Saving a 100,000 by 24

Saving that first $100,000 is a bear! It took hustle, grit, hard choices, fighting against the tide, and vision. We tracked every penny, and reviewed our budget every week. We were just starting out and the first $100k felt like a long battle. By contrast, I’m almost embarrassed by how easy this last $100,000 has been. But I say that to encourage you. The first 100k sucks. Then it starts getting much, much easier after you have some momentum, have learned a few frugal skills, and found a fulfilling life that doesn’t take a whole pile of cash to maintain. At 19, we shared $50,000 in debt. By 24, we were debt free and had a cool $100,000 in the bank. Here is how we made that happen.

Here is a rough tally of our $55,000 debt when I was 19 (Adam was 24).

Mine: $10,000

A hospital bill (I thought had been paid) from high school when I didn’t have insurance. But the debt was in my name, and my responsibility to figure out how to pay for it.

His: $10,000

Credit card debt. Whenever Adam came up short on funds during college he charged it. He used it like back up student loans (not smart!).

His: $35,000

Student loans.

Here’s what we did to pay off the debt and save that first $100,000.

1. Lived in a Travel Trailer

After we were married, we moved into student housing for a few months, but realized we could pay off our credit cards faster if we moved back into the travel trailer I owned (and had lived in for a year to go to school). That saved us about $200 a month that we could put straight to the credit cards. Despite only earning about $12,000 that year, we had paid off the first $3,000 in credit card debt.

For the record, this was 16 years ago. Tiny homes weren’t a thing. It was NOT cool. And it wasn’t even a nice travel trailer. It had sad burnt orange interior and fake wood paneling. A camper from the 80’s. Maybe 70’s. We looked poor. Oh wait, we were poor.

2. Joined the Army

They offered to pay off his $35,000 of student loans in exchange for 4 years of service. It was a scary time to join. 9-11 had happened a year before. The US military would deploy overseas heavily for the next decade. But we were both from military families and it felt like the right fit. They also offered an $8,000 bonus for joining.

This seemed like a great option and I told all our “we got a crap ton of student loan debt” friends about it! They all said, “Nah, we’ll pass.”

3. Moved in with Family

While Adam trained for six months, I moved in with family. I worked and we saved every single penny we were making. By the end of year two, we had paid off all the debt and bought a $3,000 car (which we drove the next 4 years). A year or two later we bought a used Honda Civic, which we still own 13 years later.

I still drive that Honda. It’s a beater with a heater if there ever was one. It’s maybe worth $500 bucks if I ever washed it. When I roll up in that car, I still look poor. (Except now I’m not!)

4. Rented the Most Affordable Home

We searched for a few months for an affordable house. We were living in the DC area and rent ain’t cheap there! We finally found a 4 bedroom for $1600 a month, and offered $1500 with a 3-year agreement. Adam had a housing stipend that covered this full amount plus some.

We really thought about buying. Houses were crazy expensive and rent was WAY cheaper. Oh, and the housing market crashed a couple years later.

5. Lived on One Income

Starting pay for E2’s in the Army isn’t high ($1800 a month now). But the Army covered our housing and healthcare, so we made sure we only lived on his income and saved all of mine (plus some of his!). I earned about $20,000-$30,000 a year while we lived in DC. So we saved $20k-$30 for 4 years. ($25,000 x 4 = $100,000)

6. Lived with a Roommate

When we moved into the four-bedroom house, we negotiated the option to have a roommate at some point. Then found one the very next week. Being that we were splitting rent, this wasn’t counted as taxable income (the Army housing stipend is also tax-free). He contributed about $700 a month. People complain its hard to save money in HCOL areas, but there are upsides as well, if your willing to make a few sacrifices. ($700 a month x 12 months x 3 years = $25,000)

It almost sounds easy, right? Except the Army is a simple bubble for comparison. All his peers had the exact same pay, benefits, etc. yet they were all still in credit card debt and flat broke each month. And we were debt free and sitting on that first and elusive $100,000.

We did it with modest incomes, kids and in a high cost of living area. When I was 25, we moved overseas to work and travel for the next 4 years. I was able to travel to 27 countries, study German for 2 years and take college classes in Rome, Amsterdam and St. Andrews. We traveled every month using either a 4 day weekend or some of the 80 banked vacation days plus 120 vacation days he would accrue over those years.

Now that I have made it sound so easy, next week I want to chat more about why this was actually so darn hard. And why I think more people ought to do it. =)

For Conversation: What’s one thing you think more people should consider doing to help save that first $100k? If you have that first 100k, what was something helpful in getting there?

Photo credit to my incredible friend and photographer, Craig. He took this image as part of my senior pictures.




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59 thoughts on “Saving a 100,000 by 24

  1. Reading this, I’m wondering what a person can do if joining the military isn’t an option. Some of us aren’t cut out to be soldiers. And the trade offs of possible death, PTSD, etc., don’t seem worth it to me. For you guys, it was a great option, but it wouldn’t be for us. So what are other options? One positive thing for pastors is that housing is free in mainline churches (but the value of it is counted as taxable income). So we do save some money there. We also are moving toward saving more of my money as my income increases in my editing work and more living off his income.

    • Well, to be clear, long and grueling deployments, possible death, and PTSD go on everyone’s “Con List” for military service. It’s not an easy option for anyone. I will say that seeing people serve in the Chaplin’s core, most pastors love the work. From that standpoint there are LOTS of upsides vs a local church. But not all of these are for everyone. For sure. And if the only goal is to pay off student loans, probably a bad choice.

      I suppose that is the overall point of this post and for sure the next one in the set: There are hard choices. To really make progress when circumstances aren’t ideal will involve hard choices. For everything that helps get the average person to their first 100k quickly, there are 10 other people who would say, “Yeah, but I don’t really want to do that.”

      That could be its own post. “100 things people don’t really want to do but will help them get to 100k” Not everything is an option for everyone. And not everything is the right fit in each season. The first step is really to get in the mindset that you are willing to make trade-offs now because there is something even more important to you (freedom, security, options, ect) Beings we are “in real life” friends, you know I’ll totally chat with you about this offline and help you brainstorm. But I know from (way too much) experience until people really get that first step down, they hate every single idea that could help.

      • It’s great to see how people start out and the sacrifices that they have had to make, it highlights areas that others could try, but I agree they have to be in the mindset to take some action. I think it also shows that different things can be adapted to suit any stage of life. Thank you for sharing and inspiring Jillian

  2. You guys played your cards well for sure. The military is something I’d considered but ultimately chose to no go that route.

    I think the biggest thing everyone can do is be open to roommates. Reducing living expenses even into your late 20’s and early 30’s is a great way to save some extra money. It’s not flashy and the thought of having roommates as a 30 year old might be a little off-putting, but if it gets you ahead financially by a considerable amount it’s definitely worth it.

    I’m still trying to convince my wife to let us get a roommate, haha!

    • I think in my next post I talk about this. But I’d still have roommates! Shoot I live with 6 people, it’s not like I’m losing any privacy around here! And that’s a high price tag for privacy. “Yes, I’ll pay $700 to have a bit more privacy.” I’ve recommended it to people in their 40’s and 50’s because it’s an amazing way to fill up those “catch-up” IRA and 401k contributions! Plus without kids at home, they have the space! Every single flat broke person I mention it to hates the idea. Ok. I get it. It’s embarrassing. There is pride involved. It’s inconvenient. But so is being broke at 50.

      I love saving, so that is always attractive to me. But my husband loves spending. So if I had to pitch the roommate situation to him I would go 50/50. If we bring in an extra $600 a month. $300 to saving and he gets $300 to spend as “fun money” on eating out, ski passes, weekend aways, vacations ect, he will be much more interested! =) Feel free to steal that approach. “But honey….look what we could buy/save with $7,000 a year!” =)

    • Congrats on hitting that first 100k! It’s so darn hard. But boy it gets easier from here! You already have the learning curve, the mindset, and the vision. Honestly, that’s the hard stuff. Compounding money is just icing on the cake!

    • I have two more posts coming up that might be helpful. First about the internal part of why this was hard. Because at the end of the day, no matter which stage we are in, we need to face that internal conversation. The post after deals with how to fight lifestyle inflation at every stage by really learning our why. Once that becomes very, very clear it really empowers us to make the hard choices needed.

  3. Great post, as always! It’s really hard to make really hard choices when we’re focused on the wrong things.

    I honestly don’t remember our first $100k. We weren’t that into money at the time. We just focused completely on paying off all our debt and living as cheaply as we could. We made lots of choices that looked hard to people around us, but by focusing on all our incredible blessings (like clean water and food to eat), the first $100k came and went without us even noticing.

    Looking forward to your next post – and the next amazing “young Jillian” picture to be resurrected. (You may have started something with these pictures.)

    • Focusing on blessings is such a good point. I just mentioned that in an interview I had today: how in some ways those years were scrappy, but at the same time I was so damn happy, I didn’t really mind. There is something about being 19, madly in love, newly married, on cloud nine and spending all day Sunday riding on a motorcycle through orchards and vineyards and planning and dreaming this crazy, amazing adventure. I almost didn’t care we lived in a camper because everything else was so darn good. We had amazing friends, a great church, really cool coworkers and were in college. My life felt like a freaking RomCom. =)

      • Perspective is a powerful tool. I suspect I only know about 5% of your story, but it sounds like you’ve got perspective in spades. My wife just listened to your awesome 3 hour interview on Pete’s Do You Even Blog podcast and now she’s devouring your website. All good for me because now she’s getting on to me about spending more time writing our story. That’s a win! Thanks for being so generous in sharing your RomCom life!

        • I’m so glad you liked the podcast. That was a really fun one to record. We actually just recorded a follow up that should be out in a month. =) And you are totally right about perspective being really powerful! How we frame things in our minds greatly effects how we feel about it and then how we act.

  4. This is probably my favourite post of yours or definitely one of my favourites. I’d say we started out with a similar mindset but then we suffered from lifestyle inflation as income increased and our kids have become accustom to it. We could have been far more aggressive with savings at several points in our life when we just randomly threw some extra money at our mortgage and savings here and there but could have done a lot more saving and travelling instead of frittering and not keeping track of our money!

    • Lifestyle inflation is TOUGH! And part of it is the pride/ego that comes with age. The things we felt OK doing at 22, seem embarrassing at 40. I talk a little about both of those in the next two posts. =)

  5. Great post and picture. The first 250k went to a failed business. Honestly, that has impacted my capacity to have faith in working another plan. Mercifully, the next 100k came – but in the form of real estate as opposed to cash. And the 401k is also not ‘cash’ per se. So now the focus is cash or ‘rebalancing’. But 15 years have gone by. But, trying to talk the family into trailer living for 1 year… it would help immensley…

    • It can be so hard to get family on board with lifestyle changes. I find that trying to find that shared vision and LOTS of honest, vulnerable conversations it generally where we have to start. Once everyone is on the same page, it’s easier to turn hard choices into wonderful adventures. Best of luck!

  6. Great post!

    I’m not at 100K yet, but I am making progress in that direction.

    The thing that made the biggest difference for me was actually just getting accounts set-up for long-term saving. I was completely clueless about tax-advantaged accounts and the stock market until I was 26. Then I made the effort to learn about account options. I opened a Roth IRA and a SEP since I’m self-employed and started trying to learn a little about investing. Getting the accounts started was simpler than I imagined thanks to the online options.

    Just having the accounts setup made it so that I actually started putting money into them. I don’t always save at the rate that I feel I ‘should’, but I consistently save and that is huge!

    • Automation is SO important. And just getting started the hardest part. Well, not even the setting it up, because you are right: Call Vanguard and 30 minutes later it’s all set up. Just deciding to call and get it set up and then DOING it is hard. We waited far too long. I just didn’t know. I wish I would have started at 15. My 10-year-old has an investment account. He will be SO far ahead of me when he’s my age. =)

      • I hear you about the phone call. We had accounts at a really expensive investment company and knew for over a year we needed to switch to Vanguard. “Call broker and change accounts” was on my 2017 resolution list. In December I finally got around to calling. Better late than never. 😀. It feels good finally having that out of the way.

  7. I love this question! When we got married I was a year away from finishing grad school. We were used to living off of one income, and when I got my first decent paying job we used all of my paycheck towards savings and paying off student loan debt and our mortgage. So, for those in stable relationships I think living off of one of the incomes is a great strategy. We also used an online bank account to save towards goals and siphon off money before we ever saw it. We were bringing home bigger and bigger paychecks but our checking account balance stayed consistent. I agree that the first 100k takes the longest and is the hardest to save, a year into our transition away from traditional employment I think it was all worth it!

    • One income is an awesome habit. I recommend everyone at least try that if possible. And automate is key! And your right, once you start to enjoy some of the benefits of those small choices, they go from being hard and binding to the sweetest choices you ever made. =)

  8. “But I know from (way too much) experience until people really get that first step down, they hate every single idea that could help.”

    THIS. THIS RIGHT HERE. I cannot tell you the number of conversations where I realize the other person wasn’t looking for ideas (despite the way the conversation was started). S/he just wanted to tell me why s/he could NEVER… it’s frustrating in a group situation because it holds others back from growing.

    I’ve read that the F.I.R.E. triangle requires a person be doing all three of the following, but be especially good at two of them: 1. earn more, 2. save more, 3. invest well. I’d say Jillian is amazing at #2 and #3! I’m better at #1 and #2, so that’s where I’ve focused my effort (I wouldn’t bother buying and renting houses because I don’t want the added responsibility, but I can earn a high salary and live below my means). We also avoided the roommate situation by purchasing a tiny, inexpensive bungalow in a humble area of town.

    • That’s an interesting idea about the 3 things! I was also keenly aware that we weren’t going to be good out of the gate at #1 (earn more). Adam was considering being youth pastor where starting pay is like 25-30k today. I worked at a coffee shop with a degree in ministry (as a woman!) Lucrative degrees these are not. So yeah, we really doubled down on #2 and #3!

      It’s interesting to me as my skill set has grown and changed over the last 15 years how I now see those three things a bit differently. It’s only been in the last 5 years that I really started thinking I even could be good at #1. I think growing up poor I just thought earning 50k was crazy and earning 100k a year was so crazy as to be laughable. Now, I’m more like, “50k a year, yeah that sounds about right. 100k is in the range.” =)

    • $100k in 3 years is great! We had about 40k in our Roth IRA and then the rest cash. But once we hit about $125k we invested it all in the stock market because we moved to Germany and knew we wouldn’t need it for a few years. 4 years later we were sitting at $250k. =) 4 years after that we hit 500k. For a while it seemed like our net worth just doubled every 4 years. Let’s see if we can hit 1 million in two years. A bit of a stretch. =)

  9. Incredible photo! My senior photos were all me doing silly things like leaning against a brick wall. Nothing BA like that!

    We’ve done three of the six you list and saw huge rewards from all of them. We lived in my inlaw’s basement for a year to knock out $30k of school debt, we’ve had anywhere from 1-3 roommates on and off throughout the years, and we lived off my salary for a year to help with the transition to one income to stay home with kids.

    Looking forward to the series! I have a love/hate with avoiding lifestyle inflation. In some areas it feels like a no brainer but in others it can be very tempting or sneak up on me!

    • Ah, I had a few silly ones too. Oddly enough, none of my family wanted this photo for the picture in their invitation to hang on the fridge. =) I have a weird take on lifestyle inflation. So I’m interested to see what you think. =) And there are some things that we have inflated the heck out of and some that our spending is actually lower now because it’s gotten so easy to be frugal in those areas. Like I use to pay for haircuts. Now I’ve cut my own hair for the last 8+ years. I love it. It’s quick, easy and convenient. But instead of paying $20×4 a year, I bought a pair scissors 8 years ago for $30 and haven’t looked back yet. =)

  10. You did make it sound easy, Jillian, but as your first commenter pointed out, you made hard choices look easy. I went to Japan to teach English for two and a half years, and came back with over 50K. I travelled, shopped, went out, even flew home for a visit, but I must have done it differently than some, because other foreign teachers on my program saved nothing and were amazed to hear I had accumulated a nest egg.
    It wasn’t easy to leave my home for so long at such a young age. And I wonder what kind of a person I would have been if I hadn’t done it. But the money allowed to to quit a dead end job once I was back in the USA and go to grad school, and to travel to Europe (several times) and Australia. I had about 18k left in a Vanguard account when I left the US permanantly in the late ’90s, and it has grown, untouched, to over 100k now.

    • That is awesome! It’s so often all those small choices that end up adding up. It’s awesome that you were able to use that money to do things that really mattered to you! And it’s awesome that the $18k left over is now $100k!

  11. I am just so impressed by this. The truth i like you said – so many aren’t prepared to do what it takes because it’s too hard. I would love to read some tips on those of us who have come to a finance-related epiphany in their mid 40s and are wondering if it’s too late to have any form of financial freedom other than retirement at 65.

    • In general, it seemed to take about 10-15 years to hit FI. But you have a huge advantage because your income is stronger in your 40’s. Our first year we only made 12k. In the next post, I’ll share a bit about what actually makes it harder in your 40’s and 50’s. But there is SO many good options. And I’ve seen people hustle to earn part time FI in 5 years. So you can work part-time, half year, remote or flexible and have the best of both worlds. The more financial independence you earn, the more choices you get. Life just opens up and lots of cool things become possible if you don’t need to earn a ton of income anymore. It’s definitely not an all or nothing thing!

      • I would interested to hear your comments about people starting towards becoming work optional or buying back some choices. I was later starting but had focused on paying my mortgage down which means less living costs. Whilst i still hope to complete my mortgage payments in 2 years I am also adding in a more diverse portfolio with the stock market and emergency cash. I would be interested if anyone is from the UK what tbeir opinion is on buying tax free AVC’s with my companys pension verses added more to my tax free ISA stocks & shares?

      • Thanks for that and I look forward to reading the next post – I am thinking some of the issues for me are definitely being accustomed to a certain standard of living, higher mortgage commitments, financial commitments to college age children and potentially aging parents who are ill prepared for their own retirement years. However I have realised that with a changed mindset, much that I thought was impossible is possible.

        • “However, I have realized that with a changed mindset, much that I thought was impossible is possible.” This is absolutely true! And it’s probably the number one piece of feedback I get from my courses. There are SO many more options than I had realized.

    • I would say I probably really started when I was 14. But 14 to 19 was really slow. =) Although I had about 8k when I was 18 and it felt like a freaking fortune! I actually paid cash for that ugly trailer. I suppose you can say it was the first home I paid cash for. =)

  12. Woah, the rent you paid in DC back then is astounding! I have never considered NOT having a roommate simply because there’s no way I could afford living on my own, but I do sometimes wish I was in the position to acquire a roommate and thus reduce my rent haha. Oh well. I just turned 26 and am nowhere near $100k, but at least I’m on my way there. I’ve made a lot of progress just in the last year by actually paying attention to my spending and picking up a second job. And now that I’ve paid off my credit card debt, I’m looking forward to picking up speed!

    • I have a saying: what we pay attention to improves. It sounds like you are making awesome progress! And it just takes time. This was 5 years for me. Not actually a super impressive saving speed for two people. We just did the best with what we were working with. =)

  13. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way to get it. Even if it entails those horrible 70’s orange carpets! A great post for anyone who says it can’t be done. Oh, and I wouldn’t want to box with you, you’re tough as nails!

    • I don’t know if it can always be done quick, or easy but given enough time and dedication to a vision, we usually get there. =) And the camper also had the iconic burnt orange/mustard yellow/tan/creme big floral print curtains. I actually replaced those. And I painted a lot of the fake wood paneling. My early DIY days. =)

  14. Oh my God. I got the best CMLT of the year reading this post. First, you and Adam are a national treasure. Second, this post is the best post I’ve ever come across explaining the benefits and power of egotrage. If I could turn back the hands of time I would have lived in a crappy travel trailer. Great freakin’ post, Jillian.

  15. Very much enjoyed reading this and it’s so refreshingly different. That trailer doesn’t sound nice, I had pictured those 70s old trailers, which are just hideous and often times faded orange for some reason.

    My husband’s first $100k was easy, he got lucky. I’m married to him so I didn’t exactly cross the $100k myself. Sigh…I wanted my own victory speech like this xD

    • There are other great milestones to hit! 500k. 1 million! And the trailer didn’t look nice…at all! But at the same time, there are always upsides to a situation. That was our first year married and it was super easy to clean, nothing to maintain, and no yard work. We had lots of time for dating and dreaming and planning our new life. If we had bought a 3000 sf house, it would have looked great, but also been a huge time sink. Plus our expenses were SO low that year, I almost never stressed about money. We actually were still able to give $100 a month.

  16. Such a different outcome than most people you go through the military option. We too did well by not doing what everyone else did. Too many fancy cars ended up sitting because their owners couldn’t afford to fill them with gas after the loan payment.