How many different roads lead to a million-dollar net worth? Quite a few, as it turns out. You could get there by earning a sky-high salary (pro athletes, anyone?) inheriting a large windfall or launching and selling a successful business—just be careful not to boost your spending to match.
But some of the most inspiring stories out there are the people who earn their way into the millionaires’ club the old-fashioned way—simply by saving a large portion of their income, investing well and living below their means. Here’s how four people did just that.
Sharon Marchisello, 63, Atlanta, Ga.
“I have always saved. I began when I was about 3 years old,” says Sharon Marchisello, who, along with her husband Michael, now has a net worth of more than $3 million. “My first piggy bank was an oil can my father gave me; he cut a slit in the top so you could put coins in. I saved parts of my allowance, money I earned for chores and good grades.”
Thanks to an early start, saving became second nature for Marchisello—regardless of what she earned. She started her career making $9 an hour at the Western Airlines reservations desk, and ultimately retired from Delta earning about $55,000. Michael, who still works as a Delta flight attendant, earns about $60,000.
“As soon as our companies offered a 401(k), we started contributing,” Marchisello says. “We started at 6 percent to maximize the company match, and worked our way up to 15 percent.” She also maxed out an IRA every year after 1983, and, after paying off their mortgage in 2005, the Marchisellos began maxing out their 401(k) accounts.
Since she retired in 2008, Delta’s called Marchisello back to work on four contract projects. During her last stint, she socked away 50 percent of her income into her 401(k) until it was maxed out.
Marchisello admits that never having children likely enabled her and Michael to save more. However, they also committed to a frugal lifestyle that helped them build more wealth than others in their position. For example, they love to cook at home, planning menus around what’s on sale or in season. They also prioritized paying off their mortgage in 10 years and never carried credit card balances.
These days, Marchisello enjoys sharing her wealth-building strategies with others. She recently published an e-book outlining how she reached a $3 million net worth with a middle-income salary.
Her advice for others: For Marchisello, investing wasn’t just about preparing for the future—it was also her hobby. In the early 2000s, she even joined an investment club, which she highly recommends as a way of learning the ins and outs of investing, as well as having fun in the process.
She also recommends ensuring you have the financial basics covered by opening an emergency fund in a safe place like a savings account or money market fund and focusing on paying off debt. “If you have debt, your best guaranteed return on investment is to pay it down,” she says.
Christopher Lynch, 58, Gardena, Calif.
Christopher Lynch says he and his wife have “always been the saving type,” as well, even when they were teenagers and earning money by mowing lawns, delivering newspapers or babysitting. After beginning their careers in the early 1980s—she as a registered nurse, he in a technical position at an oil refinery—the Lynches started investing their savings, starting with IRAs.
Today, they have a net worth of more than $1.5 million. “We achieved this through aggressive investing in our retirement accounts, keeping our debt low and not living extravagantly,” Lynch explains. “By ‘aggressive investing,’ I don’t mean risky—most of our investments were in indexed mutual funds—but by allocating more than 25 percent of our salaries to our retirement accounts.”
When Lynch’s wife retired in 2001 at 50, they were each earning about $60,000. Because she’d contributed the maximum amount each year to her employer’s defined benefit plan, she got to start tapping her pension. “After she retired, we were living on her pension and my income, which helped us budget and learn to live frugally,” Lynch says.
Though Lynch’s income had reached $100,000 when he retired in 2014, he was accustomed to living on much less. “During my career, I received regular pay bumps,” he says. “I would typically take the new income and use it to increase my contributions to my 401(k) and continue living on my previous income. It never seemed to be any burden, and consequently, we were able to maintain our standard of living.”
While the Lynches, who have two children, didn’t drive fancy cars, splurge on clothes and jewelry or purchase the latest electronic gadgets, they lived comfortably. “We never felt that we were underprivileged; we just didn’t feel a need to keep up with the Joneses,” Lynch says.
Regular saving and investing is good practice for retirement, Lynch adds. “A hidden benefit of saving and investing so much [is that] once you retire, you have already been used to living on less, so it’s no strain.”
His advice for others: Lynch says two money mantras have kept him on the right financial path. First, to avoid overspending or buying things he doesn’t need, he remembers: “The things that you own end up owning you.”
And to focus on investing rather than accruing debt, he reminds himself of the old saying: “Those who understand the principle of money earn interest; those who don’t, pay interest.”
Travis and Amanda Jones*, 31 and 33, Asheville, N.C.
Last year, at the ages of 30 and 32, Travis and Amanda reached the $1-million mark. Once they did, they promptly quit their jobs, bought a used SUV and drove from their home in San Francisco through Central America, all the way to Costa Rica. The husband and wife team have garnered attention by blogging about their adventures—but how did they gain entry to the millionaire’s club so quickly?
Travis worked in IT and Amanda worked as a chemical engineer, both earning approximately $100,000. While this certainly gave them a head start, it’s what they did with their earnings that made the difference: Ever since they started working, they each maxed out their IRAs and 401(k)s. Travis estimates they were investing about 25 percent of their joint income. By June 2012, after several years of maximum contributions, the couple’s portfolio had already grown to $450,000.
Travis was laid off for a few months in 2012, and while searching for another job, he found that he had time to really enjoy life. “It was during those delightfully happy months that the idea [of early retirement] grew from a seed into a blossoming flower of excited Internet research and Excel sheets,” he says.
The couple began reading blogs for inspiration, and a favorite, Mr. Money Mustache, “gave us the basic education needed to hustle toward the goal of early retirement,” Travis says. “Before we knew it, we were saving money like crazy.”
The couple did things like consolidate their collection of IRA and 401(k) investments into Vanguard funds, which helped them “immediately start saving money with the more efficient and lower-cost funds,” Travis says. “We also started paying attention to how we’re spending our money, and finding ways to make our lives more efficient and less wasteful.”
For instance, they saved energy at home by giving up the air conditioner, using the furnace only sparingly in winter and drying clothes outside. They cut their grocery bill by shopping in bulk, used bicycles instead of cars for errands and cut back on dining out from a couple times a week to only rare special occasions.
That allowed Travis and Amanda to save between 50 to 65 percent of their income between 2012 and 2015, and tipped them over the million-dollar mark in March 2015.
To make their portfolio last, the couple religiously track their expenses. “At the end of each month, we check our portfolio balance and calculate what the 3-percent budget will be for the next month,” Travis says. “This method of budgeting is even more conservative than the 4-percent ‘Safe Withdrawal Rate’ that’s recommended. Whenever the market drops, we immediately tighten our belt to reduce over-consumption.”
After a year of traveling through Mexico and Central America, they’ve recently settled down in Asheville, N.C.—a less-expensive city than San Francisco—and are in the process of buying a home. While they have no plans to return to work, they are considering occasionally hosting Airbnb guests for easy income.
Their advice for others: For Travis and Amanda, straightforward investing completely changed their lifestyle. “Thanks to index funds, investing is now extremely simple,” Travis says. “There’s no need to hand-pick stocks. If anyone is intimidated by the stock market, they should be afraid no more.”
In addition to contributing liberally to a diversified retirement fund, Travis recommends “living simply and focusing on low-cost things that truly increase happiness, [such as] family, friends, helping others, eating healthy, exercising regularly and continuing to learn new things each day.”
For those who are working toward early retirement, he advises working hard to advance your career as quickly as possible, and moving to a less-expensive city if it makes sense.
Rocky Lalvani, 50, Harrisburg, Penn.
A first-generation immigrant from India, Rocky Lalvani came to the United States when he was 2 years old. His wife Dolly, also from India, immigrated at 16. Both worked their way through college (as an accounting assistant and a dishwasher and pizza deliveryman, respectively,) to graduate debt-free. Once they secured full-time jobs—Rocky in sales, Dolly as a Certified Public Accountant—they started saving.
“I began putting away a percentage of my paycheck to savings and retirement,” Lalvani says. “I started out at probably around 10 percent, [and] have continued to increase that to over 30 percent. Every time we paid off a debt or received a raise, we added to our savings.”
While Lalvani says both he and Dolly started out with “quite low” salaries, their earnings have steadily risen to the low six figures. “We earn a good income, which definitely helps to increase the amounts we can save,” Lalvani says. But the Lalvanis, who are parents to two teenagers, are also careful to keep their expenses in check.
“We could buy a much larger home, but choose not to,” Lalvani says. “We buy clothes and other products off-season for significant discounts. We negotiate and will wait for the right time to make a large purchase, or do without if we feel it’s not worth the costs.”
Thanks to smart spending and strategic investing in vehicles like their 401(k)s, IRAs, brokerage accounts, and, in the past five years, rental properties and house flips, the Lalvanis reached millionaire status by their early 40s.
While both continue to work, they are planning to retire early, around the time their children graduate from college. As for what they’ll do then? Lalvani says he’ll teach people what he’s learned about money over the years. “My goal in retirement is to help others systematically build wealth regardless of their income through simple, easy-to-follow steps,” says Lalvani, who blogs about this topic at RicherSoul.com.
His advice for others: Step No. 1: “You need a plan for your life,” Lalvani says. “Without a plan, it’s very hard to answer financial questions of what to do with your money, and it’s also hard to create a target for how much you need.” With a plan in place, he recommends living below your means by spending wisely and setting up automatic savings that reinforce the classic advice of paying yourself first.
Finally, he adds, “Invest the amounts you save to create the freedom to do what you want, and have the ability to pay for it.”
*Last name has been changed.