My Journey to Financial Independence

Growing up, my parents had extended periods of unemployment. We could have been better off financially, but we always had a home in my grandfather’s house, and never went hungry. The worst I suffered was the embarrassment of wearing my sister’s old clothes to school. Kids can be mean, especially to a smart ass wearing bad girl’s clothes – my sister didn’t exactly get to pick them either. While the 8 year-old me was pretty miserable, now I appreciate having learned the importance of money early in life.

Checking out the Meow Wolf exhibit in Santa Fe a few weeks after quitting my job.

Getting my first job

I started my first job serving coffee in a cafeteria when I was 14. It wasn’t awesome, but earning $30 a day was infinitely more than nothing. I made my first investment with that cash. The CD rates at our local bank were 5%, and I remember thinking if I could invest $1000 in a CD, it would pay me $50 a year for doing nothing. Since I preferred playing video games over serving coffee to old people, I really liked the idea of making money without working.

That first job was followed by an equally mind numbing stint at Walmart before I got a job cutting lawns. I didn’t like my first two jobs, but I loved landscaping. I enjoy working with my hands, and being outside all day surrounded by the smell of fresh cut grass was the best. The 10-hour days flew by, and earning $10/hour was enough to cover my college tuition.

Working through college

I went to college to become a computer engineer in 2000 – right when the dot com bubble was bursting. At that time, I didn’t even know what a bubble was. I’d chosen my major because it was the highest paying 4 year degree. I was chasing money – partly because I was scared of struggling for it. When all the internet jobs disappeared, my plan for targeting a high salary wasn’t looking so ingenious.

I was fortunate to secure a last minute internship working on helicopters. I only got the job because my boss was too late recruiting aerospace interns, and I was willing to come in after the semester had already started. The $14/hour pay really helped with tuition, and I quickly picked up a lot of skills in a whole new field. That internship led to aΒ $52,000/year job when I graduated.

My first real job

Getting a real job was a huge weight lifted off of me. I celebrated my success by going out to eat, buying toys, and spending late nights at bars whenever I wanted. After working for a couple of years, I saved enough money to buy a house and a new car.

Expenses were adding up, but I could easily afford them. The new car payment was $350 a month, and my insurance costs had doubled. My mortgage wasn’t too bad – I got roommates to help cover the payment. I enjoyed having the company, and we threw some epic parties. Some of those roommates are still my best friends today.

With my fancy new job, I also took on the mentality that any item under $200 was chump change. Clothes, shoes, toys, and especially drinks at the bar all seemed like minor purchases. Maybe I was making up for all the time I spent dressed like my sister in elementary school.

I was 23 and living it up.

The eureka moment

While visiting home, I got to talking about money with my younger brother. He went to community college and was working as a waiter. I was caught off guard when he told me that he’d already saved $60,000.

That amount of money sounded enormous to me. People our age only had student loans that size. He didn’t get lucky in stocks or real estate. This was all money he’d earned and saved while working as a waiter. Barely out of school, no fancy degree, he was killing it.

Mind blown, I started to think about how I could do the same. I didn’t need to earn more, I needed to spend less – a lot less.

Getting spending on track

It was easy getting used to my salary, but upon reflecting, I remembered this was an insane amount of money to be making. The 14 year old me would have been wondering why the hell I didn’t already have $100k invested and earning interest. I was making over $60k/year at this point and spending a good chunk of it. In college, I lived on a fraction of that.

I really started turning things around when Mrs CK and I got married. I was cheap, and we were both lazy. We decided to skip the wedding and got married at city hall for 20 bucks. Instead of spending on a big ceremony, we went on several honeymoon vacations.

Mrs CK said she married me for my brain (I think that’s just what you tell engineers) and not my fancy new RSX Type-S. I sold the car for $10k less than what I paid for it, dropping a car payment, and halving my insurance costs.Β It was replaced it with a $3000 Honda Civic – the same kind of car I had in college.

Getting investing on track

Our way of life didn’t change much, I still had a perfectly fine car, and we still ate and drank well – just at home. The big difference was in our savings. We began to max out our 401k contributions and cash was piling up in our bank accounts.

Our savings rate was good, but our investing still wasn’t at its best. I was trading in and out of stocks, using options to leverage bets. It wasn’t long before I realized my automated 401k investments were doing a lot better than my trading. A big part of the problem was that too much cash was sitting idle while I found the “right” stocks to buy.

We changed strategies, and I closed all my trading accounts. Instead of being stock pickers/traders, we decided to stick with index investing for the long term. We thought the market was too high back in 2012, but following our new strategy, we invested everything in a three fund portfolio.

Set it and forget it

Cash that was sitting idle finally got to work. Index fund investing was much simpler and stress-free. A lot of my mental bandwidth was freed up for more enjoyable hobbies. Our simple strategy started paying off as the market headed into a long bull run.

The only thing to do with automated investments is track progress.

The lowered stress started to spread to other parts of our lives. I always had a fear of struggling for money, and having solid investments gave me added confidence. At work, I started turning down extra responsibility leading stressful projects. I changed positions to pursue research projects that interested me, and started wearing jeans and crazy kicks to work.

Earlier in my career I had room for inventing and learning, but as you move up in engineering, you also stop doing the fun work. Now I had a chance to be creative again. I invented and applied for over half a dozen patents in 2 years. I was actually enjoying work again for a change.

Finding freedom

When the Mrs and I got married in 2008, we created our first plan to reach financial independence. Our goal was to quit our corporate jobs by 2020, which we thought was aggressive. Thanks to constantly questioning our strategies, and optimizing our spending, we hit our goal a few years early. Mrs CK quit her corporate job to follow her passion teaching at a community college, and a year later I quit my job.

Fishing at the park last week.

I didn’t make any lucky bets, and we didn’t work anymore than our day jobs. All the fancy investing tricks I tried only slowed us down. Looking back, I was probably drawn to riskier investing schemes because saving hundreds of thousands of dollars seemed insurmountable.

Maybe some people do find that quick fix starting their own business, picking hot stocks, or making stellar real estate deals. But my path involved a regular salary, not so regular spending, and boring investments. The benefit of boring was that we also had plenty of time to travel, party, and keep learning new hobbies. It did take us years, but we didn’t have to make sacrifices, just better decisions.

44 thoughts on “My Journey to Financial Independence

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing your story. It’s so easy to be jealous of other people who achieve FIRE relatively quickly. But a lot of good decisions and planning had to happen to make it a reality. πŸ™‚

  2. When it comes down to it the formula for financial independence really is simple. Earn more than you spend, invest the excess. Keep doing that until you can retire.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, it is really inspiring. It does show that everything is possible, but you have to create a plan and stick to it.

    P.S.
    How is your brother doing? Having $60K in savings for a college student, it’s amazing.

    • Thanks! My brother is still doing really well. He has a few properties he owns outright, and most of his expenses are covered by some rooms he rents out.

      Funny story, he tried taking on a 9-5 job in sales recently. After seeing what it was like for one day he gave up and said “I can’t believe people work like this 5 days a week.” I think he is going to stick with waiting 3-4 nights a week until he retires early πŸ™‚

  4. That’s a great story. You achieved FI very quickly. Your net worth shot up so much since 2010. That’s awesome.
    Most people can do this too. They just have to wake up and make it their goal.

  5. This is the inspirational post that I needed today. My investments aren’t moving and the valuation on a property I was going to buy just came in almost 10% under the asking price.

    Thanks for the good words

    • It can be frustrating when you don’t see the needle moving, but those are usually also the times when you are making the biggest difference in your future. Growing wealth takes time, you just gotta keep at it πŸ™‚

  6. Such a great story Mr. CK, and I love the stick figure drawings!

    I followed a very similar path. It’s really true that saving skill is actually more important than investing skill when it comes to financial independence.

    Worked for me at least!

  7. Great story. Start working at the age of 14, that’s very impressive. After years of hard work, enjoy your free life, you earned it. By the way, I like your drawings, very creative and cool.

  8. Awesome story, thanks for sharing! I had some less than exciting first jobs too… like weeding gardens or assembling gas grills and wheelbarrows. But at that age the money seemed good. It was probably easier to save as a kid because we had less expenses then (i.e. free housing :-). It sure is important to start as soon as you can, and it is never too late to start.

    • Yep, it’s nice to have some investments going early, but it’s also never too late to start. Wealth accumulates a lot faster than planned when you have a high savings rate πŸ™‚

  9. “It did take us years, but we didn’t have to make sacrifices, just better decisions.” That, right there, is the mindset that got you where you are. You didn’t see your decisions as sacrifices, but as choices. Thanks so much for sharing your journey, Mr. CK!

    • Yeah, it’s a decision to either have a fancy car or save for FI. On one hand you get a sweet car, on the other hand you can retire early, neither of these choices are sacrifices πŸ™‚

  10. Great job super inspiring. Love the part about the 3 fund index investing portfolio, definitely the best way to go for the long run. I upped my 401K from 8% to 15% the last year and couldn’t believe how much more I saved and didn’t need the money for the day-day, automation is key!

  11. It always fun to hear peoples FI stories. I wish some research would find out why Software Developers/Engineers are so abundant in the FIRE community.

    Also the married for your brain part killed me, that image was epic. My wife said the same thing.

  12. Here’s to your better decision! Great story, thanks for sharing. I can imagine the look on your face when you realized your younger brother saved as much as you were earning in a year, being a waiter. Good for him! I hope he also continued his saving ways.

    • Yeah, my little brother really gave me a good wake up call. He is still doing really well at saving and is pretty close to becoming financially independent himself πŸ™‚

  13. I always enjoy reading how people’s journey to FI. I especially wanted to read your story because you’re from the Northeast right? That’s one of my biggest obstacles to FI…living in NYC, but tough to leave because family/friends are all here. Also enjoyed reading about your childhood, it reminds me of myself wearing hand-me downs and working at a young age to earn extra money. Those experiences build character.

    • Yep, we are still living in Connecticut. The cost of living is definitely a good bit higher than most other places, but we still managed a savings rate over 70%.

      We live in a blue collar neighborhood, so our house wasn’t very expensive. Groceries might be more expensive, but not to the tune of thousands of dollars. Last year our total expenses were $38K, and that included $7k of travel πŸ™‚

  14. Great story! You only spend $38k a year? That just seems so crazy (kicks) to me, but if you can do it, makes me feel like I can do better with my spending. Don’t think I’ll ever get quite to your level, but you’re pushing me to be smarter. Thanks!

  15. Congratulations and what an awesome story about your financial journey! I’m a bit older than you but I finally have a date I am shooting for. In the meantime, I think I’m going to enjoy my life a bit more.

    We tried your pizza recipe. My wife and I had a competition on who would be able to make the best pizza with the dough for her birthday. The entire family enjoyed it. Thank you!

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  18. Great story! IAre you both living off your wife teacher salary now and/or do you use the distributions from your 401k’s earnings?

    I follow the logic behind you getting to where you did. Trying to understand at what financial point did you feel comfortable enough to quit.

    • Mrs CKs teaching gig more than covers our expenses. She always knew she wanted to do some teaching, then something came up near us. She quit her corporate job on the spot. I kept working for another year. When her second summer off was coming up I couldn’t give up the opportunity to go travel with her.

      We can still afford our lifestyle even if she stops teaching, but it did make my decision a lot easier πŸ™‚

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