Millionaire Interview 342 – ESI Money

Here’s our latest interview with a millionaire as we seek to learn from those who have grown their wealth to high heights.

If you’d like to be considered for an interview, drop me a note and we can chat about specifics.

This interview took place in June.

My questions are in bold italics and their responses follow in black.

Let’s get started…


How old are you (and spouse if applicable, plus how long you’ve been married)?

I’m 53. My husband is 51.

We’ve been together for 10 years.

Do you have kids/family (if so, how old are they)?

We don’t have children, but we do have a cat.

All my family has passed; he has a sister who lives abroad.

What area of the country do you live in (and urban or rural)?

We recently moved cross-country from a small city on the east coast. Now, we live in a major metro of the west.

We LOVE the west, but it’s definitely more expensive to live here!

What is your current net worth?

My individual net worth is approximately $1.3 million. My husband’s net worth is about $300,000.

We’ve kept our finances separate. When you marry at an ‘older’ age like we did (44 and 42), it seemed like the easiest way to handle our more complex financial situations.

What are the main assets that make up your net worth (stocks, real estate, business, home, retirement accounts, etc.) and any debt that offsets part of these?

My net worth is currently comprised of retirement accounts (403b, IRAs), stocks, and cash. The total of each asset area is roughly the same amount.

His is in a 401K, cash, and half ownership of a home abroad.

We have no debt.


What is your job?

I work in higher education as an adjunct professor for several colleges. For those unfamiliar with the term, adjuncts are like temp workers because we don’t know from one semester to the next if we’ll be re-hired to teach since our jobs depend on student enrollment. Adjuncts make up the majority of professors at most colleges and universities.

Not-so-fun-fact: Most adjuncts have no job security, retirement benefits, healthcare benefits, or any other type of benefit like time off even though we often hold multiple roles at the institutions we work for and can work nearly full-time hours.

To supplement my teaching income, I work part-time as a professional tutor for several colleges and also as an online course developer and freelance writer.

My husband works as a process auditor for a multinational manufacturing company.

What is your annual income?

Cobbling together all my jobs, I make between $55-65,000 a year.

He makes $70K a year.

Tell us about your income performance over time. What was the starting salary of your first job, how did it grow from there (and what you did to make it grow), and where are you now?

Like many of my fellow Gen. X-ers, I’ve switched careers a few times. I started off as a hairdresser making negligible money until several years down the line when I built my clientele. At that point, I probably made $25K a year and supplemented that with part-time serving at a restaurant, which brought in another $5K or so.

In my mid-20s, I got bored with doing hair and decided to study foreign languages. I moved abroad to a few countries so I could become fluent in the languages I loved. I taught English and worked as a translator, making just enough money to cover my expenses while abroad. These experiences would open a lot of career-related doors for me in the future.

Inspired by the experiences abroad, I returned home and started college to become a teacher. I was in my mid-30s and worked odd jobs like mobile phone sales, telemarketing, and retail to pay bills. I went directly from my undergrad to grad school.

To pay for my grad program, I leveraged my new degree, bilingual skills, and experience teaching English abroad to land a job as a community education teacher. My pay was only $17/hour, but they offered to pay for my Master’s degree, which I knew would keep me out of debt.

When I completed my Master’s program, I got multiple part-time jobs in higher education. I was 40 years old making around $40K. Several years later, I was hired full-time to head up an academic program with a salary of $55K. The job was grant-funded, so it only lasted a few years.

Since then, I’ve continued to earn a similar income, give or take $5-10K per year, working in a variety of departments in several colleges and universities. Stability and growth in a higher ed. career are unattainable for most for a variety of reasons like fewer students attending college and level or decreased government funding.

My Master’s degree boosted my earning potential, but it was my experiences abroad that made me more competitive and interesting to employers and helped me stand out as a candidate, according to the deans that hired me. Unfortunately, enrollment in colleges has been steadily decreasing for the last decade, so there have been few opportunities to grow a career in academia. As I mentioned before, my income has stayed more or less the same for over a decade.

What tips do you have for others who want to grow their career-related income?

Talk to any educator, and they’ll typically recommend more education as the route to career and income growth, but these days that paradigm is changing. I think modern employers value their employees’ education as well as their mindset and life experiences.

More than once I was told my initiative in moving abroad and learning other languages were the reasons I landed a job. I think possessing a growth mindset, adapting easily, and being open to continuous learning, either in a traditional or non-traditional sense, are the keys to growing a career and income.

Also, prior to beginning a career, it’s important to seek out a mentor in the field. Having a mentor is incredibly valuable because you gain insider knowledge of the profession and can ask questions about how to achieve success and growth before even starting your first job.

What’s your work-life balance look like?

My work-life balance was okay before the pandemic.

Since Covid began, it’s great! I teach, tutor, and develop courses entirely from home. That means I can do a load of wash, run the dishwasher, and grade students’ work at the same time! This has freed up my evenings and weekends tremendously.

My employers are offering three work models as a result of the Covid pandemic: totally in person, hybrid, and totally remote. I’ve chosen to remain remote. I work 25-30 hours a week and no longer have a commute.

Do you have any sources of income besides your career? If so, can you list them, give us a feel for how much you earn with each, and offer some insight into how you developed them?

I don’t have outside income, but I do have multiple sources of income from within my field.

I set out to teach, but the lack of full-time teaching jobs in higher education nudged me into other related work such as curriculum development, academic coaching, academic advising, and tutoring.

I used to apply for any academic-related job I qualified for. That was the key to me feeling somewhat stable financially since adjunct professors don’t know from one semester to the next how many courses they’ll be teaching or what their income will be.

While most temporary ed. jobs are short-term and paid hourly at around $15-$30, my ‘side hustle’ as a professional tutor has been steady. Short-term work adds up to $2-4K a year to my income. Tutoring 20 hours a week adds approximately $16K to my $40K teaching wages. College and university tutoring centers are often looking for tutors from a variety of disciplines. When I discovered this, I applied and landed tutoring positions at three colleges as well as an online tutoring service. A Master’s degree is often, but not always, a requirement.


What is your annual spending?

I calculated our annual spending when we lived on the east coast. It was about $40K per year.

Since we’ve lived just a few months in the west, I don’t have exact figures for what we’ll spend in our new location, but I guestimate it will be around $60K a year since everything costs more here and there is much more to do.

What are the main categories (expenses) this spending breaks into?

  • Rent: This takes the biggest chunk of our money at 20K per year for a one-bedroom apartment in a major metro suburb.
  • Utilities/Phone/Cable-Internet/Gasoline: This is about $1K/month.
  • Food: We spend about $600/month.
  • Health Insurance/Health Costs: We have coverage through my husband’s job. This costs us about $6K/year.
  • Travel/Entertainment: We both live to travel! We spend about $15K a year in this category.

Do you have a budget? If so, how do you implement it?

I don’t have a budget; I never have. My mom always kept a budget and would follow it to the penny. That made me a little crazy as a kid, especially when I wanted something, and she’d say, “It’s not in the budget.” I learned financial discipline from my mom but vowed never to create a budget or be so rigid with my spending.

Instead, we have a spending ‘rhythm’, which just means we know how much we typically spend and make a mental note of how often we stray from it. If we change our usual habits, like more meals out, more mall runs or grocery store splurges, we remind each other to go back to the usual spending rhythm.

We hashed out our financial priorities and our ‘financial personality’ as a couple early in our relationship. Fortunately, we’re fairly similar in our views on money though at the beginning, I had to ‘strongly encourage’ AKA nag him to at least get his company’s 401k match!

That said, other than those initial conversations, my husband doesn’t talk much about money. He doesn’t keep track of anything, including his net worth. He really has no interest in finances, so I’m the one who keeps an eye on our progress and ‘studies’ how to manage and invest our money.

What percentage of your gross income do you save and how has that changed over time?

I’ve always saved, except during my years abroad. My savings rate has varied from 10-30%.

When I was in my early 20’s, I saved about 30% of my tiny, after-tax wages each year. Then, for nearly ten years, I didn’t save anything.

Since returning to the US, I’ve been steadily saving around 30% of my gross income.

What’s your best tip for saving (accumulating) money?

Good saving habits have to start early — like really early. My mom began to teach me about saving at five years old via those vintage savings ‘books’ where you inserted coins into slots that lined the book. I got such a high from that, even at a young age. I loved filling the ‘books’ and walking into the bank with my parents, all proud of myself when the teller handed me bills for the coins. My parents opened a ‘passbook’ account for me to deposit those bills.

Later in life, saving was nothing I thought of; I did it automatically. In fact, I felt guilty if I didn’t put something in the bank from each pay check.

I recommend starting good saving habits young; it really does pay off! The little bit of saving from the low wage jobs I had when I was younger added up to $200,000 by the time I was 40!

Also, I make a distinction between saving and accumulating. Save is an active verb. I save, for example, when I hold myself back from spending the money I have access to and take time to move it to a place where I can’t access it as easily or when I seek out ways to pay less for items. It takes effort!

Accumulate is more passive. For accumulating money, there’s nothing better than investing the money you’ve saved automatically. By doing that, you win the mental game that often occurs when you know you can touch your money.

In other words, if you take the ability to spend out of the equation, you avoid the thoughts and temptations that come with it, and accumulation begins. It’s almost like the money doesn’t exist; you might not even think about it. Yet, it does exist, and it’s growing every day. That’s the beauty of automatization and accumulation; you get the benefits of growth with little effort.

What’s your best tip for spending less money?

Find a discount grocer or grocery outlet! Where we lived before, there were a ton of them. There are only two in the whole metro area where we now live, but we still shop there first. I prefer to eat organic foods, but they’re expensive.

By shopping at discount grocers, I get fresh and packaged organic food for a fraction of the price. Discount grocers’ food is not rotten or necessarily expired; most is fresh and well within the best-by date, and almost all the packaged food is brand name. They also carry brand name body care products, household products, pet food, etc. at deep discounts.

We cut our grocery bill by nearly 50% when we started shopping at discount grocers!

What is your favorite thing to spend money on/your secret splurge?

I love getting massages, facials, and mani-pedis.

I do one of these once a month.


What is your investment philosophy/plan?

My investment philosophy is holistic: Pay attention to all facets of money so you have more money to invest and make wiser decisions.

I’ve paid attention to earning, spending, saving, maximizing other opportunities (side hustles, bank deals, credit card bonuses, etc.), and most importantly, I’ve learned from those wiser than me on the subject (I subscribe to a lot of money-related blogs!).

I’ve worked dang hard to grow my wealth the last six years. Once I started paying attention to all the facets of money, my net worth grew quickly since I was making more and investing automatically.

I learned that low-cost index funds were a smart option for an investor like me, and I’ve stuck with them ever since.

What has been your best investment?

Education has been my best investment.

More recently, investing my time in educating myself about money has made the most significant, positive impact on my finances.

What has been your worst investment?

My worst investment move was investing too conservatively when I started making more money.

I met with a financial advisor from work who urged me to move away from so many CDs and into the market. That was in 2009, but I didn’t take his advice until 2016. Imagine the growth that could have happened in that time…

What’s been your overall return?

I don’t know. I can tell you that my net worth grew from $300,000 to $650,000 in five years.

How often do you monitor/review your portfolio?

When I made my first net worth-tracking spreadsheet six years ago, I reviewed my finances quarterly.

Not long after that, I got so busy with multiple jobs, bank and credit card hustles, seeking out discounts and freebies, and reading money blogs that I cut back to once or twice a year.

My goal is to get back to reviewing quarterly before the end of this year.


How did you accumulate your net worth?

I accumulated what I have in several distinct ways.

When I was younger, I saved steadily even though I didn’t earn much. Small amounts added up over time. I invested conservatively in savings and money market accounts and CDs because that’s how I’d been taught by my Mom; I didn’t know any other way. It actually worked out well because until around 12 years ago, I never made anything less than 4% interest on my investments and often made 6-7%. Those were the days!

Six years ago, I discovered Rockstar Finance (I really miss Rockstar Finance!!) and went on a financial-learning binge that resulted in me maxing out every money-related opportunity I possibly could. This led to rapid growth for my finances.

Almost two years ago, my Mom passed away. She had always reminded me to treat money with respect and grow it rather than squander it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I had saved $650,000 by the time I settled her estate and inherited the exact same amount from the estate.

What would you say is your greatest strength in the ESI wealth-building model (Earn, Save or Invest) and why would you say it’s tops?

Saving is my super-power! Saving what I earn and saving via discounts and hacks are second-nature to me.

My husband marvels at my ability to find a deal for almost anything we want!

What road bumps did you face along the way to becoming a millionaire and how did you handle them?

It was never my goal to be a millionaire until I discovered Rockstar Finance in 2016. I had never even heard of financial independence or FIRE. All the wisdom that was shared in that forum made me realize anybody could be a millionaire if they tried hard enough and paid attention to their money. Once I dreamed it, I knew I’d achieve it.

I haven’t had road bumps; I tend to look at everything as a learning opportunity. I’m only ‘sad’ it was an inheritance that propelled me to millionaire status. I was striving to achieve that on my own.

What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your net worth?

I continue to work and maximize money-making and investment opportunities.

I use a certified financial planner at Vanguard, too. I figure eventually, I’ll manage my finances on my own, but for now, I like being able to talk to someone about money since my husband isn’t really into it.

Do you have a target net worth you are trying to attain?

I’d love to attain $2 million before I turn 60 and $3-4 million by the time I fully retire at around 70.

How old were you when you made your first million and have you had any significant behavior shifts since then?

I was nearly 52 years old when I became a millionaire. I initially thought I’d cut back on work, but then we moved, and the cost of living in a major metro area and record inflation made me re-think that. I’m currently working as much as I was before becoming a millionaire.

Since becoming a millionaire, the most significant shift in behavior is I don’t think as deeply about each purchase I make and whether or not I really need it or have gotten the absolute best deal on it. I’ve enjoyed this attitude shift since it’s a much less stressful way to approach my spending.

What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from?

I often think my ongoing mistake is keeping so much cash. I can’t overcome the feeling of security a large cash reserve gives me.

I’ve spoken about this with my financial planner, and on a logical level, I know it’s not the best move, and he reminds me of that each time we speak. I mean, I keep about $400,000 in cash, and it’s hardly earning anything in the bank right now. I’d love to change this, but I haven’t found the courage to do it.

What advice do you have for ESI Money readers on how to become wealthy?

Learn about all aspects of money: Earn, Save, and Invest. Educating yourself on all things financial will give you the keys to the Earn, Save, and Invest kingdom!
It’s important to keep an open mind, too. The paths to becoming monetarily wealthy are diverse and fascinating, and what inspires and motivates one person might not do that for another.

I’ll never forget when one of my fave money bloggers J Money replied to a comment I made on one of his posts; he congratulated me on my bank/credit card bonus hustling, which at that time had amounted to around $8K in two years. He said something like: That’s great, but I can’t bring myself to do it anymore even though I know I’m giving up free money. That comment caused me to pause and reflect. I realized in that moment everyone has their unique money-making journey — what they’ll do and won’t do at any given point to reach their financial goals. I reasoned if I maintained a growth mindset and flexibility and committed to applying what I was learning about money, I’d achieve financial success no matter the angle I approached it from.

I’m also proof you can have an average income and a large chunk of your life where you don’t save at all and STILL end up with a decent retirement stash if you’re open to learning about money and acting on what you learn. Even without my inheritance, I was on track to become a millionaire by 60.


What are your plans for the future regarding lifestyle?

Our net worth has had some impact on our lifestyle goals. Teaching is a passion for me, and I can’t imagine not doing some small gig in education for the rest of my life. That said, our higher net worth will allow me to decrease the amount of work I accept. For example, my goal next year is to cut my work hours to 20 per week. I’ve always aimed to ‘semi-retire’ from work, not retire completely.

My husband’s job provides our insurance, so while he’d like to retire in the next year or two, we’ve decided he’ll continue to work. We re-visit the health insurance topic often. I think the Healthcare Marketplace is attractive and would give us our freedom to work/live how we want. My husband, however, isn’t entirely convinced that Marketplace insurance is a stable, affordable option.

Until we determine what our health insurance will be, he won’t leave his job.

What are your retirement plans?

Our to-do list includes traveling the US and Canada in an RV full-time, international travel, volunteering, working out at the gym, hiking, biking, kayaking, reading, etc. I used the ESI Money list of retirement activities to add even more ideas to our to-do list!

In financial terms, I plan to take Social Security at 70. We also plan to have some income streams from work until 65 or 70 — I’ll continue to teach, and he’d like to do contracting work. He’ll have a pension, too.

Beyond that, I don’t know much about how we’ll pull from our investments. I definitely need to educate myself on that and create a plan.

Are there any issues in retirement that concern you? If so, how are you planning to address them?

Like so many, I’m concerned about the cost of health care.

Our plan for spending as little as possible on health care costs is for me and my husband to take care of our health in a holistic way. We have adopted a plant-based diet and try to exercise most days of the week. We have fun together, socialize, have a place of worship, and keep our stress low through adopting the attitude of a phrase I learned while living in a country that boasts one of the world’s healthiest lifespans: ‘No pasa nada!’ This roughly translates to ‘No worries’! I love reading about nutrition and healthy living, and as with money, I’m hoping that educating myself on these topics will pay off!


How did you learn about finances and at what age did it “click”?

My mom taught me to save and invest from the time I could wiggle a coin into a piggy bank! She showed me how to budget, how to open a bank account, and how to get the best rates on a CD. I saw her go from bank to bank to get the best interest rates. She cut coupons and shopped in second-hand stores and would discuss with me how much we saved by doing that. She modeled how to live well and be mindful of money at the same time. There was never a ‘click’ moment; financial awareness and saving/investing money had been an important part of my upbringing and remained part of my adult lifestyle.

There are levels of financial savviness, though, which I realized later in life. I always thought putting money in the bank was good enough. Then, at 47, I decided I needed to grow my finances more quickly.

One snowy day while waiting for students in our empty college tutoring center, I googled ‘how to make more money’ and discovered there were A LOT of blogs dedicated to the topic. To narrow the field, I did a search for ‘best financial blog,’ and Rockstar Finance was first in the results. Before that day, I’d never heard of FIRE! Finding that blog changed my financial journey, so I guess reading it for the first time created some ‘aha’ moments and a ‘click’!

From then on, I devoured finance-related blog content and ended up getting an entire finance-changing/ life-changing education.

Who inspired you to excel in life? Who are your heroes?

My parents inspired me to excel. They told me I had no choice but to excel!

I don’t have any heroes, but I admire so many financial bloggers. They freely give of their time and knowledge so that others can achieve financial peace-of-mind and ultimately financial independence. I’m forever grateful for their efforts!

Do you have any favorite money books you like/recommend? If so, can you share with us your top three and why you like them?

I’ve read a few money books and learned something from each one, but I actually prefer to read blogs on the subject…ESI Money, any of J Money’s projects, the Retirement Manifesto, and the list goes on. I subscribe to at least 20 finance blogs. They cover such a wide range of topics, have diverse perspectives, address timely issues, and often assume readers know little to nothing about money, which was extremely helpful when I first started my financial independence journey.

Really, anything you can read (or listen to) about money will have value and help you develop your ‘money-tude’.

Do you give to charity? Why or why not? If you do, what percent of time/money do you give?

I’ve always given to charity but not on a regular basis or a regular percentage.

Recently, that has changed because I decided to pick up extra hours and dedicate the money to organizations that support refugees. The worldwide refugee crisis really touches my heart.

I work around five extra hours a week and donate every other week when I receive my pay.

Do you plan to leave an inheritance for your heirs (how do you plan to distribute your wealth at your death)? What are your reasons behind this plan?

I plan to include in my will any remaining family members and also organizations like animal shelters, the national park system, and institutions of higher education.

I want to give to organizations that touch my heart.

Is there a unique, surprising, or just plain weird thing you’ve done to earn, save, or invest money?

I’m a bit obsessed with finding money on the ground! It started with randomly finding $90 in a store parking lot twenty-ish years ago. I let the store know, but no one reported the money missing, so I got to keep it. I put it directly into my money market account.

Since then, I search the ground when I walk and keep the money I find in a piggy bank. Last year I collected $20+ in coins and bills!

At the end of the year, I take the money from the piggy bank, insert the coins in little coin wrapper papers (such an old-school thing I love doing), and put it into my savings account.

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