Let’s get straight to the point: If you start with zero dollars today and follow the plan on this page, you can become wealthy enough to retire in as little as 10 years. You won’t need a six-figure salary, and you won’t need to follow some secret “get rich quick” scheme. You’ll just spend less than you earn, invest the difference, and watch your money grow until you don’t really need a job any more.

More importantly, you won’t have to keep your nose to the grindstone and hate your life while doing it. In fact, it should make you feel a little happier and freer every day. We spent all of our 20s executing this plan. Along the way, we found time to take six months off in Hawaii, and another seven months exploring every National Park in the United States. There’s plenty of room for fun.

You could just skim this page, close the tab, and move on with the rest of your day unaffected. Or, you could save this page, use it as a blueprint, and wake up in a decade or so with complete control of your life and some incredible travel stories to boot — just think about it!

The Plan:
Step 1: Level Yourself Up
Step 2: Build a Surplus & Safety Net
Step 3: Create a Wealth Explosion
Step 4: Take a BIG Break — or Two!
Step 5: Accelerate Toward Your Destination
Step 6: Ride Off into the Sunset

Graphic of financial roadmap

Two quick notes before we start:

  • This plan is an idea, not a stone tablet of commandments. Your life might look totally different from ours, so if something here doesn’t perfectly match your situation, you should feel free to get creative. We’re just trying to challenge you to think outside the box.
  • We’re not professional financial advisors. We’re just two ordinary people honestly sharing what worked for us — for free. Please read our Disclosures page for more information.

Step 1: Level Yourself Up

Financial Goal: This first step is about building skills and turning them into a source of income. The main goal is basically just to get a job. Try your best to make it through this step debt-free. If you already owe money, try to avoid burdening yourself with any more debt from here on out. Don’t worry — we’ll deal with any debt you already have in Step 3.

Timeline: This first step begins before your career takes off, and it’s totally different for everyone. If you’re still in school (or changing careers), start here. But if you already have a solid income, skip straight to Step 2!

There’s no better investment than time spent improving yourself. Learn something new every day. You can achieve that through formal education like college, but that’s not the only way. The world is full of ways to learn (including a bunch that are free!).

The path we took was pretty traditional: high school, university, jobs. But we also made a point of learning more than we were required to. We developed photography skills that later turned into a side business. When one of our cars broke down, we tried DIY repairs from YouTube before taking it to a mechanic. We read books on personal finance and slowly accrued all of the knowledge you can now find on this blog.

Not all learning needs to happen in school or relate to your career. You may be surprised where those unexpected bonus skills can take you later in life.

Photo of us graduating at UF
Our absolute dumbest graduation photos, for your amusement.

Checklist:

  • If you’re in high school, focus on your grades and taking challenging classes. A strong transcript is the most important factor for earning scholarships and admission to good colleges. Even if you don’t go to college, studying will legit make you smarter, which is helpful in ways that are hard to predict. Try some extracurriculars or develop a hobby that’ll force you to get better at something, too.
  • If you’re taking college classes, stay focused on schoolwork, but pay attention to your finances too. Debt can be crippling, and contrary to popular belief, it is possible to avoid student loans altogether!
    Recommended reading:
    Can You Cashflow College? My Debt-Free Graduation Journey
  • Weigh the benefits of grad school. Carefully consider how much the added time and money will cost you, in comparison to how much faster another degree will help you reach your ultimate goals (like getting down to Step 6). Breaking into your field as soon as possible can sometimes give you the experience you need to earn pay bumps and career advances, so choosing to go to grad school isn’t always a good idea.
    Recommended reading:
    Making the Most of Your Twenties
  • If you’re not going to college at all, that’s cool too. Work on developing marketable skills through a training program, trade school, apprenticeship, internship, or job. There isn’t just one prescribed path.
  • No matter which route you take, learn something new every day. Read books, blogs, and Wikipedia articles. Watch informational YouTube videos. Experiment with your passions. Gain a diverse set of skills, rather than shoehorning yourself into just one thing.
    Recommended reading:
    ∞ Things To Do When You’re Bored (Change Your Defaults)
  • Don’t force yourself to be unnecessarily independent at a young age. If you have access to help, it’s okay to use it. Living at home for a while can save you thousands on rent. The Affordable Care Act allows you to be on your parents’ health insurance plan until you’re 26. Being a part of a family cell phone plan and paying your own share is usually cheaper than having a plan all alone. Stuff like that.
  • Avoid debt. If you take out a loan for a new car (please don’t), or rack up a balance on a credit card (seriously, begging you not to), you’ll pay the price for it later, plus interest. But if you already have debt, it’s not the end of the world. Make the payments, and hold on ‘til Step 3!
  • Land a full-time income. Aim to make as much money as you can. Whether it’s a job you love or just something you’re doing to pay the bills, you won’t have to stay there forever. We promise. 😉

Step 2: Build a Surplus & Safety Net

Financial Goal: Grow the gap between your income and your expenses. Using the tips below, try to save at least 50% of your pay — the more, the better. Put that money in a savings account, and keep adding to it until you’ve got about 3 months’ expenses as a safety net for the unexpected. For example, if all your monthly bills add up to $2,000, try to save $6,000 before moving on to Step 3.

Timeline: This might take some major lifestyle changes at first, but once you hit a 50% savings rate, it’ll only take about 3 months to accumulate 3 full months’ expenses! You can get through this step surprisingly fast.

Saving half your pay might sound impossible without a huge salary, but the key isn’t to land some magic dream job. At around age 23, we began saving 60-75% of our income with jobs that only started at about $38k per year.  A high savings rate depends mostly on your spending, and when you attack the big stuff first — like housing and transportation — you can live very happily on less money than you ever thought possible.

If you’re starting this step with significant debt, those payments might swallow up some of the 50% you’re aiming to save, which may slow you down a little bit. That’s alright. If the debt principal you’re knocking off each month plus the money you’re putting into a savings account add up to more than 50% of your income, you’re doing great.

Checklist:


Step 3: Create a Wealth Explosion

Financial Goal: Stop adding to your savings account and start to pay off all your debt instead. Once it’s wiped out, start investing 100% of your money surplus until you have several years’ expenses invested (including retirement accounts). Keep going until you feel like you really need a break. That’s what Step 4 is gonna be all about. (Personally, we moved on to Step 4 with seven years’ expenses invested and zero debt.)

Timeline: It might sound crazy to put away YEARS worth of expenses, but remember — if you’re saving half your income, you can bank 1 year of expenses for every 1 year of work! It’ll be a little slower if you start out with a lot of debt, but it’ll be a lot faster if you can invest even more than 50% of your pay!

When you spend less than half of every paycheck, your bank account starts to seem like it’s overflowing all the time. So what should you do with all that money? Traditional wisdom would say to pay your bills, save a little bit, and feel free to blow the rest — but this isn’t a traditional financial guide.

We’re gonna shovel all of this extra cash straight into paying off debt and filling up investment accounts, creating an explosion of wealth and making you financially invincible in just a few years. For context, we knocked this out from ages 23-25 ourselves, but every person will have their own path. It isn’t a contest.

Graphic of how we retired
Here are all the tricks we used to go from zero to early retirement, sized by importance. Focus on the big stuff.

Checklist:


Step 4: Take a BIG Break — or Two!

Financial Goal: Life isn’t all about saving money as fast as you possibly can. Take some time off, and do something BIG — something you’ve always dreamed of. Financially speaking, you could skip this step if you wanted to — but we promise it’s worth doing. Money-wise, the goal for your sabbatical(s) should just be to get through without any overall drop in net worth. Try to come home with at least as much money as when you set out. We’ll show you how.

Timeline: You can mix Step 4 with Step 5 over the next few years, and you can repeat this as many times as you like — going back to work and gaining wealth between extended vacations. In fact, that’s exactly how we spent our late 20s!

Now that you’re debt-free with multiple years of living expenses invested, take a second to realize something: You could go years without a paycheck if you really wanted to. You don’t want to do that, because it would undo all the progress you’ve made. But being in this financial position gives you a lot of leverage — you don’t actually need your employer to pay your immediate bills any more.

It’s a good thing, too, because at this point in the journey, you might be getting a little burned out. It’s time to take a break — and I don’t mean a one-week vacation. While we’ve taken plenty of small trips, the way we’ve really taken breaks from work is to travel for months at a time.

Instead of spending down our investment portfolios, we used our strong financial position to give us the confidence to negotiate with our employers. We told them (politely, with months of notice) that we’d be stepping away for a while to travel, but that we’d be happy to continue a small portion of our duties on a part-time basis from the road.

Whether they said yes or no, we always knew we’d be okay financially. But the amazing thing we found out repeatedly is that most bosses don’t want to see their good employees leave. They’re willing to negotiate when their only other choice is losing you. And even if that weren’t the case, we developed side hustles outside of work, using all the skills we gained back in Step 1 and continued to foster. A combination of these things is how we funded all our big breaks.

We took a sabbatical like this at age 25 — to live in Hawaii for 6 months — and again around age 28 — to visit every National Park in the United States. Neither one caused our net worth to drop at all. They basically amounted to just pressing the pause button on saving money, and the experiences changed our lives forever.

This step isn’t financially necessary. But for us, it was emotionally necessary. Not only did it give our lives a change of pace, but it also gave us a taste of what freedom from the workplace is like. We got to wholeheartedly pursue artistic and academic passions. And we learned firsthand exactly what we’d been saving for.

Just do it.

Checklist:

@tripofalifestyle Most people don’t start with six-figure jobs, so the only way to get that first $250k in the bank is to be happy living on less. #money #frugality #📈 ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle

Step 5: Accelerate Toward Your Destination

Financial Goal: Increase your savings rate beyond 50%, and accumulate somewhere between 15-25 years’ expenses in investments. For example, if you live on $25k per year, aim to have somewhere between $375k – $625k invested before moving on to Step 6 (retirement or semi-retirement). Yes, seriously. You got this.

Timeline: At a 50% savings rate, each year of work allows you to invest one year’s expenses. But at this point, your investments should begin to compound and grow on their own more rapidly, and you’ve probably increased your income from work by now — enabling you to save more. Aggressively, this step can be completed in just a few years. Executed more slowly, it can take a decade or more. Either way, it’ll leave you far ahead of the typical path!

You’re at an advanced level of financial nirvana at this point. It’s time to solidify your goals. If you want the returns from your investment portfolio to be able to sustain your lifestyle forever — never having to work again — you’ll need at least 25 years’ expenses invested by the end of this step. But if you’re cool with just tapering off into a part-time semi-retirement for a while, you may feel comfortable with as little as 15 years’ expenses invested.

Graphic of annual expenses over time
Savings rate greatly affects the time to reach an early retirement. To accumulate 25x annual expenses starting from zero, it would take nearly 16 years of saving 50% of your take-home pay. But it would only take 10 years when saving 65% — or just over 5 years when saving 80%. These calculations assume that all money is invested, earning a real return of 6% annually during accumulation. If you want to play with the numbers interactively, try an early retirement calculator.

This is the biggest, most daunting step, but once you get past it, life is never the same again. By the time you complete Step 5, money will no longer be a major concern in your life, and you’ll be free to direct your full attention at whatever is most important to you — forever.

We personally worked through Step 5 between the ages of 25 and 29. We were able to get it done really fast because of three things: 1) Our adventures from Step 4 caused us to job hop, which landed us higher salaries. 2) Instead of expanding our lifestyle, we kept our living expenses the same even after we started making more money, which caused our savings rate to skyrocket. 3) With a little luck, the stock market continually rose for most of this time, which gave us an upward lift and made the process even faster.

Checklist:

  • Set a goal. Decide whether you’re aiming for full retirement, with at least 25 years’ expenses invested — or semi-retirement, with at least 15 years’ expenses invested and a little part-time work after that.
    Recommended reading:
    Financial Independence 101: Never Have to Work Again
  • Reconsider your job. If you’ve been working at the same place your entire career, how do you know that you’re making as much money as possible? The only way to find out is to shop around, and see what else is out there. Having competing job offers in your back pocket (or a blossoming side business) can also give you the confidence you need to negotiate higher pay from the job you already have.
  • Avoid lifestyle inflation. When you score a higher salary, it might be tempting to buy a brand new car or a bigger house instead of ratcheting up your savings rate. But ultimately, no material possessions will make you happier than freedom can.
    Recommended reading:
    How To Make Totally Unnecessary Purchases
  • This can be a great time to buy a modest home or start a family, since you’ve got some awesome adventures under your belt and a stable financial base to build a life on. Of course, these are extremely personal decisions that only you can make for yourself. You may have already done both long before this point, or you may never have plans to do either one. That’s totally up to you.
    Recommended reading:
    How to Really View Your Home as an Investment
  • Keep investing. All extra cash should continue to be directed squarely at your investment accounts, until you have 15-25 years’ expenses invested.

Step 6: Ride Off into the Sunset

Financial Goal: Think less about money. If you’ve arrived here with 25+ years’ expenses invested, chances are good that you can go the rest of your life without much need to work at all. If you have less, plan to dial back your hours, adding to the pile at a leisurely pace and letting compound interest do most of the work for you.

Timeline: This is the last step. And it’s arguably the best one, which is why you get to enjoy it for the rest of your life!

At this point, you’re either completely financially independent, meaning that the returns on your investment portfolio alone can support you for the rest of your life, or you’re pretty damn close and just ready to slow down and enjoy what you’ve been working toward.

We arrived here at age 29 with slightly less than the full 25 years’ expenses invested. We were enjoying full-time work less and less, so it made sense to downshift into a semi-retired lifestyle where a few easy freelance gigs gave us more income than we needed to sustain our super-low expenses. That meant that we’d coast into full financial independence automatically over the next couple years at a pace we just weren’t concerned about any more — while doing things we love, like traveling more and hanging out with friends and family.

By the way, the Social Security Administration says that “Full Retirement Age” is 67, so whether you arrive here at age 29, 35, or 50 — give yourself some credit. You crushed society’s expectations, and you bought back decades of your life.

Photo of Chicago Skyline from Indiana Dunes National Park
Sunset over the Chicago skyline, viewed from Indiana Dunes National Park.

Checklist:

Share this and start a conversation: