Here’s our latest interview with a millionaire as we seek to learn from those who have grown their wealth to high heights.
If you’d like to be considered for an interview, drop me a note and we can chat about specifics.
My questions are in bold italics and his responses follow in black.
Let’s get started…
How old are you (and spouse if applicable, plus how long you’ve been married)?
I am 53, my wife 48.
We have been married for 26 years.
Do you have kids/family (if so, how old are they)?
We have a son and a daughter, both in mid-20’s and have graduated from college.
Both are self-supporting and living independently.
What area of the country do you live in (and urban or rural)?
We are living in a small town in the mid-Atlantic region.
What is your current net worth?
Our net worth is about $2 million.
What are the main assets that make up your net worth (stocks, real estate, business, home, retirement accounts, etc.) and any debt that offsets part of these?
- Our house: ~$300K (no mortgage, value ~$300K)
- Thrift Savings Plan or TSP (401K plan for government employees): $1.01 M
- Bank account: $15K cash
- Vanguard Taxable Account: $330K (VTSAX)
- Vanguard Traditional/Roth IRA: $360K (VTSAX)
What is your job?
I am an engineer working for a US federal government agency. I manage federal-funded research projects being conducted at universities.
My wife is a homemaker.
What is your annual income?
My current annual salary is about $155,000 with no bonus/overtime.
In a few rare occasions in the past I received $850 to $2,000 award for exceptional performance.
Tell us about your income performance over time. What was the starting salary of your first job, how did it grow from there (and what you did to make it grow), and where are you now?
I escaped from my native country in Southeast Asia by boat when I was a teenager. After living in a refugee camp in Malaysia for about a year, I was allowed to resettle in the US in early 1980’s in a Midwestern state.
I have worked in the US since 16, and my first job was dishwasher at a local restaurant after school. In the summer I worked full-time as a custodian helper at my high school, mainly cleaning and painting. I earned the minimum wage of $3.35/hr at both of these jobs.
After two years of high school I enrolled in a university in a city nearby. Because of my poor English, an engineering major seemed to be the only choice suitable for me.
I worked 40 hrs./week (4 hrs./weekday and 10 hrs. each on Saturday and Sunday) at a construction supply store as a warehouse worker for 3 semesters while a full-time engineering student. My wage was $4.50/hr – $6.00/hr at this job.
The engineering courses were increasingly more difficult and it was harder to fit classes into my work schedule so I quit the job at the construction supply store. I then worked 20 hrs/week at the university library as a student assistant. My wage went down to $3.35/hr.
During my junior year I found a full-time job testing integrated circuit (IC) board for an IC chip maker. My wage jumped to $7/hr., but the shift work was from 11 pm – 7 am Monday-Friday. I typically got off work then went directly to classes, and tried to doze off between classes whenever possible. After homework/studying I then went back to work again.
I had to work to earn enough to support myself as well as sending money back to my native country to support my parents and siblings. The Pell grant I received (about $2,000/yr. if I recalled correctly) was only enough to pay most of the tuition at this low-cost university. I also borrowed about $15K in student loans (which I had paid off in about 7 years after graduation) to send back to support my family.
During my senior year I applied and somehow got an intern position with “the” US federal space agency with a wage of about $9/hr. This delayed my graduation for about a year, but I received multiple offers upon my graduation in the late 1980’s.
I chose to continue to work for this federal agency with a new starting salary of GS-7 (about ~$27,000/yr, I think) despite receiving some higher offers of ~$33K with $5K sign-up bonus from private industry.
After two years working my salary increased to ~$30,000/yr. I then resigned my job with a plan to pursue a Master’s degree. However, a month later I received notification from the US government that the applications I had filed a decade ago to sponsor for my parents and siblings to resettle in the US were up for consideration.
If I wished to sponsor my family I would need to provide evidence (stable/permanent high-paying job, asset, etc.) that I could support them financially. The US government wanted to make sure that my family would not become public charge. I scrambled applying for jobs and, luckily, another federal government agency offered me an engineering position with starting salary of ~$30,000 in the mid-Atlantic region.
(Eventually my parents and siblings were allowed to immigrate to the USA. They decided to resettle in a Midwestern state instead of mid-Atlantic because of the low-cost of living and job availability. My siblings did not have the opportunity to continue their formal education as I did, but all have become productive US citizens. Several of them are working for various US aircraft manufacturers; one landed his dream job of making the F-35 stealth fighter. Even my father, then in his early 60’s, had worked as a dishwasher at a local restaurant for 10 years so he can earn Social Security benefits.)
I have been working at this federal government agency for 28 years, with promotions from GS-9 to 11, 12, 13, 14. With quite a few exceptional/outstanding performance evaluations, my salary advanced somewhat faster than normal through in-grade increases.
Two years ago, my agency changed the salary scale from typical government GS scale to performance-based bands. My salary had been unchanged at the top of GS-14 for many years, and suddenly this opened up the ceiling for some salary increase. However, I think from now on my salary, about $155,000/year, will probably increase only on par with government’s general annual wage increase, unless I bid and got a higher-paying job.
What tips do you have for others who want to grow their career-related income?
Earn a college degree! I think an undergrad degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is likely to be in demand with an attractive starting salary compared to most other fields. This is especially true for women as STEM is being dominated by males and every organization is actively recruiting female candidates for STEM positions.
Do your job well and be nice to your colleagues.
Publicly share the credit of your accomplishment with colleagues and especially your manager, even if they had little involvement.
Bring solutions to the table, not just pointing out problems and difficulty.
Always be willing to help your colleagues and consider taking on assignments even if it’s not perfectly aligned with your job description.
What’s your work-life balance look like?
I think my work-life balance has been excellent, and that’s probably why I’m holding on to this job for so long.
Currently, I choose to work 10-hr/day compressed schedule, taking 3-day weekend off. My manager does not expect me to work more than 40 hrs./week.
I do not receive annual bonus or overtime pay either.
In rare occasions when I had to work more than 40 hrs./week (mostly due to traveling), I’d receive compensatory time to use for vacation.
I also have a telework agreement with my manager. On snow days or when I have a scheduled home delivery, I can work at home if I decide to do so.
I don’t travel for work much anymore, as I can schedule most meetings via WebEx/GoToMeeting with the professors and researchers working on my research projects at universities. Because of the somewhat autonomous nature of my work, I have been able to take 3-week long vacations.
We live about 4 miles from work in a town that rarely has traffic jam, so it takes only about 10-15 minute commuting to work each way for me. Having seen people I sometimes worked with in Washington DC had to spend more than 2 hrs/day commuting to work, I have no desire to apply for a higher-salary position there.
Since our parents and siblings are living in the Midwest and West Coast, we have to fly often to visit them. This would not have been possible had my work schedule not flexible.
Do you have any sources of income besides your career? If so, can you list them, give us a feel for how much you earn with each, and offer some insight into how you developed them?
Only our taxable account dividends (~$6K/yr.) and my salary.
What is your annual spending?
Our annual spending is about $63K.
What are the main categories (expenses) this spending breaks into?
- Mortgage: $0 (we paid off our house)
- Car Payment: $0 (we purchased our cars with cash)
- Property Tax/Insurance/Maintenance/HOA Fee: $13K
- Auto Insurance/Gasoline/Maintenance: $6K
- Groceries & Clothing: $10K
- Electric/Gas/Water: $4K
- Cable Internet, Satellite TV, Mobile Phone Service (for 4): $3K
- Dining out: $3K
- Charity & Gifts: $8K
- Travel: $14K
- Miscellaneous: $2K
Do you have a budget? If so, how do you implement it?
I created a rough budget, but not really monitoring it closely.
We pay ourselves first (max out my 401K with 25K/yr., max out my Roth IRA with $7K/yr., max out my wife’s Traditional IRA with $6K/yr., add $13K/yr to the taxable account).
Currently, the after-tax leftover is about $63K/yr and this is what we based our budget on. If overspent, we would just scale down our travel to balance the budget.
My wife has no interest in finance/budget, so I take care of all money matters in our household.
What percentage of your gross income do you save and how has that changed over time?
We currently save about 32% of our gross income.
We didn’t travel much before, so we were able to save more than 40% of our gross income to pay off our mortgage, to fund our children’s 529s, as well as to pay for their expenses while they were in college. Now they have graduated and self-supported, we can afford to travel overseas and give more to our parents and charities.
What is your favorite thing to spend money on/your secret splurge?
My wife and I started our lives together very modestly. We got married with $3,000 credit card debt, and did not go on a honeymoon as we had to support our parents of both sides back in our native country financially.
Then we raised our 2 children, funded their 529 accounts, paid their college expenses, etc.
Now with some disposable income, we can take a breath and enjoy our lives a bit more.
I constantly look for travel deals. Being able to travel almost anytime due to my flexible work schedule and my wife a homemaker, we have been able to take advantage of travel deals and shoulder seasons. So far, we have traveled to several countries in Europe and Southeast Asia.
What is your investment philosophy/plan?
At this time, our asset allocation is: 30% Large US stock, 15% Small US stock, 15% International stock, 20% Total US Bond, 20% Treasury.
Most of our taxable account and Traditional/Roth IRA is Vanguard VTSAX (0.04% cost) mutual fund.
I adjust the funds in the TSP account once a year to balance the asset allocation without triggering a taxable event.
I had bought/sold individual stocks in the past, as well as invested in active mutual funds. However, for the last 10 years or so, virtually all of my investment has been in index mutual funds.
In my work position, I am not allowed to own certain individual stocks or sector funds. Sticking with index mutual funds simplifies my annual financial reporting requirement.
What has been your best investment?
Regularly investing and maximizing contribution to my government 401K (Thrift Saving Plan or TSP) has been the our best investment.
The TSP index mutual funds have very low expenses (~0.03%) and safeguards to discourage one from frequent trading.
The US government matches 5% of my salary for TSP contribution.
What has been your worst investment?
I had invested a good portion of our taxable savings in some technology active mutual funds (with expense > 2%) before the stock bubble, then sold all after the market had crashed with a big loss.
We purchased our house 15 years ago at $300K, and before the real estate crash 2008 it was valued at $450K. However, due to our unique local economy condition, our house value is currently estimated at $300K.
What’s been your overall return?
For the last 10 years, I think our overall return is probably about 8% – 9% annually.
Before that I have no idea, but I think it’s much lower because I kept chasing returns by trading individual stocks and investing/withdrawing from active mutual funds.
How often do you monitor/review your portfolio?
Currently, I monitor my financial information daily using Personal Finance app.
However, it’s more to check our credit cards’ balance, bills, and any suspicious activities.
I just balance our portfolio once a year using the TSP account to avoid a taxable event. I don’t take reactive action to daily stock market condition.
How did you accumulate your net worth?
We received no inheritances. We accumulated our net worth through aggressive savings, and with help from the power of compound interest.
We paid ourselves first by maximizing our contribution to 401K, Traditional/Roth IRA. We also lived well below our means.
What would you say is your greatest strength in the ESI wealth-building model (Earn, Save or Invest) and why would you say it’s tops?
Our single income has been moderate, our house value has not appreciated, and I made some investing mistakes along the way.
However, I’m fortunate that my wife has also been living well below our means, probably because her background is similar to mine. For many years, she has been a devoted mother/wife who chose to stay home to take good care of our family. She shops at discounted stores, not the mall. Because of her frugality, we were able to save aggressively as a family.
We also don’t eat out a lot. We both are decent cooks so we can prepare a nice steak dinner for 2 with a bottle of wine for about $30 total, instead of paying more than $100 for similar dinner at local steakhouses (our state has 0% tax for food, except in restaurants).
About once a week we dine out for our native authentic food (usually beef noodles or pork chop rice plate) at a local restaurant at the cost of about $25 total for two. Sometimes we went out for a nice dinner when our children came home to visit.
I also do all the yard work, home repair/maintenance, and car maintenance (we have 4 cars, including our children’s, to maintain).
What road bumps did you face along the way to becoming a millionaire and how did you handle them?
We lost much of our taxable account by investing in high-fee technology active mutual funds when the tech bubble crashed.
From there on, we have stuck with low-cost index mutual funds.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your net worth?
We are not doing much to maintain our net worth, but making regular contributions to our TSP, Traditional/Roth IRA and taxable account.
Besides balancing our net worth once a year, it’s virtually on autopilot.
Do you have a target net worth you are trying to attain?
I don’t have a firm target, but it would be nice if my net worth reaches $2.5M when I plan to retire in about 3 years.
How old were you when you made your first million and have you had any significant behavior shifts since then?
I think I was 46 when our net worth reached $1M, and I don’t think we had any behavior shifts because of the 1st million.
However, I notice our behavior shifted (we spent significantly more for traveling) about 3 years ago when both of our children graduated from college, found employment, and became self supported.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from?
I chased returns and tried to time the stock market. I once thought I could get rich quickly by quitting my engineering job and become a day trader. Fortunately, I didn’t quit my job.
I didn’t try to save, except 5% of my salary to 401K, until I was 28. I can’t imagine how much more I would have now had I consistently saved a little bit since my first paycheck at 16. Maybe I would be able to retire long ago. I had studied about compound interest in an engineering economy course when I was 20, but I didn’t realize its power at all.
What advice do you have for ESI Money readers on how to become wealthy?
Earn a college degree in a high-demand field, such as STEM, to boost your income.
Save aggressively, invest early and regularly in Vanguard index mutual funds such as VSTAX or S&P 500.
Learn how to do things yourself (eg. cooking, cleaning, fixing things) so you don’t have to spend money throughout your life to hire someone else to do it for you (ie., until you are wealthy enough to do so).
Pay your bills, especially the credit card’s, in full and on time every month.
Live well below your means and try to save money to buy things with cash. I still drive a 16-year-old minivan. I bought for my wife a new luxury SUV on our 25th anniversary with cash.
What are your plans for the future regarding lifestyle?
I had always assumed I would be working until 62 or 65 years old, then retire and live a lifestyle that appropriate with our net worth, pension, and social security benefits.
However, about 3 years ago, I was exposed to the FIRE (Financial Independence & Early Retirement) concept. I learned about the Trinity Study (4% withdrawal), Roth IRA conversion, minimizing tax through tax-gain harvesting, etc.
Based on most FIRE calculators, I think I could retire in December 2021 (56.5 years old) with current lifestyle. I’m still uncertain about a firm retirement date.
On a bad day at work, I told myself that I would definitely resign by 12/2021. On a good day, I told myself it’s not that bad, maybe I should just hang on for a while longer because the money is good.
We are not sure about relocating because our children are living at about 2-3 hours of driving away from our current home. If our children relocated, then maybe we’ll move to somewhere warm or somewhere with more relatives.
What are your retirement plans?
If I were to retire from the US government at 12/2021, I would be eligible to receive: a pension of ~$43K/year (with 50% survivor benefit for my wife if I died before her), a retirement supplement of ~18K/year (until 62), and medical insurance coverage as of now (our cost is ~6K/year).
I plan to tap into our taxable account first, then the TSP, to supplement our retirement cost (I figured ~$100K/year before tax should be sufficient).
I plan to delay to collect Social Security benefits until 70, so my wife can collect more in the likely case that I would die first.
I think in retirement we will probably travel longer and spend more time to visit and care for our elderly parents. Of course, we realize at one point we will get weak and won’t be able to travel much.
There are many things around the house waiting for me to clean/repair.
I’d like to take some classes such as learning a new language (Spanish?) or playing an instrument (piano/guitar?).
I’m sure my wife, a devoted Catholic, will try to drag me to go to Church everyday.
Are there any issues in retirement that concern you? If so, how are you planning to address them?
Health and healthcare cost. We have joined a local gym and are exercising regularly to maintain our physical condition. I probably need to look into long-term care insurance.
Uncertainty about the stock market. I plan to maintain our asset allocation at about 60% stock, 40% bond/treasury.
Changes in government policies/regulations about taxes, social security benefits, pension, COLAs, etc. Not much I can do about this except to be vigilant about new laws, take good care of our net worth, and prepare to reduce our spending if necessary.
How did you learn about finances and at what age did it ‘click’? Was it from family, books, forced to learn as wealth grew, etc.?
I first learned about finance (present/future value, compound interest, etc.) in an engineering economy class when I was 20, but it did not “click”.
At 30, I read some half-baked information online and made stupid investing mistakes for years. I thought I could time the market and analyze stocks better than Wall Street professional analysts.
The only investment that saved me was the TSP (401K for government employees) account. The contributions were automatically taken out of my paychecks, along with the matching 5% salary, invested in low-cost index mutual funds throughout the years had performed wonderfully.
Learning my mistakes the hard way, I then sold all of my individual stocks and active mutual funds in my taxable account and invested in Vanguard index mutual funds.
No one from my family or relatives is knowledgeable about finance or investment. They have no interest in learning about ESI either.
Who inspired you to excel in life? Who are your heroes?
I had to excel in life by necessity as I did not have family/relatives to support me.
I was separated from my family since I was a teenager and most of the time I had fended off life’s obstacles by myself, so I did not have any role model. It’s strange not to think about it, but I had never thought much about role models or heroes.
If a hero is someone who shows great courage or someone is admired for noble qualities, then I think I would consider the American people as my heroes.
The US government and the American people took me in, provided assistance, and allowed me to have opportunities to attain an education and excel in life. Of course, I had to work my butt off, but where else in the world someone would take a penniless kid from another race in, and 8 years later hired him to work as a professional in one of the most prestigious government agencies in the world?
Certainly not in my own native country, no matter how brilliant you are. Thank you, the United States of America, from the bottom of my heart!
Do you give to charity? Why or why not? If you do, what percent of time/money do you give?
Yes, we give to our church every week, as well as other programs in our diocese to care for the needy regardless of religion.
I also give to charity through the federal government annual Combined Federal Campaign.
My wife sends money back to our native country every year to support an orphanage in her hometown runs by some Catholic nuns.
We also send money regularly to support our parents. They are now living in the United States on a modest Social Security benefits (both my father and father-in-law don’t speak much English, but they had worked low-paying jobs for more than 10 years to qualify for Social Security benefits).
I estimated we give about $8K/year (~5%) for charity and gifts. When we took our parents on travel with us, it would cost more.
Do you plan to leave an inheritance for your heirs (how do you plan to distribute your wealth at your death)? What are your reasons behind this plan?
When our children were in high school, we told them that we would pay for their 4-year education at any university they could get in. We also told them that we would try hard not be a financial burden for them in our retirement (they knew we had to support our parents financially). But don’t expect we leave a large inheritance, if any.
Therefore, we are focusing on funding our retirement and deciding what lifestyle we want to live in our retirement, with not much thought about leaving inheritance.
Having said that, we had opened a Vanguard Roth IRA account for each of our children since their first job when they were in high school. All money they had earned at that time was contributed to their Roth IRA accounts. We then gave them back their after-tax earning with our own money.
In their current professional job, we encourage our children to contribute to their 401K up to the employer’s matching, then fund the Vanguard Roth IRA account.
At the end of the year, we would give them 10% cash back based on their Roth IRA contribution. This year they plan to contribute $6K to their Roth IRA account, and we will give them $600 back at Christmas. I guess this may be a more efficient way to leave some inheritance as the money in our children’s Roth IRA accounts will have several decades to work without tax implication.
We have prepared our Last Will & Testament to divide our asset equally for our son and daughter upon our demise. However, we hope to live long enough to spend most of our net worth.
Dave @ Accidental FIRE says
Wow, awesome story of getting an education and working hard after starting from nothing – congratulations to you!
Several things I note: This gentleman clearly did not have an easy life….yet is grateful for the opportunities he had. His hard work, and acceptance of personal responsibility is awesome.
This should be required reading for every high school student.
Thanks planedoc. I’m honored that you think my life story should be required reading for high school students. I know many people who have similar backgrounds and achievements as mine.
Norwegian guy says
You have a great story and my respect for sure. Hope you get to enjoy the fruits of your labour for a very long time. Have a great retirement when you choose to take it! 🙂
It’s an honor to have someone with your story – namely, your determination and drive to succeed and contribute to our great country – in the United States. Thank you for what you’ve done to make us a stronger country, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of your labor. God bless.
Thanks Jay. I’m honored to be your fellow American by choice. I know quite a few colleagues, who are more talented and intelligent than I am, working diligently to serve the public everyday despite the fact that they could go out to the private industry and make more money. The US has been and will always be strong because of these amazing unselfish citizens, especially the men and women in our armed forces.
Razorback 14 says
Great interview and a wonderful story of success!!! Agreed —- this should be required reading for all high school students.
America is a great place to live in —- plenty of opportunities—-
“Dreams come true when you work your butt off (using your term) and when you understand the power of implementing the ESI model ——“
Congratulations 🎉 to you and to your wife for doing things well and for being an example for all.
Thanks for sharing your story.
Thanks Razorback. Yes, America is indeed a great place to live in with plenty of opportunities.
I read someone wrote the other day that “If you were born in the US, you have already won a lottery.” Moreover, if you were fortunate to be born in the US, you don’t have to study to take the citizenship exam like me. 🙂
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. It is a wonderful reminder of what is possible in this great nation. Hard work does pay off if you also learn and apply the ESI model.
Thank you Kim. Yes, despite all problems and disagreements we may have about the direction of our country, the US is still a great nation.
The real heroes are people like this guy, who toiled and struggled to raise up an entire family and provide a good living for them. While other’s take short cuts, or are just plain lazy, this guy started with nothing and not only thrived, but managed to get the rest of his family over here where they were allowed to succeed as well. Nicely done!
Thanks Superdave. Honestly I don’t feel that I’m a hero, but I feel that I’m very fortunate.
I didn’t feel like to tell my life story in details in the interview, but I had no choice to do everything I could to help my parents and siblings back then.
You see, my Dad was in the air force of a regime which was an allied of the US. When our country fell into the hands of the Communists, our family was targeted for retribution.
My family scraped everything they had and paid for me to get on a fishing boat to escape. Although my life in the US in the beginning was not easy, it’s nothing compare to the suffering they endured for years in our country back then.
Really enjoyed the interview. Hard work and staying the course can really pay off. I liked what you said about learning how to do things yourself. Many things arent all that hard once you learn how to do it and like you said you can then use that skill for the rest of your life. The savings can be huge over what the “experts” want to charge you. I think I’ve saved a ton of money over the years figuring out how to do things myself. It all adds up!
Thanks, Arrgo. Initially I had to learn how to DIY out of necessity. For example, I didn’t have money to pay for someone to file my tax return, so I had to learn to do it myself. Same with car maintenance, I spent hours to go through the Haynes manual on how to properly maintaining my car so I don’t have to pay the dealer’s exorbitant cost.
So 35 years later, I still file tax returns and maintain cars myself. On contrary, my siblings who came to the US after me chose to bring their cars to dealers for service and accountants for preparing tax returns.
Today, with internet and YouTube, many things can be learned easily online.
Amazing story and congratulations on your journey and success. Being an immigrant ourselves (y wife and I) and gone through a somewhat similar path, brings me joy to know that hard work, education and healthy living habits are key to FIRE and emotional strength. Best wishes to you and your family.
Thanks IamOnFire. Best wishes to you and your family as well.
Great interview! Your story is very inspirational.
Super interview. See, hard work pays off in America. He worked hard, saved and invested. Made some mistakes, made corrections and is soaring to a fully funded retirement.
An American immigrant success story!
Thank you for sharing your amazing story. Whether it’s World Refugee Day or not, always good to be reminded of the many opportunities available to people in the US.
Thanks yslwl. I didn’t even know there is a “World Refugee Day”. Yes, the US is the land of opportunities.
What an inspirational story – you have lived the American dream. Starting with nothing except a wilingness to work hard, and establishing a good life for yourself and your family.
Many native born Americans that feel that they were disadvantaged by not being born into a financially well-off family could learn from your example. Congrats!
Thanks M133. Like I mentioned above, someone had written that “if you were born in the US, you have already won a lottery.”
MI 98 says
You sir, are the example of the American Dream, I salute you, and thank you for your appreciation and contributions to our great country.
Thanks MI 98 for your kind words. I’m very fortunate to live and work in this great country.
“I escaped from my native country in Southeast Asia by boat when I was a teenager.”
I loved reading this entire post, but certainly that line near the beginning had me very interested in the rest. Well done!
Thanks, Pete. It wasn’t my intention to pull you in with that line. 🙂
this guy gets it–what an incredible American story by someone who clearly embodies what it means to be a true American. We need more people with this fellow’s values, attitude, and gratitude. I’ve read all of the millionaire interviews, and this one is my favorite of the bunch. Just a refreshing example of everything that makes this country the shiny beacon on the hill it was meant to be. God bless this dude.
I had a mgr with a very similar escape from Vietnam with his wife and infant daughter. Part of his story included leaving by boat in the night, boarded by pirate/robbed, and landing on the shore of a neighboring country with gun fire above their heads. He left behind parents and relatives. Finally was sponsored in Mid-Atlantic US, finished his STEM degree, was successful in US defense industry.
Maverick: Every escape has its own story and risks. For me it was dodging bullets from police patrol boat, packed in a 40ft x 12ft wooden fishing boat with 116 other people, ran out of drinking water on high sea, storm after storm seemed to about tearing our small wooden boat into pieces, etc.
Fortunately, we reached Malaysia after 7 days. I was nearly 15 years old at that time and thought “I was near death, now I’m on land and nothing can be worse that what I had experienced on high sea.”
Sadly, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, out of about 1 million boat people from Vietnam it’s estimated 200,000 to 400,000 lost their lives on high sea.
So very glad immigrants like you made it M-136. Thanks for helping build the US into the hard working land of freedom and opportunity. (My grandfather came from Europe at 6 yrs of age, without the additional harsh circumstances. My mother’s side dates back to a woman known for her sewing skills in colonial times). It’s good people that are able to pull up their own bootstraps when things are tough.
Paper Tiger (aka MI-27) says
MI-136, like everyone else who has commented, I am wildly impressed with your story. I thought I had a pretty good work ethic but I can’t hold a candle to you.
Great job and best of luck for your continued success!
Paper Tiger: Thanks for your kind words. I did work hard for a period of time out of necessity. As time goes by, I have been slowing down a bit to enjoy life with my family. Hopefully I will be able to really slowing down after 3 more years.
I am so touched by your story. I’m 10 years younger than you and has very similar path. Hopefully, I can reach your milestone 10 year from now. We have so many things to be thankful for. Above all, your faith, strong work ethic and family dedication should be the lesson for everyone because without those, we have nothing.
Thanks for reading my interview. I cannot read into your future, but I think implementing ESI principles will likely yield the best results for you and your loved ones. Like Warren Buffett had said: “Never bet against America”. Be faithful!
Great story! On the ESI side so many similarities to my story, engineering, misguided stock trading, then later slow and steady index funds get the job done.
Your story is much more impressive however due to your more challenging start. My journey was easy by comparison. Congratulations on a job well done.
Whenever I read stories like this I can’t help but think about how great this country is and also that out of every tragic story comes good for those who make it through and don’t give up. One of my classmates and lifelong friends was among the first waves of Vietnamese refugees arriving here for elementary school in the mid 70’s. Like you, later went on to live the american dream and has a great life. Coincidentally this same classmate introduced me to my future wife who I later had two kids with. Those kids are the best thing that ever happened to me. I often joke with my wife and kids that if it weren’t for Ho Chi Min and Richard Nixon our family never would have happened. The connection is very distant, but its true!
MI-94: Each of us has to adapt to play with the hand we are dealt. I’m glad that you and I are able to live, work and take care of our family in this great country.
At one time my wife and I dreamed about retiring in Orange County, CA (great weather, great authentic food, etc.). But as you know, the current housing cost and taxes have increasingly made our dream almost impossible.
I have brought my wife to Little Saigon once every couple of years so she can eat all authentic food to her heart’s delight.
Congratulations on your impressive accomplishments and best wishes to you and your wonderful family.
Diana E Sung says
I think this may be my favorite interview of the series for a lot of reasons. May I be in a similar position as you sir, in about 19-20 years!
Diana: I hope you and your family will achieve your goals sooner than 20 years. Best wishes.
Papa Jaypes says
Wow! What an incredible story. Like so many others commenters, I’m humbled and honored to have read this interview. So many awesome nuggets of wisdom. I’m sure I’ll be reading this again and again.
@MI-136 Thank you so much for sharing your life story, and outlining your journey from humble beginnings to having achieved life, work and financial success. Your hard work, perseverance, grit and attitudes of humbleness and gratefulness, are truly an inspiration.
I’ve read every single Millionaire Interview in the series, and there have been some amazing stories, but this is my absolute favourite one. It’s honestly worthy of a book deal or a TED talk. If you ever choose to do either, please let me know, as I’d love to check them out!
Papa Jaypes: I’m humble and surprised with all these positive comments from ESI readers about my interview. Thank you!
However, I’m a bit embarrass with your suggestion about a “book deal or TED talk”. You see, there were at least 500,000 Vietnamese refugees immigrated to the USA in the 70’s and 80’s under similar circumstances as mine.
Many of those are wildly successful people (3 billionaire, a Chief Technology Officer for Uber, a US Army Major General who is currently the Commanding General for the US Army – Japan/I Corps Forward, a US Navy Captain commanding the Destroyer Squadron 7 of the US Navy 7th fleet, a female chemical engineer who led a team of US Naval engineers/scientists developed the thermobaric bomb that devastated the Taliban hiding in caves in Afghanistan war, a lawyer who served as the US Assistant Attorney General in 2001-2003, a US Congressman – he was elected only 1 term because he was a Republican from Louisiana but voted for Obamacare as many of his constituents were poor and can be benefited from it, numerous professors, doctors, scientists, officials, etc.)
My hope in sharing my story, circumstances and situation is:
1) To encourage people starting on the ESI path that it’s possible to be FIRE despite of difficult circumstances. Be grateful, be patient, work hard and work smart, and don’t complain too much.
2) I hope we all can be a little bit more understanding and tolerant of other people, especially those who don’t look like us or act like us. The old guy washing dishes at your local restaurant (like my father) could be “somebody” who barked out orders during his prime time in his country. He seemed to avoid you probably not because he didn’t like you; it’s more likely that he was embarrassed that he’s not fluent in your language to have a chat with you.
Again, thank you all.
Hopeful fire says
I think your book is in what u just posted. Knowing all those stories of the people and their accomplishments/contributions and dedication to humanity. Thank you.
Congrats on your success, both financially, professionally, and personally. I know a bit about overcoming extraordinary odds. I wasn’t dodging bullets in another country – I was dodging bullets (and drug dealers and drunks and street thugs) growing up right hear in the USA.
I’m impressed, but not entirely surprised by your modesty. Because one of my very dearest friends is a Vietnamese immigrant. His escape was no less harrowing, though given the large company connection of his father, his family’s transition was much different (i.e. easier) than yours. That said, he is probably the smartest individual I know. He’s succeeded at two very challenging careers and is now wealthy and enjoying life now in his early 50’s. His entire family is filled with overachievers. Your people, for all their earlier difficulty, are an impressive bunch.
I second Hopeful Fire’s suggestion that if it hasn’t already been done, a full profiling of the achievements and contributions of Vietnamese refugees to our country’s history is long overdue.
On a different tangent, I agree that our country is great – probably the greatest on the planet. And I too am grateful for all that it has allowed me to accomplish. But, I sense that your story is being viewed by some as proof that anyone can do it if they just persevere and work hard. And I will have to respectfully disagree with that sentiment.
What I see in my own escape from the American hellhole of my youth is that I was uniquely suited to escaping, that I had grit and ambition and confidence and literacy gifted to me (largely by my mother), that certain key people along the way saw my early potential and provided encouragement and opportunity.
I also recall all the close calls, some potentially deadly, that could have ended my journey very early on. There is no doubt in my mind that no matter how hard we all work and make the right choices, that something akin to luck or fortune plays a key role in our success.
What I’m sure we can all agree on is that successful people have a gift for positioning themselves in the path of good fortune, and recognizing and capitalizing on it. Some folks are born in that path and all they have to do is do the right thing (and then wonder why others have such tough time following them). But, when you are born far away from the river of good fortune, as we were, you have to work much much harder and take more risks to reach that position where the positive currents can carry you.
Again, congrats on an extraordinary journey.
Your store is so kind. I too started with little, even though I was born in the US. I paid my way through college myself and had a wonderful career in STEM (Computer Scientist). I have always been so grateful for all my opportunities and don’t take them for granted. It felt wonderful to be able to provide a good life for my children and pay for their education. Best wishes is your future retirement!!!
Financial Fae says
I like the philosophy, numbers, and moxie of taking this type of program on yourself. It’s been quite a good run for a lot of people the last ten years. I hope we find a way to keep it going in general and create new investment opportunities for people.
I love how you encouraged your children to begin putting money away early in their lives and incentivizing them to continue as adults. THAT IS SO AWESOME!