A Real-Life Journey to Financial Freedom

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Last month, I had an interesting email exchange with a reader.  I’m pleased to introduce that reader to you today.  

“Tom” and his wife are on a successful journey to financial freedom, starting from humble beginnings, earning <$100k, and now well-positioned for retirement in less than 5 years. 

How did they do it?  What can we learn from them?

Many of you are on that same journey and may benefit from hearing Tom’s story in his own words.  Since I’m currently on my own journey (a Cannonball Run, to be exact), today seemed a good day to let Tom take the wheel.

There are things we can all learn from each other, and I trust you’ll learn something from Tom’s journey to financial freedom.

Today, a real-life journey to financial freedom, from a reader of The Retirement Manifesto. Click To Tweet

With that…here’s Tom:

Consider this a “case study” of one reader’s journey to financial freedom to help other readers understand the steps we took, with the hope that they can learn from our experience. 

We are early 40’s multimillionaires preparing for retirement in less than five years. We are financial hobbyists.

We aren’t famous, we don’t come from money, we don’t have a blog or a website, and up until a few years ago, neither one of us ever made over a six-figure salary. We did F.I.R.E. by accident. To this day, only one of us makes over $100k. Without going too much into the details, our net worth is in the ballpark of $4.5 million as of the fall of 2020. 

The total amount is broken up between approximately $1.5 million in investments, $800k in real estate (including a paid-for house and some rental properties), the approximate value of a pension (considering what a 4% withdrawal rate would have to be), and a lifetime retirement health insurance benefit.

My journey to The Retirement Manifesto site began a few years ago. Preparing for my own journey, I would repeatedly ask two questions of folks I knew that were retired or nearing retirement.

  • When can I retire, and…
  • When is enough, enough? 

This drew me to search online and ultimately to The Retirement Manifesto series titled “When Can I Retire?”.

This year I heard Fritz on the Bigger Pockets Money Podcast, episode #125, Ready to Retire: The Ultimate Pre-Retirement Checklist.  I am not an impulsive person; however, I stopped in the middle of a walk with my dogs and bought Fritz’s book, Keys to a Successful Retirement,  based on the BP interview. I read it cover-to-cover in a few days and sincerely think it’s one of the top reads for 2020.

I’ve also listened to over 150 podcasts so far this year, and the BP interview is one of the top 5 for me in terms of actionable advice. This led me back to your website for The Ultimate Pre-Retirement Checklist article that was discussed on the podcast.

Great content, all.  And information that’s been helpful on our journey. 

Our Back Story

Our story is one of humble beginnings. 

We were two middle to lower class kids whose parents struggled, and still do, with personal finance. After bouncing from part-time to part-time jobs, we were hired full time in blue-collar fields approximately 20 years ago. I have been with the same employer in the public service sector. My wife has had various jobs in mostly blue-collar industries. Neither one of us had college degrees when we began working full-time. However, through employer-subsidized encouragement, we both went back to school, while working full-time, and obtained advanced degrees.

 

Looking back, the decision to go to school and have our employers subsidize it was one of our first real big wins.

Around the same time, we discovered Dave Ramsey and loosely followed his “baby steps.” We also discovered Thomas J. Stanley’s books, “The Millionaire Next Door and Millionaire Mind” in audiobook format. I listened to them repeatedly. At that time in our journey, there were no blogs, no podcasts, and really no “how-to guide” besides these resources and a few others. In our opinion, to this day, these remain some of the best available. The advice stands the test of time. For those nearing retirement, your blog and book are, by far, some of the best resources!


So, How’d We Do It?

Around 2007, a business owner friend of mine asked if I calculated my net worth. I laughed because I didn’t really think I owned anything. We were loosely on the Ramsey path to pay off the house, and we loosely invested in employer-sponsored retirement accounts. I still have the sheet of paper that showed our net worth that year at $118,528.

However, what I took away from that exercise was that it’s critical to be intentional. Looking back, it was also critical to have part-time work opportunities to help accelerate the goal.

I’ve recently heard about studies of millionaires that don’t budget. I can say in our circumstance, keeping our eye on the ball has been critical. Just a simple month-to-month calculation of a budget is what really got us rolling. As a result, by 2017, eight short years later, we had a net worth of over $1 million. 

For the nerds like me, yes, that includes the house. 

We consider no home to be a “forever home,” so for us, the ability to pull that money out by selling, downsizing, exercising geographic arbitrage, or not, is an important part of the consideration. Also, we accomplished this while having kids, demanding jobs, daycare expenses, college funds, broken down cars and other curve balls of life.

Fast forward to 2020, and our investments and cash flowing real estate were valued at around $2.2 million.  We have a total debt of $138k (more about that below). We’ve never received a handout or inheritance, and everything we have has been accomplished through consistency and hard work.

It is absolutely possible for anyone to accomplish this feat, we are living proof.

I often hear people say things like, “I don’t want to live like that” when referring to budgets or paying down debt. However, we did “live like that,” and we’ve never missed a vacation (although we do budget), we drive average but reliable cars, and live in a wonderful and affordable tree-lined neighborhood with classic older homes not terribly far from major metropolitan areas in the northeast.

Our Takeaways for Success

Looking back over our journey, the following are our key takeaways:

  • Time management is critical in all areas of life.

  • Side hustles and fun part-time work will get you to F.I.R.E. faster.

  • There were times I was making $10/hr at a fun part-time gig while making $100k at my main job.

  • Living debt-free is a must. This is “playing defense” with your money and offers a good balance to your overall financial picture when investing in other areas.

  • Keeping your eye on the ball by budgeting will help you accomplish your goals quicker.

  • Calculate your net worth once a year. It’s the single best scorecard to determine how you’re doing. 

  • Goal setting is a non-negotiable task. Daily goal setting will keep you on task and motivated. Yearly, and 5-10 year, goal setting will also help you determine what’s important.

  • Daily learning will help you obtain freedom. You can obtain an informal, advanced degree by way of YouTube and podcasts alone!

  • Buy assets, not liabilities. Car payments, for example, will make you broke.

  • Max out retirement accounts where and when you can.

  • If you have employer-subsidized formal education benefits, take 100% advantage.


Based on our experience, the best plan to achieve a high level of success is accomplished in this order:

  • Pay down all debt.

  • Max out investment opportunities such as employer plans and Roths

  • Buy cash flowing real estate
  • To the best of your ability, don’t worry about politics, the government, or things outside your control, certainly when it comes to retirement. 

  • Take time to enjoy the fun stuff along the way. For me, I’m a simple guy, so that includes good beer, pizza and burgers on the grill as a treat.

As I’ve gotten to a point where I’m less than 5 years from retirement, I’ve realized the following:

  • Relationships become more important. Relationships take work, this includes marriage, friendships, work relationships, etc.. Don’t underestimate the value of this. Eliminate your participation in those relationships that bring you no value.

  • Besides money, you realize other areas of wellness matter. This includes, but is not limited to, exercise, sleep, and mental health.

  • Determining your sense of purpose appears on the top of your mind.

  • Cutting yourself a break becomes salient. You realize as you look back over the journey that mistakes happen. For example, one of the biggest mistakes we made in our financial journey was mismanaging our own Roth IRA accounts in terms of not paying attention to fees or allocations. In the grand scheme, it didn’t matter at all.

Finally, my biggest takeaway from TheRetirementManifesto is the advice to spend on big purchases before you retire.

 

A few months ago, we were motivated to make the decision to buy that weekend mountain retreat we always talked about. Although we’ve been very debt-averse through our 20-year journey, we decided to spend a little bit while we’re still working full time and take out a small mortgage at a very low rate. That amount accounts for the small amount of debt mentioned above. Given the financial principals we’ve exercised and mentioned above, we have a plan to pay that debt down in a very short time. In the meantime, we’ve been loving the fall of 2020 at our new retreat.

Like TheRetirementManifesto and Keys to a Successful Retirement has done for us, we sincerely hope something we’ve written resonates with you on your journey.

Thanks, Fritz for all you do and the opportunity to share part of our journey.

Sincerely,

Your humble fan

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