Colorado couple retired early and built a net worth of $1.5 million

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: The symptoms of a chronic disease discovered in 2012 were getting worse. However, she was determined to hold on to her career as an elementary school teacher and continue to earn an income to help support her young family.

That is until one day when a colleague asked if Debbie would attend a professional development opportunity this weekend. Debbie hesitated.

If it was a money thing, Debbie’s colleague assured her, don’t worry — there will be a stipend.

“I remember this little thing clicking,” says Debbie. “And I think I told her out loud that I don’t need more money. I need more time.”

Debbie and Chris Emick.

Courtesy Debbie and Chris Emick

Debbie quit her job later in 2014, and the Emicks, who had planned to retire in the mid-1960s, began refocusing their money priorities. “I started to realize that I was working towards a retirement that I might never enjoy,” says Debbie.

The couple, who live in Rocky Ford, Colorado, cut their spending, increased their savings and began investing aggressively in real estate. By 2019, they were earning enough from their properties that Chris was able to quit his job as a network engineer as well.

In the four years from 2016 to 2019, the pair acquired 19 rental units. When they retired in 2019, each at age 40, the annual rental income from their properties totaled $45,000. These days, between a mix of investments, savings and real estate, Debbie and Chris, now 43, boast a net worth of about $1.5 million.

Early focus on saving: ‘I just wanted to have enough money to pay the bills’

Saving and budgeting came naturally to the Emicks, who credit their early family life with instilling strong 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.

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I just wanted to have enough money to pay my bills.

This usually meant focusing on the here and now rather than saving for distant financial goals. “I 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 off student loans and car payments. She hoped there was enough left over to cover repairs if her Chevy Malibu broke down.

Debbie and Chris Emick.

Jackson House Films

Chris, meanwhile, was always determined to be a millionaire. Also a farm boy, Chris grew up with his grandparents, who he says imbibed some Depression-era thrift habits. “I was always preparing for an emergency or the worst-case scenario,” he says.

When he was 21, he read “The Millionaire Next Door” and realized that a life of diligent saving could put him on the 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.”

Increased savings: ‘We got serious about having a real budget’

By the time Debbie decided to quit her job, the couple had paid off 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, along with the pension she would have collected after 20 years of teaching, Chris and Debbie were forced to re-examine their finances. “That’s when we got serious about having a real budget,” says Debbie.

The Emick family.

Courtesy Debbie and Chris Emick

Chris expected to make some big lifestyle changes, but discovered that saving more money simply meant being more intentional about their spending. He remembers a few reductions besides leaving the takeout breakfast and lunch that 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 rule out many expenses that could be like new clothes, jewelry and makeup that “don’t change the -our happiness meter.”

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On a monthly basis, the Emicks were banking 50% to 60% of Chris’s salary, they said.

Buying rental properties: ‘Pretty fast and furious’

Despite cutting back, the Emicks were not comfortable having only one source of income. Chris worried that losing his job could put the family in trouble, he says.

They decided to test owning real estate, and purchased two rental properties in 2016 for a combined down payment of $60,000. They took the money from the $90,000 they had in savings.

At first, being a landlord was hard work. The properties they bought “had a bit of an ugly duckling” about them, says Debbie. The couple spent nights and weekends fixing them up to be ready for tenants.

Debbie and Chris Emick sitting outside their home in Colorado.

Jackson House Films

The work paid off. The rent collected from the tenants of the first two properties far exceeded the mortgage payments on the house, allowing Chris and Debbie to imagine things on a larger scale: Rental properties, they realized, could be the main way the family made money, rather than supplementing Chris’s salary.

“We both had this thought, ‘What if you want to quit your job one day? What if that’s not how we want things to look forever?'” says Debbie. “That a thought easily turned into, ‘How can we use our money to buy us more time?’

The Emicks invested any monthly savings, along with the profits they earned from tenants, to buy more real estate. Between 2016 and 2019, the couple bought 19 units spread over 17 properties in Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee.

“That was really the trajectory. So it was four years pretty fast and furious to do it,” says Chris.

Enjoy the flexibility of early retirement

Despite quitting their day jobs, the Emicks are still very 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.

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Debbie spends one month a year selling a specialized type of drought insurance for ranchers, bringing in about $23,000 in commissions each year.

For the Emicks, retirement isn’t so much about not working as it is about turning the traditional work-life balance on its head.

Instead of having a job where I used to work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, I say now that I probably work four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off.

“Instead of having a job where I used to work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, now I say I probably work four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off,” says Chris.

The couple continues to save and invest. They spend anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 a month, and lately they’ve been investing the rest in a combination of retirement and investment accounts, a health savings account and various cash accounts. All told, they have about $740,000 stashed away.

They were also able to follow passions. Debbie wrote a book and took up surfing. And together, Debbie and Chris started “Go Bucket Yourself,” an online community for early retirees, hosting events and retreats planned by the couple.

As for what’s next, “I’m really enjoying having this freedom to make connections and travel and explore,” says Chris.

And as for the genesis of it all, Debbie says her health has greatly improved since the decision to leave her 9-to-5.

“I don’t know what the percentage will be, but dramatically since I moved 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”.

Want to earn more and work less? Sign up for free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on December 13th at 12 pm ET to learn from money masters like Kevin O’Leary how to increase your earning power.

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