From Minimum Wage to Millionaire (Part 5: My Early 40′s)

Note: This post is part of a series about how I became a millionaire. The series starts here. The most recent installment (my 30’s) is here.

Happiness Is A Choice

After exiting the growing real estate bubble by selling our home, our intention was to take a year-long travel adventure across America in a recreational vehicle. We would submit our adoption paperwork before leaving and keep our eyes peeled during our road trip for the perfect place to call our next home. Then we’d decide whether it was better to buy another home or rent. We were ecstatic about the prospect of living as vagabonds for awhile before welcoming a child into our lives.

But then, two months later, my mother was diagnosed with leukemia.

Whoa. Not only did our trip preparation come to a screeching halt, but so did my carefree and positive outlook. My mom wasn’t just family — she was one of my dearest friends. She was only 59, she’d always been extremely active and up until this point, she’d been the model of perfect health. I was completely thrown for a loop.

My mom came to live with my husband and me for much of her two-and-a-half-year-long battle with cancer. I watched helplessly as her once strong body weakened, withered and starved. I’ve never before felt such intense and prolonged pain.

I realized I had to do something to avoid going completely out of my mind with fear, grief and overwhelm. I tried all the usual things: support groups, therapy, sleep. While these things certainly helped, I discovered something even better. And it was so ridiculously simple.

During this intensely difficult time, I realized that I could be happy anyway.

How? I made it my mission to look for at least five things each day that make my heart melt, my soul sing and my smile grow. I wrote a list of five happy moments everyday. I actively searched for things to add to my list. My focus changed and in turn, so did my mood. I learned that happiness takes practice. With practice, I developed a habit of feeling happy.

At first I felt like a traitor. How could I think about happy things while my mom suffered? Was I being unfair, insensitive? Fortunately, I realized that I couldn’t be a good caregiver for my mom when I felt bad. Fortunately, I chose happiness over guilt.

My Takeaway: It isn’t circumstance that dictates whether you live a happy life; it is a matter of choice.

Bonus: Happy people make more money!

Millionaire Milestone

The morning I calculated our net worth to be north of one million dollars, we were living in a rented apartment, driving a six-year-old car, and wearing used consignment store clothes. At age 40, we were “closet” millionaires.

I’ll never forget the walk we took that beautiful, sunny day. We lived in a nicely landscaped, well-appointed apartment complex half a block from a neighborhood park. Directly to the west of our community stood hundreds of $500,000 McMansions.

During our entire 20 minute walk, we saw no one else out and about. Where were our neighbors?

I suppose the kids were at school and the adults were at work.

I felt like a bird who had just been set free from the confines of its cage. My husband and I, completely unhindered by debt and financial obligations, had found freedom. Unlike our neighbors, we didn’t need to go to work!

Contrary to popular belief, most millionaire households do not live the extravagant lifestyles that many assume. In fact, a millionaire or two may be living inconspicuously next door to you. The authors of the bestseller, The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy found the top reason for why some people manage to accumulate wealth is that they live below their means. Many millionaires have found that living in a status neighborhood is not only a poor value, but it makes one feel the need to keep buying status objects to keep up with the Joneses.

My Takeaway: Live life your way, not like the Joneses.

Two Becomes Three

This dream of mine took ten years to come to fruition, but we had stuck to it and we reached our goal: to be financially-free before starting our family.

We submitted our adoption paperwork and eight months later, while vacationing in Hawaii, we received our daughter’s referral picture.

Since bringing our daughter home from China, we’ve scaled way back on our construction business and work only when we want to. We can afford to be selective in the projects we accept. I hired a bookkeeper to replace me so that I could focus my time, energy and attention on parenting and pursuing my hobbies. Additionally, I’ve learned how to effectively manage our investment portfolio in such a way that this task requires just one or two hours per month of my time.

Our family hasn’t set an alarm clock in years. Whether it be work, parenting or play, we wake with the sun, eager to spend each new day doing whatever we choose. For us, this is financial freedom.

My Takeaway: Hold fast to your dreams and they will come true.

…  to be continued!

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

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Simple Prosperity: Finding the Sweet Spot

David Wann author speaker filmmakerDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

Twice, I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing Dave speak.  His message resonates with me, deep down in my soul.  Generously, Dave offered to share his thoughts with my readers here, about how to find the sweet spot with REAL wealth. His message is timely: As both our physical and economic climates reach crisis levels, Dave offers us a chance to reflect, plenty of hope, and specific pathways for healthy, joyful change. Thank you, Dave!

1) Dave, how do you define “simple prosperity”?

I think of simple prosperity as a social movement, a non-violent revolution similar to the civil rights movement, to replace our excessive lifestyle with a more moderate, sensible, grounded way of life. It’s not about guilt, shame, judgment, or sacrifice, but a strategic, mutually agreeable reduction in our level of consumption and a corresponding increase in our level of contentment. My message in Simple Prosperity is two-fold: it’s not ecologically, geologically, or socially possible to pump so much stuff, so quickly, through the global economy; however, a mindful lifestyle rich in experience, information, efficiency, connection, culture, and human energy can significantly reduce much of our hyperactive production and consumption. We can have twice the satisfaction for half the resources – a bargain!

When we directly meet basic needs like security; connection with nature and with people we respect, self-expression and creativity; meaningful leisure activities, it becomes clear that money and possessions are really an indirect way of meeting needs. For example, how can a money-distracted culture create trust, authenticity, loyalty, inspiration, calmness, tradition, and passion? Frankly, the evidence indicates that the quest for “more” at both the personal and commercial scale often strips these essential qualities away, leaving us borrowing, buying and selling rather than being.

Simple prosperity re-values the ecstasy of time spent in a garden or having a stimulating conversation; the relief and renewal of ideas put to practical use, as when we work to improve our neighborhoods and communities. To “save the planet” as well as ourselves, we’ll need to change far more than light bulbs and grocery sacks; we’ll need to change our value system, creating policies and technologies based on long-term success rather than just short-term gratification. If the cultural direction – the everyday ethic – changes, individuals will follow, en masse.

2) How is simple prosperity different than a lifestyle of frugal deprivation?

Simple prosperity is not about what we give up, but what we get back when we let all the junk go: the distraction, dysfunction, depression, corruption, pollution, doubt, debt, shame, stress, guilt, cruelty, and all the rest. If we actively re-prioritize our personal lives and also participate in getting our culture back on track, we’ll re-locate what I call the “sweet spot” of enough. Enough is perfect, too much results in diminishing returns. For example, when we drink a cup or two of coffee, we have useful energy. But ten cups is way beyond “enough,” and we pay for it in craziness, just as we are paying dearly for “too much” in this year’s economic train wreck.

The lifestyle presented in Simple Prosperity could easily avoid the need to earn and spend half a million dollars over a lifetime, including reduced medical bills, utility bills, legal fees, interest payments, counseling, lawn care, day care, appliance maintenance, and other forms of hired “care” that we can provide ourselves if we make time, and liberate ourselves from a consumer script that’s driving us nuts.

3) What does simple prosperity look like on a day-to-day basis?

In our current way of life, the typical American will spend six months of his life sitting at red lights, eight months opening junk mail, one year searching for misplaced items, two years trying to return calls to people who aren’t there, four years cleaning house, and five years waiting in line – all activities that relate at least in part to our lives as consumers.


When we choose real wealth, we change the way we spend both time and money. We begin choosing things like healthy, great-tasting food; work that challenges and stimulates us; and spiritual connection with a universe that’s infinitely larger than our stock portfolio. Instead of more stuff in our already-stuffed lives, we can have fewer things but better things of higher quality; fewer visits to the doctor and more visits to museums and friends’ houses. More joyful intimacy, more restful sleep, and more brilliantly sunny mornings in campsites on the beach – bacon & eggs sizzling in the skillet and coffee brewing in the pot. Greater use of our hands and minds in creative activities like building a table, knitting a sweater, or harvesting the season’s first juicy, heirloom tomato. These are the things that matter, and we can choose them, if we spend less time, money, and energy being such obedient consumers.

A great example of the social and personal benefits of a new lifestyle already occurred in Michigan from 1930 to 1985, when the Kellogg Company operated with a six-hour day. With two hours more discretionary time, Kellogg employees transformed the lifestyle of Kalamazoo, where many of them lived. Families and neighborhoods benefited from the extra time; schools included curricula about the “arts of living” and parental involvement in schools – such as “room mothers” in the classrooms – increased. Parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries, and YMCAs became centers of activity. Kellogg workers recall that the balance of their lives shifted from working to living. What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.

4) How can adopting a lifestyle of simple prosperity help us individually and collectively?

We are an extremely socially oriented species, which accounts for our stunning success. Our ever-expanding brains enabled speech and language, and the complex social relationships that made cooperation and group decisions possible. Because of our genetic make-up, it’s hard for individuals to change unless the whole group’s ethic changes. I propose that a joyfully moderate lifestyle become, by consensus, the new norm for “the good life,” as it already has in moderate countries like Holland, Denmark, Costa Rica, and New Zealand.

Historian Arnold Toynbee observed that among thirty or more empire- civilizations, those that survived and thrived followed a Law of Progressive Simplification. The Roman Empire became Italy, where the Renaissance was born. The British Empire is now the far more moderate and exemplary United Kingdom, a world leader in dealing with global warming. The American Empire, too, will mature, in effect, outgrowing the gospel of growth.

I like the analogy of a backpacker when I think about the emerging American lifestyle. The backpacker doesn’t want a lot of junk in her backpack. She wants only items that are ingeniously designed, like a Whisper Lite cookstove, a warm fleece sweater, a good pair of boots that can go the extra miles, and food that’s full of slow-release energy. The backpacker brings along skills she has learned, the stories she can tell, a well-designed tent, maybe a flute or a great book. On her journey, the world is a splash of light and shadow, with mountain peaks in the distance and bighorn sheep standing guard. If we’re smart, the awakening American lifestyle will deliver clarity, a sense of wonder, and great health, as if life itself was an energizing, mind-opening backpacking trip.

5) I’ve heard you encourage your audiences to become “historical super-heroes.” As I recall, you suggested that we curb our consumption so that our grandkids will read about our generation in their history books with reverence. Can you elaborate?

In recent experiments with MRI technology, altruism, generosity, and cooperation register as strongly in the brain’s “pleasure center” as gambling, drugs, shopping, chocolate, or attractive faces. It would feel great to act unselfishly, in the best interests of our grandkids, but our society is focused elsewhere, distracted by situation comedies and constantly morphing car styles.

If we score high in the history books and become super-heroes, it will be because we finally let go of all the junk images, junk food, and junk information, and went after the real wealth. It’s so important that we each do our part to nudge our lifestyle in a more meaningful direction. We need fulfillment rather than just “fun,” engagement with passions rather than just passing the time. We should each ask ourselves this question: If it’s true that our whole life flashes before us when we die, will it hold our interest?

6) Despite the pain this financial crisis has caused, I can’t help but think that it serves as the wake-up call many seemed to need. My hope is that we become a nation of savers and conservationists, not spenders and takers; that we learn to value relationships over material possessions. What are your thoughts about the effect this crisis might have on society?

A culture shift like the one I propose – from an emphasis on material wealth to an abundance of time, relationships, and experiences – has already occurred in cultures such as Japan in the 18th century. Land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold, silver, and copper were suddenly scarce as well. Japan went from being resource-rich to resource-poor, but its culture adapted by developing a national ethic that centered on moderation and efficiency. An attachment to the material things in life was seen as demeaning, while the advancement of crafts and human knowledge were seen as lofty goals.

In this “culture of contraction,” an emphasis on quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses. Japanese shoguns established strict policies for reforesting. Training and education in aesthetics and ritualistic arts fluorished, resulting in disciplines like fencing, martial arts, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, literature, art, and skillful use of the abacus. The three largest cities in Japan had 1500 bookstores among them, and most people had access to basic education, health care, and the necessities of life, further enriching a culture that required very few resources per unit of happiness.

One of the main purposes of culture is to moderate and restrain individual excess, but our collective identity in 2009 is itself excessive. We’re like a family whose parents do not set clear, healthy guidelines for their children. Anything goes – drugs, unprotected sex, weapons, junk food by the barrel. Our global family desperately needs to set sensible guidelines. For example, we need to retrieve traditional diets that prevent illness and generate wellness. When the basic food groups and recipes of a particular culture are lost in the shuffle, we can’t figure out what we should be eating, with disastrous and financially costly results.

7) How would you describe a sensible economy?

A sweeping culture shift is happening right now, right in our generation. We’re at the tail end of the Industrial Era, moving into an age of restoration, biospirituality, and preservation. The entire industrial civilization is ramping down, just in time to prevent ecological catastrophe. If we’re lucky, we’ll find authentic abundance we can count on, rather than manufactured, prefabricated wealth that literally counts on us.

It’s not the Joneses we strive to keep up with; it’s an all-encompassing system of production and consumption – a way of life that takes away our ability to feed ourselves, entertain ourselves, or even have original thoughts. We’re looking for value in the wrong places. Is it really large houses we crave, or large lives, rich in discretionary time and generosity that we can share with those we love? Is it really expensive, programmed vacations we want, or simply the respect and admiration of our peers, and a sense that life is exciting? When our daily lives are energized with creativity and playfulness, we discover that life is an adventure no matter where we are.

It’s time for a cultural revolution – for consumer disobedience that demands quality over quantity; localization rather than globalization; time affluence rather than the poverty of constant, stressful deadlines; less aggression, more empathy; more respect for public places, including the environment, and less obsession with individual accumulation.

A sensible economy does not take more than it gives. On our watch, the world’s solar income and renewable yield is being consumed at a faster pace every year. This year, ecologists calculate that we’ll consume nature’s “interest” (from fisheries, forests, and farmland, etc.) by the middle of September, then, we’ll continue to draw down nature’s principle, in the process undermining the ecosystems that support us.

8 ) If we continue to reduce our levels of consumption, what do you think will happen to our economy?

We will simply create a different kind of economy, as the Japanese did centuries ago, including a rebirth of craft, amateur art and self-expression, and basic skills of self-reliance. Let’s face it, right now, we are at the mercy of a lifestyle support system that commands our obedience because we don’t even know how to re-light the pilot on our furnaces or spend a solitary hour in the park without being entertained.

Our economy’s primary measurement of “progress” is the Gross Domestic Product, which is very much a toxic loaf of bread. All economic activities are folded into it, whether beneficial or destructive. Crime, family breakdown, loss of leisure time, oil spills, hurricane damage, car accidents, loss of wetlands, legal fees for corruption – all are included in the GDP, and even though the bread is toxic, the superficial fact that it rises is good enough for mainstream economists. We need a new economic yardstick that tells us how we’re really doing, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator developed by the non-profit Redefining Progress, which subtracts the “bads.”

The U.S. GDP might possibly be smaller in the future, but that’s okay, because it could contain greater real wealth overall if all the negatives decrease while positive values like social relationships, renewable energy, bike trails, small farms, preventive health care, and compact communities with town centers increase.

Here are a few more shifts in the way we meet needs that will make our lifestyle more affordable:

* If our collective demand for products falls, so will prices, as we’ve seen recently with gasoline. With cooperation and synergies among social and technical systems, we’ll make better use of finite resources.

* When we design communities to fit human needs rather than corporate or automobile needs, our lifestyle becomes more affordable. Public transit will be far less expensive per capita than America’s current fleet of 250 million cars.

* Getting rid of packaging, glossy green lawns, and food waste also takes a huge chunk out of the collective cost of our lifestyle. We currently spend $900 per capita on advertising, which of course is embedded in the cost of products and services. Less consumption means less advertising as well as less debt. And less debt of course means less interest on the debt.

* Reasonable reductions in meat consumption, air travel, and energy-intensive materials like cement, aluminum, paper, and synthetic chemicals make it seem like we’re all making more money. War must finally be seen as the epitome of waste. Green chemistry, which shortens the steps and softens the environmental cost of making chemicals, in turn lowers the cost of everything manufactured.

* Preventive health approaches and more empathetic, service-oriented doctors and nurses lower the cost of maintaining our health, and better industrial design generates much less costly pollution.

* Eliminating subsidies that result in the destruction of ecosystems would save the world about $700 billion annually, about a third of that in the U.S. Rather than drawing down aquifers, letting soil erode, clear-cutting forests, and over-fishing the world’s fish species, we would learn how to be efficient, and how to harvest only a sustainable yield.

* In the new economy, recycling becomes a religion so less costly extraction is required; In a world with different values and priorities, there is less need for crime control, lawsuits, and security systems, because with a higher ratio of social input as well as greater equality, we nurture a population that is less fearful and has less “status anxiety,” a direct stimulant of crime.

These savings arise not because we are “doing without,” but because we’re tuning up our value system, getting rid of waste, and creating a more sustainable way of being in the world. Rather than requiring a hundred thousand hours of work per lifetime, this lifestyle enables each citizen to work less, avoiding the need for half a million dollars of earnings per capita — yielding a better quality of life in which nature is on the rebound, and trust is, too.

The future is waiting. I believe it’s time for us to stop seeing the world as it is, and begin to see it as it should be.

simple-prosperity-bookDavid Wann is a writer, filmmaker, and speaker on the topic of sustainable lifestyles. He’s coauthor of the book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a best seller that’s now in nine languages. Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle is Wann’s vision of a lifestyle that’s immune to Affluenza, and his book in progress, Beyond Simple Choices, evaluates 100 high-yield decisions at both the personal and public scale.

Retire Early Lifestyle

In 1991, Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired at the age of 38. During the last 18 years, they have made it through bear markets and bull markets, lived in the States and overseas, and have traveled in an RV for over two years. They’ve owned homes and rented, and have found a different approach to health care. Today, at age 56, Billy and Akaisha already have more years of retirement experience than most people will have over an entire lifetime. They share their experience, wisdom and travel escapades in their book, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement, 3rd Edition, available for download from their web site, Retire Early Lifestyle.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of exchanging interviews with them.

Billy and Akaisha, you’ve been enjoying life while young enough to take full advantage of financial freedom. What inspired you to retire so early?

We left the working world in 1991 at a very young age. We were at the peak of our careers and had a home near the beach in central California. On the outside it looked like we had it all, but on the inside we felt that we were missing out on what we really wanted to do and that was to travel, experience more of the world first hand, pursue passions, hobbies and to volunteer.

There were few role models and many of our friends and family thought we were crazy to be giving up such a comfortable lifestyle for something so uncharted. But we took two years to plan and to track our expenses. Billy ran the numbers and they worked for us, so we sold everything and began traveling the world. We are now into our 19th year of this adventurous and fulfilling lifestyle and we still love it.

Is early retirement everything you expected it to be? What has surprised you the most so far?

It’s everything we imagined and more. There have been so many opportunities for us to grow, to give, and to learn. And we have made friends all over the world. What surprises us is that more people don’t retire early. When considering the cost of the lifestyles many lead, they would surely have the money to do this.

I suppose that fear is a major factor in preventing people from making this change. What we have found in our experience though, is that the people who have actually made the leap don’t know why it took them so long to do so.

Where are you living now? As early retirees, what does your typical day look like?

When we were working we had typical days. Now each day is an adventure. We are currently living in Chapala, Mexico. Last year we lived for a year in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We figure that in our over 18 years of retirement, we have lived about 70% of the time overseas.

Depending on the country in which we are living at the time, we may pursue a volunteer activity like putting up lights on the tennis courts of Chapala. When we were in Thailand last year, I had a private tutor instruct me in the art of Thai massage. Billy was most encouraging in this, as he benefits from my skills!

We take advantage of travel opportunities wherever we are as well. Bangkok is a convenient hub to visit all of the countries in the Pacific Rim and we just finished a month touring the southern towns and beaches of Mexico.

We’re involved in the tennis community wherever we live which gives us great exercise and social connection. I also spend a good deal of volunteer time corresponding with people who visit our website answering their many questions about retirement, living overseas, how to reduce housing costs, relocate or how to find part time work in retirement.

It’s a very full life and we have never been bored!

How have the two of you learned to deal with doubts, unexpected issues and fear along the way?

We rely on each other. We’ve learned to support each other in ways that emphasize our individual strengths. We allow our past good financial behavior and personal habits to reinforce us when we might feel particularly challenged.

We’re survivors. We’ve come through years of demanding careers, were responsible for meeting the financial obligations of a thriving business, dealt with both bull and bear markets, and in our early years worked ourselves to the bone. We’ve developed a sense of self-reliance and confidence in our abilities as human beings and we see opportunities every day, everywhere. It’s up to us to take our lives in the direction we want.

If we get caught up in fear, we realize that we are looking in the wrong direction. It’s time to regroup and refocus. Sometimes a delay or side trip on the road of Life brings us some hidden treasure that we wouldn’t have if we had pushed relentlessly forward.

Generally, we look at the future as thrilling, not threatening. We have great faith in the future, feeling that the best is always yet to come.

You wrote: “We rely on each other. We’ve learned to support each other in ways that emphasize our individual strengths”. Can you give an example?

A good example would be the current financial problems that are happening around the world. This is a huge challenge for many people who have had their portfolios reduced and the uncertainty of the future can bring about a deep feeling of fear.

This is a time when we look to each other for support. It’s easy to fall into a sense of dread or anxiety, but we know that being in that frame of mind doesn’t allow us to see clearly and most of all it doesn’t allow us to see our options, or feel the freedom to take them.

Billy is very good at investments, at number crunching and at analyzing markets. I’m good at research and finding alternative ways to live our lives and still maintain comfort, and a sense of ease and joy.

We are both resourceful, flexible, creative and persistent. Together we have always been able to find an answer that suits the both of us, and our lives have become richer in countless ways because of it.

Why have you chosen to live in other countries?

Both of us have been travelers ever since we were teenagers. It was one of the appealing characteristics we found in each other before we were married. Our decision to live in other countries just developed from our traveling style. Wherever we go, we enjoy ‘getting local’ right away – whether it’s in Salmon, Idaho, Chiang Mai, Thailand or Chapala, Mexico.

We decided to increase our international traveling while we were still young enough to be flexible both mentally and physically, and before our comfort requirements chose our destinations for us. In traveling the world we found that we loved learning about the regional food, languages, customs and the people themselves. We picked up the languages whenever we could, joined in the community activities with volunteer work, and tried cooking the local fare. We found that not only was this challenging, invigorating and rewarding, it was really very affordable entertainment!

Our perspectives widened, the cobwebs of our minds were cleared away, and we found true joy and personal expression in this lifestyle.

How do you handle medical insurance and health care?

We keep a catastrophic medical insurance plan (basically) for when we visit or live in the States. Otherwise, we take advantage of the medical care in the country where we are living at the time.

Just to be clearer about this, for the most part we choose Thailand’s excellent care or Mexico for our medical needs. We speak more about this in our book, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement, and on our website’s Preferred Links Pages we have many links to Medical Options sites and other medical and insurance information for self-education. Not only is the medical care in Thailand clean, professional and internationally accredited, it is far more affordable than the care offered in the States currently. We have also had very good care in both Chapala, and Guadalajara, Mexico.

What were your careers before you retired?

Our first serious career was owning a restaurant near the ocean in Santa Cruz, California. Billy was trained as a French Chef, working in several Michelin star restaurants in Cincinnati, Ohio, and after we traveled through Europe for 6 months, we bought our own place.

We were quite successful at this business venture, and five years later Billy was recruited by the then-financial house, Dean Witter Reynolds, to become a stock broker. He trained to be a broker and became a very successful one at that, and then he was recruited to be a manager of his own office. Meanwhile, I continued to run the restaurant until we sold it five years later.

How do you create income now to provide for your early retirement?

All of our income is generated from our stock investments. We dollar cost average out as expenses dictate.

Fifteen years into our retirement we wrote our book, The Adventurer’s Guide to Early Retirement, to answer the repeated questions we received on our website. This has been a bonus, but nothing we needed to figure into our financial retirement plans.

Has the current financial crisis affected your long-term plans?

Not at this time. We reassessed our personal goals a few months ago, and found that our lifestyle – traveling the world, living locally, pursuing friendships and new skills, spending time with family and friends – is what we wanted to continue doing. Since we have no mortgage, car payments or credit card debt, we spend our money on living, not on maintaining things. We also derive great pleasure from our volunteer activities.

We believe there are always opportunities, and so if something appeals to us along the way, we will take advantage of it, but we aren’t actively looking for employment!

What personal characteristics do you contribute most to your financial success?

Perseverance, follow through, self-discipline and self-reliance, creativity for problem solving, optimism in the face of obstacles, commitment to each other and to a goal. We are also not afraid to step away from the crowd to be original. Neither of us are big consumers, preferring to emphasize experiences over owning things.

What is your #1 piece of advice for others who would like to retire early, too?

Don’t let anyone steal your dreams. Know what you want and don’t be afraid to go for it. If you know the ‘Why’ and commit to it, you will find out the ’How.’

Thank you, Billy and Akaisha!

After visiting Billy and Akaisha’s site and the interview I did for them, please visit the Carnival of Money Stories. I’ll be back soon with the rest of my story, Part Five: My Early Forties, soon!

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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