Ashley’s Story: How to Retire by 30 While Traveling the World

by | BiggerPockets.com

Ashley Thompson messaged me on Facebook out of the proverbial blue.

We had never met before, but she’d noticed my post on a Facebook group for Mustachians. (If the term “Mustachian” is new to you, check out Mr. Money Mustache’s classic personal finance and early retirement blog.) She saw that I too lived abroad for most of the year and that my wife is in education, and she reached out to introduce herself.

I am so, so glad that she did because her story is one of the most inspiring that I’ve ever heard.

Ashley Thompson: Teacher, Landlord, Traveler, 20-Something Retiree

Ashley teaches English as a second language (ESL). Though she happens to have a bachelor’s degree in teaching, it’s worth noting for aspiring teachers that a degree is not strictly necessary to teach ESL.

Her husband Kevin is a former civil engineer. How former? Well, he hasn’t worked as an engineer in over six years because he quit his job to join Ashley on her travels abroad.

“Travels” may be too loose a word to describe their adventures. They’ve lived in multiple countries and visited over a dozen others.

At 28, Ashley and Kevin have nearly reached financial independence. They own eight rental properties, with more under contract. Retirement is in the books in less than two years.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

The Move Abroad

“Since I was 12 years old, it was always my dream to teach abroad,” explains Ashley. “After graduating from college, I accepted a position to teach English in Japan, and Kevin quit his engineering job to join me for the adventure.”

But here’s the thing about most teachers who move abroad: They spend, and travel, and spend, and travel. At the end of the school year, they’re lucky if they’ve saved anything at all, despite often having housing provided for them. (I should know—many of my own friends are international teachers, from my wife’s school.)

Ashley and Kevin? They didn’t succumb to all that indulgent spending, despite the perks of provided housing and no income taxes. “Kevin worked part time at a private school in the evenings and did tutoring on the side. We worked opposite shifts so that we could share the car and cell phone to save money. While I was at work, he would study real estate and investments. We lived off his income and saved my salary.”

That’s pretty incredible: They lived off Kevin’s pickup work and side gigs and saved her entire full-time salary.

Still, they managed to do plenty of traveling, both within Japan and around the region. They simply did it on a lean budget.

Kevin & Ashley Thompson in Japan

Offense & Defense in Financial Planning

When I asked what inspired them to live so frugally and save so ambitiously, Ashley named an old favorite of mine. “When I was 18, my boyfriend (now husband) Kevin introduced me to Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad. Soon after graduating from university, I came across Mr. Money Mustache, and we took some extreme measures to save as much as possible in order to reach our outrageous financial independence goals.”

Personal finance writers love to bicker and drone on about the savings-versus-earnings argument. But getting ahead financially requires both: On the offensive (earnings) side, it’s critical to maximize your earnings however possible. That could mean a new (higher-paying) job, or a raise, or better benefits, a side gig, rental properties, or any number of other income streams.

Related: At Age 26, I’m on the Brink of Financial Freedom: Here’s How I Did It

Yet it doesn’t matter how much money you earn if you spend it all. I’ve known people who earned $200,000/year who were always broke because they lived in a large house, drove a fancy car, and so on. On the defensive side, it all comes down to how much money you can save in a given year, contrasted with your living expenses.

This is what Ashley and Kevin got right: They maximized their income by taking a job with excellent benefits (e.g. free housing) and by taking on as many additional sources of income as possible (e.g. Kevin’s tutoring). Then, they slashed their expenses to the bone, living on Kevin’s pickup work and saving the majority of their combined earnings.

Returning Home to Start Investing

“After four years in Japan, we returned to America and used our savings to buy five foreclosed properties.”

Five properties! That’s what is possible, from saving even a moderate teacher’s salary for four years.

“All of our properties are in working class/middle class neighborhoods. Currently our rental properties are single-family homes, but we are interested in expanding into multifamily housing and apartment buildings.”

Ashley hadn’t lost her dream of living and teaching abroad, however. She accepted a job teaching in Korea and departed again after only a few months at home in Northeast Ohio.

Meanwhile, Kevin had found his new calling in real estate investing. “Kevin managed the rental properties, rehabs, and new purchases. Once we had a good team in place, he began traveling back and forth, spending months at a time with me in Korea or on travel adventures around Asia.

“While I was in Korea we accumulated another three properties and successfully completed our first flip.”

Ashley just returned home after two years in Korea. But has everything been hunky dory every second of every day?

Challenges & Hiccups

All real estate investors are well acquainted with Murphy’s Law. The Thompsons, for all their successes, have had their own share of bumps in the road.

“Occasionally, we’ve had to chase down late payments and we have had one eviction to date. The eviction was difficult to deal with, and the tenants trashed the home.

“We also had a situation where a tenant was late paying rent and disappeared altogether. They skipped on the property without informing us.”

Sounds familiar. Not everyone likes to pay their bills.

And, of course, there are regulations and inspectors. Ashley understates: “Dealing with city inspectors and keeping up with regulations can be… a challenge.”

Remember Tim, who house hacked so successfully? He had similar problems with city inspectors.

Renovating older homes also comes with its hiccups. “We miscalculated the rehab cost for one of the properties that ended up having a lot more structural damage behind the drywall than we had anticipated. We ended up having to spent about $10,000 more than expected, but the house currently appraises for twice what we have invested into it and we have a pending purchase offer.”

As all entrepreneurs know, obstacles pop up all the time. But if you can remain nimble in navigating them, they have a way of working out in the end.

“All of the issues to date have been great learning experiences or blessings in disguise.”

Financial Independence and What Comes After

When Ashley recently returned home from Korea, she and Kevin sat down to evaluate their progress.

They own eight rental properties that cash flow roughly $3,300/month after all expenses (including vacancy rates, repairs, CapEx, etc.). That comes out to almost $40,000/year in income from their rentals.

Ashley and Kevin could live the rest of their lives on that income, given their frugal lifestyle. On the five-step ladder from middle-class to wealthy, they’re somewhere between financial contentment and financial independence.

But that’s not quite enough for them. They will likely live frugally regardless of how much money they earn, but they want to keep expanding their portfolio—if for no other reason than that they just plain like real estate investing.

“I definitely don’t want to retire living a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. We want to have enough left over each year to keep investing, travel, and spend winters in Thailand.”

What comes next then? Easy: one last teaching contract, this time in China. “I just accepted a two-year contract in China to teach for a couple years while we continue expanding our real estate portfolio. Our plan is to work just a couple more years until we have enough income from real-estate to provide our desired lifestyle.”

Note that they didn’t succumb to lifestyle inflation as they started earning more money from rentals. Sure, they no longer shared a cell phone. But they’ve maintained a tight grip on their expenses, even while watching their friends stay at five-star resorts while traveling across Asia. You can be sure that the Thompsons haven’t been traveling that way.

Related: How to Set Short, Mid & Long-Term Goals on Your Quest for Financial Freedom

The Thompsons’ Advice for Others

I asked Ashley what advice she has for others looking to work toward financial independence.

Ashley and Kevin spent much of their time in Japan educating themselves about real estate investing. But there comes a time when you just need to jump in. “Reading and taking courses is great, but meaningless without taking action.”

And for anyone struggling to get their finances in order, it can help to start by tackling your debt head-on before throwing all your money into investments. “Having a good credit score and history really helps. Starting with strong cash reserves for down payments, rehabs, and emergencies can really make a difference.”

Of course, the Thompsons were also willing to make deep lifestyle sacrifices, especially in the first few years, to aggressively save money. “I kept track of every penny that left the house. We didn’t use air-conditioning or heat even when it snowed. We also worked seven days a week in opposite shifts so that we could share a cheap prepaid cell phone and the car.

“The memories, experiences and relationships we made in the rural Japanese mountain village were priceless, but living that frugally to get started on the road to early retirement wasn’t easy.”

In other words, extraordinary results require some extraordinary measures. No, you don’t have to go without heat, but take a red pen to your budget and see what you could cut. What would it take for you to live on half your income?

She also notes that real estate investing truly is a team sport. “Find partners who compliment your strengths and weaknesses. Creating a trusted and skilled team can really benefit your goals of being a real estate investor.”

But one of the most important pieces of advice that the Thompsons offer is also one of the least often emphasized. “Working towards financial independence has allowed us to provide housing and jobs in our neighborhood while helping to improve real-estate values. Being successful not only benefits you, but can benefit family, friends and the community around you.”

It’s this meaning that has helped sculpt their success thus far, and that is already shaping their post-retirement plans.

BRRRR-strategy-deal

Retirement by 30

What do you do with the rest of your life, when you’ll be retired by 30?

“We plan to stop working conventional forms of employment,” Ashley offers as a start. At that point, we would like to travel around the world and live seasonally in different locations such as Thailand. Winters are really brutal in Ohio, so Kevin and I want to spend the winter months in the tropics of Thailand and we plan to spend a month each year exploring new parts of Europe and elsewhere.

“We would have the option to work or not work, and volunteer without negatively impacting our finances. I would love to volunteer part time to teach children in third-world countries.”

And, of course, they plan on continuing to invest in real estate, when at home in Ohio. “Oh, I’m sure we will continue flipping and expanding our rental portfolio as well.”

Oddly enough, this is the same answer that most early retirees end up giving. What do they do after retiring? More of the same, it turns out, but with more emphasis on meaning and less on money.

The Thompsons will still be spending large amounts of time in Asia, still teaching and working with children and still investing in real estate. Which, ultimately, is a sign they’re happy with the decisions they’ve made so far—even when finances no longer require it, they’ll continue living much the same life.

What can be more redemptive of your life choices than that?

Willing to share your own financial and retirement goals? What sacrifices are you making to reach them? What can you do to get there even faster?

Let’s talk below!

About Author

Brian Davis

Brian is a rental investor with 15 income properties, who provides free video training to help everyday people start earning passive income at SnapLandlord.com. He's also the co-founder of SparkRental.com, which provides free services & education for landlords. His rental management is almost completely automated by now, allowing him to travel the world (his current home base: Abu Dhabi).

42 Comments

  1. Joseph Delia

    What’s the kids plan? No plans for kids ever?

    Not trying to troll but without knowing kids plan, congrats is a big premature. This is a typical thing “retire by” blogs ignore and the impact is nontrivial.

    We’re much older than Ashley (in our 40’s) and we COULD retire now, but choose not to in order to keep optimizing for our kid (and that’s for only a single kid).

    Good luck regardless!

    • Brian Davis

      Ashley asked to keep that part of their life private, so I didn’t press. But in two years from now when she does stop teaching, she and Kevin will have more investments and more income, having banked most of what they’ll be earning over the next two years. They’ll also continue investing post-retirement, because even then they’ll be living on so much less than they earn.
      If they do choose to have children I’m sure they’ll figure it out, either by slashing spending or raising income.

  2. John Murray

    What a great plan but the caveat is kids. I educated and raised mine with a price tag of at least $500K which is most likely more than the couples net worth at the present moment. Not to mention the time it takes to make kids successful, the hardest job I ever loved.

    • Brian Davis

      One of the nice things about retiring so young is that you can (and most people do) rejoin the workforce in some capacity. Even if neither of them ever takes another full-time job, they intend to keep reinvesting a good chunk of their rental income even post-retirement in a few years. But they’ll definitely have plenty of time on their hands to raise children, if they choose to have them!

  3. Bob Kehoe

    The article says they paid “no income taxes”.
    They are breaking the law.
    If you are an American citizen, you have to pay income tax on all earnings INCLUDING those earned outside the U.S. borders.

    Wish them the best, but this story wouldn’t be as rosy with 1/3 of their profits going to Uncle Sam.

    • Brian Davis

      Hi Niko, I believe they have a property manager at this point, but I’m not 100% certain about that. Self-managing is very difficult long-distance (I do it myself, with one of my properties anyway, but can’t imagine doing it for 8 properties).

  4. This was a thought-provoking article. I’m really surprised that one would exit the workforce before 30, especially someone who graduated in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and/or Mathematics) program. The trajectory of a civil engineer (“Kevin”, as mentioned in the article) is well into the 6-figure pay range, and quitting before you hit your peak is kind of silly. Not to mention that having a $100,000++ income with very limited debt would allow you to accumulate properties at a much faster rate (and often, you’ll find that lenders will be more inclined to help you out even with aggressive deals if you can bring some cash to the table.) …

    $3,300/month cashflow is impressive, but I question how far it will take you in the US, especially after you factor in your own personal living expenses. If the couple mentioned in the article were to live in downtown Cleveland (for example, since it says they are from Northeast Ohio), the average rent is about $1700/month for a decent looking 1-bedroom. That price doesn’t include a parking space, electricity, or any other misc. expenses. Removing $1,700 in cashflow from $3,300 to pay for your own housing costs leaves you at $1,600/mo. Add in taxes and/or any emergency fund for a major repair on your existing properties and you’re net negative per month.

    This plan seems to only be applicable if you’re willing to live in a third world country, where your dollar (or $3,300) will go much further.

    Thoughts?

    • Brian Davis

      Well they have a couple years of additional income and investing before they completely pull the trigger on retirement. By that point they’ll have some more properties and income, as they’re living on a tiny fraction of their income and investing the majority of it.
      I suspect they’ll be close to double their current cash flow by the time Ashley’s stint in China is over in two years.

      • Clifford Heim

        Real estate investing is a business. This is not considered retirement. Retirement is when you are not running a business. You can state they quite their full time job to become real estate investors. But they are by far retired. Before 2008 many real estate investors condidered themselves retired. After the crash they had to go back to work and star all over again.

        So I think it is wrong stating you are retired.

  5. Joe Scaparra

    What a great inspiring story. So many newbies venturing into RE investing can take note and apply actions taken by this couple to get to their desired destination. For the few critical comments with concerns if they are retiring to early or whats going to happen if they have kids….for you few, no need to worry this couple has it going on and their value system is not yours and they will be fine. The word “retirement” is a misnomer for most of us. We should start using the word “freedom day”. That would be the day you determine you are financially independent of the need to work for money and your choice to work or not comes from desire and not need. So substitute retirement day to freedom day. The beauty of RE as a cash flow instrument is the buying power is not diminished by inflation, so if the cash flow can sustain you today it will sustain you years from now. It sounds like even though this couple is “retired” that they are going to continue doing what they enjoy doing and that is acquiring more RE so their financial situation will only improve as they get older, allowing them to do more if desired, and yes even have as many children as they want.

  6. Congrats! So many people are going to try to tear you down, don’t let them! You saved hard and worked hard and you earned yourself a life of financial independence. You’ve afforded yourself a chance to do whatever you want in whatever way you want it. I am a little behind you and hope to be financially independent by 40, but maybe sooner if I make a couple good deals. Good job and keep traveling.

  7. bill anderson

    ^^^^^^^^
    “The article says they paid “no income taxes”.
    They are breaking the law.
    If you are an American citizen, you have to pay income tax on all earnings INCLUDING those earned outside the U.S. borders.”

    Foreign earned income tax exclusion on the first approx 100k. Legal. Look it up.

  8. Tyler Jones

    I believe the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is just for income earned outside the U.S. (her teaching income, his side hustles). It sounds like their rental properties are in the U.S., but probably don’t produce much, if any, income – depreciation and such. I can see how this works. Cool story.

    • Brian Davis

      If you’re asking whether I collected Ashley’s passport, ran a background check on her, and reviewed her tax returns, then no, I don’t have proof.
      We’ll have to be satisfied with the communications I’ve had with them on three different media, their participation here on BiggerPockets, their extensive community participation on Facebook, the fact that we’re friends on Facebook and I’ve seen the deep history of their FB profiles, and the fact that they were humble to the point of reluctance when I initially asked to share their story.
      There’s healthy skepticism, which I support, but at what point does skepticism become distrust and paranoia?

  9. Cassie Roberts

    Very neat story of a young couple creating their own path and following their dreams! However, I will admit when I read this I kept thinking about the children piece as well. If my husband and I decided not to have children we could be doing the same thing they are, but kids change your financial plan dramatically. So absolutely good for them if this is the life they are choosing to live, more power to them.

  10. Jessie Huffey

    I loved reading this story! I am also an English major who “retired” (late 30’s though). It is impressive how frugal Ashley and Kevin were and that explains why they are where they are financially. Although I do consider myself frugal, two kids and a husband who is not as frugal as I am have delayed our financial independence a bit (my husband still actively works in his construction business.) I also dream of spending winters someplace warm and it is only a couple of years away!

  11. Naren Gunasekera

    I love this article. I’m formulating our goals with my wife and this ticks most of our boxes. Split time between Asia and the US for family commitments with a number of months allocated for exploring the rest of the world. Congratulations and very inspirational.

    Also there is a foreign income exemption but I believe you have to meet certain residency requirements so going forward they might not be able to claim the exemption?

    • Brian Davis

      There are two separate options to qualify for the exemption: the Physical Presence Test (330 day rule) and the Bona Fide Residency Exclusion. While they were living in Japan, both Ashley and Kevin qualified. Since Kevin started splitting his time, now only Ashley qualifies.
      I’ve used both of these myself and am pretty familiar with them. Hope that clears things up!

  12. Clifford Heim

    I think people get it wrong when they state they are retired. The couple here turned in there jobs for a business. Real estate investing is a business. I have had multiple property for many years. At 52 I retired for the job I was at for 32 years. A job I enjoyed. Something you must also have. Job you enjoy. So here is the real retirement. I retired at 52 with a pension and investments (sold the properties) that will bring in more money than when I was working. And all this with nothing to do but check the bank account monthly.

    So find a job you enjoy and invest. Don’t get fooled thinking it’s that easy. When you have family with kids all will change.

  13. How did they qualify to buy 5 rental properties simultaneously? How do you qualify especially on a teachers salary? My husband and I are saving my salary, so we can buy a property a year, but we just bought a property and the qualifying process was difficult even though we collectively make over $100k and had 20% down. Any suggestions?

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