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.
This interview took place in January.
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’m 46 and my wife is 37.
We’ve been married for just over seven years but known each other for over nine.
Do you have kids/family (if so, how old are they)?
My daughter will be 6 this year, and my son will be 4.
What area of the country do you live in (and urban or rural)?
I live in Los Angeles, California.
I grew up in England and India, and fell in love with SoCal on a family vacation when I was 8.
I moved here in 1997 for grad school.
What is your current net worth?
Approximately $2.6 million.
Some of this is real estate and private businesses which are hard to value, so I’ve been conservative in estimating those numbers.
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?
- Cash: $75k
- Stocks/Bonds: $655,000
- Roth IRA: $300,000 (global stocks)
- IRAs & 401(k)s: $320,000 (global stocks and bonds)
- Taxable Brokerage: $35,000 (bonds)
- Real Estate Investments: $160,000
I own two single family homes in Indiana. They’re both on the same street and worth about $150k each with about $65k mortgages on both of them.
During the previous real estate boom, I bought 18 investment properties across the U.S. Recognizing signs of a bubble, I sold almost all of them in 2006.
There’s a saying in investing – if you’re going to panic, it’s better to be the first person out of the door. I got out a little early, but since I was leveraged to my eyeballs, I knew even a 5% decline in real estate values would wipe me out so I got out, paid my taxes, and still made out like a bandit.
But I kept these two. I figured if I did nothing else right in life, I’d retire in one and rent out the other.
I still have never been to Indiana so that is things pan out, hopefully I will like it there.
- Primary Home: $725,000
My primary residence is worth about $2.2 million to $2.5 million. It’s hard to estimate as it’s a custom Mid-Century Modern home on an 18,000 sq ft hill-side lot.
I have a $1 million first mortgage on it.
There’s also a $475k HELOC on it, which we used to invest in Medical Centers.
- Medical Centers: $1.1 million
In 2020, we invested $1.1 million in Medical Centers. We took out the HELOC as it was cheaper than a business loan, but that debt is counted against my primary home.
Before debt repayment, we expect them to generate between $100k and $160k in annual distributions.
- Med-Spa: $0
My wife is a 50% owner in a med-spa. They were just gaining some traction and 2020 tanked the business. Starting fresh in 2021!
- Investment Management and Financial Planning Company: $0
I’ve been running my own company for several years. Even though it’s cash-flow positive and I could sell it for at least $200k, I’m assigning a zero value to it to be conservative.
Apart from the mortgages, we have no other consumer debt. My wife still has $20k of student loans at 1.9% and I have a 401(k) loan for $20k that was used to purchase the current house.
What is your job?
I have a graduate degree in Engineering and an MBA in Finance & Real Estate. I started my career in programming, and post-MBA switched to data analytics while I grew my Investment Management company.
As of last year, I switched to Investment Management full-time.
It doesn’t quite replace the corporate income, but it’s at a point where the income covers the business overhead and provides a stable 6-figure income. If 2020 taught us anything, its life is too short to spend working on things you’re not passionate about.
My wife is a physician.
What is your annual income?
- Me: $100k
- Wife: $320k
Investment income expected to be $100k – $150k before debt repayment of approximately $25k/year.
Net rental Income of about $12k.
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 graduated college in 1999 just as all the tech jobs were drying up, and again in 2010 when there were no finance jobs.
At the start of my career, I had work visa and green card issues, which limited my ability to switch jobs. Due to this my income/career didn’t really progress as well as it could have if I had started working 5 years earlier (or later), or worked for one of the better tech companies.
I started working at $60k/year in 1999, and it went up marginally over the next decade. None of the start-ups I joined really panned out.
I graduated my MBA in 2010, and worked for 6 months in the Treasury Department at a local bank at $85k/year. I also had an opportunity to have lunch with Steve Mnuchin on one occasion.
I left to do investment research on the east coast at the same salary. Unfortunately, my boss was a crack-head and I decided to leave about 10 months in.
I ended up moving back to Los Angeles and working in data analytics at the same $85k. I also started my own investment management firm on the side.
At that point, my career took a backseat to my business. But I realized that no one wants you to manage their money until you’ve been doing it for a decade, or already have tens of millions under management. That meant I had to hold on to my job long enough to be able to make the transition to being fully self-employed.
It’s really hard to do completely separate jobs at the same time. But after several years of juggling both things, I made the switch to full-time investment management.
At the time I quit, my corporate income was $130k, plus 401k match and other benefits. It should’ve been slightly higher, but I deliberately choose not to jump around for more money as I was focused on growing my business.
Now I pay myself a base of $100k, but I have considerably more time to focus on the things that bring me joy and I expect this to grow at least 10%-20% a year.
My wife finished fellowship in 2014 and had started making attending physician salary. She went from making $60k/year to $180k in the first year and it steadily rose until it hit $320k in 2020. It is unlikely to rise any further at this point.
What tips do you have for others who want to grow their career-related income?
If you want to grow your career, you ideally want to be changing jobs every two years. Or you want to constantly be demanding new/unpleasant projects.
Most well-paying jobs in future will be knowledge-based, so developing and maintaining/upgrading a specific skillset will go a long way.
On the other hand, if you’re just looking to coast, then your skills will stagnate and you need to find a plan B for when you or your job becomes obsolete. That’s what your investments are for!
What’s your work-life balance look like?
Between 2012 and 2020, it was brutal.
I was working two jobs, had young kids and in 2016 embarked on a year-long home rebuilding project.
But right now, it’s pretty balanced. I’m working on my own business, and as with most things in life, your rewards are proportional to your efforts. I’m working on something I’m passionate about and it rarely feels like work anymore.
I’m also able to take tennis lessons every Friday afternoon with my wife. She works at least 50 hours a week (more like 60 in flu/Covid season) but she has a lot of flexibility around scheduling, and she also gets 4 weeks of vacation a year. The only downside is she works half of all weekends.
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?
As previously mentioned, the Medical Centers generated about $75k last year. Going forward we expect they will generate between $100k and $160k a year.
The rental income after expenses and mortgage payments is about $12k/year.
What is your annual spending and what are the main categories (expenses) this spending breaks into?
When I was single, I lived very frugally. I probably spent less than $2k/month. I had no furniture and essentially lived out of my suitcases. My wife even asked me why I was living like I was on the run.
My wife is also frugal by nature. On our first date, we bonded over how we both scored free parking. When we had our first child, I had to force her to upgrade her 10 year Honda Accord to a new Hyundai Santa Fe.
The only thing we really splurge on is housing. Both of us appreciate living in a nice house in a nice part of town with a great school district.
We spend about $78k a year on housing (PITI), and nearly $100k on everything else.
The biggest item after taxes and housing is kids. Day care alone is $24k/year plus food, clothing, activities. So probably $30k all-in.
We spend several thousand a year on travel. We have an almost annual trip to Kauai, and 3 annual local trips to various places in SoCal. Once the kids are older, we’re likely to add an international trip each year so this expense will definitely go up.
We also spend about $6k/year on housekeeping.
The first ten years out of college I kept a meticulous spreadsheet tracking each and every expense. Since then, I’m more comfortable with my spending and cash flow and I don’t feel the need to keep track of everything.
2020 was a strange year for us. We spend a lot of money buying new furniture, artwork, and improving our outdoor areas. Overall, we spent $27k on one-time expenses. This is likely to drop 90% moving forward.
We basically live off my wife’s salary and invest my post-tax income. At the current rate of growth, we’ll have more money than we can spend in retirement even if I stop saving (which will probably never happen). Because of this, I no longer feel the need to keep track of our spending.
Do you have a budget? If so, how do you implement it?
No. We’re both naturally frugal so I’m never worried about blowing our budget.
What percentage of your gross income do you save and how has that changed over time?
I’ve saved at least 15% of each and every paycheck. Even when I was in college and made only $13k one year.
Usually, it’s been considerably more, sometimes reaching 50% or higher.
When I was single, it was easier to track.
But each year, it’s getting harder as I’m also borrowing money to invest.
For example, in 2020 we made about $440k and then invested $30k in 401ks and another million in Medical Centers. Half of the money in medical centers was borrowed as a HELOC. But theoretically, we invested over 100% of our gross income last year. ??
What’s your best tip for saving (accumulating) money?
Always pay yourself first. No one else gets paid until that happens.
When I was ten, my mom taught me the power of compounding interest. This is back when bank accounts paid out 10%, so the math was easy to understand. I’ve been fascinated with saving and investing ever since.
Both my maternal grandma and paternal grandpa were avid stock market investors. Discussions about money were not taboo in my family.
My parents made many investing mistakes, but they got the basics correct. Earn a high salary, save a lot, and invest some of it. Then wait for decades and watch the compounding magic happen.
It usually takes about 30 years for compounding returns to become exponential. Most people severely underestimate the power of 8% compounded interest over their lifetime.
Instead of accepting market returns they try to beat the market and end up much poorer for it.
The irony is that by accepting average market returns, investors end up with well above-average results!
What’s your best tip for spending less money?
Always negotiate the price of everything. Except for housekeeping, we strive to never pay retail for anything.
I’ve found that asking for a rebate usually leads to something. Whether it’s 3% or 15%, there is usually someway to make things cheaper. And then asking if that’s the best they can do occasionally provides a further discount.
I also rarely buy brand name items. For most things, I find I can’t tell the difference in either taste or quality so unless there is a good reason, I always buy the generic item.
I don’t haggle with housekeeping because I don’t want them to leave Los Angeles and move to Texas because they can’t afford to live here anymore.
What is your favorite thing to spend money on/your secret splurge?
Despite never having spent more than $50 on a pair of athletic sneakers, I own multiple pairs of Allen Edmond leather shoes, and a $450 pair of AE leather boots.
I also love a good steak and am willing to buy Japanese A5 Wagyu steak at $110/lb on occasion.
I also have couple of expensive watches.
My wife subscribes to Stitch Fix and spends $250/month on new clothes.
Other than that, I think we splurge on weekly house keeping. Neither want to clean the house nor fold clothes so we spend $500/month on this.
What is your investment philosophy/plan?
Originally, my investment plan was to achieve FIRE at 35 with a nest egg of $1 million. This was back in 1999 when I was 25, and the FIRE acronym hadn’t been coined yet.
Things were humming along well and by 32 I had a net worth of $500k, so my goal seemed like it was within reach.
However, I had married the wrong person at the wrong time in my life. We had very different goals and values. Life is too short to spend making compromises. We decided to make a clean break.
I figured I could always make more money in the future, but if I wasn’t happy either personally or professionally, no amount of money could compensate for that. You only have one life – you owe it to yourself to make the most of it.
In 2007, I quit my job the day I got my green card, traveled the world for a year and went to business school full time. When I graduated in 2010, my net worth was close to zero. Yes, I had stocks and real estate, but I had equivalent loans to offset these assets.
Starting from zero at 36 was a little different from achieving FIRE at 35!
But unlike the previous decade, I wasn’t hindered by moving to a new country, no network, lack of mobility due to visa issues and I wasn’t putting a wife through college. I figured it would be much easier the second time around.
I hit $350k in net worth when I got married in late 2013, and $1 million in 2016. The bull market and two incomes definitely helped with that.
The cornerstones of investing are discipline and patience. If you save aggressively, and invest in productive assets, you are bound to end up rich. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
I believe in strategic and tactical investing. Investing mainly in passive, low-cost index funds will make you rich. That being said, companies and humans also have short and intermediate-term goals, and some tactical allocations can also make sense.
When it comes to investing, simplicity always trumps complexity.
Nowadays, investing in stocks is as simple as it can possibly be. If you believe in modern portfolio theory and asset allocation, there are numerous ways to invest that are low-cost (bordering on free) and easy.
The most important part of the investment process is portfolio construction and risk management.
Portfolios should be simple, well-thought out, low-cost, and globally diversified across asset classes, and market capitalizations.
Academic research has shown that tilting towards certain factors (such as size, profitability and value) can enhance returns and I use minor tilts in my portfolios.
I avoid complicated investment strategies, or non-publicly traded, illiquid investments with high leverage. I’ve found they increase risk and usually do not provide commensurate returns. Angel Investing, Private REITs and Hedge Funds fall in this category.
What has been your best investment?
In 2004, I put down a $1,000 deposit on a single-family house in Utah, sight unseen. About ten months later, the house was completed and I walked out with a $20k check at closing. Somehow, I was able to do a cash-refi on a purchase.
I rented out the house and a year later when the tenant bought it from me, I walked away with another $20k. Percentage-wise, this was the best return. The Internal Rate of Return on that came out to 1,995%.
There were over a dozen investments that worked very well during that time frame.
In terms of dollar amount, the best investment has repeatedly been on my primary residence.
In 2001, I bought a condo for $173,000. In 2005, I sold it for $350,000 in tax-free gains.
Considering I only put down 3% on an FHA loan, along with some closing costs, I only put down $7k. The IRR on this investment was 90%.
Actually, if you consider I had to borrow half of the down payment from a friend as an advance on my tax refund, the returns were almost twice that.
In 2003, I bought another condo for $270,000. In 2006, I sold it to an investor for $353,000. I rented it back for a while. Eventually, the investor lost in to foreclosure. Meanwhile, my IRR was 24%.
In mid-2014, I bought a house for $1.2 million. I sold in in early-2017 for $1.4 million.
In late-2016, I bought a house that hadn’t been updated for decades. It was part of an estate sale and the owner had died at 107.
I purchased the house for $1.3 million. The house was in such bad condition, I couldn’t get conventional financing. I put down $300,000 and took out a hard money loan for the rest at 10% interest. I had to borrow $250k from friends as all my money was tied up in my other primary residence, which I was trying to sell at the time.
I spent exactly a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating it, but I was able to increase the value by nearly $500,000 over what I spent. I then did a cash-out refinance, got out of the ridiculous 10% loan and paid off my friends. It’s currently valued somewhere between $2.2 million and $2.5 million.
Also, due to California’s Prop 13 law, my property taxes are based on my purchase price, saving me about $12k/year in taxes.
But real estate investments ignore the leverage that went into the buying of these properties which increases risk, and the amount of effort involved which can be substantial.
I also got audited the year after I completed the final renovation, when I tried to claim $113k in mortgage interest deduction on my taxes. They didn’t believe my numbers and wanted to verify them for accuracy.
Of course, I had miscalculated.
I should’ve claimed $116k instead. But the IRS was very understanding and sent me an additional refund. So kind of them!
In terms of stock investments, one of the best 1-year returns came from my Chinese fund in 2020. It was up 52% for the year. Pity it was only 5% of my portfolio.
In late-2009, while I was a full-time student in Business School, I took out $40k in student loans and invested it in the stock market. I put half in Google and that did quite well.
Unfortunately, I had to liquidate those stocks and all the other investments made in a taxable account for various home and business purchases.
What has been your worst investment?
In the mid-2000s, I invested $25k in two Private Real Estate Development Projects, $25k in an Oil Drilling project and $25k in a tech startup as an angel investor. All 4 of these went to zero in 2008.
When the business cycle turns, the correlation between all asset classes goes to 1, and they all tank at the same time. If you’re going to diversify, you need to focus on non-correlated asset classes!
What’s been your overall return?
Calculating returns is incredibly hard.
When you’re making contributions and withdrawals, the math becomes harder and you’re also likely to compartmentalize trades, forgetting the ones that go against you and remembering only the successful ones.
Most who try to calculate their returns get it wrong anyway, and include their contributions in the return performance AKA Beardstown Math.
There’s also a question of whether you’re looking at Annual Time-Weighted Returns, Annual Money-Weighted Returns, Average Annual Returns AKA Dave Ramsey Math or Compounded Annual Returns.
In the past, I didn’t attempt to track returns as it was too much effort. Additionally, in 2007 I moved my taxable account to cash as I was spending it down, and in 2008 I moved my retirement accounts to cash as I didn’t want to be stressed on it while I was in business school.
Very conservatively, I would guess my returns have averaged north of 12% overall.
Since I started my asset management company, I have been paying a 3rd party firm to accurately measure performance across both my and my client accounts.
So I have actual data. No need to guess!
Here are my stock market returns over the past several years.
Note, I’m invested in a globally diversified portfolio that roughly 70% stock, 20% bonds, and 10% allocated to gold and REITs. I’m also heavily overweight international developed market and emerging market equities, which have acted as a drag on returns for most of the past decade.
- 2013: 12.5%
- 2014: 4.7%
- 2015: -4.9%
- 2016: 12.5%
- 2017: 19.7%
- 2018: -1.5%
- 2019: 23.5%
- 2020: 13.1%
Note: these are time-weighted returns
This works out to a Compounded Annual Returns of 9.56%.
This is considerably lower than my original 12% guess, but it is surprisingly common for most investors to vastly over-estimate their investment returns. Turns out I’m no different.
Which is why I pay for 3rd party performance reporting.
I model my future returns off a 7% return so any return higher than that is a bonus.
Actually, I use financial planning software that uses advanced statistical modeling to calculate investment returns based on your asset allocation, and it determined I’m likely to get 7.1% return over the long term. It also runs Monte Carlo simulations and adjusts for inflation to determine whether I’ll hit my goals or not, which is actually the only important success metric.
How often do you monitor/review your portfolio?
Everyday. That’s literally my job now.
We had our annual Kauai vacation in Feb 2020 and the very first day the stock market was down 9%. I was sitting on the beach monitoring the stock market, rebalancing client accounts, and fielding calls from panicked investors.
How did you accumulate your net worth?
We accumulated our net worth by earning decent income, living below our means, and investing the savings.
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?
Definitely investing has been my greatest strength.
On the other hand, my wife’s strength is earning. Together we’re a great team.
What road bumps did you face along the way to becoming a millionaire and how did you handle them?
Divorce, and a reset of net worth at 36.
But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
That’s life. You learn from your mistakes and move on.
What are you currently doing to maintain/grow your net worth?
Earn, save, invest.
Continue to read, learn and grow.
Do you have a target net worth you are trying to attain?
Not really. But at the rate I’m going, if I make only 8% return in the market and save $50k/year, we’ll have about $7.5 million in 24 years when I’m 70 and presumably ready to retire.
Add in our house and other business assets, we should hit $10 million at that time. More than enough to support our lifestyle.
The $50k in new contributions represents only 10% of our gross income so it’s likely we will continue to save a bit more than this.
How old were you when you made your first million and have you had any significant behavior shifts since then?
I was 42. It sort of crept up on us. My daughter was about 1 year old and we were so wrapped up in the new normal of being parents we didn’t even realize for a few months.
Nothing changed until we hit our 2nd million. After that, I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to spend more money, and more time with the family.
What money mistakes have you made along the way that others can learn from?
Choose your spouse wisely.
After my divorce, I wanted to make sure I ended up wit the right person. And I made sure I was very well prepared.
I had a list of questions that I would go through on first dates to weed out unsuitable “candidates” very quickly.
I wanted to match candidates based on values, goals, religious beliefs and whether they were crazy or not. Los Angeles attracts a lot of crazies (and hippies) and I didn’t want to waste months of dating before finding that out.
I also designed my first date so that it was cheap but looked expensive, and set it up so I could test on my given criteria. For this reason, I always chose the same location, so I could control for the experience and test only my interactions with the candidate.
I went on 27 first dates in a 4-5 month period before meeting my wife. She passed with flying colors! It may sound very clinical, but we’re both extremely happy with the outcome.
She also didn’t realize she was being put through the third-degree at the time, and on our one-year anniversary suggested we go back to venue of our first date, “where the magic happened”.
I awkwardly explained how the entire date was careful orchestrated and luckily she laughed about it and said that was not uncharacteristic of me.
What advice do you have for ESI Money readers on how to become wealthy?
Investing should be boring. If it’s providing you with excitement, you’re doing it wrong.
Keep investing simple, and focus on the long-term picture. Don’t chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – i.e. Bitcoin, Tesla, IPOs or SPACs. You might become rich, but you’re more likely to end up broke.
The same strategy that can make you wildly rich can also decimate your wealth.
Never invest in anything that doesn’t generate free cash-flow. Follow this advice and you’ll never have to worry about going broke.
What are your plans for the future regarding lifestyle?
Over the past year I’ve decided I need to loosen the purse strings and spend more money, especially on things that save us time and provide great family experiences.
I’m going to try limit my saving to 10-15% of income and force myself to spend the rest. I feel this might be a hard thing to do if I see a great bargain investment.
I plan to work until I’m 70, and my wife is 61. Having quit my corporate job, I already feel like I’ve scaled back and am semi-retired.
In retirement, I don’t think we’ll change anything, nor would we need to.
My parents always taught me you want to move forward in life, never backward. Downsizing housing or lifestyle would feel like I’m moving backward.
What are your retirement plans?
I’ve always wanted to open an art gallery/cafe/book shop combo. Maybe I’ll try that out.
I’ve heard that successful people don’t like to retire as they are scared they will lose relevance. It’s possible I may not want to become irrelevant either, and thus may never retire.
Are there any issues in retirement that concern you? If so, how are you planning to address them?
Health. I’m genetically predisposed to diabetes and obesity. I tried to address that by marrying a physician and not being a complete couch potato.
Other than that, I’ve found that throwing money at a problem often provides a good solution.
How did you learn about finances and at what age did it “click”?
When I was 10, my Mom told me this story about her first job. She was a physician and with her first paycheck as a resident she wanted to buy jewelry. Grandma suggested she postpone that purchase for one month, and instead use that money to buy stock in an international consumer goods company, Unilever.
Anyway, 60 years later, that initial 50 share purchase has multiplied to 2,000 shares and her annual dividend is many multiples of her original purchase.
Who inspired you to excel in life? Who are your heroes?
My parents. They met in med school. Mom came from a wealthy family (who’s star was fading) and Dad from an extremely poor family.
They both taught me that nothing is life is free. If you want something you work for it. And that saving and investing is a pretty straightforward way to become wealthy.
Do you have any favorite money books you like/recommend? If so, can you share with us your top three and why you like them?
Rich Dad Poor Dad – this one gets a lot of flak, but it’s one of my all-time favorites.
He opened my eyes on how to optimize the tax system to your advantage. In order to master any game, you need to know the rules. That should be obvious, but it’s not obvious what the rules of wealth are. He opens the door a crack and lets you peak inside.
Other than that, he’s a bit of a crackpot. Do not listen to his actual investment advice – it’s worse than Dave Ramsey’s!
Fooled by Randomness – A lot of people confuse luck with skill, and this results in overconfidence. Especially when it comes to investing.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds – This book was originally written over a hundred years ago and is still in print. It follows various investment bubbles that took place in the 1600s and 1700s. It a great book on investor psychology and how easy it is for intelligent people to get caught up in a mania of buying over-priced assets.
The last two books focus on investment psychology and behavior, one of the most crucial skills of successful investing.
Do you give to charity? Why or why not? If you do, what percent of time/money do you give?
We give to charity. It’s been steadily rising over time.
I feel our biggest charity is the government. Between Federal, State and Payroll taxes, we probably give them 30% of our income. Other charities, get substantially less than this.
We’ve also started being more generous with the people with come in direct contact with – house keepers, school teachers, and wait staff.
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?
Yes, but it’s not a requirement. We have no burning desire to leave behind a legacy.
So long as our kids figure out how to become independent, self-sufficient adults we’ll be happy, and I’m sure they’ll make their own way in this world.
My daughter started exhibiting the self-motivated, A-type, take-no-prisoners personality at 3. They started calling her Future CEO at day care. I’m not worried about her.
My son is more laid back. He will probably need to get by on his looks and personality.
They will both be expected to pull their own weight and get college scholarships. That’s our expectation, but if it doesn’t happen, we’ll pay for it from our cashflow – we haven’t started contributing to a 529 and don’t plan to either.
In case anything happens to us, our money goes in to a trust and doesn’t get fully distributed until the kids turn 35.