Debbie Emick remembers the moment that changed her perspective on money forever.
Shortly after she and her husband Chris gave birth to their second daughter in 2014, Debbie received bad news: The symptoms of a chronic illness discovered in 2012 were worsening. Nevertheless, she decided to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher and continue to earn an income to support her young family.
That is, until one day a co-worker asked if Debbie would attend a weekend professional development opportunity. Debbie hesitated.
If it was a question of money, Debbie’s colleague assured her not to worry – there would be a scholarship.
“I remember this little thing clicking,” 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 at the end of 2014, and the Emicks, who planned to retire in their mid-60s, began to refocus on their money priorities. “I realized I was working for a retirement I would never enjoy,” says Debbie.
The couple, who live in Rocky Ford, Colorado, cut expenses, increased their savings and started investing aggressively in real estate. By 2019, they were earning enough from their property that Chris was able to 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 at age 40, the 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 about $1.5 million.
Early focus on saving: ‘I just wanted to have enough money to pay the bills’
Saving and budgeting came naturally to Emiks, who tied their early family life to instilling sound money values.
Debbie grew up around farms and ranches in the “middle of nowhere” before her parents divorced and she had to move around a lot. “There was some financial insecurity that shaped my behavior and values around money,” he says.
This generally 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,” he says.
When Debbie graduated college and earned $24,000, she focused on paying off her student loans and making car payments. He hoped that if his Chevy Malibu broke down, he would have enough money left over for repairs.
And Chris was always determined to be a millionaire. Also a farm boy, Chris grew up with his grandparents, who he says instilled some saving habits during the Depression. “I always prepared for an emergency or the worst,” he says.
When he was 21, he read “The Millionaire Next Door” and realized that life could lead him to financial prosperity through diligent saving. “I had this idea in my head that a man with a million dollars couldn’t have any problems.”
Boost savings: ‘We are serious about having a real budget’
By the time Debbie decided to quit her job, the couple had paid off all their debts except the mortgage. After 18 years in the IT industry, Chris was earning just over six figures.
Still, Chris and Debbie were forced to reexamine their finances when the family decided to forfeit Debbie’s $32,000 salary and the stipend she would have earned after 20 years of teaching. “That’s when we got serious about having a realistic budget,” says Debbie.
Chris expected to make some big lifestyle changes, but discovered that saving more money simply meant paying more attention to their spending. In addition to giving up breakfast and lunch, which he normally eats at work, he remembers several cuts.
The couple discovered their values revolved around travel, family and good, healthy food, Chris says, which allowed them to rule out many likely expenses like new clothes, jewelry and makeup that “wouldn’t change the measure of happiness.”
On a monthly basis, the Emicks said Chris keeps between 50% and 60% of his salary in the bank.
Buying a rental property: ‘Pretty fast and furious’
Despite their downsizing, the Emicks weren’t comfortable with having just one source of income. Chris worries that losing his job could put the family in a difficult situation.
They decided to give real estate ownership a try and bought two rental properties in 2016 for a combined down payment of $60,000. They took 90 thousand dollars from their savings.
At first, owning a house was hard work. Debbie says the properties they bought had a “slightly ugly duckling” quality about them. The couple spent nights and weekends renovating them to make them ready 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 envision things on a larger scale: Rental properties, they realized, could be the family’s main source of income. In addition to Chris’ salary.
“We both had this idea, ‘What if you ever want to quit?'” says Debbie. “This idea easily becomes, ‘How can we use our money to buy us more time?’
The Emicks, along with the profits they made from tenants, invested any monthly savings into buying more real estate. Between 2016 and 2019, the couple purchased 19 properties spread across 17 properties in Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee.
“It was really a trajectory. So it was a pretty fast and furious four years to do it,” Chris said.
Enjoy early retirement flexibility
Despite quitting their day jobs, the Emicks are still very busy. Together, they manage investment properties that today generate $4,000 to $6,000 a month, net of taxes, insurance and other expenses.
Debbie spends a month a year selling a special type of drought insurance for farmers, which brings in about $23,000 in commissions each year.
For Emicks, retirement isn’t so much about not working as it is about changing the traditional work-life balance.
“Instead of having a job where I’d work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, now I’d say I probably work four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off,” Chris said.
The couple continues to save and invest. They spend $2,500 to $3,000 a month, and lately they’ve been putting the rest into a combination of retirement and investment accounts, a health savings account, and various cash accounts. All told, they had about $740,000 hidden in them.
They have also been able to pursue their passions. Debbie wrote a book and took up surfing. And together, Debbie and Chris started Go Bucket Yourself, an online community for early retirees that hosts couple-planned events and retreats.
As for what’s next, “we enjoy having the freedom to network, travel and explore,” says Chris.
As for how it all came about, Debbie says her health has greatly improved since her decision to leave the 9-to-5.
“I don’t know what the percentage will be, but dramatically after I quit my job,” he says. “Both because I don’t have daily stress and because it gives me time and energy to work on myself [not only] physically, but also mentally and emotionally.”
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