Behind The Headlines: My Experience Working With The New York Times

On August 7, 2023, I received an email from Amy X. Wang, the assistant editor at the New York Times Magazine, inquiring about the modern-day FIRE movement and its Fat FIRE offshoot. Amy is a self-proclaimed FIRE enthusiast who has worked side hustles to earn extra money and utilized rewards points to save.

As one of the pioneers of the modern-day FIRE movement since launching Financial Samurai in 2009, I was eager to share my insights with Amy. My goal is to help as many people as possible achieve financial security so they can lead better lives. During our ~40-minute phone conversation, we discussed various aspects of financial independence, including why I decided to retire at 34 and why I’m considering returning to work.

However, as with many interviews, I understood that not all stories make it to print, and there's no guarantee of being quoted or mentioned. Thus, I considered it a routine part of my day and forgot all about it after a couple of weeks.

Then on April 13, 2024, I received a follow-up email from Amy, reminding me of our conversation and proposing a “day in the life” photoshoot of individuals who achieved FIRE in San Francisco. I was both surprised and impressed by the dedication of Amy and her team, realizing they had been working on the story for at least eight months.

During this period, Amy spent hours meeting and conversing with FIRE enthusiasts from diverse backgrounds across the country to craft her story. I was particularly impressed by the breadth of her subjects.

Even though roughly half of the U.S. population lives in expensive coastal cities and is quite diverse, much of the FIRE coverage by the media has mainly been about people from the majority living in lower-cost areas of the country. It’s nice to no longer be ignored.

Sending In A Photographer

Given I've been writing for so long, speaking to journalists isn't unusual anymore. However, for this piece, I got to work up close and personal with one of the New York Time's freelance employees.

The New York Times sent photographer Maggie Shannon, a celebrated photographer with over a decade of experience at the New York Times. She has captured images of celebrities like Conan O'Brian, Paul Rudd, and Kristin Wiig.

When Amy, the editor inquired about my availability to get photographed, my initial reaction wasn't enthusiasm, but rather a thought about the time and expense involved in photographing me. As a personal finance enthusiast who values frugality, I suggested sending her a photo instead. Easy peasy!

Despite my reservations, Amy and Kristen Geisler, the photo editor, urged me to be photographed, so I acquiesced. If they wanted to spend the money and time to photograph a regular nobody, then so be it. It might be a fun experience to share with the kiddos.

Maggie and I then made plans for the weekend.

Realizing What It Takes To Get That One Shot

After much coordination, I met Maggie, and her partner Roy, outside my daughter's ballet studio at 9:08 am on a Saturday. They had driven 5.5 hours from Los Angeles that morning. We exchanged pleasantries and discussed the day's photo game plan.

Weekend time is precious time with our children, especially our son, who is in school full-time. As a result, I wasn't willing to spend hours inside my house getting photographed as previously suggested. Instead, I wanted to keep our current plans with our children, which was as followed.

A Day In The Life Of A FIRE Parent: Saturday, April 20

9:08 am: Drop off daughter at dance studio to say hello to Maggie and Roy.

10 am: Meet me and my daughter outside the dance studio.

11 am: Meet me, my son, and my daughter at Acrosports, a movement studio.

12 noon: Walk across the street with us to Kezar Stadium, where we often go to runaround and race. My wife meets us with onigiri, a Japanese snack.

12:45 pm: Follow us to Blue Heron Lake in Golden Gate Park to go on a nature walk.

2 pm: Follow us to an open house for sale in Forest Hill on the West Side of San Francisco, which I think is the most promising area to buy real estate now due to significant local economic catalysts.

3 pm: Wrap things up and plan for tomorrow.

Approximately 500 photos were taken. Roughly 200 were sent to Kristen, the photo editor for the New York Times Magazine.

A Day In The Life Of A Fire Parent: Sunday, April 21

7 am – 8:45 am: Meet me at Carl Larsen Park where I play pickleball with a regular group of 4.0 – 4.5 players. This was an interesting session because none of us 12 players have ever had flashes go off while we battled. It was also a little awkward bringing my online world into my offline world.

5:30 pm – 6:45 pm: Meet at my retreat, an empty portion of a rental property where I go to write and relax. This was my compromise instead of spending hours photographing us at our house. Figuring out how to keep the kids entertained was our biggest challenge.

Approximately 200 photos were taken. I'm uncertain how many Maggie sent to Kristen. Maybe 50.

After their long weekend in San Francisco, Roy and Maggie drove 5.5 hours back to Los Angeles that Sunday evening. That must have been exhausting!

Despite the extensive effort and expense, after ~250 photos were submitted, only one photograph was selected. This was always going to be the case, as guided to me in the beginning. But it reminded me of the harrowing prospects of getting into an elite university or landing a highly coveted job.

Tremendous Effort Must Be Made To Get To The top

Creating a New York Times Magazine article demands an immense amount of effort: dozens of hours of interviews and thousands of dollars in expenses. Competing publications, like The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, must invest similar time and resources to stay competitive.

Until this experience, I didn't fully comprehend how much was required to produce a magazine article. In the past, I sometimes joked with my father, who serves as my part-time editor, when he meticulously spent hours editing my work: “Hey dad! Take it easy. This isn't the New York Times, OK?!”

But now I understand the dedication needed to excel in online storytelling. As an under-resourced and constantly tired stay-at-home dad, I'm unable to go to such lengths, but I'm inspired nonetheless. Despite my limitations, the democratization of the web has allowed me to carve out my little personal finance niche.

How Much Are You Willing To Work To Get To The Top?

From a photographer's standpoint, Maggie Shannon has attained the pinnacle of her profession. However, anyone who assumes Maggie's success came mostly from luck would be mistaken, as I discovered during the weekend I spent with her.

Maggie was willing to rise early, enduring brisk 50-degree weather for nearly two hours to capture the perfect shot of me playing pickleball, despite knowing the slim chance her editor would select the photo.

Throughout our five hours together that Saturday, she only took one bathroom break on my suggestion, even though she was eight months pregnant. She persisted until she felt she had captured the essence she sought.

Maggie's professionalism never made me or my family uncomfortable; instead, she allowed us to act naturally. And when she felt a picture's lighting was not quite right, she'd ask Roy to adjust the lighting and try again. I'm sure Maggie made the photo editor's job hard, which is a good thing.

To achieve FIRE, sacrifices must be made! But once you get there, you will realize the sacrifices really weren’t that big of a deal at all given freedom is priceless.

The NY Times Article On Financial Independence Retirement Early

As a subscriber to The New York Times, you can access my gift article, Your Neighbors Are Retiring In Their 30s. Why Can't You? without hitting a paywall. At the bottom, you'll find the one photo Maggie took of me and my children that made the cut. How entertaining are the other pictures she took? I appreciate the publication for respecting the privacy of my children.

I found the main character's story to be both poignant and inspiring. It serves as a reminder to me that the origins of FIRE often stem from a place of discontent. This discontent can arise from various sources, such as having a difficult boss or experiencing a tragic upbringing, as is the case with the main character, Allen Wong.

The hope is that once you accumulate enough wealth, you can leave behind those things that cause you suffering. Perhaps by purchasing a $250,000 Lamborghini and a nice house as a single individual near Disney World, Allen could alleviate some of the trauma he experienced with his parents.

For me, a realization dawned during my first week of work at 5:30 am on the 49th floor of One New York Plaza. Sitting under bright fluorescent lights while outside was still dark, I knew I wouldn't be able to endure a career in finance until traditional retirement age. I could also only take so much yelling from my English manager.

While I was highly appreciative of the opportunity to work at a top investment bank, I also immediately began planning for my exit by age 40. FIRE enabled me to leave behind a stressful job that didn't provide much meaning after 13 years. It also helped us become parents and gave me more joy as a writer.

The World Is An Ultra-Competitive Place

Recognize that what appears effortless in the final product often conceals hours, weeks, or even years of hard work behind the scenes.

Take, for instance, my second book with Portfolio Penguin, which took two years to write and edit. After that, it undergoes at least five rounds of polishing by my publisher's team before it's ready for the market. Following publication, I spend an additional 3-6 months marketing the book through podcasts, TV appearances, and online channels.

The sheer effort required to publish a traditional book is immense, which is why I now read many books. I've developed a deep appreciation for the process.

Even hobbies carry various levels of intense focus if you want to climb to the top.

Recently, I took my wife to the pickleball courts for a post-lunch game. As we played, we encountered another parent from our school who had been there since 9 am drilling with friends. It's no wonder they're such skilled players.

Good luck any fair-weather player who takes them on for a pick-up game!

Underneath The Iceberg Is Massive

Underestimating the effort involved in achieving something can lead to frustration when attempting it yourself. Perfecting a pickleball dink requires hours of practice, just as capturing the perfect moment in a photograph demands hundreds of shots. And even then, mistakes are inevitable, and criticism is bound to arise.

Please appreciate the efforts of others, especially creatives who consistently put themselves out there.

It may not be popular to say, but expecting to get ahead while working only 40 hours a week or less is unrealistic. When equally talented individuals are putting in 60-80 hours a week, the odds of success are slim.

Realizing how hard people work to attain success is why I worry for my children. If someone isn't outworking you in your city, there's undoubtedly someone else in another part of the world who is.

One of my core responsibilities as a parent is to somehow teach my children grit. They need it in order to survive the future.

In some ways, I sometimes wish I were ignorant of the effort required to succeed. As they say, ignorance is bliss! And I often long for that bliss.

Give your all to whatever endeavor you pursue. Even if you fall short, you will at least experience satisfaction knowing you have it your best.

Finally, if you ever get an odd opportunity that makes you feel comfortable, go ahead and take it. You never know what might come of it!

Reader Questions

Are you aware of how much effort (and luck) it takes to get to the top? If so, does that make you feel motivated or defeated? How much do you think luck plays a part in success, however you define it? What did you think of The NY Times article on FIRE? Congrats Maggie for giving birth to your daughter!

Pick up a copy of How To Engineer Your Layoff, my bestselling severance negotiation book that helps you break free from a job you dislike. If you're planning on retiring early or pursuing a new endeavor, it's worth trying to negotiate a severance. There is no downside. Receiving a severance package was my #1 catalyst to break free from finance and change my life for the better. Use the code “saveten” to save $10 at checkout.

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36 thoughts on “Behind The Headlines: My Experience Working With The New York Times”

  1. I’m really glad Amy profiled a variety of people as well, instead of just white people, living in the Midwest or Colorado.

    Not sure why Gwen Mertz is highlighted in an article about Fat FIRE. She is a working woman in IT and has a net worth of only $400,000. Using a 4% withdrawal rate, that’s only $16,000 a year. That is a poverty income and she and other FIRE people are so cliquey.

    It’s so much easier to get ahead if you are part of the majority, it’s comical.

  2. Sam, I just Love, Love, Love the photo with you and your kids!! And your daughter, how adorable! This will be one of my feel-good images for a long time. Good for you and the photo editor to not show their faces. Great article. I’ve been following your journey since 10/28/2015 (yeah, I was shocked too!) and have learned a lot in the process. Thanks much and keep up the great work.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing the NYT article. I discovered some new resources and shared feelings. The end of your W-2 is a big life change not to underestimated.

  4. It is amazing they would put that much effort into getting one photo. I would imagine they’d do a one hour photo session say and pick one photo. I’ve been on news TV in Australia (live and not) for example and it doesn’t take a lot of time….

  5. That sure was a nice picture of you and the kiddos. The NYT reader comments are very interesting too.

    1. Thank you. The common section is very lively, especially for a headline that pokes.

      I enjoyed answering some of the follow up questions regarding healthcare insurance, and the difference between fire fire and being rich.

  6. Sam thank you for the link to article and congratulations. I still have the first (2006?) to third edition (2007) of “The Adventure’s Guide to early Retirement by Billy and Akaisha Kaderli on CD. I also enjoyed the PDF down loads of this guide and bought many CDs and downloads for friends considering retirement at power company. The information provided by Billy and Akaisha focused my retirement goals and spreadsheet work. Now every Tuesday I still get an email from the first FIRE couple. We retired at 62 and 59 in 2015 after years of providing services. We leave for Waikoloa Beach Big Island Hawaii this week to enjoy 3 months of scuba, farmer markets and fun. Keep SMiling Steve

  7. Paper Tiger

    I think the old adage, “the harder you work, the luckier you get” is something that has played out in my life and career. But, I would also say that “risk” has been more of an enabler to my success than luck. Playing it safe has never led to the same out-sized performance on any level than what taking a calculated risk has done. Not everything I’ve tried has worked out, but the biggest gains I have realized, both in life and in finances, have come from stepping away from my comfort zone and taking a chance. Whether it was choosing my spouse, or taking a new job opportunity, or stopping what I was doing and starting over with something completely new, all of these challenged my conventional wisdom, but each delivered results beyond my expectations.

  8. Like your article on The NY Times piece. As someone who is a bit older I’m glade to see that there is still a recognition of the work ethic. I believe it is the most important part of success. If you are engaged, not everything you do will work out. What does happen is you become educated throughout the process to increase your odds of succeeding and finding things that do work. Or shall we say increasing your luck.
    In todays global economy you are not just competing with workers here in this country but also with the other 7 billion people across the globe.
    I also agree with you that it is important to become very good at some aspect of your life, being a great parent, being great at your occupation, a sport, etc. As you succeed in one area of your life it’s amazing how the other things in your life go along for the ride.

    I am retiring at the end of this year, and was not part of the fire movement, I think back now and look at the time that I could have used in other ways had I been in a position to retire early. I’m not complaining, I will use the time I have left to have a successful retirement and relationships.

    1. Hi Don, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m excited for your retirement journey. How old are you?

      I would check out this post on the negatives of retirement. Nobody really talks about just to help you prepare a little bit.

      https://www.financialsamurai.com/the-negatives-of-early-retirement-life-nobody-likes-to-talks-about/

      Really try to emphasize community and hobbies. They will help you adjust to the trough of sorrow and enjoy post-work life better!

      1. Thank you !!

        And Cool I will check out the post you recommended

        I’ll be 67 when I retire on 12/31/24 !!

  9. Great insights! Thanks for sharing as I was sick of reading profiles of white people from the Midwest and Colorado FIREing. They all seem so boring.

    Featuring Gwen Merz, a 34 year old working in IT currently, is one such example. The article is on FIRE, not a worker from St Louis who goes to FIRE meetups where there’s zero diversity. She and others are part of a clique, or maybe even a cult. It’s obvious they are very exclusionary.

    1. I’ve seen her on FB and other places and she’s a hater and lost. I think the New York Times wanted to feature her because she is a FIRE failure, to put it bluntly.

      She has written in the past how she burned out trying to save so much. She also writes a lot about her break ups in TMI fashion. Her old Podcast Co-host is making millions now, so she’s pretty bitter too. Her story is interesting because she seems so lost.

    2. The online FIRE community can definitely be cliquey, like high school sometimes. Like HS there is insecurity and a need for validation, which can include ostracism. But that’s generally been observed by younger, single, and/or younger enthusiasts still on their path.

      I’m excited about hearing new voices, which helps with new voices from the media writing about the topic.

      It’s natural to just promote people and hang out with people who look like themselves. But our country and the world is quite diverse. It would be a shame not to hear different voices.

    3. I see her negative and spiteful comments on Facebook too who are different from MMM. She worships MMM and the other white bloggers. But it’s no surprise given she lives in the Midwest. Very insecure woman.

    4. Lindsey, it seems you haven’t gotten the memo: The era of casual racism against white people is now coming to an end. If you’re unclear where the line is, swap a different race into the sentence. If it sounds racist…that’s your answer.

      Sam, thanks for the look behind the scenes. Very interesting!

  10. Wouldn’t it be more useful to demonstrate to your children that sometimes accomodating other people’s schedules is more fruitful for your ends? Seems so here.

    1. Financial Samurai

      Maybe! Feel free to elaborate with an example for clarification. Like driving down to LA for the photoshoot? We’re not great at travel. We also can’t change the class schedules as there are other students, and the pickleball session had 12 participants. I’d feel bad making them change.

      1. Sorry, perhaps was offput by perceived regimentation of schedules. Loved pic of you wishboning you son while daughter hides in horror.

        1. Gotcha. Are you a pretty fly by your pants kind of guy? With young children, I’ve found having a schedule / a routine has been helpful to manage their energy and sleep. Have you found out to be different with your children, if you have any?

          I’m intrigued the weekend schedule was your biggest takeaway from this post. I’d love to learn more about you and why. Cheers

  11. Fantastic picture of you and your children. I hope that you’ll cherish this picture for decades to come. How lucky are you to have a professional photographer to take such a lively, playful picture.

    The people who FIREd sounds like my parents who retired at age 65 but still work part-time. They really don’t need the money. The work gave them a chance to learn new things and be a part of a community. Another retired couple I met travelled around the world after retirement for 2-3 years and felt the novelty of travelling wore off.

    Having a low-pressure, fulfilling job when you are younger that doesn’t make a lot of money does not sound like a totally bad deal at all.

    1. Thanks! I’m looking forward to seeing some of Maggie’s favorite pics once the embargo is over.

      There are so many ways to go about living life. I think we’ve just got to make the most of whatever opportunities we have. If I didn’t work in finance, my life would’ve been easier for the first 30 years. But maybe I wouldn’t have been able to retire early as a result.

      There are always trade-offs. And having some camaraderie, especially once the kids go to school full-time, there’s some thing that I would like. Maybe I’ll just find it in Pickleball, tennis, and the author community in SF.

  12. Very interesting! Congratulations!

    The article hints at a difficult issue. I know that many non-FIRE people think that their counterparts are obsessed with money in an unhealthy way. But I wonder if the opposite is true.

    When you realize that as many as two thirds of the population live paycheck to paycheck, it is really distressing. All that stress and uncertainty is really unhealthy for people forced to live without a backup plan.

    I retired early and volunteer with a non profit that helps to prevent homelessness. Financial ignorance is expensive and stressful—and I see it every day.

    That is why FS and the FIRE movement are so vital. Even if readers do not retire early, their financial education from exposure to the subject is critical for their well being.

    And I think that pointing out how much effort and work goes into FIRE is a welcome reminder that it just is not easy. That is right on the mark.

    The only thing that is (arguably) harder is living paycheck to paycheck.

    1. That’s great you volunteer at a nonprofit to help prevent homelessness.

      Yes, even if someone doesn’t fire, I think they will be far better off than the average person who does not read listen or watch personal finance topics.

      If you become a personal finance enthusiast, you can’t help but want to learn as much as possible about your finances, optimize your finances, and keep track of your wealth.

      It just feels wonderful to see people doing it out there to give yourself inspiration to also try! There’s also something for everybody out there. You just have to find your community.

  13. Fascinating insights. It’s about time there was more representation by media about the FIRE community.

    I’m not down with living off less than $30,000 a year, not buying a nice house or car, living in a homogenous city just because it’s cheaper, and then get in fights with my wife for being overly frugal! Lol

    The guy with the Lambo needs some love. He seems kind of lonely, especially with all that money.

    1. Yes, different strokes for different folks. I can’t live that frugally either, nor do I want to. But more power to those that do.

      Wanting less is huge! I just want to raise my family and the city like San Francisco, or Honolulu. As a result, I must pay the price and figure out how to make it happen. No complaining!

  14. Congrats on your New York Times feature. What fascinating insights! Maggie is such an incredible photographer. I’ve seen her photos of Paul Rudd and other documentary stories she’s covered. She has a great eye and such a unique way of capturing moments in her photos.

    The NYT article was very eye opening too. I was also glad Amy featured many different voices. It just goes to show how diverse of a movement FIRE really is.

    1. It is a fun picture. I am mediately chuckled. Because I had no idea what they would select. All I asked, was them to hide my children’s faces and protect their privacy. I want to let them decide whether they want to be on the Internet or not.

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