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Don’t Get Discouraged by Slow Initial Progress // A Blast from My Financial Past

I was cleaning out some old files yesterday when I came across this archaeological artifact:

Our Next Life -- Tanja's liquid assets 10 years before retiring early

See that number at the bottom? As of almost exactly 10 years ago — 10 years before retiring early — the net worth I could access came to a whopping $2,147.

At the time I was 28 years old, about to be promoted to vice president at work. I was still earning five figures but was well beyond entry level wages. Mark and I would be engaged within two months after I printed out these numbers. And a year beyond that, we’d buy our first place, a condo in LA.

And yet, despite having already paid off $21,000 in debt by that point, at age 28 I still didn’t have a real emergency fund. And I still owed almost as much on my student loans and car loan as I’d managed to save in mutual funds with my incremental autoinvestments of $250 per paycheck.

My grand total net worth was every so slightly higher, if you counted my just-starting-to-sprout 401(k):

Tanja's retirement savings 10 years before retiring

So my net worth after almost seven years of working was less than $30,000. Less than 1X, to put it in early retirement annual expense parlance. I’d never maxed out my 401(k) — you can see right there that my annual contribution at that point was $7,800, which was higher than prior years — and I had not a penny saved in an IRA or Roth.

But based on the retirement advice I got from USAA a few months prior, I was doing just fine:

The totality of my retirement planning as of 2007

I was still assuming I’d retire at 65 at that point, because it had not yet occurred to me that there was any other option (despite the fact that my dad retired early), and based on that, USAA told me I only needed to save $8000 a year to be on track. I was exceeding that by almost 50 percent when counting my employer match, and also saving $6000 a year in non-retirement accounts. So I was doing pretty well, right?!

If I was aiming for conventional retirement, then yes! Other than the missing emergency fund, of course. But it’s almost unfathomable looking back that this was the state of my finances a mere 10 years ago. Ten years before retiring early with a level of savings that is not bare bones, that is not (in the words of frequent commenter Phil) “sheltering in place” and that has plenty of contingencies built in.

I’ve come a long way, baby. 

Of course only a few months after committing these numbers to paper, I combined finances with Mark, who is three years older and was thus a bit farther ahead. But making our money joint only changed things a little, not by an order of magnitude. And our engagement and marriage happened to coincide with the financial crisis (we got engaged in March 2008, days after the Fed got involved to try to stabilize the housing market, and got married in August, weeks before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and kicked off the global market collapse), which did us a lot of favors in terms of making housing in Los Angeles slightly more affordable for a short time and searing into our minds the importance of buying less home than we could technically afford. The financial crisis had the immediate effect of making us kick our savings in higher gear, and the longer term effect of letting us ride the wave of this crazy long bull market (now nine years and counting) through our entire accumulation phase for early retirement.

But none of that is the point. And how I got from a barely positive net worth to early retirement in 10 years isn’t even really the point either. The point is:

I’d been paying off debt and saving for years to get to a barely positive net worth, and to save less than one year’s worth of living expenses in my retirement account. And it felt for years like I was barely making any progress.

But then, not all that long after this snapshot from the wayback machine, I hit the tipping point when saving faster became easier, and when compounding started to work in my favor — in our favor at that point — and just like that, the progress began to feel palpable.

All of which is a long way of saying: Don’t get discouraged if it feels like the going is slow at first, maybe even for the first several years! 

Don't get discouraged by slow initial progress toward early retirement, financial independence or other large money goals! Your progress will speed up over time!

Thanks to the 2008 financial crisis scaring the crap out of us (while also creating our first-ever opportunity to consider buying property in LA, something that was out of reach throughout the 2000s despite us earning a decent living), that’s really the year we got serious about saving. So finding that rundown of my finances at the start of the year is cool to see. That was my starting point on the financial independence journey in a sense. A few months after that, the debt was gone and I increased how much I was saving each month, as did Mark, and we have good records of our financial progress together post-marriage.

You might recognize this chart from our full financial rundown as of retirement:

Our Next Life early retirement financial rundown // assets and liabilities at the time of our early retirement at age 38 and 41

What’s crazy is that, despite putting a real emphasis on saving from 2008 onward, the line from 2008 to 2010 still looks pretty flat. It’s not until 2010-2011 that you start to see real year-over-year growth. But from then on, it keeps getting steeper and steeper, and the year-over-year progress is huge.

There are a bunch of reasons for all of that:

It took a while to see real effects of compounding, but after compounding kicked in, its effect was more dramatic each year.

Our earnings went up more or less consistently, so we were able to save a bit more each year than we had the year before, magnifying the effect.

In our peak earning years at the end, we were each earning six figures and could afford to save a lot by any measure.

The fact that we were saving as a couple instead of single people magnified the growth in later years for sure.

But if we could zoom all the way out to look at my money from the day I graduated from college in 2001 until I retired in 2017, you’d see a negative or negligible net worth for more than half of that time. 

Which means…

Don’t Get Discouraged By What Might Feel Like Slow Progress, Even for Years!

I spent almost seven years paying off my student, car and credit card debt, all the while feeling like I was treading water at best financially, so I get it. If I’d known about early retirement then, I don’t even know if I’d have let myself dream about it, because at the time it would have felt like setting myself up for failure and disappointment. Surely I could never save that much if I can’t even get rid of this debt faster, I’m sure I’d have thought.

And then for several years beyond that, we saved diligently and watched our numbers get bigger, but not by the leaps and bounds that can feel necessary to achieve early retirement. I didn’t dare to dream about early retirement then either.

But here we are, barely a decade later, and we did it!

Because:

Compounding is magic.

Compounding works on both your investments and your income.

Success begets success, and the more we saved, the more we wanted to save.

And because it takes a while for the locomotive to gather up steam, but once it does, there’s no stopping it. 

So if you’re in a place in your journey where you feel like you’ll never get where you want to be, or like the going is too slow, I hope seeing all of this helps.

Stay focused on your goal, let the magic of time do its thing and you’ll get there!

Let’s Share the Pep Talk!

If you’re farther along in your savings journey and seeing the numbers climb now, what helped you get through those slow-going years? What encouragement can you offer to others here who might need it? For those in the slow-going phase, what other encouragement would be helpful to have from folks? And of course if you know someone who might need this level of encouragement, I’d be delighted if you’d share the post with them! Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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142 replies »

  1. Wow, you came a long way since these early results! Congratulations

    It is very interesting to see the progression on such 10 years. Often when I read blogs, I can only see the current picture, being a bit discouraged by it, but seeing this progression is awesome. Excellent idea of posts.

    Thanks a lot for sharing.

    • This has so much awesomeness oozing off it lol
      I found some old pages from my work journal when I emptied my work office out last spring when I retired. It was such an affirmation of what is possible when you actually focus on something. Oh ya, it also feels awesome ! Stoked for you to find it as these little gems set our mind at ease on what is possible. Keep killing it and of course go send some POW now :)

      • Oh man, jello legs over here after two days of skiing pow. Making you proud! :-) I love that you found some of those old nuggets, too! It’s so cool to get a reminder of how far you’ve come. Even if we know that stuff, seeing it makes us FEEL it too.

    • I did! And thank you! :-) I wanted to share this for that exact reason — we mostly see only the late stages of people’s journey, after they’ve gotten the compounding magic going. But after I found this old document and could share the beginning of the journey, I knew I had to. :-)

    • Agree, thepoorswiss. This post inspired me to add a topic to dive into down the road myself. I can vividly recall, similarly, being just barely above “zero” in net worth, roughly 10 years ago or so. Student loans, new mortgage, car payments, and fancy vacations all take a toll. Ten years and magic compounding later, we’ve gotten to a much better place.
      (Seriously Tanja, VP at 28??? I hate you… ;-) )

  2. Great reminder! I see lots of people around me being discouraged quickly. It took me YEARS to have any substantial savings (having kids can make it tougher!) but saving consistently and having the process automated did the trick for me. Thank you dollar cost averaging!
    It will pay off, just keep at it.

  3. This is a great reminder! We felt like we were treading water for so long, and even now, as we watch the magic of compounding, it still feels like saving can be such a slow process (we only have one full-time income). But like you said, success begets success, and it is encouraging to watch your net worth rise almost as much as your income, and then hopefully more than your income, as the years go by. I am bad at remembering how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished. Looking at old budgets and records is a great idea, to encourage ourselves that we’ve really made lots of progress.

    • I agree completely! Go back and look at those old records — OFTEN if you need to! — and then the progress becomes so much more visible and exciting. In my spreadsheet workbook, I keep track of net worth from every year we’ve been married, and I LOVE checking in on that rundown. That’s also a good exercise for tapping into some gratitude, which is a great antidote to impatience. :-)

      • Tanja, this article really resonated with me. My wife and I retired in our mid-40s. We’ve been tracking our net worth monthly on a spreadsheet since Jan 2004. People sometimes ask “what’s our secret”. Beyond all the excellent points made on FI websites, my #1 tip is always track your net worth, preferably monthly. You don’t know where you are going, and how you are progressing, without having history. I thought of early retirement like a project at work. You don’t do a big project at work with a project plan and goals. But the biggest benefit is…you can see how you are progressing each month and each year. It keeps this at the forefront of your brain. With that data, you’ll know if you aren’t making the progress you want and you can make changes. So many friends work five years and have nothing financially to show for it because they aren’t watching and tracking their net worth.

        • I could not agree more. When I started to track things is when I began unlocking the magic. Of course that time in my life coincided with an increase in income and with combining my money with Mark’s, but still… I think if we hadn’t been tracking, we wouldn’t have made the progress we did.

  4. I needed this!! We are just starting out our journey (less than a year in). While we are lucky enough to be debt free, other than our mortgage, it still has been daunting to think about how far we have to go. Some days it feels like we’ll never reach the point where the compounding really starts to make a significant difference. But I know if we stay the course we will get there!

  5. Great post and great reminder! We’re still not at net worth zero, but this is the long game, and patience pays dividends! The net worth trajectory graph is pure gold. So inspiring!

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Tanja! It is very encouraging! I feel (optimistically) like I’m getting close to the turning point where things start to accelerate, as I finally have a real plan for saving and I’m about to get an income bump. I know I’m still at the beginning of my own journey, but I’m looking forward to seeing that compounding magic kick in!!

    • You’re welcome! :-) And how exciting that you’re approaching the pivot point. But even if you don’t see it right away with your pay bump (congrats!), stick with it, because our acceleration point came seemingly out of the blue.

  7. This is a great post and I hope that a lot of people will read it. I wish I had read it when I was younger! I, too, have been surprised at the way my own “net worth trajectory” seemed to gain momentum and take off on its own at a certain point. I do think it’s important to mention, though, that your growth period (like mine) coincided with an extremely favorable investing environment. 2008-2010 was a great time to be buying stocks! In 2016, CNN/Money wrote that the S&P 500 had nearly tripled (up 194% to be exact) since its low point on March 9, 2009 – and then 2017 wasn’t too shabby, either. I consider myself very lucky in that regard. A 194% return in 7 years is something that I don’t ever expect to see again.

    • Thanks, Diane! I’m glad you thought so. :-D It’s absolutely true, as I mentioned in the post and as you said, that we had the crazy luck of a bull market through our entire accumulation phase. Now we’re just hoping not to get clobbered by a bear market and hit a bad sequence of returns!

  8. The beginning has definitely been slow! Nearly 4 years post college and I’m already getting antsy for that time when compounding takes hold and skyrockets my net worth! I suppose for now I’ll just have to be patient, focus on my savings rate and enjoy the journey 🙂

  9. Thanks for this post. Unfortunately my numbers (at age 36) are far worse than yours were 10 years ago — I’m hoping to crack $0 net worth by this summer — but the principle still applies. And luckily my goal is not early retirement but rather just *retirement*, so maybe I’ll make it, haha.

      • Ah thanks, yeah, I’m plugging away. One thing that’s cool to see as I go along is that not only does the compound interest principle come into play with investment accounts, but so does the reverse of that with loans (i.e. the more principal you repay, the less interest accrues). And since I’m simultaneously saving for retirement and repaying loans, it feels like I’m getting double compound interest. Or something like that.

        • I totally think you are getting the double compounding in a good way! I’m so stoked for you that you’re making such solid progress. I know where you started with all of this. :-)

  10. Compounding is magic indeed. I too found an old financial plan that was put in place 30 years and 4 kids ago. It was amazing that college for my kids cost exactly what they estimated – which I didn’t believe as possible ($80K for the oldest and $100K for the youngest) and that my magic number was achieved by age 55 which was my retirement goal. My salary progression did not follow the plan, luckily, as I got some big promotions and big compensation increases (vs. the 4% a year in the financial plan). Not so luckily the spending projections were also wrong was we allowed spending inflation to take hold as I earned more.

    Our retirement plan has 6% growth and 3% inflation built in so I feel that I have been fairly conservative. I also looked at my investment growth for the past 10 years – from 2007 to 2017. What was amazing was that we averaged 11% growth over that time with some real bit gains but also with some big yearly losses as well.

    Stay the course, spend considerably less than you earn and the growth of your investments will surprise you. It may not be that way forever but it has been that way for a long, long time. All of you FIRE-folks inspire me. I got to FIRE very late by this and other blog standards. I have 15 days until my retirement and I’m happy to have made it and I wish the best for those who are at the start of their journeys

    • We have a toddler and the college tuition projections are mind-boggling, like $250k-$300k. yikes. It’s helpful to hear someone further down the path report that although they sound insane in present dollars, it is probably an accurate forecast.

      Congratulations on your retirement!

      • There’s always public school. ;-) We both did well in our careers after getting liberal arts degrees from state schools. I’m sure that will still be a ton in today’s dollars, but less at least. :-)

        • Kate – you may be an east or west coaster and schools there are a bit expensive. In Texas and the mid-west I hear that ~$30K a year still gets you 15 credits a semester and room/board. But if you kids go out of state or you are in the North East then you can double that. I agree with Tanja in that state schools offer great value for the dollar and unless there is something very specialized in terms of study and/or career then IMHO the extra expense for a “top tier” university is likely not worth it.

        • I understand that everyone has different priorities and it’s great we can all make our own choices on this. Some people think college is no longer necessary at all, and I happen to disagree. ;-) Others say elite private schools are worth the money for the networks. But I love folks chiming in with different views on this stuff!

        • My husband and I both went to a state university in the midwest and loved it, got fantastic jobs upon graduation, definitely not against public education. We forecasted tuition expenses based on past YoY increases, it’s darn near $250k for 4 years ~20 years from now. Does anyone know of a better tool or methodology to use?

        • Gotcha. I always love meeting public school fans. :-) And given that we have no kids, I am no help on college cost projections, but others please weigh in!

    • Wow, that’s great your estimations were right on for college. And it sounds like your retirement plan is nice and conservative with only 3% real returns required. My kind of plan. ;-)

      Soooooo excited for you in your home stretch! Soak it all in! :-)

  11. I really connected with this post. Your story and shared thoughts are not that different from my experience. I also started putting simple financial statements together as my wife and I saved through the years, and boy am I glad we did. The savings at times did seem small( especially when we first started with $100 per month), but tracking our success kept us inspired and allowed us to dream, and to stay the course.
    Also the power of compounding surprised me. All of a sudden the numbers jumped faster and bigger than we expected. I’d heard that this was typical, but to experience it first hand was really an exciting time. I think this was really the first time when I thought about the many additional opportunities this larger savings could provide for.

    Thanks for sharing your insights, and for others on the saving treadmill don’t get discouraged. Stay the course and the rewards/options will be many.

    • Thanks for sharing your story! That’s super encouraging, too! And I couldn’t agree more — when you actually see that compounding magic start happening in YOUR OWN PORTFOLIO, it’s almost hard to believe! :-)

  12. This is very timely for me, you must have been feeling my anxiety vibes ripple through the air! I graduated college in 12/2008 (best time EVAR!), and have been working so hard to pay off my debts since learning about FI/RE in about 2013 or so. Last year I finally finished paying off my student loans after putting a thousand or two there per month..and it was hard. Like, super truly hard to keep dedicating that money to it month after month. I cried a lot, I admit, and I still do at times out of frustration. I’m so close to paying off my car loan (hopefully by June!) which gets about $1,500/month at this point. I can tell you, even knowing that the scales will tip soon regarding where my money goes (debt payoff vs investments), I still feel like I am stuck in tar, going nowhere. And that sadness has penetrated deep at times, and I know you probably understand how hopeless and helpless that quagmire can feel. So that’s where I am at. I’m so close and yet I feel so, so far from the overall goal. Like I said, this post is very timely, and it makes me feel so much better. I’m thinking I’m super close to where you were in 01/2008 with your numbers, and, well..honestly, seeing in your trajectory that those first few years were pretty flat is also scary to see. :O But you have helped alleviate some feelings I have swirling inside. I need to put my big girl pants on and be patient and continue to be strong in my resolve. :) I’ve been keeping a Net Worth chart for myself (and jointly for SO and I) since 2017 (to continue helping fuel the hope) and I am very much looking forward to when it begins to climb a little steeper each month/year. :) Thank you for this post!! <3 <3

    • I’m so glad this post helped you a bit! Have you read my podcast partner Kara’s blog, Bravely Go? She graduated around the same time as you and had some major hard times in paying off her debt. I bet you’d really relate to her story and feel encouraged by it, because now she’s past the debt and is rocking at life. You’re indeed SO CLOSE, and while I can definitely relate to it feeling far, just focus on one day at a time, and you’ll get there. And congrats on being so close to being debt free! It is going to feel AMAZING when that weight is lifted!

  13. I really liked seeing all the old USAA documents… brings back some memories.

    I remember you talking about your “big baller years”, so I imagine that saving could have been better if that was the big goal. Of course, we all have different thoughts, philosophies, and goals at different times. I suppose my point here is that when people are really active in saving, they’ll probably see progress.

    One of the (few) great things about having a low net worth is that it’s easier to high percentage gains. If your net worth is $20,000 and you save $7000 in a year, that’s more than 33% net worth growth. If you get up to $2,000,000 in net worth, it’s really, really difficult to grow your net worth 33% or more than $650,000 a year.

    • Oh absolutely. Saving was not a big priority at this stage in life, but paying off debt was, so “baller years” is relative. ;-) And such a good point about enjoying those big percentage jumps in the early saving years! And then you get additional joy when your later big dollar jumps skew the scale and make those early jumps look teensy. :-)

  14. Congratulations Keith2.0 only 15 days to go. I’ll be retiring shortly before my 55th birthday, which will be roughly 7 years from now.

    To the younger folks needing some encouragement: think about how great it is that you discovered the concept of FIRE at a relatively young age. When Keith and I were your ages the idea of FIRE didn’t have a wide-spread existence. It wasn’t out there to find because people weren’t talking and blogging about it on a daily basis.

    Though I wish I had discovered the idea of FIRE sooner, what I can say is that because my wife and I had been saving/investing at the “normal” rate for 20 years we did have something to work with once we caught wind of FIRE.

    I like to make an analogy between reaching FIRE and bringing a big pot of water to a boil. For 20 years we were applying medium/low heat to the pot by saving at the “normal” rate. Our net worth was very slowly but steadily growing. The pot was getting warmer. Once we committed to reaching FIRE we made many tweaks to our spending, which allowed dramatically increased savings, and the next thing we know our net worth is growing faster and faster.

    Making those changes was like reaching over to the stove and cranking the burner from medium/low to full blast. The pot will be boiling in no time but it still seems to take longer when you’re constantly watching it.

    • Oh, wow, that boiling pot analogy is PERFECT! And I’m definitely thankful that we discovered the FI concept in our early 30s (later than many folks today!), but the flipside for folks in their 20s now is they’re so much more likely to have student loan debt than Gen X or Boomers were, and to have a hard time finding a good job. So I think having the gift of fire at an earlier age is the least we can give them. :-)

      • Thanks thegrayingsaver. The next 7 years will go faster than you will imagine. When I think I worked 37 years it seems impossible. Some days and a few weeks seemed like they would never end – but at the same time the months and years just flew by. Is you wife 100% on the aggressive saving and controlling spending page? Mine, I think, humors me to a certain extent. She has always been thrifty BUT she went through a period when the kids were much younger that spending was a bit out of control when it came to the kids.

        Now, none of us – me, wife or kids want anything so quality time and experiences are our focus and I love that vs. buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff.

        • I think getting on the same page on spending is tough when you don’t have the vision, but so much easier when you know what you’re aiming for and agree that’s what you both want. I always think it pays off to have that conversation first instead of just nitpicking each other’s spending choices. :-)

  15. It’s really amazing to go from so little to early retirement in 10 years. My wife and I started saving early. We lived with our respective parents for a year (her) or two (me) after college and started building towards freedom. Still, it’s going to take longer because we decided to give up her income for her to be a stay at home mom for a while. Having two large incomes and keeping expenses low is so extremely powerful.

    Thanks for sharing this motivation. The best time to start saving was years ago. The second best time to start is today.

    • Great use of that old Chinese proverb! ;-) And wow, how great that you guys got such a financial headstart. And while you’re trading income now, I’m sure it’s worth it because you’re getting the joy of kids. 100% true though that two high incomes and low expenses is a pretty amazing fire accelerant. ;-)

  16. This post made me want to go scare up the spreadsheet I used to track my monthly net worth back in my 20s! I wonder if it’s still sitting on my hard drive somewhere. It’s awesome to know that my family is on a similar path to the one you’ve taken to early retirement. Gives me hope that we’ll get there are some point. ;-)

    Your post is a great reminder that consistent savings and focus are powerful tools indeed!

  17. This post inspires so much hope, thank you for sharing! I wish we were able to take more advantage of the markets immediately after the crash. Unfortunately/fortunately, we’ve been heavily investing the past 3 years when things have been rocking; our portfolio could benefit from a stock “sale” as we are still years away from RE.

    Similar to you, it took us a few years (5-ish) to really see the growth curve steepen and soak up all of that compounding goodness. It is the motivation we’ve needed to keep up the optimization efforts. Keep it up folks!

    • Oh I’m so glad to know that! And regardless of where you are in the market cycle, remember that the biggest predictor of success is not WHEN you invest, but for how long. (“Time in the market, not timing the market.”) So you are still going to benefit from your investments whether or not you get a sale. Keep up the great savings work!

  18. in 1991 the economy was really in the crapper. i shared one of many hovels with my 2 best friends and we were out of work, despite being capable young souls. this was post college although one only one of us had graduated and for his bachelor’s reward his job was sweeping up in a parking ramp. he joined the army during the gulf war out of desperation. somehow with temp jobs the rent was always paid but we needed heat and elec. assistance one winter (buffalo, so you can’t wait). i remember the utility bills would come and we would just throw them away without opening them, as there was no blood from a stone and we looked for work every day. we even got to know the collection agents by name. that was kind of a slow start to adulthood saving but, like you and mark, it really only took about 10 years once we got serious. thanks for the post. don’t give up hope, y’all. be patient.

  19. I needed this today!

    We are maybe just starting to see an inflection point in our trajectory, but it still feels like a long way to go. Reading about others’ success is really inspiring, but sometimes it makes me feel “behind”. I have to keep reminding myself that we are not just running out the clock right now—these years matter just as much as our post-retirement years will, and given the uncertain nature of life, these working years may actually be the only ones we get. We’re taking this time to figure out what hobbies/volunteer opportunities/schedules really make us happy, so we won’t be facing a blank page if/when we’re lucky enough to retire early. And we’re enjoying the stability and comfort that come from set schedules, regular paychecks, and young, healthy bodies.

    Your post reminds me that this is a phase of life that we likely won’t get again, so we should lean into it and enjoy the ride rather than rushing through and hoping for it to be over. Thanks as always for your relatable, insightful writing.

    • It sounds like you have exactly the right perspective on your current years! Though I get how slow that progress can feel, and I’m glad this post was helpful to you! Absolutely agree with you about enjoying the ride! Don’t try to press fast forward on your life. :-)

  20. Thanks for sharing.
    We are now 3 years in and it still feels flat. Especially when I compare to other FIRE jonses. I know not to do that…
    I do see progeess,not as much as I hoped for. In fact, I would love to have a 2018 like 2008. That way, a steam train can get us up to speed as well.

  21. FIRE does seem like such a distant place when you are just starting out or in the early years. It’s hard to stay focussed on something that may be so far in the future. But remember the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race. If this was easy everyone would be doing it. And I’m sure it makes the achievement that much sweeter when it finally arrives. Anybody that is in the early stages or just starting out should take a minute and feel proud of themselves for even being on this path. To have taken control of your own future and start saving is a massive leap for many people. That is an achievement in itself.

    A complimentary graph could show a really steep curve at the outset followed by a gentle slope to retirement – that would be the mindset development needed, education and forming good habits at the start of the journey and then seeing it through to the end. The magic of investment compounding is at its height towards the end of the journey, but much of the hardest work and overcoming the biggest obstacles happens at the start.

    • I agree with every word you wrote here! And I love your point about the complimentary graph, because it’s so true that the learning curve is steepest at the time when you’re seeing the least progress, so it feels doubly overwhelming. But it’s so true that the learning curve flattens out!

  22. Remembering that both savings AND income can be compounding is a huge factor. While I may still have a slightly below “average” income for a single person in our area, combined we are doing quite well, and I do expect that number to increase over the next decade as well. It is pretty incredible though how different “doing well” is for traditional versus early retirement. It makes you realize that so many people could react FI sooner if they just had any clue.

    • Oh I firmly believe that more people could become FI if they had proper financial literacy education and knew what was possible. Because YES, the compounding works on both ends!

  23. Oh my, I love this post! Very inspiring. Compounding, saving, time, and living below your means is a simple recipe for success. For us, it has been a little slower going with a kiddo. The little is EXPENSIVE (day care, sports, college, activities, food, housing, living in a good school district, etc.). But, despite our largest expense (and most treasured journey) we’re working hard to retire early too. Kudos to you and we can’t wait to be a part of the FIRE club!

    • I’m so glad! :-) I’m sure it’s impossible not to compare your progress to others, especially bloggers who tend to be on the faster paths, but it’s so true that you’ll get there. Probably faster than you imagine right now!

  24. I can honestly say I feel you so much right now! You are living proof that achieving FI is all about commitment!
    I am in a similar spot right now; I’m trying to build up both my net worth and my emergency fund and it’s been very slow progress. However, reading stories such as yours (and The hubby’s) make me motivated to keep going because I’ll get there eventually!
    Great post as always :)

  25. Thanks for sharing, I get discouraged someyimes but I try and remember to think about how you have come instead of how far you have to go. When I think about it the that way I am not as frustrated, I know having one middle class income will mean it takes awhile but I try to enjoy my journey too since might be more than 10 years more (only started lastlast at 37 decent amount saved)

  26. This is exactly what I needed to read! I’m 26, making a great income, but not feeling like I’m getting any closer towards FIRE. I have a goal of reaching FIRE in 10 years, but by my rough calculations it’s going to take me 22 years at my current pace >.<
    I know compounding interest makes that huge difference, but I just need to see it before I can believe it. Curious, what was the point when you really saw your net worth start to take off? Was it a certain point in savings? Hitting a large income number? Anecdotally, I've heard 250K in assets can grow steadily on their own (which feels so far off).
    This post was incredibly encouraging; I hope you share more journey posts (and of course plenty of early retirement enjoyment posts, too).

    • I’m so glad! And remember that your income will likely go up, so you’ll be continuously increasing your savings rate. That makes a HUGE difference! Starting about eight years ago, we banked ALL of our raises, and you can definitely see what that did to the chart. ;-) I would say that was the beginning of the tipping point, when we really focused on increasing our savings rate and not just saving consistently. We still would have gotten to FI with consistent saving, but it would have taken longer. And thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this post — I’ll for sure keep sharing more about the journey! :-)

  27. Tanja, I just went back into Quicken (I have 24 years worth of data!) and found that at the exact same age, we were within $2K of where you were. Small world. While I couldn’t retire until age 45 (military), we were on very similar tracts. And it is amazing how fast things grew after age 28.

    • Wow! So cool you have so much data! And yeah, I wonder if there’s some magic in 28?! (I also don’t blame you at all for sticking in the military until 45. I would 100% have kept working if I could get health care guaranteed for life!)

      • I remember thinking awhile back that there was something magical about age 28. At 28, I was about to finish grad school and we were debating what next steps to take. We ended up on a fun, life-changing adventure in India for a few months before returning to “real life.” Many years later, I heard that Stevie Nicks wrote her amazing song “Landslide” at age 28, on the cusp of some major decisions in her life:
        http://performingsongwriter.com/stevie-nicks-landslide/

        It’s probably something about the age that we begin maturing in earnest, but it’s cool to think that when you really focus on something, that persistence will pay off!

        • That’s wild. For sure lots of people have different life trajectories, so 28 isn’t necessarily a certain career point, but it’s a good point about maturing to a new level around then. And what a cool fact about Stevie… though the line “I’m getting older too” in Landslide now means something different to me knowing she was 28 and not actually “older.” ;-)

  28. Thanks for another great (and timely!) post. We figure we are about 5-7 years away from full FI (less if we go lean but not sure if I can stomach that risk!). Some months it feels like the investments are just stagnant as the market will go up and down through the month and then settle where it started-only just rising by what we put in each month. My husband keeps assuring me that in a year or two we will really see the benefits of compounding but for now it seems as though the money is slowly ticking up. But it is certainly helpful to see how far we’ve come. 6-7 years ago we were saving 10% of our earnings with no debt and thought we were doing amazing (and this was reinforced by our financial planner!). Flash forward to present, gone is the financial planner, we’ve gained tonnes of financial knowledge, drastically increased our savings rate and plan to retire 20 years ahead of schedule :). Good to look back occasionally to remain proud of the present. Thanks for the post!

    • I’m so glad you can look back and see how far you’ve already come! And I should share our Vanguard chart soon that shows how long it took compounding to kick in. We have YEARS of nearly all growth being from our contributions, even when the markets were going gangbusters. So yeah, it takes time. But soon, the magic takes over! :-)

  29. Great post. It inspired me to go back and look at our “spreadsheet” and see where we were back in January 2008 by comparison. Our total net worth (all accounts plus home equity and mortgage debt) was only 17% of what it is today. Our retirement net worth (only retirement accounts), which was actually higher than our total net worth back in 2008 because we still had a mortgage debt, was only 25% of what it is today. In January 2008, we’d be saving since we got married in mid-1994….13½ years…. and in 2017, our retirement accounts (with our contributions and growth) grew in ONE YEAR by almost the same amount we’d managed to grow our retirement accounts by in the first 13½ years. Another comparison… our total net worth (with our contributions and growth) in 2017 grew by 140% of our gross combined salaries. Compounding is magic!

    • WOW! Those numbers are so awesome! Thank you for digging out your spreadsheets and sharing this math with all of us. If that isn’t proof of the magic, I don’t know what is. ;-)

      • Thanks. It’s been quite a journey. If this helps some of the younger folks out there beginning their journey but struggling and wondering if they can do it… here’s our story. It’s quite a bit different than yours and Mark’s, and our timeline is longer, but it shows that almost under any circumstances, it can be done.

        My wife and I were married right out of college in 1994 with elementary education teaching degrees. From 1994 – 1997, unable to find a permanent teaching position, I was a part-time substitute teacher earning $6K as well as a part-time pizza delivery driver… and my wife was a parochial school teacher earning less than $20K. In 1997, still without a permanent teaching job, I took a permanent position as an entry level lab technician earning less than $24K. From 1997 – 1999, our combined earnings were less than $45K and any extra we had went into our fixer upper. In 1999, my wife stopped working when our 1st was born and my salary, now at $29K, needed to support us. Our 2nd was born in 2001 and our 3rd was born in 2003. By 2007, 13½ years after graduating from college and getting married, I was “comfortably” earning $47K and my wife had just returned to work teaching pre-school two half mornings per week. Finally having a little extra in our budget, that’s when we officially “got serious”. As the years passed, my wife’s part-time work grew and now she’s back to teaching kindergarten full-time. For me, my salary didn’t really have any major leaps and bounds until 2013 when I was downsized. Leaving my first company and being hired by another was a huge jump. 2013 also coincided with when we paid off our mortgage… another huge boost in savings. Having just completed our 2017 taxes, we celebrated a milestone… for the first time in 23 years; our combined AGI broke the six-figure mark. Just goes to show… you DO need to make more than you “need”, but you don’t have to make a ton to achieve early FI. Now in 2018, we’re in our later 40s and our three boys are all in high school. We’ve got 529 accounts padded. In another 3 years, I’ll be in a position to significantly downsize and align my work with my wife’s 9 month schedule… and a few years after that, we should be in a position to fully-retire in our early 50s with lot of padding and conservative math in that magic number.

        Embrace the journey… and experience the JOY it brings!

        • Thank you so much for coming back and adding this extra depth to your story! And even more wow! Congrats on cracking 6 figures, but you’re so right that it’s hugely encouraging to see that large incomes aren’t necessary to retire early and securely, even with kids! Wow wow wow. :-)

  30. I really love this post! I’m very new to the world/idea or FIRE (but have been reading lots on PF for years) and kinda assumed it was out of reach. It was just a nice inspiration to pay off my student loans and save more, but not a real option since I’m already 30 with a long way to go on building net worth. It’s like you just opened a door and said “Come on in!” and I now think that maybe its not such a crazy idea afterall.
    I’m new to commenting (mostly been binge-reading ONL for the last few weeks) but loving your blog and this post just further cements that I would be thrilled to be like you “when i grow up”! (I don’t know if this phrase is more funny to me because I’m already “grown-up” or because deep down I don’t think I’ll ever really “grow up” :) haha)

    • That is the best news ever if this post made you feel welcome in the FIRE community! I think I was 32 when we discovered FIRE, so you’re already way ahead of where I was! And the grown-up note made me laugh because our underlying goal in all of this is never having to grow up. ;-)

  31. Love this blast from the past! I also have had fun looking back at my financial progress, and seeing how “little” I had in the beginning. It reinforces that this system really works! I don’t think I ever felt like I was making slow progress though, because I didn’t really have any money goals back then, and I hadn’t discovered the concept of early retirement yet. But it took me about 7 years to reach 100k NW, and I think if I had specific goals then it would have felt like forever. But since I was just like, “I want to be a person who’s good with money,” it made the slow progress pretty negligible. Now that I’m married and I’ve seen compounding works, I know that it will only be a few more years until I’ve reached that level of “rich” that I never thought possible when I was a kid.

    Also, I hope your archives pages is getting some love :)

    • I didn’t have a concept of slow progress either because I wasn’t working toward any goal in particular. It was more like I had the mindset that I was bad at saving and therefore couldn’t save. (BS!) But I also didn’t let myself dream big dreams, which makes me sad… though obviously the story has a very happy ending! :-) That’s super impressive that you got to $100K in 7 years! Though not surprising given everything I know about you. :-) And the archive actually IS getting a lot of love — thanks again for the nudge!

  32. It’s amazing that you guys have been able to accumulate what you have in such a short time. It’s also amazing that financial advisors are telling people they should shoot for a retirement age of 65 when most professionals can afford to put more than 8k away (if they really try). Thanks for the perspective. Even tho we’re pretty far along in our savings journey, it can still feel like like a never ending journey.

    • Oh my gosh, I won’t even get started on retirement advice and all my problems with it. ;-) We’ve definitely been there, of feeling like the journey would never end, but I am so glad I have all the numbers and can share what it actually looks like to save — all the best progress is at the very end, but you have to get started!

  33. Thank you for sharing this! I read so many financial blogs, but feel discouraged when I have substantial school loans that I’m still focusing on. This helps put it more into perspective and gives me hope that I’m not as far out as it seems.

  34. Wow that is phenomenal how things can change in 10 years – especially when it seems like nothing is happening in the first few years! Awesome message and encouragement! (Yes, I need a good dose of this too….)

  35. Amazing progress and very encouraging to someone who started a little later to the game… as you said “the more we saved, the more we wanted to save” same here- it turns into a challenge! I would add that when our mindset changed, our money followed. Thanks for sharing!

  36. Selfishly, this is my favorite post of yours. It does feel like treading water even though I KNOW that I’m doing the right things and change is gonna come. But seeing the monumental leap your chart eventually makes is much easier now that it is grounded in that tiny starting number.

    That’s all to say, thank you for this post and encouragement!

  37. Finally getting around to this post, and thank you SO MUCH for it. “If I’d known about early retirement then, I don’t even know if I’d have let myself dream about it, because at the time it would have felt like setting myself up for failure and disappointment” is about the point where, as Kara says all the time, my soul ascended from my body. I’ve got a blog so on some level I’ve committed and am letting myself dream about FIRE. But I joke a lot about how damn long it’ll take me to get there because it’s a laughing-to-keep-from-crying situation, and I do try not to let myself think about it as anything more concrete than an interesting thought experiment because it does feel impossible right now. I know I’m young and have time on my side, but it’s a lot harder to keep that in mind when I look at how relatively constrained I am by my salary (and the fact that I don’t have a partner).

    But this post is so incredibly encouraging. Thank you, thank you, thank you for it!

    • Your note totally made my day, Erin. :-) I really believe everything I wrote here, that so much is possible in a relatively short time if you just focus on those baby steps at first. Everything might feel out of reach, and like nothing is happening, but it’s not true. I know having a partner helped speed me along, but I now believe I still would have gotten to FI solo, just on a slightly longer timeline. But you’re also starting to think about this stuff much earlier than I did, so I have total confidence that is going to get you to your goals nice and fast. :-)

  38. Hi Tanja, I just wanted to let you know that due to this excellent blog post, I went back and looked closely at all my contributions to my 401k account (25 years). It showed me some pretty interesting things like I also got started very slowly and it took over 10 years of contributions before I hit six figures, but after that the timeframes has been reduced to keep hitting different $$ milestones. Thank you for your post, because I probably would NOT have gone back and done this analysis, which gave me some pretty good insights to myself and my retirement goals. Also, loved your selfie on the ski lift with your ski helmet.

    • I love that! I can imagine that was super inspiring to see your progress line. And hahaha — glad you enjoyed that goofy selfie. We had a good stretch of March snow for a while there! ;-)

    • I’m so glad you found it motivating! I wonder if I could dig up numbers showing the dips after each of our property purchases — we definitely felt it after we bought our first place, and it took a little while before we could see forward progress again. So hang in there!

  39. Great thoughts on staying the course. Once you understand how compounding works, it’s easier to hang in there. The growth curve is very flat at first. That is why it is so important to start early. You must get through the flat part of the curve. In the first part, only you are working for your future. Then you begin to recruit your money to work also. Soon your money is doing more work at increasing your wealth then you are. That’s when the curve really starts to point up and you see real progress.

    The first million is the hardest. Then the first million starts to work for you and do all the heavey lifting, then each million after that becomes easier. Stay the couse.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Dr. Cory S. Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

  40. This is so encouraging. It’s hard to believe that that was JUST 10 YEARS before you retired, and you had no idea where you’d be today at that point. It definitely feels like I am making SLOW progress on massive student debt right now, but I really wonder where I’ll be ten years from today and I bet if I could see the future I’d be happily surprised because I’m building that foundation with everything I’m doing now. Thanks for this encouraging perspective, Tanja!

    • You are so welcome! Of course I don’t think we would be where we are now if we hadn’t gotten very serious and focused about saving right after this point, but I think that that same logic could be applied to anyone. If you really make paying off debt and saving money your top priority, you can achieve a whole lot in a decade! :-)

  41. This is so inspirational. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately feeling “trapped” and weighted down by the impossible feeling of getting ahead monetarily. I have student loan debt, medical debt, a car loan, a mortgage (and three young children)… although my husband and I make a decent living, it still literally feels like living paycheck to paycheck. This is the first year we’ve really been able to “save” and increase our retirement contributions on top of those things. Thanks so much for your blog; I always feel inspired and empowered when I read it… we are the architects of our own destiny, we have so much more power and control over our lives than we feel like, sometimes. You always remind me of that! It helps to re-center my perception of the “locus of control” back onto myself, instead of all those outside forces.

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