The first wave of millennials turned 40 this year and although you can find thousands of memes making fun of how different we are from previous generations, the reality is that many millennials have settled into careers and marriages and in many ways are as conventional as prior generations. It hasn’t been easy though, just ask Mark Williams.

Mark, 39, moved to Los Angeles after graduating with a degree in film and literature, with dreams of becoming a film producer. He took a job assisting a film producer earning $250/week. He would wait on tables on nights and weekends just to afford his rent. After a stressful year of working multiple jobs to make ends meet, Mark decided it was time to pivot. He set aside his dream of becoming a film producer and instead focused on stability. He landed a job at a tech company where he was able to learn a specialized skill and become an expert in his field. After paying off some credit card debt, Mark slowly began investing through his employer’s 401k, and after marrying his college sweetheart, they combined forces and began saving for their first home. Today, Mark and Ari live an active lifestyle, traveling the world a few times a year (pre-COVID), and are virtually debt-free thanks to the small and steady financial decisions that they made early on in their lives and careers. 

We sat down with Mark to pick his brain and learn about his financial journey, both setbacks and successes. As it turns out, the roots of his sound financial decision-making are founded in his upbringing, more specifically his father’s influence. Mark observed his father, who was a teacher for many years and later a principal, achieve a six-figure retirement by planning and saving properly on a teacher’s salary. He turned a modest salary into a financially independent retirement which inspired Mark to make the stable financial decisions that have led him to this point.

On investing early, how did you know where to start?

My dad instilled solid financial literacy at an early age; in the 1970s while he was still teaching before succeeding as a principal, a friend of his shared how he had accumulated a wealth of $100k into retirement. That was a great deal of money at that time! My dad wondered how in making the same salary he could acquire that wealth. He started putting money towards his 403(b), similar to a 401k but for teachers, and through small and steady contributions, his money grew well into the six figures.

My brothers were great savers, and I was the spender, but my father always told us to look at the value of the overall package when assessing a job opportunity. When deciding to take a job, it’s important to not only assess the base salary but to also look at the value of the benefits such as health insurance and a 401k match. If the company is willing to match your investment in the 401k, then this may make up for a lesser salary. If the company is lacking or missing a 401k, this might be a sign to take a different offer or ask for a higher salary.

What do you recommend in terms of investing when getting started?

ETFs are a great way to get started. It stands for exchange-traded funds, and they are offered by companies such as Vanguard, or Fidelity to name a few. You can think of a fund as a basket of stocks picked for you so you don’t necessarily have to be a stock market wiz. Your investments can mirror that of an index such as the S&P 500. I don’t assume to be a professional and although I do play with some stock-picking apps like Robinhood, I mostly stick to ETFs. 

A CD also makes a great method for saving if you know the exact time frame in which you’ll need the money. It has a fixed interest rate so that you know exactly how much you’ll earn. We utilized this savings method and borrowed some money from our 401ks to purchase our first home. The only thing I would do differently is to start saving and investing sooner. 

Can you speak on your experience with credit card debt?

After college, I moved to Los Angeles from Michigan and began spending beyond my means accruing credit card debt. I ended up owing close to $10,000. Though my job and salary were good at the time it was difficult to make a dent in this debt I had accrued on top of bills and everyday expenses. I made the decision for several reasons to temporarily move back to Michigan and move back in with my parents to pay off this debt.

Don’t be afraid to take a step backward in order to take 10 sound financial steps forward.

The small sacrifice is worth it to put yourself in a better position financially. I was also able to put some money aside for an engagement ring for my now wife, Ari. I did end up paying off all my debt before I began investing. You don’t necessarily have to wait, however, I would recommend doing both even if you’re only able to save and invest $25/month. A little can go a long way when you start early!

Do you and your wife have the same money mindset in terms of investing?

My wife is definitely more of a saver. She wants to pay off our home right away, whereas I don’t necessarily approach it as vigorously. We both want to save and build wealth for our retirement while also having money to travel and enjoy life now. It’s all about the balance. Most importantly, we want to be prepared to enjoy our retirement and not have to worry when that time comes.

Do you think people need a financial advisor to get started?

In the beginning, I started with an advisor and completed a risk assessment. However, I do think it’s important to do your own research as you can make sound investment and saving decisions independently.

I followed a great deal of Warren Buffet’s advice when I dabbled in investing in stocks for the first time, I started small and what I was familiar with. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Any advice for your younger self?

My first piece of advice would be, don’t spend beyond your means and pay your credit cards off completely each month and on time. My second piece of advice would be to start a 401k (or any other retirement plan) as soon as you can and invest with a long-term mindset.

Have automatic deductions from your paycheck each month going directly into your 401k or savings. If you don’t see it, you don’t spend it, and you don’t miss it!

Mark’s story proves that you don’t have to hit the lottery or work 10 jobs to afford the life of your dreams. There is no such thing as “get rich quick” and 99% of the time you end up losing money in those type of deals. You’re more likely to accumulate wealth through small, steady, and consistent contributions to your savings and investments. It takes patience and a strong will to ride out bad years but in its over 200-year history, the markets have always recovered and returned an average of 9%. The true secret is to start early, no matter how small it is.

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