“Playing with FIRE” book review

I just finished reading “Playing with FIRE” by Scott Rieckens and I simply couldn’t put it down. In fact, I finished it in two days because I was engrossed in their journey to FIRE. Scott and his wife Taylor documented the beginning of their journey in this book but also in a new documentary that was released this year. FIRE or Financial Independence/Early Retirement is a path that many are pursuing as it allows them to leave lifestyles where they feel limited in their choices due to money.

The premise of “Playing with FIRE” is exactly that…lifestyle creep slowly happens until one day you are overwhelmed and unable to make positive changes in your life because you “have to” work and earn a certain amount of money to make ends meet. Scott and his wife Taylor were living a life as high earners but low savers in a very expensive city. Often it takes a major event to wake one up from a lifestyle that feels like everything is a necessity instead of just a want, and that’s exactly what happened to Scott and Taylor. Their major event was the birth of their daughter, Jovie.

After their daughter was born Taylor couldn’t imagine going back to work and being away from her. It pained Scott to see that due to their lifestyle, Taylor had to work as her income was essential. Shortly after Jovie was born Scott’s business fell apart. He felt a need to start a new company but they couldn’t afford for Scott to pursue his passion, again two incomes were mandatory. Scott had no choice but to take a job earning a salary that allowed their bills to be paid and their lives to proceed as always. Scott talks about needing to find a “million dollar idea” to help them change their situation. Then, while listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast on his way to work, featuring Mr. Money Mustache, Scott was introduced to FIRE and suddenly he had his million dollar idea.

The rest of the book details their journey to changing their current lifestyle to allow an increased savings rate to expedite their path to financial independence. They made what many people would consider drastic changes such as getting rid of vehicles they loved, ending memberships to activities they enjoyed and selling possessions. When Scott discovered FIRE they lived just outside of San Diego where houses that required major renovations were selling for over $500,000 or more. Scott and Taylor decided that an additional way to cut the major expense of housing would be to take a year and travel to check out some less expensive cities and eventually relocate.

Scott does a wonderful job in expressing how emotional this process is. He says on page 63 that every purchase had to be questioned “Do I want this boat club, BMW, gym accessory, or drone, or do I want to be financially independent in ten years? Is this item or service a priority for my life and my happiness, and if so, is it more important than becoming financially independent within our target date?” He uses the math to help answer these questions, explaining that when people realize how much longer they have to work to pay for a particular luxury they usually decide to give it up. An example was Taylor’s beloved BMW which she refused to give up until he presented her with numbers that showed that keeping the car added two years to their journey to reach financial independence.

It sounds easy to say to someone to move, sell, stop spending! But the actual doing of these things is very intense and psychological. Scott and Taylor thought they had all the details worked out until Christmas came and they realized they had left no money in the budget for holiday gift giving. How were they to buy presents? Many people would have quit, caved into the pressure and spent all they wanted, all the while making excuses for why they quit.

People believe, thanks to social cues and advertising, that expensive cars and homes prove their hard work is paying off. To exemplify success means you have made good decisions. Scott does a beautiful job detailing how he and Taylor needed to redefine their definition of success. It is the classic American definition of success that leads people to overspend and consume in abundance. Once one’s eyes are opened to how this overspending is actually prohibiting their happiness, often, an all-consuming need arises to eliminate, simplify, and alter.

In this book Scott does more than detail his family’s emotional journey to FIRE. He shares all the tips he learned along the way during his interviews with such people as Vicki Robin, JL Collins, and many others. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone pursuing FIRE for two reasons. One, it details the emotional side of FIRE that many people don’t expect and often derails people from FIRE when they are smacked in the face with it. This book is one that could be used as a way to prepare for those emotional ups and downs of FIRE, to expect them rather than be surprised by them. Two, it motivated the hell out of me. Reading about the changes they made showed me that increasing your savings rate is possible, changing your definition of success leads to increased happiness, and the things that actually make us happy are usually free.

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