The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir (WN): Amon and Christina, your story is so amazing. I cannot wait for you to share it with our readers. But first, can you tell our readers a little more about yourselves?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We’re former government employees from the San Francisco Bay Area. We have two young girls (ages 13 and 11). We have been pursuing FIRE (financial independence, retire early) for the past eight years. The concept of FIRE is fairly new, but it’s basically defined as having enough income to pay for your living expenses for the rest of your life without ever having to work again. In order to achieve FIRE, we focused on saving money, making money and investing money. We ultimately reached financial independence and retired early (at 41 and 39 years of age) in August 2019. We are now retired and live in Lisbon, Portugal.
We have a Youtube channel with more than 140,000 subscribers and over 6 million views. On our channel, we share ways to make, save and invest money on the FIRE journey. We recently created a FIRE Workbook, which serves as a step-by-step guide for teaching people how to achieve financial independence and retire early. Our workbook can be found on our website. We also document our journey on Instagram.
WN: I bet being retired and living in Portugal must be nice. We are definitely going to talk about that more, but first, what inspired you to pursue FIRE?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We began pursuing FIRE because we were becoming mentally and physically exhausted working our 9-5 jobs. We went from living in Los Angeles, to living in the San Francisco Bay Area, to living in Japan. While working, we got to the point where it seemed like our weekdays revolved around working and commuting to and from work. We felt like we were in the constant cycle of the rat race and we wanted to be able to spend more time with our daughters. As a result, our pursuit of FIRE took over.
Fortunately for us, as a couple, we were on the same page when it came to pursuing FIRE. When we decided to pursue FIRE, we began becoming more intentional with our money. We began saving 70% of our income, we started side hustles to make more money, we found ways to live rent and mortgage free, we used travel rewards to get free vacations, and we made a conscious decision to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses – which meant trading in our brand new BMW X5 for a used $800 minivan.
WN: It’s really important for a couple to be on the same page, but your willingness to trade in a new car for a minivan, that’s dedication to the cause. So, I understand real estate investing helped you accomplish FIRE. Can you share how you first got started in real estate investing?
Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We invested in our very first piece of real estate shortly after we graduated from college. We were living in San Diego in 2000 and the real estate market was very hot. Right out of college, Amon began working as a federal employee but I only had a part-time job. Because of this, we really weren’t making a lot of money and we definitely weren’t saving a lot of money. Because we didn’t have enough money to put down on a house, we invested in a lease option on a condo. We ultimately sold the lease option for a good profit, which allowed us to purchase our first condo. We lived in that condo for about a year. We then rented the condo out because we moved abroad to Spain. We got a good deal of rental income from the property, but then ultimately sold the condo while we were living abroad.
Although we first got started in real estate when we lived in San Diego, our most lucrative real estate investments were from three live-in-flips that we did in the San Francisco Bay Area. We focused on purchasing properties that needed work. Instead of hiring contractors to do the work, we worked on the properties ourselves. We lived in the first property, fixed it up, took out the equity from the property, and used it to purchase the next property. We did this with three properties. We ultimately sold all three properties for more than a $400K profit and invested the majority of the profits into the stock market.
WN: It’s great you started investing in real estate early and found a method that was best for your budget and lifestyle. Why did you choose real estate versus investing in the stock market initially? What attracted you to real estate?
Amon Browning of Our Rich Journey: We were initially interested in real estate investing because we liked the idea of being able to transform properties and increase their value through sweat equity. We’re both drawn to projects that allow us to build and create. Investing in real estate properties with a live-in-flip mentality allowed us to do that.
WN: So, after some success with real estate, what inspired you to start documenting your journey on your website and YouTube?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We’re big fans of Youtube and always relied on Youtube to learn new things – from learning how to cook new dishes, to renovating homes, to learning languages, and pretty much everything in between. But, when we started our FIRE journey, there weren’t any Youtube channels that focused on FIRE. At the same time, we were always talking about our FIRE journey with our family and friends. Pretty much anyone who was interested, we shared with them the ways we were making money, saving money and investing money. At one point, our friend mentioned that we should start a Youtube channel – and the rest is history! Now, about a year and a half since starting our channel, we have over 140,000 subscribers and more than 6 million views.
WN: So many people focus on the good news FIRE stories. However, can you share with our readers what was challenging about pursuing FIRE in the beginning?
Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: I think, in general, the FIRE journey can seem daunting at the beginning because the goal is to amass a significant amount of money over a short period of time. This means that you’ve got to constantly think about ways to save and make money – while also ultimately investing the money in a way that produces maximum returns.
For people who aren’t already earning outrageous incomes, the journey can seem challenging. We know – because we’ve been there! We were both government employees. At one point on our journey, however, we were a single income household. I was unemployed and in law school, while Amon was working. Because we were a family of four on one government salary income, we were challenged to think creatively about making money and saving money. Ultimately, we discovered ways to live rent and mortgage free and we took on side hustles to grow our income.
The thing about the FIRE movement is that it isn’t without its challenges – but tackling those challenges head-on is well worth it in the end. People will face different challenges along the way – maybe they don’t make enough money; maybe their investments don’t produce the return they expect; maybe they have some other setback. What distinguishes people that achieve FIRE from those that don’t is responding positively to challenges. To achieve FIRE, a person has to first adopt the positive mentality that he/she can achieve financial independence regardless of the challenges that might arise.
WN: Christina, I am glad you raised the point about amassing a huge amount of money. How do you calculate your FIRE number?
Amon Browning of Our Rich Journey: To calculate our FIRE number, we relied on the 4% rule from the Trinity Study. The Trinity Study has been cited time and time again by a number of people in the FIRE movement. But, for people who are unaware of it – It’s a study conducted by Economics professors at Trinity University in Texas. The study looked at various asset mixes in stock and bond investment portfolios and determined safe withdrawal rates for people pulling from their portfolios. The study concluded that people with a heavily weighted stock portfolio, versus a portfolio made up of primarily bonds, would have a strong likelihood of being able to pull 4% from their investment portfolio without running out of money.
Our investment portfolio is heavily weighted in stocks, which is why we used the 4% rule to calculate our FIRE number. In calculating our FIRE number, we first determined our projected expenses in retirement. We then took the annual amount of our projected expenses and multiplied it by 25. This amount was our FIRE number.
One thing to note is that we had multiple locations that we thought about retiring to. We thought about returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area and we also thought about Hawaii, Thailand, Spain and Portugal. San Francisco, obviously, had the highest cost of living. Thailand, on the other hand, had the lowest cost of living. Ultimately, for purposes of calculating our FIRE number, we decided to use our projected retirement expenses based on living in the San Francisco Bay Area. We did this primarily because we wanted to leave open the option of returning back “home” at any point in our retirement.
In other words, by calculating our FIRE number based on the highest cost of living city that we considered, we knew that once we hit that number – we could live at any one of our potential retirement locations. Ultimately, we retired in Portugal. But, because we saved enough to retire in the Bay Area, we always have the option of returning to the Bay Area if we ever feel like it.
WN: It was really smart of you to set a higher FIRE number so you could have flexibility in retirement. What were some of your milestones and how did you celebrate along the way?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: Once we determined our FIRE number, it seemed incredibly large. At the same time, we knew that we could achieve it. In determining our strategy, rather than work towards one massive goal, we decided to break our FIRE journey into ten smaller (seemingly more easily attainable) steps. Our goal then became tackling one step, achieving it, and then tackling the next step until we ultimately reached the tenth and final step.
We tracked our progress along the way and we also celebrated our achievements. Because we used travel rewards to amass enough points to travel the world for free, we celebrated our milestones by traveling. Not only was traveling (for free!) a great way for us to celebrate our milestones, it was also a great opportunity to recharge from work and to remain motivated throughout our journey. While on our FIRE journey, we traveled all around the world. We went to Singapore, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and Hawaii multiple times.
WN: So, what are some ways to achieve FIRE faster? Did side hustles or part-time jobs have any role in your financial success and ability to achieve FIRE sooner?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: Side hustling definitely helped us achieve FIRE sooner. While on the FIRE journey, our goal was to make and save as much money as we could so that we could invest it and allow our money to grow. In other words, we realized that the more money we could save and the more money we could make, the more money we could invest for FIRE. The one thing about saving money, however, is that there is only so much someone can save. The options for making money, on the other hand, seem almost endless.
Because we were government employees, we didn’t have huge salaries – so we had to rely on side hustles to earn extra money. Our big side hustle was renting out properties on AirBnB and flipping real estate. We were able to amass more than $400K in profits from flipping real estate. In the process of flipping properties, we also discovered another side hustle – purchasing and reselling IKEA as-is furniture. We basically just routinely scoured the as-is section at IKEA, looked for heavily discounted items, purchased them, and then marked them up and sold them on Craigslist.
We also became Uber drivers, but we only did this when Uber originally came out. A lot of people may not know this, but when Uber was originally developed in San Francisco, it was fighting with Lyft and taxis for a share of the market. Because of this, Uber wanted to entice drivers to work for them. At the time, Uber was offering drivers $20+ dollars an hour just to leave the Uber app open and to pick up rides when requested. So, we both signed up as drivers, left our apps open, and made $20+ dollars an hour each. The best part was that we never had to do any rides because Uber was so new at the time, that no one was using the app to request rides. In the end, we made more than $25,000 simply by leaving the Uber app open.
WN: OK, let’s change subjects for a bit. On your YouTube channel, your kids are present and included in some of the videos. How did you get them to embrace saving and investing vs. toys, electronics and the latest craze? How did you make FIRE fun for everyone?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We first started off with the understanding that it’s very common and normal for kids to want material things. Commercials constantly promote the newest and latest gadget. Not only that, but it seems that kids at school are constantly showing off their new gadgets, too! It’s like Keeping Up With the Joneses – School Version.
To combat the constant “more is better” commercialism that we see all the time, we decided to take a different approach with our girls. Rather than giving them “more” in the sense of material things, we began giving them more in terms of financial literacy. We encouraged them to start businesses, which they did. Once they began making money from their businesses, we started talking to them more about money and investing.
After discussing the concept of investing with our girls, we ended up opening custodial investment accounts for them. Our girls now take their allowance, the money from their businesses, and their birthday money and invest it into their custodial accounts – which are invested in a total stock market index fund.
Our girls have become so interested and motivated to invest because they see their custodial accounts grow. They see what happens when they put their money to work in the stock market. They understand the power of compound interest. Everyday, our girls are becoming more and more financially literate. They’ve come to embrace saving and investing because they see the power of turning one dollar into two dollars into three dollars and so on.
WN: So, previously you mentioned you lived in Spain and now you live in Portugal. Did you have any anxiety about moving abroad? How did you do it?
Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: We didn’t have any anxiety about moving abroad – mostly because we treated it as an adventure. Amon was born in San Francisco, but he was raised in Nigeria for five years when he was a child. His parents raised him to explore the world and welcome new opportunities. He also studied abroad in Thailand while he was in college, so living abroad wasn’t something entirely foreign to him. For me, right after graduating from college, I moved to Spain and lived there for three months. I had the amazing opportunity to travel throughout Spain and Morocco before moving back to San Diego to live with Amon.
After living in San Diego for about two and a half years, we were presented with the opportunity to move to Spain. We were both 100% on board with the move! We ultimately moved to Spain and then to Japan – where both of our girls were born. In total, we lived in Spain and Japan for almost ten years. Looking back now, we both agree that taking the leap to live and work abroad was one of the best decisions we ever made.
WN: That’s awesome. So, back to investing. What types of investments do you have? How did you get started investing in the market, and what advice do you have for someone getting ready to make their first investment?
Amon and Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: Financial literacy is key to investing. For anyone getting ready to make their first investment, we would recommend that he or she first develop a goal. [It’s important to] understand what the money will be needed for, whether the money should be invested long-term or short-term, how the money will be accessed in the future, etc. Once the goal is developed, an investor needs to develop financial literacy and a clear understanding of what it is that he/she wants to invest in. Finally, the investor needs to develop an investment strategy.
Our investment strategy has always relied on five main principles: 1) understanding our investments and keeping a simplified investment approach; 2) maintaining a diversified portfolio; 3) keeping our investment expenses low; 4) focusing on performance; and 5) minimizing risk.
Based on these five principles, the majority of our portfolio is invested in a total stock market index fund. These types of index funds track the total stock market – so they’re very simple to understand: if the stock market goes up, the value of the index fund goes up; if the stock market goes down, the value of the index fund goes down. In terms of diversification, index funds that track the total stock market create the ultimate diversified portfolio because they can invest in more than 3,000 stocks. At the same time, index funds are not actively managed mutual funds, so the expense ratios tied to index funds are incredibly low – AND – total stock market index funds historically outperform actively managed mutual funds. Finally, by investing in total stock market index funds, versus selecting individual stocks, we’re minimizing our investment risk.
WN: Now that you are retired, how do you spend your days? What’s the most different or most rewarding thing about retiring at this age?
Christina Browning of Our Rich Journey: Our goal in retirement is to focus on doing the things we want to do. When we were working, we dreaded Mondays. We never fully enjoyed our Sundays because we knew we had to get up the next day and drag ourselves to work. Now, in retirement, it’s like everyday is a Saturday – we get to fully enjoy every day!
For example, one of the things we looked forward to the most in early retirement was being able to spend more time with our girls. Now that we’ve retired, we get to walk them to school and pick them up from school everyday. We get to visit them at their school. We get to help them with their school projects. We get to volunteer more with their swim and basketball teams. Most importantly, we’re not tired from working eight-plus hours at the end of the day when we see them.
Spending more time with our girls is the most rewarding thing about retirement at this age. At the same time, our days in early retirement don’t merely revolve around our girls. Amon and I study Portuguese and take language classes, we work out every day, we go to cafes, we meet up with friends, we meet people pursuing FIRE, we go to the library, we explore the city – our days are full of constant movement. In other words – it’s everything we’d hoped it would be, and more.
Acquania Escarne is the creator of The Purpose of Money, a community of women building generational wealth for their families one dollar at a time. As an entrepreneur, real estate investor, and licensed insurance agent, Acquania has always been passionate about financial literacy. On her website, Acquania blogs about ways to help you improve your money habits, create wealth, and invest in real estate. Follow Acquania on social media for daily tips.