A Million Dollars on a Teacher’s Salary

I’ll admit it. 

I had the superficial goal of amassing a million dollars on a school teacher’s salary before I was forty.

I had to pay for my own university education, and I didn’t inherit a penny.    When I got married two years ago, my wife’s friends put $600 in an envelope for us, and I just stared at it.  Nobody had ever given me so much money before. 

Sure,  there are far more admirable goals than becoming a 30 something millionaire—but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t proud when I stock-piled 7 figures into an investment account by the time I was 38 years old.

To do that, I think you have to be a bit of an oddball.  I’m not saying that I’m on “the spectrum” (euphemistic “teacher-speak” for a weird kid) but I’m the kind of guy you might see doing a metaphorical Lindy Hop at a Rave.

How did I become a debt-free millionaire on a teacher’s salary?

Step 1—Frugality

There’s “frugal” and there’s “frugal”.  I can’t suggest that anyone do what I did because

A.  It was dumb
B.  It was uncomfortable at times
C.  You’ll be given the “What the hell’s wrong with you?” speech by your family.  And if you don’t get that speech, they’ll still compose it and share it, but they’ll do it at closed showings when you’re not around.

Dying cats and dirty laundry

When I was a young teacher, I shared accommodation with room-mates.  Call me “frugal”, “cheap” or “parsimonious” if you like, but I preferred not paying any rent at all.  Wanting to add to an investment account I established when I was 19 (and wanting to hammer down my student loans in a single year) I looked for people escaping to the sun- belt for winter, who wanted somebody moving in for the season to look after their homes.  In some cases, the vacationing homeowners left me responsible for ancient animals on death’s door.

One couple left for Costa Rica in the winter, leaving me responsible for a geriatric white cat with burnt hair patches.  It looked like somebody had tried to kill it with a flame thrower.   With the casual warning the owner mumbled:  “The cat’s really old.  If he dies, he dies.”

I prayed that I’d never have to find his stiffened body in my bed.  But thankfully, that cat had more comebacks than Rocky Balboa so I referred to the cat (when talking about it with friends) as The Italian Stallion—partly because of his obvious longevity and the fact that the owner never did tell me the cat’s real name.

But no matter how cold the rent-free homes got in the winter, I never turned on the heat.   Wanting to keep costs down so I could invest and desperately pay down debts, I’d walk around the house wearing layers of shirts and sweaters while the winter’s snow piled up outside. If there was a fireplace, I used it.  And at night, I’d make a roaring fire and then dragged blankets in front of it to sleep.  Waking up during winter mornings, I’d see my breath.

Eventually, I craved the freedom of my own place, so I moved into a basement suite where the landlord charged $350 a month.   But low rents can come with inconveniences.  In this case, I was a long way from the school I taught at:  35 miles.

If I was smart enough to drive a car to work, it wouldn’t have been so bad.   I owned a rusting, 20 year old Volkswagen that I bought for $1,200, but I wasn’t prepared to pay fuel prices for the 70 mile roundtrip commute.  So– I rode my bike.

And it gets worse.  I’m not exactly proud of this, but at the time, I refused to buy a washer and dryer.  I also felt that coin operated Laundromats were a waste of money.  So I found a cheaper way.

I’d load my dirty laundry into a black garbage bag, put it in my bicycle trailer, and pedal down the highway at 5am to work.  I’d then get to work and skulk into the school to do my laundry in the home economics class before anyone else arrived.

I think I’m wealthier than most people in my vocational wage bracket because I wasn’t conventional with anything—not with my spending and not with my investing.

I’ll keep a running series on this blog, titled A Million Dollars on a Teacher’s Salary, with my subsequent wealth tips and wealth-related stories.  You can learn from me, laugh at me, laugh with me or just swear that money isn’t everything—and that you’ll never want to live like me.

But before you do, here’s a teaser.  Today I live well.  I get weekly massages in my own home, and I’ve travelled to more than 40 different countries so far.  I’m also debt-free, live in a club-med like condo and own a classic Mercedes Benz (and a practical Mazda)  It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Have you gone to any extremes to save money?  How do you feel about them now?  Was it worth it? 

Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas. My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions.

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8 Responses

  1. Hey Andrew,

    Sounds like a lot of sacrifice and frugality, but looks like it also paid off fairly well in terms of your current living standards.

    I never did go down the frugal path myself; I wasted far too much money on cars and renting appts through most of my youth; I was able to avoid student debt both by working part-time and full-time during school and through the generous help of a great grandmother.

    I am only 27, so I can potentially hit the 7 figure mark before I hit 40 as well. However, as money is worth less with each passing day, so this milestone is worth less as well! I might have to bump up my ambitions a little bit!

  2. Impressive!

    As a student, I lived like a student, but as soon as I was employed, I opened the faucet a little too much. So many years of frugality (as a student) had to be caught up with … Once I got married though, the frugality (with moderation) came back since we had children early and I needed to plan for long term (with only one income).

    I look forward to your future articles!

  3. Andrew Hallam says:

    Passive Income Earner:

    I can tell, based on your blog, that you're likely incredibly efficient with your income. What do you think will be a good age for you to start teaching your kids about money? I was talking to some friends last night, and I think the premise of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him any fish really holds true financially. What are your thoughts on that?


    I guess when I was your age I was still riding that silly bike from Campbell River to Comox every morning (British Columbia) trying to scrape together nickels. You're likely way ahead of me! My theory, after reading Thomas Stanley's books (The Millionaire Mind, The Millionaire Next Door and Stop Acting Rich) is that you are further ahead financially, today, because you had to struggle earlier on. If you didn't pay for your own schooling and if your folks gave you money to "get started" I don't think you'd be as well-off today. Certainly, you would have been more comfortable early on (you wouldn't have struggled) but a runner struggles every time they train for a marathon. And if someone tried removing that "struggle" (which is the best physical preparation) away from that marathoner, you'd end up with a weak runner indeed. What do you think?

  4. "I was talking to some friends last night, and I think the premise of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him any fish really holds true financially."

    Andrew, I do agree with this. I believe that you should help someone enough so that they are able to help themselves, but not so much that they extend their hand waiting for the next fish. This is the philosophy that I learned from my grandmother, and it is the same philosophy I would like to teach to my kids one day.

    I believe that challenge is needed in order to grow. Challenge shouldn't be so great that you are cut off at the roots, but it should be enough so that you have something to strive for, and if not your own challenges, then helping someone else with theirs!

  5. Andrew Hallam says:

    I agree with you 100% Kevin. I like thinking of the sports analogies. If you keep putting your kid on the very best teams (instead of him/her training and going through the stuggles of "trying out") they'll end up playing among a field of players that, over time, will leave them further and further behind. They won't feel as much pride and they won't be as hungry.

    The best "help" comes in the form of coaching, teaching and nurturing. Sure, if it's soccer, you can buy them small balls to practice with and perhaps help them out by sending them to soccer camps, but ultimately (as with financial handouts) they won't likely end up good unless they're pushed a bit.

    This makes me think of philanthropy. My wife and I work at figuring out where we can best allocate donations. First, we try to find low key groups doing great things to help people–ensuring that the money goes where it should. But even more importantly, we want to see that the donated money "empowers" rather than weakens the recipients. We have found some amazing organizations, and in these cases, the recipients have to work for the philanthropically donated benefits. In some cases, they don't even realize that they are receiving them. They work towards a goal and they get rewarded (www.tabitha.ca for example) by something we help them with. It's very empowering for the people because they often think that they're doing it all themselves. For example, a Cambodian well costs $120 to drill, but if 3 families pitch together a total of $20, the well gets dug for them. Giving money to others is very tricky. North American and Australian history is now filled with how we "gave" to the natives and weakened them in the process. We "gave" because we felt guilty about what we took from them. But we gave them the wrong kinds of things, thus reducing their pride. What do you think?

  6. Hey Andrew,

    The history of the native Americans (and Australians) is filled with sadness. I'm not familiar with the history of the Australian aborigines, but the American natives were fed whiskey and false promises with one hand and shot with a pistol in the other hand.

    I don't think the guilt trips are productive, though. This is the dark side of human nature, and what was done was done by people who are long since dead. War has been with us since before written history. When it comes to making amends, where do you draw the line? Perhaps we should find the descendants of the Trojans and give them some land in Greece as recompense? You can't roll back the clock; you can only improve things going forward.

    I agree with you; if you really want to help people, you need to help them feel proud of what they are doing and what they can accomplish. Nobody feels good about receiving handouts from others, but someone can feel good about building something together to improve the quality of life for everyone.

  7. Hey Andrew,

    I have yet to get the "what the hell’s wrong with you?” speech, but maybe it's coming?!

    Really though, I'm not that frugal. I consider my approach very balanced and although that might delay achieving my financial independence goals, I consider it a great decision for me. I need to be happy for now and in the future. Surely my wife would attest to that!

    I couldn't agree with you and Kevin more, challenge is always needed to grow. Not like, "bang head here" challenge but it doesn't hurt to have the door locked and a bunch of keys to fumble through.

    I will most certainly tune in to your Million Dollars on a Teacher’s Salary posts. I think the reflective writing and learning you offer, can only benefit others. I'm trying to do the same with my blog and I hope it too, offers insight and encouragement to others. Keep up the great posts!

  8. Mark Eichenlaub says:

    This is just pure gold Andrew!

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