Amon and Christina Browning had no idea FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) was a movement. They just wanted to do whatever it took to quit their jobs.
“It was really hard to find information on FIRE when we started,” says Amon. “When we started our journey in 2011, we weren’t thinking of it as ‘financial independence, retire early.’ What has become the FIRE movement, I think, is a title put on something people have been doing forever—basically, amassing enough assets to support their expenses so that they don’t need to work anymore.”
The Brownings officially achieved FIRE in 2019, at 39 (Amon) and 41 (Christina), with $2.5 million in investment assets. Without FIRE information readily available, the Brownings house hacked, did retail arbitrage, drove for Uber, sold items on Etsy and Facebook Marketplace, made money listing on Airbnbs, and flipped houses. It took eight years, but they hit their FIRE number.
Once retired, The Brownings moved their family of four from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portugal, where they now live well on a $2,000 a month budget. They’ve built an online education company, an Instagram page of over 100,000 followers, and a YouTube channel with 606,000 subscribers to share what they’ve learned with others.
Here’s the advice the Brownings have for anyone curious about achieving FIRE – and what to do if you feel off track to course-correct and turn your financial goals into reality.
To Launch Your Freedom Plan, Calculate Your FIRE Number
Your FIRE journey begins the day you crunch the numbers and face your goals head-on.
The first thing the Brownings did was calculate their FIRE number: the amount of money you need to have in active investments to live off of the returns after you quit working. A simple formula touted by many FIRE enthusiasts is to take your annual expenses and multiply them by 25:
Annual Expenses x 25 = FIRE Number
This formula became popular after the release of the Trinity Study, a research paper that popularized the idea of the 4% rule. Build enough wealth to where annual gains offset a 4% annual withdrawal and you’ll have what you need to retire at any age.
The Brownings started their FIRE journey as federal government employees with modest salaries. Christina was an attorney making $70,000 a year, and Amon was an urban planner earning $98,000 a year. They lived in Oakland, where the cost of living is 49% higher than the national average, and wanted to have the option to continue living there in retirement. They estimated they would need about $100,000 a year in living expenses; based on the above formula, their FIRE number was $2.5 million.
“When we started to learn about creating financial independence, we learned how you calculate your FIRE number, how much you need to live off of a stock portfolio, and even invested in real estate,” says Christina. “For us, it was about saving more and learning about investing—to try and invest right.”
The Brownings’ advice is to:
- Know where you want to retire
- Calculate the cost of living in that community
- Understand how much you currently make – and how much additional income you’ll need to reach your goal retirement date
- Educate yourself on what combination of investments can get you to your FIRE number
Falling Short? Find Ways to Close the Gap
Even after you calculate your FIRE number and start taking action, unexpected expenses or an increased cost of living can throw you off track. In 2015 – four years into their FIRE journey – the Brownings realized they needed to make more money if they wanted to retire by 40.
“We were house hacking, at one point even drove for Uber,” says Amon. “We sold things on Etsy and had an Etsy store, invested in real estate, and had three Airbnbs going. Every additional dollar we made outside of our jobs was thrown into investments. We looked at our nine-to-five jobs and said, ‘Okay, we just can’t do it with these jobs; we have to find different ways to produce more income.’”
From 2015 to 2019, the Brownings found success with earning extra income through real estate—it jumpstarted the FIRE process for them. They found creative ways to make more money and eliminate expenses; one of those approaches was to do what they call “house hacking.”
The Brownings would find properties that had been sitting on the market for a long time. These properties needed renovations, but were things the Brownings could fix. They bought distressed properties, did all of the renovations themselves, lived in them for a while, rented some out, and then sold the properties for a profit. They did all of their own flips.
Another example of house hacking involved the Brownings renting a three-bedroom apartment, living in one room, and renting out the other two. Altogether, these streams of income enabled the Brownings to live on 30% of their monthly income and invest the other 70%. They credit their house hacking, side hustles, and money saving-strategies as the way they were able to get to FIRE sooner.
The Brownings’ advice is to find the opportunities to earn more that don’t require a significant investment of time or money. They suggest that you might be able to rent a room on Airbnb, downgrade or sell material possessions, or start a side hustle.
Find a side hustle that don’t require a significant investment of time or initial capital to free yourself up.
To Achieve FIRE Faster, Invest Your Money
FIRE participants tend to favor index funds and total market funds. Amon and Christina invested money every week into the stock market, and any lump sums they got from a side hustle or sale of real estate also would be invested. 60% of their portfolio was invested in Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX). It’s an index fund that tracks the performance of the entire stock market.
“The whole plan was to have investments that were passive and didn’t require too much thought,” says Christina. “We decided that the VTSAX Index Fund would make up the bulk of our portfolio, and we would add little pieces.”
“Regardless of all the madness or craziness that was going on in the world, we consistently stuck to our investment plan,” adds Amon. “We wanted to build a portfolio that could not only sustain us to get to FIRE, but also keep us financially independent for decades to come, and even to the point where we could leave that money to our children.”
Today, besides the VTSAX index fund, the Brownings’ portfolio includes other index funds, a couple of individual stocks, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and passive income from real estate. They own sector ETFs that complement their portfolio by providing more dividends and technology ETFs like the Vanguard Information Technology index fund (VTG).
Living the FIRE Lifestyle
After eight years of making more money and investing everything they could, the Brownings achieved FIRE in 2019. They celebrated reaching their FIRE goal by quitting their jobs.
“When we hit our FIRE number, we went in to work and put in our two-weeks notice,” says Amon. “We quit. We didn’t fully celebrate until later.”
Upon retiring, the Brownings had some time to reflect. They decided to leave the United States and relocate their family to Portugal. They bought a home for 190,000 euros in cash, a property that they currently list on Airbnb, and are building a tiny house that they’ll rent out. Their cost of living in Portugal is less than $2,000 a month, and their Airbnb income covers their living costs, further preserving their nest egg.
“We live on an acre of land on the Silver Coast of Portugal, working on our farm,” says Christina. “We spend time at the beach and travel a lot. We’re still parents and meet with our network of friends. We have so much freedom that we didn’t have working jobs.”
The Brownings maintain a financial education company and create content on YouTube and other social media channels, but they do it because they enjoy being financial educators—not because they have to work.
“We believed that we could do this,” says Amon. “We believed it and we stayed consistent. There are some negative things in the world that could stop you from moving forward.”
If you’re curious about FIRE, all you need to start your journey is one number – and a belief, adds Amon.
“Have the mindset that you can do this.”