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Your individual financial wealth, or net worth, is built over a lifetime. Financial situations vary widely at birth, and as you go through life, your situation changes. A host of factors can alter your “wealth.” Your income may rise, or it may fall. You may start a new career; you may change careers. You may experience setbacks, large and small.
You can read plenty about what you should do, but real-life wealth-building strategies rarely go according to plan. So we asked several people at various stages in their lives to share how they cultivated their personal wealth — including the setbacks, regrets and breakthroughs they experienced along the way.
Building wealth when you’re just starting your career
When Meredith Dean, 25, was getting ready to move from Georgia to New York City to start her first post-grad job, she was terrified.
“I was told by everyone that it was going to be super expensive and it was not going to be feasible,”’ said Dean, who at the time had just graduated from The University of Georgia with a bachelor’s in Journalism.
She immediately focused on keeping her expenses in check: She sold her car and used the savings to kickstart her life in New York. She also made sure she wasn’t spending more than 40 percent of her salary on housing. Dean lived in a tiny three-bedroom apartment with no kitchen and two roommates. It was close enough to walk to work, and when she had to travel anywhere else, she used public transportation.
But keeping her costs low was only the first step to building wealth at the start of her career.
Dean’s advice for those in their first years out of school: monetize a hobby you love.
Just a few months into her new job, Dean started a business that builds online portfolios for students and recent grads trying to land their first jobs. She got the idea for it after making a website for her then-boss and created the company, The Dean’s List, in the hours after her 9-to-5.
“I thought, ‘Man, I’m doing this for a lot of people and I’m loving this. Why don’t I start doing this for students?’” said Dean. After the idea struck, she pulled an all-nighter to create a website for her new company and never looked back. Today, Dean serves one or two clients a week through The Dean’s List, in addition to her full-time work.
“I now have these extra funds that I can rely on in case there is an emergency or if there is a trip I really want to go on,” said Dean. “It’s really nice to feel comfortable at 25 and not have any debt.”
For Dean, a crucial component to building wealth at the beginning of her career was not starting in a hole: She started working as a restaurant hostess in her hometown of Milton, Ga., at age 15, and around the same time, she learned she could have almost all of her college tuition paid for if she graduated high school with at least a 3.0 GPA under Georgia’s Zell Miller Scholarship program. Primarily because of that scholarship, Dean didn’t have any debt when she completed her undergraduate degree in 2014.
Don’t quit your day job
Although Dean started her own company, she kept a full-time position. And she really lives the ideal that having multiple income streams is crucial to building wealth — at one point, she even picked up a third job.
Surround yourself by people who support your goals
While living in New York, Dean attended a Jeffersonian dinner at another recent UGA graduate’s place. At a Jeffersonian dinner, all guests must stay on one topic for the entire dinner — and it just so happened on that night the conversation topic was personal finance and women in finance.
“I learned so much from that dinner,” said Dean. Not only did she pick up a little newfound knowledge on everything from saving to investing, she also connected with a supportive group of friends.
“Surround yourself with the right people that push you forward, that motivate and inspire you,” Dean said. “That’s going to help you build wealth.”
“I just really wish I would have taken a personal finance course,” said Dean, when asked about her biggest wealth-building regret.
She’d been saving in her retirement account and had an emergency fund. But after two years exclusively using her debit card, Dean hadn’t learned much about building credit. She didn’t get her first credit card until she left New York for her current home, Charlotte, N.C., in 2016.
Once in Charlotte, she found she needed a car. “I had no established credit to get a car, so my dad had to cosign for it,” Dean said.
She ended up educating herself about personal finance, but recommended college students take at least one personal finance course before they graduate, as long as they can afford to take the course (or if their school even offers one).
Building wealth early on in your career
Although Jimmy Chan, 35, and his partner, Sue, 36, landed good jobs and bought a house together shortly after they earned undergraduate degrees in 2008, they still weren’t the best with money.
“We had to borrow money just to furnish our new home because we didn’t have extra savings,” said Chan. At the time, Chan, a computer engineer, was paying down his student loans on an entry level IT salary. Having to borrow money for furniture completely wiped them out, he said. But, it was the wake-up call they needed to avoid getting into any more debt.
The Montreal couple managed to pay off the IKEA debt, and Chan repaid his C$10,000 in student loan debt in his 20s. Still, they didn’t really start getting their financial lives in order until a few months shy of Chan’s 30th birthday.
Chan and his partner took the approach of starting with small goals and sticking to them. To kickstart their wealth-building, they found ways to live more frugally with the goal of living below their means. They cooked at home, packed lunches and avoided taking on more debt. They worked their way up to setting aside 20 percent of their income, on average, Chan said.
“Once we started to make small adjustments and were seeing results we were motivated,” said Chan. “It may take you 3 months, or 6 months, until you gain that confidence. Once you achieve [your] goal you can say, ‘Wow, we did it again.’”
That strategy allowed the couple to max out their retirement contributions, pay down their mortgage faster and launch Chan’s photography business, Pixelicious, which he operates in addition to his day job in IT.
“You work, you earn money, you save and you invest and you just keep on that cycle,” said Chan. “The payoff is that it gives us options. If we wanted to go on a vacation we would just go because we were able to save diligently.”
Start now, start small
Chan’s two pieces of advice for people building wealth early in their careers are
- Start small with what you can handle.
- Make the most of the time you have to invest and earn compound interest on their savings.
Chan said he’s seen an increase of about 30 percent in his salary since he started his first job, so most of the wealth he and his partner have established has been through staying ambitious and disciplined.
Avoid paying interest on debt
After the IKEA loan, the couple avoided debt.
“We made a priority very early on that besides the mortgage we did not want any outstanding debt,” said Chan. “We have kept it a priority as long as I can remember.”
Keep multiple income streams
In 2015, the couple said they used some $20,000 of their savings (non-retirement, non-emergency fund savings) to launch Chan’s professional photography business. Chan operates the business in his free time, outside of his job in IT. Today, the business is profitable and has increased the household’s income by about 10 to 15 percent, Chan told MagnifyMoney.
“The business venture is a cherry on top,” said Chan. “It helps us to diversify our income streams.” He adds that the business’s income gives the couple more options and helps avoid financial stress overall.
Chan said the one of the most impactful parts of his wealth-building journey has been being on the same page with his partner.
“Every financial decision was decided as a team,” said Chan. “We both contribute. It doesn’t matter if one earns more than the other one.”
With the exception of his student loans, the couple has tackled their debts and savings goals together. When it came to Chan’s business, Chan said, Sue was supportive and they made the decision to invest the money together. They would both delay taking a vacation and instead put the money toward the business.
“Be honest and upfront about your financial goals from the get go and work together to realize your dreams,” said Chan.
Chan said that there was a point when he thought money was the most important thing in the world — and then he lost money in the stock market.
“I’ve made mistakes. I’ve put money in places, in stocks, where I should not have been,” said Chan. “I lost a few thousand bucks in a stock that crashed I thought it was the end of the world. We started arguing. We started fighting.”
Chan told MagnifyMoney that he, like everyone else, is destined to make mistakes or lose some money along the way. But he said that he’s learned that money is only one aspect of your life and that it’s not the most important component, even as you’re working to build wealth — your relationships are. He added that you should accept your mistakes and come back even stronger.
Wealth-building in the middle of your career
Shortly after he graduated from Pepperdine University with a bachelor’s in business, Terence Michael began his career as a film producer in Los Angeles. It was the early 1990s.
Michael, now 49, worked for three months with other producers, then launched his own production company. He said it took several years to get his first couple of films going, and the income was inconsistent. He often stayed at his parents’ house and did odd jobs to scrape by.
Eventually at 29, after producing a few successful films, Michael bought a house. He fixed it up and sold it two years later, and he took a break from producing at age 31 to continue this pattern of real-estate investing. Even as he returned to producing a few years later, he kept the real-estate side hustle going. A couple of decades into his career, his resume includes highlights like “Duck Dynasty” (executive producer) and “Planet Primetime” (executive producer), as well as his own film and TV company, 100 Percent Terry Cloth. On top of that, he’s continued to build wealth through a host of real estate and investing activities.
Michael said his greatest wealth building strategy has been making the most out of what he calls “proximity potential” — combining the things he knows with the worlds or business industries he knows. He coined the term in his book “Produce Yourself.”
Instead of paying fees to brokers and agents to buy and sell houses, Michael got a mortgage broker’s license after his first few sales. He sat at a Starbucks and took courses online until he earned his real estate broker’s license.
With the license under his belt, he could act independently as a self-employed broker representing clients and form an independent mortgage company. Knowing that people in the entertainment industry may receive income sporadically, and understanding the difficulty that presents when getting a mortgage, Michael focused his business on helping that population.
Make money off of what you own
“You can find some financial independence by having a good job, but you’re never going to have real wealth unless you have ownership vehicles,” said Michael.“I don’t know if anyone in history has ever created financial wealth [just] by working for someone else, with just a paycheck.”
In addition to running his production company, Michael:
- works as a showrunner on other production projects;
- brokers mortgages;
- is a superhost on Airbnb;
- hosts the “Produce Yourself” podcast;
- coaches entrepreneurs and young couples on how to invest and grow their money
Michael said having his side hustle in real estate allowed him the financial stability to pursue his main purpose and passion, film and TV.
“Whenever I’m developing, raising money, and trying to sell, it’s nice to have all of these other streams flowing,” said Michael.
Lend and receive
Michael saves for retirement, but puts any extra funds into online platforms that lend money to other people and businesses.
He started off with investments in peer-to-peer lending platforms like LendingClub and Prosper. Then, he realized he could do the same with real estate and have his money secured by an asset, so he invested heavier on platforms like Ground Floor, Patch of Land and Yield Street.
“That I would call my savings, because if you keep laddering in eventually after a year, year and a half, it starts laddering it out,” said Michael.
Teach what you know
Michael wrote his book, “Produce Yourself,” in 2017 and started a podcast with that same title later that year. He said he decided to write the book after friends and colleagues asked him about his side hustles, multiple streams of income and how he did it all while working in Hollywood — and the book and podcast led to yet another income stream.
Although Michael’s never lived “a story where [he] was in the gutter and crying for help,” he still attributes his success to a network of family and friends: “I know that whatever risk I take, I won’t go hungry and I will have someplace to sleep.”
Having a support system is important, but so is understanding what you’re getting into. Michael said he has experienced things like bad tenants and investments that have fallen through. It happens all the time, but having multiple investments going at once makes it easier to weather.
Building wealth when you’re making a career change
In 2017, police officer Adam Doran in Kansas City, Mo., wanted to make a career change. A few years prior, he had found himself deep in debt, facing foreclosure and trying to cover fixed expenses that exceeded his income by about $1,100 each month. On top of that, the recently divorced Doran had a 5-year-old daughter to care for.
“I can’t adequately describe the anxiety of that situation, but it was incredibly stressful,” said Doran.
That was about six years ago. Last year, having bounced back from that low place and growing increasingly tired of police work, Doran put together a six-week finance class at his church. It went so well, he said, people were asking him if he would be their financial adviser and his wife suggested a career change. Doran has since obtained his life and health insurance licenses and has started working towards certification in financial advising. He retired from his policing career in January 2018.
Of course, making a career switch can be very difficult. Doran was going from a steady job in law enforcement to becoming an entrepreneur, all while trying to continue paying down his debt and building wealth.
Though Doran is only a few months into his new career, he has attributed his stability during this time of change to strict discipline. After his divorce, his faith played a significant role in his ability to move forward, Doran told MagnifyMoney.
“I prayed a lot,” he said. “And I made a renewed commitment to giving 10 percent of my gross income back to God.”
His decision to tithe (give 10% of his income to church) and save money consistently became the foundation of his financial recovery. Maintaining that discipline helped Doran learn that finances are mainly behavioral, he told MagnifyMoney.
“The kind of person that has the discipline to faithfully give and save a percentage of their money, consistently without fail, regardless of the circumstances, is bound to encounter success financially,” Doran said.
Diversify your income
While leaving the police force meant Doran was leaving behind a steady paycheck, it wasn’t his only stream of income. Doran fully owns a rental property and has multiple assets growing in value, he told MagnifyMoney. So when he decided to make a professional shift, he wasn’t betting his entire financial future on the new career.
Stay the course
When it came time to transition into his new line of work, Doran focused on staying the course. He’s continued to pay off his debts to free up more and more of his income. His investments in real estate also supply him with passive income streams.
“It was pretty cool that I had monthly checks coming in from rents on rental properties and payments on private loans,” said Doran.
His properties and business also allow him to take tax deductions he didn’t have before, so he gets more money back from the government at tax time.
Read and network
Doran looked to books and mentors to learn about personal finance and investing. He went online, searched LinkedIn and attended in-person investor gatherings to meet people who had spent years in the field he was just starting to get to know.
“I also did my best to connect with those who had gray hair, because I figured they would, and they did, have success and failure stories and experiences I could learn from,” said Doran.
He read books like “Think and Grow Rich,” “Conversations with Millionaires” and “How Successful People Think” to change his mindset about money and help him make decisions that could grow his business.
So far, he hasn’t learned any of the tough lessons that are sure to come with his career change, but Doran has plenty of other things in his past that have helped him better approach his finances. He’s said that he wouldn’t change anything about his recovery and wealth-building process, but has expressed regret over the bad decisions that got him into the situation.
“I wish I hadn’t borrowed money on vehicles or gotten into a house that was too expensive for me. But, I suppose that was all part of the process of living and growing that I was supposed to go through to help me become who I am today,” he said.
Building wealth in retirement
Markus Horner, 69, of Sachse, Texas, ran his residential maintenance business for just over 25 years before a knee injury forced him to retire at 67. During his working years, Horner struggled to save much money for retirement.
“I was able to contribute a little bit but not a whole lot,” said Horner about his retirement nest-egg. “I wasn’t making enough to be able to do that back then, but now I can.”
That’s because just before he retired two years ago, one of the customers he was installing a front door for introduced him to swing trading: short-term trading on the stock market.
Horner said the money he used to start his swing trading business is money he had saved up over a long period of time while working as a maintenance man. Swing trading is a short-term trading method one can use on stocks and options. Swing traders look for stocks with short-term price momentum, and they hold assets for two days to two weeks before they sell.
Now, in addition to Social Security and the income he receives as a disabled veteran, Horner is able to use income from swing trading to help support his family, fund his hobbies and pad his retirement savings.
“It’s not for everybody, but it’s something I find very, very interesting,” said Horner about the business.
He said he uses some of the extra funds to cover bills here and there, but the majority goes to his savings, helping his daughter pay for graduate school and to an expensive, longtime hobby: building hot rods.
“Hopefully I will make enough that when I do pass away — whenever that occurs, hoping its a number of years from now — there will be enough money that my wife will be able to live comfortably,” Horner said — although, he noted that the family doesn’t necessarily need his income, since his wife, Lourdes, 59, still works as an opthamologist.
“She makes enough there that we could live off of her income if we chose to,” said Horner; his wife also has a pension and ample retirement savings in a 401(k) and Social Security she can tap into when she retires. “But I like to work and make my own money so I will have something to help me build my hot rods.”
Don’t limit yourself
Those looking for additional income to help them through their retirement years shouldn’t feel limited in their search. Horner advises they look for something they like to do that they find interesting.
“I did not know that swing trading even existed until two years go,” said Horner. “Look around, don’t limit yourself to just one or two or even three things.”
Set up a savings account
Horner said it’s “absolutely critical” for those strapped for cash in retirement to set up a savings account if they haven’t already, and they should automate the savings.
That’s something he and his wife did in the years just before he retired. They set up an automatic transfer to their savings account for every Friday, and increased the amount over time as their incomes rose. They started out saving $25, Horner said, and now, they are saving about $200 every Friday.
“We are at a point where we can do that and not struggle. But we couldn’t do that in the beginning,” said Horner.
That’s why he suggests people start small, and gradually learn to live with less. After about five years, the couple had saved more than $10,000, Horner told Magnifymoney.
“And that’s the money I used to start my trading account. $10,000. That’s how I got started,” said Horner.
Horner said his biggest financial regret is not having been able to put money into a retirement account during his younger working years.
Although he said he wish he’d learned about swing trading earlier, it was probably good timing, as it wouldn’t have been something he thinks his younger self could have done.
“Being a swing trader requires tremendous patience. I did not have the patience 30 years ago that I have now,” said Horner. “If you don’t have the willingness to be patient, you will actually lose money by being impatient.”