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Self-made millionaire: 7 lessons I learned when I built a 7-figure net worth

"Once you hit one small goal, it builds confidence that you can go for an even bigger one."

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

In our mid-30s, my wife and I hit a major financial milestone. After working for a little more than a decade in the information technology industry, we finally accumulated enough assets to pass the $1 million mark. 

It took my wife and me nearly 14 years to build up our combined seven-figure net worth, and we started saving from day one. 

Over the course of our careers, we funded our 401(k)s and Roth IRA to get our 4% company matches, and the last two years we contributed the maximum amount, which was $18,000 and $5,500, respectively. And in 2016, I retired at the age of 35

Here are seven of the biggest lessons I learned along the way.

1. Think of money as a tool, rather than a quick fix

When you have a shift in your financial status, it can affect all aspects of your life. And while having a more significant safety net certainly can reduce some major stressors in your life, it can also amplify others. 

Money enables us to live more comfortably, but it also introduces more decisions. Having more choices or options can create new and unforeseen questions. For instance, the question of how we spend money that we don't put toward necessities. Do we go out to eat or buy that huge television? Or put the funds towards our hobbies or side hustles

My photography habit isn't cheap, and my wife likes to accumulate all kinds of yarn, and that isn't inexpensive either. Ultimately, more choices can mean more potential conflict, but also positive change.

My best advice is to think of money like a tool. Tools can be used to build amazing things, but they won't magically create homes on their own. You need to wield them with intention.

2. Money can affect your relationships

Money has a way of changing relationships, and not always for the better. When you succeed at building wealth, it can reveal sides of your friends that you may not anticipate. 

Or on the flip side, friends that you never knew you had, who aren't necessarily in your orbit just for the pleasure of your company.

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Money also has a way of changing expectations. "Can you pick up the bill? You can afford it," they might say after lunch. Or you may also find some of your friends no longer invite you to lunch or out for a hike. 

At the point I no longer wanted to spend hundreds of dollars a month on weekly happy hours, I began to back away and make excuses for why I couldn't go. Eventually those invitations stopped coming. 

Sometimes, as your priorities change, people simply grow apart, and that's OK. Sometimes saying "no" is tough. But it can be worth it. 

3. The first million is the hardest

A million may seem like an insurmountable, unattainable goal. But just like if you were to climb a mountain, you don't just bolt straight to the top. You stop and regroup and celebrate how far you've come at different points along the way. 

The first million may be the hardest one to get, but my best advice is to break that objective down into smaller pieces.

The important thing is to create a framework that you can use over and over again as you build your wealth. And once you hit one small goal, it builds confidence that you can go for an even bigger one.

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Once you save your first $10,000, you can absolutely do that nine more times to get to $100,000. 

For us, a lot of our framework was built around automation, for both our saving and retirement contributions. For instance, my wife and I used our employer's payroll system to automatically fund our 401(k)s and Roth IRAs at work. We used our bank's online system to set up automated transfers from our checking account into a brokerage account to invest even more money. In addition, we set up transfers of about $200 a month to build up our emergency fund. 

Once the automations are set up, they just work. No more discipline required. 

4. Every dollar you spend is meaningful

I've found that the more money that you have to protect, the more protective you become of your spending. 

Every dollar we spend is purposeful. Today, my wife and I still talk about almost every expenditure, especially the big ones. We don't sweat over $20 bucks, but we will always discuss expenses of $100 or more. Not because we have to, but because we want to. 

The important thing is to create a framework that you can use over and over again as you build your wealth.

And because communication is such a big part of our approach to spending, it makes our impulse purchases almost nonexistent. This habit is a big part of why we are millionaires now. 

5. You can use your platform and power for good 

Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to have several mentors who were multimillionaires. They were supportive, considerate and always willing to lend a hand. I watched what they did and followed their example. They were the best teachers that I've ever had. 

Simply accumulating money isn't our goal. We want to use the power of our wealth to make a positive difference in the world, and we make that an integral part of our financial plan.

For example, I donate 25% of sales from my eBook to charity, and my wife runs a knitting business where 51% of all profits also go to charity. Together, we donate thousands every year to charitable causes to help improve our community. There are so many different ways to give back. Take the opportunity to observe your local community, friends, and family for where you might be able to help. 

Simply accumulating money isn't our goal. We want to use the power of our wealth to make a positive difference in the world.

Donor-advised funds are a great way to invest in good causes. These funds are professionally managed investment accounts designed to support charities and charitable causes around the world. They can be tax-deductible, making them an excellent option to reduce your tax burden and do some good.

I've also discovered that a positive and generous outlook is key when you are working to build your wealth. We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can nearly always control our reaction to those things. This mindset has kept me focused and happy over the years. 

6. Wealth is meaningless without health

As you are working toward your financial goals, and especially after you achieve them, I believe that the best thing you can do is to take care of both your physical and mental well-being.

I always try to get 10,000 steps a day, and at least half of those steps come from walking outside. Exercise outside not only helps your physical activity, but also your mindset. Walking lets our minds wander, and in doing so, we give ourselves the time to process without distractions.  

I also use our home gym every single day to improve my strength and boost my confidence. I personally like resistance training. Anyone can put together a tailored and inexpensive home gym setup, even if it's just a corner of a room with a bench and some weights. 

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7. Money does not define success 

It is so important to remember that your monetary worth is not the same as your self worth. I personally believe that having money without a loving family and strong friendships is only a superficial success. 

One of the things that I most want to do with the money we have saved and invested is build generational wealth. I want to help the kids and grandkids in our family create better lives for themselves. 

It is very easy to think of success in terms of material things: the cars we drive, the homes we live in, vacations we go on. I've found that definition to be shallow and unfulfilling. So I define success by the impact I can make in my community. Because while money is great, family is everything.

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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