When we're pursuing financial independence, we need to discover the right savings rate for our family. This is something that Nicole and I have had a lot of conversations about. How much is too much to save? And how little is too little to save?
I invited Scott Rieckens on the show because he's been on a very similar (big-screen, public) path with his wife, Taylor. Scott is a 2-time Emmy nominated filmmaker, Executive Producer, and Co-Star of a new documentary called Playing with FIRE. This is a documentary that uncovers the growing community of frugalists, mustachians and valuists choosing a path to financial independence and early retirement.
Andy Hill: What does financial independence mean to you?
Scott Rieckens: It's definitely taken on some new meanings. In the beginning, it was sort of like a liberation. It was a chance at freedom that I didn't know was going to be possible. Both my wife and I were probably 10 years into this sort of career journey and 10 years in we realized how tiring this was. There was really no end in sight.
Now that we have a much higher savings rate and a much clearer idea of our goals, it's given us a chance to think bigger. That's kind of why the output of content, the output of a book and a movie and all this that we're working on was so compelling. This was something that had to be shared. I felt like I had a few tricks up my sleeve with the mediums that I've been dabbling in my professional career to add to the conversation.
These days, financial independence to me is something that isn't talked about enough. That needs to be shared with more people and I think it's ultimately something that could potentially facilitate a significant societal shift in how we spend our time.
Why is the savings rate is so important when we're talking about financial independence?
The savings rate is important because it's like a double superpower. If you're able to save more and more money, that means you have more money to invest in your future. That means that you have more money to do things with that you might need to do things with like put your kids through college or whatever it might be.
The other side of it is, if you are saving more money, that means you need less to live on. And living on less is kind of a tried and true positive thing. We are being bombarded with advertising on a daily basis that is so entrenched in our society and in our everyday vernacular even. That sometimes, it's hard to pick up on.
You don't even realize it's having an effect on you. So we're constantly being told we need the new thing, the next best thing. Your life isn't complete without X. The savings rate encompasses a lot of different psychological shifts. Because to get to that point, to let's say a 50% savings rate, you learn a lot of positive things.
What was your savings rate when you started the conversations on FIRE?
When we first found this, we were fluctuating between paycheck to paycheck and let's say under 10% savings rate. It would kind of depend on the month, depending on if we went out to eat too much, went on a vacation or whatever our bad habit was. By the time we left San Diego and sort of embarked on this journey, I think we had gotten it to about an 8% savings rate.
That was really telling because we had cut back on a lot of the little things and got to that point. What had happened is we realized that it's really a structural issue. All of these big decisions we had made over the course of the better part of a decade had been incorporated: where we were living, how many cars we had and our lifestyle. And on top of that, we were living in a high cost of living area. We weren't accustomed to drastic changes in everything in our life.
I'm a Navy brat so I've moved a ton of times and if I know anything about moving is you get a clean slate. You get to start from scratch. You even get to create a new identity if you want because you're building a new community and I thought it would be a really great way to rip the bandaid off here.
That's what we did and that's why we did that because we were stuck on this really expensive island with really expensive rents and really expensive cars. Sure, we could have tackled the car thing. It's definitely possible to live a FIRE lifestyle in a high-cost living area but it's not as easy to pull back when you started, as opposed to, let's rip the bandaid off and start fresh. That was an easier concept for us and I think that helped a lot.
Where did you move to?
We looked in other places in San Diego but anywhere that was desirable had the same issue. Then we ended up looking all over the West Coast and that was fun, actually. We got to choose anywhere on the west coast. Our jobs allowed us to do that and we ended up landing in Bend, Oregon.
Related interview: What Financial Independence Means for a Young Father – with Jim White
How did you save money on transportation?
When we made the move, we were very intentional about where we lived so that it was designed where we could walk and bike as much as humanly possible. That allowed us to go down to a one-car family. We started out with two leased vehicles. I had a Mazda 3 Hatchback and Taylor had a BMW 3 Series GT. They were both leased.
For a while, we considered keeping the Mazda and getting rid of the BMW. But after running some numbers, it doesn't even make sense. We talked to Brandon, the Mad Fientist and he pretty much told us the error of our ways on that front. We ended up trying to find a car that was around $5,000. That made a lot of sense to us by the time we finally got to that point.
What car are you driving today?
So it's a 2006 Honda CRV with now 190,000 miles.
Nobody ever congratulated me for a boring leased BMW or a Mazda 3 Hatchback. Now, I'm getting pats on the back!
Did you guys make any changes in the food department?
We were like self-prescribed foodies for a while there. Honestly, I have a lot of empathy for people that live in big cities because these days, you can find incredible cuisine from all across the world. It's so enticing!
Food is a big part of our lives and I still love amazing meals. But we had gotten to the point where we were doing it out of convenience and ease as well as a perceived enjoyment. We were going out to eat so often because we were getting busier. We had a kid, our jobs are getting busier or sometimes we didn't feel like cooking that night.
There were some revelations that made it a lot easier for us to say okay, we've got to cut down on this food thing. So how do we do it? We implemented a few strategies.
One is if we're going to go out to eat, we try to keep it to once a month. And that's honestly proven out to be really great because then when we do go out that time, it's so exciting. You're like yes, we're finally going out to eat and it's awesome. And you choose it very carefully and maybe you spend a little more than you would if you were going out to eat more often. In aggregate, you're spending way less. So that's one of the things we do.
We try to plan our meals. I do as much bulk cooking as I can. Especially for stuff that's sort of on the go. We're a busy family and we're always running around. It's not always convenient to prep a whole meal even though we'd love to. I love making like breakfast burritos and things like that. We have little meal containers and we'll make five meals for the week. Something like that. Sometimes, we'll buy in bulk at Costco where they're already pre-made like that. In fact, we even got a second refrigerator off of Craigslist and threw it in the garage because that gives us more space for the bulk shopping.
We were just being way more intentional as opposed to before. Before, we would run out of food in the refrigerator and go shopping hungry – everyone knows that's a bad idea. You just end up buying stuff that looks good, and you don't really have a plan. Then some of that stuff goes to waste, maybe, because you didn't end up using it the way you thought you would, so then you're also wasting money.
We also had the added issue of where we live. If we wanted to shop for discounts, we had to drive a significant distance. We're talking like 25 minutes or more just to get to that grocery store as opposed to the grocery store that's right down the street where we could walk to. We would often choose that because we didn't even want to spend your time at the grocery store. That's one of many chores, right? We would justify that in our heads as the added cost is worth it. But really, that stuff adds up so quickly. So when you're more intentional, food can be significant savings.
Where else did you save money on your financial independence journey?
As drastic as those changes are, the big three, housing, cars, and food… they're also the low hanging fruit, right? Because you can really see significant savings and to me, I think that's actually incredibly valuable. Especially if you're early on in your journey. You're getting that instant gratification and you're seeing it work so much faster which can be really rewarding emotionally. But if you see that instant reward, it certainly helps you stay on track and see what you're doing it for.
We didn't just focus on the big three. We looked at every single piece of our output. And we found things: there was like a subscription that we had kind of forgotten about, like $15 a month or something. Just low enough that it wasn't on the radar. But at the same time, it's tragic to see that $15 a month just heading out the door doing nothing.
It's almost like 4 buckets:
- Everything else
So we looked at everything else and said: how do we do this? And another great hack, in my opinion, was this: I suddenly had a pretty big urge to sort of purge a lot and try to get rid of a lot of the excess. I spent a good two weeks going through all of our stuff, finding out what was valuable to us and what was valuable and creating a pile of stuff we were ready to sell. These days, it's easier to sell than it's ever been, right? Not only do we have Craigslist, of course, but honestly, Facebook Marketplace is crushing it. It's amazing. You get to vet the person a little bit easier. It's not this creepy, shady corner.
Quality shots – that's also a tip I have. Almost everyone has a phone in their pocket that's incredible but just consider lighting. Maybe just look up how to take a good photo on Google. You'll find some good tips and take some good shots of those things you want to sell. I ended up with around $2,000 in cash for our move – that was really, really helpful as well.
Where are you with your savings rate today?
We're hovering around 50%.
Every once in a while, we'll dip down a little bit but 50% is really our sweet spot. And it works for us on so many levels. Maintaining a 50% savings rate at the rate that we're going right now is going to allow for our financial independence journey to be about the length that we want.
We are well on our way right now and we're very happy about it. 50% feels really feels natural, it's kind of like the systems are already implemented. We don't have to try that hard to maintain that. When it fluctuates, it's because maybe we have gone on a vacation that we didn't plan as well as we should have or we have multiple friends coming to town and we're kind of like, all right, we'll let this one slide.
That's the interesting thing, I think. It's a marathon. It's not a sprint. Like we sprinted and we got it to that place where 50% was comfortable. We got smart with our money in a way I didn't think I was capable. That stuff's been just really enriching for our lives. But it's not like we don't have our struggles. And they can be daily, weekly, monthly, whatever they are. We still have to keep an eye on it. It's kind of easy to fall back into that lazy trap and I think the automated part, actually, can almost facilitate the messiness sometimes.
We had been struggling with the part of throwing a budget party to sit down and talk over things. Sometimes, I didn't want to, you know? Ah, I'm tired. I'd rather do this or this. But by attaching pizza which is by far in a way, my favorite thing on Earth, next to my daughter and my wife and maybe throw in a movie in there, all of the sudden it was like I was looking forward to it.
Inevitably, it ended up feeling so much better after the budget session that you're like why do I hesitate? Why do I avoid this? I still don't know why. I mean, I think have an idea. It's like our relationship with money was broken for so long that it just still doesn't feel natural.
What is your financial independence goal that keeps you going?
That's a great question. I actually feel really blessed on this front because I found so much purpose in this work that the retire early part is just not important to me. It still is to Taylor since she's still interested in having that flexibility. I don't know if she's going to completely retire but she's really interested in being able to control her schedule a little bit more.
Related interview: How a Bad Day at Work Inspired Our Family’s Financial Independence Plan
It's one of those things where she gets to dial that up or down. And so that can be daunting sometimes because when you have to make that decision and it's like, ‘Do I spend time with my daughter or do I work hard on this thing?'. That's still something we're figuring out but for the most part, I would say it's like we're living that FI lifestyle. We don't feel that stressor on money like we used to and that's such a gift, that feeling of freedom.
Even though it's a bit of a façade. We have not hit FI. We have not hit financial independence. I don't see that date or that goal as that thing that I have to get to superfast. So right now, what I'm working on is trying to balance my life. It's a little bit difficult right now being on the road, doing this whole screening tour with the movie and trying to get it ready to hit the masses. That's been a daunting task and it's been a lot of fun but it's been a lot of work.
Once I get a little more normalcy in my life, I want to find that balance where I'm giving myself some time to hang out with my friends. Where I'm giving myself time with Taylor and Jovi in appropriate ways where maybe it's a date night with Taylor and maybe it's a family day and maybe it's just a little date night with Jovi. And then getting out and really enjoying the outdoors, doing some fishing, and some mountain biking, things like that that we have in abundance around us. I want to be able to really get to know my area and my community.
That's the other thing, facilitating community has been really, really important to us. That's the one thing we have done really well since we moved. It's much easier to facilitate community there than it was in San Diego because it's a smaller town, it's easier to get around. If there's an event going on, it's usually one event so everybody's kind of already going there. So it's easier to get together as opposed to when in San Diego where there's always 10 amazing things to do. We've designed our life to facilitate that so that's what we're working on is … balance.
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Carpe Diem Quote
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.”