The secret to building wealth isn’t to make or have more, according to Lauren and Steven Keys. It’s learning to be content with less.
“For us, the magic of the whole thing was just figuring out that you can be happy with low spending,” says Steven, who with his wife runs Trip Of A Lifestyle, a website about the couple’s Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) journey. “And if you can be happy with low spending, why would you choose to spend more time working just to buy more things?”
The high school sweethearts have become work-optional at 29 years old with wealth they’ve accumulated on their own by embracing Lean FIRE, a version of FIRE in which you’re able to stop working sooner by keeping your monthly expenses very low. By learning the ropes of investing and developing multiple income streams early on, the couple has been able to embrace #vanlife, become homeowners, and share their journey along the way.
Here’s what the Keys say you need to know to achieve Lean FIRE and set yourself on the path to early retirement.
They Started With a Net Worth of $47,000
Lauren and Steven are high school sweethearts who grew up outside Tampa, Florida. The couple both worked throughout college to pay for textbooks, food, housing, and car insurance, and also to start saving and investing money together. They graduated in 2012 debt-free.
“After pushing my income as high as I could, the only other thing I could do was keep my cost of living low,” says Lauren. “I always had roommates. At one point, there were six of us in a three-bedroom townhouse off campus to offset my housing expenses.” Steven got a job as a teaching assistant making $22,000 a year, and Lauren got a job in marketing making $34,000 a year.
A year out of college, the couple had:
- $24,000 in cash between their joint checking account and high-yield savings accounts (they keep around one year’s living expenses easily accessible)
- $10,000 in a taxable brokerage account
- $11,000 in Roth IRAs, invested in various stocks
- $2,000 in employer-sponsored retirement accounts (which would later get rolled into their IRAs) from Lauren’s job in marketing and Steven’s teaching assistant job
Their total net worth was about $47,000. While researching investing advice online, they stumbled across FIRE and the idea of the FIRE number, the formula in which multiplying your annual expenses by 25 gives you a ballpark figure of how much money you need to become work-optional.
“When we looked at our numbers, we realized we had excess income because our spending was fairly low,” says Steven. “We realized that if we invested that money, eventually our investments could generate enough income to live on. Then we discovered that this was a real thing called FIRE.”
They Widened the Gap Between Income and Expenses
The Keys managed to save $100,000 from 2013 to 2015 thanks to a one-two punch of adding side hustles while living frugally. They also got married during this time, but delayed the honeymoon.
“Lauren continued to manage the social media accounts of the company she left back in California,” says Steven. “This brought in around $500 a month. I bought and sold stuff on eBay and tutored a couple of college physics students. Our jobs were still our main income source, but the side hustles helped us have more money to invest.” The couple also had a photography side hustle that brought in $5,000 to $10,000 per year, shooting a wedding or portrait session once every couple of months.
Keep your expenses under control. You can find ways to earn more money, but those gains will be canceled out if you can’t properly budget and lower your expenses.
They Tested Out Their Lifestyle With a ‘Mini-Retirement’
While the Keys had been living frugally, their jobs were a grind. The couple wanted time to reset and reorient their careers while also keeping up with their financial goals.
“We needed a new goal that would bring joy and excitement back into our lives, but that wouldn’t drain our bank accounts and rob us of the work we’d been putting into building our net worth,” says Lauren. After careful research, they decided to take a six-month honeymoon to the Big Island of Hawaii, work their side hustles for ten hours a week, and live on $1,900/month.
“We just weren’t making very much money like at our previous full-time jobs,” says Steven. “Our previous jobs were around $40,000 a year each, and we could save 70% of our income on that level. We went to Hawaii and only worked just enough to pay our bills.” The couple also read up on house hacking, a FIRE technique in which someone is a homeowner or the primary person on a lease, lives in part of the property, and rents out the other rooms or spaces for additional income.
The Keys decided to purchase a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom condo in Gainesville, Florida, living on one floor of the house and renting out the rest. By keeping their expenses as low as possible, the couple was able to rapidly accelerate their FIRE aspirations.
They Partnered With Employers to Make FIRE Lifestyle a Win/Win
During this time, the couple started to get into the #vanlife movement: an aspirational trend in which people live in vans or RVs and travel the country to spend more time in nature. More than 140,000 people in the U.S. were living in vans, boats or other recreational vehicles in 2019, according to the United States Census. Lauren was ready to exit the workforce, but the couple didn’t feel ready to fully jump ship. They decided to take a risk and share their lifestyle goals with Steven’s employer.
“We fully disclosed our plans to my employer six months in advance, which was a risky move,” says Steven. “But it ended up being a courtesy they appreciated.” Steven negotiated a remote employment setup with his company in which he could work about 10 hours a week for a period of seven months before returning to Florida.
The couple pounced on this opportunity. They rented out the remaining room of their home, purchased a Nissan NV200, put a full-size bed in the back, and used the sabbatical to visit every United States National Park in 2019. Coffee shops were their office, Planet Fitness was their shower, and Walmart stores and truck stops were their free overnight parking spots with 24-hour bathrooms. They continued to build their wealth during this time and after their return to Florida, hitting their FIRE number in 2020.
They Lived the Dream — and Shared It
The Keys have started sharing their van-centric journey to FIRE on social media – and it’s clearly resonating.
“We’re really, really picky about what we’re willing to talk about [on our platforms],” says Steven. “Our rule is that we only recommend the same stuff we’d tell our friends and family to use. If there’s a way to monetize that, we’ll do it. Otherwise, we refuse. We never change our recommendations based on affiliate relationships. To prove that, we dedicate 100% of our website’s net affiliate profits to charity.”
Their Advice For Pursuing FIRE on Your Terms
The couple echoes what has been said many times before: personal finance is personal.
“Our perspective on fire is slightly different than other people,” says Lauren. “We don’t believe this concept of financial independence is a binary thing of ‘reach this number, or you don’t.’ We don’t follow the belief that there’s no spectrum through which you can start to decrease your workload and increase your lifestyle happiness. A lot of people are grinding it out until they reach a number, and it has never felt like that for us.”
“Many people say you can continue making more and more money and earn your way to happiness and freedom,” adds Steven. “That’s not true if you don’t keep your expenses under control.”
“Expenses are everything.”