The common goal in the FI/RE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community is to reach a point where your net worth is 25x your annual spending, meaning your expenses are 4% of your net worth. This is an extreme oversimplification of things because of the number of variables associated with where your net worth might be, and how to access it. For example, retirement accounts have requirements to be met before drawing funds; while you may have hit the 4% expense to net worth ratio, it may not mean that you have that money liquid to cover your spending.
When the ODAs started down the path of FI/RE, we did it with a real estate rental portfolio. This path of net worth growth really doesn’t fit the traditional mold. It provides regular cash flow, rather than an account with a balance that’s drawn down.
As mentioned in previous posts, there are numerous ways to make money in real estate. The path we have taken is probably one of the simplest and most repeatable for anyone. We own a portfolio of single family rental houses, most of which were bought straight from the MLS. These basic properties are in basic neighborhoods with regular tenants. Nothing special. We acquired these properties by focusing on the 1% rule in real estate – try to secure 1% of the property’s purchase price in monthly rent. Another oversimplification of how things really go, but if we were able to find a $100k property that rents for $1,000 a month, we know we’re going to make money long term.
For these properties, we typically put 20%-25% down and finance the rest through a conventional mortgage. We find a tenant, and then the 4 ways to make money in real estate go to work for us: appreciation, tenant mortgage pay-down, tax advantages, and most importantly for our situation and FI/RE – cash flow.
I want to talk about how we can reach a FI/RE number through real estate cash flow differently and more quickly than using traditional stock market investing.
The $100k house had a 20% down payment and mortgage rate at 5% interest, which brings the monthly principal and interest payment to $429. Add another $121 for taxes and insurance (using round numbers here!), $100 for maintenance and capital expenditures savings, and $100 for a property manager; this comes to $750 worth of monthly expenses. At $1,000 per month of income, you have $250 per month of cash flow in your pocket. $250 per month equates to $3,000 per year of cash flow. With the $20,000 down payment and about $5K in closing costs, it means that our $25k investment nets us $3k per year in cash flow.
Circling back to the 4% rule for stock market investments, $3k in cash flow requires a savings of $75k. But we only had to invest $25k! We’re banking on the monthly cash flow, rather than a “stagnant” savings.
We took that math and ran with it. Our rental portfolio has 12 houses in it. While we’ve shown in prior posts that each house’s numbers aren’t as clean and simple as this example (some better, some worse), if we take that $3k annually and multiply by the 12 properties, we have $36k in annual cashflow for only $300k invested.
What would you rather need to produce $36k income – $300k or $900k?
Can you scale a rental portfolio to reach enough annual cashflow such that you can live off the cash flow?
Rental property investing is not completely passive. We have tenants to manage, properties to maintain, property managers to manage, income and expenses to track for taxes, lending efficiencies to explore, and the list goes on. But if you’re willing to put in a little work to reach financial independence (the FI part), you can do it substantially faster by finding strong properties to provide significant cash flow than if you were to take the totally passive route of simple stock market (index fund) investing.
Note, there’s nothing wrong with that – we have a substantial position in the stock market due to the tax free growth benefits of retirement accounts. The power of real estate investing saw our net worth grow faster than we’d have ever dreamed since we bought our first rental in 2016. The proof is in the pudding and we advocate to anyone to just get started!
I left my career exactly two years ago (on the 8th). My son was 8 months old. Honestly, I could have left my job years prior thanks to what my husband set up for us, but without kids, there was nothing to fill my time. I enjoyed my work a lot, so every day worked was another day of money ‘saved.’ I now have two kids and haven’t looked back. I’ve ‘retired,’ but I haven’t stopped producing some income in addition to managing our finances (although I managed the finances while employed full time also).
First, some background of my career.
When I first started working, I was very driven. My goal was CFO by my early 30s. That seemed crazy, until our CFO stepped in shortly after I started working there, and she was 32. Goal marked. I was on the General Schedule pay for the Federal government. I started as an intern in 2007 (GS-4) and joined the training program (GS-7) that gave you a salary increase every year (with acceptable performance) until your position’s max (GS-12 by 2011). I needed to devise a plan that got me to a GS-15 as fast as possible because in 2011 I was 25 years old, which meant I had 5-7 years to climb 3 grades (which takes at least one year in each grade). Not a lot of wiggle room. Well, I soon realized that there was more to life than climbing the ladder as quickly as possible.
I met my husband at work, and we ended up moving to DC for personal reasons and took a GS-12/13 (this means that I started the position as a GS-12, and after 52 weeks ‘in grade’ with acceptable performance, I was promoted to the GS-13 – in theory, not practice). I was warned that it would be an uphill battle to go from the 12 to the 13, and it wouldn’t be as easy and automatic as it had been to get to the GS-12. Commence years of frustration and extremely poor communication from my leadership on expectations. Without getting the promotion within my position, I applied for another position within the same office, and I got it. This was a GS-13/14. I never got the 14.
My experience within the CFO’s office was so hard on my psyche, and I felt that being a young female, rather than my excellent experience, production, and reputation, were playing into the decision making by my leadership to not promote me. I left and went “back into the field” instead. That position was a GS-13 with no promotion potential within that role. By that time, it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t want any more responsibility than what I had; I enjoyed the work I was doing.
My experience in the CFO’s office taught me that I preferred to be at home with my family and experiencing those things. Before my relationship with my husband, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to spend time outside of work traveling, playing sports, and being with my family.
MY LAST DAYS
When my son was born, I took 14 weeks off work (using my own built up leave since at the time the government didn’t provide maternity leave). The typical 12 weeks got me to just before Thanksgiving, and then I worked one or two days per week until after Thanksgiving. The goal was to work and burn my leave to zero before quitting instead of being paid out on it. If you’re paid out on it, then the tax bill hits hard and all at once. Plus, by burning the leave while still employed, I gained even more time off to burn during those pay periods, more 401k (TSP) matches, and added a few months to my back end pension calculation.
Based on my leave balance, being responsive at work, and managing child care, we first set a goal of January. Then, my husband pointed out that January and February had holidays, and I should try to work through those holidays to get those ‘free’ days off. The goal became March because March is long and without any holiday time off! Well, the Federal government shut down that winter for several weeks. My husband’s job was affected by the furlough, but my type of position was funded through a different mechanism that meant my agency still worked (and if you want a lot of detail on that, I’m always happy to talk about it, but I won’t bore the majority here 🙂 ). So I worked full-time while he stayed home with our son. This meant I wasn’t using my leave, so I could work the part-time schedule longer once he went back to work. We then set my goal for May. I probably could have made it longer, but I was afraid that if I got near Memorial Day, he’d say “work through that holiday,” and then 4th of July wasn’t too far away, so I forced my last day to fit.
I had a such a good reputation for the work that I did, that I still get asked questions by friends I made in the position. Plus, I help my husband get through some work things here and there since his position is similar to one I used to hold. I miss the work, but I don’t miss the office politics and red tape, so I’ll take these random questions from friends!
WHAT AM I DOING IN RETIREMENT
There are days that I miss the work I did. I certainly appreciate the flexibility we have now.
FLEXIBILITIES & MOBILITY
We had the opportunity for my husband to work in KY for the summer after I quit. We were able to capitalize on the per diem given for living away from your duty station, and my son was able to spend time with his cousins. I also learned to be extra grateful for our normal-sized house and that I wasn’t trying to live in a one-bedroom apartment for very long.
Since my husband’s job required fairly frequent travel, my son and I were able to join him for those work trips. We went to Orlando and Glacier National Park together! We also took several trips just for fun, like to the Braves Spring Training games.
Pandemic life made us realize that we wanted to be closer to family earlier than we had intended. We loved our neighborhood, and the schools were going to be great, but having to isolate from people for so long was hard. It was also a logistical nightmare to get things done sometimes without family to help watch the kid(s) in a pinch. Since I’m not working, we decided to move to KY to be near Mr. ODA’s family – a lot earlier in life than we had intended. We discussed the possibility in May, discussed it more seriously in June, had our house listed in August, and closed on it in September. Nothing like a hasty decision with a newborn and no house lined up to move into on the other end of this decision! But had we both been working and both needing to be employed once we moved, we wouldn’t have been able to make such a move as quickly as we did. You can read more about these decisions in my ‘Moving States’ series posted recently.
It’s been nice to be able to do activities with the kids during the week when things are less crowded. Sure, a pandemic limited our options for the last year, but we still have more freedom. I enjoy seeing all the things they learn in a day. There are hard days where I crave more adult conversation or the ability to sit quietly and get something done without being asked for the 90th snack of the day, but I still wouldn’t go back to work.
I’m the type of person that wishes I knew the inner workings of so many things and have a strong desire for efficiency. When I took my first job in DC, I kept pushing that I wanted to bridge the ‘headquarters’ and ‘field’ communication gap. For instance, there was a process that the field would submit to headquarters for action. Headquarters had their own internal process of tracking and executing it, but the field didn’t know that process. Therefore, headquarters spent a lot of time answering “what’s the status of my request” type emails. I explained the process to the field, and then we were left to spend more time processing the actions than managing questions.
All this to say: I’m quick to jump at new opportunities where I’ll learn something. I like knowing the process for things and find these details help me better connect with other people. While not being employed full time, I’ve kept my eye open for short term and part time opportunities to do something different.
In February 2020, before the pandemic started, I applied to work for the US Census. We don’t “need” the money, but it gave me something to do that’s different. The application said Census field work was expected to be conducted in April and May. This was going to be hard since my daughter was due at the beginning of April, but I figured I wanted to be in the mix for information instead of assuming I wouldn’t be physically able to do work. Well, the pandemic delayed everything. I didn’t get any information until June, went to training, and then started work in July.
I was able to set my schedule in advance, which was nice. I learned at the beginning that it was hard for me to manage pumping and for my husband getting our daughter down for naps. So I changed my future schedules to be in 2-3 hour segments so that I could go home to feed her and put her down for her next nap. I was given a cell phone that had my work assignments (addresses to collect census data) and my day’s hours. I went door to door trying to gather census data from addresses that hadn’t responded. Most people didn’t answer their door, which meant that I probably had to knock on neighbors’ doors until I could identify at least the number of people who lived at the address in question. That was probably the hardest part because I would introduce myself and immediately be met with “I filled mine out!”
The work was in my geographic area. The furthest I had to travel for my assignments was 25 minutes. We ended up moving out of the area in September, so I missed several opportunities to work more, but most of the work was dwindling by then (the work started to send us further and further from our ‘home base’… even an ability to go to other states).
Honestly, I wanted to be the number crunchers in the office, but that position wasn’t available. I thought if I started with the field work, I could get my foot in the door. Our move hindered that a bit, but I’m glad I did it. I learned how the Census gets tracked. I made some money. I have some good stories (encountered several types of animals, including being surrounded by two large dogs that got my adrenaline running; left a few houses because my gut said it wasn’t safe). The application used to track information needed help, as it assumed we were all working in cities, whereas I was usually out in the country (e.g., no close neighbors). I boosted my confidence with glowing remarks from my supervisor since I put more than bare minimum effort in and was efficient in getting the work done.
SEASONAL CHANGE RUNNER
A local race track had thought that a limited number of patrons would require less staff. Unfortunately, once the race meet started, they were surprised at where their deficiencies were. Less patrons doesn’t necessarily mean less activity at concessions and bars, for example. Mr. ODA and I were approached about an opportunity to fill this gap. We’d have to be ok being on our feet for 6-8 hours, pass a background check, and pass a COVID test (interest fact: this is my only COVID test I’ve taken).
The race meet is only 15 days. We were approached after the races had started. We needed a COVID test, but didn’t want to pay out of pocket for it, so we had to wait until the next Wednesday to get that. Between all these factors, we were left with only a few days that they needed help. One of those days, we already had plans to attend the meet as patrons, so we didn’t want to lose that ticket. Mr. ODA worked one day of the meet, while I worked 3. I then also picked up a shift for their Derby celebration (although it’s not where the Derby was held).
We had a security guard escort and walked between all the bars and concession stands making change. Patrons tend to start their day with large bills, so the cashiers need smaller bills changed out. That’s where we came in. On the first day, I walked over 26k steps – while wearing ballet flats. My feet and calves weren’t happy about it.
It was an interesting experience. I enjoyed watching the transactions that took place, and the time passed quickly. We didn’t even know what our hourly rate was until our first pay checks, but we thought it was something new and different, so we jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve breastfed both my children. For my first, I worked while he was 3-8 months old, so I needed to pump to leave him with someone else. I learned that I produced a healthy amount of milk and looked into donation methods. A friend of mine had donated milk to a milk bank that works with NICU babies, so I explored that option. I went through their rigorous approval process and took their oath on health standards. I donated over 1200 ounces to the bank that first time. They weigh the milk upon arrival, and I was paid $1 per ounce weighed.
It was a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. I agreed up front to provide 350 ounces per month for 4 months. I didn’t hit that mark. It was mostly to my lack of knowledge on how to freeze the milk so that it took up the least amount of space when packing a cooler. They also had a requirement that not more than 6 ounces gets put in a single milk bag, so that added up. I struggled with their packing mechanism; no matter how many of their videos and attempts I made, I couldn’t seem to get 350 ounces in one cooler. It’s nerve wracking when you’re trying to get frozen milk from a freezer to a cooler while it’s 80 degrees outside (garage freezer), and you feel like you only have one shot to do it right or you jeopardize your entire stash from arriving frozen and being worth all that time and effort. I digress.
My second child didn’t latch for the first 4 weeks of her life, so I was exclusively pumping. That meant that she wasn’t regulating how much I made, and so I was making a whole lot more milk than she needed. I knew the rules associated with this milk bank from last time, so I was on my A-game from the start. Lesson learned – double check their rules before any future donation attempts because they changed a couple of their rules. They now wanted 400 ounces per month for 4 months, and they allowed (and encouraged) as much milk in one bag as possible. I wish I had known that on the days where I was trying to figure out how to get 7 ounces into two bags and whether I wanted to hold off on mixing later pumping sessions. I did better with the packing this time around, but it still wasn’t great. I nailed it on my last cooler, but it was too little too late. After my last cooler went off, I only had about 150 ounces left over. We were about to be ‘homeless’ (remember when we sold our house but didn’t have a new one to go to yet!) for 7 weeks, and I couldn’t keep up with pumping and moving around to all different places, so again I didn’t meet their quota. They’re always so gracious for whatever they receive though. I ended up donating just over 1,100 ounces this time around at $1 per ounce.
Mr. ODA could retire today. But again: what would we do with all that free time, what would he do about his leave balances that we don’t want to cash out, what do we do about health care? Our monthly expenses are more than covered by our rental property cash flow, but we don’t want to be stuck at home not being able to spend any extra money because we don’t want to raise our expenses. Since Mr. ODA is going to keep his job for now, we’re planning a more extensive summer travel calendar and trying to shift the mindset away from super frugality since we’ve already met many of our financial independence goals. Our savings now will create lifestyle in the future once we’ve both taken the “retire early” plunge.
The biggest change since I was working is that the Federal government now pays paternity/maternity leave. As I shared, I had to use my own leave balance. The Family Medical Leave Act just holds your job – it allows you to use your own time off, but it doesn’t guarantee payment. So I was granted 12 weeks of unpaid leave that I was then “allowed” to substitute my own leave for. I had planned for babies, so I had a great leave balance to get me through my maternity leave. Now, my husband will get paid for 12 weeks without having to touch his leave balance! Since we’re talking about having another kid, he’s going to stick around to utilize that benefit.
I’ve done things here and there to keep me sane because talking to other adults is a big need for me. But I wouldn’t trade all the time I’ve had with my two kids thanks to Mr. ODA’s extensive research and aggressive saving/investing to get us set up for success and early retirement. I’ll continue to keep my eye out for these part time opportunities where I get to learn something new.