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The Power of Doing Just *ONE* Thing

by J. Money on Monday, May 19, 2014

1 pool ball

As a financial blogger, my job is to share a billion ways to pay off your debt, save your money, maintain a budget, invest your money, MAKE more money, give your money to me, reach financial freedom, and on and on. I’ve probably shared over 3,000 ideas with you since starting this blog 6 years ago, and I’m sure I’ll spout another 3,000 ideas as fast as you can spell “jmoney’sabadass” too ;)

But here’s the thing: you could choose to only do ONE thing consistently and still make a huge difference. It just has to be one of the “biggies.” You do any of these things listed below – just one of them – and you’ll become a millionaire in no time. Even if you don’t do anything else!

5 Simple Ways to Become a Millionaire*

  1. Max out your ROTH IRA every year ($5,500)
  2. Max out your 401(k) every year ($17,500)
  3. Max out BOTH your IRA and your 401(k) every year! ($23,000)
  4. Pay off your entire mortgage and save the future payments ($100,000? $300,000? $500,000??)
  5. Win the lottery**

Yes, it’s in order of difficulty there, haha… But still – quite simple :) You do *any* of those on rotation year in and year out, and I guarantee you’ll reach financial freedom in 20-30-40 years from now. All depending on your expenses, and lifestyle, yada yada… (And if you’re not in a position to invest large amount of money every month/year, at least start with SOMETHING. Even just $100 or $200 a month can do enough to snowball you towards your goals faster!)

And notice I said “simple” there and not “easy.” Everyone knows how to become a millionaire over time (spend less than you make and save/invest the difference), but just like trying to lose weight or stop smoking – it takes more than just *knowing* what to do to make it happen. If that wasn’t the case we’d all be healthy billionaires walking around this planet!

We’ll have to save the “how” for another day (it basically comes down to figuring out how to motivate your ass), but for today just concentrate on the simplicity of it all. Again, you do ANY of those things above and you’re golden*, even if you never do anything else at all! Which of course you’ll do anyways throughout your life, but this is good to keep in mind when you’re down on yourself or wondering what “secrets” you’re missing out on.

There are no secrets. You already know what you have to do!

I reference back to my net worth tracker again. When I was going through all the articles and linking back to the page there, I noticed a pretty consistent (and amazing) thing: All I was pretty much doing was maxing out my retirement accounts every year. Sure I was hustling my ass off and trying to pay down my mortgage and other stuff too, but the single driving force to growing our worth from $58,769.65 to $447,240.46 in 6 years was simply following bullet point #2 up there, and then later on #3: Maxing out both my retirement accounts. That’s it.

(I know I know, “that’s it” – as if it were easy. Again it’s not, but it IS simple.)

net worth tracker

I knew that I was doing throughout these 70+ months, but seeing it all laid out there on the graph like that really stopped me in my tracks. “Could that really be it?” “Can you imagine what this number will look like in another 70 months? Or even 140 months??”

I’m still taking it all in, but it’s a nice reinforcer seeing it all laid out in one simple graph. Sometimes you have to hit pause every now and then and take a look back through time. Not to be a broken record, but I really do encourage you to track your own finances and then take recurring snapshots so you can have a journey to soak in as well. Even if you’re starting at the bottom, or below that (it’ll make your graph look even sexier down the line! :)). And more importantly, recognize that you can be pretty successful by just *FOCUSING* and rockin’ a couple smart moves. The beauty is you only need to figure it out ONCE and then you’re good to go – that knowledge sticks with you for the rest of your life!

So the point? It doesn’t take grand wizardry to figure out how to grow your money. There’s a ton of things you can do to kill it like paying off all your debt, protecting yourself through insurance, becoming a side hustle maven, having an emergency fund, etc etc (and of course we’ll continue pimping these things as well), but committing to just one or two huge goals like above can get you to your dreams fast too. You’ll have to find the motivation to pull the trigger of course – it’s not easy – but I promise you your future self will thank you handsomely for doing so.

Now to just figure out how to win that dang lottery** and speed it up even more! ;)

——————————
*Don’t you tell me about interest rates or rate of returns, or that a million dollars won’t be a million dollars later on – those are all the things we’ll debate forever about that takes away from the main gist here. Which is that a simple (big) action item can do wonders for your money over time – even if you don’t do anything else. If you wanna argue about stock market conspiracies or how paying off your mortgage is dumb, you go start your own blog ;)

** Don’t you tell me about the lottery being for the poor either and how it’s a complete waste of time/money… We already know that – it’s just fun to talk about so go put that on your new blog too.

[Photo cred: Calgary Reviews]


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{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

1 downunder sugarglider May 19, 2014 at 5:50 am

nice! a motivating reminder. Now I will stop browsing the internets and get back to work on my side hustle business!

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2 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Do it! And if you need ideas, here’s the new page I put together that covers alllllll 50+ side hustles we’ve featured on this site so far :) There are some interesting ones!

http://www.budgetsaresexy.com/ways-to-make-money/

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3 Kristin Wong May 19, 2014 at 6:45 am

Inspiring stuff! It’s really motivating that you reached your net worth mostly by focusing on one simple goal. Great reminder that persistence pays :)

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4 debt debs May 19, 2014 at 6:52 am

Lotteries are for sissies! That first million from sweat equity will be that much sweatier! :-D

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5 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 8:50 pm

HAH! Never thought of it that way ;)

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6 whiskeytrail May 19, 2014 at 6:56 am

Exactly! You can do numerous things every month to increase your income but when you put focus and effort on just 1 item, it tends to “explode”. This goes to every aspect of your life too. If you focus on your marriage, itll get stronger. Focus on your children, you learn more and more about them and become closer. Focus on your $$$ and it’ll grow to new levels every time you turn around.
Great article J..

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7 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life May 19, 2014 at 7:58 am

I’m doing #1. I don’t work consistently enough through my union to get much from the 401k.

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8 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Your comment about your Roth on my net worth update helped trigger this post too :) It’s not easy to do that in NYC w/out a large income! So I’ve got mad respect for you, girl.

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9 Amy May 19, 2014 at 8:01 am

Love this – especially the simple vs. easy distinction.

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10 Mike Collins May 19, 2014 at 8:25 am

taking action is the big key to success.Like you said, it doesn’t necessarily matter exactly what kind of action you take, just do SOMETHING!

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11 Brian@ Debt Discipline May 19, 2014 at 8:30 am

It’s amazing how simple PF concepts are, but its all about putting them into practice. Once you do that you are on your way.

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12 Shannon @ Financially Blonde May 19, 2014 at 9:01 am

Ha! So true, their is no grand wizardry no matter how much we may wish it. It is a boring but true fact that simple steps pay off down the road. The problem is that most people don’t have the patience to wait for results. It has taken you 6 years to start seeing them, most people want to see them in 6 months or they will give up. Great reminder to not give up and stick to your plans!

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13 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:01 pm

You got that straight… and even when you are “making it” you still don’t necessarily want to keep pushing forward cuz it’s still hard to do! Haha… only it becomes more of a good habit over time which helps.

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14 Sarah June 3, 2014 at 1:52 pm

But the crazy truth is, you CAN see results in 6 months! Not the million dollar kind, but it’s insane how much less I owe on my car, and how much my emergency fund has grown since NYE. Understanding what you value makes spending less a lot simpler. I get massages and pay for a maid, but I have a longer commute to pay less in tolls and I ditched conveniences like bottled water and frozen meals. Choose your luxuries, choose what makes you happy, so that suffering a little to see your wealth grow doesn’t hurt so much. It can be done!

Side note: I realize I could easily come off as a spoiled brat.. Know I work hard, and I’ve chosen the most foolish of my spending/saving changes to make a point. :)

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15 Noonan Moose May 19, 2014 at 10:28 am

Tax advantaged savings accounts are the proverbial low hanging fruit!

And consider adding to your short list the Health Savings Account, in which any money stashed receives three separate levels of favorable tax treatment: (1) an upfront deduction for any deposits; (2) earnings that grow tax-free; and (3) withdrawals that avoid taxation to the extent they reflect spending on qualified medical expenses.

J$, your net worth graph rules!

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16 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Yup! That will be a future vehicle for us once income gets a bit higher for sure. The wife’s almost done with grad school and then it’s on, my friend!

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17 Elle May 19, 2014 at 11:00 am

Enjoyed this reminder J! Changing one money habit can have a huge impact.We’ve found that keeping our focus on one or two things at a time, we have been able to save more and invest. Making a change and automating it (like IRA contributions) has been great.We can focus on what we love witout sacrificing our finance.

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18 Robert May 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

Nice article. The title reminded me of Kierkegaard’s book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. MAybe he had a point.

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19 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Interesting – never heard of that one before.

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20 Dee @ Color Me Frugal May 19, 2014 at 11:48 am

We have been working hard on #3 for a few years now and we are starting to see some great results! I totally agree that it’s important to track net worth so that you have some idea of where you stand financially- and the added bonus is that it’s a great motivator!

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21 Samantha May 19, 2014 at 11:52 am

I think maybe that’s part of why Dave Ramsey’s advice works. Its not easy, but it’s simple. You focus on just one thing (he calls them Baby Steps), and you are intense about it! It’s not easy, but yet anyone can do it.

That could be why we now max out our ROTH IRAs, and we’ll have our mortgage paid off this year, too. :) We just focused on one thing (i.e. paying off debt, saving an emergency fund). Our net worth just keeps rising (from negative $180k to today’s $250k), and we’ve yet to pull in six figures a year! It is NOT easy, but it’s simple, and sometimes it’s even FUN!

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22 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:05 pm

Hot damn! Way to go! Especially on the no mortgage deal – that’s hard as hell to do, even when you DO have the money!

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23 Sarah May 19, 2014 at 11:54 am

And really, you’re doing one person’s worth of maxing out for your whole family. By that logic, a single person could 1/2 max out their accounts and make as much headway.

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24 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Interesting take, I like it :)

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25 Natalie @ Financegirl May 19, 2014 at 11:57 am

I love how you explain it’s not that hard! As with losing weight, there are no secrets: eat healthy and exercise. With money: get out of debt and save. It’s simple and it’s true!

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26 Even Steven May 19, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Like I tell my dog when she chases a squirrel and is about to rip off my arm from running after it. I tell her to focus, sometimes I forget that as well, like i’m the dog chasing the squirrel, I just need to focus.

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27 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Haha…. now I’m going to think of you on my walk every morning as I come across 7-8 of them without fail :) (The squirrels, that is)

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28 Even Steven May 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Yeah I’m glad I can entertain on your morning walk. I realized after reading my inital comment that my dog is focused, just focused solely on the squirrel and not the walk. Somehow I need to make this a post.

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29 Debt and the Girl May 19, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thank you for making the clear distinction between “easy” and “simple”! They really are different things but so many people don’t realize that. People try to complicate things when there really isn’t any reason to. Just focus!

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30 Dave Lalonde May 19, 2014 at 12:49 pm

You’re right, it’s not like you have possess a supernatural power in order to be good with your finances. –But it would be nice to win the lottery!

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31 Amanda @ Passionately Simple Life May 19, 2014 at 1:11 pm

It really is all about doing! The graph really drives the point home! It’s hard some days for us to see the results of the choices we are making (like why are we forgoing eating out and having dinner at home instead, etc.) but seeing the numbers from the past couple months makes us feel like we are getting closer to financial freedom.

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32 Brian @ Luke1428 May 19, 2014 at 1:51 pm

I love the idea of being focused on one thing and how doing that thing with greatness leads to success. Without that mindset, a person might have to resort to the #6 way to become a millionaire: marry one. :)

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33 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:08 pm

HAH! Please tell me that’s the route you chose :)

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34 Debt Busting Chick May 19, 2014 at 2:23 pm

I’m doing #1 through my work pension so that means I’m on my way to living the high life. I loved the short messages at the end they really made me laugh. :)

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35 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Hey, thanks! I was feeling a bit feisty and every single time I mention stuff like this I get heckled without fail ;) So figured if I’m going to get heckled anyways, might as well say my peace first!

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36 Eric @ Money Cents May 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Great way to keep people focusing on the broad picture. Sometimes people lose sight of the end goal! But not your readers! Heck yeah (that’s me!) haha.

I looked up a stat and in the year 2010, only 6.7% of people with 401K’s maxed them out! Here’s a link if you don’t believe me: http://bit.ly/1n9OaSe

Can you believe that? Apparently it’s not an easy thing to do… All in all, great post Mr. J.

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37 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I do believe that. In fact, I would have guessed it was even lower! We don’t live in the most money conscious country I’m afraid :) But at least we all know better!

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38 Crystal May 19, 2014 at 3:21 pm

You’re spot on. Right now, my husband and I are maxing out both of our Roth IRA’s every year and that’s about it. We have healthy padding and a paid off rent house, but we simply aren’t actively doing much else than maxing out Roth IRA’s…and our net worth keeps growing – faster than our $5500 contributions. Now we are thinking about adding “paying off our current home faster” or “buying another rental property” to the list…or “having a baby” and hoping to at least keep having enough money for the two Roth IRA’s, LOL.

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39 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:13 pm

No SEP or Solo 401k eh? Man, saves soooooo much money from being taxed! The Roth is nice too, of course, but ever since going self-employed the SEP comes first and *then* the Roth if I’m fortunate enough to have made enough extra… Pretty sexy that both of you are maxing out the roths though – I cannot wait for my wife to join the work force again :)

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40 Christie May 19, 2014 at 10:33 pm

“… I cannot wait for my wife to join the work force again.”
dude … some one is gonna smack you upside the head. Your wife just gave birth to your child! Now, compounding interest is fun and all … but show more respect!
~ C

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41 J. Money May 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

I didn’t realize it was wrong to be excited for your significant other to go back to work after 6 years of studying hard and getting a PHD – something she’s even more excited about than I.

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42 Will Lipovsky, First Quarter Finance May 19, 2014 at 4:04 pm

I max out my Roth IRA and Roth 401(k). It’s not a matter of “if” I’ll become a millionaire but when (being the markets are a bit out of my control).

And no I don’t think I’m special at all. More people can/should do this!

Especially that guy at work who complains to me about money while eating $8 worth of fast food each day because he, “doesn’t have time to pack lunch”. C’mon, bro!

I like how real this article feels. No BS.

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43 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Appreciate that man. Trying to up my game to get as cool as you ;)

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44 Christine @ The Pursuit of Green May 19, 2014 at 5:43 pm

I maxed out my Roth IRA last year! I’m hoping to start maxing out my 401. I’m not eligible til July though so this might not happen til next year. Getting there!

Now if only I could win the lottery…kinda since I don’t play.

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45 Lisa E. @ Lisa vs. the Loans May 19, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Currently, I max out my Roth every year. It’s so awesome seeing the balance of that account increase every single month! Yes, I’m in debt, but I can’t hold off on retirement savings – future me would be so pissed! Haha

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46 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 10:00 pm

You know it!

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47 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich May 19, 2014 at 8:18 pm

I love the sassy asterisk notes on the bottom ;o)

It is definitely exciting to watch the net worth numbers creep up, even if right now I can only afford to be faithful to my IRA… but I’m coming for you someday 401(k).

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48 J. Money May 19, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I’m a sassy guy today ;)

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49 Zee @ Work To Not Work May 20, 2014 at 2:54 am

I hate the “1 million dollars will be worth so much less in 20 years though” argument.

If you don’t start saving then in 20 years your $200k nest egg will be worth a lot less than 1 million.

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50 J. Money May 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

Haha, right?

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51 Alexis Smith May 20, 2014 at 4:46 am

Those are actually great tips. Thanks J! And you’re right, focusing on one ‘biggie’ is so much better than doing many little things. I’ve realized that in the past that by having too many projects going on, I’m only spreading myself thin. If only I could win the lottery though. ;)

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52 John @ Wise Dollar May 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

“…but just like trying to lose weight or stop smoking – it takes more than just *knowing* what to do to make it happen.” I could not agree more J! I think what a huge part of it comes down to is wanting it, but really so much more than that. You want it so bad that it drives you. Not easy as you say, but definitely simple. Use that drive to get you started and those small steps can pick up some serious momentum!

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53 J. Money May 20, 2014 at 8:31 pm

“You want it so bad that it drives you.” – EXACTLY. My friend Brad once said you have to be *obsessed* with your mission in order to really kill it, and although that can be pretty extreme, it def. gets the job done ;)

http://www.beyonddebtfreedom.com/are-you-obsessed-about-becoming-debt-free/

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54 James @ Flannel Guy ROI May 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm

For someone who doesn’t believe in timing the market, you lucked into a pretty nice time to start investing!

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55 J. Money May 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm

True. Though not so lucky on the house purchase timing ;) That kinda evened things out a bit… ugh.

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56 Marie @ GradMoneyMatters May 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Recently, I read a few posts about winning the lottery ticket. I’ve been tracking my financial expenses and taking a baby steps in building my emergency and savings funds.

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57 @freepursue May 22, 2014 at 9:54 am

Well J, you’ve really done it now. You’ve taken all the fun out of having excuses. Sheesh!

Should we call you the “Nike” of finance bloggers? “Saving. Just do it.”

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58 J. Money May 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm

I could get used to that :)

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59 Debbie M May 22, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I’ve maxed out my Roth IRA every year since it was invented in 1998. Admittedly, that was only 16 years ago, and the maximum started out at $2K/year (which I could barely afford back then). I now have almost 128K in low-cost index funds, but I can’t help being disappointed because with a 4% withdrawal rate that’s only $427/month. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my house is paid off and I have a pension.

I’m so glad I did it, though–trying to keep up with the increasing maximum kept me motivated. Plus I’ll have some income I don’t have to pay income taxes on. Plus this amount will get bigger because I won’t need to withdraw any money until inflation deflates my pension (though I’ll probably withdraw 2% per year for housing renovations–I’d like some modern conveniences that weren’t available when my house was built in 1955).

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60 J. Money May 25, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Woahhh very cool!!! I had no idea Roths were only 16 years old NOR that it started with only $2k maxes! Good for you for continuing this entire time – that’s quite a feat! (And even more so paying off your house and having a pension… who are you, Mrs. Perfect? :))

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61 Cody Wheeler May 24, 2014 at 8:41 pm

The real question here is, how can I automate winning the lottery?

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62 J. Money May 25, 2014 at 4:26 pm

I know how I can automate it! Give ME your $1.00 tickets every time you play :) That way at least one of us is always guaranteed a return! Haha…

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63 Andria May 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

For the first time in my life last year we maxed out my 401k and our Roth IRAs but now the stock prices are pretty high. I am thinking about not maxing out our Roth IRAs this year and maybe contribute a little but focus more on getting the house paid off in 5 years. It scares me though because I want my current money to keep growing but with tax increases each year on my home I am not liking the mortgage payment amount. Is this a bad thing to do? Torn….

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64 J. Money May 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Always tricky when you don’t know what the future will bring, but I DO know that you can never time it right even if you tried (though you can certainly guestimate :)). So my feeling on all this is to go with the one that makes you feel the most comfortable and then adjust as things change and time goes on… The beautiful thing is that nothing’s ever permanent!

(And congrats on maxing them both out btw – that’s hot!)

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65 Neil May 28, 2014 at 4:02 pm

You are lucky to get in right after the crash. The return has been sweet. I still don’t get how you can get from $60K to $450K with 23K per year maxing 401K and IRA. Please walk me through the math

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66 Neil May 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Nevermind, you have SEP.

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67 J. Money May 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm

The main force was maxing out 401k and Roth (later I switched from 401k to SEP when I went self-employed), but then you have the employer matches and anything else I was able to earn/save/invest over time too. As well as paying down my mortgage aggressively during one point and so on…

So it wasn’t *just* maxing out retirement accounts that got me to where I am, but it was the biggest factor. And again, this is only during the span of a few years – imagine if that’s all you did for 10, 15, 20?? Regardless of how the market conditions are you’d be in good shape in the end…

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68 Kalen @ MoneyMiniBlog June 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Wait, wait, hold on there! A million dollars won’t be worth anything by the time I…JUST KIDDING! I loved the article! I like how simple it is. You literally listed 5 (or maybe 4.5 with the lottery there) points and they are all actionable steps. That’s my favorite part.

You are so right! Just doing one of these would make a gigantic impact. Now I want to steal your idea for this article. lol. But I guess I’ll just share it for now and write a similar one after the hype dies down a little. Thanks for the article, J!

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69 Alex June 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

The one thing I don’t understand is the math behind the savings. Maxing out your IRA/401K at $23K a year for 6 years would yield only $138K, not half a million.

The only thing I can think of is that they are assuming the stock market will do tremendously well as it has done after the low of 2008 and the unprecedented QE that flooded the stock market with dollars. I just don’t see that happening again. What if there’s a crash rather than a boom?

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70 J. Money June 8, 2014 at 3:24 pm

As I mentioned in the article, as well as in the comments (see above response to Neil), there were a handful of factors that when into me, personally, growing my worth to close to half a million. But the main driving force was maxing out my two retirement accounts. Which then got matches as well as a nice boost from the market over the past 6 years.

The point of this post, however, isn’t that anyone can do the same thing in 6 years – there’s no way to tell that – but that OVER TIME you’ll hit a million dollars if you keep this strategy up. It could be in 5 years if you do this and other things incredibly well, or it can be in 20 years depending on what the future holds.

The main takeaway though is that if you invest a lot of money up front as best you can, you’ll reach financial independence much sooner than if you start late or spread it across dozens of years. The exact math will be different for everyone.

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