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How This California Couple Retired In Their 40s Using FIRE

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How This California Couple Retired In Their 40s Using FIRE

Amon and Christina Browning amassed over $2 million in just eight years. They’re 40 and 42, have two kids and saved a chunk of their cash by hustling side income.

Those factors, plus a little creativity, were the kindling for their FIRE ingredients to crackle to life.

FIRE Up

Amon and Christina are part of the FIRE movement, though they started saving aggressively before they really even knew what FIRE was.

“People still don’t really understand how you live off your portfolio in FIRE,” says Amon.

The FIRE trend involves saving aggressively — approximately 50% to 75% of yearly income — and retiring once you’ve saved 25 to 40 times your annual expenses.

The Brownings credit a can-do mindset, an $800 car, side hustles and teaching themselves financial literacy so they could dub themselves what Amon calls “the cubicle millionaires next door.” They now live in Portugal and embrace a freer lifestyle. It involves plenty of walks, beach time, learning Portuguese and watching their two girls grow up.

“Just the other day, our youngest daughter wanted to have all her friends over from school during lunchtime. For us, that’s over three hours of prep time and getting all the kids lunch. That's something we would never be able to do during a regular workday,” says Christina.

Amon says the couple is "able to really slow down and savor things."

Deciding to Blaze a New Trail — Using FIRE

FIRE, which stands for “Financial Independence, Retire Early,” became popular among millennials during the last decade. 

The Brownings didn’t set out to be mega-savers. In fact, 10 years ago, they saved about 10% of their income each year and went through life like most Americans.

“We were just going to work and coming home. We were just basically in the rat race. We weren't being intentional, we didn't have a plan, we were just kind of going with the flow,” says Amon. 

Amon says the FIRE spark ignited the day he won a service award. He’d been working for the federal government for about 10 years and he and another individual accepted a “thanks for your service” award. The other man had been on the job for 30 or 40 years.

“They just handed the award to me like it was nothing, and that night I went home to Christina and I said, ‘I just can't see myself at work another 30 or 40 years. What would I really have to show for it but a piece of paper?’” says Amon. “I liked my job and I liked the people. I just felt like I was missing out on life.”

Recipe To Burn: The Ingredients For FIRE 

Christina says she experienced mixed emotions when Amon told her he wanted to tackle financial independence: she was surprised and also loved the idea.

“So I think one of the reasons why we were so successful in getting started reaching financial independence is because we worked together on trying to figure out how we could do it. The reaction was like, ‘OK, what do we need to do to get this done? How do we work together and make this happen?’” she says. 

The first thing the Brownings did was become more intentional about how they tracked and spent their money, says Amon. 

Next, they focused on making more money, using their creative side to come up with side hustles that could generate income to invest in real estate or their investment portfolio.

“There's only so much we could make each year based off of our salary alone,” says Christina.

The side hustles weren’t the usual waitering jobs.

In the Bay Area, they did cosmetic touch-ups on homes and flipped them into attractive AirBnBs by doing the following:

  • Trolling the as-is section in IKEA, picking up items on significant markdown and reselling them on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
  • Repurposing wood pallets into furniture. “We could take a pallet that was just literally laying on the side of the road, take it home, fix it up and make $200 just from a free pallet,” says Amon.
  • Taking advantage of Uber Technologies Inc's (NYSE: UBER) early days. Uber jockeyed for market share in San Francisco and originally paid an incredible amount for people to sign up as drivers.
  • The rideshare titan paid people to leave their app on, whether they actually picked people up or not. Christina, who has a law degree, says she was readying to take the bar during that time.
  • “I would just stay at home, and I’d have my Uber app on to pick up anyone that needed a ride. No one ever called, and just by keeping my phone app on, we got paid tons of money just for that and we both did it at the same time,” she says. 

How to Do FIRE Step-By-Step 

The Brownings say anyone at any age can do FIRE, and here are their tips:

  • Develop a can-do mindset. Amon says that if Christina had said, “No way, that's impossible,” the Brownings would not have been able to hit their FIRE number.
  • Put together a financial independence plan. This includes calculating your financial independence number. 
  • Pay yourself first. The Brownings developed a pay-yourself-first mentality and incorporated it into their budget. They took money automatically from the front end of their paychecks and deposited it into their investments. Their spending cash was whatever they had left over. 
  • Avoid debt. The Brownings tried not to amass any debt at all. They paid for their degrees, including graduate degrees, using a combination of cash and scholarships and also took advantage of tuition reimbursement at Amon’s job for his master’s degree. They moved into a smaller house in California and even drove an $800 car.
  • Ignore the naysayers. The Brownings say they’ve encountered plenty of people who have said, “How is that even possible?” and “You’re gonna run out of money.” 
  • The two focus on positivity, Christina says. 

"And so if people aren’t really agreeable to the process that we’re going through and don’t really want to hear how we’re going through it but just want to be negative, then we don’t surround ourselves with people like that."

She suggests surrounding yourself with positive people that encourage you throughout the process.

  • Brainstorm side hustles and become financially literate. The Brownings taught themselves to manage their own money, and they prefer to do so instead of having someone else do it for them. This saves on fees that would go toward a money manager. 
  • Live off of 4% of your income. For example, if you save $1 million, you’d take out about $40,000 a year, increasing that amount each year only to combat inflation.

The Flaming Question: “How Much Do I Need to Retire?” 

The Brownings say they’re asked this question all the time: “so, how do you get to your magical FIRE number?”

They say it’s easy to calculate, even if it’s not as simple to put it into action:

  • First, calculate your anticipated expenses during retirement.
  • Multiply your yearly retirement expenses by 25 to find your FIRE number.
  • Draw 4% from your investment portfolio to live off of for the rest of your life.
  • Investing in real estate is even simpler, according to the Brownings. You still multiply your annual expenses by 25, but include the income you generate from real estate.

Fueling The Future

The Brownings’ message has spread like wildfire. They have their own website and YouTube channel and live life with an eye toward financial independence for their kids too. In short, their money works for them instead of the other way around.

The Brownings say it’s never too late to tackle your FIRE number. You can start FIRE at 40 and retire at 50, or you can start at 50 and retire at 60, says Christina.

“When you look at the time horizon that people are living now, they're living into their 80s and 90s — and I don't think it's ever too late,” she says.

 

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