Right after I graduated from college, I got a job with a starting salary of $54,000, which was more like $40,000 after taxes. A little more than three years later, I had saved $100,000. I had never made that much money in my life. Not too long after I started working, I discovered personal finance bloggers, including Anna. She just was beginning her Spending Fast and I was totally motivated to see how much I could get myself to save.
The big lesson from my story? If I can do it, so can you. Before I get into the gist of how I did it, though, there are a few things I’d like to note:
- I saved this money entirely on my own; there was no inheritance, no handout, no trust fund.
- I was single and did not have the added luxury of a joint income. I did not have a sugar daddy or a rich boyfriend – it was just me.
- Did I mention I did this all without earning a six-figure salary?
Here’s how I saved $100,000 in a little more than 3 years:
1. I contributed to my retirement via a 401k offered by my employer
To be honest, when I first started working I had no clue what a 401k was, or why I needed one. All I knew was that I was being offered free money via a match, and I was all over it. Over time I learned what it was, and about asset allocation, fund types, expense ratios, etc. Starting out, though, I took advantage of the free match.
At the time, my employer matched 100 percent of the first six percent I contributed. I didn’t max out my contributions back then, but I contributed about fifteen percent of my salary, and during those 3.5 years I was able to save about $40,000. This was also before the last major US recession, and so the money I contributed had grown because the stock market had been performing pretty well.
Tip: Contribute to a retirement plan as soon as you can. Max out if possible. Can’t afford to max out right away? Increase your contributions by one percent every quarter until you can. If your employer offers a match, take it!
2. I kept my expenses low
After my 401k, health insurance, and tax withholding, my main expenses were my car (I paid a car note for about $150 a month and then later about $300 a month), insurance (about $80 a month) and my mortgage (about $900). I lived at home for six months after graduating from college before moving into my first place, which helped me really kick-start my savings.
Groceries were never a big bill, being single. Yes, ramen was my friend. Going out was hanging in at friends’ houses, and zero alcohol was BIG money saved. I traveled a lot for work, and so a lot of my lunches during the week were reimbursed. I also lived very close to work, so I didn’t buy gas often. I shopped here and there, too, but I didn’t have any expensive habits…yet. My water bill, Internet bill and cell phone bill all came in around $170 combined each month.
Tip: Getting your expenses down should be your first area of attack in your budget. Try living close to work if possible, pack lunches, do workouts at home or outdoors, carpool, cut out alcohol, and otherwise get creative with ways to bring down your expenses.
3. I focused on saving 40% to 50% of each paycheck and anything extra
After my 401k, other deductions and taxes (my tax rate was about 25 percent), the first year I earned somewhere around $1,350 – $1,400 a paycheck. I tried saving at least $500 to $700 every paycheck and, because I kept my expenses low, this wasn’t hard to do.
I saved my yearly bonus. After 50 percent bonus taxes, this was somewhere around $1,500 the first couple of years, and I always saved a bulk of whatever tax refund I received. As a result, I saved a ton of cash very quickly. I averaged about 18k a year in cash savings, and in 3.5 years I had well over 50k saved in cash from my full-time job.
Tip: It’s not just about keeping expenses low, it’s also about planning to save what you have left over. I made this easy for myself by having this money automatically sent to my savings account as soon as I got paid.
4. I started a side hustle
I also became extremely interested in taking photographs. I ended up with a highly successful part-time lifestyle and wedding photography business after taking a bit of money from savings to invest in an entry-level DSLR camera. I studied my craft, did a lot of free photography to start, and within a few months, I found this business growing very quickly and becoming very profitable.
I loved doing it and it earned me a great side income. I spent my earnings reinvesting into my business, saving (I always save something when I earn something), and funding the early stages of my former super-amazing handbag collection. If I didn’t have such a handbag obsession, I know I could have saved so much more money.
The first year of my business I earned around $10,000. The second year I earned around $30,000. In subsequent years I earned more. I worked hard but, to me, it was worth it. Around this time, I also started learning about investing outside of retirement, and I used some of the money I earned from my side hustle to do that. This side hustle pushed my savings over the 100k mark.
Tip: A side hustle, if set up and managed the right way, can be a huge boost to your income. Just don’t spend all your earnings on handbags! :)
5. I spent money on credit, but I was smart about it
Yup, I still had a credit card, but the majority of my spending on credit was using a charge card. With a charge card, you are required to pay your balance in full each month. For example, American Express Gold is a charge card. I was required to have a charge card to cover all my work travel expenses. So I thought, ’Why not get one for myself, too?’ I got a few reality checks when I overdid it at times, but using a charge card always reigned me in and still does. I know my limits.
Tip: If you qualify for one, consider getting a charge card. It will help you build credit, and it acts just like a credit card (except you must pay off your balance each month).
That, in summary, is how I was able to save more than $100,000 in a little more than three years. I’m a saver by nature. I need that sense of security. An empty bank account makes me antsy. This is a huge motivator for me.
All of this being said, you may not be able to save $100,000 right now, and you may have large debts. Regardless of where you are (single, married, kids, no kids –– I know what it’s like to save with kids –– I now have twins!), though, know that you still can pay off your debt and save a serious amount of money over time.
It starts with conducting a full assessment of where you currently stand, creating a strategy around your situation, keeping your expenses low, automating as much as you can, and staying focused. Over time, and with discipline and dedication, you will see results. I promise. Remember, every single dollar counts.
What are some of the things you’re doing to build up your savings?
Bola Onada Sokunbi is a certified financial educator and the founder of CleverGirlFinance.com, a platform where she empowers women to take charge of their personal finances by ditching debt, saving money and building real wealth.