Fired Up

Quitting jobs and moving abroad: 3 stories of Americans who achieved the goal, and the money moves that helped

How we saved to quit our jobs and leave the U.S.
How we saved to quit our jobs and leave the U.S.

To many Americans, the idea of retiring early and moving abroad holds undeniable appeal. After all, who hasn't sat at their desk and dreamt of strolling the streets of a new city or feeling Caribbean sand beneath their toes?

Here's a look at three people who have made that dream a reality, and the financial strategies that helped them on their way to financial independence.

Earning more on the side: 'We had to go out and make extra money'

The Financially Independent, Retire Early movement known as FIRE centers around maximizing the amount of money you're able to stash away in investment accounts that, in theory, grow at a compounding rate over time. To boost the amount you're saving, you can spend less or earn more.

Or you can try to do both.

Take Amon and Christina Browning, who retired to Portugal in 2019 when Amon was 39 and Christina was 41. When they decided to embark on an early retirement journey, the couple were making a combined $168,000 a year while supporting two children in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

"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 told CNBC Make It. "We had to go out and make extra money. So that was a huge focus for us."

Amon and Christina Browning with their daughters, Sunoa, 14, and Melea, 13.
Courtesy of Amon and Christina Browning

The Brownings spent their weekends flipping houses and driving for ridesharing services such as Uber. They lived as frugally as they could and brought in even more money by selling extra home goods and personal items on Facebook marketplace.

But even the earning and saving extra money wouldn't have been enough to retire on if they weren't savvy about generating interest. "We put our money back into the stock market, back into real estate, so that we could get that compound effect," Christina said. "That's how you get to your financial independence."

Investing steadily: 'I'm very much in the stock market, hands off'

Roshida Dowe was a diligent investor before she ever considered early retirement. Although she earned some returns investing in real estate, she built most of her portfolio by consistently putting away chunks of her salary, which was about $200,000 before she retired.

"The investing strategy that's worked best for me has simply been investing in mutual funds. So I'm very much in the stock market, hands off," she told CNBC Make It. "Give it to a brokerage firm, invest it in one of their mutual funds, set it and forget it."

In 2018, Dowe was laid off from her job, so she took a year to travel. "Traveling and seeing that the way we work ourselves to death in America is not common around the world made me realize I could have a different life if I made the choice to have a different life," she says.

Dowe took a year to travel the world after being laid off from her job as a corporate lawyer.
Source: Roshida Dowe

So she did the math. All told, her investments added up to about $660,000. Traditionally, FIRE adherents rely on a 4% annual withdrawal rate to determine how much income they could take out of their portfolio over the course of their extended retirement.

The sum Dowe had may not have been enough to fund her lifestyle without working in the U.S., but it was enough to allow her to live comfortably in Mexico City — where her monthly expenses are down to $2,300 per month — "for at least a while."

Even though she had the money to at take a few years off or more, Dowe continues to do work she enjoys, serving as a life coach for women looking to take career breaks and running a YouTube channel documenting her travels.

Adding income streams: 'The rentals help us diversify our investment portfolio'

Many followers of the FIRE movement bristle at traditional characterizations of retirement. Rather than striving for days filled with piña coladas and rounds of golf, many would-be early retirees hope to continue to reimagine what life can look like after they leave their 9-to-5.

Take Dianne and Guillermo Rastelli, who retired in 2018 at ages 44 and 47, respectively, with $2.2 million. After trying out a retirement in Mexico, they recently settled in Lisbon, Portugal, but plan to keep looking around. The couple currently run a YouTube channel about their financial journey and their search for a "forever home" in retirement.

Guillermo and Dianne Rastelli retired early with $2.2 million saved and currently reside in Portugal
Mariana Castelo Branco

One thing allowing the Rastellis the kind of flexibility they have: diversified income. While the couple is able to withdraw cash from their investment portfolio of predominantly index funds, they enjoy income from three rental properties in northern Virginia.

"The rentals help us diversify our investment portfolio," Dianne told CNBC Make It. "That helped us have a little more comfort being able to have financial independence without having to worry as much about having our money all in one place."

An extra income stream can act as a sort of buffer during times of market volatility, FIRE experts say. It allows the retiree to continue paying living expenses without having to withdraw money from investments that have gone down in value.

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