Today, we, Ali and Josh, are married and run The FI Couple, a platform where we use our training as social worker and counselor respectively, and our passion for personal finance to help other people feel empowered and confident about their money. But it took some time for us to get to that point with our finances.
We graduated from the same state college, where we both pursued degrees in human services. With two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree between us, by 2017 we had accumulated $102,000 in student debt. Like so many, we had accepted that we would work at our careers for the next 30 to 40 years, paying off debts, living for weekends and two-week vacations, and eventually, retire with a modest pension.
When we compared this vision of the future to the life we truly wanted — more time with each other and the people who meant the most to us — we realized the daily choices we were making did not align with the dreams we had. The more we gained clarity about our goals, and the more we understood how large our debt was, it became clear that living paycheck-to-paycheck on our modest salaries wasn't sustainable.
Over the course of the last two years, we've made some lifestyle changes that have helped us eliminate $60,000 in student loans, purchase two investment properties, and got on track to retire in our 30s. Here are the steps we took to get here, and our best advice.
When we started this journey, we knew very little about personal finance. A number of resources like "Set for Life" by Scott Trench, "Simple Path to Wealth" by JL Collins and sites like BiggerPockets and Choose FI helped us learn a lot so we could start to feel more in control of our situation.
For the first time we began to analyze our financial situation and understand our income, expenses, assets, and debts. We created a budget that we felt was sustainable without greatly sacrificing our quality of life.
Creating this budget and better understanding where our money was going was the first step towards gaining control of our finances. When working to reduce our expenses and save more, we initially focused on eliminating smaller expenditures. We began by packing our own lunches, cutting cable, making our coffee at home and limiting our dining out.
While these small wins did add up over time and help improve our savings rate, cutting out the simple pleasures we enjoyed began to take its toll on our overall happiness.
Reading "Set for Life," we discovered the concept Scott Trench calls "house hacking." With this strategy, a person buys a single or multi-family home, rents out additional rooms or units, and then uses that rent to cover all or most of the mortgage. Inspired by Trench's advice, we opted not to renew the lease of our apartment. In 2018, we decided to buy a modest duplex so we could live in one unit and rent out the other one.
We purchased our duplex three months after we got married. Instead of going on a honeymoon, we put together much of what we had saved to that point and, along with some financial gifts from our wedding and an owner-occupant loan, we were able to cover the down payment and closing costs of the property.
The property already had a tenant whose rent covered more than half of the monthly mortgage payment. This allowed us to reduce our housing costs from $1,300 to $400 per month.
Video by Courtney Stith
After 18 months in the duplex, we decided to buy another two family home that we would move into and rent out. We rented out the apartment that we had been living in and with this additional income, the entirety of our housing costs were covered, bringing them down to $0.
Around this time, we were in an accident that totaled our car. Rather than buy the same vehicle again and take on another car loan, we decided to use the insurance money to help pay for a used, higher-mileage car in cash.
Both of these housing and transportation decisions, combined with our budget, helped our savings rate increase by over 50%. This allowed us to begin eliminating our debt while giving us room to put simple pleasures like the occasional dinner out back into our financial plan.
Video by Richard Washington
In addition to reducing our expenses, we've also found creative ways to grow our income. Having a low cost of living and high rate of savings gave us the confidence we needed to take some calculated career risks that led to the opportunity for higher earnings.
Josh was able to negotiate for more and double his income from his previous 9-to-5, and he started his own business as an employment specialist for workers with disabilities. Ali, a school social worker, changed jobs and got a pay increase.
To further supplement our income, we incorporated side hustles, like driving for Uber, life coaching, online mentoring, multiple income streams from The FI Couple Instagram account, and sales from our recently published e-book.
Video by Courtney Stith
Over the last two years, we have built a combination of active and passive income streams, and they have become an essential part of our debt payoff and early retirement plans.
We are firm believers in diversifying assets so, in addition to our rental properties, we consistently invest in the stock market and reinvest any profits. Rather than trying to hand pick which companies will do best, we invest in index funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs).
With compound interest, the money that grows in those funds, and from our real estate investments, will be used to cover some of our expenses in early retirement.
Ultimately, we want to share our story because even with debt and limited financial literacy, it was still possible to transform our lives and take control of our money. By working towards retiring in our 30s, we are giving ourselves the gift of time. Of all the resources in the world, time is the most precious to us, and we want to enjoy as much of it as possible with the people that matter most.
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