Debbie Emick recalls the moment that changed her outlook on money forever.
In 2014, shortly after she and her husband Chris gave birth to their second daughter, Debbie received bad news: the symptoms of a chronic illness discovered in 2012 were worsening. Nonetheless, she was determined to pursue her career as an elementary school teacher and continue to earn an income to help support her young family.
That is until a colleague asked if Debbie would be attending a professional development opportunity over the weekend. Debbie hesitated.
If it was a question of money, Debbie’s colleague assured him, don’t worry, there would be an allowance.
“I remember that little click,” Debbie said. “And I think I told him out loud that I don’t need more money. I need more time.”
Debbie quit her job later in 2014, and the Emicks, who had planned to retire in their mid-60s, began to refocus their financial priorities. “I was just beginning to realize that I was working towards a retirement that I may never enjoy,” says Debbie.
The couple, who live in Rocky Ford, Colorado, have cut spending, increased their savings and started investing heavily in real estate. By 2019, they were earning enough from their properties that Chris could also quit his job as a network engineer.
In the four years from 2016 to 2019, the couple acquired 19 rental units. When they retired in 2019, each aged 40, annual rental income from their properties was $45,000. These days, between a mix of investments, savings and real estate, Debbie and Chris, now 43, boast a net worth of around $1.5 million.
A first focus on savings: “I just wanted to have enough money to pay the bills”
Saving and budgeting came naturally to the Emicks, who credit their early family life with instilling healthy money values.
Debbie grew up around farms and ranches in the “middle of nowhere”, before her parents divorced and she was forced to move around a lot. “There was some financial insecurity that shaped my behaviors and values around money,” she says.
This usually meant focusing on the here and now rather than saving for distant financial goals. “I just wanted to have enough money to pay my bills,” she says.
When Debbie graduated from college and earned a salary of $24,000, she focused on paying off student loans and car payments. She hoped she would have enough left over to cover repairs if her Chevy Malibu broke down.
Chris, meanwhile, has always been determined to be a millionaire. Also a farm boy, Chris grew up with his grandparents, who he says instilled some Depression-era savings habits. “I was always preparing for an emergency or worst-case scenario,” he says.
At 21, he read “The Millionaire Next Door” and realized that a life of diligent savings could put him on the path to financial prosperity. “I just got the idea in my head that there’s no way someone with a million dollars could be in trouble.”
Increase savings: “We took seriously the fact of having a real budget”
By the time Debbie decided to quit her job, the couple had paid off all their debts except for their mortgage. After 18 years in the computer industry, Chris was earning just over a six-figure salary.
Yet, with the family on the verge of losing Debbie’s $32,000 salary, plus the pension she would have received after 20 years of teaching, Chris and Debbie were forced to re-examine their finances. “That’s when we decided to have a real budget,” says Debbie.
Chris expected to make big changes to his lifestyle, but found that saving more money just meant being more intentional about his spending. He remembers a few cuts in addition to giving up the take-out breakfast and lunch he usually had at work.
The couple found their values revolved around travel, family and good healthy food, Chris says, which allowed them to rule out many potential expenses like new clothes, jewelry and makeup that ” would not change our happiness indicator”.
On a monthly basis, the Emicks were taking 50% to 60% of Chris’ salary, they said.
Buying rental properties: ‘Pretty fast and furious’
Despite the cuts, the Emicks weren’t comfortable with just one source of income. Chris feared losing his job would put the family in dire straits, he says.
They decided to test owning real estate and purchased two rental properties in 2016 for a combined down payment of $60,000. They took the money out of the $90,000 they had in savings.
In the beginning, owning was hard work. The properties they bought “had a bit of an ugly duckling quality,” Debbie says. The couple spent nights and weekends renovating them to prepare for tenants.
The work paid off. The rent collected from the tenants of the first two properties far exceeded the mortgage payments on the house and allowed Chris and Debbie to imagine things on a grander scale: rental properties, they realized, could be the main way for the family to earn money, rather than supplementing Chris’ salary.
“We both thought, ‘What if you want to quit your job one day? What if this isn’t how we want things to be forever?'” Debbie says. “That thought easily turned into, ‘How can we use our money to save time?'”
The Emicks invested all of the monthly savings, along with the profits they earned from tenants, into buying more real estate. Between 2016 and 2019, the couple purchased 19 units across 17 properties in Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee.
“That was really the trajectory. So it’s been four pretty fast and furious years of doing that,” Chris says.
Take advantage of the flexibility of early retirement
Although they quit their day jobs, the Emicks are still very busy. Together, they manage their investment properties, which today provide income — net of taxes, insurance and other expenses — of $4,000 to $6,000 a month.
Debbie spends one month a year selling a specialized type of drought insurance for ranchers, which brings in about $23,000 in commissions a year.
For the Emicks, retiring isn’t so much about not working as it is about reversing the traditional work-life balance.
“Instead of having a job where I would work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, I would now say I probably work four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off,” Chris explains.
The couple continues to save and invest. They spend between $2,500 and $3,000 a month and lately invest the rest in a combination of retirement and investment accounts, a health savings account and various cash accounts. In total, they have about $740,000 in reserve.
They were also able to pursue passions. Debbie wrote a book and took up surfing. And together, Debbie and Chris launched “Go Bucket Yourself”, an online community for young retirees, which organizes events and retreats planned by the couple.
As for what’s next, “we really appreciate that freedom to connect, to travel, and to explore,” says Chris.
And as to the genesis of it all, Debbie says her health has improved dramatically since the decision to leave her at 9-5.
“I don’t know what the percentage would be, but dramatically since I quit my job,” she says. “Both because I don’t have this daily stress, but also because it left me time and energy to work on myself. [not only] physically, but also mentally and emotionally.”
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