[Hey guys! Welcome Rob Andersen from Mustard Seed Money to the site today, who shares his journey to his first million without having any fancy jobs or skills. It might surprise you how he and his wife got to this point (no it won’t), but it’s testament again and again just how attainable it all is so long as you put in the time and make it a priority. Hope you enjoy!]
I’m 36. I’m a government employee. And, I’m a self-made millionaire.
There I said it.
I’ve never publicly shared that before, not even on my own blog, but since J. Money provided a mountaintop here I might as well shout something exciting from it!
Here is the obligatory screenshot from Personal Capital to prove it:
[I use Personal Capital to track all my money and highly recommend. And for those wondering, yes, this figure does include my house’s value.]
How Did I Do It?
Well, the answer will blow your mind…
Are you ready? Here they are:
- I lived below my means
- I was resourceful
- I saved and invested
- I was patient
Incredibly sexy stuff, huh?
Let me give a little background on how I reached this point.
When I graduated from college, I was broke. Like, Ramen noodles for dinner on a regular basis, broke.
The summer before my senior year of college, I decided to stay at school and take as many summer courses as I could. Call me lazy, but I just didn’t want to hold a part-time job while also taking so many classes and studying all the time. So I ended up exhausting all my funds.
I was stupid. I should have gotten a job and worked, but I didn’t. It was a self-inflicted wound, and I had nobody to blame but myself. I even remember a time when I was telling my friend about the rough shape my bank account was in, and a Walmart employee decided to eavesdrop. I told my friend I couldn’t even get a credit card, and the Walmart employee interjected telling me that everyone could get a credit card. He proceeded with: “What is wrong with you?”
My Awesome Parents
So where does a guy go with no money to his name when he graduates from college?
He moves back home with his parents, of course! But there was a caveat. They wanted me to create a plan for the future so that I wouldn’t be that guy who lived in his parents’ basement forever. I planned to save as much money as I could while living with them in order to one day buy a home.
My parents were shockingly happy to help out with my plan. It might have had something to do with my younger sister leaving for college – I’m not sure they were ready to be empty nesters.
I was also fortunate that my parents didn’t charge me any rent. The biggest perk was probably my mom’s home-cooked meals though. Let’s just say I was living the life! I was able to save almost every dollar that I made. My future home down payment was growing rapidly.
Helpful Advice From a Colleague
For my first job, I worked as an insurance adjuster, so I was the guy you talked to if you were in a car accident. Admittedly, I was burned out from all the finance courses in college, so I embraced the world of interfacing with a variety of people. I actually think it really improved my communication skills.
Since I was a freshly-minted graduate, I received a ton of advice from some well-meaning people. At 23, I thought I already knew everything. But, some advice really did stick with me.
An older colleague pulled me aside one day and told me the most valuable piece of advice: live below your means and don’t let peer pressure cause you to spend frivolously. He also told me that if I ever received a raise, to save and not spend it. He assured me that I would reach retirement with no problem by following this advice.
At that point, I really didn’t have any expenses. I was fortunate to graduate from college without student loans. I drove a ten year old car that worked fine. Needless to say, I was able to save a boatload of money.
Buying My First Home
Over time, I was able to pinpoint where I wanted to live. I even lined up a few guys who wanted to be housemates. They really just didn’t want to live with their own parents anymore.
So after 18 months of saving and looking for a potential home, in June of 2004, at the ripe age of 23, I took the plunge and bought my first home. It was awesome and scary at the same time. Why a bank would lend me $400,000 when I wasn’t even making 10% of that is beyond me. But I wasn’t about to question them.
I charged my housemates the low-end of market rate, since they were all my buddies and I wanted to lock in rental income. I wasn’t really interested in having a bunch of random guys from Craigslist live with me in my house.
Where My Money Was Going
So at this point in my financial journey, I was contributing up to my 401(k) match at work, which was 6%, I was maxing out my Roth IRA each year in passive index funds (SPY was my fund of choice back in the day), and I was applying my rental income, along with my paycheck, towards the mortgage.
Every single dollar of income was accounted for each month. I was living very lean, to the point of still driving over to my parents house for hot meals at times of desperation. (Thanks Mom and Dad!)
Did I mention that my house was sparsely furnished? There were rooms in the house that were completely empty. I simply couldn’t afford much more than the bare necessities. Visitors made fun of me, but I wasn’t bothered. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody. I owned a home and was proud of my accomplishment! I also wasn’t interested in accruing debt just to spruce up my place.
Night Classes and Switching Jobs
After a couple of years working in insurance, one of my roommates who worked for the Federal Government, told me they were hiring accountants. I figured it would be a good opportunity to utilize my four-year degree.
The only problem was that I needed more accounting credits in order to qualify for the position. I began taking night classes at the local community college. My already tight budget became even tighter in order to pay for these courses. I started really shopping for deals on groceries and making sure that I was being efficient with every penny.
Even when I would receive a raise, instead of loosening my belt, I took my coworker’s advice to heart. Instead of splurging, I simply increased my monthly payments to pay off my mortgage.
After I completed my night classes, I received an offer from the Federal Government. That’s when I took the plunge and became a government employee. I enjoyed the accounting work and was content with my situation. Once again, I contributed up to the 401(k) match, which was 5%.
Tracking My Money
I began tracking my investments two years after I started working for the government. As you can see below, my liquid assets were $32,500 in January of 2008. I did not include my home’s value as part of my liquid assets at the time.
As you can tell, ten years ago, I was nowhere close to being a millionaire. So what has happened since then? Well, I put any and all excess money in to my mortgage until I finally paid it off in 2012.
Redirecting All of My Mortgage Money
After paying off my mortgage, I redirected all my extra money right into my TSP (the government’s version of a 401(k) plan).
Below is a snapshot of where I was in 2012. Again, I still did not include my home’s value in these figures at that time.
From 2008 to 2012, my investments quadrupled. But, I was still a long way off from being a millionaire.
Then… I Got Married
I had always expected my future wife and I to spend a few years practicing extreme saving. I assumed we would both be working full-time jobs and racking up our moolah, and then maybe when we had kids, she would have the flexibility to stay at home. Well, that was not exactly how it happened.
When I started dating my wife, she had recently graduated from college and was working a 9-5, trying to decide whether or not to enroll in law school. Soon after we got together, however, her mother tragically passed away from breast cancer, at the age of 52.
My wife decided that she needed to care for her special needs sister full-time. Her sister had been extremely dependent on their mother, and my wife knew she had to put her sister’s needs first. My wife put her future plans aside and assumed her mother’s role as best as she could. That meant no longer working a 9-5, and thus no 2nd income.
When we got married, my wife was really disappointed that she couldn’t financially contribute to the monthly expenses. Even though she was at peace with her role caring for her sister, she wanted to help in our goal of super saving and reaching FIRE. That’s when she started to focus on really creative ways to slash our spending.
Getting Our Savings Rate Up to 65%
My wife started with our grocery bill. She quickly discovered Aldi (one of the best low cost grocery chains), and began spending more time searching for deals and coupons at regular grocery stores as well. Our meals became decided on whatever was on sale in the weekly circulars.
Up until that point, I had never really paid attention to cutting costs at the grocery store. However, my wife quickly reduced our monthly food bill from $500/mo to $400/mo, without scrimping on quality .
Amazing how spouses can help spur those types of changes! My wife has been so efficient with cutting costs that we have since saved 65% of our take-home pay every single year since 2013.
We decided to “value” spend very quickly in our marriage. That simply meant that we would spend money in areas that were really important to us, and try to save as much money as possible in all other areas.
Since 2012, my wife and I have cruised to Alaska and Europe. We’ve traveled to warm destinations in the Caribbean. We’ve had the time and discipline to spend money on things we value.
Amidst all of our saving, we eventually decided we were ready to grow our family. Admittedly, I was a bit worried. Adding members to a family isn’t very conducive to saving money. I wasn’t sure how we would reach all of our financial goals while also raising children?
I figured that we would have to sacrifice our 65% savings rate. Little did I know how wrong I was.
My wife is a hustler
She started to kick it up a notch. She became more intense about couponing. Not only did she use the weekly circular, but she also started seeking out online printable coupons. That reduced our food bills even further. Then, we started seriously using Craigslist. We set alerts for specific baby items and picked up quite a bit at very low prices. Some stuff was even free.
I had no idea that there were so many people willing to get rid of their baby stuff free of charge? We picked up free kids clothes from yard sale leftovers and various curb alerts. Another nice thing is that it spurred our generosity too. We have given away quite a few of these items over the years, and so the cycle continues.
On top of that, we didn’t let our pride get in the way of accepting hand-me-downs. My wife and I love to go on walks, and one night we noticed that a neighbor was throwing out some awesome baby stuff. That included TWO double strollers and kids toys (with the toy box!). We couldn’t believe our eyes. We asked if they were really tossing the stuff, and they confirmed. It was like we hit the jackpot!
Salary Increases and Government Benefits
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the salary increases that I received along the way as well. When I first started with the government, I ranked at the lowest grade level among my peers. I was barely scraping by, especially living in an expensive area like DC.
Thankfully over the years, I was recognized for my hard work and have experienced recurring pay bumps. While my salary does not exceed the median income for my county, or even compared to the private industry, I’m living much more comfortably these days.
I have also earned 12 years worth of a federal pension since I first started working in the government, however, similar to J. Money, I exclude it because it feels almost like adding Social Security benefits to my net worth. Sure, I should receive benefits from my pension later in life, but there is no guarantee. Things are always subject to change, and I have no idea whether these benefits could be reduced down the road. I’ll just consider anything I receive later as gravy if it ends up coming through.
Stock Market Returns
And of course, I need to address the immense growth we’ve had with the bull market lately as well. Since March of 2009 when the S&P 500 bottomed out at 676.53, we have had an incredible run. I continued to be diligent in maxing out both my TSP and Roth IRA contributions the entire time.
I remember being discouraged every time I put money into the market during those first days, just to watch it go down. But then, I had a friend pull me aside and say, “Just think, you’re getting to buy all these great companies at discount prices. They’ll go back up, and you’ll be happy that you bought when you did!”
While I was tempted at times to jump out of the market, I stayed put and watched as my net worth eventually grew and grew. At the end of September 2017, my wife and I officially became paper millionaires, as our net worth exceeded $1,000,000.
I have to say that I thought the two comma mark would bring some relief, but honestly, not much changed. We still seek out great deals and save as much as possible so that we can enjoy retirement that much sooner.
I wish there was a more magical formula that I could share with you today. However, as boring as it sounds, all we did was live below our means and were consistent in investing our money.
I am living proof that hard work, patience, and resourcefulness will get you where you want to go.
Rob Andersen is an accountant for the federal government with a passion for all things personal finance. He created the website Mustard Seed Money, as well as the course Reaching FIRE. Both of which emphasize sound financial education and advice.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you liked this post, you might also like one we shared last year on Becoming a 401(k) Millionaire that implements similar strategies. It’s all about starting young and staying consistent!