New doco could change how you think about money


Published on

"My job was getting more and more stressful, and I was thinking I was going to die at my desk, just to buy a house," explains Kristy Shen who retired at 31.

Kristy, who with Bryce Leung, runs a blog called Quit Like a Millionaire, are part of the Financially Independent Retire Early movement, known as FIRE

They are some of the several FIREs who describe their journey to retire early in a new documentary, Seeking FIRE, that is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

seeking fire documentary Ian Bawa and Quan Luong

The search to understand the Financial Independence Retirement Early (FIRE) movement is documented by two filmmakers: Ian Bawa, 36, and Quan Luong, 23.

They read Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joseph Dominguez, a go-to book of the FIRE movement that is based on saving 60% of your income, investing and receiving a passive income while preserving the capital so you can retire early. The book was written 31 years ago and has sold over one million copies.

Both filmmakers, who are first generation immigrants to Canada, are curious about retiring early. "But is FIRE sustainable?" they ask at the beginning of the film. Luong and Bawa believe they can maintain a frugal life for a couple of years but how do they keep saving for years when it is so hard?

Their 83-minute documentary features disillusioned Gen X and Millennials who are exploring their relationship with money. The film was shot over 2021 and 2022, when young people are disheartened and anxious after the pandemic. It makes their journeys and observations about saving, investing, and retiring early quite compelling.

Getting your life back from what Piggy, from Bitches Get Riches blog, describes as "a soul sucking" job where there is little time to have fun is one of the big motivations for the FIREs.

Pete Adeney, who shares his journey on the popular Mr Money Moustache website, defines FIRE as the "semi-scientific study of badass, super fun living".

Adeney, who has been retired for 16 years, says there are a million choices about what to do with your time. Retiring early allows people to value yourself and your time, he says. You can spend more time on your health, your mental health, relationships, learning and be with the people you love.

There was some speculation at the beginning of the global pandemic that the FIRE movement would die off. But Leung says at the end of the pandemic, FIREs had more money than at the start. The need for financial independence was even more pressing.

"In fact, it showed that your job can disappear at any time. Are you going to be prepared for it? That message has resonated quite a bit," explains Leung, the blogger of Quit Like a Millionaire.

The filmmakers' own personal stories about money feature in the film. Bawa's father died in 2020 and he will receive an inheritance when the family house is sold. But while the money gives his stability and could potentially change his life, Bawa says the number is irrelevant and he just wants his dad back.

Both filmmakers live in the Canadian city of Winnipeg where property prices are reasonable. Living in a city with low property prices is a key strategy of FIRE. Spending less on property - either rent or mortgage - allows FIREs to save more for their early retirement.

Both Luong, a renter, and Bawa, who has an investment property, keep their property costs low and live in small apartments. In the film they travel to two bigger cities, Toronto and New York, where property prices are much higher, even crippling for young adults. They speak to people about the high cost of living, asking them how they save when housing is so expensive and there is so much to do and see.

"It takes a lot of discipline, not to spend in New York," explains one of New York FIREs.

What the film shows is that FIRE is a huge movement but there isn't just one path. Everyone is approaching their retirement years differently, using different tools and strategies.

FIRE has plenty of streams such as low FIRE where people like to live on small annual amounts. Another is called fat FIRE where people want a higher income.

One is what call is geographic arbitrage FIREs talk about 'geographical arbitrage,' where they move to countries where the cost of living is much lower. "You are earning in a country with a very strong currency, and you are spending it in a country with a very weak currency."

Digital nomad roles mean that people can work anywhere and take advantage of lower costs.

The film explores the preferred investments that FIREs use. Bawa likes to earn his passive income from property and shows that to keep his maintenance costs low, he does all the repairs himself. Others prefer to avoid the hassle of properties, dealing with tenants and vacancies, and buy index exchange traded funds.

Where do attitudes to money come from? The FIREs discuss how their own parents managed or mismanaged money.

They talk about the shame, the fear and obsession that their parents held about money. And this often shaped their own attitude to money. Some learnt valuable lessons from their parents about delaying their gratification while others had to rewire their own learnt money patterns.

One of the best things about not spending money is cutting your consumption, says Adeney. "It is better for the planet."

Get stories like this in our newsletters.

Related Stories

Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.