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How this Frugal Lawyer Reached $1M by Age 34

Approximately six years ago I stumbled upon Million Dollar Journey and started to read faithfully. At the time, I had just started to practice law and was in reasonable financial shape but with no real sense of direction or sense of how I was doing.

I remember FrugalTrader doing a monthly net worth post and thought that was an interesting approach to seeing how much money I had. So I started to do the same thing. As I am a goal oriented person, I would also have a yearly goal of increasing my net worth by 15% per year. The simple act of focusing on the numbers allowed me to focus on being frugal, on saving my money and saving for the future.

Approximately a year ago, at age 34 I crossed the million dollar mark, and a few months ago I fully paid off my house in downtown Toronto.  FrugalTrader  asked me to provide you with my roadmap to both of these goals.

Income/ Savings

The old saying that you have to spend less than you make is true. I tried to focus on making more than I spent. Since I wanted to pay off my mortgage (originally $340,000) within the first five years, I knew I had to increase my income to make it possible.

I am lucky (but worked hard) to have a profession which pays well and, if I go above and beyond at work, it allows for a big monetary bonus. Therefore, reaching my goals may have been easier for me, simply based upon the numbers in my paycheck.  Of course, I have a lot of  opportunities to keep up with t he Jones, and mine are all lawyers!  From what I have seen, a higher paycheck usually leads to an expensive lifestyle.   The new associate at my firm drives an Audi A6, and most of the other associates travel to Europe each year for vacation.  Me?  I do not own a car and use my bicycle and public transportation to get around.  It can be difficult to say no to consumerism and focus on my financial goals, goals which no one at the firm would necessarily know about.

How did I reach my financial goals?  I basically maintained a simple lifestyle and banked my raises. My primary goal was to pay off the mortgage,  so I made a decision to put all raises and bonuses towards the mortgage.  In addition to using extra money towards the mortgage, I max out my RRSP and TFSA annually, and keep a six month emergency fund.

Economics versus Sleep

The economics of paying off my mortgage probably doesn’t make mathematical sense. I was paying 3.79% on my mortgage and there are a lot of dividend ETFs paying more then that. That said, I knew that I would sleep better once my debt was gone. This is a personal decision, and it might not be the decision everyone will want to make, and I accept that.

It also means that, right now, approximately 70% of my net worth is in my house. This will change now that I’ll funnel my money into the market and other savings, but it’s a valid criticism to some.

What’s Next

JD Roth of GetRichSlowly talks about Stage 3 of personal finance being “What’s next”. This is when your debt is under control, you’re saving money and things are moving in the right direction. After paying off my house, I am still going through this issue. My goal prior was definite and therefore it was easy to save. Now, I need to determine what my next goal is.

I have decided to set aside ‘fun’ money, that I can spend on anything I want. It sounds silly, but it’s liberating to think that I have X dollars each week that I ‘have’ to spend and so if I want new jeans, I go buy new jeans. The fun money will be less than 5% of my take home pay.

Having worries about how to spend my money, where to save it, and what to do next is exactly why I wanted to pay off my debt. I now am the true master of my paycheck and at age 35 have limitless opportunities!

About the Author: David is a young lawyer in Toronto.  When he isn’t saving or working, he spends a lot of time outdoors being active and doing charity work.

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About the author: This is a guest post. You can read more about the author in the biography above.

{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Dwilly January 27, 2014, 9:52 am

    Very good for you. Well done. Although everyone has different means (and so no doubt it is easier for some than others), your post shows clearly, once again, that the key is very simply to spend less than you earn.

    I remain neutral on the prioritization of mortgage paydown. I understand the mathematics, that generally, you’d probably have been able to grow investment assets at a higher rate than your mortgage (3.79%). I personally to invest & pay down the mortgage relatively equally. Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “gee, I wish I hadn’t paid off my mortgage so fast”. So long as you continue to save/invest the difference once paid off (and it doesn’t immediately mean a larger house or a bump in lifestyle), I think it’s fine to attack the mortgage first.

  • Greg January 27, 2014, 11:11 am

    regarding paying down your mortgage, remember that you have to pay mortgage interest in after tax dollars. So paying down a 3.79% mortgage should be compared with an investment that pays 6 or 7 percent depending on how much tax you have to pay on the gains, and maybe more if mortgage rates are up when you renew. And mortgage interest savings are certain if you pay down your mortgage. Investment returns vary widely, you can really only count on a 7% return over very long time periods (think 25 years).

  • SST January 27, 2014, 11:29 am

    Congrats, David.

    You probably know by know that the whole $1,000,000 is a grand sticking point with me (pun intended). One question:

    Exactly what was your income throughout your million dollar journey (starting vs final, net/gross, bonuses, et al)?

    I can see why the general consensus is to invest vs pay off a mortgage. Rates have done nothing but decline over the last 30+ years (~1980) so that mentality is kind of ingrained in a generation or two of consumers. Probably wise to pay off a mortgage during a low-rate era as there is no where for them to go but up (long-term average ~10%).

    Even though your over-all net worth might be a million, with ~$700,000 of that tied up in your (illiquid) primary residence, you are not a true millionaire. But you now have 30 years to build it up, and with a $700,000 “asset” to borrow against, intelligent and precise use of leverage could leap frog you ahead.

  • Richard January 27, 2014, 11:43 am

    If you have a good income and enough liquid assets to last for several years, things like a mortgage become a lot less worrying. In two and a half years after buying a house I was able to build up a portfolio that would be enough to cover expenses for several years.

    While I would do everything possible to avoid withdrawals I knew there was nothing that couldn’t be solved by a quick transfer and over time those investments will grow into a much larger amount. That safety allowed me to invest even more.

    I sold the house recently and the biggest disappointment was having to give up the low interest rate on the mortgage. Now I rent and the value of the investment portfolio I would need to generate the income for that rent is less than the value of the house. My other expenses are lower than the rent so I need a bit less than twice that much overall.

    With a cash bonus from the sale plus better cashflow every month I’m working on reaching that goal as soon as possible. There is no greater security for me than knowing that I never need an income again thanks to all the businesses I own. Not having to make payments on a debt is good, but not having to earn an income is great.

    Thanks to some other leverage I currently have 145% of my net worth invested. Last year that worked out great but even without those special occasions the long-term results look good.

  • Emilio January 27, 2014, 11:53 am

    Congrats on your first Mil.

    What about the stage 4 of personal finance?
    The one where you support the wifey and children?

    It’s about to get a hell of lot more exciting. Your fun money will be going into scouring amazon.com for top baby toys very soon. And between diapers, day-care, and a lot of baby formula, saving and investing becomes trickier…

    Your life becomes a lot richer, though your bank account will not show it…

  • ron January 27, 2014, 12:43 pm

    The house is worth 300k, and its 70% of your net worth. How do you come up with 1M in total net worth?

    • FrugalTrader FrugalTrader January 27, 2014, 1:35 pm

      @Ron, he said his original mortgage was around $300k, not his house value.

  • Dwilly January 27, 2014, 1:28 pm

    @Emilio: No kidding.

  • Julie January 27, 2014, 6:03 pm

    It’s nice to read this story, David. I trained in law as well, though wasn’t keen to practice on Bay Street and opted to switch to non-practicing work in the broader public sector. However, like you, I benefitted from a frugal lifestyle (my bike and the bus are my transportation mainstays as well) and saved the bulk of my income which allowed me to reach my financial goal last year and switch to part-time consulting work at age 36. It’s nice to read about other young professionals who choose this path. It certainly isn’t the common one in legal circles but spending time outdoors and charity work sounds like a rich and lovely life to me. Well done :)

    @SST – how is David not a “true” millionaire just because the house isn’t liquid? Also, from what he’s written he’s been building net worth through savings and investments, not leveraging…

    @Emilio – For lots of reasons, not everyone follows the path of having children.. (And why the assumption that a future wife will need supporting?)

  • Cold Truth January 27, 2014, 6:14 pm

    I agree with SST that I can’t really consider your principal residence as part of your million dollar journey. Some things I don’t consider part of your networth are below. (Yes, I know technically they are included but it’s just not the same).

    – your principal residence
    – your principal vehicle
    – your RESPs
    – your consumer goods

    I also have a goal of a million dollars in disposable assets, rather than ‘illiquid assets’. I paid off my house in 3.5 years ($350K), have no need to move (more bedrooms than occupants).

    I’m hoping to hit a million (equivalent in todays dollars) in my investment portfolio in another 7 years.

  • David January 27, 2014, 6:34 pm

    Hi,

    I’m the author. Thanks for the nice comments. Paying off the mortgage vs investing is always a hard issue. Ultimately, my personality is such that I don’t really like that sort of debt so now that it’s paid off I can focus on increasing my net worth through investments.

    As for whether I am a true millionaire or not, I’m just happy to be where I am. I would love to have a million in liquid funds, but one step at a time. :-)

    Not having to earn an income would be great, again, one step at a time.

    Thanks for the kind words Julie! Maybe I’ll see you on the bike paths sometime!

    I’d be interested in reading any of your stories! I always like to see how other people live and get tips!

  • Dan January 27, 2014, 9:41 pm

    Congrats, David! Sounds like you achieved most of your wealth simply by spending less than you earn. Very smart not owning a vehicle and relying on transit and a bike, you can save thousands each year on that alone

  • SST January 27, 2014, 10:25 pm

    @Julie re: “how is David not a “true” millionaire just because the house isn’t liquid? Also, from what he’s written he’s been building net worth through savings and investments, not leveraging…”

    i) yes, David did in fact use leverage to build his net worth; it’s called a $340,000 mortgage.

    ii) as far as future leveraging is concerned, David could refer to the ‘Smith Manoeuvre’ articles on this site for ways to utilize the equity in his house.

    iii) one cannot count their principle residence in terms of being a “true” millionaire, that is, $1 million in investable assets, because the capital tied up in the house cannot be accessed for two reasons: i) you need a place to live, and ii) if David chooses to utilize the capital through leverage (eg. HELOC et al), the capital is backed by assets (hopefully) but now there is also debt associated with that capital.

    Those being of the law profession should have an appreciation for the power of correct verbiage (e.g. millionaire).

    David is in a great place.
    A debtless/at-ease mind-set (coupled with a high income) will definitely smooth his investment decisions. As seen with FT, proceeding in a steady and logical manner can result in great gains.

  • Mit parel January 27, 2014, 10:27 pm

    Wow good for you millionere … But just wondering is there any breakup of year by year .. And yearly income .. Congratulation again

  • FrugalDad January 28, 2014, 11:10 am

    What I would like to hear is the account of a single income earner (without external or secondary help) supporting children and a spouse who has made it to a million before 40. Being the sole income earner in a relatively young family of 6, I would find those stories truly uplifting!

  • Michael January 28, 2014, 4:33 pm

    David is a millionaire in net worth. If he sells his house tomorrow and decides to begin renting a house instead, he will have a million dollars in the bank. All cash. Its that simple. You are worth what your assets less liabilities are worth if you die right now.

  • Dwilly January 28, 2014, 4:47 pm

    @Michael: Agree 100%. If someone owns a house worth (based on some reliable assessment at the time) $1M, and no liabilities, then that person has a net worth (Assets less Liabilities) of $1M. It may be a poorly-diversified, illiquid, and potentially vulnerable $1M ……. but it’s $1M. :-)

    @FrugalDad: I like your optimism, but sometimes, these are just physics/math problems. :-) I’d like to be able to bench press 400lbs, and fly to work in 48 seconds, but cursed reality and mathematics preclude those. I have 2 kids and it’s one thing – four, with a single income, is a whole new ballgame. You can take solace in knowing that your 4 little critters enrich your lives in immeasurable ways, and you are better off in general for it. Just not in the pocketbook department. :-)

  • Greg January 28, 2014, 7:04 pm

    My family made it to $1M liquid assets + a paid off house and no debts by 40 – single income family of 4. We did it through a combination of luck and discipline.

    I’m lucky to have talent and interest in a field that pays well and early in my career took advantage (and some risk) in many opportunities. In addition to large companies which paid well, I worked a carefully selected early stage company that offered significant stock options and it was acquired, which was good for $200,000 or so after tax. The rest was good old saving more than we earn. One new mid-sided sedan (the best combination of value and functionality IMO, though it’s a luxury to buy new) every 12 years with minimal options. Minimize driving. Cycle when ever possible, including all season commuting. Buy house just big enough for family of 4 and never move except for job opportunity. Most vacations were visits to distant family and friends.

    Financially, first priority is always maximize RRSPs, second was to pay off mortgage (my first 5 year term was at 7%, the lowest mortgage rates had been in a generation). Only once mortgage was paid off did we invest in taxable accounts. Long term we have saved 1/3 of our regular employment income, spent 1/3, and paid the last 1/3 in taxes. Bonuses, stock option and other investment gains were always saved. Be keenly aware of taxes and how to minimize them. Higher income single income families pay heavy taxes. A key strategy to deal with once you have significant taxable investments is spousal investment loans.

  • Dan @ Our Big Fat Wallet January 28, 2014, 11:02 pm

    @ Frugaldad although I don’t think it was mentioned I think salary would be a huge factor. I could be wrong but as an associate working at a law firm in downtown Toronto I would expect a salary of around $250k. That combined with no kids would make $1M realistic

  • not so frugal dad January 28, 2014, 11:37 pm

    single earner, family of 4 – $1m by 33, I am 35 now and have about $1.4m (0.5m is the house) and the rest is mostly cash. Started close to zero (maybe $5k? don’t remember from childhood savings). I’m actually valuing the house for slightly less than we paid for it, but it would probably list for about 30% more given when we bought it and the condition of the current realestate market. Also not including unvested company stock, if it is not cash in my pocket it doesnt count.

    Luck, an incredible amount of hard work, disciplined savings, and luck.
    I am fortunate to have a very high paying job although i had a late start. Everything we have was done by savings, no windfall gains, stock market roulette, no inheritance or outside help (except maybe moral support). We don’t always save as much as i’d like and we aren’t always as frugal as my upbringing and conscience would like me to be (but I suspect neither matter given the pace we are on).
    We have always maxed our rrsps and tfsas (and now resps) and we paid penalties to pay down our mortgage early. We have no debt and pay off our credit cards (which are convenient) every month. Our house is modest, we have a used car and don’t have any possessions that are particularly fancy.
    The luck part is that I got a good education and an amazing job and haven’t had to face any real hardship (except working like stink for most of my life, including my childhood).
    I am always thinking about retiring but kids are expensive and ‘the number’ always seems to get bigger the closer your get to it.
    My wife and i hate the scotiabank slogan “you are richer than you think” because most people aren’t. We like to joke though “WE are richer than you think”

  • Emilio January 29, 2014, 12:06 am

    @greg respectfully disagree on the RRSP point.

    If you think you have 1 mill in liquid assets and a large chunk of that is in RRSP you are mistaken in your net worth, as the tax man co-owns with you.

    If anybody makes it to 60 with a million in an RRSP account the govt is just rooting for you to drop dead so they can collect 400k on the spot.

    Everybody’s goal should be to make it to 60 with 0 in RRSP, and their millions unregistered. Now that is liquid!

    The only good thing RRSP is for is to offset high earning years and withdraw out of it on low earning years, buy a house for the first time, take a year off.

  • Greg January 29, 2014, 1:59 am

    @Emilio- right, my wife and I had about $100,000 each in RRSPs at the time so there would have been a tax liability there if I had liquidated the RRSPs in the year I turned 40- about $50,000 for me and maybe $20,000-30,000 for my wife as she had little other income. And don’t forget about unrealized capital gains in unregistered accounts, another tax liability. That was actually a bigger tax liability for us than our RRSPs. It’s a good thing that capital gains are taxed at half the rate of employment income and RRSP withdrawals.

    So yes, we didn’t have a million dollars in net liquid assets, only about $800,000 or so.

    It doesn’t make sense for everyone to have a goal of 0 in the RRSP at a certain age, it really depends. As long as you have enough non-RRSP income and are paying tax on it, you should keep as much as you can in your RRSP.

    If you expect to have a long term high income I also think it is a bad idea to withdraw from your RRSP to buy a house. Better to save up for the house outside your RRSP and leave the money inside your RRSP compounding and deferring the taxes. It can only go wrong if you save so much that you have more income in retirement than before retirement. I’d avoid that problem by retiring earlier.

  • Geoff January 29, 2014, 10:38 am

    +1 for Dan above. While I agree, it is more important to save than you earn and what the guy has done IS impressive, that’s a hell of a lot easier for a singleton earning $250K a year than it is for a regular guy with a kid and a wife both earning $30K a year.

    For instance, I’m approaching 40 and it’s only been the last 2 years that my wife and collectively earn $180K, and that’s resulted in a massive change in our ability to hammer our mortgage and pay our bills. And we don’t live extravagantly, we have a $286K mortgage and a 12 year old car ; our single biggest expense is childcare ($1000 a month). The extra $80K we make a year now is making a big difference.

  • SST January 29, 2014, 11:15 am

    re: FrugalDad — I only know one millionaire with a large family/one income-earner. He had no education and his wife wanted a big family (7 children). He was a janitor then started working at a car dealership. He did well enough there and stayed long enough to eventually acquire the entire dealership. He worked that for a few years and eventually sold it for over $1 million (c.1970s). With over 40 years of investing under his belt, he is a many multiple millionaire.

    re: the millionaire house
    “If he sells his house tomorrow and decides to begin renting a house instead, he will have a million dollars in the bank. All cash. Its that simple.”

    Yes, it is actually that simple.
    One is a house, one is cash.
    Two different assets.
    I can understand the misconception between “net worth” and “investable assets”.

    If he has only the $700,000 principal residence, he cannot access that capital; it is essentially dead.

    You might say, “He could rent out a portion of his house then it would be creating capital!”
    True, but then he loses that portion of utility of the house (i.e. he cannot use 100% of his asset).

    You might say, “He could take out a HELOC and use that cash to invest in stocks etc!”
    True, but not only can he not access 100% of the value of his house, due to gov’t laws, but now his capital is backed by debt (and subsequent interest payments).

    If he sells the principal residence, the locked-up capital now becomes fully liquid and investable; he trades (loses) the utility of his principal residence for the (gains) liquidity of cash.

    As Ed Rempel might say, “Would you rather have $1,000,000 in stocks or $1,000,000 in a house?”

  • Emilio January 29, 2014, 2:42 pm

    @SST
    As Ed Rempel might say, “Would you rather have $1,000,000 in stocks or $1,000,000 in a house?”

    I would rather have 500k in a house, and 500k in my business, and 0 in stocks…

    /damn you multiple choice, write within the box, questions

  • Gotim January 30, 2014, 12:08 pm

    David – congratulations on your approach. Like you, I am a pracising lawyer and started reading Milliondollarjourney and Get Rich Slowly in 2007, in my second year as an associate on Bay Street. It was an incredible motivator, although unfortunately I still seem to always lag behind Frugal Trader by about two years in time and four years in age – in my case, with two young kids and a stay-at-home spouse.

    Law is one of those classic “UAW” professions (see “The Millionnaire Next Door”), with emphasis on flash over substance. Unlike engineering, it also seems to be one of those professions w here nobody admits that they may want to retire early. Perhaps this is part of the image of power we always keep up, unlike engineers who are allowed to be ruthlessly pragmatic? I have always been amazed that a disproportionate number of early financial blogs are written by engineers, and none by lawyers. If, statistically speaking, we are one of the most unhappy professions, shouldn’t we be all over frugality and methodically plotting to get to FI as quickly as possible?

    I am now a partner in a regional firm in smaller market. A few months ago, I managed to shock one of the articling students when I let it slip that my wife and I had an entertainment budget. He could not fathom why anyone would do that.

    With a stay-at-home spouse and kids, I managed to get to about $600K net worth so far in the same time frame as you. Still not bad, but technically still in the UAW category. Kids will definitely set you back, but once you have your framework in place, you should still do quite well going forward.

  • Richard January 30, 2014, 2:01 pm

    Gotim, it may be that revealing your intentions not to stay too long could limit your pre-retirement income. It seems a lot more likely that most lawyers simply think in terms of income and can’t give up that income. That would drag others along to think in the same way. Once it becomes normal it’s hard to change that. Maybe there are a lot of lawyers who are satisfied with their work.

  • Debt Free Mommy January 31, 2014, 3:44 pm

    David I really enjoyed your post, you should be very proud of yourself. Yes, it’s way easier to save money when you don’t have the expenses of a famil but it’s also incredibly seductive to start living a “big life” when you live in downtown Toronto and work with people who make a lot of money.

    I have seen lots of people making a lot of money, spending a lot of money. It really don’t matter how much you earn if you spend it all.

    I wish that more women were reading about finances… if you are reading this why not check out my blog: Debt Free with an RRSP – One Woman’s Quest.
    http://debtfreewithanrrsp.com/

    I, too, was inspired by MDJs blog but I’ve always thought that there aren’t enough women investing.

  • Miiockm February 2, 2014, 4:02 pm

    Whether this is a huge achievement would depend on your salary.

  • Greg February 3, 2014, 10:44 am

    @Miiockm, I think having a high salary is part of the achievement. Sure it’s easier to save $1M if you have a high salary, but earning a high salary isn’t easy.

  • Richard February 3, 2014, 10:48 am

    It is an achievement. Whether it’s huge, miraculous, or just notable depends on your salary. Not everyone can avoid spending $1m.

  • Geoff February 3, 2014, 11:12 am

    I totally agree, it is an accomplishment. Many people have made millions of dollars and gone bankrupt (It’s HammerTime!)

    On the other hand, it is germane to the story to include the average salary of the last 5 years I’d say.

  • MG March 5, 2014, 10:40 pm

    Congrats on your high salary + bonuses.

  • Banjopete June 5, 2014, 1:26 pm

    I’ll echo the sentiments, great job saving more than you spend, that in itself should be the focus of the article. The end value of the short term goal ($1M, $2M etc) is secondary to the main ideas of living within your means, setting goals, and planning around taxes.

    Careful of falling into typical commenter’s trap of begrudging him his earned income. Some folks worked hard before they knew they had to in order to follow paths towards careers with above average incomes. We all made choices somewhere along the way. Sure some choices are easier for others, some parents more supportive than others, but hard work is something we can all do or not do. I’d bet becoming a lawyer is no cake walk, nor are the hours required to get there and sustain the profession.

    Good for you, and thanks for sharing.

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