I came to this country with 2 suitcases, a student visa, and $1,000 in my wallet. I know, I know… classic story, right? This week, I become a US Citizen and I am a millionaire, well at least on paper.
It took a looong long 20+ years. The ups and downs, the good and the bad, two steps forward, one step backward. It was a lot of sweat and tears. But it could’ve been easier had I known about what I’m going to share today. This is my story and what I learned through the journey.
TL;DR Here are the 7 lessons
|1)||America is the land of opportunity, but you have to believe and take it.|
|2)||You make it or break it on the buy. Choose wisely.|
|3)||There is no such thing as free lunch in America|
|4)||Never takes financial advises from people who's more broke than you|
|5)||When something is too good to be true, it probably is.|
|6)||Don’t try to get rich overnight, develop the habit of the wealthy.|
|7)||Make it count, follow through.|
If you’re curious to read more, here’s the whole story.
My mom is a single mom in Southeast Asia, a very hard-working entrepreneur. We were not poor, but we wouldn’t be qualified as middle-class either by American’s standard. She paid for several quarters of my community college’s tuition. But for the rest of my college years, I had to work several jobs and borrowed money to pay for college.
I worked as a Math tutor, book stacker in library, Computer tutor, Pizza delivery, and a bunch of other odd jobs. All of these while taking 4-5 classes at the same time. I figured, It costed about the same to take 3 classes vs. 4 or 5 sometimes. Money was tight, so I’d got to be creative in stacking the college credits and work schedules together.
The sucky and fun jobs
The suckiest job was the library job. It paid $5.15 an hour and it was a lot of work to find, sort, and stack dusty, heavy books that people conveniently left all over the place. It sucked because it paid so little.
The fun job was delivering pizza. The hourly rate was low ($5.50), but the tips could be significant because I took the night shifts. One night, I delivered boxes of pizzas to a house party. The music was loud, the scene was rowdy, and borderline scary for a young international student who never went to any kind of American’s party. To be frank, I still never go to an American house party until now.
I learned that the drunker a guy is, the more generous he is. Or maybe he was just mistaken a $20 bill for $1 bill, who knew? I also learned that giving extra Parmesan cheese / crushed red pepper packets could smoothen the tipping process. On a good night, I could get $50-$75 in tips. Finding the house was the challenging part at night since this was the time before GPS (or maybe I just couldn’t afford it). So map book was it, I didn’t have computer either to afford the luxury of Mapquest. Some of you millennials are like, “Huh? What the heck is Mapquest?”. I know, I’m older than you 🙂
Two steps forward
Work and study were it. No college parties, no spring break trips, no nothing. I decided to finish college early so I could get a real job to start paying for my loans. I finished college within 3.5 years with a Computer Engineering degree. Originally, I planned to take a Physics major (I wanted to become an inventor or a scientist, experimental physicist. You know, like Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory), but Thank God I took the IT major instead! (more on this story later).
I didn’t have a computer at home. Keep in mind that this was back in the dialup modem day, computers were accessible in the computer lab, not in most homes. Good thing that the Computer Science department has a 24-hour lab at that time. I pulled many all nighters there to finish school projects. This kept my living cost very low. Food around campus was cheap and plentiful. I didn’t have time for entertainment anyway. I had to overcome my lack of computer experience, English as a second language, being a foreigner in America, and being an introvert. It was a tough time, but I cherished the experience. It set me up for life.
I was making $7/hour, working in the computer lab, which unofficially where I lived anyway (might as well get paid there). I probably had ~$20k in debts from family loans and credit cards. It’s still amusing to me on how easy it is for anyone to get a credit card here in America, even for a foreign student with no credit. All you had to do is to sign your name in a booth and got a free T-Shirt too. Ahh, how easily lurable a young international college kid was. But I had to use credit cards sometimes to make end meets.
My first windfall came around my Junior year after taking some programming classes. As an international student, I could apply for a 1-year working permit if I got a paid internship, which I did. It paid $3,400 per month! This was a lot more money than I could ever earned working the odd jobs. Good bye low-paying, odd jobs! I was able to save money to pay for the tuition for the remaining of my Junior and Senior years.
I started to interview for a full time job when I was in my Senior year, applied to over 100 jobs through Monster and good ol’ fashion newspapers, went to 20+ interviews, and got 2 job offers. There was no LinkedIn or Indeed back in the day. Email was cool, but for a good measure, I sent paper resumes too!
My first job after college paid $42k/year and I got a salary bump to $65k/year as a Software Engineer. All of the hard works started to pay off. I paid off all of my debts within 2 years and started to invest in real estate. A decade later, after reaching a six-figure salary, I started to look into various tax-optimized investment vehicles because as it turns out, a high income bachelor pays a lot of taxes if you don’t plan strategically.
I’m an Alien
That’s what the government officially calls us, a Resident Alien. During my college years, international student were given one year of working permit (called Optional Practical Training) once he/she graduates. This was the race against time to find an employer that would be willing to sponsor an H1b working visa. If you don’t start the H1b visa application within the year, you have to go home and say good bye to the American dream. If you get laid off from the job that sponsored you H1b, you have 2 weeks to find another job to transfer the working visa, otherwise, you get to go home.
Nowadays, since the H1b demand is a lot more than the quota, you would be entered into a lottery system. When I got my first job, that was my one and only requirement, to start my H1b visa right away (I timed my graduation to position myself to be in the early phase of the application). I took one week off after college then start the job the following Monday. I had everything to lose if I didn’t get this visa. Thankfully, I got it. I think that was my biggest breakthrough since immigration is not something that we had a lot of control of.
The golden handcuff
H1b visa expires in 3 years, then it can be renewed for another 3 years. After four years on my first job, I started to think, “What’s next after this? How can I stay here in US?”. The next step was to apply for a Greencard. But unfortunately, the company didn’t sponsor any greencard. Oh shoot, I had 2 years left here in America!
I began to panic and searched for other option. There’s gotta be a well established company in this area who would sponsor its employee the golden ticket (that was what I called it back in the day). Out of desperation, I applied to this big, Fortune 500 corporation. I never expected to even get the interview (cause I tried applying when I was in college, but didn’t even get an ack). Somehow I got the interview this time (it was a grueling one I must say). Long story short, I got the job! I got a salary bump to $75k/yr as well along the way.
On the first week of the job, I gathered all of my courage to ask my employer to start my greencard application right away (usually people had to labor for a couple of years before even asking). Thankfully, they agreed and started the application. This was back in 2005.
Little that I knew, once my greencard application was processed, I was pretty much locked down to that company. Turns out that working for the company who sponsors you is key to your eligibility. You risk it if you move company during this time. Good thing that this was a great, stable company that paid reasonably well (I started to earn six-figure salary a couple years after that with the same company). So, in a sense, it was a golden handcuff. You’re stuck there. You stopped working 40 hours per week, 50-60 hours were the norm. But at least you got a good pay, good benefit, some perks. The handcuff was made of gold.
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I finally got my greencard in 2012, after 7 years waiting. Fast forward to 2018, I got naturalized. I am finally a US citizen. It was a long, long journey, but worth it.
What’s the moral of the story here? You make it or break it on the buy. Choose wisely. I believe that it was the decision to pursue Computer Engineering major + the decision to choose the company to sponsor my greencard for that brings me to where I am today. If I sticked with Physics major or chose the comfort to stay on the first company I worked for, I can’t imagine where I end up today. Also in a way, I carefully chose (with some luck) a good company to put a golden handcuff on. So, it was not too bad sticking around there.
Your starting point does matter. Although there’s always a second chance. When you’re faced with an important life decision that will bring a long term repercussion, choose wisely. When you get a second chance, you got to change for the better. Don’t live the same life and expect a different result.
Related articles on how to accumulate wealth:
- Ultimate W2 Tax Strategy for Early Retirement
- HSA: IRA on Steroid?
- 4 Simple Steps to Start Building Your Real Estate Empire
One step backward
For every couple steps forward, there’s always a step backward once in a while. As long as you take more steps forward than backward, you’re still going somewhere.
I was young and naive back then. I took a lot of risks, blindly trusted a lot of people, followed a bunch of fluff teachings. At one point, I even joined Multi Level Marketing, which I’ve decided later in life, it is not for me. Not that it’s a totally bad thing, but only a handful of people on the top of pyramid makes the money. The troops underneath them do a lot of hard labor for peanuts and M&M, just to produce commissions for the bosses above them. Anyway, enough of the rant, I’m not interested in climbing that kind of ladder.
I bought and sold real estates in my early 20’s, thinking that the market would always go up. I remembered making $30k-$40k from my first condo 18-month flip. Well, maybe not really a flip, I was living in it and I didn’t fix a thing, yet the property still increased in value with just time. Still, it was eye opening for me, thinking I can continue doing this (buy, live in it, sell, repeat). I kept buying up.
Then came 2008. The bubble popped. I didn’t really keep track of my financials, but I’m pretty sure I was in a pretty significant negative net worth (probably $40k – $50k under). The property I bought had a high price (above the comps) during the real estate peak time. I ended up hold that property for 12 years until I could finally sell it. Read that story in this blog post if you’re curious.
I think it took a couple of years for me to recover financially. Thankfully I still made a good salary and could weather the storm. I’m not a finance major, but I always believe in Buy Low, Sell High. So somehow I kept buying real estate after I recovered financially. I knew that houses were at steep discounts during that time. Somehow I kept convincing myself to continue, throw all the money that I had into real estate down payments. But I took a more calculated risk. I did a lot more research on the buy, learned the hard way, that you either make it or break it on the buy.
I ended up building $550k in real estate equity, pretty much doing the same pattern. Buy a house, move out and rent it out, buy another house. Sell a house every couple of years. Each year, I ended up either buying a property, selling a property, or both.
Real estate elite club
I thought to myself, I made some money, but lost significant amount of money as well in real estate. Surely, there were other people who had figured this out and be willing to share what they had learned. Or, maybe there were some courses that I could take, or better yet, school! I started researching for real estate education: Trump, Kiyosaki, and many others. So many choices. I started attending their “free” events, hoping to learn some real estate wisdom from it. But of course, these events are nothing but marketing pitch for you to buy their real estate education programs that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
But again, I was younger and naive back then. A former friend took me to an event in an impressive private lounge in a high rise building in downtown Seattle. The view was spectacular. The event was classy and intimate, much less crowd than those typical “Rah Rah” event. I listened to a bunch of testimonials about this new real estate education that brought riches to an elite group of people in a very short period of time. For a mere $20k, you can join this club to make millions (that’s the verbatim basically, or at least that was what played in my head). A lot of my friends joined. I guess peer pressure worked. Or… more like, “I don’t want to miss out” or “Shoot, I would be left behind when all of my friends become millionaires”
Long story short, I joined the program. It was an MLM with 50% commission. But you needed to make at least X number of sales before started to see some money coming into your pocket. That first X sales go to your mentor, or your mentor’s mentor, if you’re your mentor’s first X sales. As I mentioned before, only the top of the pyramid becomes millionaires. In the pyramid scheme, it won’t take long for the top boss to make 100 sales (at $10k per head) through his/her directs. For example, if the first 4 sales go to your mentor, 4^3 is already 64 (4 x 4 x 4). All I’m trying to say is, you make good money when you have 3 levels of hierarchy beneath you. The deeper your org is, the more commissions you get.
My mentor claimed that he used to be a millionaire before going broke. But he still maintained a millionaire lifestyle: nice cars, nice suites, nice watches, nice office, you name it. He claimed that he was building an elite team that would do real estate acquisitions and deals that would make all of us wealthy. Since his credit score was floored and he was broke, he needed other people’s credit and money to buy real estates. Well, I had good credit and some money. I thought collectively, we could put our resources together (and the mentor’s knowledge and experience) to start flipping houses. Big mistakes!
We did zero real estate deal together for those couple of years. All we did was becoming this mentor’s MLM troops to sell the real estate education for $20k a pop and made him the $10k commission each. To make things worse, I lent my mentors tens of thousands of dollars to support their lifestyle. This MLM gig became their full time job. Even though the commission was high, it would not support a millionaire’s lifestyle. I didn’t get a single cents back as a loan repayment. I saved the loan paper as a memento, an important lesson learned from the past.
The funny thing was, I continued to buy real estate personally during this time. I got mocked sometimes, “Why do you even bother to buy this small deal of single family house? We will buy commercial properties together and make millions”. I was the only one buying real estate out of the elite group. You’ve gotta stick with what you know. You must qualify any new knowledge before applying it to your personal life. Do not follow blindly. This is important.
I did stupid things to take advises from mentors who were more broke than me. When I think about it now, it doesn’t make sense at all to follow people based on a premise. You want to learn from people who made it and maintain the success. For example, if you want to lose some weight, would you rather hire a personal trainer that has 6-pack abs or from someone who has a beer belly that barely exercise? Do not take advise from people who are in a worse shape than you. Listen to those who already walked the talk, live the successful life, and maintain/strive to improve it.
As I mentioned above, I was in the negative net worth around 2008-2009. I didn’t keep track of my financial back then, so I didn’t know for sure when I broke even (hit zero net worth). But sometimes a long the way, I started the journey from zero net worth to one million dollar. I must’ve done it within the 8-year span.
There are many ways to accomplish this. I see people reached their first million through start up, stock options, and build businesses. But I went through the good ol’ fashion ways of building a real estate portfolio and save my W2 salary and bonuses strategically. The key in this method is to save bulk of your take home pay (50% or more) into various investments that compound over time. Refer to this article on how Aloha Jim’s asset allocation is.
The FIRE community has many many stories on how people reaches their FI number. But the one thing that I observed, most don’t get rich overnight. Some might appear like so, but there are years of planning, preparation, and hard work to get there. They embrace frugality or they figure out a way to earn more money to still stay on track in wealth accumulation. All lives beyond their means, as simple as that. Some has six-figure lifestyles, but they generate seven-figure income.
One thing in common, they adopt the habit of the wealthy, they live the talk. Chances are, they don’t get rich overnight. They live a discipline life with savings and investments in mind. And even when they’ve reached the million dollar mark, they continue to live the same lifestyle that brought them there. They continue to invest and do lifehack to save money. It’s built-in into the system, all of those years building up that led them to where they are today.
My wife (missRandom) and I actually embrace frugality more as we became millionaire. We continually look for ways to lifehack to lower our living cost but balance our happiness because we understand that money is not the end goal, it is merely the tool for us to reach our destination, where we are free to choose to do something else in our live. Something that matters more than a W2 job. Heck, I still collect 45 cents cash back from Ibotta by scanning our receipts when going on grocery run. It’s 2018, couponing is much easier nowadays.
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Make it count
If there was one thing I learned from my stepbacks, it was this:
A lot of people has a good intention to begin with. They start on a program, a commitment, or an effort: “I’m going to lose 20 pounds”, “I’m going to start contributing to my 401k”, “I’m going to reduce meaningless expenses”. But what separates those who make it is the follow through. You see some results, keep going until you get to your end goal. Even if you reach your end goal, it becomes a habit that you continue to do anyway. Those who don’t make it usually stop the effort too early.
I’m an opportunist. My take on this is, if you already spend the time, money, and energy in starting something that you know will better your life, make it count. Get something out of it. Don’t lose everything. The very least thing you can do is to learn from it and not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. When given a second chance, make the necessary change to get better.
I apply this principal at work as well to get promotions and advancement in career. I know for sure that there’s no way that I’m smarter intellectually comparing to my peers. But I can always go the extra mile to follow through on a project, deliver results that make a significant impact to the business. This is the key to winning in life for regular, average joe like me.
Summary: 7 lessons
In summary, here are the 7 lessons that I learned on my journey from a broke immigrant to become a millionaire, lawful citizen of this country.
1) America is the land of opportunity, but you have to believe and take it
There are many Cinderella stories of immigrants make it big in America. If you are inspired to migrate to a different country to better your life, do it, you can make it. But you have to truly believe, claim, and take the opportunity. I get that some countries are harder to migrate to comparing to other countries. But staying put will never get you there. You’ve got to try, you’ll always miss the shot that you don’t take.
I came to US right after high school with 2 suitcases and very little money with a student visa. 20+ years later, I’m a US citizen and striving to be on the top 1%. Even if I don’t get to that 1%, being in the 5% – 10% of the bucket is still better than not being in any bucket at all.
2) You make it or break it on the buy. Choose wisely
This applies not only to buying an investment, like real estate, but to other areas in life as well:
- What major you are choosing
- Where you want to live
- How do you plan to make your living
- When choosing your life partner
- What car to buy
A major decision has a long term consequences in live. Don’t rush when make this kind of decision. Listen to you heart, but listen to your head too.
I chose a college major that would give me the best opportunity to get the American’s work visa that eventually led to a greencard, and finally citizenship. And it doesn’t hurt that it led to a career that paid reasonably well, which allowed me to save and invest over time to reach that one million dollar mark.
3) There is no such thing as free lunch in America
There’s always a catch of this free lunch. At the end, it will cost your time, your money, or your energy. Be careful when you go to a “free” event that seems to promise you great wealth. Anything valuable will cost you something. So put your guards up, there are many desperate salesman out there trying to sell products that are not necessarily good for your situation just to make commissions to make the end meets.
One anomaly that I’d like to point out though, there’s this FIRE movement that starts to go mainstream. A lot of good informations are free in various FI blogs (this blog is included). It’s true that these blogs are often monetized. Well, a lot of the stuff are still free to you, but it costs the advertiser some money to present Ads to the reader (this blog is also include, haha!)
But one thing, I would say is, always take the freebies with grain and salt. Not all information applies to everybody. There’s no one solution fits everyone. Analyze and adopt information / product according to your unique situation.
4) Never takes financial advises from people who’s more broke than you
Read the One Step Backward section above on this. One more thing that I’d like to point out is, these broke mentors often use their mentor’s story or someone else’s story (who’s likely to be rich) to advise you into something, like buying an education, or whole life insurance, or cosmetics business. Try to find that rich person that this adviser tells story on and look him/her on the eye and ask, “Why would I follow your advise?”. If that person is genuine, he’ll likely to be generous and be happy to share his experience to you. But if that rich person just want to get richer by selling you a product, he’ll either be like “Who are you? Talk to my associate please” or “Here’s why you need to buy my product”.
Let’s be real here. If this mentor knows so much about how to make money, why is he/she still broke? Chances are, they are trying to make a commission by advising you to spend your money on something.
5) When something is too good to be true, it probably is
Use your gut feeling on this. Along with #3 (“There’s no such thing as free lunch”), something’s good usually takes a lot of time, effort, and energy. When your gut feeling is telling you, “This is too good to be true”, listen to it. Take your time to analyze, think it through, sleep on it. Never make a major rushed decision.
I was foolishly thinking that there was a good mentor that wanted to build an elite team of investor to build wealth. If someone already makes it big, why would that person need to assemble a team of newbies trying to do what he already accomplished? I can understand if this is a charity type of situation where the successful person is trying to recruit more people to do good works or give to a good cause. But be careful out there. There are a lot of so called “charity” event that masks a profit making shady business out of you. When something is too good to be true, it probably is.
6) Don’t try to get rich overnight, develop the habit of the wealthy
Throughout this MLM experience that I went through, I did see people became millionaires within a short period of time (months). But I did see them lose it all as well. It’s similar to winning lottery. The money that you don’t earn through good habits is easily lost because it provides a false sense of security. E.g. “I’m a millionaire, I can drive a $100k sports car, live in a million dollar house”.
But those who built wealth slowly develop the wealthy habit that would sustain this accumulation. And once it becomes a habit, it becomes who you are. Your values in life will change. What matters in life is often not the money itself, but what you can do with the money. My take on this is, it’s better to build wealth gradually. On the journey to FI, you will learn life lessons that you will keep forever. You can adapt to situation when the storm comes so you don’t lose what you have built over times.
7) Make it count, follow through
Lastly, on whatever you do, make it count. If it’s worth taking your time, money, and energy to build, it’s worth to follow through to get results. Don’t drop the ball in the mid way. You’ve put way too much efforts into it, might as well get something out of it.