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How a Gen Xer went from declaring bankruptcy at 30 to being on track to retire early in her 50s

Chris Elle Dove and her dog
Chris Elle Dove is set to retire early, two decades after declaring bankruptcy.Chris Elle Dove
  • Chris Elle Dove, once bankrupt, is set to retire early with over $1.5 million net worth.

  • She transitioned from earning $50,000 a year as a professor to investing full-time.

  • Her strategy includes living minimally, investing in real estate, and keeping spending low.

Chris Elle Dove, 52, declared bankruptcy at age 29 in 2001 and survived off government benefits and side hustles to provide for her two kids. She had recently lost her husband and was struggling to be a good mom while finding more stable work.

Two decades later, she and her second husband have a total net worth of over $1.5 million and are set to retire early in their 50s.

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After years of earning between $50,000 and $60,000 as a professor, Dove was convinced by her husband — who is in the military and had maxed out his retirement accounts — to invest full-time. Investing, alongside income from real estate and financial consulting, allowed her and her husband to be on track to become FIREs — or those who have reached financial independence and retired early.

She acknowledged her FIRE journey started much later than many others, though she stressed reaching financial independence isn't as inaccessible as many think.

"It was a long time before I got back on my feet, and I have no intention of ever being in that situation again," Dove said.

A rocky financial start

Dove was raised in an upper-middle-class family that went on two vacations a year, and she did extracurriculars from cheerleading to horseback riding to ice skating.

"I didn't even think about not going to college," Dove said. "I only thought about what college."

Her parents never openly discussed money, but she knew they kept a strict budget. They taught her about managing money, such as by giving her a pre-paid credit card in high school for clothes that she had to budget.

She had her first kid at 20 and her second at 24, putting her bachelor's degree on hold — it took her 17 years to finish her degree. At one point, she held three jobs — teaching ballroom dancing, bartending, and shoveling mulch for a landscaping company.

While raising her kids, her husband developed a brain tumor that left him sick for years. The medical bills piled up, and most weren't covered by their insurance. She also had student loan debt that she put on the back burner.

Her husband died at 28 when her kids were 7 and 3.

Dove didn't have much time to grieve, though. She worked so many hours to support her kids she would get sick. After a car accident that led to a hospital stay, she declared bankruptcy.

With little money to her name, relying on Social Security survivor benefits, she moved with her two kids to a town in Western Illinois. She bought a $50,000 home, paying $200 a month in mortgage payments. She maintained her dance teaching position, privately tutored, and was a research assistant.

"I always felt like a failure, like I should be providing for my kids the way I was provided for," Dove said. "I was never able to do that. I was just trying to make it to the next paycheck."

Getting back on her feet

In a stroke of luck, she got the opportunity to teach sociology courses at a community college, which paid her $34,000 a year in 2006. Her salary rose to $56,000 a few years later. Having plenty of vacations and more stable hours allowed her to be more present in her kids' lives, though money was still a stressor. She made extra income from advising campus clubs.

"We kept the wheels on the bus, but we never got ahead," Dove said.

She barely had money in her retirement accounts and hadn't invested much for her kids' futures. All she could think about was squeezing enough money out of her next paycheck to take her kids to a museum.

"I honestly spent most of my life not caring about money unless I had an emergency expense and I couldn't pay for it," Dove said. "I thought money was probably something that corrupted people, and I just didn't have a very positive opinion of money."

Her second husband, whom she met in 2015 and married in 2021, had maxed out his retirement accounts and saved much of his income. They agreed she would take off a few months to write children's books and see if it was financially sustainable. Once it became clear this career switch wasn't viable, she began investing after her husband convinced her she would be good at it.

"I pushed back because I didn't think it was rewarding. I didn't think I would feel like I was contributing to society in a meaningful way as an investor," Dove said.

Reaching financial independence

She sold her car and invested that money in the stock market, starting with buying a share of Berkshire Hathaway, then diversifying her portfolio.

"One of the biggest realizations for me is that I used to think you needed more money to be wealthy, but now what I've learned is you can have a ton of money and still live paycheck to paycheck," Dove said. "You can make a very small amount of income and live within your means and live stress-free and happy and build wealth."

She knew she couldn't start her financial independence journey alone, and her more financially savvy husband helped her get on track. On a national parks trip, they decided they would do whatever they could to retire early and spend more time exploring the world without worrying about money.

She read dozens of books and articles about financial markets, completed graduate degrees in financial planning, and became a Certified Financial Behavior Specialist. She modified her investing strategies to fit her personality, schedule, and risk tolerance. She and her husband started with $240,000 invested in retirement accounts, as well as about $80,000 in equity. Within the first four years, they doubled their investments twice.

In her mid-40s, she paid off her student debt, which she considered a huge milestone. It was the first time she could start saving money and max out her 401(k).

She and her husband adopted a minimalist lifestyle, starting by adopting a "one in, one out" rule — for every shirt she bought, she would sell one. They prioritized experiences over gifts and significantly increased savings, only purchasing what they needed.

Over the last four years, she estimates they've saved over 40% of their income — and about 60% if including investments from home sales. Still, she said they're not overly frugal and spend on fitness, food, and hobbies like bikes.

She created an "intense and intimidating" spreadsheet to track everything coming in and going out. She added sections for emergency savings, investments, net worth, and their "slush fund" of purchases above $500.

They pivoted to moving 20% of her husband's base income, 100% of her income, and at least 50% of bonuses into investments. Her husband's military pension, which is inflation-adjusted, has also taken some weight off the planning process.

"In addition to paying ourselves first, we've adopted the 'give every dollar a job' approach. At the end of each month, any 'extra money' is assigned to either slush, emergency, or it's invested," Dove said.

Dove didn't want to work even more hours, which would force her to sacrifice time with her kids, so she made more with less. They recently bought a home for $96,000 in Bloomington, Illinois, just as State Farm moved their headquarters and home prices fell, then sold their house right as Rivian came in and prices rose.

This encouraged her to dabble in real estate investing, putting their mountain home up on Airbnb. The home was almost immediately booked out each week for eight months.

Dove has published four children's picture books and spends her days writing, facilitating workshops, and working as a financial coach. She is also an angel investor in some startups. Ultimately, she hopes to retire early to spend more time with loved ones and set them up for success.

"Although we have not hit our FI number yet, we will reach our target amount by our target date with just what we contribute from my husband's income," Dove said. "That has paved the way for me to chase my many dreams."

Are you part of the FIRE movement or living by some of its principles? Reach out to this reporter at nsheidlower@businessinsider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider