At 17, I made minimum wage; by 25, I'd built a net worth of $100,000 — here's how

Nathan Clarke was making minimum wage at age 17. By age 25, he and his wife had built a net worth of $100,000. Here's what they've learned about how to manage money to grow wealth.

Nathan Clarke
Nathan and Kaitlyn Clarke built a net worth of $100,000 by the time they were 25.
Courtesy Nathan Clarke

My wife Kaitlyn and I are now 25, and we have been together since we were 17. We met at a restaurant gig that paid minimum wage, and in part because I've always been a finance and numbers nerd, some of the earliest conversations we had were about our goals. 

After deciding early on in our relationship that we wanted to be thoughtful about building wealth for our future, we made choices that would help us save along the way. For us, a big part of our strategy has been focusing on smaller objectives and working our way up to big milestones. 

Even though we didn't have a set figure that we were aiming for, this mindset was often a major factor when it came to things like how we paid for our education, how we budgeted for big life events like for our wedding, and how we approached our careers.  

By the time we turned 25, we reached a net worth of $100,000, and that number continues to grow. Here is what we have learned about managing money, and here are the steps we're taking to achieve our ultimate goal of financial independence.

Choose the education and career that's right for you 

Thinking ahead to what kind of financial future you want can be tough when you barely know what you want to do. Back when we were seniors in high school and we had to make those first big decisions about college, the last thing my wife and I wanted was to go into debt for college tuition like some of our friends had and then not be able to find jobs in our chosen fields. 

If we had learned more about scholarship programs and financial aid at the time, we may have looked into that as an option to earn degrees without debt. Since we were planning our post-high school plans largely on our own, we both chose to go directly into the workforce.

But after two years working in retail, I decided that it wasn't the career path I wanted to go down. I did some research: At a minimum, I was looking at paying $40,000 to attend the local four-year university. So I enrolled in a local community college to pursue an associate's degree in IT.

I spent less than $5,000 for my two-year degree. Thanks to some financial aid and income from other part-time jobs, I was able to leave school without debt.

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Know your value and advocate for yourself 

After leaving my retail gig and working at a grocery store and gas station for a while, I went to a career fair put on by my school. I connected with a staffing company at the career fair and within a few weeks I got an office job at a local company as an administrative assistant. 

The office job paid a couple of dollars more per hour than my previous jobs. Through hard work, I was able to get two promotions. I acquired a sought after skill doing computer-aided design (CAD) and eventually negotiated my pay up to $15 per hour. After a year or so, I took the CAD experience I obtained and landed a job that was half the commute and paid $16 per hour. This was a considerable pay increase when you factor the commute into the equation: Just a 30-minute round trip compared to over an hour in the car.

After another year or so of sending in hundreds of resumes for positions in the IT industry, I finally got a full-time work-from-home position in IT support earning $42,000 a year. I'm still in this position today and have earned a couple of pay raises since I started with the company, which bumped my pay to the $50,000 range.

Understand what expenses are important to you 

My wife and I dated for almost five years before we got married at age 23, and we both lived with our families during those years, which meant we were able, saving separately, to put away about $25,000 in the bank before we ever lived on our own.

We used that money to start our lives together, beginning with our wedding. We saved on our venue by getting married at a local church and having the reception at a friend's barn. Instead of having food catered, we asked our relatives for help cooking up a simple but tasty meal of BBQ, Brunswick stew, and baked potatoes for our 150 guests. We ultimately spent $10,000 on our wedding and a honeymoon to Hawaii, which left $15,000 in our fund.

We decided we didn't want to rent and ended up buying a small house in the area we grew up in for $95,000. The down payment and closing costs left us with around $5,000 in the bank. We got a mortgage on the house and used $10,000 for the down payment and closing costs.

We haven't paid the house off yet, but the value has gone up about $50,000 since we bought it. I subtract what we still owe on the house from the value, plus 10% selling fees, when I factor equity into our net worth.

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Since housing cost us less than $1,000 a month, we were still able to save anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 a month on average.

We also make sure to shop at less expensive grocery stores and shopped around for cheaper phone plans and insurance. We've also never had a car payment. We've always bought cars, typically a Toyota or a Honda, with cash, and the most we ever spent on a vehicle was $9,600. 

Don't be afraid to pivot and try something new

As you make financial plans, remember that it's OK to step back and reassess, especially when it comes to work-life balance. The first year we were married, my wife and I had a combined income of around $110,000. I was still working in IT and my wife got a job working as a paint utility, helping the set painters on the 2018 Marvel movie "Avengers: Infinity War."

About a year into our marriage, Kaitlyn had been working in the film industry on sets for six years, and the 60-hour work weeks and lack of sleep were taking a toll. So she decided to pivot. Today, she works as a teaching assistant at the school her family runs. Even though our collective income was cut in half, she is much happier with her job, and we've still been able to save a significant amount thanks to our optimized saving strategies. 

Find an investing method that works

We started investing a portion of our paychecks as soon as we entered the workforce. Kaitlyn was able to start investing several thousand a year since she was 18. I took a little longer to be as consistent. Over the years, I've tried to maintain a minimum of investing 15% of our take-home pay every month. During periods when we were earning more, we were investing more. Some months I've invested 30%-40% of our income.

Although our income has fluctuated over the years, we've always been able to put some money into retirement accounts each month. I'm a fan of index investing, due to the automatic diversity and low cost. I plan to stick with this method for the rest of my wealth-building years.  

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Start a side hustle you are passionate about 

In 2018, I started to look into ways to make money outside of my day job. I had sold a few things on eBay when I was a teenager, so I decided to look around our house to see if anything might fit the bill. Some vintage CB radio equipment I had gotten a yard sale that the previous owners were just going to throw away ended up netting me over $500 on eBay.

I started going to yard sales on the weekends and buying things to flip for profit, like motorcycle parts. Part of the fun of the process is the discovery.

I also recently started a new project to recycle old electronics and sell the working parts on eBay. My goal is to do my part to keep as much e-waste out of the landfills as possible, and it's something that I can see myself being passionate about for the long term.

I now have over 1,000 items listed and bring in anywhere from $600 to $2,500 a month selling part time. I try to list 5-10 items a day.

Between listing, shipping, and shopping, I spend about 10-20 hours a week on my side hustle. I love selling on eBay and having that control over the time I devote to it. I plan to keep growing the business until it surpasses my day job income.

We currently have about $70,000 invested in stocks, $20,000 in cash, and nearly $50,000 in home equity. Our income and the amount we're able to invest could certainly increase over time. At our current rate of investing, we think we can achieve our ultimate goal of becoming financially independent, with $1,000,000 invested, by the time we're 47.

And with the saving skills we've learned over the last few years, we feel confident that we can handle whatever comes our way.  

Nathan Clarke has been writing about personal finance since early 2018. He loves sharing what he learns about finance and any eBay tips he comes across. If you're interested in becoming an eBay seller, check out his reseller Facebook group.

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