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

5 Things The Marshmallow Test Can Teach You About Money Management

Tina is an intellectually-gifted bartender who struggles to pay her bills. Tina serves martinis to Susan. Susan is no more intelligent than Tina, but Susan is a millionaire. If not intelligence, then what explains the difference between Susan’s wealth and Tina’s financial lack? And what do sticky, gooey marshmallows have to do with it?

In the 1960s, Stanford University psychology researcher Walter Mischel conducted a longitudinal study. Mischel placed marshmallows in front of hungry four-year-old children. He told them they could have one marshmallow now, or if they could wait several minutes, they could have two. Some children quickly grabbed the marshmallow and ate it. Others waited.

Mischel followed the group and found that 14 years later, the children who eagerly devoured the first marshmallow weren’t faring as well as the children who had waited for two marshmallows. Years later, the “grabbers” suffered low self-esteem. Teachers and parents viewed these kids as stubborn, prone to envy and easily frustrated. The “wait-for-two-fers” possessed better coping skills; were more socially competent, optimistic, self-assertive, dependable and trustworthy; and scored about 210 points higher on their SATs.

Perhaps the key difference between financial lack and wealth is not merely hard work or superior intelligence, but the ability to delay gratification.

What can the Marshmallow Test teach you about personal finance?

1. Avoid looking at marshmallows when you’re hungry

During the Marshmallow Test, some successful kids reportedly covered their eyes so they couldn’t see the tempting treat. My take away tip: Avoid temptation– stay away from the mall when you’re bored.

2. Save a marshmallow today and you’ll eat well tomorrow

The children who waited for the second marshmallow were rewarded with a 100% return on their first marshmallow. My take away tip: Unleash the power of compounding and you’ll be wealthy when you retire.

3. Drooling over s’mores? Wipe your chin and wait for the hot goo to cool– because you don’t want to burn your mouth!

One child reportedly licked the table around the marshmallow while waiting for the experimenter to return. My take away tip: Imagine having what you want, but wait until the time is right to consume. If you shop, wait until you have cash in hand to buy– don’t get burned by finance charges and credit card debt!

4. Stick your marshmallow into the fire, keep your eye on it and remove when perfectly browned– before it bursts into flames.

Some successful children watched their marshmallow to prevent others from snatching it, waited patiently until the researcher returned with the expected second marshmallow, then enjoyed their reward– without begging greedily for more. My take away tip: Invest in the market, monitor your investment and sell your shares when they reach your target price– before the bubble pops.

5. Give your children mini-marshmallows and teach them how to make rice crispy bars.

Some kids handled the wait by turning their back to the marshmallow, singing songs or talking to themselves. My take away tip: With practice, kids can learn how to delay gratification. Provide opportunities for your child to develop strategies. Give your children an allowance and teach them money management skills.