How I saved $900,000 and retired at 35 while working at a 9-to-5 job

Steve Adcock, who retired at 35 with $900,000, shares the four strategies that helped him build wealth and plan for the future while working a 9-to-5 job.

Steve Adcock

In 2016, when I retired from full-time work at 35 with $900,000, I never started my own business. I didn't win the lottery or receive an inheritance, either. I had a regular 9-to-5 job in IT my entire working life, and I managed to build enough wealth to retire early.

My wife also worked in IT. We earned a combined $250,000 a year by the time we retired. And I didn't have any student loans, which was a huge advantage: It meant that I didn't have to factor in paying off debt as I planned my financial future. 

Income can come from any source, like your 9-to-5, starting a business, odd jobs, or side hustles that we do over the weekend. Many people believe that hustling 24/7 and focusing entirely on chasing money is the only way to "get rich." I am telling you that is not true.

I've learned that wealth is built through a relatively simple equation: Wealth = Income + Investments - Lifestyle.

These are the four techniques I used to build wealth while I was working at my 9-to-5 job. 

I increased my salary

If we spend the majority of what we earn, it's impossible to build wealth, because not enough income is being saved. As we increase our salary, we need to be smart with that money by investing as much as we can. A big piece of this puzzle is knowing your value and asking for what you're worth. It's also important to remember that while raises can help, don't wait for a pay bump to start saving

Part of how I increased my salary throughout my career was not being afraid to ask for a raise when I felt I deserved one. I did this four times and got a raise 75% of the time. 

My best advice for anyone who is thinking about negotiating for a raise, even when things are in flux, is to go into the conversation confident and with examples of your accomplishments at the ready. Did you execute an idea that helped you save the company money? Did you secure a lucrative contract? Lead with those results and the value you bring to your organization.

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Timing is also key. If you're new, I would wait for six months to elapse before making an ask, and if the company is experiencing some budget concerns, just know that while it may be a "no" for now, it will not always be the case. But if you are in a position to move on, that's OK, too. Every time I moved companies (usually with a referral from a former co-worker), I got a 15% to 20% raise.

When a great opportunity comes along, don't be afraid to take it.

I built up my emergency fund 

Our emergency fund is money that we set aside for unexpected expenses, like car or house repairs, a medical emergency, or even a job loss. If you do not have an emergency fund, then consider this your very top priority. Think of it as a buffer that can help you feel more secure, knowing that if a need arises, you won't have to take on debt to pay for an unexpected event

Aim to save six months of living expenses in your emergency fund. If that seems like a monumental task, don't worry. Just start. Start saving $100 a month, then slowly boost your savings rate as your income allows. 

Steve and Courtney Adcock retired in their 30s.
Courtesy Steve Adcock

To build up over two years of living expenses in our emergency fund, we separated our emergency fund from our primary checking; saved two years of living expenses over the course of a year and a half; we automated the process through banking transfers; and we made it our top financial priority.

Previously, we had about three months saved but we knew that retiring early left us open to too much risk if a recession hit or the stock market collapsed. 

We saved this much money by cutting back our expenses drastically and only living off of one of our two incomes. We set up an automatic routine at our bank to transfer money into our emergency fund every month. Over time, our emergency fund grew bigger and bigger.  

I invested as much as possible

Though boosting your income and saving for a rainy day is important, neither of these concepts directly relate to building wealth. But investing does. We don't build wealth by only saving money. We build wealth by investing in appreciating assets, like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds in the stock market. Or real estate. Or in businesses.

My best advice is to take advantage of every investing opportunity that your employer offers. My wife and I always contributed the company match into our 401(k) accounts, but in the last two years leading up to early retirement, we maxed out contributions to those accounts.

What is a 401(k) match and how can you take advantage of it?

Video by Ian Wolsten

If your company offers a 401(k) plan or Roth IRA, sign up. If your company offers a 401(k) match, at a minimum, contribute enough so you can meet the match. A 401(k) match means that your employer will match a certain percentage of your contributions directly into your 401(k) account. That is 100% free money and a great way to boost investments.

If your company offers an HSA, consider signing up. An HSA (Health Savings Account) is a pre-tax investment account to help you pay your health insurance deductible. It requires a high-deductible insurance plan so it won't be right for everyone. 

But HSAs come with a huge financial benefit. If you don't use your HSA funds by retirement age, you can withdraw that money for nonmedical purposes, as you would from a traditional 401(k). In other words, it turns into a regular investment account when you turn 65. 

I monitored my spending 

It's easy to spend money these days. With a couple of clicks of a button, we can find almost anything online, buy it, and watch it materialize on our doorstep in just a couple of days. Before I started budgeting, I would spend about $1,000 a month on restaurants. I spent another $4,000 to $5,000 a year at Amazon and dropped another couple hundred on other miscellaneous things that I forgot I had the next month.

I also purchased and maintained two cars and a motorcycle. All that changed once building wealth became our top priority.

Many people believe that hustling 24/7 and focusing entirely on chasing money is the only way to "get rich." I am telling you that is not true.
Steve Adcock
Early retiree

In 2015, I sold one of my cars. We no longer went out to eat. My wife and I streamlined everything by talking through every expense and deciding, together, whether it was a smart buy.

We also managed to save at least $400 a month by eliminating those under-the-radar expenses that we didn't truly need, like our magazine subscriptions, cable television, and several streaming entertainment services that we no longer used. You might be surprised at how quickly expenses add up.

Even if you're not at a point where you want to go into business for yourself or start a side hustle, in my experience, working a 9-to-5 is an excellent way to build wealth. Remember, your retirement does not care how you earned your money. Whether you worked a day job your whole life, started a business, or did a bunch of odd jobs, money is money. The important thing is what we do with our money after earning it.

Steve Adcock retired from full-time work at 35 and writes about personal finance on his blog and is a regular contributor to CNBC, MarketWatch, and Business Insider. He travels the country and lives in an off-grid home in the desert with his wife Courtney and two dogs. You can find him on Twitter at @SteveOnSpeed.

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