One fall night in 2010, my wife Nicole and I were watching the Suze Orman Show. (Yes, I used to DVR it). There was this fun segment where someone would call in and Suze would analyze that person's financial health and give them a grade. It was called How Am I Doing?
One term that we kept seeing over and over again on this segment was “Net Worth”. Since we were personal finance newbies, we had no idea what this meant. Nicole and I were making a combined annual income of $130,000 so we figured our net worth must be HUGE.
After the show was over, we decided to see how rich we really were. There was no doubt in our mind that we’d be better off than most of the jokers that call in to the show and get an “F” grade from Suze!
We walked upstairs and started to write down all of our numbers on a big whiteboard. By separating our “assets” (what we owned) and our liabilities (what we owed) into two big columns, we started to discover that we weren’t rich.
We were kinda broke.
Although we were making a solid income together, our liabilities were much higher than our assets.
Here is a snapshot of what our numbers looked like back in 2010 (rounded educated guesstimates based on me losing some of our data along the way):
There’s no way were going to get an “A” grade on Suze’s show with a -$50,000 net worth!
This epiphany moment was just the jolt of reality we needed to start making progress on our finances. Our short-term goal was to get this net worth number in positive territory ASAP!
It was time for us to make a change. Here's what we did to increase our net worth by $800,000 in 8 years.
Nicole and I quickly realized that we couldn’t improve our financial situation if we weren’t tracking our net worth. This number was going to be the barometer for our future financial success.
We took all of the numbers off of our whiteboard and inserted them into an excel spreadsheet. From that point on, we updated our asset and liability totals monthly to track our progress. Even just seeing the numbers helped!
(Side Note: Personal Capital wasn’t around back then, but if it was, it would have made the whole net worth tracking process a lot easier. It’s free and it automatically updates your net worth by synching up your accounts. We use it now and love it.)
Another monthly habit Nicole and I adopted around this time was living on a budget. We got the idea after reading Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. He talked about the importance of living on a zero-based budget and giving every dollar an assignment.
Getting on the same financial page with Nicole before each month began was really important for us as we started our marriage.
We eventually learned about a budgeting tool called Mint that automated the budgeting process much like Personal Capital did for our net worth tracking. This tool saved us a ton of time and it was free too!
(Side Note: If you’re looking for a budgeting tool specifically for couples, Zeta is an excellent option.)
After being inspired by Dave Ramsey’s debt crushing ways, we decided that becoming consumer debt-free would be an excellent way to increase our net worth.
For me, I really hated having student loans and wanted them gone as soon as possible. My 6.8% interest rate did not help the process either. (Debt refinancing services like SoFi would have been huge for me back then!)
For Nicole, she loved her 2008 Audi A4 and thought it would be incredible to own it outright with no payments.
Through our monthly Budget Party, we discovered we could eliminate both of these debts before the end of the year. This would require us to essentially live on my income and use Nicole’s to pay off the debt.
The plan worked! We were consumer debt free by September 2011 and we were in the positive net worth territory to boot.
After making the final payment on Nicole’s car, we took a joy ride in her paid-for Audi A4 on a beautiful fall night in Michigan.
At this point in our marriage, we were a month away from having our first child. Our financial standing was looking pretty solid. We increased our income to around $170,000 by the end of 2011. Our little Zoey would be born into a debt-free family and that made us proud.
We liked our current home, but we started thinking about our family growing from 2 to 3 (to eventually 4). Getting into a good school system was very important for us. That being said, we knew that homes in our desired school district were expensive!
Our new goal became saving up as much money as possible for a big down payment on our dream home. Our plan was to save 50% of our income and live on the other 50%.
Luckily, 2012 was an outstanding year for us income-wise. We were both working full-time at our jobs and brought in the most money we’ve ever made as a couple together in one year ... $280,000!
I had a commission-based sales job and I achieved the company record for most annual revenue brought in on our most important account (it was a small company).
We ended up saving way more than 50% that year. Here are some highlights of what we did with our money:
When we finally bought our dream home, the cash savings we amassed allowed us to put down 45%. This cut our new mortgage principal by a sizable amount immediately.
Our plan was to pay off this mortgage in 5 years!
We went with a 15-year mortgage through LendingTree and got a super-low 3% fixed rate. This helped us to put more toward the principal balance each month and push toward our goal of becoming mortgage-free by 2018.
When our second child (Calvin) came into our lives, we decided it was best to have Nicole stay at home and raise our two kids. Since we’d been essentially living on one income for quite a while at this point, it wasn’t that big of a life shocker for us. My income was still very comfortable at around $160,000 that year.
Welcome to the World Calvin!
This income change did slow our net worth growth quite a bit, but honestly, those previous few years were unicorns! We’re just happy we saved like we did so that Nicole could spend more time with our kids. It was one of the best decisions we ever made as a family.
In 2016, we decided that maxing out all three of our retirement accounts (401k, Andy's Roth IRA and Nicole's Roth IRA) was a smart move. My workplace 401k had been maxed since 2013, but we had not been doing the same for our Roths.
In addition to clobbering our mortgage principal, this tax-advantaged plan helped us break the half-million mark in our net worth journey!
By this time, we were fully into Personal Capital to help us track our progress. It became quite addicting actually.
In November 2017, we paid off our 15-year mortgage in just under 4 years. One year ahead of schedule!
Nicole, Zoey, Calvin and I had an epic mortgage freedom celebration together that we’ll never forget. We wanted our kids to remember this important moment in our lives so they too could be inspired to live without debt in the future.
Without a mortgage, our net worth has been increased steadily. The incredible stock market surge in 2017 definitely helped as well!
Although 2018 saw an overall drop in the stock market, we weathered the storm and kept up a high savings rate. Most of our extra money went into a savings account to build up enough money to buy our first rental property.
We also did fun things like update our home and go on some epic family vacations.
The Hill Family is Cabo in 2018
Recently, we decided that buying our first rental property was not something we wanted to do.
Instead, we chose to use our cash as a runway for me to work on my small business full-time (or part-time rather). My goal is to work 30 hours per week so I can spend more time with family, taking care of my health and enjoying more life today.
Interviewing Author Rachel Cruze
I was inspired by my wife who recently went back to work and created a 30-hour workweek that she loves. Her commute is short, her workload is reasonable and it’s a nice change of pace for a woman who’s been a stay-at-home Mom for nearly 5 years.
We’ve come a long way since our -$50,000 net worth in 2010. I’m so proud of the hard work that Nicole and I put in along the way. Without my wife’s partnership, none of this would have been possible.
As we’re closing in on a $1,000,000 net worth, my first thought is … it’s just a number. On the surface, it really doesn’t mean anything.
But when you peel back the layers and find out what’s inside, that’s when you discover what our net worth is made of. Our home, our cars, our retirement savings and our emergency savings are all things that bring our family joy. These assets will allow us to live happy, healthy and purposeful lives. They will also allow us to give generously of both our time and our money.
With some hard work and a little luck, our kids will see our example and continue to strengthen this family tree of ours in the future.
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