I will remember December 23, 2016 for the rest of my life. It was my last day working a full-time job.
My wife and I retired early at 33 and 35, respectively, after accumulating $870,000 working in information technology. With the help of the market, our net worth increased to $1 million shortly after.
I wasn’t born rich. We did not start our own business. Neither of us inherited a substantial amount of money. We didn’t even have side hustles at the time. We accumulated wealth the old-fashioned way — by working hard and making strategic financial moves.
Here are 13 stupid simple things I did that helped me escape the rat race after a 14-year career:
1. I ignored the “follow your passion” advice.
Our passions, which tend to be more on the creative side, can’t always pay the bills — our strengths do.
Mine, for instance, is photography. But my strength is in computer science. In 2004, my starting salary as a software engineer was $55,000, and by 2016 I was making well over $100,000. I’m not sure I’d have earned as much if I chose to follow my passion.
While combining your hobby with a high-paying, marketable career is possible, it’s less common than you think. Build a career around what you’re good at.
2. I learned from millionaires.
Throughout my career, I worked with many wealthy people. Instead of being jealous of them, I took notes.
I’ll never forget Brian, who I worked with after college. He was a few years older than I was and drove a six-year-old Honda Accord. Even though he was a millionaire, he had a cheap Casio watch and didn’t wear designer clothes.
Brian was always the first person in the office, never got wrapped up in office politics, and often volunteered for more responsibility. He didn’t come from money. Instead, he earned his wealth by investing and controlling his spending.
3. I cut losers from my life.
If you only hang out with people who like to drink at bars and spend money, you will most likely follow those same money-draining habits.
I upgraded my life by upgrading my friends. I associated with the top performers in the office. I spent extra time with people who were more successful than I was. My mission was to build a relationship with them. Their habits rubbed off on me. We motivated each other.
I began making better money decisions and cut back on alcohol. At work, I put in overtime regularly, and I asked for raises and promotions — just like the high-performers did. It worked.
4. I exploited my 9-to-5.
I invested in my employer-sponsored 401(k) and got the company match of 4%, which was free money that my employer contributed on my behalf.
Some companies also offer Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs, to help employees save pre-tax money for qualified medical expenses like deductibles and medications. The beauty of an HSA is it acts like a 401(k) later in life. After you turn 65, unused money can be withdrawn for any purpose.
Your full-time job may also offer educational and training opportunities to help boost your marketable skills like computer programming, accounting and time-management. These skills can be used to get promotions and raises throughout your career.
5. I switched companies five times in 14 years.
Taking a new job is often the easiest way to get a raise because negotiating a higher salary is a natural part of the process.
I got a 15 to 20% raise each time I switched companies. This is far beyond the typical, 3% cost-of-living raises many employers offer their staff.
Just be careful not to switch companies too often. Try to stay in each role for at least a year, because some employers will not hire candidates who change jobs frequently. The hiring and onboarding process is expensive.
6. I automated everything.
I used automatic payroll deductions for my 401(k) and Roth IRAs. I also used automated bank transfers to contribute money to my brokerage account. This helped ensure I was saving money from every paycheck.
I also enrolled in auto bill-pay for utilities like electric, water, and even some credit cards. I never missed a single payment and avoided late fees, interest payments and other penalties.
7. I ignored the haters.
An unfortunate part of doing anything significant is that you’ll get hate. Sometimes, lots of it.
People will criticize you for spending money differently. You might lose friends if you decline those weekly happy hours at your local bar. It’s not always easy, but ignoring hate is integral to building wealth.
8. I ignored the Joneses.
Just because your neighbors bought a brand new car, boat or house doesn’t mean you need to.
The best way to ignore the Joneses is to stay focused on your own goals. My wife and I would talk about our future hopes every night as we walked our dogs around the neighborhood. This helped keep our goals front and center in our minds.
We did not let other people’s spending habits affect ours.
9. I prioritized open communication.
Too often, spouses have different ideas regarding spending habits, goals and dreams. If left unchecked, these differences may cause arguments and other problems in the relationship that keep you from achieving your financial goals.
Healthy relationships depend on open communication with your partner, so you can align on goals and what makes you happy.
Talking about our future goals every day kept my wife and I on the same page about what we wanted our future to look like, and what steps we’d take now to make it happen.
10. I prioritized my health.
Life is about more than just money. Above all else, my health is my top priority. Good health makes you happier and more productive, and it also reduces the chances of unexpected medical expenses.
In 2007, I was out of shape and unhealthy. I decided to change my lifestyle by eating better and exercising regularly. Over the next two years, I lost 70 pounds and got into the best shape of my life.
I’m 41 years old today and continue to weight train daily. This year, my wife and I spent $10,000 building a dedicated home gym on our seven acres of property. It was the best money we’ve ever spent.
11. I avoided credit card debt.
Americans are saddled with more than $840 billion in credit card debt. Interest rates are extremely high, making credit card debt the worst of all types of debt.
I’ve never paid a single dollar in credit card interest, and I owe much of that to my dad. He taught me that credit card debt is unacceptable, even for a month. For many people, credit cards make it too easy to spend money they don’t have. It’s a habit that can quickly get out of control.
I do use credit cards as a convenience. The fraud protection and implied warranties that many cards offer their customers make them worth it for me, but that’s because I pay off my balance every month. It’s a big reason why I was able to retire in my mid-30s.
12. I always said “yes.”
Even if I didn’t know how to do a job being offered to me, I would always accept the challenge and figure it out as I went.
I remember one Friday at the office, I was called into a meeting with the CEO of the company I was working for. I was nervous going in, but it turned out to be the best career opportunity that I had ever gotten.
The organization fired an entire management team above me, and they wanted me to be the director of technology information. As a low-level software developer, that giant leap seemed daunting. I had never worked as a manager before and felt entirely unprepared for such a huge promotion.
My mind told me to say “Thanks, but no thanks,” but I accepted anyway. I asked many questions, found mentors and gained the experience I needed to level up my entire career from that point forward.
13. I stopped going to the bar.
Early in my career, I often went to the bar with coworkers. Each trip, I would spend $70 to $100 for the privilege of drinking. Over a month, my bar habit drained my wallet of $350 to $400.
One day, I decided to start skipping the outings. I invested that money instead, and it helped contribute to the $1,000,000 nest egg I built by 35.
Keep your alcohol and expensive latte spending in check. It’s okay to go out occasionally, but if it becomes a habit, you’re reducing the quality of your future self by spending more money than you should.