We are so excited to introduce you to Justin from ATypical Life. A few years ago he found himself living in the Appalachian Mountains, but dreaming of living abroad. How did he make this dream a reality? Justin shares his backstory, strategy for moving, life in China, and what he’s ultimately working towards.


What was your life like before you pursued your dream?

I graduated from university in 2012 with a degree in chemical engineering. After having fallen in love with the Appalachian mountains, I knew that I wanted to remain in the mountains for my job, so I found a job as a process engineer in the middle-of-nowhere. I lived in a town of 7,000 people deep in the mountains. It was a beautiful place and the job was what I went to school for, but something was missing.

I traveled every weekend to go race road bikes around the East Coast and traveled on a regular basis to go see my girlfriend in school. She later moved in and we got married, making my time in the Appalachians much better.

What was your freedom dream and what was the inspiration behind it?

I grew up listening to stories from my parents of their 2 years living in Kuwait. Now, you may think that Kuwait does not sound like a great place to live, and you are correct. But the best part of that assignment was not the location, but the opportunity it afforded to travel the world.

Every year, my parents were required to leave the country 3 times for at least 2 weeks at a time. They were given a big fat check and were told to go relax for 2 weeks before coming back to work in Kuwait. They got to travel the world and really experience different cultures. From Europe to China, Nepal to Africa, they got to experience it all.

After hearing years and years of stories from my parent’s adventures from their 2 years abroad, I knew that I wanted to have the same type of experience. My freedom dream is to be able to travel the world and maintain my job as I continue to build up funds to retire early and continue the travel dream.

What was the catalyst to pursuing this dream?

Part of the catalyst to pursue the dream was a feeling that I didn’t quite fit in the community I lived in. I was working for a large chemical company in a small town of 7,000 people. I was able to ride my bike in the big mountains and enjoy my time off, but I had no friends around like me to ride with.

I traveled 1.5-6 hours each way every weekend to go see friends and to race up and down the East Coast. After several years of this, you get tired and just want to based somewhere that you can more easily travel from. Because I was unhappy with the location I was living (the crappy house didn’t help - see picture below), I was looking for a way out.

I knew I wanted the expat opportunity, but I was looking everywhere for a way out of that location. The true catalyst for pursuing and moving forward with the travel expat dream was when it literally came knocking…


It’s one thing to have a dream. It’s another to make it a reality. How did you plan to turn your dream into a reality?

Run-down two story house

I still remember my first performance review in 2012. I had been working for less than 6 months and I asked my boss about expat opportunities with the company. He told me to just wait and that the vice president of operations comes around from time to time with these opportunities. I continued to look through my company’s job board for expat opportunities, but there weren’t any I was qualified for. Bummer…

It wasn’t until October of 2013 that the opportunity literally fell into my lap. The vice president, sure enough, came around talking about a secret project in China that had been in the works for several years and it was time for them to find 2 expat engineers to move to China and help start it up and get it to produce a quality product. I couldn’t believe it! I went home that night and talked to my girlfriend about it.

She was not overly enthusiastic about moving to China, actually, she pretty much said no. So as a good boyfriend would, I went to work the next day and promptly emailed the vice president and voiced my interest. It was 2 months later before my girlfriend finally told not me, but my family over Christmas dinner that she would indeed move to China with me (I still can’t get over this). I already had the ring but asked her to marry me a few weeks later after returning home from Christmas vacation.

Several months on, after hearing nothing, I get an email that the leadership would like to talk to me further about the expat opportunity. Now it was April 2014. Being a secret project, I was kept in the dark totally until they told me that I was in. I was told that we were going to go to a secret planning meeting near Charlotte, NC in 2 weeks and then they were scheduling my fiance and I a trip to China with my future boss and the other engineer to visit and see if we would actually move to this location on the other side of the world. To go from no information to total information on a secret project was like getting slapped in the face!

My wife and I went to China and had a miserable experience for our 1 week there, though we did fly business class. I will never forgive the company for flying my wife on her first ever plane trip business class. She always gushes over how nice it is, and there is no way I will ever pay for it!!!

While in China, we toured around and saw some of the sights of the town we were going to move to, we visited the new plant site which was just piles going in the ground, and we toured apartments to get an idea of where we would be living. It was cloudy and rainy pretty much the whole time. We never saw the sun on that trip. We took a short hiking trip around a lake and saw 3 snakes (probably poisonous) within 10 minutes which left me with a bad feeling about hiking and camping in China, 2 of my favorite activities. So without a doubt, when we returned we said we would take the expat opportunity.

I put it this way:

If you don’t take this opportunity now, you will never have the chance in the future. If you take it now, the chance may come again. So grab it like you stole it and run with it!

I worked in the US for the remainder of 2014 doing commissioning preparation for the new plant which included writing all of the operating procedures and drafting control strategies. During this time, I got married, went on a honeymoon, got my wife a passport then promptly changed it when her name changed. We actually got “married” 3 months before our wedding ceremony so that we could start on the mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy to go through to get a name change and then acquire visas for entry and residence in China.

The finances of the move to China were very easy since it was all covered by the company and the expat package. The only change we had to make was opening a new bank account that had unlimited worldwide free ATM use. We were going to be living in China being paid in US bank accounts, so we needed a way to get Chinese cash, RMB, without fees. Luckily, Schwab bank has an awesome checking account that has this covered for free!

When it came time for the move in January 2015, I canceled the verbal lease on the house we were living in, we sold 2 cars for a loss that was reimbursed by the expat package and donated tons of clothes and household goods to Goodwill to lower our amount of stuff moved to the other side of the world. It was hard to say goodbye to our families, but we were moving across the world for the opportunity of a lifetime!

What challenges did you face along the way and how did you push through?

The hardest part of moving across the world to pursue a travel freedom dream is leaving your old life behind. I left bike racing, friends, and family behind while my wife left family, friends, and horses behind. The hardest part of all is when the initial “this is so cool” feeling wears off and you realize you are actually living in China and your family and friends aren’t coming over anytime soon.

During our hours of despair we found this quote by Hal Elrod, that helps guide us on our journey now:

Love the life you live, while you create the life of your dreams. Don’t think you have to choose one over the other.
Hal Elrod

We moved to China for a travel freedom dream, but most of that first year saw me working 6-7 days per week and 12 hour days that were miserable. On top of all that, it was rotating shifts and sometimes I was working the night shift, which left me feeling like death. I felt weak all the time.

I finally confronted my boss and told him the work hours were making me and my coworkers physically sick. I was able to prove that we could cover everything on rotating 8-hour shifts, so we changed and the morale of everyone improved. I was still working 6-7 days per week, but I was feeling more like myself and starting to enjoy life again. During this time, my wife helped me pull through with her constant support. I was being a bad student of FIRE and was spending lots of money on things to make myself feel better. That’s the problem when you are making tons of money and working tons…

When working tons you don’t have any time to enjoy the money, so you buy stuff to fill the void. When I was able to see the end of the startup craziness, I started to enjoy myself more. The dream of traveling more really helped to get me through as well. Now I work a normal 40-hour work week and only work the very occasional weekend day.

How did your dream evolve or change as you worked towards you goal?

As we started to travel in China, I realized that I much prefer longer vacations than the shorter ones that are one and done. I like to travel slow and really get to know a location. This requires aligning my 3-4 weeks of vacation with holidays to extend trips to 2 weeks at a time. Our honeymoon was 3 weeks, which is even better, but I simply don’t have the vacation to travel all over the world for 3 weeks at a time.

Our dream to travel the world while on the expat package became constrained because of the limitations of work. Who would have thought? The company wants me to work instead of travel when they gave me the expat package for China? We paid off $32,000 in student loans in 6 months when we moved to China, then promptly started really ramping up the savings rate to achieve financial freedom by the end of the 4-year contract. The constant feeling of being held back by my job has really driven the desire for location independence. I am not pursuing FIRE now to retire forever, but to allow us to travel the world and be able to make money while traveling.

Life Now

What is your life like now? What have you learned since reaching this dream?

Skyline in China with river and skyscrapers

Life in China is pretty much opposite of everything you come to expect as an American. In the US, China is portrayed as a backward society full of communists, but it really is just a place full of people trying their best to get along with their life. Customs and traditions are different from the US.

I continue to feel like I didn’t quite reach the travel freedom I was looking for. My wife gets to leave for a month at a time to go experience cool places, but I have to go to work because that is what I am ultimately here for. I thought that the expat experience was going to be like my parents’ stories where all they talk about is all the cool travel they got to do. I guess time really does dull the pain. They leave out the other 46 weeks each year that they were in Kuwait working. I live for my time off as I always have, but I do miss my family and yearn to travel even more.

Do you have any regrets or things you would do differently?

As I said before:

If you don’t take this opportunity now, you will never have the chance in the future. If you take it now, the chance may come again. So grab it like you stole it and run with it!

If I had this opportunity again, I would take it again. Do I really like where I live in China? No, but it has less to do with China and more to do with living in a city. I like quiet open spaces in the mountains and rolling hills. Living on the coast in a “small” city of 2,000,000 really doesn’t qualify for that. If I could go back in time, I would do some more negotiation on the expat package before moving over.

I would have negotiated additional vacation time into the contract to allow for more traveling. When we travel back to the US, we spend 3 days of our vacation just on travel to get there and back. It is ridiculous how long it takes to get home and back. At the very least, I would negotiate travel home to count as work days instead of vacation.

I would have loved to expat to a European country or some other location, but you don’t really get a choice of locations. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? My only requirement for an expat opportunity was for it to be a foreign country. I wanted to live somewhere else and get to experience a new culture along with traveling and exploring the location and surrounding countries.

Looking back now, I also think that a 4+ year contract is simply too long. An expat contract should be 2-3 years with a chance for an extension if you like it and the company still needs you. 4 years is a very long time to leave your family and move around the world for.

What would you say to someone who wants to do what you did?

Follow your dreams and take the opportunity. Most of your family is going to tell you that you are throwing away your life and that you are being stupid and selfish moving across the world to live, but take it anyways.

Those that have never had the opportunity to expat and travel the world just do not understand the appeal of the experience. Take the opportunity, let your kids learn a new language, learn a new language yourself, experience a new culture, make new friends, travel the world, and simply enjoy yourself and your newfound travel freedom.

You may feel the pull to return back home on every vacation to see family but resist because you are giving up the chance to see the world. Your family will still be there when you return. It is hard to be away from your family for so long, but in the end, they will understand that you have the opportunity of a lifetime and you are taking it!

Another Dream Begins

We never stop dreaming and growing. What’s your next freedom dream?

Modern walking bridge across expanse

Now that I have had a taste of traveling the world on my limited 3-4 weeks of vacation with an additional 2 weeks of holidays, I am yearning for more. I yearn to not have to go work every day and be able to set my own schedule and be where I want to be, not where I have to be. I am looking for location independence.

This way I will be able to travel the world with my wife and we can continue to work on side hustles that are not constrained to a certain location. That is the real problem with today’s work style. We are required to live in a location because we have to go to a defined location for work. Location independence allows us to travel and work as we travel. With the rise of telecommuting and internet-based side hustles, there is no need to be tied down to a single location anymore.

We are looking for location independence so that we can travel all around the world for several years. We have been all around China while living here and have been to several countries in Southeast Asia, but we want to have the time to truly experience these places. You just can’t do that 2 weeks at a time. If we have a month or more in every country we visit, we will truly be able to experience it and get away from the tourist locations to get the real feel of a culture.

How are you planning on achieving this new dream?

To achieve location independence we are pursuing FIRE by saving and investing ~80% of my income on the expat assignment. By the end of my expat contract, on my 30th birthday, we should have approximately $500,000 saved, which only equates to $20,000 per year on the 4% rule.

However, we hope to completely supplement that $500,000 net worth with side income and live solely on side income. We are working on multiple streams of passive and semi-passive income to generate the funds we need to leave our investments alone and live off of side income. The income streams we are working on and plan to develop by the time the contract ends are:

As you can see, we are not planning on banking on any one income stream supporting us. Through a diverse selection of income streams, we plan to be able to leave our investments alone, possibly even add to them, while we travel and experience the world.

Thank you to Justin for sharing his story. We love the Hal Elrod quote, Justin’s honesty in the struggles of expat life, and that he and his wife are working towards FIRE not to just retire but to live out a bigger dream. We wish him and wife the best and a wonderful rest of their expat time in China! We can’t wait to hear all about where they plan to go once they reach FIRE!

Do you have a freedom story you would like to share? We would love to hear from you! Submit your story here!