Millionaire Interview 218

Here’s our latest interview with a millionaire as we seek to learn from those who have grown their wealth to high heights.

If you’d like to be considered for an interview, drop me a note and we can chat about specifics.

This interview took place in August.

My questions are in bold italics and his responses follow in black.

Let’s get started…

OVERVIEW

How old are you (and spouse if applicable, plus how long you’ve been married)?

39, married – wife, 41.

We’ve been married 13 years.

Do you have kids/family (if so, how old are they)?

My wife and I have two girls together (ages 5, and 11).

She also has a son, 22, who we raised together and I consider my own. He moved out last month (yay!).

Additionally, we raised our niece, also 22, who still lives with us (boo!).

What area of the country do you live in (and urban or rural)?

We live in the suburbs of a major southwestern city that neither of us are from.

What is your current net worth?

$1.35M

What are the main assets that make up your net worth (stocks, real estate, business, home, retirement accounts, etc.) and any debt that offsets part of these?

$1.8M in assets:

  • $0.7M in Real estate (I only count 90% of market value since you lose money on sale for fees). Our current home ($425k). Home we bought for my parents nearby ($285k).
  • $0.9M in Investment accounts. $0.4M in 401ks and IRAs, both traditional and Roth. $0.5M in brokerage account
  • $0.1M in cash value for whole life insurance policies.
  • $70k in value for cars, one paid off, one not.
  • $30k in cash

$0.45M in debt (rounding up slightly). Mortgage on our current home ($180k). Mortgage on my parents’ home ($185k). Loan on new car ($45k). Home equity line ($25k, used to consolidate credit card debt and as capital for down payment for parents’ home).

EARN

What is your job?

I’m a high-ish level middle manager at a Fortune 100 company, and my wife is a low-ish level human resource professional.

What is your annual income?

~$225k w/ bonuses worth roughly 40% annually. I also get about $50k in company stock that vests every year.

My wife makes ~$115k w/ 10% in bonuses and ~$5k in stock vests per year.

The company also provides a 6% dollar per dollar match to the 401k.

Tell us about your income performance over time. What was the starting salary of your first job, how did it grow from there (and what you did to make it grow), and where are you now?

Growing up, though we were broke, my parents always made sure my brother’s and my experiences were rich. We filled our time in free parks, roamed the halls of the public library, enjoyed nature, played pillow baseball in the living room (lots of fun, but not so great for the lamps!).

That said, we were always acutely aware of our financial situation and never wanted our parents to feel like we wanted more. So we developed entrepreneurial spirits. I’ve ALWAYS had side hustles.

My first job was vacuuming my kindergarten teacher’s classroom for quarters so I could buy Hot Fries.

In elementary school during summer camps, we would use a free discount card we got to buy food and candy from the corner store and resell them to the kids in camp at a profit.

Years later, I saved up some money I earned to buy pixie sticks in bulk and resell them to my sixth grade classmates at a profit. Arbitrage is the best!

As I got older, I tutored, I washed cars, and by the time I was old enough to have a “real job”, I fully understood my ability to earn money was solely dependent upon my willingness to work hard to find a way to do it.

With respect to my career, as a young boy, my dad always told me that if I did well in school I could “write my own ticket” which he later explained meant that I could get paid to go to school if I did well enough (scholarships). That blew my mind!!

I spent middle and high school focusing on my studies, got a full ride to school where I earned an engineering degree.

During college, I continued to find ways to earn money and had internships every summer that paid me what was, to my young mind, a ridiculous amount of money. My first check as an 18 year old intern was $950! That was the most money I had seen on a check in my entire life – and it validated what my dad told me years ago that education was my way up.

When I graduated college, my first engineering job paid me $50k flat, with a $5k bonus – which was more than my dad had ever earned in any year in his career.

I also learned immediately that I did not want to work for the rest of my life, or even to the normal retirement age…so I realized I needed to focus on how I could retire early (long before FIRE showed up).

From an earning perspective, I understood that I needed to increase my salary as quickly as possible to allow the area under the curve (income vs time) to be maximized (thanks calculus!). From that moment, I doubled down on trying to grow my earning potential through learning and applying that learning. I added more skillsets over the years (including earning an MBA part time) all of which allowed me to change jobs on average once every 18-24 months.

By doing those things and only changing companies once, I’ve been able to grow my earning by ~7x.

What tips do you have for others who want to grow their career-related income?

Success in a career is always about more than just the degree you have or the work you do. It’s about doing the right work at the right time and having the right people know about it.

The degree gets you in the door, and sometimes, gives you some specialized skills. Everything else you do or earn is based on your ability to apply that knowledge in the right way.

Building and maintaining relationships at work can help you navigate this, and continuing to always focus on continuous learning and how you can add value with that knowledge is key.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable. They call them growing pains for a reason!

What’s your work-life balance look like?

Before the Covid shutdown, I used to travel a couple times a month. Outside of those times of travel, I got pretty good at leaving work at work.

Family is very important to me, and I never want my kids to feel like I care more about my job or I’m paying more attention to my computer than them.

After the shutdown though, it’s been harder as work/home have blended…though I’ve also been spending more time with them too.

Do you have any sources of income besides your career? If so, can you list them, give us a feel for how much you earn with each, and offer some insight into how you developed them?

Yup – that entrepreneurial spirit never left!

Starting after graduation, I began buying real estate and in ~5 years had a number of single family homes generating income in multiple states.

I also bought and sold a few companies as well – and I moonlighted as a semi-professional video game player.

After I switched companies and moved to the northeast, I decided that I no longer wanted to manage properties remotely and ended up selling everything.

Then, my dad got extremely sick and had to quit his job. Though he luckily came through that illness, I watched my parents blow through the money they had saved up with no income to support them, and start digging a hole they didn’t know how to get out of. Since I knew he wouldn’t listen to my advice otherwise, I went and got certified as a financial planner so that I could help them with their financial situation.

Once I finished that, I began using that certification to manage other people’s money and conduct investment classes at schools. I was doing all of this while I was growing my normal “career”…so once that became demanding enough, I sold off that business and only focused on my career.

Then, once we had our youngest daughter, I started trying to convince my parents to move out to the southwest. When we were successful, I restarted the real estate business and used that to purchase their home in our neighborhood.

I earned close to $200k across all of those across the years, and used that money to get my parents out of debt and to make other investments, some of which didn’t pan out so well (will talk about those later).

Like with the career, all of the above was based on self-directed learning and applying that learning in the right way.

Before I jumped into real estate, I did a TON of research, including talking to local investors to learn about the business and the market. Before I bought or sold any businesses, I did a TON of research to understand what I was getting myself into and set my own risk level for what I could live with losing if it all failed. Before I jumped into financial planning, I did a TON of research and also earned various certifications and licenses. Sometimes you learn from doing, making mistakes and learning from them…but I prefer whenever possible when dealing with money to learn from others first.

I should also mention here that the investment accounts and life insurance all put off dividends totaling roughly $40k that we reinvest fully.

SAVE

What is your annual spending?

  • $60k on savings (div reinvestments, 401k, life insurance)
  • $90k on taxes
  • $110k on debt ($34k) and accelerated debt pay down ($76k, used to pay down mortgages and hoe equity line)
  • $160k on non-debt expenses (yes, I know this is a lot…bear with me for a bit)

What are the main categories (expenses) this spending breaks into?

  • $25k on various things for our kids and things around the house (this is the retail therapy bucket, but also various things we need for the house or kids like clothes, toilet paper, cute stuffed animals, new books. Everything on that list is equally important ??)
  • $23k on kids’ day care and various activities (one is in karate and soccer, one is in dance and just recently ended swim classes, and we sometimes do specialized learning camps for them like engineering)
  • $9k on utilities and cable bills
  • $9.5k on groceries
  • $7.5k on eating out
  • $4k on house maintenance (pool, landscaping, pest control – stupid scorpions!)
  • $2.7k on gas and regular car maintenance
  • $7k on large ticket, infrequent items (vet visits for pets, dr and dentist visits, new appliances, etc)
  • $5k on our high deductible for health insurance which we meet every year as our youngest daughter has a chronic condition that requires us to make hospital trips 3-4 times a year, and sometimes get admitted for a few days.
  • $5k on all other monthly bills (cell phones, homeowner’s association dues, and maintenance fees for our timeshare vacation home)
  • $24k on local trips, non-local vacations and travel
  • $38k of untracked money we split evenly

We pay off credit cards before the end of the month.

Do you have a budget? If so, how do you implement it?

We do.

I have a fancy spreadsheet, and I use it to track our budget and spending. Once or twice a year, we’ll review it together and talk about how we want to use any raises we get or any changes we want to make based on any shifts in our spending habits.

Our savings is automatically taken out of our paychecks, a portion goes to our individual accounts for that untracked amount I mentioned and the rest goes to our joint account for all of the things above.

Since I’m the one that cares the most about this stuff, part of how we maintain the peace in the house is through that untracked amount that we pay ourselves to use for whatever we want with no guilt or questions from the other person.

We used to do it the opposite way when we were first married: put an equal amount into the joint account for joint bills (e.g., mortgage, utilities) and keep the rest for ourselves separately and pay for our own bills. The problem was that though she made more money than me at first, she also carried >$100k of student loan debt and I was debt free and the more thrifty of the two of us. Her father passed away suddenly and that taught her that tomorrow isn’t promised – so saving doesn’t come naturally to her. All that meant was that I always had more money than she did at the end of the month.

That process was building resentment in our relationship, so our compromise was that I would take ownership of the budget and we would have a set amount that sat outside the joint budget. When we first started, it was ~$10k/year total and now that’s grown ~4x as our income has grown and I’ve leaned more into allowing our standard of living to grow, but just not as fast as our income has grown (so we continue to build while we continue to enjoy along the way).

What percentage of your gross income do you save and how has that changed over time?

We save ~20%, though I also tend to believe that paying down debt is a form of saving…so including that, we save close to 40% of our gross income.

It used to be WAY less. Our company used to just give the 6% into our retirement account without requiring us to save before it matched. I used that loophole to convince myself that we were better off not maxing out our 401k and using those dollars instead to fund a brokerage account or other investments. I didn’t take tax considerations into account until much more recently – and had the double whammy of having made some bad investments with that money, so…..ugh.

What’s your best tip for saving money?

Make it automatic! The more you can set up direct deposits, or automatic debits from an account, the better off you’ll be. It’ll force you to live off a smaller amount earlier on and you won’t have to worry about what you’ll do with the money if you ever got your grubby little hands on it.

Trust me, you’ll just spend it.

What is your favorite thing to spend money on/your secret splurge?

Our kids and experiences.

We spend a lot of money on travel and on our kids. We really want to make sure they have a solid foundation of rich experiences, and we happen to be fortunate enough to be in a position to spend on it to make it happen.

We spent ~$75k on fractional ownership of timeshare properties – and though we’ve waffled on whether that was a good thing or not, it’s basically been a forcing function for us to travel over the years…and those trips are our favorite times of the year, and our kids love them. We’ve been to many places and recently went to Tobago, and the kids can’t stop talking about how much they loved the trip.

My wife and I also have a tradition of taking a trip by ourselves without the kids during our anniversary. We’ve gone to Hawaii, Costa Rica, Sedona, cruises to the Caribbean, New Orleans, and many others.

Recently, I surprised my wife for her 40th birthday with a trip to Bali with a small group of friends. It feels like we’ve started spending even more on these kinds of things and I anticipate this continuing to be the biggest category of spending for us in the future.

INVEST

What is your investment philosophy/plan?

Pay ourselves first, pay down debt second, buy dividend stocks and low cost Vanguard index funds for long term holding and mix in a few single stocks we understand and believe are at a discount, then reinvest all the dividends.

I also monitor the growth of the individual stocks and sell 10% when they have grown by 15%, using the proceeds to grow my index fund holdings. Though I’m limiting myself on large high runs, I’ve found it helps me sleep at night to know I’m not keeping all my eggs in single baskets.

I like to follow the market and research companies, but I also know that the stock market is basically a barometer of emotion – it’s not a rational thing at all. But since we’re depending on this irrational creature for our financial future, it’s best to understand it as much as possible and try and make sure you’re not selling when everyone else is selling, or buying when everyone else is buying.

What has been your best investment?

My own career – by far.

Over 20 years, I’ve hit a CAGR of ~26% beating just about every other financial investment I’ve ever made over that time period. I’m including here the ~$40k we spent on my MBA that has returned multiples on that over the last 6 years. I was also fortunate to have my company pay for the other $50k for that degree.

Second to that, my best investment has been the ~$60k we spent on a down payment for my parents’ house around the corner. They insisted on paying the mortgage (though we are paying extra each month on the principal) and between the market appreciating ~30% in 2 years and the priceless relationship they have now with our young girls, that was the best $60k we’ve ever spent.

What has been your worst investment?

Geez – where to begin? Part of being an entrepreneur is failing and learning from those mistakes. I’ve definitely had my share of failures (in chronological order):

  • I invested the entirety of one summer’s remaining internship salary (~$8k) into a technology mutual fund with T. Rowe Price and, after forgetting the password, let it sit during the summer of 2000. Uh oh. By the time I got back in, the $8k was down to $4k…and then I made the worst mistake of all and cashed out for a 50% loss.
  • I tried day trading looking for only a modest 1% gain per day on a starting investment of $10k. After making about 15% in a couple of weeks, I lost all of it with a couple of really bad trades.
  • Not one to give up easily, I tried making money quickly with penny stocks. Great investment, right? Nope…another $3k down the drain.
  • I invested time and effort into multiple multi-level marketing schemes that I didn’t recognize immediately. Not a lot of money overall (~$2k total across 4 or 5 of these), but a ton more time than they were worth.
  • I got scammed to the tune of ~$50k that I gave to a “partner” for a real estate venture. He disappeared and I never saw him or the money again.
  • I bought a small house in a small midwestern town for $33k because I was inheriting a family tenant and wanted the guaranteed income. After about a year of paying rent on time, the father went to jail for selling drugs out of the house and the mother abandoned the property while leaving the water running causing massive amounts of mold damage. I sold at a loss just to be rid of it.

What’s been your overall return?

I honestly don’t know.

I mentioned my career CAGR was 26%. Assuming my 20% savings rate (which as I said earlier is high), and assuming steady rate of deposit across my 20 year investment timeline, our total rate of return across allocation classes is somewhere between 10-11%.

Since both of my assumptions lean conservative, I’m betting our actual rate of return has been higher.

How often do you monitor/review your portfolio?

I use Personal Capital for an aggregated view, but also look at individual brokerage sites as well. I look weekly or so.

NET WORTH

How did you accumulate your net worth?

No lucky stock picks, large inheritance/windfalls or magic here (though we did get a modest $10k when my wife’s mother passed, used to help pay down debt). Just straight forward earning, saving and investing.

The biggest key to growing net worth is to spend less than you make. It’s simple, but true. No matter your income level, growing that gap is the only way to get and stay ahead.

We probably could have (and could now) grow our net worth faster by continuing to spend less, but our focus is on balancing enjoying life today while setting ourselves up to enjoy it in the future.

What would you say is your greatest strength in the ESI wealth-building model (Earn, Save or Invest) and why would you say it’s tops?

Earn. Kinda hard to save or invest money you haven’t earned…and I have a knack for finding ways to earn money.

What road bumps did you face along the way to becoming a millionaire and how did you handle them?

Marriage, kids and discipline.

Marriage is tough, and it is very important to be on the same page as your partner when it comes to just about everything, but definitely about finances. Even today, we may not see eye to eye on things, but we are willing to listen to each other and compromise in ways that allow us to stay in close partnership on this journey.

Kids are super expensive, and I was so not ready for that (why does it cost so much for diapers and formula? I mean, really? Wtf?).

Discipline is tough to maintain, especially when there are so many fantastic toys in the world. I just bought my first new car ever (a Tesla…which I capital L Love) but I kept my first car (bought used) for 14 years until it was totaled when we moved to the southwest from the northeast.

We spent a good amount of time using the envelope cash system from Dave Ramsey to help instill spending discipline for ourselves on a regular basis. Even now as we’ve relaxed some of our rules, our spending stays within the guidelines we’ve set for ourselves.

What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your net worth?

Continuing to grow my career to keep increasing my earning potential, monitoring our spending, correcting if things are out of whack, and continuing to save + aggressively reducing our debt.

We’ve also started looking at potentially purchasing a small business as a new source of income.

Do you have a target net worth you are trying to attain?

Our number is ~$3M for early retirement (when I turn 50).

Between huge reductions in spending on kids, no more debt and no more 401k contributions, our overall spending would be chopped at least in half.

A 4% yield/draw rate should be more than enough for us at that point.

How old were you when you made your first million and have you had any significant behavior shifts since then?

I was 37 when we crossed the mark. No significant behavior shifts because of it. Our million plus being split 25% in real estate (which you can’t see) and a third in retirement accounts (which you can’t touch), it doesn’t really feel like real money.

I don’t know about any of you, but I have had a list of goals since I was young. My first money goal was to make enough to make my way through college. Check. My second goal was to stand on the shoulders of my parents and make more than they did to further our generational wealth. Check. My third goal was to make $100k. Check. Fourth was to have a million in assets. Check – then it was to have a million in net worth. Check.

I’ve realized that at each of these check points, none of them actually changed my behavior – but they have felt like validation of the direction.

What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from?

I listed a bunch above – just avoid those!

One thing I didn’t mention was our debt strategy. We leverage consumer debt mostly to keep cash flow maximized and take advantage of low interest rates based on great credit scores and good timing – and hew pretty closely to a mix of the snowball strategies (pay off small loans first/pay off high interest loans first), choosing based on which one feels the best at the time and rolling over finished payments into accelerated debt paydowns on other loans. Over the 13 years we’ve been together, we’ve paid off $525k in debt, not including any payments made on our current debt listed above.

Our accelerated paydown plan means we’ve paid only $60k in interest total on that debt amount since we pay most of these off super early. This includes:

  • $130k of her Bachelor’s and two masters’ student loans (total interest paid on that amount was $44k)
  • $41k for my MBA student loan (interest paid: $2k)
  • $18k for a car for my wife (used Pilot, interest paid: $2k – 0%, no payments for first 12 months)
  • $75k for 3 purchases of timeshare points (interest paid: $5k, all of these had 0% for first 12 months and, for the first two that made it out of that period, close to market mortgage rates)
  • $33k for a loan for a pool (interest paid: $1k)
  • $28.5k for a car for me after mine was totaled (used Sonata, interest paid: $1.8k)
  • $48k for a splurge on my wife’s first new car ever (new Pilot, interest paid: $2.5k)
  • $14k for a car for my dad when he moved out here (used Elantra, interest paid: $330)
  • $125k from our home equity line (interest paid: $3k; half of this amount was used as a down payment for my parent’s home, the other half were for home improvements, or large bills we didn’t have immediate cash to pay like large tax bills or car issues)

Of the above, we probably wouldn’t take a loan ever again to do something like buying timeshare points – but I’m ok with most of the choices we’ve made even though I recognize that it has slowed our accumulation strategy.

Aside from those, I would’ve maxed out my 401k earlier on, never day traded (it’s pure gambling), and shared my knowledge and advice with my parents much earlier. If you’re on this site, you probably have deeper knowledge than most people you know. Share it! I guarantee someone you know needs to hear what you’ve learned.

What advice do you have for ESI Money readers on how to become wealthy?

Wealth is about more than money. You can’t take it with you – so make sure you live life along the way, and invest in the wellbeing of those you love.

FUTURE

What are your plans for the future regarding lifestyle?

Planning on retiring early. My wife has been unhappy in her job for awhile and wanting a change. We’re at a place now where I can maintain our current standard of living with some relatively minor changes.

Using our savings to allow her the freedom of choice is incredibly empowering.

At some point in the future, I’ll do the same for myself – I’m targeting ~50, or when our youngest is about to graduate high school.

We plan on going into retirement debt free, including our mortgages and other loans.

What are your retirement plans?

Living off dividends, whole life insurance premiums being paid by the dividend it generates, and basically doing whatever we want.

I plan on working as a teacher somewhere (probably college; another side hustle of mine right now is as an adjunct professor).

My wife will probably be crafting and creating great art.

We’ll travel – and we’ll probably move to a location with more cultural diversity than where we live right now (though I’ll want to make sure I’m not anywhere where it can snow when it’s snowing).

We’ll read a lot, watch a lot of movies, I’ll probably keep playing a ton of video games – nothing very different in those than we do already.

Are there any issues in retirement that concern you? If so, how are you planning to address them?

Health insurance, especially in the gap years between retirement and when Medicare kicks in.

I have no idea how to handle it – but for now, we’re planning on over-saving and then will look at the variety of options that exist when we’re ready.

We also just might say f-it and move to a different country.

MISCELLANEOUS

How did you learn about finances and at what age did it “click”?

When I watched my stepmother’s mom gift my dad and stepmom a house via a stock portfolio leveraged against the cash flow generated by dividends.

Every word in that sentence blew my mind, and I became obsessive about learning how that happened and how I could do it in the future. I realized that cash flow is king, and that helped define how I approach finances – and how I approach investing.

Who inspired you to excel in life? Who are your heroes?

My dad, who inspired me to always try my best and who taught me that when I did, the world would open up for me.

My mom, who taught me to always fight back and always know that I was loved, even in my failures.

Warren Buffett who taught me that the conventional methods aren’t always the best methods.

Do you have any favorite money books you like/recommend? If so, can you share with us your top three and why you like them?

Besides most of the ones I’ve seen on here (Millionaire Next Door, Richest Man in Babylon, etc etc), I really liked Rule #1

by Phil Town.

That book taught me the nuts and bolts behind the value investing that Warren Buffet does.

Do you give to charity? Why or why not? If you do, what percent of time/money do you give?

Yes – we give something like 3-5% cash, depending on the year – and we also give our time and our items way more than we give cash.

That said, I started a scholarship at my college, and continue to feel strongly that “To whom much is given, much is expected”.

I have been fortunate to have many people who invested themselves in my success, and I feel obligated to pass that along and help uplift the next generation.

Do you plan to leave an inheritance for your heirs (how do you plan to distribute your wealth at your death)? What are your reasons behind this plan?

Yes – we purchased whole life insurance because it’s the only investment guaranteed to be there as an inheritance if none others are, and we did so at a company that distributes dividends. There will come a point in the next 10 years or so that the policies we own will pay their own premiums – and the benefit will grow over time as well.

We also have term insurance to cover the intermediate amount of time until the whole life pays for itself.

We don’t plan on leaving any of our savings as inheritance, but anything we don’t spend will be part of the estate. The idea here is that we want our kids to keep the hunger that we had growing up that helped shaped us to who we are, and has driven us to achieve…but we also want to make sure that they are left better than we were, and that they don’t have to worry about taking care of us in our old age either.

Our insurance is enough, when split between them, to pay off a mortgage or outstanding debt for each of them, but not enough for them to be able to sit around and do nothing.

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