It can feel like being able to save money and hit the $1 million mark requires having a Wall Street job, a trust fund, or decades to let compound interest work its magic. But hearing from these ordinary people about how they made smart personal finance decisions that helped them accumulate a million dollars and achieve financial freedom may change your mind.
Chris Reining, 38, Madison, Wisconsin
"Investing is the best way to build wealth, but it's not an overnight process. I began in my early 20s, funneling just $66 a month into low-cost index funds. My first big financial milestone came years later when I made my first $1,000 from investment returns. I kept at it, increasing the amount when I could afford it.
"By 27, my brokerage account had grown to $100,000 — a combination of my own contributions and market returns — but I was still subject to the 9-to-5 grind, earning $75,000 a year then as an IT specialist. So I made a goal right then to grow my wealth to $1 million by 35.
"To accelerate my progress, I slashed my spending, cutting everything from lattes to hobbies. This freed up more than $1,000 per month, which I automatically transferred to my brokerage account, on top of what I was already contributing. I also increased my income over the years, so that by 2013, I was saving and investing over half of my salary, which never hit $100,000.
"I eventually hit my goal of becoming a millionaire at 35, and even retired at 37. (My plan was to withdraw and live on 4 percent per year, but since my investments have continued to grow, I’m living on just 2 percent.) This kind of freedom and flexibility is worth all the sacrifices I made."
His advice for others: "There have been periods when I lost a lot of money in the market. During one nine-month stretch during the recession, I lost $55,000. As scary as this was, I didn't react. Market volatility comes with the territory and is simply part of building wealth over the long term."
Nick Friedman, 35, Tampa, Florida
"The summer before my senior year of college, my best friend Omar had an idea that would eventually change our lives: We'd take his mom's beat-up cargo van to do odd jobs and earn extra cash. We called ourselves 'College Hunks Hauling Junk,' and brought in $5,000 before the fall semester started, when we put the business on the back burner. I graduated in 2004 and landed a corporate job doing economic consulting, but the 9-to-5 life was excruciating.
"That's when Omar and I decided to take a chance. I quit my job the following year, and we launched College Hunks Hauling Junk as a legit moving and junk-hauling business. We each contributed $10,000 from savings to get rolling and did everything ourselves, from truck driving to booking gigs. Incredibly, we were profitable within three months, and by 25, I'd personally hit the $1 million mark.
"I feel very fortunate: The money has afforded me a nice house, the ability to occasionally splurge on loved ones and opportunities to invest in rental properties, earning me $20,000 per month. One of the most valuable things I've learned while building wealth is to pay myself first. While I've always reinvested money into the business, I've never failed to take care of my own savings and investment goals, too."
His advice for others: "Keep your eyes open for opportunities. What started as a fun way to make extra money turned into something I never expected: Today, the company is worth over $40 million, and we have more than 100 franchise owners around the country! Had I not trusted my gut and gone all in, which included leaving a comfortable corporate job, I never would have grown my wealth the way I have."
Abhi Golhar, 32, Atlanta, Georgia
"I've always enjoyed tinkering with computers. In high school, I made $25 an hour doing repair gigs in the neighborhood. But while earning my degree in electrical engineering, my enthusiasm wore off. I started reading a ton of books about cultivating wealth and consistently noticed a recurring theme: real estate.
"Infatuated, I began ‘wholesaling properties’ my junior year: Basically, I’d connect eager home sellers with active buyers — investors I met through local real estate groups, for example — then get a piece of the profits.
"Next, I tried flipping homes in Detroit, but lost money, due to my lack of experience. Still, before graduating, I'd earned about $45,000 from my wholesaling projects, which helped me recover. In 2007, I started my own investment company in Atlanta, where I continued wholesaling and eventually started flipping residential properties as market conditions improved.
"Today, that company is thriving, but I’m still diversifying my income and expertise in other industries, like medical education, where I earn roughly $90,000 per year as a consultant. In total, my businesses earn a few million a year, and I surpassed the $1 million mark personally in my late 20s.
"I feel great about my accomplishments so far, but there's still a long way to go: more businesses to start and people to help."
His advice for others: "Find a mentor before flipping real estate. I jumped the gun in Detroit, investing in three rental properties before I was ready. Between repairs and decreased home values, I ended up losing about $6,000. Remember, too, that becoming a millionaire isn’t about status. It’s about having the financial security to spend your time on things that really matter, like family and passion projects."
Michele Romanow, 32, San Francisco, California
"I'm no stranger to rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. At 12, I was mowing lawns and changing tires to earn my allowance, which my dad taught me to save and manage like real earnings. I went on to study engineering, but soon learned I wanted to build businesses, not bridges," says Romanow.
After graduation, she and two former classmates used the $120,000 they won through business competitions to launch their first venture, a sustainable sturgeon aquaculture facility that delivered caviar to hotels and restaurants. That business went under when the recession hit, but Romanow was hardly daunted.
After a stint at Sears Canada, she and the same two partners launched Buytopia, a daily deal platform that became one of the fastest growing companies in Canada, acquiring 10 competitors and signing up more than 7 million subscribers. In 2014, she left to work at Groupon after it bought her Buytopia spinoff, a coupon app called SnapSaves, and also joined the cast of "Dragons’ Den," a Canadian version of "Shark Tank."
Last year, Romanow left Groupon to become co-founder of her fifth business venture, Clearbanc, a financial services platform targeting freelancers and self-employed contractors.
"I’ve always believed that you don’t need to have every certification and years of education to build a business," she says. "It’s all about taking risks and pushing forward."
Her advice for others: "Invest in yourself. I started building businesses early when I didn’t have the responsibilities of a mortgage or children and I could spend every minute making something work. Starting early and investing in myself were the best decisions I made."
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