Jon Schoeller thought retiring early was all he wanted. He was wrong.
“Here we were, visiting Hawaii, and I was so depressed,” the 35-year-old West Virginia entrepreneur recalls. Schoeller and his wife Rhianna, 32, had lived incredibly frugally throughout their twenties to become millionaires before the age of 30, a real-life success story of the sometimes-controversial Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement.
“I was going stir-crazy,” he says.
As more Americans grapple with the prospect of working into their late 60s before they have enough money to retire, others have taken matters into their own hands and hustled for years in order to exit the workforce sooner, only to discover that retirement wasn’t exactly a dream come true.
“Retirement is a scam. That’s the rat race people don’t like to talk about,” says Jon. What the Schoellers and many other Americans want isn’t retirement — it’s financial independence.
Now, despite being work-optional millionaires, Rhianna still works as a nurse anesthetist, while Jon consults and invests in real estate. Together, they travel the world with their 3-year-old daughter Tyanna and share their adventures online on YouTube and to a combined social media following of over 600,000 followers.
But before all that could happen, Rhianna and Jon had to first confront their financial obstacles and money mindset head-on. What they’ve learned along the way is a masterclass in how to find fulfillment in the present while also saving responsibly for the future.
“My Frugality Was a Survival Thing”
Rhianna and Jon met in 2008 and had in common a low-income upbringing, an experience they say often comes with a lot of money mindset baggage.
“We didn’t have a lot of family influence when it comes to things like money management, wealth building, or retirement,” says Jon. “In fact, a lot of those concepts, even things like a retirement account, I didn’t know about until my mid-twenties.” Jon says his passion for frugal living began at 18 when his best friend and fellow high school senior revealed he had already saved up $50,000 through odd jobs and penny-pinching.
“When you’re 18, that might as well be a million dollars,” he says. “That was what flipped it for me. I had never considered that maybe I could work part time one day, or travel the world. That’s what rich people do, and we weren’t rich people.” Jon began attending seminars and watching videos on topics like saving, investing, and real estate, which he says opened his mind to the idea that non-affluent people can also have multiple income streams.
“My frugality was a survival-type thing,” says Rhianna, who was one of three children raised by a single mother. “So we naturally had frugal tendencies. Me and my sister were sharing clothes, buying secondhand, and just trying to save money where we can. I thought you just needed to have $1,000 in your savings account and then live paycheck to paycheck, and that was life.”
“If you grew up in a family that was not financially educated, they will actually scare you out of investing,” says Jon. “They will tell you that people lose money in the stock market, that it’s for gamblers, because they don’t understand how to invest in index funds. They don’t understand how [market] crashes correct themselves over time. And this isn’t not a knock on our parents, because they weren’t taught it either.”
The “I Need To Prove I’m Making Money” Trap
Rhianna was enrolled in nursing school, and Jon found his footing by starting a moving company. As he began to make money, he purchased what he thought was what he wanted at the time: a fancy car.
“I kind of got into that ‘I need to prove I’m making money’ trap,” he says. “You want to show off, and I wanted this brand-new BMW, so I bought it. All my friends thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But I worked all day as a mover, so I never drove it.” Jon’s car payment was $700 a month. After discussing with Rhianna what other things could be done with the money — such as traveling more often — Jon sold the nearly-new BMW, taking a loss of $9,000 because of the depreciation.
“I tell people it’s the best investment I ever made because of the lesson it taught me,” he says. “Keeping up with the Joneses like that, or attempting to, will leave you broke most of the time. It taught me a very important lesson.”
Saving with a One-Track Mind
The Schoellers became obsessed with living frugally and putting cash in the bank.
“We were working like two or three jobs, and just saving every dollar living as cheaply as we could,” says Rhianna. She picked up additional nursing shifts, and Jon experimented with different side hustles, such as flipping motorcycles and being a delivery driver. “Our accounts were stacking up all this cash. And then one day we were like ‘Oh my God, this is so dumb, we need to do something with [this money].’”
“We were like, ‘No, we can’t give this money to somebody else [to handle], they’re gonna lose it,’” she says. “We were scared to invest it. We had worked so hard for it.” The couple remained on their savings hamster wheel for eight years, and by 2016 had amassed nearly $350,000 in liquid cash, but didn’t have a penny of it invested. Rhianna later learned she had a 401(k) at her nursing job, a benefit she didn’t understand at the time and had no idea existed.
The way we think and feel about money can be one of the most influential factors to overall financial success, says Satya Purna, a cognitive behavioral money coach who works with entrepreneurs.
“The area of the brain that relates to money is the same area that relates to food,” she says. “In modern times, our brain has equated money with food. Money is as essential for survival as food is for an animal in the jungle. That’s one of the main reasons why people find it so hard to break their emotional and habitual patterns around money; those patterns have been hardwired as survival patterns for 30-40 years. The brain doesn’t want to change. It wants to remain prepared for the future in case scarcity happens again.”
The “I” word to the rescue
“When it hit me is when I learned about inflation,” says Jon. “Back then, you were losing 2% to 3% of your money’s value per year just from it sitting there. So I did the math and realized we were probably losing thousands of dollars a year by not investing.” The couple stumbled across an article about Roth IRAs, which was something they could take action on right away.
“We maxed out [the annual contribution for] our accounts, and have been doing that every year since,” says Jon. “We’ve also been doing it for our daughter.”
The couple incorporated both investing and real estate strategies into their money plan. When Jon sold his moving company a few years later, he became work optional and embraced the idea of retiring early.
“Retirement Is a Scam”
Rhianna began working as a travel nurse so the couple could travel more. One of their dream locations, Maui, turned out to be a watershed moment in the couple’s lifestyle design aspirations.
“The first two months of retirement were great,” says Jon. “But it really hit me in Maui, which was probably month seven or eight. I was so depressed. And that’s when I quickly realized that it wasn’t retirement I was chasing; it was literally just the ability to retire.” The couple say they redefined wealth to be more about having freedom to work on what brings you passion and fulfillment.
The young millionaires branched out. Rhianna was still passionate about nursing, so she decided to enroll in grad school to become a nurse anesthetist, which would mean higher pay and the opportunity to work less. Jon started exploring real estate. The two also dabbled in social media, sharing their journeys with others and blending personal finance advice with vlogging. They maintain both individual social media presences and a family adventures YouTube channel, which was started in 2017 and currently has 150,000 followers.
Coming Full Circle with Foster Care
Everything changed when Tyanna, now 3, came into the Schoellers’ lives as a baby.
“I was in foster care as a child, and so was my sister,” says Rhianna. “So I always had that kind of interest in [the system]. Thankfully after a short time we were reunited with our mother.” Before getting married, the couple say they talked about adopting, and they were on the same page that they wanted kids, but were indifferent about having biological children.
“There are a lot of signs around West Virginia advertising that foster families are needed,” she says. “West Virginia has one of the highest foster children rates. And we were traveling way less, since we were going to be here for three years anyway for my grad school. I worked at the hospital, and I had a patient one time who was a toddler, and… I can’t talk too much about it, but it was a foster care situation. So I came home and was like, I think we could do foster care now.” The couple say their timeline from signup to fostering their now-daughter was about 10 months.
“Honestly, financial freedom put us in a position to do this,” says Jon. “There are a lot of people who couldn’t do that because of their situation. And so that’s another, you know, plus to being financially free: you can help others. And I think that might be the most important. It always feels better to help others than to help yourself.” The couple eventually applied to adopt Tyanna, a process they documented along the way on YouTube, including an emotional adoption courthouse confirmation.
“Our daughter changed our perspective,” says Rhianna. “I would say we were kind of like workaholics, we wanted to fill all our time with working. And like if we had extra time, we thought it should be spent making money. Now that we have our daughter, especially when she was a baby, we realized all we wanted to do was spend time with her because it was limited. I feel like we’ve been maybe soul searching, or something a bit more, and realizing that time together is the freedom that we’re looking for. Does that make sense? You can’t get time back. She’s only one [year old] once, she’s only two once. And she might be our only child.”
“We Never Feel 100% Secure”
To most of us, the Schoellers appear wildly successful, but they confess they still feel uneasy about their money, a deeply ingrained mindset.
“I think it’s because of our upbringing,” says Jon. “We were literally just talking about this on the porch before this call. We never feel 100% secure, no matter how much our income goes up. I think it’s because we spent 20 years [of our lives] in survival mode, living paycheck to paycheck. We always have that feeling in the back of our minds like ‘What if YouTube shuts down?’ or ‘What if people stop buying real estate?’ We got like six different things going on, so we should be fine. We are fine. But it’s like that thought process is ingrained in you and you have to work really hard to overcome it.”
The Schoellers are still frugal: they live in a $165,000 townhome and drive two cars, a 2005 Toyota Prius and a 2008 Ford Escape. When it comes to baby Tyanna, setting her up for financial success and a childhood of happy memories is an opportunity to write a new future.
“We’ve maxed her Roth IRA out every year so far,” says Jon. “When she’s 18, she’s going to have a couple hundred thousand dollars in there. How cool is it to start life like that?”