In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they've made and how it's impacted their financial journey.
People like Danny Kofke, a 38-year-old special education teacher in Georgia who says that anyone can squirrel away a $1 million nest egg for retirement—regardless of income. So we asked Kofke to divulge how he's managed to sock away $60,000 thus far while supporting a family of four on a $41,000 annual salary.
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Want to know my money secret? It’s simple: Trick yourself. Put money aside by pretending that you don’t have it in the first place.
That’s what my wife, Tracy, and I do while raising our daughters Ava, 9, and Ella, 6. And even though we live on my moderate teacher’s salary of $41,000, we’ve managed to save $250 per month since 2002, allowing us to amass about $60,000 for retirement. We’re well on our way to cashing out as millionaires by 65.
Investing in Ourselves
We’re not like those couples for whom money remains a taboo topic. We’re very open and honest about our finances. We discuss our hopes and our dreams—and then go for it.
I met Tracy, who is four years older, in 1999, when I was working as a student teacher and she was teaching first grade. Our courtship was fast: We started dating in August. We got engaged in December ... and we got married in June.
We spent our first two years as newlyweds working as teachers at an international school in Poland. Any other couple might have gone into debt living abroad, but not us. Despite the fact that we were living on a combined $45,000 income, we consistently set aside $800 each month, which we used to kick-start our retirement savings, save for a down payment for a house and give my grandmother back the $10,000 we borrowed to pay for our wedding.
We’re planners. We like to set a goal and then work to accomplish it. Take our plan to live off just my teaching salary, so Tracey could be a stay-at-home mom.
We began talking about starting a family around 2002, which is when we planned to move back to the U.S. But first, we decided that we'd spend the next two years aggressively saving—and paying off what little debt we had.
We earmarked $800 each month from our paychecks to act on this game plan: We deposited $300 into an emergency fund savings account that would cover our living expenses in case something unforeseen went wrong in the years ahead. Another $250 went toward paying off Tracy’s remaining $2,000 in student loans. And we put $250 into a joint retirement account.
Back then, we used a 403(b) (a tax-sheltered plan that's available to public school employees) for our retirement savings, and the money was deducted from Tracy's paycheck before taxes. Today, we make contributions to a Roth IRA, which offers tax-free income during retirement, because I’d rather have my money free and clear—without owing taxes in 30 years.
We were lucky in that we had very little overhead in Poland. We didn’t pay for rent or a car—and food and recreation were very affordable. In those two years, not only did we make a dent in Tracy’s student loan, but we also saved up $20,000 in our emergency fund ... and socked away $6,000 into our retirement account. Good thing we put aside that “just in case” emergency money, too.
Most people don’t have an income problem—it’s an outgo problem.
In 2004, right after our first daughter was born, two hurricanes hit us in less than a month, and we had to get a new roof and porch. We took about $1,000 from our emergency fund to cover the insurance deductible. We later sold the house for $199,000—a nice profit from the $89,000 we originally paid—and moved to the more weather-neutral town of Hoschton, Ga., about 45 minutes northeast of Atlanta.
That was also the year that Tracy and I began living on one income. We’d worked hard so that we wouldn’t feel the pinch when she took the leap to be a stay-at-home mom. And it didn’t really impact our finances much because we’d already been covering most of our day-to-day expenses with my paycheck.
We're also smart about keeping those day-to-day expenses in check: I brown bag my lunch every day, instead of making $5-a-day quick runs to grab fast food. That probably saves me $1,200 a year—in 18 years, when I retire, that would add up to about $21,600! Each Sunday, I also buy a newspaper so Tracy can clip coupons. She’s not into extreme couponing, but she takes 15 or 20 minutes to look for worthwhile deals.
Last Halloween, my wife made our kids' costumes, as she does every year. One was a skeleton, so she bought a $5 black T-shirt to which she applied Velcro in the shape of bones. The next day, I found her peeling off the Velcro from the shirt. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “This is a perfectly good shirt!” And I was like, "Honey, we can afford to buy another $5 shirt."
The goal of our super-savings plan isn't just to put away money for emergencies and retirement—it’s also to put aside money for opportunities to invest in ourselves. For example, I used $4,000 from our emergency fund to self-publish a book. Bottom line: I believe that anyone can do what we do. The reality is that most people don’t have an income problem—it’s an outgo problem.
What Our Dream Future Holds
It's a lot of work to live off one salary, but we plan to keep doing it until the girls graduate high school or go off to college. Tracy actually went back to work in August, when she was offered a teaching position that she couldn’t pass up—but we’re banking most of her salary.
At the moment, we’re not adding additional funds to our retirement savings. Instead, we’re putting most of it into a savings account, so that we have options later. One thing we’re not vigorously saving for is our children’s college educations. We’ve earmarked one of the investment accounts in our retirement plan for the kids, but that’s it. In Georgia, if you graduate with a 3.0, you’ll receive a HOPE scholarship, which assists students with the educational costs of attending an in-state school.
Our house will be paid off in about 10 years, which is around the time that Ava will be graduating from high school, so we’ll have some extra money then to put toward her education. Overall, however, I feel that parents need to save for their own retirements before they save for their children’s educations. Worst-case scenario, kids can take out student loans—but there’s no such thing as a retirement loan.
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Although I am serious about saving money and planning for my future, I still make sure to put some of the money that I earn toward making memorable experiences with my family. Every summer, we vacation for free at the beach in Florida, where my in-laws live. Plus, my uncle has a lake house in Alabama, so we go there, too.
With my current teaching job, I work three days a week even in the summertime, so I think of that extra $1,500 as "family fun" money—rather than use it to pad our investments or our emergency fund, I plan to take my family to Disney World for Thanksgiving break.
When I picture my retirement, I think of my grandmother, who was in her 50s when she retired! I envision that for Tracy and me. We’re simple people, so I’d love to buy an RV and travel around the country, staying in state parks. To me, luxury isn’t about accumulating things. It’s about living out your passions and living the life you want.
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