For the past decade, I’ve been sharing my personal finance journey online as I’ve worked to build wealth fast. And now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve reached the point where I feel “comfortable.”

Although I don’t share my net worth on this blog, I can tell you that I’m on track to retire by 40 or 45 if I want to.

5 Life Choices That Changed My Financial Life Forever

In this post, I’ll reveal the life choices that got me to this point. They are listed in chronological order:

  • Avoided going into student loan debt
  • Worked two jobs and moved up the career ladder
  • Paid off my mortgage in 2 years
  • Started saving for retirement early
  • Set a budget to avoid wasteful spending

When I put together this article, I identified three main success factors: hard work, timing and flexibility.

As you read through my list, don’t get stuck on the details of my experience. Think about how you can use those three success factors to improve YOUR financial life.

Let’s get started…

1. Avoided going into student loan debt

Success factors: Flexibility, hard work

The first life choice that I want to share dates back to the early 2000s. My college experience wasn’t what most teenagers would dream about, but I got an education for about $10,000.

I knew that attending a private or out-of-state school would be out of reach financially, so I didn’t even consider it. Instead, I made a series of decisions to avoid student loans altogether:

  • Attended a community college starting at age 16
  • Transferred to a state school and graduated from college in 3 years
  • Lived with a family member to avoid room and board costs
  • Worked part-time as a cashier and server to make money

Again, I know that this isn’t ideal for most people. But as a first generation college student from a middle-class family, I did what I had to do.


Key Takeaway: If you’re applying for college or have a child who is, consider low-cost options like community college and state schools. Also, speak with an academic advisor to make sure you’re getting as much “free money” as you can through grants and scholarships. Student loans are inevitable in some cases, but try to stick to federal aid and not private loans.


2. Worked two jobs and moved up the career ladder

Success factors: Hard work, timing, flexibility

When I graduated from college at age 19, jobs were hard to come by. I spent five months applying for news producing jobs across the country — from Maine to Montana!

When I finally got a call with an offer, the pay was $10 an hour. I happily accepted it.

For two years, I worked overnight hours to produce the morning news in a small Virginia city a few hours from where I grew up. That job led to my big break in Washington, D.C. and a pay raise. I later took another job in D.C. that increased my pay again.

Despite the salary increases, living in D.C. was tough on a news producer’s salary. That’s why I continued to wait tables and bartend one or two days a week. Combined, I worked about 50 hours a week.

Of course, I was in my early 20s at the time. Working two jobs and maintaining a social life wasn’t a problem because I had more energy than I do now in my mid-30s.


Key Takeaway: Make a plan for how you will grow professionally. If your current employer doesn’t value you, find one that does or start your own business. Struggling to get ahead? Consider a side hustle to bring in extra income. Keep in mind that working a second job is typically easier when you are young and have fewer responsibilities.


3. Paid off my mortgage in 2 years

Success factors: Hard work, timing, flexibility

After several years in D.C., I relocated to Atlanta in 2010 for an exciting new career opportunity and bought a condo a few months later.

The purchase price on the condo was a little over $100,000 and my mortgage was only $86,000. I set a goal to pay it off by my 30th birthday, less than five years later. It only took me two years.

My first blog chronicled my mortgage payoff and I then started MichaelSaves.com to share some of the strategies that I used to increase my income and lower my expenses.

But years later, it’s my mortgage story that people still want to talk about. It generates more feedback (positive and negative) than all of my other content combined.

The compliments come mostly from people who are also working to prepay their mortgages or other types of debt and say my story inspired them to keep going. On the other hand, these are the most common complaints:

  • You must have rich parents, no kids and make a ton of money.
  • Where are these $100,000 houses? They don’t exist.
  • You must live in a part of the country where nobody wants to live.

First of all, I want to say that I understand where everyone is coming from when they send me this type of feedback. I did something that was uncommon at the time and even more so today.

But that brings me back to those three success factors: hard work, timing and flexibility. Here’s how they applied to my situation:

  • Hard work: During my mortgage payoff, I worked a full-time job and a part-time job, for a total of 50 hours a week. I also waited tables and started pet sitting to earn extra money.
  • Timing: When I bought my condo in 2010, real estate values were low due to the recession. I was fortunate enough to have a stable job and felt comfortable purchasing a home.
  • Flexibility: My unit was located in my preferred neighborhood, but I compromised on square footage and didn’t purchase in a newly-built condominium to save money.

Paying off my mortgage in two years required discipline, but it changed my life forever. After I reached my goal, I had so much additional money to save and invest.

Read more about the six steps I followed to pay off my mortgage faster.


Action Item: If you’re carrying any type of debt, focus on the hard work and flexibility success factors. Can you find any opportunities to earn extra money? That’s the hard work part of it. And could you be more flexible by cutting back on spending? That way, you would have more money to put toward paying off your debt.


4. Started saving for retirement early

Success factors: Hard work, timing, flexibility

Once I established a healthy emergency fund in my early 20s, I began to focus more on investing. To be clear, this was after my two years of working for just $10 an hour.

I didn’t start saving for retirement in a significant way until I was 25 years old. That was the same year that I began prepaying my mortgage.

My employer at the time offered a generous 401(k) match. My total contribution was 13% of my salary. But I didn’t stop there. I also contributed to a Roth IRA.

Once I paid off the mortgage at age 27, I was able to really increase my net worth quickly. Since I no longer had a mortgage payment, I maxed out my 401(k) and Roth IRA for several years in a row.

According to retirement scenarios that I run using Personal Capital’s free tools, I’m now in pretty good shape.

In fact, I’ve saved enough for retirement that I no longer need to keep making contributions if I keep working until I’m 65. However, my plan is to continue making contributions so that I can retire at 40 or 45 if I want to.


Key Takeaway: Invest early and often. Try to contribute up to your company’s 401(k) match, even if it hurts a little. After all, that’s free money! It’s hard to think about retirement in your 20s, but it’s so important to invest and take advantage of compound interest. Have retirement savings automatically taken out of your paycheck.


5. Reduced materialism and embraced minimalism

Success factors: Timing, flexibility

If you grew up like me, you were well cared for but weren’t showered with gifts unless it was your birthday or Christmas. As a child, I remember that was a bit frustrating at times. The other children in school always seemed to have more “stuff.”

But now that I’m an adult, I’m so thankful that I was raised that way. It’s probably one of the main reasons why I’m not a materialistic person and don’t really care what others think about it.

When I started living on my own, I always made sure that I had the necessities to survive. However, I didn’t obsess over having the latest brand-name clothing, newest technology or a fancy car.

I am a minimalist. To me, it has always made more sense to spend money on experiences like a dream beach vacation or something simple like sharing a meal with close family and friends.

If you’re familiar with my budgeting method, you already know that I check in with my budget before making a purchase. For major transactions, I’ll also take a moment to ask myself these questions:

  • Is this a want or a need?
  • If it’s a want, will it really make me happy?

Retail therapy is dangerous for your finances. Buying more “stuff” may elevate your mood for a few hours, but it won’t do anything to address underlying anxiety and depression that many shopping addicts experience.

Final Thought

As you read through this article, you may have noticed how one life choice led to another. For example:

  • Graduating college with no student loan debt put me in a position to save money at an early age.
  • Moving up the career ladder enabled me to buy a home.
  • Paying off that home early freed up more money in my budget for investing.

But things have not been perfect. I’ve faced personal and professional challenges just like anyone else, but I’ve been open to making adjustments along the way.

I always have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and so on. You must roll with the punches and not get discouraged.

As you think about your own personal finance journey, remember the three success factors that I’ve referenced throughout this article: hard work, timing and flexibility. Now, ask yourself this:

  • Hard work: Can I work harder or smarter to improve my situation?
  • Timing: Am I using time to my advantage? Is this even a good time in my life to try to do this?
  • Flexibility: Can I reach my goals faster by making lifestyle changes?

If you’re trying to build wealth fast, I hope that you found this article useful. Have any questions or tips of your own to share? Leave them in the comments section below!

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