Welcome to It Takes Two to FIRE. This interview series has been developed in collaboration with my friend Steve Cummings from The Frugal Expat.
We are excited to bring you a series in which we explore real-life stories on how couples work together to reach or have already reached FIRE.
Interviews will be conducted on an ongoing basis, with new interviews being published bi-weekly on Wednesdays. You can find past and future interviews in the series Main Page.
As our first interview, we have no other than Steve himself. Steve, an American expat, and Sarah, an Australian expat, are married and living in Taiwan, where they work as English teachers.
In this interview, Steve will walk us through how they learned about FIRE and how he convinced Sarah to join the journey. He will also discuss their strategy, timeline, and advice for those new to the FIRE movement.
And without further ado, let’s get to the interview. Enjoy!
Introduction to Steve and Sarah
Tell us a bit about yourself
Let me begin by introducing myself. My name is Steve, and my lovely wife is Sarah. I run the personal finance blog, The Frugal Expat, and my wife supports the endeavor. I am an American Expat, and my wife is an Australian Expat. Back in 2017, we met in Taiwan as English teachers and travelers.
Sarah has been traveling all over the world since 2013. She has been to over 60 countries and has been to 7 continents. Her parents are from Hong Kong, but she was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia.
My story started a bit later in life. I grew up in Florida and spent most of my life in either Florida or South Carolina. In 2017 at age 30, I took off to travel the world landing in Taiwan, and since then I have been to 21 countries and 6 continents. (I am missing Europe). Sarah and I eventually met in the Fall of 2017 in Taiwan. We then spent Chinese New Year down in Australia to get married in February of 2019.
I am at the ripe age of 34 years old, and my wife is at 33. At this point in time, we do not have any children. It is a hope for us to have children one day.
. In our free time, both Sarah and I love to venture into the world, traveling to many countries, and enjoying adventures here in Taiwan like hiking, camping, and exploring new places.
What would your jobs be? What does a day in your life look like?
As I said, both Sarah and I are English teachers in Taiwan. We work in New Taipei City, Taiwan, and live in Taipei. We are fortunate to have a great job that allows us to express creativity in our teaching while also having fun.
It is a camp-style English program where children come in for 3 days and spend the night while having fun learning English. These are grade 5 students coming in, and the hope is for them to enjoy learning English.
We really enjoy this job because it gives us the ability to make English fun for students, and it gives us plenty of free time when we are not working.
From 8 a.m.- 8 p.m., we are teaching English, having fun and games, and enjoying our jobs. After those three days, we go back home to Taipei to enjoy our time off until our next camp.
Learning about FIRE
How did you two find out about FIRE?
At about age 30, I was sitting in my office wondering about life. I spent much time reading from then on seeing what else life could offer. Upon doing much reading, I knew I needed to go and travel and see part of the world. The problem was I did not have any money to travel the world, and I then discovered Mr. Money Mustache.
The rabbit hole of FIRE blog posts just start popping up, and I knew I needed to one thing, achieve FIRE. The FIRE lifestyle could help fund my way through traveling the world.
I eventually met my wife Sarah. Through marriage and great communication, we decided to be in partnership in achieving the FIRE dream. It takes two to make things work in a relationship.
Were you two on board with the idea of FIRE from the beginning? Or did it take some convincing on one part? If so, how did you go about selling the idea of FIRE to your partner?
My wife, Sarah, was not all aboard on the idea of FIRE yet. She knew that she could save, use that money to travel, rinse and repeat. I was convinced of the lifestyle, and then I met Jeremy from Gocurrycracker in Taipei for some coffee. He was living the FIRE life, and he was enjoying life with his wife and son. At that point, I knew FIRE was possible and attainable.
Convincing Sarah was not hard at all. I invited a couple of friends over to my house to give them a brief education on personal finance. My wife was there to help feed, host, and take photos. Watching and listening to me speak, she learned a couple of things and was convinced that this would be part of our journey.
Sometimes teaching other people can really help with others’ understanding of how things work. My wife listened and knew that this was possible, and it could help fund our life and future.
How long have you been working towards FIRE?
My wife and I have been married since February of 2019. When we got married, I had just paid off all of my student loan debt, and now we were ready to start doing some more heavy investing.
Personally, I have been working on it for about four years. I was paying off student loan debt, and doing what I could to save extra money for investments. My wife Sarah had been living quite frugally in Taipei saving as much as she could for her future travels. When we came together, we put the frugality, saving, and investing to make a power team to achieve FIRE.
Which type of FIRE are you aiming for, and why?
Our hope would be to hit Regular FIRE. This will give us enough money to live on and then give us the opportunity to work on side projects. I don’t think we will ever stop working on projects.
As life goes on, we can focus on our family. We do not have kids yet, but we hope to have children in the future. With Regular FIRE, if I needed to work then I could do side jobs just to help supplement any income needed. I will not have to worry too much about needing extra money, but with freedom and time, we can do as we like.
My wife has always talked about working part-time as a barista. So Barista FIRE may be in the works for her in the near future.
How are you planning on achieving FIRE? What is your strategy?
Our strategy is quite simple. We are going to live below our means. So we are saving between 55-62% of our take-home pay every month. We are then taking that money and putting it into low-cost index funds like VTSAX or the ETF version in VTI.
We know with a conservative 7% rate of return on our investment that we can hit FI in about 9 years’ time. If we invest more or our investment’s returns are higher that time will be shortened.
What has your savings rate been through the time you have been working towards FIRE?
Our savings rate is around 58% per year. Usually in the beginning 6 months of the year, our savings rate is about 55%-58%, but in the second half of the year when we get a raise from our job and we pay fewer taxes we are saving 65-70% of our pay.
If we are traveling, then our savings rate is a bit lower, but it averages out to around 58%.
What changes have you made to improve your savings rate and achieve FIRE faster?
Through our FIRE journey, a couple of things made it easier and faster. First we started to track every dollar we spent. We use a spreadsheet through google docs to record every spending item that may occur.
The next thing we do is to save my salary and only spend Sarah’s. Sarah and I have separate accounts because of being in Taiwan so we agreed to spend the money in Sarah’s account. My account is able to change money into USD to send back home to our American account. So it is best to just not spend that money. When we do that, we are automatically saving around 48% of our take-home pay.
Learning to live off of half our salary has really supercharged our journey to FI. It was also quite important to track our Net Worth as well. Being able to know where we are has helped us to plan where we want to go
What are your investments like? Do you invest in the stock market, real estate, crypto, etc.? What is your strategy?
My wife and I invest in low-cost index funds. I use a classic 3-fund lazy portfolio with maybe 1-3% of some individual stocks like Apple.
Our 3-Fund portfolio is about
88% of VTI
3% individual stocks
99% of our portfolio is in the stock market, with a 1% part into a bond index fund. At this point, we are trying to accumulate wealth. We do not need to be too heavy into bonds.
I am an index fund guy.
When do you plan to reach FIRE?
At a return of 7% per year, we expect to be done in 10 years’ time. If the return is higher or we can add more to the investments then that time can decrease more rapidly, but right now, we expect to be done in 2031.
Life after FIRE
What do you plan to do once you reach FIRE? Will you stop working?
We would like to travel more. Right now, we travel a lot. Pre Covid, we traveled a ton. When the countries open back up fully for travelers, we will be back out there to travel more.
I think another goal of ours would be spending more time with our family, working on new projects, and just learning more.
If we are at a job that we still enjoy then we will continue at it, but if the job does restrict our freedom then we have the financial freedom to leave and not come back. That is the great thing about hitting FIRE. You have the ability to use your time the way you want. There is nothing controlling your time anymore.
What has FIRE taught you?
Patience. If you really want to retire early, you must be patient. There is no get rich quick scheme out there. We do hear stories of individuals that make lots of money off a bet or some venture, but lots of these are out of the norm.
Growing wealth takes time and patience. If you want to hit FIRE you must be patient for 5, 10, 15 years.
Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently if you had the chance?
One of the biggest things I would have done was to start investing earlier. I had worked many different side hustles beforehand, but I was not putting any of that money away. My wife would say the same thing. She was great at saving but never invested that money until she met me.
I think I also had opportunities to buy a house and use it for house hacking as well. This would have been a great opportunity to create some wealth plus living rent-free.
What would you say to a young couple just learning about FIRE?
I would tell a young couple to communicate about what their goals are together. As a FIRE couple, my wife and I work on frugality. We are probably some of the most frugal people in our friend group, but we also invest our money and use our money for things that provide value in our life. When we met, we enjoyed saving money together. Through much communication, we have come up with 5 year goals, and each and everyday work on achieving those goals.
One more thing, create the goals you want to achieve for yourselves. Personal finance is personal. Each couple has a different dream and a way to achieve it. You just have to find what works best for you.
Any final words?
The FIRE life is not for everybody. The thing that FIRE provides us is the opportunity to have options and freedom in life. We are able to do so much once we hit financial independence. So at the end of the day, you need to do your best to save and invest as much as you can early on. The more you can front-load your investments the more the compounding interest can really grow that money.
This article originally appeared on The Financial Alien and has been republished with permission.
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Cristian Ferrier is the founder and author of Financial Alien, a site that promotes financial literacy in people. He is a husband, father, and IT professional. A 34-year old immigrant who went from having $80k in student loan debt, to building a Net Worth of $600k+ in less than 5 years, and is now on the path to retire at the age of 39. Learn more about him on his About Me page. He loves learning, talking, and teaching about personal finance, and wants to inspire others to create their own path and follow their dreams. Contact him on his Contact Me page.