Where Were You At 23?

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I recently turned 23 this past October so I decided to reach out to other personal finance, early retirement, and freedom-seeking bloggers to ask them a simple question: 

“Where were you at 23?”

I was curious to see where other bloggers were at financially as well as if financial independence was even on their mind at this age or not. Here are the responses I received:


Financial Samurai:

At age 23 I was getting my butt kicked working in Manhattan for a major investment bank. I shared a studio with another dude, splitting the $1,800 a month rent. The studio was three blocks away from work so I could minimize my travel time since I had to get in by 5:30am! After realizing how brutal the work hours were, I decided to save as much as I could so I could one day retire early and live a more stress-free life.

In retrospect, I’m thankful for having to work 14 hour days early on because it gave me the fire to FIRE. If I got a regular 9-to-5 job, I probably wouldn’t have saved and invested so much to be free.


Root of Good:

At 23 I was just finishing grad school and starting my first full time job after college.  This is really the time when I started on my journey to Financial Independence and eventual early retirement at age 33.  At the time we had just purchased what we thought would be our starter home but ended up being our permanent home.  We focused on paying down the mortgage and after 12 years paid it off in full just after I retired.  At 23 we had a pair of relatively new paid off Honda sedans that we drove for 13 more years.

Once I started full time work at age 23, I managed to save about half of my income. At first I invested with Edward Jones but soon realized I could gain access to much lower cost investments at Vanguard and made the switch.  The focus on saving, investing, paying down the mortgage, and driving the same cars our entire working careers got us to early retirement in our 30’s.  You can read more about our climb from zero to millionaire in ten years here.


Choose Better Life:

I was fortunate to finish college at age 22 with no debt thanks to a few wonderful scholarships and several part-time jobs. Then I started med school. I acquired a mortgage and a ginormous student loan all in the same week. I felt sick. But it was good debt, they said…

Over the next four years, that student loan debt quadrupled. I had grown up in a frugal family and those habits served me well, but there were so many zeros that the numbers didn’t even seem real.

There are some life paths that are very difficult to pursue without acquiring student loans. If that’s the only future you can see for yourself, go for it with gusto! But live frugally and pay off your debts the moment you’re able. The fancy car can wait. You’re actually buying back your freedom to live by your values and choose your priorities. Remember to care for yourself and your family because life can be short, and if you don’t, those are the things you’ll regret the most. If you’re healthy and happy, you’ll be of so much more service to the world than if you aren’t. Choose what’s important to you and hold it tight. Best of luck!


J. Money:

At 23 I didn’t know anything about anything relating to money, other than I REALLY wanted a lot of it and I was hoping it would magically come some how without much work on my behalf 🙂 Now – over 10 years later – I’m thankful that not only have I started paying attention to my finances and grown my net worth from around $20,000 to over $500,000, but that I *appreciate* what money can do and no longer chase it just to “be rich,” but more to gain *freedom*. The freedom to, ironically enough, never have to think about money again if I don’t want 🙂

At either rate, if you’re in your early-mid 20s right now and on this blog reading this sentence – GOOD JOB!!! You are smarter than 90% of the world out there who sometimes never figure it out! Keep reading $$$ blogs and working towards your dreams.


Mixed Up Money:

At 23, I was dealing with two maxed credit cards, renting a place I could not afford, and struggling at a job in a toxic workplace. I decided to make a change, ended up receiving a full scholarship to go back to school, and completely changed my life. Since then, my financial situation has been the thing I care most about in my life. Sometimes a drastic change is all it takes to realize what you need to make you happy.


Mr. Free At 33:

At 23 years old, I was completely broke. Two years prior, my mother committed suicide, I dropped out of college, and received an inheritance (from my grandmother) of about $60,000. By the time I was 23, however, I had wasted all the money. I was also unemployed. Oh, and I had student loan debt that had breached $30,000. Personal finance was definitely not on my mind. And I wouldn’t start my journey toward early retirement for another four years. But hitting rock bottom means you can only go up. And great things can and do come from very humble beginnings. I never lost hope. And I never gave up my optimism. 


Making Sense of Cents:

At age 23, I was in a confusing place. I had started my blog around 1-2 years before then, and was struggling between working at the job I disliked or leaving my job for the blogging business that I had created and love. I also had debt, student loan debt, and was graduating with my Finance MBA. It was a whirlwind of a year, and by the age of 24 I had fully paid off my student loan debt and left my day job as a financial analyst to blog full-time. It’s crazy how much life changed in just one year!


The Retirement Manifesto:

Fritz from The Retirement Manifesto started his career immediately after college (@ 22), and by Age 23 had just made his first corporate relocation from Ohio to Texas.  He was living in an apartment, and was saving aggressively for a down payment on his first home, which he would buy one year later.  He was saving 20% of his pay, and attributes this early aggressive saving as the #1 reason why he’s now looking at retirement by the age of 55. 

His advice to folks in their early-mid 20’s, “Live like you’re still a broke college kid.  Spend less than you earn, and automate your savings.  Avoid debt, don’t buy it if you can’t pay in cash (yes, that means you’ll have to drive that old college clunker a few more years). Avoid lifestyle inflation, and save 2/3 of every raise over the next 10 years (e.g., if you get a 3% raise, increase your savings rate by 2%, and only let 1% additional flow into your checking account).  Get it right now, while you have the power of time and compounding to work for you.  Don’t make excuses, no one cares about your personal finance situation more than you do, now is the time to take ownership.  You’ll lean back when you’re an old man like me (53) and be very, very thankful that you took the right steps when you were in your 20’s.”


Rob Berger at Dough Roller:

At 23 I was in law school. While I had no debt from college, I did start borrowing for law school and finished with $55,000 of school loans. This was in 1992, so that debt today would easily be north of $100k. My wife and I have done just fine since then, but I wish I had handled my finances differently. We could have finished school with much less debt if I had been better with money back then. I guess the good news is that we call all make financial mistakes, learn from them, and then succeed.


Miss Mazuma:

The day I turned 23 was 18 days after arguably the worst day in US history – 9/11/01.  A week after my birthday, I was set to leave for for Dallas for 5 weeks of flight attendant training which meant I had already quit my job and sublet my apartment.  When 9/11 hit, all training classes were put on an indefinite hold, leaving me reeling with not only grief for our country and it’s people, but a shameful amount of selfish worry in regards to my future since the airline industry was now in complete disarray.  My worries were unwarranted.  Once the dust settled I was called back and given a new start date 2 weeks later than the other and, without caution, officially jumped head first into the crazy circus act I call my job.  Steady paycheck, unstable lifestyle…everything a 23 year old wishes for!  I could travel, afford my own place, and even save!  Life was awesome…but what I didn’t realize was how quickly that could change.

I was blissfully unaware that I was on the cusp of the biggest financial disaster, I can safely say, I will ever be in for the rest of my life.  In a year I would buy my first condo.  A year later I would sell it and buy another in the city…you know, to be closer to friends and all the fun the city promises a 25 year old single gal.  Within the next 3 years I would buy 2 more condos and 2 years after those, I would buy a house.  The tale is twisted and sorted, as one can imagine, but in total at 33 I woke up in 500k of mortgage debt and my world collapsing all around me.  I went from crazy happy with a new job and posse to deeply depressed with an elephant’s weight of debt crushing the breath right out of me.  And all it took was 10 years….   Today I am 38 years old.  Now that I am completely over it, financially and emotionally speaking, I have realized what a difference 5 years can make!!  All of the pain, shame, and financial stupidity I endured has made me a stronger, richer, and more compassionate person.  If I could go back and tell myself one thing at 23, it would be that building wealth takes time.  Go slow.  DO NOT LEVERAGE YOUR CURRENT INCOME AGAINST THE FUTURE.  There are too many outside factors at work that you can’t control.  And if you do find yourself in my position 10 years later – there is hope.  Keep your head up, dig your heels in.  You got yourself into it and you can get yourself out of it.  😉


Financial Panther:

At 23, I had just graduated from college and moved back home with my parents.  It was a pretty sweet time in retrospect.  I had no rent and barely any living expenses other than the cost of going out to bars and restaurants with my buddies.  I graduated college in the midst of the financial crisis, so like most people my age, I couldn’t find a real job.  Instead, I worked about 60 hours a week making basically minimum wage between two low wage jobs.  Things like Uber and Postmates didn’t exist yet.  If they had, I’d totally have done those gigs instead of working regular jobs.  A big bummer was that I didn’t know anything about money.  If I had, I’d probably have tried to save some money in a Roth IRA, especially since I could’ve bought on the cheap.


Physician on FIRE:

In 1999, Blink 182 had a hit with What’s My Age Again, the one that goes “Nobody likes you when you’re 23…” I was 23, and unliked, apparently. I had managed to graduate from undergrad debt-free thanks to a full-tuition and other scholarships, and a bit of a college fund set up when my grandfather passed. I finished my first year of medical school and started year two that year. I was starting to take on debt for the first time in my life, and it stayed with me for nearly fifteen years. It was good debt, though, as it allowed me to become a physician. With a doctor’s salary, I had no trouble paying off those student loans.


Stealthy Wealth:

At 23 I definitely was not thinking of Financial Independence, but I would say I was sort of on the right track. I was in my second year of working after graduating, and had relocated which meant that I needed to sort out my own housing and car.

I did some things right:

  • Bought the cheapest car which would meet my needs
  • Had a lift club with some colleagues, which meant I only drove to work every third or so week. 
  • I ran a strict monthly budget every month and I was pretty good at sticking to it, often ending a month under budget
  • I didn’t spend a lot at all, and any money left over at the end of each month was put into my car loan with the goal of squashing it asap.
  • Rented a very cheap Granny Cottage – so cheap that I had to walk out my lounge, across a little patch of grass and into a separate building to get to my kitchen. But hey I was a bachelor… 🙂

Some things I did wrong:

  • The cheap car from above was bought new (I wish I bought a second hand car rather)
  • The money I was paying extra “into my car loan” was actually just going into a linked savings account, I didn’t know that I still needed to then transfer that money from the savings account into the car loan. I only found this out around a year later when I wrote the car off and needed to settle the loan with the insurance money. A stupid oversight on my part, and yes maybe the banker who set up the car loan didn’t give me all the information, but I also should have been checking!

I think I had all the right ingredients going for a Early Retirement Cake back then, but I was kinda stuck just going through the recipe without focusing on what the cake might look like. I was spending and investing wisely, and my priorities were right, but I didn’t even really know what financial independence was back then and so I didn’t really have an end goal to focus on. So for you to be thinking about it at such a young age makes me believe you are on the path to greatness. You deserve a pat on the back for that!


Conclusion

I want to thank all the bloggers who participated in this post and were willing to share where they were at financially at 23 years old. It’s fascinating to see the wide variety of experiences and circumstances everyone was in, as well as some of the mistakes and lessons they learned along the way. I think it proves the point that there is no cookie-cutter path to financial independence and it’s certainly possible to get back on the right track financially despite how many mistakes you’ve made.


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24 Replies to “Where Were You At 23?”

  1. This is awesome to see all these financial bloggers were like back in the day. I agree with you that there is no cookie-cutter path. Mistakes will be made and curve balls will get thrown at you. I love what Miss Mazuma said “You got yourself into it and you can get yourself out of it” because it gives hope that even if the problem does seem overwhelming it can be overcome. Thanks for compiling this!

  2. Hey Zach – great idea, and really interesting to see where all of my blogging peers were at 23. An honor to be included with the Rockstar class you “interviewed” for your story. Fascinating how we all had different stories in our 20’s, yet all have moved on to success with personal finance as the treadmill of life rolled on.

    For any of you 20-somethings reading this, take the best of the best from above, and apply them to your lives. When all of us “old folks” have Alzheimer’s and don’t know what a blog is, you can backfill our spots and keep the world moving forward on the important issues of personal finance!

  3. What a fun post! And you got some serious talent to weigh in. Did you pay all of them $100, or just me? 😉

    Great to see where you all were at 23. I had no concept of financial independence or retiring early back then. I was just trying to get through school and partying like it was 1999. Because it was 1999.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  4. Thank you so much for including me! Love this compilation and it helped to get to know my fellow bloggers younger selves…you’re definitely right – no cookie cutter path to FI. 😉

  5. Oh man! It’s nice to see there are a few other whippersnappers in the FIRE arena. I’m 24 and turning 25 next month (already?!?!). When I was 23 I was just starting with my FIRE journey. Mr. Picky Pincher and I had a crapton of debt and no way of saving for a house down payment.

    My, how things change. 🙂

  6. Very interesting to read about everyone’s situation back in the good old days. Awesome idea for a blog post and thanks for allowing me to be a part of it!

    All the best to everyone for 2017.

  7. Ah, the good ‘ol days of being young an full of energy and hope! Cherish your youth. It will go by quicker than you realize.

    The first million might just be the easiest due to the boundless energy and risk taking one should have then!

    Sam

  8. Man nice work here with compiling this list of bloggers! What a kick-ass list, impressed you reached out to these people 🙂

    Loving that you’re also so young and looking forward to watching your journey. Being 27 now myself, it’s great to see someone as motivated as you

    Keen to see how your goals and visions develop! Keep up the great work

  9. Very cool. Thanks for putting this together. At 23 I was just starting a job in the world of public accounting. Working 70-80 hour weeks auditing public and private companies. It was an incredibly demanding job, but it was great experience and I made some good contacts that allowed me to land my current gig. I learned hard work and to never complain because there is always someone working harder than you!

  10. Oh, I loved reading this! It’s cool to see where people were when they were just starting out in the adult world. Each of the people talked about mess-ups and mishaps and lessons learned! I’m turning 23 this year!

  11. Always enjoy your blog…and was fun reading others’ perspectives. The only thing I might quibble with is one bloggers belief that 9/11 was the worst day in American history. Perhaps that’s true if you ignore the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or America’s entry into the Civil War, just to name two.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, all of you!

      1. Miss Mazuma is correct. Don’t leverage your future. But , But you can catch up at any age. I did it starting at 48 years in Honolulu as a flight attendant as well. The key is save 65 percent or more of your pay. Do the hard decisions to make it work. go 6 years and watch your life and finances go to the miracle level. This FIRE isn’t just for the young. Its really about 10 years to freedom for any age!!

        1. I LOVE that “go 6 years and watch your life and finances go to the miracle level”, such an excellent point. The math behind the savings rate works at ANY age, this is so easy to forget. No matter how old you are or how many mistakes you’ve made you can likely turn it all around financially much quicker than you think.

  12. Nice work!
    It makes me feel a total noob.
    In Italy we grow up thinking “yeaah, you’re not even 30… just stay at home and enjoy the sun – and complain, you must ALWAYS complain”. I became 23 in year 2000, not that close to complete my master study and far from all of my subsequent dream jobs.

    Thanks for having shared all these amazing stories!

  13. At age 23 I had just completed my master’s degree and my father offered to help me set up a budget in which I could retire early. I didn’t understand what he meant, didn’t want to restrict my fun, and turned him down. Now, one month away from being 45, I continue to think “oh why???” and “can I influence my child to not do the same???” while I inch ever closer to retiring early but not EARLY.
    Oh well, I did have fun those first 18 years before I got serious about this. And at least I didn’t make too many big mistakes…

  14. Great post, and very interesting variation in the responses.

    At 23, I had graduated, just got married and bought a house (with a mortgage of 3 times our joint gross income!). No savings worth talking about, but no debt except mortgage, and mortgage was only 80% of value. Our car was 20 years old…
    By 30, I had 2 kids, a bigger house, a bigger mortgage (but now only 50% of value), a savings pot of about 25% our income, one 5 year old car, one new one.
    Then we made a decision that was both good and bad, we started paying for private schooling. That was a major branch in the road. The kids benefited, but without that our savings level would have grown fast, and FIRE would have been a reality within 10 years.
    However by 56, FIRE had happened anyway, both kids had graduated with no debt and settled in good jobs. We have the money to live life in retirement to the full…..

    Knowing, what we now know, we might have made different decisions, and certainly retired earlier, but the key habits that kept us on the path
    were
    – no debt, except mortgage on the house we lived in, and we paid that down as soon as we could
    – living within our means
    – a healthy level of saving

  15. What a great list of bloggers! I guess I was one of the lucky ones at 23 because I had no student debt and lived at home after finding a job at my hometown out of college. The only regret I have was that I didn’t not save more when I had the chance. I’ve only discovered FI idea a few months ago and glad it isn’t too late for me.

  16. Thank you for putting this all together. It’s amazing to read how different everyone was at the point and all comes together to hit their goals in FI.

  17. I’m so excited about this question – because the month I turned 23 was my rock bottom for my net worth.

    I had graduated from college early that year, and dedicated my savings to a fund to move to a new city – a much more expensive area. Unemployment was really high (thanks to the 2008 financial crisis), and I was looking for work and taking pretty much what I could get. I ended up taking an independent contractor gig at $9/hour that month, which turned into my first post-college job, and then I was off to the races. But that month, the month I turned 23, I had a net worth of negative -$38,901.

    It took me four and a half years to claw my way up to $0 from there!

  18. I was in graduate school at the time I was 23. I had no debt. I had a car in good working order. I was single. Although the stipend as a graduate student assistant was small, I still managed to save a little from month to month. As I grew older, I was not initially concerned with (early) financial independence per se; I was only concerned with having enough for a future retirement (as of around 1985) because I was aware then of the coming retirement problem (and social security) in the future (which is now) for boomers due to an article I came across by chance in the early 1980s.
    Fast forward to 2013 when I found myself ready to retire at 57, but realizing that I would not thrive with such a large amount of free time on my hands. Plus, I have a couple of young-ish kids still at home. I work part-time now in a couple of jobs that I enjoy with much less pressure than before. I could stop working and live modestly, but I am not confident yet that the US is going to resolve its financial problems at the Federal, State, and local levels any time soon, not to mention various public pension deficits, SS (again) and Medicare. Recall the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The best and most unusual advice I learned is that your best retirement asset is yourself. If you keep up your marketable skills and you will be able to provide your own income. God is not often mentioned in these columns, either but I have found truly that if you honor Him, He will take care of you and provide blessings both material and immaterial.

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