From Debt to FIRE’d and Building Out a Dream Gym 🔥

Good morning!

Got a great guest post for y’all today by a long-time reader of the blog, Adam, who I once had lunch with back in 2017 as his money and mind was morphing…

He had written me the first part of this story years ago, and then it sat in my inbox until we re-united last month with the news of Budgets coming back ;) I asked him how things have changed since, and wow did I get an answer! Which is what Part II of today’s post will cover…

Always amazing how much life can change in only a short amount of time! And also what can happen when you go ALL IN on yourself! Though cashing in all of your investments for a dream like this takes a whole extra level of boldness ;)

If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to open up your own gym though, or to go from being stressed out and in debt to FIRE’d, this one’s for you! Take it away, Adam! And looking forward to checking it out in real life sometime soon 🙏


 Phase 1: The Finances
(July 1, 2011 – March 3, 2017)

It was July 2011. I was $50k in debt ($40k in graduate student loans and $10k in car loans). I had my own group fitness training business in Bethesda, MD. I was 24 years old and ready to take on the world. I wanted to make money and be successful just like my dad who had his own business.

I would get upset when my clients wouldn’t get the results they initially talked to me about before joining my program. It took about 6 months to realize health and fitness was not everyone’s top priority. Some clients just wanted to talk, others wanted to check a workout off their daily to-do list, some wanted to look good for the summer or their partner. But the vast majority were just regular people trying to release some endorphins before they had to go back to their high stress jobs and lives.

I was good at reading my clients. So, I became what they needed to feel good for that one hour of their day.

It turns out that being everything for everyone though, and providing a positive experience for all of my clients at all times, is not realistic – who knew?

In hindsight, this was the worst thing I could do because it was so draining. At the time, all that mattered was the money coming in and to keep the money coming in meant sacrificing myself for my clients. I maintained the status quo and it worked.

I grew my business. I would literally do back flips during workouts and display crazy amounts of energy to keep my clients motivated. People kept signing up. I couldn’t stop. I was addicted. I loved signing new people up – I would hear the sound of the cash register ring every time someone entrusted me with their health and fitness.

My favorite part was faxing in the customer’s contract (yes, I used a fax), but I learned very quickly that I didn’t like waking up everyday way before the sunrise and not finishing work until after sunset. I am a creature of habit so the routine kept me on track, but I knew this was not sustainable. I painted myself into a corner, and I didn’t know what to do to get myself out.

The Plan

In an attempt to get myself out of debt, I found Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps as well as 4 blogs that changed my life: Mr. Money Mustache, JLCollinsNH, The Mad Fientist and Budgets Are Sexy.

These men helped mold my life and provide a blueprint to reach this new concept of Financial Independence (FI). I devoured every piece of content from these guys that I could find. Finally, I had hope again. After all, the Bible says, hope deferred makes the soul sick.

I knocked out my $50K of debt in less than a year!

After getting out of debt, the plan then was to accumulate 25 times annual expenses so I could live off of the 4% safe withdrawal rate – a hypothesis deemed safe by the Trinity Study. I knew I could live off of $40k per year so my arbitrary goal was to save $1 million dollars. I was fired up!

Once a game plan is laid out, I become very “coachable.” I played sports all of my life including football and track in college. I like having a plan, a direction, a purpose. My purpose was to step off of the hedonic treadmill to live a life on my own terms.

I decided that my money needed to start working for me, so I talked with an advisor and opened up my first IRA.

Because I was a business owner, I elected to open a Simple IRA. I also opened a Roth IRA. I was in a front loaded 5.75% mutual fund for about a year before I made the switch to Vanguard in July of 2013 into Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index (VTSAX) for ALL accounts (Simple/Roth and HSA). Best decision I have made. Thanks Jack Bogle! [Editor’s note: This is where my $$$ is too 💪]

Training clients was on auto-pilot by this time. There were so many days I remember sitting in the personal training office reading my personal finance blogs and wishing and praying to escape this torture. Some days felt like an eternity. I thought nothing would ever change.

Little did I know, big things were actually happening. My mindset was shifting. I was fortifying an idea that few people are willing to put the work and sacrifice in to achieve. The math for FI is easy, but the discipline it takes to achieve is not.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

– Hebrews 12:11

My main objective since opening up my retirement accounts has been to max everything out. A high savings rate coupled with time in the market will help any person achieve FI. Things start off really slowly. But, I could feel a transformation happening. I knew the eventual outcome was going to help me lead a much simpler life. A life on my terms.

Freedom was the objective. Money was the tool to help me get there.

I was still burning both ends of the candle though. I was growing my business and saving for FI at such an aggressive rate that I sacrificed everything else including relationships and my own mental well-being.

My body was breaking down. I started experiencing chronic pain. I attended 36 doctor visits in 7 months. My life was spiraling out of control, and I didn’t know what to do.

At this point, I was ready to jump and build the proverbial parachute on the way down. I was in a great financial position as a 29 year old, so I decided to try my hand at semi-retirement. I actually didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing anymore, and the fear of staying the same was greater than the fear of change. So, I changed.

In February of 2016, I quit the personal training gig and started my first semi-retirement.

It’s funny how things start to align when you are living a life true to yourself. I soon found another opportunity where I could get people excited about fitness but not have to coach them, found two real estate opportunities that I jumped on, and continued maxing out my IRAs.

It’s been a little over a year and everything has not worked out perfectly, but I am so happy that I jumped. I now do some freelancing/personal training on the side when I want and I am starting to live a life of purpose. I am following my passions again and now have the capacity to be picky when it comes to work. I only want to do things that excite me.

Phase Two: The Gym
(June 5, 2017 – Present Day)

halo gym weights

After a year of mini-retirement, I was finally ready to jump back in and do more work that mattered to me. My educational background is in Public Health which is all about primary prevention through accessibility. I decided what better way to enact change than to open up a gym?

Luckily, my soon to be business partner shared similar values and had over 20 years of experience in the gym business as well. We teamed up in June of 2017 and started our journey together.

We wanted to have multiple studios under one roof all led by coaches.

It would include a CrossFit gym, boot camp studio, Olympic weightlifting area, as well as an entire free weight/cardio section that members had access to called “open gym” with memberships costing between $59 – $79 a month (a 50-60% discount for this type of training in our area).

We also wanted to bring on a multitude of health and fitness practitioners including trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists etc. so that they could work in tandem with one another to actually help clients achieve their goals.

The concept was simple. Make it affordable. Make it look awesome. Help A LOT of people.

This was our way of intertwining public health with the gym. The goal was lofty, but if done correctly, could help usher in a new primary prevention care facility of the future.

In January of 2019, we finally opened our doors to our 20,000 sq ft facility in northern Virginia with the idea of making training affordable.

halo gym inside

We poured everything we had into this business.

I liquidated everything: my Roth IRA, Simple IRA, HSA, Savings, etc. My business partner did the same, and without his major contributions we couldn’t have done it!

When it was all said and done, we were well over 7 figures into the business. We went ALL in and burned all the boats (this is not financial advice – please consult with a financial professional if ever faced with a similar decision!!).

As they say in business, everything takes twice as long and it’s twice as expensive as anticipated. However, we pre-sold enough memberships to cover the massive rent and utilities costs as well as the paychecks for our trainers.

Work consisted of long 12 -14 hour days for the first two years which included one year of building out the gym from scratch and getting all the necessary county permits to operate the business, and another year to get the business profitable.

Truth be told, those two years were some of the best years of my life. We often laugh at all the stupid things we did as well as the money mistakes we made, especially when the county makes you install two 50 Ton HVAC units and the landlords only allotted a $50,000 HVAC credit leaving us with an $85,000 bill. Business is fun!

Fast forward to the present day, Halo Fitness Experience/CrossFit 703 in Burke, VA is still providing affordable training.

halo fitness experience

inside halo gym

We have a multitude of different health care professionals all working together to get our athletes healthier and happier.

Every year, we choose to donate to a charity that our community backs. In the past 4 years, we have donated over $70,000 to charities such as Shelter House, Charity:Water, Anti-Trafficking International, and Convoy of Hope.

Taking a leap of faith all of those years ago, albeit scary, has put a calling on my life. It reminds me of my favorite bible verse:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

-Romans 8:28

So, the question you are all probably wondering if you made it this far is, “Was it worth it?”

For me, yes. Having a business running that’s not dependent on me or my business partner doing everything is worth every penny invested.

If we wanted to take a week off to travel or 10, we could. The funny thing is, we tend to show up to the gym everyday because we love what we do.

By F.I. standards and according to the 4% rule, I am financially independent. My monthly expenses are around $3,500 per month which are covered by the business returns. F.I. is great, but I am forgoing the R.E. portion for doing the work I love. Besides, we want to open more gyms!

I talk to so many people who feel trapped in their dead end jobs, and I remember that feeling. It’s not fun. I want to encourage you that there is hope. It won’t be like this forever. You can take steps to change your life. However, unless you’re fired up, and willing to make a change, progress won’t happen.

– Adam

gem members flexing

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  1. Tim July 21, 2022 at 11:02 AM

    What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your story. Its seems like a big challenge of a well-lived life is balancing risk w/ reward. You took a big risk by opening up your gym and I’m so glad its working out well for you. Congratulations and I wish you continued success!

    1. Adam October 17, 2022 at 9:02 AM

      Thank you very much! As I say, this is not recommended advice, but if you do go all in on a venture, burn the boats.

  2. Gary July 21, 2022 at 12:50 PM

    Compelling story, not too many people would think of a gym as a “passive business” however as you say if you have the staff in place, you don’t need to be the one checking people in or fixing the equipment on a daily basis. We need more gyms around the country.

    I’ve always wondered who pays for building upgrades and maintenance, didn’t know landlords only give you an allotment that doesn’t cover the whole thing! Seems like a retail version of Tenant-Improvement Projects.

    1. Adam October 17, 2022 at 9:04 AM

      You’re exactly right, however, each lease can be negotiated differently. Just like any business, nothing is really completely passive, however, with the right structures in place, it can be fairly passive just like with real estate investing.

  3. Camille July 21, 2022 at 6:13 PM

    Wow! Very inspiring. Huge congrats on getting to FI so you could find a way to live a life of incredible impact

    1. Adam October 17, 2022 at 9:05 AM

      Thank you! As with most of us, it’s the freedom we yearn for.