Talking Money with Jeff and Josh from AHA FIRE

We’re convinced that when people share their money stories and dive into the emotional side of personal finance that’s a good thing. And that’s why we started our Talking Money series, to make room for others to share their stories. We’re all unique but we can always learn something new about money and life from others!

Everyone, meet Jeff and Josh! We started talking to these guys about money back in the beginning of 2020, and we have loved watching their journey as their plans come together. Jeff and Josh reached FIRE with a combination of stock market and real estate investments. We were thrilled when Josh started the Aha! FIRE blog because we wanted to hear more about their stories ourselves. We’re inspired by them and we know you’ll find something encouraging in their money stories…

1. What were your childhood money lessons?

Josh: I grew up in a household of limited resources. I felt like I always had what I needed but we were definitely living paycheck to paycheck. There was never a conversation about retirement saving, as we were just surviving. The most useful thing I learned about money growing up is that life is more difficult without money. So as an adult that lesson is the driving force behind my desire to live differently than my family did while I was growing up.

Jeff: I grew up in an upper-middle-class family.  My parents could be pretty frugal in some areas but we had lived in a nice suburb of San Francisco with great schools and we had a vacation house in the mountains. From a young age I was aware that my parents invested in the stock market, owned rental properties, and put money in retirement accounts. My brother and I were familiar with the process of buying houses for as long as I can remember. We never felt particularly well off because most of the people around us were in the same financial position (some had a little more, some a little less). When I was young my dad told me that having money doesn’t necessarily make you happy but being broke could make you miserable. I’ve always remembered that, though I didn’t always put that information to use.

2. What kinds of experiences have you had with money as gay men?

Josh: I wouldn’t say I’ve had any financial obstacles as a gay man but I will say that being a gay man has brought up interesting thoughts about end of life planning. I have no children so as I grow older I need to plan for more hired help. I also need to think about who will handle my estate and what I will do with assets that are left.

Jeff: I have no idea how my life would be different if I wasn’t gay and I think the challenges queer people face are as varied as the ones straight people face. I developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol at a pretty young age and later with drugs. Part of that could have been because I didn’t want to be gay and didn’t know how to deal with those feelings in a constructive way. My use of alcohol and drugs definitely had a negative impact on my earning potential for many years until I got sober.

3. How do you feel about money at this point in your life? Have your feelings about money and wealth changed over time?

Josh: I feel great about money now. I no longer despair about not having enough money for the future. This is a surprising relationship for me only because I am the Type A planner and worrier. While on the journey to financial independence (FI) I constantly felt like I’d never get to a point of financial security, especially since my entire life revolved around me feeling financially insecure, but my feelings changed once we hit FI and then I could relax. 

Jeff: At this point in my life I’m very grateful to have enough money that I don’t have to worry about how we’re going to pay the bills or whether we can retire. I used to think that I would be much happier if I had a lot more money but that hasn’t been the case. My level of happiness has remained about the same but now I spend less time worrying about how we are going to meet our needs and more time thinking about what I want out of life. In some ways that’s equally (or more) challenging.

4. What kinds of experiences have you had with debt, both as individuals and as a couple?

Josh: When Jeff and I first started dating in 2010, I had $52k in student loans, $5k in credit card debt, and a $5k auto loan. I had had various other high interest loans up to that point as well.

Jeff:  I got my first credit card when I was 18 and I was off to the races. I liked the way it felt to spend money and I chased that feeling through a combination of working a lot and spending more and more on credit cards. I don’t remember how high my consumer debt got but it was several tens of thousands. I also took out student loans to pay for grad school and a semester abroad. Several times I had car loans to buy expensive used European cars that cost a lot to maintain. My financial life became kind of a house of cards but that was my life and I didn’t want to change. It wasn’t until I got sober and then stumbled onto Dave Ramsey that I learned I could change the way I was living if I was willing to change my behavior (we understand DR is a controversial and toxic figure but 12 years ago he is what we needed to find this community).

Both: As a couple we have limited the type of debts we hold to just mortgages. We currently have several credit cards that we don’t carry balances on but use just for points. We have a mortgage on a house that currently has a 2.6% interest rate and we don’t have plans to pay it off before we quit working. That house will soon become a rental property.

5. What are your investing styles, individually and as a couple? And what kinds of accounts do you have?

Josh: I am an index fan through and through. I currently hold VTI (Total US Stock ETF), VOO (500 Index), FXAIX (Fidelity 500 Index) and SCHX (US Large Cap ETF). I am 100% in equities. I am primarily invested at Vanguard for my IRA and our joint account. We have a joint Schwab account for the ATM fee reimbursement feature of their checking account. Then Fidelity holds a small 401K for my new job.

Jeff: I have a handful of accounts at Vanguard that have accumulated over the years.  They’re all invested in index funds. Nothing exciting or exotic here! The account type I wish someone had told me about earlier is the solo 401K.  As a realtor, I receive my commission payments to an LLC and through that I found out a few years ago I could set up a solo 401K. That allows me to contribute a higher pre-tax amount to my retirement.

6. What do the FIRE movement and financial independence concepts mean to you?

Josh: The concept of FIRE means I have options and freedoms that the younger me didn’t have. I have the ability to quit working way sooner than society tells me I can. For that reason alone I find it awe inspiring. The FIRE movement has given me a way to honor my past, respect my present, and secure my future.

Jeff: FIRE (or FI) has given me a framework for structuring my financial life (and other parts!).  I like that it feels kind of “plug and play.” If I do what other people have done I will probably get the same results they did. I’ve heard criticism that the FIRE movement can feel rigid to some people or even cultish. To me that’s a benefit because I tend to default to not very productive behavior patterns where money is concerned, so being involved in a community of people who share common ideas and goals and seek to help other people move in a positive financial and life direction is very, very helpful. If the FIRE community is a cult, sign me up. I just need to ask myself, was my financial picture and my life better before I got involved with FIRE or after? The answer is pretty clear to me.

7. Tell us about your real estate investments.

Both: We have one rental property that used to be our primary residence. When we bought it there were squatters living in it and it needed tons of work. We did a lot of the work ourselves and also hired contractors for some projects. The neighborhood has rapidly appreciated while we’ve owned the house and now it’s worth 15 times what we paid for it. We’ve owned the house for 7 years and it’s paid for. We have another house that was our primary residence until a few months ago when we moved in with Jeff’s mom. We plan to rent that out in the near future.  Neither of us particularly enjoys being a landlord but the return has been excellent for us.

8. Do any of the FIRE and financial independence concepts appeal to you?

Josh: The concept of FIRE is relatively simple, spend less than you earn and invest the rest. That’s the concept of FIRE I love because I like it simple. The frustrating part is when you hear people say FIRE has to be done this way or that way. The beauty of FIRE is that it is for everyone no matter your past or where you are presently. You can start with the smallest of steps from reducing expenses or investing $20 a month, anyone can improve their financial situation.

Jeff: My early life was all about the opposite of FIRE. I wanted to live large today and not worry about tomorrow. I borrowed from my future self every chance I got in order to try to increase my pleasure in the moment. Working on financial independence has flipped that around and now I try to make decisions that will make life better in the future for me and the people around me. It feels good to have matured beyond the constant need for instant gratification. The only thing that frustrates me is that I didn’t really start going in a positive direction until I was 35.

9. What kinds of jobs have you had during your careers? How have your careers helped you on your FIRE journey?

Josh: I have mostly held financial type jobs my entire career. I started out as a teller for a large bank, then compliance, then a registered rep for a large investment firm, then an auto claims specialist, and currently a consumer loan officer. Each of these jobs has helped me with the financial side of the FIRE movement. They’ve provided me with the basics of money and I learned a lot from my clients’ mistakes.

Jeff: I don’t even remember all of the jobs I’ve had, there have been a lot! From my teens through my mid-30s most of them were low paying customer service or sales jobs. When I was 37 I got a high paying sales job and then became the sales manager for that company. I love sales but I’m not a big fan of being a manager, but maybe that’s only because I was never trained for it. I’ve learned the most from starting companies. Since leaving the corporate world I’ve been half owner of a construction company, a fabric store, a commercial and residential cleaning company, a real estate partnership, and a company that furnished short term rentals. All of these helped me learn to take responsibility for outcomes, good and bad. When you own a business you become very personally invested in work outcomes. This definitely adds to the stress but I much prefer it over working in a hierarchical organization.

10. What kinds of jobs or side hustle projects are you open to during retirement? How important is earning additional income for your retirement plan?

Josh: I’m open to any kind of work post-FIRE but I don’t have any special skills to side hustle. I’d like to have a portfolio that can support me in retirement without having to earn additional income but I’d welcome any income. 

Jeff: I just stopped working as a full time real estate agent a few months ago and the adjustment has been a little rough. There’s definitely a sense of loss of identity and personal value. I also don’t know how to fill my time. I like being entrepreneurial so I’d say starting another business at some point for additional income is very important to me, not just for the money but also for the sense of accomplishment that comes when you build something of value. I’ve recently become interested in exploring the possibility of becoming a life coach. It’s something I’m going to look into more.

11. What kinds of projects are you focused on now through your blog?

Josh: Right now the Aha! FIRE Blog is in a holding pattern. I love sharing our experience of getting to FIRE and I plan to continue to do that but in a scaled back way for now.

12. How do you feel about renting vs owning during retirement? What are your plans for your personal housing situation in the future?

Both:  We’ve moved a lot over the past 12 years and have owned all of the houses, most of them have been pretty profitable. We recently moved in with Jeff’s mom who lives in a beautiful area in the mountains of North Carolina. This gives us an opportunity to spend more time with her and help her out around the house. We plan for this to be our home base for the foreseeable future and we hope to take some extended trips outside the country every year. We think renting could make sense at some point, especially during late retirement, when house maintenance can become a strain.

13. Are you interested in geoarbitrage during retirement? Does a geoarbitrage lifestyle and regularly changing locations appeal to you?

Both:  Yes, We are very interested in geoarbitrage. We currently are not considering full time geoarbitrage as we are spending time with Jeff’s mom and we have a dog. But we are considering spending winters in Mexico. In fact we became permanent Mexican residents this year so we now have the option to live in Mexico full time if our life situation changes.

14. How do you treat money in your marriage? Which assets or accounts have you combined or kept separate?

Both:  We merged our finances very early in our relationship and things have stayed that way. We’ve never experienced any difficulties from doing that.

15. How often do you two talk about money together? Do you also talk to your friends and family about money?

Both: We talk about money all the time. We talk to each other and to anyone else who is interested. FIRE has made such a huge impact on our lives that we can’t help but talk about it. We wish talking about money habits and what works and doesn’t work was more common.

16. What are your personal money goals at this point in your life?

Josh: My personal money goal at this point is to prepare for retirement. In the short term, I hope to step away from full time work so Jeff and I can enjoy retirement together. During this time it would be nice to visit Mexican towns that could be potential winter destinations. In the long term, I want to be a good steward of our portfolio in the hopes that it will last our lives.

Jeff:  I’d like to make sure we have enough money to take care of ourselves and address unforeseen emergencies for the rest of our lives. It’s important to me that we have the flexibility to be helpful to our mothers with time or money whenever they need us. At this point I’m not concerned about legacy giving. Maybe that will become more important in the future.

17. Last question – what are you most excited about right now?

Josh: This year has come with many changes and challenges that have mostly been good. So given the amount of adjusting I’ve done this year I am most excited about slowing down over the next twelve months and just enjoying where we are in life right now.

Jeff: The thing that excites me most is when I have the opportunity to try to help someone else improve their life.  In real estate there was nothing I enjoyed more than talking with new agents and helping them with the nuts and bolts of the business, or helping a client complete a transaction that would improve their life situation. I love to talk to people about anything they can do to make their lives better.

That’s it for now! We’re excited to include our friends Josh and Jeff in our Talking Money series. Their FIRE journey and lessons learned as gay men living in Southeastern USA are full of inspiring choices and intentionality that other people can learn from. Be sure to check out the Aha! FIRE Blog blog and thank you for reading their stories. We’re all looking forward to your comments!

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