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When I take a step back and consider your financial origin story, I don’t disagree at all with your assessment that you’re doing alright. Sure, you racked up some debt, but your income has stabilized and you have a plan going forward. More than anything, what I see is a family that took a while to figure out what it wanted to do career-wise.
I don’t know if you remember this from when we were kids, but I think I always had big aspirations. I don’t remember thinking about getting rich, so it wasn’t about money, but I do remember wanting to do something exciting, like becoming an astronaut or an archeologist (in the mold of Indiana Jones). I haven’t quite made it to space (yet!) or to hidden treasure, but the desire to explore stuck with me.
The other factor is that I always wanted to be really good at something — to be competent, and in that way “successful.” Earning a high income wasn’t the goal, it came about by accident! It took me a while to figure out my career path. I kind of meandered through college and grad school, pursuing my interests, and then found myself in the right place and the right time to land a career starting in 2002, at age 27. Since then, I’ve steadily advanced, and my base salary has ballooned from $39,000 per year to $140,000 now, from around $19 an hour in 2002 to $70 an hour in 2017 (2017 isn’t pictured — the increase is due to a recent promotion).
A note about the charts in this post. The numbers aren’t simply my salary and aren’t exact in terms of total income. I drew the info from tax returns and social security statements, so what you’re looking at is more like Adjusted Gross Income from salary and investments. For example, in 2012 I had a good sized investment gain so that was my highest year. The past 2 years, I’ve been working less than 40 hours a week, which explains the drop.
I’ll add in Mrs. Rich’s income later, but first I want to explain more about my journey, because it was a bit odd, and I think I’ve learned something about education, work, and role models.
So let’s go back to the beginning. The very beginning.
Early Years: Learning, Working, and Following
The Big Bang.
Birth. Obviously! You know this part but for our readers: I was born into a small farming community in Minnesota, the last of 6 kids. The baby of the family, le benjamin as they say in French. The term is a biblical reference — Benjamin was the final son of Jacob by several years. Theology and French will become more important later in my story.
Why mention birth?? Because I’ll never discount the aspect of luck in life. My family was healthy, supportive, fairly well educated (compared to previous generations), and hard working. I wasn’t born on the Kennedy compound (probably a good thing), but to be born in the USA in 1975 with a decent genetic makeup and a nurturing environment is, in the history of human civilization, a winning lottery ticket.
In addition to sports and video games, which you and I played for countless hours, my early years were dominated by 2 activities: School and Farming.
School first. I was always good at school and driven to do well at school, without any pressure from my parents. I remember falling asleep on a textbook in the 2nd Grade. Before a test in elementary school I would read the chapters over and over, and when taking the test I could see the words on the page and find the right answer. I don’t think I have a photographic memory in the sense of a freakish recall ability, but I do think I exercised my memory in a way that gave me an advantage in school. By junior high, studying was easy. And success in school encouraged me to more success in school.
Farming. When school was out during the summers, I worked on my dad’s farm where he grew wheat and barley and soybeans. I think I mowed the lawn 10,000 times from age 7 to 12. As I got older, I moved up to bigger machinery: tractors, trucks, combines. In addition, we did all sorts of odd jobs to keep the farm running. I’m not a good mechanic or engineer by nature, so I value this experience, looking back. At the time, it was just work. I liked it sometimes, not all the time. My dad did it, my brothers did it, so I did it too. They were my work role models.
This might seem like a long digression in my financial origin story. I made $3 an hour, I think, to start with. I wasn’t on track to be a millionaire at age 7. But here’s why I’m mentioning all this. I’ve been thinking about the exponential nature of education, work, and role models. If you know how to learn, how to work, and how to follow good people as examples, you can start a virtuous cycle that builds on itself. Smart people get smarter because they know how to learn. Good workers get more responsibility because they prove themselves capable. Networks of good people attract more good people and more opportunities. And all this often leads to money, which then leads to more money, even if that wasn’t the intention.
Anyway, the foundation for my current financial state was built in these early years. It’s at this part of the story where we lost touch for a while, Penny, and where my journey took some interesting and strange turns.
College and Grad School: The Not Quite Figuring It Out Years
So I was a great student and good worker. In late high school and college, like many kids, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew what I was interested in. I’m a high income earner now, so this next part might throw you for a loop. Would I study to be an engineer, like other personal finance bloggers? A doctor, lawyer, banker?
How about a humanitarian missionary with a theology degree?
I got straight A’s and was valedictorian of my high school class of 300 kids (at that point I was living in a bigger town). My biggest regret is right here, when I decided to go study theology in a tiny college instead of shooting for the Ivy League or an international scholar program. I was very idealistic at the time, and I wanted to travel the world and do good and think deep thoughts about important matters. In high school I traveled around the world on several do-gooder trips — and loved it! — so I thought I’d be an international youth worker of some sort. Then after college I waited tables for a year and geared up for grad school, I was a good student after all. I was studying philosophy and ancient languages for fun. It was so fun for a while, in fact, that I shifted my career aspirations to academia, perhaps with the goal of pursuing a PhD at Oxford or some such.
Well … after one year of grad school, I had what can only be described as an acute quarter life crisis. I was tired of academic debates. I didn’t want to study 4 more years (at least) for a doctorate, and I had heard about the difficulties of finding good jobs in academia. So I made a rather extreme pivot to international studies, talked my way into an exchange program to take some courses at Harvard, and proved to myself that I could cut it in the Ivy League. I then took a 6-month immersion French study in Paris, where I literally lived on baguettes and peanuts while achieving a professional ability to use the language. These moves were designed to tailor my resume to appeal to an internationally-focused company.
At age 26, I had a master’s in Religion, a minor in International Affairs, and I spoke French. I wasn’t sure how these pieces would come together, but I shot off a grand total of 2 resumes online … and it worked! I got a call from one of them. Opportunity knocked.
Career: Just Like Driving A Tractor Or Reading A Book
An interview. I could tell they wanted to hire me. I simply had to put on a suit and take a few language tests. Interestingly, the interviewer said that in addition to French, my theology background was an asset because I had learned ancient languages. It showed an aptitude they were looking for. I was in.
I don’t have much else to say about career because in my mind the key was finding a job with growth potential where I could prove myself. I knew how to learn, how to work, and how to follow role models, and these factors have mattered much more than technical ability, in my case (it’s not always the case). I’m still with the same company but my positions now are based on work experience and reputation.
Marriage: The Power of Dual Incomes
A benefit of having a Master’s and landing a good career is undoubtedly dating assistance. I’m not saying my wife wouldn’t have dated me had I been less educated and less successful at work … well, maybe I am saying that! I think people who have their act together gravitate toward other people who have their act together. It’s a shared value and a common vision about how to approach life.
If someone has their act together, it’s Mrs. Rich. Graduated from an Ivy League university, Master’s from a respected grad school, married an exceptional man … ha. But seriously, she’s smart, driven, and has enjoyed similar career success.
When you add her income to mine, it sets the stage for exponential financial growth in our family.
And here’s a closer look at our income since we got married.
We’ve had some typical financial challenges, but they were no big deal because of our earning power. She had $30K in student debt — gone in a couple years. The pleasant surprise of child care for twins — managed without much headache.
I still think of myself as a farm kid and a theology student, so when I see these charts it’s hard to believe these are my finances. I’m lucky. And yet, I knew if I could get my foot in the door of a career, I could make it work. I should say more about the role models I’ve had, but I’ll save that for another time.