Julien and Kiersten Saunders are on a mission to bring more education about the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement to the Black community.
“Whether or not people decide to pursue the FIRE life or not, or to what extent, is not really up to me,” says Julien. “But I certainly want to make sure people in our community, the Black community in the United States, are aware that FIRE is a viable option.”
Julien first learned of FIRE in college; Kiersten learned about it from Julien when they started dating in 2012. After a trip to Panama in the summer of that year, the couple broke up. Part of their reconciliation process involved an agreement to pay off debt, start investing for their future, and work toward achieving FIRE.
Over the next five years, they paid off $200,000 in debt, quit their jobs (Julien in June 2018, Kiersten in April 2020), and launched a brand called Rich & Regular to share their journey with others. Here’s the Saunders’ advice for anyone curious about pursuing FIRE — and why financial independence can be about more than hitting a specific number.
It Started With a Breakup
The Saunders met in 2012 when both got jobs working for the same travel company in Atlanta. They started dating, and that summer they went on vacation to Panama for 10 days.
While they were away, Julien learned that Kiersten had put the entire trip on her credit card.
“I had about $30,000 of consumer debt and a problem with spending,” says Kiersten. “The honeymoon phase went real quick for us.” The couple broke up after that trip, but eventually began talking again and reconciled. They agreed that if they were going to make it as a couple, they had to agree about their finances.
Julien shared with Kiersten his passion for the FIRE movement, and together the couple calculated their FIRE number: the net worth benchmark at which you can become work-optional. A ballpark FIRE number can be calculated by multiplying your annual expenses by 25; the Saunders settled on a FIRE number of $1.3 million.
They Saved and Invested Half Their Income
Between 2013 and 2017, the Saunders buckled down. They lowered expenses by cutting cable, not having a car payment for Julien (because he drove a paid-off 2008 vehicle), and shaving expenses wherever they could.
“I couldn’t sell the luxury vehicle I had, so I just refinanced it,” says Kiersten. “I also had a fancy midtown Atlanta apartment I downgraded into something much smaller in a less sexy part of town. I had a habit of eating out quite a bit; I never really cooked at home. I went and bought coffee every morning instead of making it in the kitchen, so I stopped doing all of that.”
Julien and Kiersten also focused on raising their income.
“I ultimately spent ten years at my company and was promoted five times. I almost tripled my salary,” says Julien. “We were counting coins and throwing ourselves into work.” Kiersten was also able to increase her income and got several promotions. By 2018, they had paid off $200,000 in debt, including auto loans, student loans, credit card debt, tax debt, and one mortgage.
In addition to their employee-sponsored 401(k) plans and IRAs, they opened a savings account to invest in real estate. In 2014, they bought their first rental property for $62,000.
The Saunders saved and invested more than half of their combined income by keeping their expenses low.
The Origin Story of ‘Rich & Regular’
While paying down their debt, the couple also launched a personal finance blog called Rich & Regular in September of 2017 to share their story and offer financial independence advice. They were inspired to call it “Rich & Regular” after a trip to South Africa.
“For the first time, we didn’t have to be so aware that we’re Black while in South Africa,” says Kiersten. “We didn’t have to be aware that we’re Black and well off. It completely changed our lives because that’s the norm there — we weren’t the ‘other.’ We wanted to create a space to attract more people to a community where they’re not the other. You’re just a rich and regular person.”
The Saunders wanted to grow this blog into a full online business and create multiple revenue streams of income. More importantly, though, they wanted to help others in the Black community create financial independence.
“Our goal is to continue building wealth and inspire Black people to explore the financial independence movement as a way to achieve economic freedom,” says Julien.
Going Beyond the FIRE Number
The Saunders built Rich & Regular while working, saving, and raising a son. In 2018, they felt comfortable with how much they had invested and Kiersten’s salary, so Julien quit his job to focus on the online business full-time. Julien poured all his effort into building multiple revenue streams in the online business.
In 2020, the couple realized they had enough cash and investments to live a Lean FIRE lifestyle in which they had minimal expenses. They had also shifted their view of the FIRE movement from trying to hit a number to living a good life.
“As we started to have a child and then supported my mom, who was financially insecure, our interests evolved,” says Julien. “We went from being focused on trying to retire early to focused on creating a better quality of life, which is kind of where we are right now. We are in a sweet spot where we don’t have to touch our investments.” Kiersten joined Julien by quitting her job in 2020 to work on Rich & Regular full-time.
On Closing the Racial Wealth Gap
Julien and Kiersten Saunders are passionate about educating the Black community about financial independence.
“We have a post called “The Racial Wealth Gap” that explains all of the big barriers and why the gap exists for Black people specifically,” says Kiersten. “But for us, it was acknowledging that and affirming that yes, you are right, it is harder, but it is still possible. We talk about the disconnect when you have cultural obligations that conflict with financial ones, and we help people pinpoint where their values are. That doesn’t exist when you’re just talking about the math, and a lot of FIRE focuses on math.”
“One reason we felt so comfortable sharing our story was because FIRE is a wake-up call for people who are making a good living but still at risk of downsizing or not on the path to grow,” says Julien. “We wanted to make this introduction to FIRE as a viable path — we wanted to make sure people knew about it and that it was up to them to decide if this is something they would want to pursue.”