Expert Interview with Her Every Cent Counts About Building Personal Net Worth

Personal financeImagine retiring with $2 million in the bank. Now stop imagining that goal and make it a reality.

With Her Every Cent Counts, readers get all kinds of tips and encourage to start building a net worth they can be proud of. That's not to say there isn't a lot of hard work involved. In fact, the woman who started the site (who prefers to be anonymous) had a net worth of $250,000 by the time she was 30. She plans to grow that number to $2 million by the time she retires.

Her net worth tracker can be found on her website where readers can track her progress. This serves as an inspiration and real-life glimpse into what is possible when saving money.

To learn more about reaching your own financial goals, take a look at the helpful information in the interview below.

 

It's inspiring reading your net worth stats on your website. Can you describe how people can set themselves along a similar path to increase their earning potential?

When I was just out of college, I was working a part-time job as an administrative assistant and interning for less than minimum wage. While I was very fortunate that my parents helped me through college and I did not have to deal with loans, I was living miles away from home and was living pretty much paycheck to paycheck in a tiny shared apartment. I'm also not a trust fund baby. I'd say I was an average upper middle class kid from a family with one working parent. As a family, we never splurged on fancy things, so my parents were able to afford to put both of their children through college, which helped a lot. However, once I graduated, I was on my own, like most of the world.

Throughout my 20s, I had the opportunity to move through a variety of positions, leaving both by choice and not by choice, and each time, I managed to pick up and obtain a position where I earned more and felt the role was a better fit for my skills. The trick is seeing all life throws at you as opportunities to do better.

So many of us get comfortable where we are that we don't realize where we can be. While I don't recommend you leave your job too often, it's important in your 20s to look at a career as two- to four-year roles where you work hard and gain valuable experience that you can quantify for a resume and future job interview. Become a subject matter expert as soon as possible, but leave room to explore new areas and learn what you're good at. Make a list of what you want to learn at each job and how you're going to explain those skills in a job interview via specific results. Then make that happen. Don't be so self-serving that your company doesn't like you! Focus on making your boss look good. You want to be seen as a team player, and ultimately you want to be a team player. But don't forget about yourself and your future resume. This is the time you're building your worth.

I have been through about four related careers so far, and I just turned 30. Each time, I find myself in a place where I can naturally add even more value. I had no idea I would be able to accomplish as much as I have in the last 10 years.

 

You mention how mental health impacts the ability to save and grow wealth. Please describe how mental health and other disabilities create this impact and how individuals can work through it.

Whether or not you suffer from mental health issues - depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc. - chances are your mental state impacts your work on a regular basis. We're all human. For those of us who struggle with mental health issues, maintaining a stable income and consistently adding value in our work is a challenge.

I struggle with depression, anxiety and ADHD, which some days makes getting out of bed hard, and most days makes focusing and getting work done an ordeal that I can't let anyone else know about at the office. If you have any mental health issues, I highly recommend hiring help to get you through these challenges.

I've had a therapist and currently have an ADHD coach to help me handle feeling overwhelmed in my high-visibility, high-responsibility role. I consider these people my behind-the-scenes team to help me succeed. I've generally avoided medication and try to focus on more natural treatments such as eating healthy and exercise, but for some people prescribed drugs can help too. Sometimes it's worth spending $400 a month to help ensure that you can keep your job. I've had to do that, and I've still managed to save a sizable amount over the last 10 years. It's OK to need and ask for help. Sometimes insurance will cover this help; sometimes you have to pay out of pocket. Either way, it's usually worth it, if you need it.

That said, also make sure to try out a few coaches or therapists and partner with the ones that work for you. It's easy to throw a ton of money down the drain if you don't have the right member on your team. Looking back on my 20s, I've had ups and downs, and the downs have been very hard, but tracking my net worth and overall success has helped me keep my eye on the goal and pick myself up again each time I fall. It's good to have goals. While one's goals shouldn't just be about money, it's easy to quantify success with savings, so it helps as a reminder of how far you've come.

 

You say you want to have $2 million saved for retirement. What are some of the key elements that will enable you to reach this goal?

When I was 21, I would have never expected a $2M retirement goal to be at all possible. Now, it's reasonably within sight. I have about $250k in net worth at 30 today, which was my goal when I had $0 at age 21. Using the Compound Interest Calculator, I can see that the $250,000 I have today, if I add no more money into it for 30 years, will be worth $1M by the time I'm 60 and $1.7M by the time I'm 70 - assuming a modest 5% YoY average annual growth rate.

The key thing here is that I was able to save $250k by 30, so I have time on my side. My goal has always been to have $500k in net worth before having children. This will provide me the amount of cushion I need to feel comfortable bringing new life into this world.

While I know I'm very fortunate in being able to start my career without loans to pay back, my basic model on savings would apply to anyone. The most important piece of the model is to spend less than you earn and to earn more than you spend, and to do this as quickly as possible because the earlier you put your money to work, the longer it will have to work for you.

Using the compound interest calculator, we can see that $1, growing for 30 years at 5%, is worth $4.32. Do you want $1 today as a 21-year-old or $4 when you're 51? Of course you may not hit 5% average annual growth over those 30 years and inflation reduces some of that growth, but you also may do much better than 5% and end up with more. If you can manage a 10% annual growth rate and compound that, your $1 will be worth $17 when you're 51.

I wouldn't say you should be so frugal that you hate your life, but if you need to spend a little more to be comfortable while still giving yourself enough room for savings, focus on how you can earn additional income outside of your job, or change jobs to increase your income dramatically after a year or two at your current position, especially in your 20s.

 

Do you offer any tips for people with all sorts of income levels to save as much as possible?

I started out making under $25k a year, paying $450 in rent to live in a tiny closet-sized room in a four-person apartment (in an area where the average one bedroom was going for $1800 at the time). While $5400 a year went to rent, I lived in a situation I wasn't very happy with to save money. When I got a job making $50k a year, I moved into a studio apartment paying $905 per month ($10k per year, which was very reasonable for the area I live in). Within two years, the rent for that studio had increased to $1300. While I had gotten used to living on my own and loved it, I didn't want so much of my income to disappear as a fixed cost. I decided to move into an apartment with two roommates where my rent went back to about $700 a month and remained at that rate for three years as my income grew. Instead of moving out into a studio or one bedroom, I decided to remain living with roommates to hit my savings goals.

When I turned 30, I moved in with my boyfriend (who had previously lived at his parent's house) of nearly 10 years, and now we live in a 850 square foot one bedroom that costs $2350. I make a bit more than him and picked the slightly nicer than other local apartments space, so I'm paying $1350 a month. However, my income has greatly increased, so this is a small percentage of my total earnings.

Ultimately I always create my annual housing budget with the expectation that I might lose my main source of income within any given year. My goal is to end the year at worst breaking even. This means focusing on being more frugal the first half of the year and loosening up the second half.

Also, I always buy my cars with cash, used. My first car lasted me seven years and cost me $8000. I recently purchased my second car also used and with cash. I realized it was missing floor mats when I got home from the dealer. :) But otherwise, it has been great so far. I splurged a bit on heated leather seats and a sunroof, but it still cost me under $16k. Moral of the story is you don't need to spend a lot on the basics of life to be happy. I'd much rather spend money on travel and time with friends versus where I live, as long as I have a reasonable roof over my head in a safe place. We all get so caught up in what society tells us we should have that we forget that we're just hurting ourselves in the long run by failing to save.

 

Tell us how you have grown your accounts thus far to more than $250k.

I actually have tracked this from pretty much 0 to where I am today publicly both on my blog and on my NetworthIQ account. It has been extremely motivating to watch my net worth chart grow throughout the past 10 years. My savings started out slow... I think I had $10k early on that I had put aggressively into the stock market in 2007, and then the recession hit and I lost a lot of it.

Instead of giving up on investing when I lost a few thousand dollars in 2008, I knew that down markets were the time that you're supposed to invest, so instead of getting scared out of the market, I tried to invest every penny I could when the market was down. I managed to pick up a few jobs throughout the years where I was able to earn higher and higher hourly rates and at times work over 40 hours per week, so my savings would be very large in one year and not so large in another.

My account growth has been due largely to putting most of my savings into the stock market. I didn't have access to a 401(k) until I was in my mid 20s (and never had a "match" in any company I worked for), so I had to figure out saving on my own. $17.5k per year is not going to be enough to reach my retirement goal. I focused on maxing out my Roth IRA each year I was eligible as well. One trick I find that worked is towards the end of the year, I try my best to be more frugal and increase my cash savings, and then the first few months of each year I take out a large chunk of my paycheck to put directly into my 401(k). I'm typically maxed out of my 401(k) by April of each year. This is important also because if you happen to leave a job, you can no longer contribute to the 401(k), so I like to have the security of being maxed out as soon as possible in the year, as long as I have an emergency fund available to help me survive a few months without a job.

Once I maxed out my 401(k) and my Roth IRA, I looked to other investment options. I could never afford a house where I live, so the next best option was putting my money into the stock market. I put a chunk into AAPL stock before it grew and then realized how overweight I was in it, so I took some out to buy my car. I don't recommend investing in individual companies unless you are a risk taker. I invest in individual companies with about 30% of my savings, so I feel like I have my pulse on the market and can better understand investing, while 70% is in Vanguard funds. I realized that if I have $10k per Vanguard fund, I have a much lower expense ratio, so I focused on getting above that threshold in the funds I invest in and, viola, super low expense ratios.

In my late 20s, I decided that I would make a goal to achieve a $50k growth in my account every year, including both investment and interest. When the markets went down, I spent a little less for the month and put more cash into my Vanguard funds and other investments. When they were up, I'd invest a little less and spend more on a night out to eat. It ended up working out so far. I am by no means an investing expert or advisor (I probably take more risk than I should), but you can see exactly what I invest in today on my website.

 

What tips can you offer individuals living in areas where the cost of living is higher than the national average? For instance, how do people manage to create budgets that work for them and allow for that higher cost of living?

As I noted earlier, the most important thing to do is to spend less than you earn and to earn more than you spend. When you live in an area that has a high cost of living, there's good along with the bad. The bad is that rents are high and general cost of living is high. The good is that you generally can negotiate for larger salaries and benefits because it's just so expensive to live.

What you need to do, especially as a single person in your 20s (assuming you are a single person in your 20s), is to focus on reducing your fixed monthly expenses while increasing your income. One thing I found is that many people in their 20s, especially women, will negotiate to whatever they are currently spending on life. Just pretend you have a two-bedroom apartment and a new car payment and a kid - what would that cost you in order to be comfortable and still save a reasonable amount per month? Negotiate for that amount. Always imagine your life costs more than it does. Then make sure it never costs that much. Put the difference directly into your investments.

 

You say that every cent counts. Please talk about how individuals spend too much on small items thinking they do not matter in the long run.

I'm not what one would call a "frugal" personal finance blogger, which is the trend in the space. I often get comments on my blog noting that I am silly for spending too much on any given item, but to that I say what matters is the end result, not how you got there. I set fairly aggressive goals, and I reach them or come close and make up for any annual misses the next year.

One of the reasons my blog has always stood out in the personal finance space is that I write about how I sometimes spend a lot when I shouldn't. I don't buy fancy things, but I'm known to leave Nordstrom with a $1000 receipt and a bag full of two pairs of jeans and a few shirts. I'm also not the type of person to say, "Don't buy that Latte that you love if it makes you happy." You have to do what is right for you. I've traveled the world, but I haven't stayed at luxury resorts. I went on a trip to Southeast Asia that was amazing, and other than the flight, the trip was rather inexpensive. I also was fortunate enough to work abroad occasionally and tacked on a weekend or a extra couple of days in a nearby city to explore Europe, which has helped me see the world and keep costs down. That said, I highly recommend spending your money on experiences, not things, as the experiences will be what you remember and value most in the long term (especially the ones you have in your 20s).

I also really like Ramit Sethi's approach to earning and saving. I've never been involved in his paid programs, but his general pitch is that you need to figure out how to earn more each month versus worrying about cutting costs a dollar here and there. I agree with that. Figure out what you're good at and do it. There are lots of ways today to make extra money even if you can't get a raise at your job and you don't want to look for a new gig. There's Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit and lots of companies which pay you to help others out. It's more important to figure out how you can earn more money versus being obsessive about savings.

So why did I name my blog "Her Every Cent Counts"? When I was 21 and making the blog, I put it together as an exercise to remind my shopaholic self not to spend all of my money, and then some, on things I don't need. I never designed the blog to be read by many other people, but I made it public so I could hold myself accountable for sticking to my goals. However, looking at how compound interest can grow every dollar, it's a reminder that every item bought today is an even bigger prize I won't see tomorrow. That motivates me to save more. I know I'll get to the point in life where I can live off interest, and then I can keep working and not have to worry about my finances as much. That's my end goal.

 

How do you manage to make your own wealth grow so quickly? For instance, you wanted $250k by 30, which you accomplished, and want to have $500k by 35. That is such a large amount of money it seems many individuals would find it impossible. How do you make this possible?

I started out at 0 versus negative, as explained earlier, so this helps. But no matter what you start with, one can grow their wealth quickly if they put their mind to it AND have skills that others find valuable. For example, I'm a writer, though I didn't realize it before I entered the workforce, and writing is a highly-valued skill these days in business. Well, there are lots of writers, but there aren't that many good writers. Figure out what you're good at. If you're an extrovert and great on the phone, think about going into sales. If you want to work in a job with limited pay like teaching or social work, think about how you can add value to bring in some extra cash on the side via tutoring. Or just live somewhere it doesn't cost an arm and a leg for rent so you can still save. No matter what, saving is possible when you're child-free and working. Once you have kids, it gets more complicated, so save, save, save while you're still single!

While I moved away from home and spent $480 a month on rent my first year out of college, someone with student loans could choose to live at home (if they are able to) and not spend the extra on rent. That does limit job selection, so I wouldn't recommend it. The most important thing is to change jobs every couple of years. This is the opposite of what our parents taught us, but it's a requirement to get ahead in many careers in today's economy. (There are some jobs where loyalty is handsomely rewarded, so this is of course a case-by-case situation.)

I remember when I thought $50k net worth was impossible, and when I thought $100k was impossible, and $200k, and $250k, and so on. Right now $500k seems like some ridiculous amount, yet when I run the numbers, it's no longer impossible. I'm very fortunate in that I've managed to grow professionally into senior roles where I'm earning what I consider a good salary, but I'm not turning around and spending it all on a fancy car or amazing apartment. I still keep my cost of living low so I can save. I figure I'll spend a little more once I have kids in my mid 30s, as I'd like to own a house at some point, but for now all I care about is how much can I save and how much can I invest as fast as possible?

 

In your experience, what have been the biggest challenges to your budget? How have you addressed these issues?

I've never been the type of person to budget. This was the biggest challenge. Using a tool like Mint to carefully track my spending made me have to face the reality around how much I was wasting spending time at the mall and walking away with "finds" from the sale rack. I also realized that I was spending over $800 a month on food, which is absolutely ridiculous. Moving in with my boyfriend, while my rent increased, helped me drastically reduce my food costs. I've also tried to avoid the mall more often than not. I track my net worth twice a month in a Google spreadsheet, and when I notice it dropping, I remind myself to not spend a lot until it's back on track towards my goal. I'm a little obsessive about it, but it's a fun hobby, and it's exciting to see my net worth grow.

 

Please share anything you would like individuals to know regarding increasing wealth and saving money.

The first $100k is the hardest. If you are in your 20s and are single, childless and able to find employment, getting to $100k will take time and commitment, but you can do it. If you have kids or other responsibilities, then I cannot speak to this, as I did not have that experience and am sure it's a lot harder to manage earning, saving, and affording taking care of children. But if you can, spend less than you earn and focus on earning more.

Sure, spending less than you earn is easier said that done, but I'm living proof that it's possible. I've had a lot of lucky breaks, but I've also had a lot of times when things didn't go my way. Don't be afraid of failure, and accept that you have to fail in order to succeed. Become known for what you do best. Market yourself and push yourself. You can do anything you put your mind to, within reason. Set reasonable, small goals en route to a bigger goal. I highly recommend tracking these in Mint using their goals feature (which, by the way, is designed mostly for getting out of debt, but can also be used for savings goals).

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