How I Became A Millionaire (Part 4: My Thirties)

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

Sticks And Bricks

Having two major home renovations under our belt, we opted to create our third home from scratch this time around. In 1994 at age 30, we invested the $40,000 cash we had earned from our two previous sweat equity projects into a seven acre piece of weedy land upon which to build a barn and our next home.

We planned to live in this home indefinitely, but we picked a floor plan and house design with resale in mind anyway. We cut out the middleman and acted as general contractor, hiring, organizing and overseeing various tradesmen to do the work we weren’t qualified to perform. My husband and I spent months painting walls, laying tiles, and transforming the weedy field into a garden oasis.

An after-construction appraisal indicated that nine months of hard work had earned us $130,000 in sweat equity.

+ $290,000 post-construction appraisal (in 1994)
– $40,000 cash down payment
– $120,000 construction loan
= $130,000 net equity

My Takeaway: Learning how to be a do-it-yourself-er can pay off handsomely.

Planning Parenthood

Money ranks as the first most argued topic for many couples. It has been estimated that an astounding 80% of divorces are the result of money disagreements. Having a child is now the single best indicator of financial collapse.

I wanted children, but I didn’t want to be one of those statistics.

My choice to form my family through adoption rather than pregnancy was a decision I made when I was an idealistic teenager. The way I figured it, why “make my own” child when there are countless orphans dying for a family already.

Since I planned to adopt, my biological time clock wasn’t a ticking time bomb. My husband and I wanted to achieve financial freedom before adopting our daughter because we didn’t want to repeat our own parent’s experiences. We both grew up with young, struggling, work-all-the-time parents and quite frankly, that often stunk. We didn’t want money issues to negatively impact our family.

But how would we accomplish financial freedom while we were still young enough to enjoy parenting?

My answer came in the creation of a plan using Microsoft Money’s Lifetime Planner. I used this inexpensive software tool to problem-solve, create “what-if” financial scenarios, and monitor my progress along the way.

My Takeaway: Keep an eye on the big picture as you tweak the details.


Part One of my financial freedom plan was to make more money. Not more work, though, just more money. Neither I nor my husband were willing to work overtime hours; we weren’t interested in giving up our evenings, weekends or holidays.

For 12 years, my husband had worked as a company-employed construction worker for hourly wages, earning $20,000 to $35,000 annually. Meanwhile, his boss made many times as much revenue off of my husband’s efforts.

At age 30, my husband quit his job, affixed a rooftop pipe rack onto an old Econoline van and became his own boss. He hired a bookkeeper to handle the office-related tasks, and after a year or two, his annual net income climbed to $60,000 before leveling off. He was on the right track, but for the hours he worked, he wasn’t earning what he could.

I reviewed his business operations and found inefficiencies. My husband is an excellent tradesman with fantastic people skills; however, the math and minutiae of business management wasn’t his strong suit. Thankfully, that’s where I shine so we joined forces and doubled the annual net income to $120,000 the following year.

Statistically, the majority of millionaires are self-employed business owners. But it’s difficult for one entrepreneur to wear all the hats. My husband and I both have different strengths that we bring to the table and together, we make a great team.

My Takeaway: Stick to what you’re best at doing and get help with the rest.

Outwardly Simple And Inwardly Rich

Part Two of my financial freedom plan was to cut expenses. Rather than keeping-up-with-the-Joneses behavior, we embraced a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. We shared one used car, shopped at secondhand clothing stores, and didn’t buy stuff.

But that didn’t mean we lived a miserly lifestyle. Far from it, actually. We learned to live our lives and spend our money in ways that are in alignment with our values. For instance, since we don’t care much for stuff (fancy cars, designer clothes, glitzy jewelry, electronic gizmos), we could afford to spend generously on things that are important to us (recreation, weekly massages, organic foods, travel). We learned how to be green. By reducing our consumption, we saved money in the process.

My Takeaway: A life well lived does not require stuff.


Managing two businesses had me working more than I wanted, so I sold my pet care and training businesses ($60,000) and put a down payment on a single-family rental investment property. My initial plan was to add a new property to my real estate portfolio every few years. I had hoped this was my ticket to a lifetime of passive income. But after three years of landlording hassles, I realized this source of income would never be passive enough for me. I abandoned this plan and sold my rental at a net profit of $15,000.

My Takeaway: If it’s not a good fit, ditch it and move on.

Dear Broker, You’re fired!

I’m sure there are investment brokers worth the fees and commissions they charge, but I haven’t met one. I burned through five brokers before realizing that no one cares as much about my money as I do. Brokers are salespeople. Naturally, they cared more about their bottom line then mine.

Each year, I’d compare our broker-managed IRA accounts’ long-term performance with the stock market indexes (Wilshire 5000, S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, NASDAQ, MSCI EAFE, etc.). I found that despite paying a decent sum to brokers for their expertise, our portfolio was under-performing the standard index benchmarks.

I decided to make it my job to learn how to invest. For two years, I studied equity investing via books, web sites, and conversations with other investors. Once confident that I had acquired the knowledge, confidence and skills necessary to invest successfully on my own, I fired our broker.

Not only did our return on investment (ROI) improve, but over the course of our lifetime, we will save thousands of dollars in commissions and fees.

As I watched the astounding power of compounding grow our portfolio, I knew I’d discovered a source of passive income I could embrace. I paid ourselves first, investing 15-20% of our income plus all unexpected windfalls (such as tax refunds). I made maximum allowable annual contributions to our IRA retirement accounts and automatically reinvested the interest, capital gains and dividends.

My Takeaway: Become the expert of your own money.

Bubble Trouble

In 2004, I read a book that at the time sounded like science fiction. But author and economic consultant John Talbott presented the facts so well in his book, The Coming Crash in the Housing Market : 10 Things You Can Do Now to Protect Your Most Valuable Investment, that I was convinced financial aliens would soon be landing upon our house to snatch away our sizable home equity.

Talbotts’s analysis made so much sense to me that I decided to foil the aliens by selling our home and cashing in. We became renters.

In doing so (and when explaining why) most of our friends and family thought we’d lost our marbles. “Renters throw their money away”, they’d say. Everyone seemed to believe that real estate prices would always go up. So did many readers of my blog, when in the fall of 2007, I first shared that I was a renter. But there is no doubt about it now — the equity-sucking aliens have landed upon our rooftops. It should come as no surprise really; a 120-year historical graph shows that home prices in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, stayed relatively flat for 100 years, then began rising in 1981 and surged from 1997 to 2006. No irrational bubble can continue to inflate indefinitely.

In 2004, after sticking a “For Sale By Owner” sign in the front yard and selling the home we had built and lived in for nine years (at a net profit of $335,000), we rented and invested the cash – and our monthly savings — into a diversified portfolio of mutual funds.

Renting was much less expensive for us than owning and by putting our equity to work, our net worth surged exponentially.

My Takeaway: Follow common sense, not the crowd.

… continued in Part Five: My Early Forties

The beginning of this series started here: How I Became A Millionaire: Childhood

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How I Became A Millionaire (Part 3: My Twenties)

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

Wake Up Call

I was in my early twenties when friends and I took a fateful camping trip that changed our lives forever…

My friend, Linda, divorced for three days, was a nutty sass all weekend. She chased wild bulls through the remote Indian Reservation, cartwheeled across fallen trees bridging the river, and stopped us en route to our campsite to pour beer on a small lightning-strike fire to fan the flames. Then, perched upon the back seat of the Jeep I was following, with one hand tenuously grasping the roll bar to steady herself, she pulled down her jeans to flash me the moon.

That was her last act of sass. She fell head first out of the jeep and lay in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere, uncharacteristically still.

Linda’s premature death shattered my naïve sense of immortality. For several years afterward, I suffered from anxiety as a result of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But along with my internal pain came an impetus for personal growth. The meaning of life became a subject of intense introspection for me.

My takeaway: It is only possible to live happily-ever-after on a day-to-day basis.

Buried Treasure

My husband and I married at the tender age of 23. Like many newlyweds, we wanted a wedding, a honeymoon and a home to call our own. But neither of us had any savings. Fortunately, we didn’t have a credit card, either, so we sold one of our vehicles to generate the cash to pay for a creatively frugal and fun wedding and honeymoon.

Additionally, by sharing one car we had reduced our monthly expenses enough that we could afford mortgage payments. We bought a foreclosure fixer-upper house priced below market value and spent much of our first two newlywed years stripping off dated wallpaper, tearing away landscape overgrowth, pulling weeds and patching holes in the roof. To raise cash for home renovations and furniture, we rented one of our spare bedrooms to a friend.

My takeaway: Where there’s a will, there is a way. Live within your means and pay with cash.

Moonlighting and Bootstrapping

I continued my work at a veterinary hospital and simultaneously started my own pet care and training business. I offered my employers a win-win situation: I’d teach dog training classes in the hospital’s backyard so they’d have a new service to offer their clients; I’d be self-employed with no start-up costs, minimal operating expenses, and a steady stream of customer referrals.

In addition to training, I recognized another need that I could fill. Many pets dislike boarding kennels, so I added home and pet-sitting to the services I provided.

Approximately one year later, I was earning more from my part-time business than I was working at the veterinary hospital, so I quit my job.

My takeaway: Starting a business can be done with little to no capital investment.

Leaving the Nest and Sprouting Wings

By the time we celebrated our second wedding anniversary, it was obvious that if our marriage was to survive, we needed to move away from his family. Quite frankly, my in-laws thought that I should “wear the skirt” and demonstrate subordination to their son, and since I was a “strong-minded” woman, they were not supportive of our relationship.

We packed our belongings and sold the assets that couldn’t move with us. Selling my pet-care client list fetched $10,000 and our renovated home netted $14,000 in capital-gains-free profit.

My takeaway: Reduce your exposure to toxic people.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Once in our new town, we opened our first retirement IRA accounts ($2,000 each at age 25, if I recall), banked the rest of our cash, and rented a small condominium. Hubby took a construction job, and I duplicated the same pet care and training business I had owned before moving.

Rather than spend money on advertising my services in a new town, I sought relationships with referral sources by introducing myself to complimentary businesses (veterinarians, groomers, kennels) and offered their staff free workshops and classes. My investment of time paid off profitably as my new business grew quickly via personal referrals. I hired a few part-time employees and created an apprenticeship program. It was at this point that I discovered the joys of working from home in my pajamas.

After a year of renting, we purchased our second foreclosed fixer-upper home, remodeled it, then sold it two years later (by owner) for a capital gains tax-free net profit of $25,000. We invested our earned equity into a seven acre piece of ground and built a home on it.

My takeaway: Replicate and expand upon previous successes.

…continued next in Part Four: My Thirties

Did you miss the beginning of this series? How I Became A Millionaire: Childhood

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