How I Became A Millionaire (Part 2: Early Adulthood)

Note: This post is part of a series that starts here.

After high school, I wanted to be a professional dog trainer so I enrolled in college to study the psychology of learning, animal science and animal behavior. I was working 30+ hours a week to pay my own tuition and after three semesters, I found myself tired, bored, frustrated and impatient with the required undergraduate curricula. I discovered that I wasn’t happy with the traditional education system, nor with burning the candle at both ends.

I dropped out of college and spent the next couple of years drifting from one minimum wage job to another, paying more attention to the boys I was dating than to my financial future. I ended up broke and alone after my fiancée and I broke up. I learned that I couldn’t count on Prince Charming to sweep me off of my feet and take care of me.

My parents were struggling to make ends meet, so I couldn’t go home and become a burden on them. I became more frugal: I abandoned my broken-down car, reduced my rent by sharing my one-bedroom apartment with three other women, and found free food during Happy Hour at the local bar (free appetizers with the purchase of a $2 draft). I learned to be resourceful and to do whatever it took to survive.

One night, while working the graveyard shift at a donut shop and pouring coffee for a homeless patron, I realized that I was one paycheck away from being homeless myself. That was my wakeup call. Motivated by fear of an uncertain future, I opened the Yellow Pages, called professional dog trainers and negotiated an unpaid apprenticeship. Less than a year later, I was hired by my mentor, and I loved the work. I learned the power of asking for what I want.

My mentor-employer was a great dog trainer but she made poor financial choices and lost her business. So I took two part-time jobs: one with a competing dog training school; the other as a veterinary hospital receptionist. One day, the office manager took me aside and said, “Jen, you have a smart mind and strong opinions. I realize that you have some good ideas about how this business could be improved, but you need to understand that you are not in charge here; the veterinarians are. You’re just an employee. You need to do things our way”. My response? I decided I wasn’t cut out to be “just” an employee.

…to be continued next in Part Three: My Twenties

Did you miss Part One of this series? How I Became A Millionaire: Childhood

How I Became a Millionaire (Part 1: Childhood)

One of the most complicated questions I’m asked is, “How, exactly, did you do it? How did you become a millionaire?”. I find myself scratching my head and “uhmm”-ing in response, not because I don’t remember, but because it was a process rather than one identifiable event. My short answer is this: we lived below our means and invested in our future. But it’s way more than that — you’ve likely learned bits and pieces about many of the actions I took as I sprinkle them throughout my blog posts. Today, I’m putting the pieces together to illustrate how it’s a culmination of the little choices we make that add up to something big.

I’ll start at the beginning with some lessons I learned as a child. (Parents take note: perhaps you can glean some useful information for your children.)

Part One: Childhood

I didn’t grow up with money: When my legs outgrew my pants, Mom sewed extra fabric around the cuffs. Our family of five shared a cozy two bedroom apartment. We kept our cars until the wheels fell off (literally, once). My parents were frugal role models.

After their divorce, Mom, who was admittedly terrible with keeping her checkbook balanced, assigned this task to me. I was 13. She gave me and my siblings $25-40 each a month – which was a generous allowance back in the day – with the stipulation that we pay for our own clothes, school lunches, books, recreation, yearbooks, bus fares, etc. I quickly learned that if I spent too much money at the movie theater with my friends, I could kiss hot lunches and new socks goodbye. This taught me the value of money and forced me to budget and delay gratification at an early age.

If I wanted more, I had to work for it. At age 13, when I was old enough that my peers started poking fun at me about my well-worn clothes (kids can be cruel!), I took my first job: delivering the morning newspaper before school. Oh, but I am not a morning person, and I struggled to wake before dawn. Misery was my motivation for invention; I created ways to make money that were in alignment with my interests. I loved animals, so I started a dog walking service. An entrepreneur was born.

During my 14th summer, after hearing one too many whiny complaints of “I’m sooooo bored!”, Mom helped me arrange an unpaid apprenticeship with a dog trainer at a boarding kennel. I fed the kenneled dogs and shoveled sh!t in the mornings, and in exchange, the trainer taught me how to train dogs. Through apprenticeship, I learned a valuable new skill that years later, I would turn into a thriving business of my own.

I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. Thankfully I explored this option – before enrolling in veterinary school – by “shadowing” a vet for a few days. I observed the vet as he performed his daily work to see if the profession was a good fit for me. After fainting repeatedly at the sight of blood, I learned it wasn’t my dream job after all. I discovered I liked working with healthy animals, not sick ones. Exploring my options via shadowing spared me costly tuition and many years of study that would have been for naught.

…to be continued, next, in Part Two: Early Adulthood

Readers’ Questions Answered

Are you still renting? Will you ever buy a home again?

Yes, we’re still renting. We’ve been renting since we sold our last home in May 2003 in anticipation of the housing market crash. As home prices plummet in today’s market, we’re watching the price-to-rent ratios. When this number drops once again to long-term historical norms, we’ll consider buying. I have been keeping my eye out for real estate bargains. Cash is king in this market, and we have plenty of cash sitting on the sidelines. I’m watching the fundamentals and ratios that indicate housing affordability. I expect housing prices to continue falling for at least the next year or two. (A common consensus appears to expect an additional 15-20% national average price drop.) Therefore, I’d need to find a seller anxious to unload at a steep discount to convince me to buy today.

Eventually, we’d like to build our own home again. We’ve been collecting photos and ideas for our “dream home”: we’re envisioning a not-so-big (1500 sq. ft.) house filled with interesting architectural details, lots of natural light, cheerful colors, renewable resource products, off-the-grid energy, and perhaps enough room for a pony and a few chickens in the backyard.

In the meantime, we’re looking to downsize into a mere 230 feet… on wheels! When our current lease expires this summer, we’d like to travel the country for awhile in an RV. (Anyone selling a used 28′-29′ Airstream with rear bedroom and mid-bath?)

How is your portfolio currently invested?

Since my investment style is to follow momentum trends, I’ve been moving out of stock mutual funds and into cash since early 2008.  86% of our investment portfolio is parked in FDIC-insured banks; the balance is invested in a variety of Upgrader funds. When the markets show upward momentum again, I’ll move my cash incrementally into the new market leaders as they emerge.

Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan

Suze Orman outlined her 2009 Action Plan today on the Oprah Show. For the next week, you can download her new book for free or order a print copy of Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Planat Amazon for $9.99.

Here are the notes I took from the show today:

Tell the truth. Take an honest look at your financial situation and discuss it openly with your spouse or life partner. How much do you owe? How much do you have in your savings account?

Pay off credit card debt BEFORE creating a savings account. List your credit card accounts in order of interest rate. Pay extra on the account with the highest rate first, while paying minimum payments on the rest. After the highest rate card is paid off, get to work on the next highest. And so on until you no longer have credit card debt.

Improve your FICO score. The higher the number the better (850 is the highest). In today’s economic climate, under 700 is considered low. Did you know that potential landlords and employers also use your FICO score to determine how responsible you are? Yep, so do insurance agencies. Those with a high FICO number score big when it comes to loan rates, jobs and insurance premiums.

Ways to improve your FICO score:

1) Pay more than the minimum payment on each credit card.
2) Pay on time. (This constitutes 35% of your score.)
3) Never go over your credit limit. If you do, they raise your interest rates.
4) Don’t close your credit card accounts. This hurts your score. Why? Because 30% of your FICO score consists of your debt to credit ratio.

Separate WANTS from NEEDS.
If you have debt or no savings, ELIMINATE THE WANTS!

Save 8 months of expenses in an emergency savings account. Decide how much you can save each month and add 20% as a stretch goal. Search for the highest savings account interest rates from FIDC-insured banks.


1) Don’t panic when the market goes down.
2) Keep investing in your 401k or IRA.
3) Money you need in the next 5 years DOESN’T BELONG IN THE STOCK MARKET. If you need your money in 5 years or less, take it out of the stock market.

Suze’s pledge idea:

1) Don’t spend money for 1 day.
2) Don’t use your credit card for 1 week.
3) Don’t eat out at at restaurant for 1 month.
(The first two pledges are easy ones for me, but not the third!)

10 Essentials for Success

Publisher and Editorial Director of SUCCESS magazine, Darren Hardy, offers the following advice on how to make 2009 your best year ever:

1. Decide to be Successful – Success is not a dream, hope or fantasy; it is a decision. Make the decision to change, improve and act on your ambitions.

2. Design your Best Year Yet – As an architect would design a skyscraper, write out the goals, plans and actions it will take to achieve the life you want to live.

3. Identify Your Passion – What are your unique interests, talents and gifts? Passion attracts success. Find what you love to do – you will never “work” again.

4. Program Yourself for Success – You will see, perceive, expect and create what you think about. To program your mind for success – read watch and listen to materials that will support your success.

5. Surround Yourself with Success – You are the combined average of the five people you hang around the most. Surround yourself with healthy, success-minded achievers.

6. Model Success – The best way to learn to be successful at anything is to find someone who is where you want to be and model their success habits.

7. Master the Fundamentals – Don’t complicate it. About a half a dozen things make up 90%+ of what it takes to be successful at anything. Keep it simple.

8. Get Fit – The mind cannot achieve what the body cannot perform. Your family, friends and career and future depend on your good health. Make it priority No. 1.

9. Remember What’s Important – At the end of the journey what will have mattered most will be your relationships – the people you love and those that love you. Make sure they are on your goal list.

10. Make a Difference – What do you want your life’s legacy to be? You have the power to make a positive difference – to a single person, a neighborhood, a community, a nation, the world. Realize that power in 2009.