From their home in Portugal, U.S. ex-pats Amon and Christina Browning give off the relaxed aura of a couple completely content with where they are in life.
And given they spend their days lounging on the beach or working in their garden, it's not hard to see why. Now 41 and 43, the Brownings retired in 2019, when Amon was 39 and Christina was 41. Their ease comes after years of hard work. Both Brownings worked full-time government jobs for their careers, always earning less than $100,000 each in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Christina was earning around $70,000 as an attorney, and Amon was earning around $98,000 as an urban planner.)
But once Amon suggested they try to retire early, they looked for other streams of income to supplement their salaries.
The idea came when Amon received an award at work in 2011, for 10 years of service. An older man was honored for 40 years at the same ceremony, but Amon says the distinction depressed him, rather than seeming like something to celebrate. He didn't want to find himself in the same spot in three decades.
The couple talked it through, and decided to pursue the financial independence, retire early, or FIRE, movement. They soon put all their effort into cutting costs and saving for an expeditious exit from the workforce.
"I worked for the government for 17 years, and I couldn't see myself working for the government for another 20 years," Amon says. "I couldn't go into work every day, go to my cubicle, because there was so much more in life that I really wanted to do."
To make FIRE achievable on their salaries while living in one of the most expensive parts of the country, the Brownings flipped houses and drove for services like Uber in their spare time. This was in the early days of Uber, when the pay was more generous and the company was giving bonuses to new drivers, they say.
"We knew from our jobs, if we saved as much money as we could, for however many years, we still would not be able to retire early," Christina says. "We had to go out and make extra money. So that was a huge focus for us."
They also lived as frugally as they could while raising two daughters, Sunoa, 14, and Melea, 13. One way they saved was by selling extra home goods and other personal items on Facebook Marketplace. But living cheaply came easily to the duo, who met in college in line for free food.
Still, Christina says that FIRE isn't as simple as working side hustles and saving the extra income. Investing what they were earning was pivotal to reaching their goals. They say they have retired with enough investments that they will not have to work again, but CNBC Make It could not independently confirm their retirement savings figures.
"We put our money back into the stock market, back into real estate, so that we could get that compound effect," she says. "That's how you get to your financial independence."
Amon is often asked what the family had to give up in order to achieve FIRE, but he doesn't believe they were deprived of anything during their lean spending years.
Instead, he says they "just chose to live life more intentionally," opting for less expensive homes and cars because they wanted to.
"We made some intentional short-term sacrifices so that we could have a lifetime of freedom," he says.
The couple has lived in Japan and Spain, but settled on Portugal primarily because of the country's nature and friendly people.
Portugal is one of the least expensive countries to live in in Western Europe, and much more affordable than their old home, Oakland: The Brownings estimate they live comfortably on less than $2,000 per month there.
They say their house and car are completely paid off, so they do not have to make a mortgage payment and worry about those bills each month. However, they do pay property taxes and insurance, and are renovating parts of their home. They also pay for basics like cell phones and internet, and budget around $200 per month for dining out.
Now, they spend their weekdays at the beach and in their garden, where they grow some of the food their family eats. They also like to hike, paddleboard, camp and surf with their daughters on the weekends. They've never been happier.
"Being retired has given us that opportunity to do all of these things that we never had the time to do when we were working," Christina says.
Amon, who grew up in poverty, never imagined he would reach this milestone. But he credits his father with instilling a positive attitude in him, even when the family was homeless or didn't have enough to eat.
He wants his daughters to see that a different type of life from the norm is possible.
"Every day feels like a Saturday for us," Amon says. "That's a feeling that I just hope more people get a chance to experience."