One morning in January 2021, Joseph Worthey woke up in his Southern California home and decided he had had enough. After more than 20 years of working at a Fortune Global 500 company, Worthey put in his two weeks’ notice.
He had no other job lined up, and he was not independently wealthy, having worked his way up from receptionist to HR manager without a college degree. Then 46 years old, he had not squirreled away the $1 million-plus balances that adherents to the FIRE (financially independent, retire early) movement typically amass before leaving the workforce. But Worthey was done with the corporate life, he wanted to figure out another way to live—and he had made “two wise investments” in real estate.
In 2008, he bought a Northern California home via a first-time home buyers program that, at the time, did not require a down payment—his was just $1. In 2017, he initiated a cash-out refinance on that home, which secured him with the funds necessary to make a 5% down payment on a new one in Southern California. The houses were valued at $300,000 and $335,000 respectively, but the amount of money he put down was far less than 20% of that.
By July 2021, he had flipped them for $640,000 and $545,000, respectively, and his early retirement plan was under way. “I had this dumbfounded expression on my face for months” after selling, Worthey tells Fortune. “This kid who didn’t go to college and worked my way up, could sell two homes and make a half-million profit? I never, ever envisioned being able to retire at 46.”
Here’s how Worthey kickstarted a whole new life for himself—far away from California—before he even turned 50 years old, without taking on another job (or desk job, that is).
After talking with a friend who was trying to leave California for less expensive pastures, Worthey began looking up what it would cost to buy rental properties in certain cities across the country. Given the increased cost of living, he knew he couldn’t stay in his California, particularly without a full-time job.
Worthey, now 48, is not the type to pour over financial blogs or be glued to markets TV all day; he is interested in investing as far as contributing money to his 401(k). But he knew he had struck gold in the golden state, and decided real estate was where he excelled.
After banking a profit from his two real-estate sales, Worthey decided to explore markets where home prices were relatively low and rents were healthy. He considered a couple of towns in New York and Pennsylvania, but ultimately settled on Peoria, Illinois, an affordable city of around 110,000 located on a river in the middle of the state.
He used the equity from his Bay Area home to buy a modest house for himself for $105,000 as well as three rental properties, all in cash (the most expensive of the three rentals, a four-bed, two-bath, cost $46,000).
Worthey is community-minded, and worked with the Peoria Housing Authority to make one of these new homes available to low-income renters. He had enough money left over to buy a car outright and pad his savings a little. Worthey is handy, so he manages the properties himself and gets by on the rental income.
“I never believed in the ‘system:’ graduate high school, go to college, work until you’re 65, retire, then die. It made and makes no sense to me, with this precious life we have,” he says. “For the first time I feel I am finally the leader of my own life. Isn’t that how it should be?”
Leaving California behind
Worthey had lived in California for his entire life, and had never even visited Peoria before buying a home there (let alone four). For the first few months after his move, he was unsure if he had made the right choice. Financially, he kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely he had to be missing something, he kept thinking. It couldn’t be this easy.
“Coming from California and seeing those home prices, I thought, ‘What is wrong with it?’” he says of Peoria’s surprising affordability. “It has to be something major. But they were all sound places.”
A year-and-a-half into managing the homes, and Worthey says everything has gone smoothly. He estimates he spends one day a month fixing problems or upgrading something. The rest of the time, he tries to “enjoy life.”
There are other challenges, of course. It took Worthey, who is gay, a while to find community. But eventually, he met another queer resident at the local dog park, and they introduced him to other members of Peoria’s LGBTQ+ crowd. He’s still working out exactly what his “retirement” will look like, but he spends his days hiking, kayaking, trap and skeet shooting, and traveling, all with the accompaniment of his Cocker Spaniel, Bullet.
Courtesy of Joseph Worthey
Without having to pay for housing or his vehicle, he estimates his bills total around $800 to $1,000 per month, which he easily makes back in rent (his biggest expense is health insurance, which he buys via the state marketplace). He also saves a portion each month for property taxes and insurance. His income has fallen from $120,000 to around $34,000 per year.
“When I was making six figures, I did my shopping for sure. I have acquired everything I possibly need,” he says. “But I don’t need the things anymore. It was more important to be able to find a way to leave the workforce and to really take ownership of my life.”
It’s a big change of pace from California, but Worthey has always been frugal—he rarely eats out or buys new clothes, for example—and, while he acknowledges his lifestyle isn’t for everyone—”I can’t go to Manhattan and get away with that,” he jokes—it suits him just fine. A night owl, he is often awake until 4 or 5 a.m., and sleeps until noon.
No longer constrained by the corporate 9-to-5 schedule, Worthey is reveling in his freedom.
“Many, many times I do not know what day it is. I always ask Alexa, ‘What day is it?’” he says, laughing. “I have no idea. Everyday is a Saturday. It’s just me and my dog.”
He also hopes his story inspires others to look into alternative paths to home ownership. There are typically income limits attached to first-time homebuyer programs, but they can be a great option for those who do not have the standard 20% down payment saved. Eligibility varies based on the location, program, and loan type.
“I wish there was better education, more information widely disseminated about all the different programs available for first-time homebuyers and the minimum percent down required,” Worthey says. “Nearly every person I speak to in this community, including tenants of mine, don’t even consider purchasing a home because they think they need 20% down, which they could never save for.”
Worthey has some money stashed in a 401(k) he says gives him some peace of mind, and would be able to jump back into a desk job if he absolutely needed to.
“I don’t feel any anxiousness about possibly needing to go back to the workforce,” he says. “Who knows what might ever happen in this day and age. The houses might crumble and go down to zero value. Who knows. I try not to think about it and live in the present.”
Fortune is looking to interview retirees about life after leaving the workforce. If you’re interested in sharing your story, email senior writer Alicia Adamczyk at email@example.com.