I’ve been debating about writing this post for quite some time now. I prefer to live in anonymity, while at the same time I want to provide an interesting read to my audience. I actually spend quite a bit of time looking up other bloggers net worth to see a comparison of how they track and manage theirs versus my own methods. J. Money is one such blogger, and even had an article in Forbes earlier this year about how he increased his net worth by $400,000 in 7 years. That specific article is what finally drove me to get over my fears of public disclosure and come clean about my finances a little more. J. Money is someone I look up to as a financial blogger, and since I was able to accomplish the same net worth gain in 3 less years, I figured that was something worth writing about.
Net worth is sort of an ambiguous term and can be easily taken out of context. You could be a millionaire if you own a million dollar house free and clear, but cash poor if you have no other investments or savings. Also, increasing ones net worth by $400,000 in 4 years probably doesn’t say much if you had a $10,000,000 net worth to begin with, which I didn’t. The reason I am so proud of my accomplishments is because I had a negative net worth 4 years ago and was just coming off a heart wrenching job loss. Within 4 years I found another job, started blogging on the side, and got extremely serious about saving, investing, and paying down debt! I want to make sure that everyone understands I didn’t receive any financial windfalls, I wasn’t given any money by family or friends, nor is there anything particularly special about my methods. My financial fitness is sort of like that overweight guy who started going to the gym and eating healthy 4 years ago, and presto, he is magically much healthier and happier today. No miracle drug, just slow and steady with his eyes on the prize. I’ve offered tidbits of advice on this blog about earning an extra $1,000 a month, or how to easily make an additional $1,000 a year just by doing what you are already doing today, but smarter. I’ve received limited feedback on those articles, but thought this post might stoke the flames a little. I want to let everyone know that I’m just a regular 34 year old guy who was once deep in debt, jobless, and with worries about how to pay the mortgage…and 4 years later I sleep much better at night.
Just over 4 years ago, long before I even knew the definition of “net worth”, I was in the negative. I owed about $35,000 in student loans, $15,000 in credit card debt, $226,000 mortgage ($235k home value), and I was leasing a $600 a month Audi A4. My assets consisted of $30,000 in a 401k and my measly $9,000 in home equity. I had just bought the house a few months before losing my job, and only put down the required 3.5% for a n FHA loan that came riddled with higher origination fees and non-tax deductible PMI that I paid out each month. I generally gauged my financial prowess by the amount of money I earned each year, not by how much I saved or invested, or even had at that point my life. I wasn’t even 30 years old yet and I was making about $95,000 a year, which for the metro Detroit area seemed pretty impressive to me. I was young, employable, had an MBA and was certainly a rising star at every company I had been with up to that point. It wasn’t until I was called into the CFO’s office one May afternoon and told that I was being let go (company restructuring, not performance related) that it finally sank in. After all of those years of achieving an upwardly mobile career with year over year increases in income, I had nothing to show for it but a negative net worth of $10,000 and an expensive lease payment that I didn’t know how I would be able to make the following month. My employer sent me packing with a 2 month severance package (very generous and fortunate for that) and a ton of worries that prevented me from sleeping well those next couple months.
I remember my boss telling me that sometimes the best opportunities arise from the worst scenarios. At the time I figured that was just something he had to say in order to make firing me seem less awkward, and perhaps to cheer me up a little. All these years later I realized that if I hadn’t been let go from that job then my life would be drastically different than it is today, I’d probably be writing to you about being deep in debt, or perhaps not writing to you at all. Just as I received my final severance check from that employer I was offered a similar job with a reputable company making an almost identical salary. I remember taking the phone call with my then girlfriend in the car (now wife), and we were both ecstatic that I received the offer just in time. I honestly figured I was going to have to liquidate my 401k just to make it the next few months, and she knew how worried that made me. I remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t going to live like that anymore, worried about money and needlessly overspending on every whim. So I started reading a lot of financial blogs, and that’s when I decided to start my own.
When I started reading all of these financial blogs I realized at how much I was overspending on the stupidest things. I paid full price for movie tickets, spent a ton of money on a car that I turned in every 2 or 3 years, ate out every day and night, and had never even used a coupon before. That’s right, I was actually embarrassed to use a coupon for fear of how I would look…”less successful” if you will. I’m not exactly the most frugal person you will ever meet, and I still spend money today, but I spend it on things that matter most to me. The first step in my financial reformation was to cut my lease payment in half. As soon as my car was due I turned it in and got something that only cost me half of the $600 I was paying previously. Then I started using coupons and reward cards to places that I already shopped at like Rite Aid and Kroger, and used coupon sites like Coupon Sherpa to find printable coupons to save money on other stuff on my list. I probably cut my expenses 10% a month that first year just by using coupons on crap that I was already buying to begin with, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why I had waited so long to do so. I used my online credit card statements to organize and sort my spending to see where I was spending most of my money. It turns out that bars and restaurants topped the list! I personally enjoy eating out and hitting the bars with my friends, but I found ways to do it more economically. We used restaurant.com certificates, I would go to places that I had a Groupon or Entertainment Book coupon for. We started to pre-drink at friends houses and go out later at night so we had less time to spend more money at the bars. I even started staying at home more often! Imagine that. When I really started to get shrewd with my spending I would plan out larger purchases, like a new television, or Christmas shopping in general. I would then go on discounted gift card sites and buy up used gift cards for a fraction of their value. I remember buying Christmas gifts and even a ceiling fan for my house at about a 20% discount one year just for pre-planning my purchases a little.
Earning more money and cutting down on spending is only part of the battle. In the end it really matters what you do with that additional money that counts the most. With all of this additional cash flow I had laying around I decided to start putting it to good use. I immediately paid my mortgage down to 80% loan-to-value and had it re-appraised so that I could get rid of the PMI I was paying on the mortgage. This was money well spent, and saved me about $150 a month in fees that weren’t tax deductible nor added to my equity. I don’t necessarily have anything against an FHA loan, it worked out for me, but I also bought at the low end of the market. For those of you buying now the market has already seen some hefty gains, and if you can only afford 3.5% for a down payment then you are taking on a huge risk if we experience another downturn in the market.
Saving & Investing
Every other extra dime I had went into either a savings or investment account. I had always read that you should at least contribute the minimum amount to your 401k that equals the amount your employer is willing to match, otherwise it’s like throwing away free money. While that is true, my thoughts are that you should max out your 401k, and any other tax-sheltered accounts to their fullest. For the first 7 years of my career I had always made sure to contribute the minimum amount to receive my employers matching percentage, and I hadn’t even thought about an IRA before. Then the last four years I began to realize that I had time working for me, and the more money I could put away today meant additional compounding interest and earnings that I would have further down the road. I opened an IRA and maxed it out every year, all the while I began to max out my 401k as well. Just 4 years later I went from a 401k balance of $30,000 to having retirement funds of $250,000 saved up! I didn’t do ANYTHING special except for maxing out the same retirement vehicles available to all of you. All of my retirement contributions are deducted and deposited into my accounts automatically, so it’s like I never had the money to begin with, it makes the contributions a little more palatable if I don’t have to see the money leaving my bank account.
Make sure you open an online brokerage account! I’m telling you, it’s the best way to start compounding interest and earnings, and paying the lowest fees out there. A couple companies I trust the most are listed below.
When I started using my Mint app more often I realized I was paying an insane amount of annual banking fees for balances below the fee-free minimum, and I was often paying ATM and online banking fees that chipped away at what little I did have in my accounts. My fees were to the tune of about $500 per year. Switching to an online bank account was one of the best moves I ever made. I essentially have zero fees every year now. Talk about saving money for doing just about nothing! Not only did it save me money but it made my life easier too. I could go to any ATM machine I wanted for free, I never had to worry about my bank balance in any of my accounts each month, and I could even deposit checks from my phone rather than driving to the branch and waiting in line.
Income Diversification and Earning More Money
This was a huge benefit for me. I read A TON online about all these bloggers that were into earning multiple income streams. Some were active earners, and others wanted passive income streams, or some combination of both. Some bloggers had tangible real-world second jobs like delivering pizza’s or moonlighting as bartenders. I knew that if I was going to make extra side money it would have to be something with totally flexible hours, no boss, and an at-my-own-will kind of gig. So I started to blog about my financial journey and my own opinions on how to save and invest money. It actually was pretty easy because I was simply writing about the stuff I already did in my own life and just regurgitating it on my blog. I had some hits (maxing out on tax sheltered accounts) and some misses (investing in “sure thing” stocks that went belly up). Soon after, my readership grew and with that came advertising offers from various media companies. Clickable ads that once seemed like cluttered picture frames on my blog began to get..well…clicked. I started earning more and more side money, however, that old temptation to spend started to come back into the picture. I remember thinking to myself that I need to sit down and take a moment to think about what was really important to me. I have a good day job, but one that stresses me out more than I care for. I’ve gone through a slew of health issues over the past few years as well, which always helps put things into perspective. I realized I no longer wanted to spend the rest of my life working 80 hour weeks! If I was going to earn this additional income then I was going to do something useful with it…invest it and let it grow!
As the money started to come in I began to realize that I really had an easily duplicated business model. If I could pull in a certain amount of money with 1 blog, why not replicate the business model with owning more sites? So instead of spending my earnings, or even putting them into a bank account, I decided to go the riskier route and I used all the cash coming in to buy more sites. More sites equaled more of my personal time, but it also equaled more earnings. Fast forward to today and I own several websites within various different niches. I write for some, and have writers for the others. The internet, and search engines specifically, are quite fickle when it comes to driving traffic and advertising dollars your way. This is precisely why I never intend to leave my day job, until I retire that is. My blogging experiences have taught me that the old adage “risk equals reward” is certainly true. I take calculated risks with my online endeavors, and just like anything else some of them have worked out and others have not. Regardless, today I have diversified income streams, some active and others passive, and a very good start to what I hope is an early retirement.
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Net Worth and Retirement
As of writing this article, I have a net worth of roughly $425,000. Not bad for someone who was negative just 4 short years ago and with zero income coming in. All of my financial goals are now focused on retirement in 20 years (or less hopefully). I continue to refine my financial acumen by investing more wisely, earning additional income when possible, and cutting frivolous spending wherever it makes sense. My mortgage is a 20 year term (only 18 years left), my taxable accounts are maxed out, and my savings increase as much as I am able each month…the rest of my financial future is left to inflation and the fluctuating markets, to which only time can tell.
Any thoughts, questions, or comments on your own financial progress, please feel free to share!