Learning to scuba dive. Playing with elephants rescued from the logging industry. Daily massages, long hikes, dining out with friends.
This is what freedom 30-something looks like for Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung. Or as Leung puts it: “The complete ability to do whatever you want with your day.”
In 2015, the Toronto couple quit their jobs as computer engineers and invested the money they had saved for a house to become globe-trotting retirees. She was 31; he was 32.
Today, they’re living a “kick-ass life” overseas on $110 a day — $40,000 a year — from investment income. Oh, and their net worth just hit $1.4 million.
“It’s been almost five years and we’re still thinking, ‘this can’t be our life,’ ” Shen said over the phone from Thailand, their “second home,” where they’re wintering in a new condo for $650 a month.
The genesis of their revolt against what they call the “broken, outdated dreams of boomers” dates back almost a decade when Shen was working at a job she hated.
Adding to that stress was the couple’s search for a house following their marriage in 2010. Leung became “absolutely disgusted” with the buying process in Toronto’s expensive housing market while Shen was put off by “snarky real estate agents” who questioned whether they could even afford a place.
At the same time, they watched friends and colleagues become “miserable” as they struggled with the burdens of home ownership.
Shen and Leung, who were paying $800 a month in rent and walked or used public transit, had managed to squirrel away between 50 and 80 per cent of their income annually. (In their last year of employment, their combined earnings after tax were $164,000.)
“We ran the math and housing was not nearly as good an investment as we thought it was,” recalled Leung. So they took the $500,000 they had saved for a down payment and invested it in the stock market and index funds.
“We realized we could retire with $1 million in three years or be in debt for the next 25,” he said.
But their decision to join the FIRE movement (Financially Independent, Retire Early) sparked shock and disapproval among co-workers, friends and family, said Shen.
“I thought my parents were going to disown me. It took forever for them to come around,” she said.
The couple used a personal finance professional for investment advice but now manage their own portfolio, which is made up of 60 per cent equity and 40 per cent fixed income.
Every year they post a detailed report of their expenses, earnings and portfolio on their website, millennial-revolution.com, where they call themselves “FIRECracker” and “Wanderer.” They also offer free guidance on personal finance to others.
“The trick to wealth is not stepping on landmines like housing, housing, housing,” Leung advises. “Invest in globally diversified low-cost index funds, and get out there and enjoy life!”
In their first year of retirement, Shen and Leung lived entirely off the passive income from their investments, visiting 15 countries and 42 cities on three continents.
They’re away most of the year, usually staying in Airbnbs and only returning to Toronto for a few weeks to visit family.
Their net worth of $1.4 million — “it’s actually gone up in retirement” — grew thanks to dividends, portfolio gains and income from some computer coding and writing, said Shen.
In 2016, they started a free online workshop teaching people how to invest and last summer Penguin Random House published their book, “Quit Like a Millionaire.”
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But unpaid work such as mentoring girls generates bigger rewards, according to Shen.
“Once you stop working for money and start doing things you’re passionate about, that’s what gives you satisfaction.”
Then there are the personal thrills, like bathing behemoths in an elephant sanctuary and getting scuba diving certification in Thailand. Shen, who grew up in poverty, never learned to swim.
“Now we can dive all over the world,” Leung pointed out.
How to retire in your 30s: What the experts say
“Power to them. It’s awesome what they’re doing,” money expert Janet Gray says of Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung, who left the workforce in their 30s to travel the world and dispense free advice to help others become financially independent.
“They were very smart about it,” added Gray, an Ottawa-based certified financial planner with Money Coaches Canada. She credits the Toronto couple for working hard, boosting their financial literacy and constantly monitoring their finances.
Gray recently worked with a young couple who “were on fire” to follow Shen and Leung’s lead. With two small kids and a house, they wanted to quit their well-paying jobs, sell the house and go off the grid, she said. Her job was “to run the numbers for them and confirm they were on the right path.”
The key for them and anyone who wants to emulate some variation of Shen and Leung’s lifestyle is to have high disposable income for investing, said Gray.
Also essential is a strong assessment of your current situation and a “crystal-clear goal,” whether it’s living in a cabin in the woods, paying off a mortgage or putting kids through college, she said.
If you don’t have the know-how to manage your own investments, it’s worth paying a professional, but beware high fees, she cautions.
Finally, for 9-to-5ers who want to break free, the road to riches is paved with drive and determination, Gray adds.
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