Smart SpendingSmart Spending

How I retired at age 30

The fundamentals involved mostly the 2 of us living on a shared $30,000 to $40,000 in spending money per year, including housing costs, and saving the rest.

By MSN Money Partner Dec 27, 2011 2:38PM

This guest post comes from Mr. Money Mustache.


I have been asked many times to provide some more gritty details on how I became Mr. Money Mustache at such an early age. Commenters and email writers have asked me to provide salaries and savings amounts through the years, as well as describe any windfalls or unusual maneuvers that made it all possible.


I have hesitated to share the details until this point, mostly because I didn't keep a written record through the years and it seemed pretty complicated and imprecise in my mind. Also, it's embarrassing to walk around in your monetary underwear in front of thousands of people. But many financial bloggers have graphs of their net worth right on the front page, so the least Mr. M. can do is provide a vague summary of some ancient history.


And for my own benefit, it is worth sorting things out just for the record, so doubters can be convinced, voyeurs can be entertained, and aspiring Mustachians can compare their own progress. So here it is, my best effort at retelling the story.


Year 0 (1997): The full-time working career begins. Mr. Money Mustache has just finished a grueling computer engineering degree and is now ready to party. He gets right to work in early May, skipping even the university graduation ceremony because he doesn't want to miss any work (he had already moved to a new city 300 miles away from the university). Age: 23. Starting salary: $41,000. Student loans: zero -- due to low spending, about $10k of help from parents, and good high school and summer jobs.


But also absolutely ZERO net worth. No bank balances, never owned a car, just a bike, a backpack, and a diploma.


Year 1: In this first year I foolishly started out by buying a three-years-new 1994 Ford Probe GT sports car for $16,000 with tax. And I borrowed money from my older sister to do it (what a clueless young man!!!). It took most of the first year to pay off that loan. I also flaunted my new salary around town with frequent bar and restaurant hopping, purchases of computer equipment and furniture, accessories for my car, and a trip to a resort in Mexico.


Fortunately, I did enroll in my employer's retirement savings plan. I also worked like a crazy company slave, enjoying weekends and late evenings in the office. Because of this, and a rising tech market in general, I got a raise to $57,600 at some point in the first year, resulting in a Year 1 'stash: $5,000 (in a retirement account).


Year 2: Through both of these first two years, I lived with roommates by sharing a series of nice houses, which we called Nuthouse 1, 2 and 3. The rent averaged about $350 per month, plus some negligible share of utilities. With the unnecessarily expensive car paid off and the higher salary, I was able to save more: $5,000 into the retirement account, $3,000 into an employee stock purchase plan, and $10,000 in cash. Year 2 'stash: $23,000 ($13k cash/shares, $10k retirement).


Year 3: This was late 1999, and both the job and stock markets were on fire. I got a new job and moved to the United States for a salary of $77,000. I drove the ol' Probe GT down to Boulder, Colo., and used the local newspaper to find another nice roommate situation, so my rent was only $400 a month.


I decided to buy a house -- but was disappointed to learn that I would need $47,000 in cash for a down payment on a starter home, which would cost a minimum of $235,000. I cashed out the stock purchase plan shares from Year 2, which were now worth $10k, and saved up a few of my new higher paychecks. After a few months in the new job, I had the down payment. Year 3 'stash: 67k ($47k home equity, $10k retirement, $10k cash).


Year 4: My future wife graduated from her longer and more meandering education up in Canada and decided to join me in Boulder. She drove down in her 1993 Civic hatchback, and hunted for a job. She found one for $44,000. And I was recruited to another nearby high-tech company for the ridiculous salary of $83,000. Now things were getting crazy in the income department, although we weren't thinking about early retirement yet. During vacations, we toured much of the U.S. including Hawaii, and took a trip to Australia and New Zealand at some point too.


I saved 20% of my salary in the 401K and got a $5k match from the company, as did the girlfriend. We both started Vanguard accounts to capture any extra cash. We also made some extra mortgage payments occasionally. Year 4 'stash: $150k.


Year 5: We both scored raises. I earned $100k including company bonuses, and she earned $60k. I was also working heavily on the house renovations this year. We hosted many great parties at that house, and life was grand. That year, I foolishly took a $10,000 step backward by buying a brand-new motorcycle. But the investment gains on stocks started accumulating, adding about $10k to our earnings this year. So we still ended up increasing the savings by close to $100k after tax. Year 5 'stash: $250k.


Year 6: Salary went up slightly because of an unexpected company bonus, and girlfriend earned a raise to $65k as well. And we didn't buy anything silly that year. In fact, I finally wised up and sold my car, and we became a one-car couple. I didn't miss the second car for a moment. Investment gains on the existing savings contributed another $20k. It is complicated to remember what portion of income was taxable salary, and what was nontaxable gains inside of retirement accounts and such. But a reasonable estimate of the total is Year 6 'stash: $365k.


Year 7: No increases in salary, but similar amazing earnings and moderate spending, combined with $30k of investment gains. Year 7 'stash: $490k. Post continues below.

Year 8: A raise to $70k for the now-wife(!). Meanwhile, I actually switched to four-day-per-week work that year in exchange for a 20% pay cut -- my first test of the waters of early retirement. But it was still a bumper year for me due to cashing out stock options, stock purchase plan, and annual bonus. My earnings must have been something crazy like $125k that year. Investment gains $40k. Year 8 'stash: $600k.


Year 9: I quit my job!!! And I started a small house-building company as a semi-retirement job. It earned me about $50k in the first year, and wife still worked for part of the year until the baby came, earning $60k. In addition, we moved to a new town and bought a cheaper house, renting out the first house for a very high positive cash flow due to a low mortgage and its increased value.


At this point in the accounting, we will add in the appreciation of this house -- which was about $100,000 after subtracting for the cost of the materials I used to renovate it. About $50,000 of this was due to market appreciation, and 50k due to renovation appreciation. Investment gains continued at about $35k. Year 9 'stash: $720k.


Sometime during Year 9, we declared ourselves as "retired!" as we quit full-time work to care for the baby. The rent from the previous house was more than covering the mortgages on both houses. However, part-time work also trickled in after the first few months of baby raising. Eventually we moved one more time to our current house and had two rentals. Eventually both rentals were sold and the gains were put elsewhere. And I became even wiser and sold my motorcycle, to free up both cash and garage space for my greater love: my workshop. Year 10 'stash: 800k or so.


Mixed in with those later years, but left out for clarity, was this house-building business of mine. It was a firecracker of success in the first year, then a firehose of disaster in the second year. I'll save the details for another time, but the end result is happy: I'm just stuck with one newly built house, which we rent out, that is tying up a certain percentage of our retirement savings.


Nowadays I do not build full houses and try to sell them. I closed the old company and the Mrs. and I started a cozy new two-person company that does whatever we want it to do. Custom renovations and finish work only for local, nice people on my side, and real-estate sales for local, nice people on her side. This low-stress career agrees very well with us, and keeps me from sitting on the couch typing to YOU all day.


Some people will say, "But wait! You just said you still work sometimes! That's not retirement!" To these people, I can only say, "You'll see." Because when you quit your corporate job, you end up with even more energy, which means you want to do more stuff! If some of this stuff happens to earn you money, so be it.


I define us as retired, because that is a novel word to throw around for those under 50 that sounds much more interesting than "financially independent." Also, the cash flow from investments is much higher than our spending, so work is only done for fun and on our own terms. For example, this year I stopped taking on carpentry work altogether and just started typing my blog and doing other unpaid work like school volunteering. Other years, I may accidentally earn hundreds of thousands of additional dollars by starting another company. Who knows!? Even then, Mr. Money Mustache will still be retired, so there.


Since Year 10, several more years have passed, and because the rental housepays all bills and we still do some work on the side when the boy is in school, the investment gains and income have just been building on themselves. We also paid off the mortgage on the primary house.


So, even if we refuse to let ourselves do any more enjoyable part-time work from this point onward, at some time in our lives we will either have to drastically increase our spending, or more likely, do some generous and worthwhile things with the surplus money to put it to good use.


Frugality plays a part

Isn't that weird? That I would rather give money away completely, than spend it to hire a bunch of guys with noisy gas mowers and leaf blowers to cut my lawn for me every week so I could sit inside and watch them? Yes, folks, I point this out to show how frugality can grow on you, to the point that you'd rather live an efficient and self-sufficient life even if money were not an object.


I'm sure the questions will come about where these investment gains came from. Most of it was just plain old dollar cost averaging and dividends. And the amount saved from capital gains is still small compared with the amount saved from old-fashioned not buying things. The fundamentals of this plan mostly involved the two of us living on a shared $30k to $40k of spending money per year, including housing costs, and saving the rest. The biggest single factor producing this low living cost was probably deciding to live close to work and not commute excessively by car.


Other people will scoff at the high salaries involved, compared with the U.S. median level. I won't deny that. More normal salaries, of course, would require some adjustment to this plan. You might decide to settle down in a house that costs less than the $400,000 that is tied up unproductively in my current house, for example. Or you might decide to work as late as 40 or even 45! But in almost any middle-income situation, retirement is something that can be earned drastically earlier than age 60-65, if you start early enough.


More on Mr. Money Mustache and MSN Money:

Jan 7, 2012 8:10AM
The moral of the story - it's all about the choices you make...Eating out 5 times a week is a choice.  Paying $150/month for cable and internet is a choice.  Paying $150/month for a cell phone and data plan is a choice.  Paying $400+/month for a new car is a choice.  Having the latest smart phone/ipad/3D TV is a choice.  Taking expensive vacations or weekend getaways is a choice.  Paying $40/month for a gym membership is a choice.  Having a closet full of new clothes and shoes is a choice.  Downloading 5000 songs onto your ipod is a choice.  Keeping the house at 72 degrees year 'round is a choice.  Spending $1500 on Christmas presents for your friends and family is a choice.  Hiring someone to clean your house or cut your grass or watch your kids is a choice.  Racking up student loans is a choice.  Buying a big house/boat/RV/motorcycle/due buggy/ATV/jet ski is a choice.   Choose wisely.
Jan 7, 2012 9:19AM

that's great u was able to retire or semi retire at that age.  but come on you had a computer engineering degree!    U started off at $43000 at age 23 with great raises about every year.  Sounds like to me u was a spoiled brat with a sliver spoon in your mouth. 


spoiled brat with a silver spoon?  why do you hate successful people?  READ.  he went to college which he paid for by WORKING.  he wasn't handed a job.  he got a job, and moved several times for better opportunities.  are you willing to do that?  are you willing to put the work in to make yourself better?  it doesn't matter where you live.  YOU can go to college and get a degree and be successful if you weren't so intent on hating people who do better than you.  pathetic.

Dec 30, 2011 2:17PM
You may have missed this part in the article:

"Since Year 10, several more years have passed, and because the rental house pays all bills and we still do some work on the side when the boy is in school, the investment gains and income have just been building on themselves. We also paid off the mortgage on the primary house."

It's unfortunate that people think you can't retire on $800K.  Just don't buy stuff you don't need, live locally, and enjoy the simple things in life that actually end up making you happier.  It's a novel idea in the United States, but it works.  Also, when you don't work you actually have plenty of time to take vacations, see the world, and lead a very adventurous and fun life for the next 50 years on the planet.  It's just a matter of changing and broadening your thinking.  It's been 7 years and we're doing great!  :)
Jan 7, 2012 10:40AM
I have to laugh when I read the postings after one of these stories: "impossible", "oh yeah but they had to scrimp and save", "but who would WANT to retire so young?"... yada yada yada. First off, it can be done, and it is being done every day. Second of all, what is so mystifying about the fact that people can live on $40K, and bank the rest? Oh, yeah, it means no overpriced under-fun family vacations at dizzyworld, no buying every new piece of electronic crap and waiting in  line for two days for the privilege, I can go on and on and on about the useless s**t people buy, then complain they dont have enough to buy a gallon of milk. And, lastly, how can ANYBODY actually make the statement "noretirement" is making: "how can someonje with your education....... retire so young with so much to contribute?" you cant be serious with that one can you? please tell me thats a joke. Its been decades since american business valued anybody with so much education and so much potential, in fact if the boss' layabout nephew needed a job, he'd be in your job in, oh, about a day or so. I retired at 60, wish Id been able to do so at 50, or 40, or 30, or 20. I made practically every mistake I could have made over the course of my working life and hated every job I ever had, dreading going in EVERY DAY. I never had anybody work to help me get a big job with a big salary, never inherited a cent from my parents, have in fact had to take care of a 93 year old inlaw... but guess what? I didnt buy a sh*tbox new car every 3 years, dont have a 60 inch big screen tv, took my kids to disneyworld once (worst experience of all of our lives), went out to dinner maybe twice a month, never bought or even wanted a $700K Mcmansion with matching (leased) benzes in the driveway.... but we sent our kids to college and always had enough to eat and to let our kids get involved in any activites they wanted, saved as much as we could in company savings plans. And to all you whiners who say you lost so much in the financial collapse, so what? thats probably because you didnt do your homework and lisented to all the "experts" when they showed you the mountain charts and appealed to your greed. So if you want to retire, quit your incessant whining, do a little research, and dont wait in line outside the apple store when the apple 4 comes out.
Jan 7, 2012 10:49AM

He wouldn't be where he was today If he wouldn't have saved so much, invested in the wrong stocks, didn't live frugally, his wife left him, fell of a building and died, kidnapped by aliens....and so on and so on. 


Some of you are the sorriest people in the world.  Here's a dose of reality for all of you that whine about your shortcomings.  He did what he had to do to get where he wanted in life.  This doesn't mean that this is everyone's ambition or should be.  Instead of commending the sacrifices he made to retire (yes that is what it is despite still working, b/c I'm sure sitting on your behind and gaining weight is the definition of retirement for some of you), everyone is trying to find some fault on why this is stupid or BS.


How about working harder, going to school to further you education and get jobs people instead of bitchin' about how your life sucks.  I came to the United States when i was eight and had parents who worked in factory jobs at minimum wage and sacrificed so much to get me to where i am today.  I couldn't speak a word of english when i came here but now at 37 i'm a doctor and have an MBA.  I even had to learn spanish to interact with some of my patients. 


If you put in the effort there isn't much that someone cannot accomplish, but its just sad to hear people bitch and whine all the time about how they don't have something in life. 

Some one said to me at a young age ..."There are winners and losers in this world, you just have to decide which one you want to be" 

As cold as that may sound, i try to think about that in everything that i do.  I also try to pray to the lord that i don't become so arrogant that i forget the path that led me to this point in life.   I'm aware that sometimes life has a way of dealing unfortunate events but most of the time if someone just works hard enough and doesn't have any physical shortcomings, they should be able to accomplish what ever they want.  So how about trying to be happy for someone for a change.

Jan 8, 2012 3:53PM
[speaks quietly in observation] 

"...and here we find the Complainypants in its natural habitat. A sometimes reserved creature in public environments, the Complainypants unveils its true nature when stalking in the bloggy undergrowth of the internet jungle.  Blind to the truly awesome displays of badassity around them, the Complainypants instead vomits a truly vile substance at any predators. Thankfully, those who embrace their inner badassity are immune to this attack, and so we watch as the Complainypants wanders away in the muck, in search of weaker prey..."
Jan 7, 2012 9:32AM
Gees, sounds like people make a bunch of bad choices and then they come on these message boards to complain and blame the results on somebody else.   Take some responsibility for your own actions and your own choices.  And stop hating on other people who made better choices than you did.

Stop the bitchin' and the whining,
Get busy living, or get busy dying.

Jan 7, 2012 4:35AM
The 800k is a nest egg, it does not need to be cracked if they continue to collect rental payments and do a little work on the side. Never in the article did they say that they were planning to live solely off the 800k.
Jan 9, 2012 8:09PM
I love MMM and I've been following his blog since he started.

There is an entire group of smart people who take early retirement-- or financial independence-- very seriously. They make serious sacrifices to make it happen: they choose to live with roommates or in a very small place to save money; they don't own cars; they use HSAs or super high-deductible insurance; they wait to have children; they save upwards to 80% of their income; and a million other small and big things.

These are obviously not easy or possible for everyone. I live in Boston and our rent is sky high, but we only spend 20-25 dollars a week in groceries. We have a small container garden that is bountiful and we rarely eat meat. We don't own a car (we're very lucky to have excellent public transit). We bike, we walk, we don't buy new things. This is all for our goal of paying down 50000 dollars in student loan debt and eventually being free from having to work. We make 30000 a year.

I say all this because I want you to know that my husband and I will just be debt free when I turn 30, and I know we won't be able to "retire" until I'm at least 45, probably more like 50.  Obviously, some of you are never going to be able to do it. It's too late to make huge changes. But think--really think-- about where your money goes. Google "retirement calculator" and see what it's going to take for you to have a reasonable retirement and then do what you can to get there. You may be retiring on 20000 a year when you're 70, but wake up, people. This is the real world where sad old people eat Alpo. Insisting that MSN provide you with information on how to save your own butt, or, as in this case, getting butthurt because MMM's parents helped him with college is not going to keep you healthy, happy and wealthy. You have to take the lessons offered to you and apply them to your own life. I feel that that is more important and practical than trying to find some sort of plot hole in MMM's narrative.

Jan 7, 2012 9:19AM
To all the jealous people out there,Its not too late to turn your s##tty life around and start saving that cash up...Its not going to be easy at first but after awhile you will get very used to "doing without", if you want to call it that.Corporate America loves "retards" like yourself to keep buying all of their latest and new things all the time.Its about time that everyone needs to wake up out of their fantasy land and just go back to the way people used to do things and not get into so much debt..paying cash for pretty much everything and if you don't have the cash you don't need the **** in the first place.That kind of mentality is whats making the rich keep getting richer and the poor to keep getting poorer!!!!!
Jan 8, 2012 8:27PM
Wow, a lot of these comments reflect a lot of anger, bitterness and jealousy that have nothing to do with the article and everything to do with their author's lives.

If you really want to know about this guy, go read his blog.  And no, he's not a tax outlaw or even anything terribly unusual, except he's very frugal and knows how to deal with plumbing better than most people.

There is a  quiet, anti-consumerist or frugality movement in this country by lots of people for lots of different reasons -- some environmental, some libertarian, some religious, and many these days by necessity.  It is a positive thing and will save us if we can embrace it.
Jan 7, 2012 4:18PM
It's not how much you make but how you spend it. Mr. M and his partner were blessed with good paying jobs, yes, BUT they knew how to manage the funds - balancing wants vs. needs. That seems to be rare and difficult in this society. We know people who made a lot more money and have virtually nothing to show for it. I retired at 40 and my husband 43 (low paying jobs). He still putters and does a few odd jobs when he feels like it. We own two small homes (one rented), two older vehicles. No payments; cell/internet only monthly bill. Life wasn't meant to be a struggle.
Jan 7, 2012 9:18AM
If you want to retire early you have to live on less than you earn. Not acceptable for lots of people commenting on this story.
Dec 31, 2011 2:55AM
To the two who commented on how the $800k nest egg would be "depleted", I suggest you browse over to the actual site and read some more (or better yet, all) of the blog posts as I have done. After doing so, you would realize that they should have plenty of money available for several decades based on their spending lifestyle. Even if all they did was put that money into a typical savings account getting pittance for interest, they only spend about $25k/year on living expenses, so that amount of money should last a good 20+ years even considering inflation adjustments and assuming absolutely no growth or external income. However, they also have a rental house that covers a large portion of their monthly expenses, so I don't think they even touch much of their savings if any at all. And while the stock market did crater awhile back, there are still plenty strategies that an investor can use to make money in a down market. Additionally, most dividend stocks tend to pay dividends even if the price falls. As a result, I presume that they're still adding to that pile, which is probably pretty near $1mn by now. I assume he doesn't post more precise numbers for later years to get people less focused on an actual dollar amount.

As for the person who mentioned healthcare/insurance, he also has a post concerning that very subject. He says he personally only carries insurance with what many people would probably consider extremely high deductibles, but does so because he feels confident enough in the relatively low probability of things happening to keep the money on hand "working" instead of sending it to an insurance company every month. He does acknowledge that everyone's situation is different and that some may need more continuous care. In that case, the advice is still to look for the best available plan that balances lower deductible/out-of-pocket expense with monthly cost.
Jan 7, 2012 3:15PM
To all the haters out there...this scenario is indeed possible. My husband and I made $120 K combined, lived in an apartment for $550 per month total. My husband drove the same car for 15 years! We never buy new cars, only used and we drive them until we can't anymore. I am now 28, my husband 36. We bought our first home 5 years ago for $166 K and will have it paid off next year. We intend to rent it out and buy another one. I no longer work and my husband hopes to quit in 10 years. Early retirement is absolutely possible! Don't hate just because you don't have the fortitude, drive and discipline to do the same. By the way, we always have the expense of a new baby. And we do have luxuries....flat screen TV's, granite counter tops, etc all paid in CASH! Absolutely no debt! You can do it too! Make a commitment in 2012!
Jan 7, 2012 3:52PM

I appreciate & admire Mr. M & his wife for sharing their success story. Looks to me like their only motive is the possibility of helping someone else succeed financially.  Clearly after reading the comments there are a number of folks who don't agree.  Initially finding many of the comments laughable I quickly started feeling embarressed by the number of ridiculous comments.   Are there seriously this many folks believing everyone else is to blame for their "life" situation?   What happened to accountability?   Pointing a finger outward & expecting someone else to make life easier most likely isn't happening.  If you want prosperity pull that head out & work for it. 

Jan 7, 2012 10:19AM
You had a plan that works for you and you laid it out for us to see, I think that's good. Whatever works for you.  Thanks for sharing.
Jan 7, 2012 6:37AM

One last thing Mr. and Mrs M are prime example of a couple taking advantage of pefect timing.  In the 1990's the tech field was booming, the housing market was booming, and all was right with the world.   Mr. M was a computer engineer who made a salary in the 50k range and Mrs. M made a salary in her line of work at 44k.  Thats close to 100,000 dollars per year.  Does anyone realize how good of a salary that was in the 1990's?   I never made 100,000 per year until 2005.  Finally the Ms avoided a big expense by not having children for most of their working life.  A child cost about 200,000 to raise from birth to the time they leave home. I would be interested to know how the M's are paying for health insurance.  Also the M's don't say it but it appears they are done having children but if they are not then they better keep their options open because the more kids you have the more money it will cost.  I know it sounds like I am critisizing the Mustaches good fortunes but I'm not.  What I'm critisizing is the throw it in your face attitude they have.  The article would have you think that the M's are financially independant based soley on their decisions.  Thats only partly true.  You can credit the M's with getting a good education and being smart enough to graduate college at age 23.  You can credit the M's for having the good sense to invest in their companies retirement plan.  You can also credit the M's for seeing the potential in having rental property.  The frugal lifestyle is also a credit to the M's.  However a good deal of luck, timing, or just plane good fortune is responsible for the rest.   Notice all their wealth was made before the year 2000.  So I assume the Mr's never suffered  during the stock market crash of this decade or the housing market crash.  What would the M's have done had the companies they worked for gone belly up and their stock options were worth nothing, like those at Enron?  So to the M's you are where you are because of good fortune more so than anything else you did.  Good Day, Joe.

Jan 7, 2012 9:14AM
By the description of "retired" as the author puts it I have been retired for over 12 years or so.  I own my business, wife works, lackluster or neg. returns on investments for the last 4 years and now find myself wondering how much we will need going forward.  Depending on your trade or business today the risks v reward are skewed against sucess.  I cashed out of the stock market before the "tech wreck" in 2000.  Put the money in cash or cash like equivilents, even with the paltry returns over the last 4 years on cash like investments my old stocks would have wiped out my investments by at least 50%.   The author is also lucky that his wife is frugal.  Frugal wives are rare rare gems, my wife has money holes in her pockets all the time.  The story is not far fetched as some would suggest, but a lot of luck and persistance paid off.  The hidden moral of the story "live well below your means, save the difference, and continue this lifestyle into retirement", doing so will insure financial survival.  Today, many young people start out with gigantic debt, such planning and behavior will insure they work and struggle financially well into their 60's.  Current monetary policy by the Federal Government is weighted very heavily AGAINST savers, debt and careless financial behavior is currently being rewarded.  It is a different time for young people starting out.   
Jan 7, 2012 12:56PM
The best part about this whole thing is most of you are whining because you are struggling or you don't have the financial freedom of someone else, yet you are all wasting a wonderful day for production reading silly stories on MSN posting back and forth about how impossible this story is. Get out of your pajamas and do something about you situation if you don't like it.
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