That’s me, jumping for joy on a beach in Koh Samui, Thailand. I’m in my 30s, financially independent, retired early, and living the life of my dreams. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was a difficult and winding road to get here…
Born in 1982, I grew up very poor on the east side of Detroit.
Being the only white male in my entire elementary school, I was regularly called racist epithets, threatened, and beat up. I would usually have my lunch stolen, on the occasion I actually had lunch.
My father left our family when I was eight. My mother, hopelessly addicted to drugs, alcoholism, and selfishness, gave me and my three sisters up when I was 11.
Freshly adopted and living in a tiny town almost two hours west of Detroit, I was routinely picked on for being new and strange.
I started working out, becoming stronger and more confident. The teasing stopped.
Had a fairly normal childhood from there on out, with unremarkable grades and an otherwise unremarkable academic history.
Went to college because it’s what everyone else was doing, even though I knew deep down inside I probably shouldn’t have.
Took out loans to help pay for my education. Struggled to home in on a major that made sense for me.
As I continued to struggle in college, a number of personal circumstances coalesced to change my life’s direction.
My father re-entered my life for a short while. He attempted to show that it was really my mother that was to blame for all of the problems I experienced in childhood, but it became clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t the case at all. However, he also advised me that his mother (my grandmother) left me and my three sisters some money (she chose not to give it to my parents for obvious reasons).
It was soon thereafter that my mom committed suicide, ending a lifelong struggle. My father then left my life again for the last time.
Faced with all of this, I dropped out of college in my junior year.
I was 21 years old.
The inheritance I tracked down was worth about $60,000 in 2003 dollars.
Although this is really quite a small sum of money, it was practically a mountain of gold for me. I had never even seen so much money at once, let alone actually lay claim to it.
Well, it’s probably no surprise, then, that I completely wasted the money in a little less than two years.
What’s crazy to me now is that I didn’t even really have a great time. I didn’t do anything crazy, outside of buying a used Corvette (which I later had to sell).
I mostly just lived a middle-class life without the middle-class income to support it.
I had a fairly nice apartment with a big TV and new furniture. I ate out regularly. My closet was full of clothes.
But I didn’t have a regular source of income. Employment was sporadic.
When the money was all gone, it served to provide me the best education in economics I could have ever hoped to receive: I realized then how fickle money is in the hands of someone who is ignorant to basic budgeting – living above your means will eventually bankrupt even the most wealthy person. Likewise, living below your means can allow even someone with seemingly few resources to eventually amass great wealth.
I also figured out that wealth isn’t nearly as easy to appreciate when it’s just handed to you. Conversely, working for your money gives you a sense of pride and appreciation that can’t be artificially replicated otherwise.
Furthermore, I learned a lot about happiness. The stuff I was able to buy (like the car) provided me with no lasting happiness whatsoever. It was the complete opposite of what I thought I’d feel.
This entire experience was an incredible wake-up call.
I was then determined to not only not end up like my parents but also earn every dime back of that lost inheritance.
I started my career around this time, in 2005. Worked my way up from a parts clerk to a service advisor in the automotive industry. A wage that went from $8.00/hour at the start to almost $40,000 per year in 2009 made me feel like I was finally starting to make it.
Then the bottom fell out.
The Great Recession hit the automotive industry particularly hard. Working just outside metro Detroit at the time, I couldn’t have been in a worse industry in a worse place at a worse time.
The dealership I was working for started letting people go. I was one of them.
Even though I was finally starting to make some pretty decent money, I still hadn’t really amassed any savings. Although I was no longer living way above my means, like I was when I was 21, I also hadn’t turned the corner, meaning I wasn’t yet living below my means.
Now broke and unemployed, I took a long look in the mirror.
I realized that I didn’t ever want to be in this spot again. I didn’t want an employer to have control over my life, able to determine whether or not I have a roof over my head or food in my belly. Enough was enough.
So I moved to Florida in mid-2009 for a number of reasons. The state had a healthier and more dynamic economy. Dealerships were actually hiring – and paying more. The lack of state income tax meant an additional arbitrage opportunity whereby my additional income would be further boosted by less taxes coming out. Moreover, I knew the warm weather would put me in a great position if I ever decided to live without a car, due to the fact that waiting for a bus is easier when it’s 80 degrees (versus 20 degrees) outside.
This move turned out wonderfully.
I landed a job within about a month. I was making more than I was back home, finally eclipsing $40,000 per year. And my expenses were lower, with rent, on average, coming in less than what I was looking at back in Michigan.
As 2009 gave way to 2010, I had about $7,000 in my checking account. This was the most I had had since I blew through my inheritance.
At this point, I knew I had to do something with my money.
So I opened up an account with Scottrade, figuring I should invest and grow what I had. My first deposit was $5,000.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet really educated myself on investing. So I was buying stocks and mutual funds that seemed like good ideas. I had no idea what I was doing. Didn’t know anything about fundamentals, valuation, or even what fees these funds were charging. I sold everything a month or so later.
I then educated myself. I read books about investing, stocks, financial statements, and how some of the world’s most renowned investors had amassed their fortunes.
After spending a few months reading, I decided that dividend growth investing would be the best long-term investment strategy to become financially independent.
I would buy high-quality stocks that had lengthy track records of returning a portion of their profit to shareholders via increasing dividends – and I would only buy these stocks when they were attractively valued.
I learned how to read financial statements, decipher fundamentals, and establish opinions on competitive advantages for numerous companies across a multitude of industries.
Restarting my investing activities, I became aggressive. I started to regularly deposit cash into my brokerage account. I was buying stock in great companies as often as I could. But I wasn’t satisfied.
Taking a good look at my budget, I realized that I could save a lot more money. I started trimming fat wherever I could. The savings rate started to rise. I started to invest a little more. But it still wasn’t enough.
So as 2010 turned into 2011, I became even more aggressive with the saving and investing. At the same time, I was working incredibly hard at my job, earning more and more money along the way.
But I also knew that I didn’t want the rest of my life to be like this. I didn’t want to work 50 to 60 hours per week, practically killing myself slowly to earn a paycheck. I didn’t want to continue to deal with customer surveys, quotas, disgruntled and backstabbing co-workers, endless problems, workplace rumors, and workweeks that left little time for personal interests.
I wanted a life, not just a job.
I had to take full control over my life. To do so, I had to own my time. Time is by far the most precious commodity, and I knew that I had to own as much of it as possible. I didn’t want to earn money to buy stuff I didn’t need to impress people I didn’t care about. I wanted to earn money to buy income-producing assets to own my time. I wanted to be financially free.
In March 2011, I founded a blog, Dividend Mantra, to document my journey to financial freedom.
I did this because I couldn’t really find anyone else doing anything quite like it. I wanted to see exactly how one earning a middle-class income goes from $0 to financially free in a decade or so. And I wanted to see real-life numbers in real-time. I wanted to see what it took, from a budgetary standpoint, to make it happen, and then I wanted to see how the investments panned out over the long run.
Well, since I couldn’t find anyone doing it, I decided to take the mantle up myself.
Being so transparent with my own numbers turned out to be a blessing, as it motivated me more than ever to do better.
It was soon after starting to share everything with the world that I sold my car and moved into a cheaper apartment that was located close to a few major bus lines (including one that could take me to work). Riding the bus into work, a luxury car dealership, turned out to be quite ironic – I’m serving customers with very expensive cars, yet taking a $1.25 bus ride to work.
I learned that by focusing on the major expenses – the “big three” – in housing, transportation, and food that I could make dramatic changes to my budget, increasing my free cash flow substantially. I started eating cheaply, avoiding restaurant visits, and cutting everything else I could.
Furthermore, the blog itself started to turn into a real business over the years, generating an income all by itself. Although it took many years of focus and hard work (I was really working two full-time jobs concurrently most of the way through), this strategic entrepreneurship further boosted my prospects via the additional income I earned, on top of the aforementioned increased motivation to give it my all.
So my income was going up through hard work both at the dealership (resulting in promotions) and the blog, while my expenses were simultaneously dropping.
The savings rate zoomed up even further.
I was investing thousands of dollars per month.
And then my real-life and real-money dividend growth stock portfolio, which I call my FIRE Fund (because it allows me the opportunity/passive income to be FIRE, or financially independent/retired early), started producing a good chunk of income all by itself, too, via the growing dividends the companies I was invested in were sending me.
The FIRE Fund crossed the six-figure mark in the spring of 2013. The snowball was rolling. And I earned every red cent back of that lost inheritance.
It was also right around this time that I started to become a featured presence in national media across the United States (and the world), with the likes of USA Today and Today interviewing me about my plan. This had the effect of just further cementing my resolve.
Although I was nowhere near covering all of my expenses via dividend income, I decided to quit my job in May 2014 (just a day after turning 32) anyway. Much of the reasoning behind this decision was to move back up to Michigan. Feeling like I had kind of become distant from my family, choosing personal success over being close to everyone, I sensed this need to be closer to everyone. Giving up an incredible relationship with a great woman in Florida, I moved back to Michigan in the summer of 2014.
Having a chance to become a better brother, son, and friend to everyone, I spent as much time as possible with everyone I could. I was there for my oldest sister’s 30th birthday bash. I was there for the birth of my first niece. I was there for backyard barbecues, summer parties, and baseball games.
However, it became quickly apparent that this world had left me behind at some point; I just wasn’t aware of it. What I thought was distance created by living 1,200 miles away was actually distance created by living a totally different lifestyle and having a totally different mindset from everyone else. Instead of my success allowing me to become a prodigal son returned and redeemed, it was my success that many family members resented.
Completely destroyed by this revelation, as well as other revelations that will remain private, I left Michigan and a lot of relationships permanently behind in late 2014 – and I’ve never been back. I came back to Florida, humbled by the experience.
More committed than ever to my writing, I felt like I had more inspiration and motivation to provide to the world. Increasing my output both in terms of quantity and quality, Dividend Mantra and my freelance writing reached new heights of success.
I also wrote my first best-selling book during this period, The Dividend Mantra Way.
But this meant that I was not only writing 25 or so articles per month but also running what was turning into a fairly large business. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of wearing both hats (one of which, the business manager hat, I didn’t want), I sought out an organization in late 2015 to run the logistics of the site while I focused on writing. At first, it was great. It was an incredible relief.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned for very long. After some back and forth with this organization, it became clear that the only workable plan moving forward was for me to move on. So that’s what I did.
Sometimes things don’t work out in life. And that’s okay. What I’ve found is that every challenge, every setback, is an opportunity.
So I spent much of the period between leaving Dividend Mantra and starting Mr. Free At 33 freelance writing, reading, pursuing happiness, exercising, relaxing, staying in touch with readers via social media, and living the life I set out to create years prior.
Oh, and I became financially free in early 2016, just before turning 34 years old.
Even though I never went back to work in the auto industry, focusing on my passions, saving, and investing allowed me to double the FIRE Fund (and the dividend income it produced) between early 2014 and late 2016.
I truly never have to have a job again.
However, I have so many ideas I still want to share. I genuinely feel like I can change the world, in my own little way, and I don’t want to pass that opportunity up.
That feeling gave birth to this blog. It’ll be here that I share my perspectives on financial freedom, the pursuit of happiness, and living a purposeful life. Meanwhile, leaving Dividend Mantra turned out to be a blessing in disguise, even though it was heartbreaking at first. I was free to really reflect on some ideas I had. And I was blessed with this new perspective on life and financial freedom that I never had before. Plus, I was now free of any prior expectations in terms of content or anything else. I could start fresh. It became clear to me that I was free in many different ways.
Whereas Dividend Mantra was the “how” of financial freedom, I want Mr. Free At 33 to be the “what” and the “why”.
Now what? Why should one be financially free at a young age? What’s the point? What is life like after one is free of financial concerns? What’s the pursuit of happiness look like for someone who is financially free so early in life? What can this do for our lives and others around us?
I aim to answer these questions in real-time by showing how financial freedom tremendously aids in the pursuit of happiness, while also affording me more time and possibilities to make myself and the world a little better every single day by conquering challenges and living purposefully.
This project is my most ambitious yet.
While I’ll still occasionally address frugality and dividend growth investing, and while I’ll still share elements of my finances in real-time, I’m even more excited to tackle big ideas like being happy and making our world a better place within the framework of being financially free at a young age.
Financial freedom is, in my view, best when thought of as one aspect of a holistic lifestyle: the lifestyle that allowed you to become financially free in the first place becomes supercharged once you have more resources to devote to it.
I also hope to share what it’s like to be a dividend expat, as I indefinitely relocated to Chiang Mai, Thailand in late 2017 in order to take advantage of geographic arbitrage and better maximize financial freedom outside of the land of consumption (the US). One’s options within the framework of financial freedom can be far greater outside of the United States, due to lower costs and different expectations.
This move has served to exceed my expectations in every manner conceivable, resulting in what I refer to as “reverse culture shock”.
Moving abroad has turned me into an instant millionaire. And I’m literally living the life of my dreams in Thailand as a financially independent early retiree.
But part of my dream is helping others achieve their dreams.
To honor and celebrate that, and in order to provide a fresh take on early retirement, I wrote 5 Steps To Retire In 5 Years (also available in paperback). It’s my second best-selling book. It’s a guide that comprehensively lays out five steps that are tactical, holistic, and complementary. I cover geographic arbitrage with some depth in this book, which I think is becoming critical to the idea of living out a happy early retirement.
I believe becoming fairly wealthy at a young age is an incredible opportunity.
Money doesn’t buy happiness. But living a free life, on your terms, can. Customizing a life for you and by you can be profoundly satisfying.
We can live amazing and free lives where our time is no longer sucked up by repetitive tasks at jobs we don’t really want. Instead, we can spend our time improving our happiness, as well as others’.
Once we own our time, we can spend it on meaningful and worthwhile hobbies, activities, and pursuits that actually move the dial in regards to overall quality of life.
When I first started blogging in early 2011, I was one of the only people around showing the journey to financial freedom in real-time, using real numbers. I opened the books up to the world, showing all the ups and downs along the way.
Well, it seems I inspired many to do the same – there’s now a whole community of fellow freedom fighters doing the same thing. And that’s incredible. I’m proud of that legacy. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve done as much as I could there. After five years and more than 1,000 articles discussing the climb up, it’s now time to discuss the view.
I now want to touch lives in an even more profound way, using my writing to open up a whole new niche. While a lot of people are now doing what I’ve already done, I don’t see as many people doing what I’m setting out to do.
In that regard, I have also become a financial independence coach. I’ve realized over the years that I want to connect with people in a more tangible manner, in ways that my writing simply cannot accomplish. After reading countless emails filled with personal struggles, I’ve decided to reach out. I now offer my coaching services to individuals who are looking for one-on-one help and inspiration.
So I hope you stick around. And I hope you contact me if you’re looking for coaching. I’m only here to motivate, inspire, and help others reach the top of Mt. Freedom, where the view is really special. Let’s enjoy the view together.
Thanks for reading.
Video produced by: Swift Explainer Videos.