Californians obsess about the sheer number of people leaving our state. But maybe we should worry more about the quality of these departures.
Californians are supposed to dream big. So why do their ambitions get so small when they head for the exits?
So, enough with vamoosing to vapid Vegas subdivisions. Cool down before you sign a lease in hot Phoenix. Think twice before making a down payment on a hurricane-damaged house in Houston. If you’re going to depart a state as fabulous as ours, why not make your leaving a fantastic triumph?
Amon and Christina Browning can show you how.
Two years ago, entering their 40s, the Brownings retired and left the state with their two teenage daughters. Their destination: Portugal, one of the few places on earth that offers a lifestyle to rival California’s, and at a much lower price.
The Brownings documented their move on their YouTube channel, Our Rich Journey, fueling fantasies of flight among Californians, including this columnist. So I reached out to the couple, who remain proud Californians. To repurpose Shakespeare, nothing was ever so Californian as their leaving it.
Amon, an urban planner, and Christina, a lawyer, met at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Christina, who moved here from Iowa at 7, grew up in Stockton. Amon grew up in Oakland and the East Bay; for one stretch of his childhood, his family was homeless.
Growing up without wealth made the Brownings take finances seriously. And when—after stints in San Diego, Spain and Japan —t hey returned to the Bay Area a decade ago, they embraced the FIRE movement (“Financial Independence Retire Early”) and made a plan to retire in 10 years.
To achieve it, they saved relentlessly (socking away 70 percent of their income), added income through side hustles (like driving for Uber and Lyft), and bought rundown homes in the Bay Area, fixing them up as they lived in them, and then selling them. They hit their financial target two years early.
“I don’t think we would have been able to make as much money and be as successful on our journey if we weren’t in California,” says Amon.
If they were going to stay in the United States, they would have remained in California. But their money could go further elsewhere, and they knew they wanted to live overseas.
Portugal offered similarly amazing weather but with less crime (it’s the world’s third safest country). Lisbon also tops rankings of the best cities for raising children, and the Brownings say schools there feel more welcoming and community-oriented than American high schools. Portugal is healthier, too, with an average lifespan four years longer than America’s and cheap universal healthcare. Amon and Christina have marveled at how their neighbors embraced COVID vaccinations, making Portugal one of the most vaccinated countries on earth.
And the housing is much cheaper. After renting for a year to study the market and establish residency, they bought a house on Portugal’s central coast, not far from the beach, for 190,000 Euros (about $220,000). Their place would cost more than a million back home in the Bay Area.
Even as they grow their YouTube channel, sell online classes on finance, and make media appearances, including on CNBC and “Good Morning America,” the Brownings are enjoying retirement. They have more time and energy for their children, for themselves, and for inexpensive trips around Europe.
“It’s this very relaxed environment, peace of mind — you don’t feel like you’re looking over your shoulder,” says Christina.
The Brownings are African American, and their friends back home often ask how race is shaping their European experience. Their answer is that they feel comfortable and connected; Lisbon and other bigger cities are highly diverse, with many Black people from Africa and elsewhere in Europe.
“When I’m in California, when I’m in the United States, I have to be conscious of race wherever I go,” says Amon. “I’ve never had a problem here, or a bad interaction with people here.”
Life in Portugal isn’t perfect. Learning Portuguese is harder than they thought (they speak some Spanish, and the similarities between the two languages can make things more confusing). And they miss family, friends, and their home state’s unmatchable culinary diversity (especially Mexican and Chinese food).
The Brownings say they love California, and will continue to visit as much as possible. They could eventually become bicoastal, splitting their time between the west coasts of Portugal and the Golden State. “We couldn’t see ourselves living in any other state,” Christina says. “We positioned ourselves where we could leave, experience what it’s like in another place, and then go back if we couldn’t handle being away from California.”
After all, the perfect California departure is one that leaves the door open for a return.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.