9 Steps to Financial Freedom

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MM Note: This is a guest post from 29-year-old Millennial Money reader Todd Kunsman. To learn more about creating financial freedom, check out the Financial Freedom Podcast, and my book Financial Freedom: A Proven Path To All The Money You Will Ever Need
Back in 2013, I found myself living in an apartment I could barely afford, with student loans, and a car loan — which doesn’t leave much room for saving. Essentially after all my bills were paid each month, I’d have about $50 in my checking account left. Not good.

9 steps to financial freedomEvery day I hoped to not have some kind of emergency expense come up and as many people know, that is a terrible feeling to have. Worrying about money sucks.

(Note: I did have a small company 401k started, but I knew very little about it and was contributing like 2%, not even enough for the company match (SMH). I also did have about $900 in my bank savings account, but still not where I wanted to be financially.)

But I also wasn’t completely ignorant to understanding finances. I understood the value of a savings account and building good credit (thanks Dad for the knowledge when I was a young buck), but I was definitely not making the best choices to ensure I was not living paycheck to paycheck.

However, in late 2014 and early 2015 I started changing my perspective and figuring out how I could improve my financial situation and I knew I needed to take charge.

While I am not completely financially free (yet), I’ve been able to:

  1. reduce over $50,000 of debt (student loan debt + car loan) down to less than $8,500, with the plan is to be fully paid off by 2018,
  2. build a Vanguard account with over $35,000 (Brokerage + Roth IRa + Rollover IRA),
  3. and still have additional savings in the bank for an emergency fund.
todd vanguard balance

I take screenshots of my bank account like Grant did to visualize my progress!

While it may not seem like a lot, a majority of my millennial friends have far less, and there are plenty of people much older than me that also have very little in savings. So I am proud of how much I have accomplished so far. With the path I have set for myself, I’m planning to have enough to be financially free in less than five years.

“Financial freedom means not having to worry about money.”

Additionally, I have a more aggressive goal to have the opportunity to retire much sooner than the average retirement age. Hopefully, this post encourages and inspires you to take control just like I did. Anyone can start achieving the levels of financial freedom and the below are 8 steps will help you get there, even if you are starting out with little to no financial knowledge.

9 Steps to Financial Freedom

1. Shift to a net-worth mindset and start tracking your net-worth (the most important number in personal finance)

While your income, your savings rate, your investment returns, your debt to income ratio, and all those other numbers are important when optimizing your money, the single most important metric that you should be tracking is your net-worth. Your net-worth measures how much money you are worth by subtracting your liabilities (debt/what you owe) from your assets (what you own that has value, your cash, and investments). It doesn’t matter how much money you make or how much money you save if your net-worth isn’t going up. This was a big early mistake I made, so start tracking your net-worth today.

Start Tracking Your Net Worth For Free (ASAP)

2. Track where your money is going

After you start tracking your net-worth, you need to track where your money is going. Whether this is student loans, bills, food, entertainment, etc.

This might not be the most exciting thing to do, but is CRUCIAL and actually does get more exciting the more money you are making (and seeing your investments grow!) Knowing where your money is going is more important than budgeting – it’s about accountability and adopting an optimization mindset. It really can put your spending in perspective.

I will admit, I’m not a huge fan of fancy budget spreadsheets, so I just use free tracking apps like Personal Capital.

Then once a month I used the data and wrote down every bill and loan I had with the numbers next to them (some obviously varied slightly from month to month) along with every time I spent money on going out, food, clothes, etc. You’d be surprised at the things you catch that have affected your spending over the last year. Slight tweaks and adjustments can make all the difference in the amount you save. This was how I was able to identify how much money interest my student and car loans were accumulating and then identified it was critical for me to start paying them down rapidly.

3. Keep building new skills / improve your career value

When I first started working after college in 2010, I had little skills other than what I learned in my classes and having previously worked at a grocery store. Most degrees are not going to give you a six-figure salary right away, in fact, in 2017, the average salary for a recent college graduate is just under $50,000.

Not bad though, right? However, I do not know too many people that are even making close to that right after college, but environmental factors (where you live), type of degree, etc. can affect that number. I was lucky in 2010 to get a job about a month after graduation, but it was a starting salary of $30,000 — nothing too glamorous.

Then in 2014, I was let go from my job (my department was being consolidated) and it was just a few weeks shy of Christmas (Thanks Santa!). But luckily, I was looking for additional side income just before this was happening so I was making some money on the side still.

While I was nervous and scrambling to figure out what to do for full-time work, I began looking into digital marketing (I already had a blog about music that got me into SEO, analytics, etc.) and how I could improve my overall career worth. I wanted to find a job in something that I was really starting to enjoy as well as improve my future salary options. Here are the best skills to learn for the future.

This led me to learn and acquire free certifications for Google Adwords, Google Analytics, and HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing Certification. Of course, this required studying and using the programs on my own, but once I passed everything I was able to significantly boost my employment credibility.

Now you aren’t going to make huge money overnight, but this led me to find remote work with start-ups that were willing to give me a chance. Sometimes you may have to be an intern or even work for free, but that experience and knowledge will add so much value to your resume.

Within 3 months of being let go, I was working for three different companies remotely in digital marketing that not only paid my bills, but allowed me to build a network of new contacts, and led to a new career path. In those three years since I’m now a Digital Marketing Senior Manager at a great software company called EveryoneSocial and I provide digital marketing consulting for other companies and startups that all improved my career worth.

Yet, you do not have to pursue digital marketing. There are many other career changes you can make that will lead you to advancements in your career and salary, but you’ll have to put in the work yourself to make it happen. But with so many great free resources online, you can improve your career without having to go back to school.

4. Diversify your income streams and start a side hustle

Being that we are in the 21st century, it’s so easy to build a side hustle. It’s an amazing time to be alive and to find ways to make money. If you haven’t yet checked out Gary Vaynerchuck, you definitely should. While not everything he says is groundbreaking, just watch some of his videos about creating side income and you’ll be inspired.

Here are some places that can help you make side income or even potentially full-time income, but do not expect to make thousands of dollars instantly, but know that it’s definitely possible.

  • AngelList – Full-time, Part-time, Contract, Freelance work
  • Remote – Full-time, Part-time, Contract, Freelance work
  • eBay – Sell things or drop ship
  • Amazon – Sell things or drop ship
  • Etsy – sell your art, crafts, etc.
  • Flippa – Buy a business or starter website
  • CrowdSpring – Freelance design work
  • Make money blogging – ads, affiliate links, reviews, paid posts, etc.

Learn more:

5. Pay Yourself First

But I have bills due! One mindset that makes saving money easier is to pay yourself first. It was a concept I first read about in Rich Dad Poor Dad and I thought it was really interesting. The author essentially stated that he would save as much as possible before any bills were due and would leave just enough to make sure he had no late payments on bills.

Now, I don’t recommend waiting to the last minute and digging through couch cushions for change to pay a bill, but I did like the concept of paying yourself before all else.

I started small, about 10% each paycheck would be taken out for my savings accounts. Half would go to my Vanguard retirement account and the other half to my savings. Then, I kept increasing it and diversifying where the money went. Anytime I go a raise or made side hustle income, I would do the exact same thing as soon as it cleared in my bank account. Now, I’m on track to save 30% this year of my overall income, which I would like to increase to 40% by next year.

By paying myself first I was able to accomplish two goals – being able to invest and then spend less overall since there was less money in my account after the month was over. I made sure that savings were definitely happening, and I had peace of mind that money was actually being saved. The great thing is, once you get this started with the right funds, you then have it automatically taken out, which is even less work for you to manage.

6. Be An Investor Not A Consumer

A majority of people in this world are consumers and not investors. But investing is essential to building wealth. While there are many great investing strategies, I am a huge fan of Vanguard and index fund investing.

When most people get a raise or have extra money, we look to buy things that are not going to add much to our overall wealth. Money goes to new fancy cars, boats, clothes, you name it. While consumer spending is not necessarily a bad thing, you have to narrow this down, be selective,  and ask yourself, “Will this purchase add value to my financial freedom?” Most likely the answer will be no. I ask myself this almost everytime I get the urge to buy something that I do not necessarily need at the time. This allowed me to free up hundreds of dollars a month that I could put to better use and in places that can provide me with some additional income.

Some ways I put money to work instead through investing:

  • Vanguard Roth IRA for retirement
  • Vanguard Brokerage account for additional savings and returns
  • Savings account for an emergency fund
  • Fundrise for getting into more real estate diversification (eREITs)
  • Real Estate (Rentals, house flips, and to build equity)

7. Find Mentors (Friends, Family, Online Experts)

This might be one of the most important tips when it comes to financial success. Find a mentor or mentors and really pay attention to everything they do. Even if you are unsure if they will work with you, reach out and ask as many questions as you can. You will likely be really surprised by how much older experienced people are willing to teach and help you.

If you do not have any friends or family that are mentor worthy in your eyes, look online for experts and even if you do not reach out to them, follow their blogs and advice (Note: do not blindly follow advice though, always do your own research on top of what you are learning from others).

I was fortunate enough to have two friends who I’ve known for quite some time who are financially free and have been since their mid-twenties. I gravitated towards them and learned from them how they make income besides running their business and where they put their money to work. We still talk about investment opportunities, real estate, and various ways to make money.

8. Just keep reading

As a kid, I loved reading and being able to choose a new book from the library was the highlight of my childhood. Then something changed, I got to high school and college and reading felt more like a chore. I was rarely reading, except for the occasional blog or required textbook for school. Even after graduating, I never picked up a book much, especially about finances!

However, as I started this journey, I realized how essential reading was to developing my financial IQ. There is nothing that has a higher ROI (return on investment) in my opinion, than reading a book. In 2017 alone, I’ve already read 8 financial books, which have given me ideas that I am confident will make me a ton of money over time.

Now I’m moving on to books about real estate and business, all which are relevant to improving my finances and how to generate more income.

Here are some of the blogs and best books on money that I’ve read. I am also now starting to read through Grant’s best money books.

9. Patience

Being patient has been tough, but I know that I’m on the right track and the more I can save and invest the faster I will reach financial independence. Many of you may be reading this and wonder why I only have $35,000+ in Vanguard savings when I’ve been at this for almost 3 years. But I was starting from not only zero, I owed over $50,000, so I’m excited how far I’ve come in just 3 years! I had to not only invest time building my knowledge, but improve my career to the point where I could make a solid income and side income, and then start investing that money. Now it’s all about patience and optimization.

The cool thing is with compound interest and continuing to invest like I am, the growth of my account is just starting to have an exponential curve – where the rate of my investing returns are starting to accelerate. Seeing more of my efforts coming together in the next few years will it make all worth it.

So don’t be discouraged, even if you are only saving a few dollars a month, it all adds up, and in a few years you’ll look back proudly at your accomplishments. Honestly, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. This stuff really works.

Final Thoughts

Creating financial freedom takes time up front, but the more you learn, the less time it ends up taking. I always find at least 20 minutes every day to read about money and I’ve learned so much in just the past year.

The amount of content may seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll start to see the bigger picture and everything will begin to make sense. There is this stigma around finances that it is complicated and the industry wants you to think it is too. But when you get down to it, it’s not that complicated. There are tried and true methods.

I’m glad I started looking at this when I was in my mid-twenties more closely, but of course, now I wish I knew all this info when I was even younger. So don’t wait, don’t put it off, start right now. And while I may not be able to retire next year or even in five years, I am well on my way to being financially free well before the average retirement age. Let’s do it!

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  • A Financial Bucket List for Millennials and Generation Z People says:

    […] may seem unattainable, but it’s true: Financial freedom can be yours if you’re willing to work hard to obtain it. Thankfully, most of the tips in this article […]

  • Comment Author image blank Sarah Kozak says:

    Great article Grant! — and selfishly it makes me happy because this validates that I am on track! 😉 I am 26 and will be debt free will begin investing by the end of this year. My birthday is in Dec. so I consider that a gift to myself 🙂

  • Comment Author image blank sultan morbiwala says:

    yes, i like the final thoughts especially. Learning about money is the best way to solve financial problems.

  • Comment Author image blank Jump says:

    I love how many millennials are sharing their financial journeys these days. I’m a bit older (31) and recently managed to pay off all my debt, so I know how amazing it feels to finally be free of student loans. I’m cheering all of you on from the internet sidelines!

  • Comment Author image blank Todd Kunsman says:

    @Palmetto – Thanks for the feedback. As far as making a pivot in my career, I just knew I needed to boost my credibility and change the path I was going on. Being in the computer science field, I was already technology driven and knew how important it would continue to be. I just looked into jobs that seem to be hiring the most and closely matched my interests, then looked at what I need to learn to be able to get that job. It wasn’t too difficult because I already knew what I wanted to switch too and enjoy about some of my previous work. For other fields, I’m sure it might be more difficult to figure it out. But keep at it. Advice, really just do your research, make lists of what you enjoy/don’t enjoy, what you’d like to learn more of and just dive in. Creating my own music blog was a huge stepping stone and opened more career choices.

    @Mrs Picky Pincher – Thanks for your point! I see where you are coming from. Agree, you shouldn’t spend all your waking hours working, chasing the almighty dollar. However, I choose side hustles that are only a few hours a week or projects I know that won’t consume my entire life. The reason I advocate for side gigs is because your full-time is never guaranteed. Sure you may be able to survive on some savings, but if anything were to happen to that job, you’re in more of “what am I going to do” mode. I’m not in a panic for work because I have some supplement income still coming in while I continue to find the next gig. Just adds a bit less stress. And no, def don’t want to think negatively about your future job, but something to always be mindful of.

    @Cody – Thanks! Hoping to contribute more to MM!

  • Comment Author image blank Cody @ Dollar Habits says:

    Great article, Todd. Congrats on your success so far! Love the idea for the new series, Grant!

  • Comment Author image blank Mrs. Picky Pincher says:

    I would argue that, if you can increase the value of your full-time gig, it’s probably not necessary to get a side gig. I do think people need some free time to enjoy themselves. Sometimes we get so caught up in raking in an extra $200/mo from side hustles that we don’t realize they’re not always worth the time. So know the most efficient way for you to earn money, first of all. Slashing expenses like a madman doesn’t hurt, either! That’s what enabled us to pay off our debts so quickly.

  • Comment Author image blank Palmetto Millennial says:

    Nice write-up and good inspiration! Thanks for sharing your journey. How did you decide to make a pivot in your career? Was it a difficult decision? Any advice for others who might be considering the same?