In 2012, a year before taking my first “real job” as a public school teacher, my heart and mind were focused on earning a Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of California, Irvine. As I worked toward that goal, I found that the most fun part of the experience was teaching undergrads, not learning more physics. Burned out from my own coursework, an email in my inbox caught my eye: The University of Central Florida was offering a free master’s degree in science education to STEM majors who would agree to teach at a local high school for at least a year while enrolled in the program.

Photo of Crystal Cove in California
Sunset at Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach, California. Leaving views like this behind was definitely on the list of “cons” for heading to landlocked Central Florida.

Making a full-time salary doing something I already knew I liked while earning a master’s degree along the way sounded like a good deal, but I also experienced guilt about the idea of giving up on my Ph.D. Ultimately, my heart wasn’t in it any more though, so after a healthy amount of emotional conflict and listening to my dad try to talk me out of it, I finally enrolled at UCF, and Lauren and I moved across the country — again.

Right around my 23rd birthday, I eagerly accepted a full-time job as a high school physics teacher at a public school near Orlando, Florida. This might not sound like the beginning of a financial success story, but strangely enough, it was the moment our wealth first began to experience explosive growth. Two years later, we would be over $100,000 richer.

Making the Most of Mediocre Salaries

My starting salary was $38,500 per year — not exactly a titanic income. Nevertheless, it was more than either of us had ever made before, and it honestly kinda felt like a lottery jackpot to a couple of recent college graduates.

Meanwhile, Lauren took a job doing marketing for a small financial firm and negotiated a salary just a little lower than my glamorous public school job, so it was official: We were real adults.

Photo of Steven in his classroom
Regardless of the pay, being a high school teacher was a very fun and rewarding job. If you feel like you have a passion for it, I highly recommend trying it out. I think doing it at a young age let me connect with students in a unique way, and it definitely gave me some memories I’ll never forget.

Aside from earning money at our full-time jobs, we found ways to supplement our income. By running a photography business as a side gig, we were able to bring in another $5-10k per year just shooting a wedding or portrait session once every couple of months. Lauren continued to manage the social media accounts of the company she left back in California, and I also bought and sold stuff on eBay and tutored a couple of college physics students here and there. Our jobs were still our main source of cash, but these little things did add up.

Since my short graduate program at UCF ended before my second year of teaching began, I was able to get a $4,000 annual pay bump in year two of teaching for having a master’s degree, bringing my salary to $42,500 per year. In addition to that, I had been participating in the Florida Retirement System’s investment plan (similar to a 401k), so I squeezed another few percent out of my salary via employer contribution matching.

While we put in significant effort to earn most of our money, we also cashed in on a couple thousand dollars of very easy money via credit card sign-up bonuses during this time. There are dozens of these offers out there. For example, when you sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and meet the initial spending requirement, you earn a gigantic cash bonus. After collecting your bonus and paying the (much smaller) annual fee once, you can just cancel the card. It’s a pretty effortless way to make several hundred dollars, and if you use our link to sign up, you’ll be supporting charity.

Before leaving California in the first place, we made our very first investments into stocks and bonds. Over the course of the two years we spent in Orlando, those investments grew, and we added to them regularly. While we didn’t have some huge portfolio, an upward-trending stock market definitely helped out — to the tune of over $10k across both years combined.

The Magic of a Lean Household

Hustling to make more money is great, but the only thing that matters in the long run is how much of it you keep. That’s why we highly recommend diligently tracking your net worth every month to check your progress.

The biggest boon to our success during this period of our lives (and beyond) was learning to make a happy life on less money. Luckily for us, living just about anywhere would be a reduction in expenses compared to graduate school in Orange County, California, but we were still very deliberate about choosing housing that put more back in our pockets, and when we furnished our new one-bedroom apartment, we did it almost exclusively with IKEA sale items.

Photo of our one-bedroom apartment in Orlando
Our extremely fancy, rainbow-colored, IKEA-powered dining room slash office in Orlando.

We continued to share one used Honda Civic (valued around $3-4k at the time) between the two of us. I chose to work at a school within biking distance of home, so my daily commute cost me nothing but calories. We never paid for cable TV.

And, as always, we bought food and household supplies at Walmart and Costco, rarely visiting traditional grocery stores like Florida’s darling, Publix, where food can cost anywhere from 10% to 100% more per unit (though we did take advantage of the occasional BOGO sale there). We also ate out sparingly, mostly at fast casual places rather than sit-down restaurants.

Regardless of my modest salary, one great thing about teaching public school is that it typically comes with an excellent health insurance plan. Our healthcare costs were very close to zero during this period of our lives (which isn’t something I can say any more, unfortunately).

Altogether, our annual spending for two was around $22,000 total, meaning we didn’t even need to spend one person’s salary to pay for all of our combined expenses. Every dollar beyond that was invested.

Here’s how our monthly expenses broke down:

  • Rent: $800/mo (one-bedroom apartment in a suburb near Orlando, Florida)
  • Food: ~$400/mo (Thanks, Costco and Walmart!)
  • Utilities/phones/Internet: ~$230/mo (We split a family phone plan with parents and got a sweet intro offer on Internet service.)
  • Transportation: ~$180/mo (gas, liability-only car insurance, maintenance, and DIY repairs with help from YouTube and family)
  • Health insurance: $0/mo (employer-provided)
  • Other: ~$200/mo (with a large helping of free outdoor entertainment)
  • TOTAL: ~$1,810/mo

A Foundation that Changed Our Lives

From June 2013 to June 2015, our net worth increased by $106,407 (to a total of $153k, including prior savings). Here’s how that broke down:

  • Income
    • Steven’s average salary: ~$40k/yr (public school teacher)
    • Lauren’s average salary: ~38k/yr (marketing manager)
    • Side hustles: ~$13k/yr (photography, eBay, marketing, and credit card churning)
    • Investment gains: ~$5k/yr (stock and bond market index funds)
  • Expenses
    • Income taxes: ~$21k/yr (federal only; no state income tax in Florida!)
    • Household spending: ~$22k/yr
  • TOTAL: +~$53k/yr, or +$106k in 2 years

By the time these two years were up, we were recently married, and that cushion of cash gave us the confidence we needed to take a 6-month honeymoon in Hawaii, something we never would have dreamed of without it. Because we were able to engineer that honeymoon to cost us nothing, we came back to Florida again afterward with enough money to buy our home in cash.

Sometimes I think about what our lives might be like if we had spent those two years in Orlando living just within our means, getting by but only saving 0-10% of our incomes. I think the most likely case is that we’d have missed out on six months of fun in Hawaii, and we’d both still be at those same jobs, because we wouldn’t have had the courage to leave.

Taking the break we did actually forced us to job hop, which ended up significantly increasing our incomes afterward. Also, if we hadn’t saved that $100k, we wouldn’t have been able to tap it to pay for our house, so we’d either be paying rent or making mortgage payments to this day. It’s pretty amazing to think about how much those two years propelled us into a completely different timeline.

Some Footnotes

The elephant in the room (which I think would naturally be in the back of anyone’s mind) is that this story only ended the way it did because we graduated from college completely debt-free. Rather than gloss over that fact, I’d rather be completely transparent about it and think about how things might be different for others.

If you’re wondering how we did that in the first place, we both had Florida Bright Futures scholarships to help with tuition. The remainder of my undergraduate tuition and living expenses were paid for by my parents (admittedly not an impressive story at all), while Lauren paid her own way, mostly by waitressing at Chili’s while tackling a full load of coursework (very impressive; she is way more of a badass than I am).

Photo of Lauren graduating from UF

We’ll be the first to admit that not every college graduate has that same advantage out of the gate, but we also want to really encourage you to think hard about this story even if you carry a lot of debt. Consider that even if we had graduated with no assets and $100k in combined student loan debt, we could be completely debt-free in about two years by living the same lifestyle and just paying down debt rather than investing. That’s pretty empowering.

Another thing to consider is that we were able to work together as a team, but this strategy can be adapted for a single person too (for example, by finding a roommate or two to split costs with). It should also be noted that if you can score a salary significantly higher than my $38k starting pay (while keeping expenses low), you’ll be able to blaze through even faster! Truthfully, these two years were actually the slowest saving years of our full-time careers, since we were able to earn more later.

Anyway, comparing yourself against others is a total waste of time and energy. We’re just telling our story to make you think and give you one perspective to consider. There are a million other ways to success (and a million successes much greater than ours).

We hope our story can have a positive impact on people of all ages, but take it from us — these ideas can have the biggest impact when implemented early. If you’re eighteen to twentysomething, you may soon find yourself (or have already found yourself) face-to-face with your first “adult income.” When you’re used to living a pretty simple lifestyle (like in college), it’s easier to continue onward that way as your income increases. If you get in the habit of spending more money early on, it can be tough to revert back. Just think about it.

And if you feel like your friends might be into this idea, consider hitting one of the share buttons below. Thanks for hearing us out.

— Steven

This article describes Step 3 of our six-step Financial Roadmap — a money plan that can take you from zero dollars to early retirement in as little as ten years.

To put this story in better context, and to see where we went from here, check out how we saved our first quarter-million dollars and how we reached our first million dollars after that.

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