[Hey guys! If you ever doubted the power of a 401(k), this should help remind you again ;) My man Fritz from The Retirement Manifesto stops by today to share his own story (and love!) for his 401(k), and this might just become my new default article to send to future haters! It’s brilliant!]
A few weeks ago, J$ shared a CNN piece on “401(k) Millionaires” over on his Rockstar Forums. When I replied that I, too, was a 401(k) Millionaire, he invited me to tell my story and I agreed to do so in complete and transparent detail.
Learn from it, apply the lessons, and you, too, can become a Millionaire!
The 9 Keys to Becoming a 401(k) Millionaire
The original story on becoming a 401(k) Millionaire cited 5 keys, of which I followed every last one, as well as 4 others I’ve learned throughout my life. I will be telling my story using all 9 of these steps, and will show you how they have helped my wife and I become 401(k) Millionaires ourselves.
Key #1: Start Young
On July 5, 1985 I started my first “career” job. At 22 years of age, and just one month out of college, I was pleased with my $21,500 starting salary. During my orientation, I signed up for our “new” 401(k) plan, and contributed from my very first paycheck.
Unfortunately, I’ve lost track of my exact 401(k) contribution %’s early in my career. I believe I started at 6% (don’t give up that employer match!), and I gradually increased it through the years. As I became more knowledgeable about personal finance, I got much more aggressive in my contributions.
I’ve been contributing 15% or more for at least 2 decades now, and max out my 401(k) every year. I’ve never taken any money out of my 401(k). Invest it, and forget it.
My daughter just started her first “real job” as a police officer, and we taught her these “First 6 Steps To Financial Wealth” . Before she received her first paycheck, we set her up with a Vanguard Roth and a Capital One savings account. We’re teaching her the lessons we learned early, and I’ve no doubt she’ll see the benefits of “starting young” as she goes through life.
Key #2: Crush It Early
While a lot of folks focus on “Frugality” as a key to wealth creation, a much bigger lever is to maximize your earning potential. Early in your career, go “above and beyond” to create your professional reputation. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and it’s never more important to impress the right people than in the first few years of your career. When “the right folks” notice early, you’ll be naturally propelled in the first decade of your career, and much better positioned for lifetime advancement and wealth creation.
I was fortunate to impress some of the “right” folks early in my career, and was offered my first promotion within 18 months. A bit of luck always helps, and the reality is that my promotion was driven by the closing of the plant where I was working, and my company’s desire to keep me in their employment. I’ll never regret going “above and beyond” in those first 18 months. It saved my job, and I gained a promotion in the process. Almost everyone else I worked with found themselves unexpectedly unemployed. I was one of the lucky ones, but I also worked hard for that opportunity.
Moving from an “internal” Customer Service role to an “external” Sales Role, I saw my salary increase to $29,800 with my first relocation to our Dallas, TX sales office in December 1986. In 1988, I received (earned?) my second promotion, this time from “Sales Trainee” to a full fledged “Sales Representative” with another relocation (this time to Atlanta, GA) and another salary bump.
To give you a sense of what “Crush It Early” looks from a salary perspective, here’s a history of my first 6 years in Corporate America (FYI: these were the days of stagflation, with high inflation, 15% mortgage rates, and much higher annual salary increases than today):
|Jul, 1985||$21,500||n.a.||Yay, My First Job!|
|Jan, 1986||$23,300||8.4%||My first raise!|
|Jul, 1986||$25,100||7.7%||My boss, taking care of me|
|Dec, 2986||$29,800||18.7%||My first promotion!!|
|Apr, 1988||$35,700||10.9%||My second promotion!|
|Sep, 1989||$41,500||7.8%||Job grade bump (competitor wanted me)|
Within 5 years, I had doubled my salary through hard work, making positive impressions, and having a competitor pursue me (unsolicited, but I listened. After careful consideration, I told my boss about the offer, and received a nice “mid-year” retention bump as a result).
Every time my salary increased, my wife and I took a portion of the increase and nudged up our 401(k) contributions before we ever saw the money.
Our Net Worth in 1988: $9,996.73
Looking through my files for this article, the earliest 401(k) statement I could find was from June 1988. At this point, I had been in my career for exactly 3 years. I had been married for less than a year, and my wife and I were $3.27 short of the $10k mark in my 401(k), as demonstrated below:
When we got married in 1987, my wife began work as an Executive Assistant. Knowing we wanted her to be able to be a “stay at home” Mom when that time came, we increased my 401(k) and set up some ACH transfers to mutual funds, resulting in us saving the equivalent of 100% of her paycheck.
This allowed us to avoid getting used to her income, as well as the mistake of getting into obligations that required her pay for expense coverage. When we adopted our daughter in 1994, my wife simply “retired” (at age 31, lucky girl!), and we cut back a bit on our savings to keep our take home pay constant.
From 1987 to 1994, our 401(k) balance increased from $10k to $59k as a result of that decision, and set us on the path toward our eventual “401(k) Millionaire” status.
Key #3: Seek Opportunities For Exposure
By 1990, I started getting more involved with a broader communication effort around the organization. One of those initiatives was to visit our plants with a “commercial update”, providing our plant workers a report from the “front lines” on what was happening with our customers and marketplace. I was 27 years old, and giving presentations to a room full of shop floor personnel.
Seek opportunities! The effort paid off with even more folks starting to recognize me as a “young guy with potential”, and my reputation continued to grow:
Keys #4 and #5: Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone (and Find A Mentor)
After 15 years in Sales, I was getting restless. I had a strong mentor who ran one of our larger plants, and I had some excellent career discussions with him in my mid-30’s. He kept an eye out for me, and within a short amount of time I had moved from a commercial role into my first “plant job”, planning the production & scheduling of a large operation.
That experience later led to opportunities for career advancement into national and global management roles, and I’m sure I would have never made those advancements without breaking out of the “sales track” which I had been on for 15 years.
Ironically, looking through my career files for this post, I found a note I had written to myself at the same point in my career when I had decided to “branch out”. Looking back, I had no idea how significant the quote would become:
Key #6: Watch Out For Fees
Fortunately, my employer had chosen Vanguard as their 401(k) provider, and I was rewarded with a low cost 401(k) plan that had excellent investment options. My employer also continued to improve the plan over the years, with expanded investment choices and continued low fees.
If you don’t have a good plan, I would still encourage you to participate in your plan. At a minimum, do not give up the employer match. It’s free money, and the 50 – 100% “return” you get from your employer’s match offsets any high fees and poor investment choices you may have in your plan.
Review your plan now, and if you’re not maximizing your employer match, increase your contributions before your next paycheck!
Key #7: Max Out Your Contributions
As my salary continued to increase, we continued to increase our 401(k) contribution. If I received a 3% raise, for example, I’d increase my 401(k) contributions by 2% in the month the raise took effect.
Our take-home pay would increase by 1%, and we’d feel like we had a bit more money. More importantly, our 401(k) investments increased on a compounding scale. We did that every year, until we hit the limit that I was allowed to contribute to the plan.
We still do the “mental gymnastics”, but we now (since we’re maxing out the 401) use external mutual funds and ACH transfers to capture the increases in annual savings %’s.
Key #8: Live Frugally
As my salary increased over the years, the strategy of increasing my contributions at the same time we received a raise helped avoid lifestyle inflation. I’ve seen many, many co-workers increase their living expenses as their salaries have increased, and I suspect most of those are not yet 401(k) millionaires (or any millionaires for that matter).
My wife and I have always lived below our means, and I firmly believe that’s played the biggest role in becoming a millionaire. We’ve always been generous, and have contributed annually to our church and charities of our choice. [Editor’s Note: And also to projects your blog friends put on! Thanks again for the financial boost to our Community Fund :)]
We also only pay cash for our cars, and of course drive them right “into the ground”. Today, at 53 years of age, my wife drives a 2011 Hyundai, and I drive a 2010 Nissan. We could both be driving newer and fancier cars, but why? Our cars get us where we need to go, and they keep our expenses down. Keep up with The Jones?? Please!
We recently downsized our home in preparation for an early retirement, and are now ENTIRELY DEBT FREE. As my dad used to tell me early in my career:
“It’s easy to become wealthy. Just spend less than you make, and do it for a long time.”
Key #9: Automate Your Savings
For the past 31+ years, I’ve automated my savings. Starting WAY back in July 1985, when I had my very first paycheck automatically directed into my 401(k) which hasn’t stopped since. Automating those savings has “forced” us to live frugally, below our means.
We Officially Become 401(k) Millionaires!
For years, our 401(k) balance inched, ever so slowly, “Northward”. It wasn’t too exciting for the first 10 years, and we pretty much ignored the growth. Starting in 1992, I began tracking my Net Worth (if you’re not doing that yet, start NOW!). I now have 24 years of annual Net Worth data, in a nice little spreadsheet that shows us what we’ve accomplished.
Pulling from that data, you can see the progression of our 401(k) balance through the decades:
In March 2013, we officially crossed the $1 Million mark in our 401(k). After decades of diligence, we can now officially say: “We’re 401(k) Millionaires!!”
There you have it. The 9 steps that led me to becoming a 401(k) Millionaire:
- Start Young
- Crush It Early
- Seek Opportunities For Exposure
- Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
- Find A Mentor
- Watch Out For Fees
- Max Out Your Contributions
- Live Frugally
- Automate Your Savings
Apply as many of them in your life as you possibly can, then give it time. Do it right, and you’ll find yourself among a very small minority of folks who will have realistic opportunities to retire at an earlier than “normal” age.
My wife and I plan on heading out for extended road trips in a 5th wheel within the next 18 months. We’ll be 55 years old, and will never have to work another day in our lives. We’ve not done any crazy extreme “frugal” living. We’ve lived well, we’ve traveled the world on vacations, we raised a daughter (and paid for her college!), and we don’t feel we’ve sacrificed while on “The Journey”.
Learn from our experience. With time, and a bit of luck, someday you can also be a 401(k) Millionaire!
Fritz is a commodity trader with a large multinational corporation, with his eyes on achieving an early retirement in 2018. He writes about personal finance and his preparation for retirement at The Retirement Manifesto, and can also be found on Twitter (@RetireManifesto) as well as on Facebook (facebook.com/TheRetirementManifesto).