he flew all the way from Scotland to talk to this couple in San Diego about their car and house. Maybe I’m wrong, but he was wearing the same shirt in that scene that he was in the rest of his voiceovers. I do think Taylor’s reactions to driving a $5,000 seemed sincere, I am just willing to bet that conversation had already been had long before that scene was shot. Again I realize this is movie-magic, so this isn’t really a knock.
- The extreme closeups of Scott and Taylor’s faces during some of the scenes – OMG. Maybe I was just sitting in the front row and was already looking up and maybe it will look different on a normal screen once it eventually comes to various home media options but wow, those closeups could have been taken back a notch.
Overall I think it is a great first foray into the televised media for the FI community and I feel like it can speak to many people in different ways than blogs, podcasts or even meetups with real people could.
Is it a silver bullet to bring FI to the masses? Not so much, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. 🙂
Once it is available for home distribution I will be watching it with my kids, with friends and gifting it as much as possible.