Millionaire Interview Series #5 – Contrarian Saver
Hello dear reader and welcome to the fifth blog post of the Millionaire Interview Series.
As this blog’s domain name suggests, my personal long term financial goal is to reach a net worth of one million euros, or in other words, become a millionaire.
In addition to self-educating in topics as finance, and summarizing my learnings on my millionaire mind series, I am keen on acquiring knowledge from other people experiences, especially from those who are self-made millionaires.
So, what is this Millionaire Interview Series about?
Every interviewee will answer a set of questions, which aim to collect information from several millionaires around the world. These questions will be all be pretty much the same for everyone.
My goal is to analyse and find common patterns, behaviour, careers, lifestyles, mindset, hobbies, or any other aspect that may come across.
If you’d be interested in being interviewed please get in touch with me by email tony (at) onemillionjourney (dot) com or a message me on Twitter.
- Millionaire Interview #1 – Finimus (The UK)
- Millionaire Interview #2 – FI Heroes (US)
- Millionaire Interview #3 – Perpetual Money Machine (US)
- Millionaire Interview #4 – Steve Adcock (US)
Meet Contrarian Saver
It is often said that financial independence is earned by working, saving and investing hard until we reach our FI number.
However, as Contrarian Saver will show you, there is not a unique way to reach FI. His points of view differ from the “standardized” FIRE thinking, and that’s what makes this interview special. The more points of view we can learn from, the higher the chance to make better and more informed decisions in the future.
I know you are curious to know more about it, and you can’t wait any longer 😀
So, without further ado, it’s learning time with Contrarian Saver:
Introduction About Yourself
How old are you?
What’s your nationality?
American – born and raised
Where do you live?
Los Angeles, CA
Are you married?
No, never married – but I have something of an excuse. As a gay man, marriage wasn’t legally available to me for most of my life. Now that it is, I suppose I’ll have to pair up pretty soon!
Do you have any children?
No, this one is pretty new to gays as well 🙂
What do you do for a living?
I consider myself semi-retired. I work 2 days/week as a partner in a friends firm, running new client business. The rest of my time is spent building and managing a portfolio of rental properties, primarily vacation rentals.
Determining how wealthy you are
In this section, I would like to find out where you stand along the wealth continuum, or in other words, if you are a prodigious accumulator (PAW), an under accumulator of wealth (UAW) or just an average accumulator (AAW). More about this on wikipedia.
What’s your net worth? Please include debt details if applicable.
You know I had to think about this one as I am not one of those people who constantly track their net worth. And a lot of it is in real estate, which can be tricky to value. So roughly speaking, it looks like this:
Primary residence equity: $750k
Other real estate: $1.8m
Collectibles, etc.: $100k
Retirement accounts: $300k
I have several mortgages totaling about $550k. So I suppose that puts my net worth around $2.4m
How much of your net worth is inherited?
I received an inheritance of $30k US about five years ago when my mother passed. But most of this is being used to support her sister (my aunt) as she requires increased care (she’s 89).
Could you please tell us what’s your pre-tax household income from all sources, except inheritances and how it has evolved from your first earnings until now?
Another question requiring some thought! I earn about $325k., mostly income from investment properties. About $60k of this is eaten by mortgage payments, however. On the plus side, due to the many assorted deductions available to real estate investors in the U.S., I keep about 85% of the remainder.
Sources of income
Please, would you mind telling us what are your main sources of income and how much they contribute to your pre-tax income household? (Day job, side hustles, businesses, dividends, interests… from you and your spouse).
2 day a week gig: approx. $100k/year
Deferred income from a prior 9-5 job (pays out over 10 years): $45k
Income from real estate: $180k
Approximately, how many hours per week of your time is required to maintain this income level?
Approx. 20 – in a busy week.
Have you had any period with a significant lower stream of income due to a career or occupation change, incapacity, illness or any other bumps on the road you encountered? (If so, what did you do to overcome the situation?)
I have been pretty lucky in that sense. I have certainly been laid off or fired multiple times throughout my career. But I was always able to land another gig within a few months. I lived off severance and unemployment, in those short periods between jobs, so I never took much of a hit.
With regard to illness: Like many people, I have certainly had periods where I had to deal with chronic pain, which was difficult to diagnose (stomach and digestive issues in my case). But I learned that the best thing to do, once all the serious stuff was ruled out, is to just power through it and keep working. Otherwise, you’ll focus on your symptoms and fall down a rabbit hole of theories and quasi-diagnoses. What is difficult to diagnose, I’ve noticed, usually goes away by itself.
Do you spend time or money looking for new opportunities to boost your income?
Yes and no. I don’t look for “side hustles” but am always looking for ways to generate more profit out of my properties (mostly vacation rentals) – and for new properties to add to the portfolio.
Savings, expenses and purchasing behaviour
How much of your pre-tax household income do you save and how it has changed over time?
I really don’t save anything in the traditional sense. I put away the maximum allowed in my 401k, about $26k US – but I do this mostly for the tax deduction. I almost always borrow or withdraw most of it (currently permitted without penalty due to the CARES act).
So where does all this $325k go? Partially for living expenses, but most of it goes either towards buying new properties or renovating existing properties to make them Airbnb ready…
Do you have a budget, pay yourself first or track your expenses? (If so, how much time do you spend on it on a monthly basis?)
I don’t – my spending is automatically kept somewhat in check by the voracious cash needs of my business. However, this is in the service of building the value of my real estate assets.
Do you remember how much you paid for your first home and what was your household’s total annual realized income at that time?
It was a condo in Hoboken NJ. I was renting the place and the owner wanted to sell, so I bought “the devil you know”. It was about $130k. Like now, I was never a saver, so I had to scrape together the down payment together with credit card cash advances!
Is there any category where you don’t mind spending more money into?
I’m still looking for the category I’m willing to not spend money on! As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not much of a saver. I’d say on a monthly basis my budget breaks down as follows:
- Food and entertainment (e.g., drinks, restaurant meals): $2000
- Mortgage: $1000 (it’s actually about $4000 but most is covered by rentals as I live in/co-own a fourplex)
- Travel: $1500
- Clothes: $1000
- Utilities, including streaming, cell, etc.: $500
- Car insurance and gas: $200
- Hair: $150
- Medical including dental: $200
- Gym: $250
- Housekeeper and gardener: $300
- Various home and car repairs: $1000
I should also state that in the last 3-5 years, I’ve typically spent about $100k/year on renovations and furnishings of my vacation properties. They are nowhere near inhabitable when I buy them, so they require quite a bit of work!
What’s the most expensive piece of clothing and the motor vehicle you’ve ever bought?
Oh, I regularly spend $500+ on a pair of shoes. But I buy Prada and I keep them for years -decades even. I write about this in my blog.
My Porsche 911 was $60k used. I bought it 13 years ago and it’s still going strong. It’s another unexpected bargain which I also have written about.
What’s the current value of all your motor vehicles?
That Porsche is down to about $25k in value and it’s almost time to trade her in – I want a back-up camera!
Investing strategy and behaviour
What’s your net worth asset allocation?
As you can see above, about 80% in real estate. All retirement funds are invested in index funds.
What’s your investing philosophy? Do you stick into any strategy? (If so, do you change it often?)
I am not smart enough to beat the market – and I really don’t think anyone else is either – so I stick to index funds, to the extent that I invest in equities.
But my main focus is income streams. The greater my income streams, the more I can spend to enjoy life. And someday people will pay for those income streams, especially if they are passive.
How much time do you spend planning and tracking your investments on a monthly basis?
I occasionally check on the value of my real estate, say once or twice a year. As I said, I don’t really track my portfolio much as I’m more focused on income streams.
Do you follow the markets and media closely and trade accordingly? Are you an active or inactive trader?
No, I think these are all people trying to sell books or something else, so they position themselves as “experts”. No one can consistently beat the market.
Do you hire any professional financial and tax advisors, lawyers or accountants? (If so, what’s the annual cost of it?)
I have a very good accountant and will probably hire a lawyer someday vs. relying on the advice of all my lawyer friends. But even with my accountant, I come up with the tax strategies, and he fills in the details.
Tell us about your best investment.
The place I’m living in now. I get to live in a house (ok, half a house) in a great neighborhood a block from Beverly Hills, virtually mortgage-free. It’s because of the two units behind the house, which we’ve turned into furnished short term (30days+) rentals. Housing is so expensive in LA, once you’ve slain that dragon you are far ahead of the game.
And the worst one?
I invested in a friend’s start-up, $50k and lost every dime. I was able to deduct it from my taxes, so I recovered about ⅓ that way. He raised well over $10m, so I wasn’t the only one.
What would be your investment advice to anyone who wants to build wealth today?
This should come as no surprise to anyone that reads my blog – but I don’t think people in the personal finance community focus enough on income.
Saving is important, but you can’t frugal your way to wealth. I have noticed a disturbing trend in the FIRE movement, which started out as a bunch of burnt-out engineers who retired (or semi-retired) at 40 – but has devolved into terrified millennials using FIRE to justify dropping out of professional lives before they’ve even started.
So my advice would be to do everything in your power to maximize your income. Go to a good school and target a monetizable (read: STEM) degree and manage your career so that your income is steadily growing. Careers can be challenging, frustrating, even overwhelming – but a successful career and a consistently high salary is the surest foundation from which to build wealth.
Are you a goal-oriented person? Do you have a net worth target number?
I don’t really have a net worth goal but I do target income stream numbers (e.g, $15k/month, $20k/month). I tend to make these short term (e.g., achieve in 1-3 years), then I move on to the next, higher goal.
Do you follow any specific morning routine? How do you spend the first hour of the day?
I can’t function without two strong cups of coffee in the morning, so it starts there. I tend to work out pretty early, almost every day. Lately (during the quarantine) I’ve been browsing twitter in the morning in that first hour, sometimes even writing a bit.
Is there any specific goal or habit you would like to mention?
Just to say that I would describe myself as more of a lazy, type B personality. I’m sure this played into all those layoffs and firings! The only thing I’m really at all disciplined about is my eating habits: no sugar, no simple carbs like bread or pasta; little or no red meat or pork. What you put into your body is so important. However, this could just be due to the crunchy granola influence of California, where everyone is like this – or my father, who ate exactly the same way. So maybe it isn’t really discipline!
How do you view money? What does it represent to you?
Freedom of course, and control. But also money gives you the ability to take risks in life, which is so important for success.
Lastly, money is society’s way of keeping score, even if it isn’t for you personally. We would all do well to at least acknowledge that fact as we make decisions that impact our finances.
Did your parents provide you with economic outpatient care? (If so, how much was gifted to you?)
Hmm, I think they helped me with my undergraduate tuition, room and board – I’d say they covered half and the rest was covered with scholarships and loans. I covered grad school myself, also no help with the first car, house, etc.
Do you consider yourself financially literate? (If so, please could you tell us how you got the knowledge?)
I am told that I am more financially savvy than most. I guess that makes sense, as I have a very numbers-oriented mind. Also, admittedly I learned from the best: I have an MBA in finance from the Wharton School of Business (sorry, did I just bury the lead?). I like to think that helped me more than any finance or investing bestseller!
Tell us about your hobbies and how you like to spend (free) time and energy.
Well, I work out every day. And I cook almost every night (I’m getting better during the quarantine). But my real obsession is real estate. If I wake up in the middle of the night I fire up Zillow until I’m too tired to continue browsing. Real estate listings, real estate television, renovation articles, I love it all and can’t get enough.
Your concerns, fears and worries. Can you tell us a bit about them? Is there anything you are especially afraid of?
The only thing that keeps me up at night is if I have some health issue, especially one surrounded by unknowns. That can be scary. Strangely, I virtually never worry about money – I probably should. I wish I could attribute that to being financially independent, but even when I was younger and broke I never worried – even when I should have.
Who do you hang out with? Where do you hang out? What’s your environment like?
I have a pretty wide social circle here in LA. Before the pandemic, I had a group to go to bars with, another group to go to dinner with, to travel with, to go to movies with.
LA has some great restaurants and I eat out a lot, taking advantage of the killer food scene here. When I was younger I really wanted to sample the high life – so I spent time in some of those places where you have to “know someone” to get in. But I’ve settled down quite a bit since then – dinner, one or two drinks and I’m home before 12 (unless travelling, then I still let loose a little).
What is your mindset like? What do you think about on a daily basis?
My mind is always spinning into a million different directions. I’m told I’m very creative. I do tend to run numbers in my head quite a bit, e.g., I’ll see a property listed for sale and run the ROI mentally. Or evaluate the return from self-managing my properties. I don’t like to work and am naturally lazy – so I tend to forever be looking for ways to squeeze more income out of my assets.
Tell us three books you think any wealth accumulator must-read.
I do read, but I feel kind of burnt out on personal finance books. Most oversimplify things or just reiterate common sense, in my opinion. Frankly, if you want to get rich, I think you might be better off just reading the classics. Anyone quoting Shakespeare or Dickens in a job interview will likely be a shoo-in!
Becoming a millionaire is a common people’s dream. Can you see any pattern that some millionaire dreamers follow, and you think it isn’t the most appropriate? What would like to advise them?
I would reiterate that you can’t frugal your way to wealth. There are some really bad examples out there – I even came across one blogger who wants to quit work forever at 30 with $375k because of “toxic” work environments. That truly is approaching life with a fear mindset. You’ll never be successful, financially or otherwise, with that philosophy.
Also, invest in the stock market but don’t try to beat it. And for God’s sakes, please don’t think you’ll get rich by day trading. It’s a sucker’s game.
I also see the treatment in the media of wealthy celebrities (Jessica Alba, Kanye West, any Kardashian, Gwynth Paltrow) as “successful entrepreneurs”. Nothing could be more absurd. Successful entrepreneurs are using these people’s names and images to make money, but these celebrities are not entrepreneurs. I worked in entertainment for 20 years, and a powerful stage or screen presence can deliver shocking wealth, even for someone with no brains or business sense. Presence is what is truly behind these people’s success, not business sense.
Anything else you would like to add?
Just that you can find my blog at at ContrarianSaver and I am on Twitter @contrariansaver. Please feel free to DM me if you have any questions. Also, I am not selling anything, I don’t even accept ads on my blog 🙂
And thank you for the opportunity to share my story!
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