This is Part 2 of the “How I Became a Millionaire at Age 30” series. For more details, please refer to the preceding sections of this story:
After graduating from university, I did what most newly minted graduates did that summer of 2007 — I celebrated, relaxed, and partied hard! School had been so stressful that I just wanted to take a chill pill and do nothing more than to have FUN!
Indeed, I had a blast that summer. Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t push myself too hard and jump directly into a new career. Some of my peers did, but I’m so grateful that I did not; the period of time off allowed me to gracefully transition from college graduate to rookie employee.
In other words, I finally allowed myself a chance to breathe and recuperate. To this day, I still feel like the summer of 2007 was the most enjoyable and best summer I’ve ever had in my life. Definitely, I have no regrets about delaying my entry into the workforce.
My First “Real” Job (2007; Age 23)
I landed my first “real” job in the fall of 2007. Actually, what had happened was that I started grad school at San Jose State University (SJSU), but felt “unproductive” with just taking 3 graduate Electrical Engineering courses. For whatever reason, I started to get restless around October and forced myself to look online for any job openings.
I interviewed at a HVAC company that allowed for a flexible work schedule — I would be able to work part-time while I continued my graduate studies.
That sounded good to me!
Unfortunately, after just one short month of service, I realized that the HVAC industry was one that I was not particularly interested in. Although I was pretty good with using AutoCAD, I realized very quickly that I had ZERO interest in building a career around that skill.
With much luck, I interviewed for a junior level internship at a semiconductor company in early December of that year. To this day, that interview ranks as the worst interview that I have ever experienced in my life!
I couldn’t answer a single question… I stuttered A LOT. I mumbled. The interview basically couldn’t have gone any worse… And when I walked out the door, I even chuckled, and said to myself:
I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time studying for this interview… Talk about a train wreck!
Although I was grossly unqualified for the position, the hiring manager somehow got a good vibe from me and had a sense that I would be a really hard worker.
My old boss would later go on to recount our first encounter as such:
I remember when I told you to take a seat. While I was explaining the day-to-day roles of the entry level position, you kept on leaning in. When I tried to pull my chair away from you, you lifted your seat and pulled in closer. I don’t want to say that you appeared desperate, but you were just so damn engaged. I could tell that you were a go-getter and not someone that I would have to babysit. And for this position, I really needed someone who could think independently and be self-sufficient. Because eventually, I want to convert this intern into a full-time salaried employee. That’s why I hired you.
The above goes to show that you JUST NEVER KNOW. Even when YOU think things might have gone terribly wrong, there’s always a possibility that things will still work out in your favor. So never count yourself down and out!
A slim chance is better than no chance. So keep taking those swings!
When it comes to life, often times it’s fascinating and unpredictable. Everyone out there just needs an opportunity.
And that was my break into the semiconductor industry. The start of my professional engineering career that would later help me become a millionaire at age 30.
Burning Out Early (2008; Age 23-24)
I burned out really early in my career. In hindsight, working 40+ hours each week while taking 3 graduate level courses concurrently was a terrible decision.
My life was just too unbalanced to be healthy. It was just: work, school, homework and sleep.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Unfortunately, I was young and naive. I used to take a lot of pride in my work ethic and I always told myself that no matter what, no one out there would be able to outwork me. I had big dreams and wanted to prove myself. I was an eager sponge trying to soak up as much information as I could… I guess you could say that I tried to overcompensate with hard work for my lack of brains…
I knew that I wasn’t that smart… To succeed, I felt like I needed to bring something more to the table. I thought hard work would be my salvation.
And on my first day of work at the new semiconductor company, I felt immediately intimidated. I was introduced to a veteran engineer who was a graduate from Stanford University. Another senior engineer had 20+ years of experience. Everyone I met was so incredibly smart and educated…
I felt inadequate.
So, I pushed myself to the point of no return… I would volunteer to work weekends and take on over-time hours to demonstrate my dedication to my career and employer. This was all in addition to the 3 graduate level courses that I was taking.
By spring of 2008, I had started to fizzle out. I woke up one morning and just didn’t feel right. I experienced sharp pains that I had never felt before in my entire life.
I ignored the pain and brushed it aside. And besides, I went to the doctor and my blood tests were all “normal”.
I was too young to get sick, I reasoned… I’ll just keep grinding it out, I insisted, because that’s the only thing that I knew how to do.
Well, days became weeks and weeks became months. Months eventually became years… And to this day, the pain has never gone away. It’s still something I have to deal with every single day of my life. So, for anyone just getting started out in their new career, I would offer this advice gained through experience:
It’s possible to work hard and enjoy yourself in the process. There’s much more to life than a career. Ultimately, life is all about balance. The balanced person will be the happiest and healthiest person. You can push yourself to a point of no return. It’s not worth the risk. Don’t do it. Besides, smart work beats hard work any day of the week.
But nonetheless, I was making great progress in my young career. I had a wonderful job. It paid well. I enjoyed it. And I was working hard towards earning a graduate degree as well.
Although my health was deteriorating, I managed to stockpile a ton of cash that first year of work. With all the overtime hours that I worked, even as an intern, I must have pulled in over $60,000 that first year out of school.
Because I was living at home at the time (and my parents were still employed), I was able to save big on rent yet again. They took it easy on me that first year, and I didn’t have to contribute much to bills since I was just getting started in my new career. Also, thanks to my frugal ways in college, I was sort of entrenched into following the minimalist lifestyle without even being fully conscious of it. So, while my peers were “dropping it like it’s hot” on new cars, toys, vacations, electronic gadgets, etc., I simply saved money.
A lot of it.
Sure, I would splurge on a new guitar every now and then… But that was pretty much my only “expensive” hobby.
However, by the end of December 2008, I would go on to make a massive mistake that would derail much of my financial progress for years to come… Along with my brother, I foolishly “invested” about $36,000 into buying a new luxury SUV for my father, financed over 3 years (luckily at 0% interest because of the crash!). It was my way of saying “thank you” for all the support over the years. And since I wasn’t paying rent, I felt guilty…
I wanted to do something grand for his 60th birthday party celebration.
Looking back, this was a tremendously stupid decision on my part (live and learn)… I should have known better since my father was not the type of person to appreciate such a gesture. In the end, this gift ended up causing more heartache than anything else… Today, I essentially have no relationship with my father and I have since taken over possession of the vehicle since he did not want it for himself…
Obviously, I would have been much better served to have invested that $36,000 into what was perhaps the “buying opportunity of a lifetime” in stocks and real estate, between 2008-2011…
By the end of 2008, I still had no clue how to invest money. But thanks to the financial crisis, my Roth IRA (which I had opened in college) was down about 50%. Nevertheless, I kept on investing into my retirement index funds. Although not much of an experienced investor at the time, I went with intuition which told me to keep buying since prices were “low”.
My Roth IRA finished 2008 valued at $2,444. Although I don’t have official records of my finances back then, I would venture to guess that I managed to save over $20,000 that first year out of school.
$20,000, in spite of my foolish purchase to close out the year…
The Next Few Years (2009-2010; Age 24-26)
By 2009, I still had no clue how to invest, but the stock market just kept getting hammered (seemingly everyday). Fortunately, by 2009, I was promoted to a full-time engineer and became eligible to invest in my company’s 401k plan, so I started funneling funds into that. In addition, I kept on feeding the Roth IRA, making sure to max that account out each and every year.
Later that year, I did start trading some stocks. I made some money on Apple (AAPL), and a few other ones such as Research in Motion (RIMM), or BlackBerry (BBRY) as it’s known today. Nothing to write home about, but profits are profits…
I finished my graduate degree in mid 2009. It took me 2 years, and this time around, I did have to pay a bulk of the tuition bill myself. Uncle Sam did help me out yet again, but the government aid wasn’t near as much as it was during my undergraduate years. Still, it was a major relief to get this task finally off of my shoulders. Without school and homework, my schedule greatly opened up and I now had a lot more time for a social life. For the first time in about 20 years, I welcomed with open arms the thought of NEVER having to go back to school ever again!
Up to this point, my financial journey was nothing atypical from the average worker… Sure, I probably saved more and splurged less than most, but my income wasn’t extraordinary and I really had no investments outside of my retirement accounts.
During these early years, I can look back and clearly see that my focus was not on investing. Rather, the first few years of my working career were fixated on growing my career.
I worked extremely hard. As usual. Routinely, I would burn the midnight oil and would be the “first person into work and the last person to leave”. Quite often, I would leave the office after midnight, or well after the cleaning crew had checked out for the day.
I was THAT MOTIVATED and determined to succeed in my career.
Along the way, I started picking up a new software program that was gaining popularity in industry. Although the software tool was incredibly powerful, most engineers had no clue how to code in that language. This wasn’t a software you ever learned in school, like C++. Being so young and motivated, I dove headfirst into learning how to code in this language.
By the conclusion of 2010, I would say that I had become an expert in the software, and was one of the very few people in industry who knew how to utilize the tool to create much more than just a surface level program. I was able to make use of the software and increase my work efficiency by at least 10x… My work was starting to gain recognition and my bosses could see that I was a “rising star” in the company.
So, although my finances were still “average”, my career was clearly starting to take off. Back then, I had no concept of the idea of early retirement or early financial independence.
Those lifestyles were unknown to me at the time. I didn’t know a red pill existed. Like most of my peers, I continued to drink the blue Kool-Aid. I even used to believe that I would most definitely continue working as an engineer until I was 65. With that kind of line of thinking, it’s no wonder that I felt the need to dive headfirst into my career! My salary and survival were completely dependent on my employer (what a sucker I was back then, I know) so of course I concluded that I had better get really good at my job!
My retirement accounts closed out 2010 valued at $56,000. Although I don’t have official records, I believe my savings account had grown to around $50,000 by the conclusion of 2010. So, a total net worth valued at over $100,000 at age 26!
I wasn’t saving as much money, even though my salary was rapidly rising because I was on the hook for car payments throughout 2009 and 2010… My father also lost his job in 2010, went into depression, so I also had to start paying for his medical insurance bill (around $500/month or so). At the conclusion of 2010, I also still had one more year of car payments ($12,000) to deal with…
Luckily, I was still thrifty when it came to my own personal spending… I must have really clamped down on spending because the bills were starting to rack up and you could say that 2009-2010 were pretty stressful times…
The downturn in the economy was also forcing those of us still lucky enough to have jobs to be even more dedicated than ever before… I worked a lot of late hours during the early years of my career…
To be continued…