Steven and Lauren Keys don’t need to get up early much these days.
Beach walks, bike rides and games are typical weekday activities for Steven, 32, a former public high-school teacher, and Lauren, 33, a former marketing manager. Both consider themselves retired from full-time work as of age 29.
Their to-do list shifts when they’re preparing for travel, as they were in December when they sold belongings, packed, rented out their Florida home, and left for an extended trip to Australia, arriving Jan. 1.
Followers of the FIRE movement often use the “25x rule,” or 25 times annual living expenses, to determine their “FI” number, based on the general rule of thumb of 4% as a safe withdrawal rate for invested assets in retirement.
The Keyses keep their annual expenses low and consider themselves “Lean FI,” which conveys a frugality, that for them, means owning shoes coming apart at the seams.
“Using stuff until it’s worn out,” Lauren explained.
Travel is one of their more expensive hobbies, and they’ve kept expenses in check there, doing vacations like a six-month extended honeymoon in Hawaii on the cheap, and driving and sleeping in the back of a converted Nissan NV200 van for much of their 2019 mega trip to all the U.S. national parks.
They don’t feel deprived eating low-cost meals like their dinner of Gardein vegan chicken and frozen vegetables that shakes out to roughly $2.11 per plate. It’s an extension of their college lifestyle at the University of Florida, where they went after meeting in high school.
All of this helped them save more than 50% of their income each year, sometimes much more.
And the incomes were modest at the beginning. After college, Steven got a full-time job as a public high school physics teacher in Orlando, Fla. Lauren got a full-time job in marketing. Their starting salaries were mid to upper $30,000 range, and they boosted their earnings with side hustles in photography, freelance work, and buying and selling on eBay.
They bumped up their salaries to the $40,000 range, and say that in two years, they were able to save more than $100,000 by keeping their expenses to about $22,000 a year and investing what was left.
They both prefer minimalism and a “clean look,” so not buying things served them on multiple levels.
“You can either spend your extra money on excess stuff that you don’t need, or you can invest that money and you can purchase freedom for the rest of your life in the form of not having to work anymore,” Steven said.
After starting out with a financial adviser who put them in an actively managed fund with fees and expenses, “We ended up just investing for the vast majority of our FIRE journey into low-cost stock and bond market index funds,” he explained.
They also bought a house in Gainesville, Fla., for $71,000 cash, which effectively freed them from rent.
“We bought it with the intention that if we ever wanted to travel or move out, it would make a good rental property,” Steven said. When they moved to the beach condo they bought for $204,000 cash, rent it they did.
Even after boosting their incomes up to $50,000 and then to their peak of between $80,000 and $90,000, the Keyses resisted the urge to upgrade things like their vehicles.
The couple blogs at Trip of a Lifestyle, where they pledge profits from affiliate marketing and brand deals to charity, they say to avoid potential conflicts of interest and do some good.
Now, rather than “retire early” to never work again, the couple generates enough income from minimal freelancing to avoid dipping into their investments. Steven went from teaching high school physics to tutoring, and says he works roughly 10 hours a week as a tutor for his previous employer. Lauren says she works one hour a week on average, in social media marketing for a single client.
And they are renting out their beach condo for $3,200 a month while they live in Australia.
Health insurance has been among their top expenses, but Steven said they buy it through healthcare.gov, where they take advantage of an income-based discount.
Aside from allowing them to do pretty much anything with their free time, financial freedom takes away money as a source of stress.
“The weight that is lifted from you when you don’t have to worry about money is huge,” Lauren said. “You can just live your life.”