Debbie Emick remembers the moment that changed her outlook on money forever.
In 2014, shortly after she and her husband, Chris, had welcomed their second daughter into the world, Debbie received bad news: Symptoms of a chronic illness discovered in 2012 were worsening. Nevertheless, she was determined to hold on her career as an elementary school teacher and continue to earn income to help support her young family.
That is until one day when a colleague asked if Debbie would be attending a professional development opportunity over the weekend. Debbie hesitated.
If it was a money thing, Debbie's colleague assured her, don't worry — there would be a stipend.
"I remember this little thing clicking," Debbie says. "And I think I said out loud to her 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 money priorities. "I just began to realize that I was working for a retirement I may never enjoy," Debbie says.
The couple, who live in Rocky Ford, Colorado, pared down their spending, upped their savings and began investing aggressively in real estate. By 2019, they were earning enough from their properties that Chris was able to leave his job as a network engineer, too.
In the four years from 2016 to 2019, the pair acquired 19 rental units. When they retired in 2019, each at age 40, annual rental income from their properties totaled $45,000. These days, between a mix of investments, savings and real estate holdings, Debbie and Chris, now 43, boast a net worth of about $1.5 million.
Saving and budgeting came naturally to the Emicks, who credit their early family lives with instilling sound 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.
That generally meant focusing on the here and now rather than saving for far-off financial goals. "I just wanted to have enough money to pay my bills," she says.
When Debbie graduated from college and was earning a salary of $24,000, her focus was on paying down student loans and making car payments. She hoped she'd have enough left over to cover repairs if her Chevy Malibu broke down.
Chris, meanwhile, was always determined to be a millionaire. Also a farm kid, 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 situation," he says.
When he was 21, he read "The Millionaire Next Door" and realized that a life of diligent saving could put him on a path to financial prosperity. "I just had the idea in my head that there's no way a person with a million dollars could ever have any problems."
By the time Debbie decided to leave her job, the couple had paid down all their debt, except their mortgage. After 18 years in the IT industry, Chris was pulling in just over a six-figure salary.
Still, with the family set to lose Debbie's $32,000 salary, plus the pension she would have collected after 20 years teaching, Chris and Debbie were forced to re-examine their finances. "That's when we got serious about having a real budget," Debbie says.
Chris expected to make some big lifestyle changes, but discovered that saving more money merely meant being more intentional about their spending. He remembers few cutbacks besides ditching the takeout breakfast and lunch he usually had at work.
The couple discovered that their values revolved around travel, family and good, healthy food, says Chris, which allowed them to exclude a lot of would-be expenses like new clothing, jewelry and makeup that "wouldn't change our happiness meter."
On a monthly basis, the Emicks were banking 50% to 60% of Chris's salary, they said.
Despite cutting back, the Emicks weren't comfortable with having just one source of income. Chris worried that losing his job could put the family in dire straits, he says.
They decided to test out owning real estate, and bought 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.
At first, being landlords was hard work. The properties they bought "had a bit of an ugly duckling" quality about them, says Debbie. The couple spent nights and weekends refurbishing them to get ready for tenants.
The labor 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 bigger scale: Rental properties, they realized, could be the primary way the family made money, rather than supplementing Chris's salary.
"We both kind of had this thought of, 'What if you want to leave your job someday? What if this isn't how we want things to look forever?'" says Debbie. "That thought easily turned into, 'How can we use our money to buy us more time?'"
The Emicks invested any monthly savings, along with profits they earned from renters, into purchasing more real estate. Between 2016 and 2019, the couple bought 19 units spread across 17 properties in Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee.
"That was really the trajectory. So it was a pretty fast and furious four years of doing that," says Chris.
Despite quitting their day jobs, the Emicks are still plenty busy. Together, they manage their investment properties, which today provide an income — net of taxes, insurance and other expenses — of $4,000 to $6,000 per month.
Debbie spends one month per year selling a specialized type of drought insurance for ranchers, which brings in roughly $23,000 in commissions annually.
For the Emicks, retiring isn't so much about not working as much as it is about flipping the traditional work-life balance on its head.
"Instead of having a job where I would work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, I would say now that I work probably four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off," says Chris.
The couple continue to save and invest. They spend anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 per month, and lately have been investing the remainder in a combination of retirement and investing accounts, a health savings account and various cash accounts. All told, they have about $740,000 stashed away.
They've also been able to pursue passions. Debbie wrote a book and took up surfing. And together, Debbie and Chris started "Go Bucket Yourself," an online community for early retirees, which hosts events and retreats planned by the couple.
When it comes to what's next, "we are really enjoying having this freedom to make connections and travel and explore," says Chris.
And as for the genesis of all this, Debbie says her health has vastly improved since the decision to leave her 9-to-5.
"I don't know what the percent would be, but dramatically since stepping away from my job," she says. "Both because I don't have that daily stress, but also because it allowed time and energy to work on myself [not only] physically, but also mentally and emotionally."
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