Debbie Emick remembers the moment that changed her view of money forever.
In 2014, shortly after she and her husband, Chris, welcomed their second daughter into the world, Debbie received bad news: The symptoms of a chronic illness she had discovered in 2012 were worsening. However, she is determined to hold on to her career as an elementary school teacher and continue earning to help her young family.
That was until one day when a colleague asked if Debbie would attend a professional development opportunity over the weekend. Debbie hesitated.
If it’s money, Debbie’s colleague assures her, don’t worry—there will be a stipend.
“I remember this little thing clicking,” Debbie said. “And I think I said out loud to her that I don’t need more money. I need more time.”
Debbie quit her job later in 2014, and the Emicks, who had planned to retire in their mid-60s, began to refocus their money priorities. “I just started to realize that I was working for a retirement that I never really enjoyed,” Debbie said.
The couple, who live in Rocky Ford, Colorado, cut back on their spending, increased their savings and began investing aggressively in real estate. By 2019, they had earned enough from their properties that Chris was also able to quit his job as a network engineer.
In the four years from 2016 to 2019, the couple had 19 rental units. When they retire in 2019, each at age 40, the annual rental income from their property will total $45,000. Today, between a mix of investments, savings and real estate, Debbie and Chris, now 43, have a net worth of about $1.5 million.
Saving and budgeting came naturally to Emicks, who credits her early family life with instilling a good sense of value for money.
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 behavior and values around money,” she says.
That generally means focusing on the here and now rather than saving for distant financial goals. “I just want to have enough money to pay my bills,” she said.
When Debbie graduated from college and earned a salary of $24,000, her focus was paying off her student loans and car payments. She hoped she’d have enough left over to cover repairs if her Chevy Malibu broke down.
Chris, meanwhile, always determined to become a millionaire. Also a farm boy, Chris grew up with his grandparents, who he credits with some of their Depression-era savings habits. “I always prepare for an emergency or the worst-case scenario,” she 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 no one with a million dollars could have a problem.”
By the time Debbie decided to leave her job, the couple had paid off all their debts, except for the mortgage. After 18 years in the IT industry, Chris only earns a six-figure salary.
Still, with the family about to lose Debbie’s $32,000 salary, plus the pension that would accrue after 20 years of teaching, Chris and Debbie are forced to reexamine their finances. “That’s when we got serious about having a real budget,” Debbie said.
Chris expected to make some big lifestyle changes, but found that saving more money just meant being more intentional about their spending. He remembers several cutbacks in addition to refusing the breakfast and lunch he usually made.
The couple discovered that their values lie in travel, family and good healthy food, Chris said, which allowed them to spend a lot of money like new clothes, jewelry and makeup that “won’t change our happiness meter.”
Every month, Emicks takes 50% to 60% of Chris’ salary, he said.
Despite cutting back, Emicks is not comfortable with only one source of income. Chris is worried that losing his job could put the family in dire straits, he said.
They decided to test out real estate, and bought two rental properties in 2016 for a combined down payment of $60,000. They took the money from the $90,000 they saved.
At first, being a landlord was a job. The properties they bought “had a bit of an ugly duckling” about them, Debbie said. The couple spent nights and weekends renovating them to get them ready for rent.
Labor is paid. The rent collected from the tenants of the first two properties far exceeded the mortgage payment on the house, and allowed Chris and Debbie to imagine things on a larger scale: Rental properties, they realized, could be the main way to make money, somewhat. from supplementing Chris’s salary.
“We both kind of had this thought, ‘What if you want to leave your project someday? What if this is not how we want things to look forever?'” Debbie said. “That thought easily changed to, ‘How can we use our money to buy us more time?'”
The Emicks invested all their monthly savings, along with the profits they earned from renters, into purchasing more real estate. Between 2016 and 2019, the couple bought 19 units spread across 17 properties in Colorado and Memphis, Tennessee.
“That’s really the trajectory. So it’s quite fast and furious four years to do it,” said Chris.
Despite quitting their day jobs, the Emicks are still very busy. Together, they manage their investment properties, which now provide income – net of taxes, insurance and other expenses – from $4,000 to $6,000 per month.
Debbie spends one month per year selling a special type of drought insurance to ranchers, which generates about $23,000 in commissions each year.
For Emicks, retirement isn’t so much about not being able to work as much as it is about turning the traditional work-life balance on its head.
“Instead of having a job where I’d work 48 weeks a year and have four weeks off, now I’ll say I work maybe four weeks a year and have 48 weeks off,” Chris said.
the couple continues to save and invest. They spend anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 per month, and lately have been investing the rest in a combination of retirement and investment accounts, health savings accounts and multiple cash accounts. All told, they have about $740,000 saved.
They have also been able to pursue passion. Debbie writes books and takes up surfing. And together, Debbie and Chris started “Go Bucket Yourself,” an online community for early retirees, which hosts events and retreats the couple plans.
When it comes to what’s next, “we’re really enjoying this freedom to connect and travel and explore,” says Chris.
And for the genesis of all this, Debbie says that her health has improved a lot since the decision to leave the 9-to-5.
“I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s been dramatic since away from my job,” she said. “Both because I don’t have the daily stress, but also because it allows time and energy to work on my own [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 show on Dec. 13 at 12 pm AND learn from money masters like Kevin O’Leary how you can increase your earning power.