It was 2017, the year before they got married, when Ali and Josh Lupo took a serious look at their finances — and realized they owed more than $100,000 in student loans.
Despite working long, hard hours in human services, the couple was still living paycheck-to-paycheck, unsure how they’d afford a wedding or pay off their staggering debt.
“So we started having that conversation of: ‘Is this what we want to do for the next 30 to 40 years, or do we want to start learning how to live differently?’ And that was where our mindset around money really started to evolve,” Josh tells Entrepreneur.
The Lupos began tracking their expenses and saw they spent most of their income on rent and car payments, followed by food and dining out. Their first plan of attack? Implementing a strict budget: No date nights, no Netflix subscription, etc.
But the extreme approach burned the couple out quickly, so they went back to the drawing board. They needed to find a creative way to reduce their largest expense: housing.
Self-education led them to a solution (Ali emphasizes how many online resources, podcasts and books on financial freedom exist). If the Lupos purchased a multi-family home with a low down payment, they could dramatically decrease their monthly payments by renting out the other unit.
So that’s exactly what they did.
In the years since then, the Lupos have continued their journey to financial independence. They manage numerous streams of active and passive income, including their work as personal-finance content creators running the educational platform “The FI Couple.”
If you’re ready to get your finances on track in 2023, read on for the Lupos’ step-by-step strategy.
Define what success looks like for you
The first step is the foundation for all the rest: Figure out your unique definition of success.
The couple suggests considering what your ideal day and life look like. In other words, be clear about how financial freedom will allow you to do more of the things that make you happy.
“Our life was ‘easier’ when our heads were in the sand, ignoring everything about our finances,” Ali says. “Our lives are more complicated and harder now because we’re more in tune with all of the responsibilities that come with this. But to have the power and autonomy over our time is worth all of it, so [you have to be] clear with your why.”
Related: How to Train Your Brain and Reach the Highest Levels of Success
Build a community that can help you stay the course
The road to financial freedom can be a difficult one, but it’s even harder for those going it alone.
Finding a community geared towards financial wellness can make all the difference, according to the Lupos.
“Unfortunately, being financially savvy is not the norm,” Josh says, “and pursuing financial independence can get lonely because a lot of people aren’t necessarily living the same lifestyle. So whether it’s in person or online, having that community of like-minded people can be really inspiring.”
Related: The Key Benefits of Building an Online Community
Know your numbers: income, expenses, assets and debts
Another critical move? Get thoroughly acquainted with the reality of your financial picture.
As of September 2022, consumer debt in the U.S. was at $16.5 trillion, according to Bankrate. But many Americans are unaware of how much they actually owe: A 2019 survey from U.S. News found that one in five Americans doesn’t know if they have credit card debt.
The Lupos stress the value of familiarizing yourself with all of your numbers.
“So literally outlining and understanding your income, expenses, assets and debts,” Ali explains, “and having a crystal clear understanding of your financial situation.”
Related: 5 Strategies for Entrepreneurs to Steer Clear of the Debt Trap
Figure out how to lower expenses and increase your income
Next up, consider how you might save and earn more money — “the two biggest levers a person can pull,” Josh notes.
The couple acknowledges that increasing your income significantly can seem challenging at first, but the key is to get creative.
“We decided to focus on how we could radically lower our expenses to increase our savings,” Josh says, “and doing so helped us pay off all the debt and buy real estate.”
“If you’re able to increase your income and reduce your expenses, you’ll have more of a gap in between,” Ali adds, “and what you do with that gap is the key to becoming financially independent.”
Never underestimate your earning potential either.
“Coming from backgrounds in social work and human services that are historically lower-income opportunities, for a long time we identified ourselves as people [whose] value was a little bit lower and [thought] earning more just simply wasn’t in the cards,” Josh says. “In hindsight though, [the key is] getting around the right people and understanding different opportunity vehicles.”
Related: 10 Ways to Make Money While You Sleep
Consider which strategy makes the most sense for your lifestyle
It’s not enough to brainstorm a solution and go all in — part of the secret is choosing an approach that aligns with your values and priorities.
As fundamental as real estate investment has been to the Lupos’ success, the couple recognizes that it’s not for everyone.
“The goal of financial independence is to have enough assets to pay for your overall cost of living,” Ali says. “So you have to [ask], What strategy makes sense for me? Do I want to invest in stocks? Do I want to invest in real estate? Do I want to be a business owner?“
“We talk to people all the time,” she continues. “They say, ‘I want to buy real estate.’ But then we talk to them, and I’m like, ‘It doesn’t really sound like you want real estate. Because real estate’s not that passive — and it’s a little more hands-on.’ You really have to think about which investing strategy makes sense for [your] life.”
Real estate isn’t always “passive”
Then again, neither are 40-50 hour weeks at a job
At least with real estate “hard” weeks are still only 2-3 hours of work
— TheFIcouple (@theficouple) December 11, 2022
Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind, though? Don’t forget to enjoy the journey to financial freedom.
“When we first started out, it felt like a chore,” Ali says. “Through the process, we’ve learned that the journey to financial independence is more important than the destination and that it’s really important that whatever you do to get there is sustainable and you don’t sacrifice the quality of your life to achieve [your] goal. Because then once you get to the goal, what life do you have?”