Save and Invest

I saved over $100,000 in just 3 years by the time I was 27—here are my top money-saving tips

The author, Bola Sokunbi
Credit: Bola Sokunbi

Early in my career, when I was 27, I reached a huge milestone: I had amassed a little more than $100,000 in savings — and I did it in just three years.

Saving that much money was no walk in the park, but I was lucky to have the support of my mother, who worked tirelessly to help pay for all four years of my private college tuition (which was roughly $35,000 per year).

I understand that most people aren't fortunate enough to have the help of their parents. Instead, they have to pay their own way or take out student loans. (I hope that one day, college will be more affordable so that my luck wouldn't be just "luck" — but a common thing.)

Watching my mother work so hard inspired me to be smart about my own finances. So once I graduated from college, I challenged myself to save $100,000 to invest in my retirement savings accounts, emergency funds and other investment accounts.

I was able to do it by learning from other people, reading books and through trial and error. Here are the five most important savings tips I learned in those three years.

1. Invest in your 401(k)

This might sound like a no-brainer, but three out of four Americans admit that their biggest financial mistake was not investing in their 401(k) as early as possible.

When I was 24, I landed my first full-time job at a technology consulting firm. I had a starting salary of $54,000 and put 15% of it into my 401(k).

At the time, my employer matched 100% of the first 6% I contributed. Three and a half years later, my savings had grown to nearly $40,000 — thanks to the magic of compound interest and excellent market gains.

If your company offers an employee-matching program, take advantage of it immediately and max out your allowable contributions. Can't afford to max out right away? Consider increasing your contributions by 1% every quarter until you can.

If you don't have access to an employer-sponsored plan, there are options to invest in individual retirement accounts, such as a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA.

2. Keep your expenses very, very low

Most of my friends couldn't wait to move out and get their own places after college, but I decided to live at home with my parents for six months.

Once I saved up enough money, I got my own place in New Jersey. But even then, I continued to live frugally and keep my expenses as low as possible by:

  • Moving close to work: I chose a location near my office so I wouldn't have to spend a ton of money on transportation.
  • Packing lunch: Eating out for lunch every day during the workweek would have cost me, on average, $10 per meal. So by packing my own meals, I was saving about $2,500 per year.
  • Not going out every night: Skipping nights out was really hard because it meant having to say no and feeling left out. But making friends with people who had similar savings goals really helped. (When I did go out, I avoided all the ridiculously-priced items like theater popcorn and fancy cocktails.)
  • Cutting cable: Unless you're a huge sports fan, you can save a lot by cutting the cord. And these days, you might be better off switching to an online streaming service like Netflix, Hulu or YouTube TV.
  • Negotiating cell phone bills: Cell phone plans can get really expensive, especially when it comes to data. It's always worth calling your service provider to negotiate ways to lower your bill. If you're a loyal — and incredibly persistent — customer, you'd be surprised by the special deals and offers available.
  • Cutting down on groceries: Before you head to the grocery store, make sure you have a full stomach and a prepared list of items you want to buy. That way, you won't get sidetracked by things you don't need or food cravings that pop up while you're there. Coupons help, too!
  • Canceling unused memberships and subscriptions: Get into the habit of reviewing your bank statements every month to see if there are any subscription services you're not using or can live without. If you're worried that canceling your gym membership might mean you'll never exercise again, for example, challenge yourself to find creative ways to break a sweat (e.g., running outdoors or working out with YouTube videos).

3. Save 40% to 50% of your earnings

Growing your money isn't just about keeping expenses low, it's also about making a plan to save what you have left over.

After my 401(k), taxes and other deductions, I was earning somewhere between $1,350 and $1,400 per bi-weekly paycheck during my first year of work. I tried to save around $500 to $700 of every paycheck as well as all of my yearly bonus, which was about $1,500. Not much, but still something! I also saved the bulk of my tax returns each year.

Another trick that helped: Each time I got a promotion, I continued to live on my old budget so I could save the full amount of my raise. (By the end of my third year at work, my salary was about $74,000 after taxes.)

As a result, I averaged about $18,000 each year in cash savings. Three years later, I had saved well over $50,000 from my full-time job.

Automating my finances by having the money automatically sent to my savings account made things a lot easier.

4. Start a side hustle

In my second year of saving, I became very interested in photography. I purchased an entry-level DSLR camera and decided to start a side gig as a lifestyle and wedding photographer.

I studied my craft and did a lot of free work to start. As I got better, I began to raise my prices. Within a few months, my business was growing and becoming very profitable. Networking with other photographers was helpful because they were able to refer me to new clients.

Running a side business while also working a full time job wasn't easy, but it was worth it: The first year of my business, I earned around $10,000; the second year, I earned around $30,000; and in subsequent years, my profits only continued to increase.

Around the same time, I started learning about investing outside of retirement funds and used some of the money I earned from my photography business to do that. This helped push my savings well over the $100,000 mark.

If you have a hobby or particular skill set that people compliment you on all the time, consider starting a side hustle. You can also make extra cash by selling electronics, clothing, shoes or anything else you no longer use.

5. Don't get caught up in comparison

You've probably heard the saying that comparison is the thief of joy, and it really is. A lot of the time, people end up spending money they don't have on something they don't need — usually because someone else has it or expects them to have it.

You should never feel the need to spend money to impress anyone. If you do, you may find yourself competing way past what your budget allows. Be happy with what you have and forget about what everyone else thinks.

Of course, I rewarded myself with purchases, but only on things that truly made me happy. I often reminded myself that planning for the future should always come first.

All those people flaunting their expensive clothes and cars on Instagram will probably regret their purchases once they take a hard look at their finances and realize how far behind they are from reaching financial independence.

Time goes by so quickly, and planning for the future can allow you to enjoy retirement without having to depend on the government or on your children to take care of you.

Bola Sokunbi is a certified financial education instructor, money expert and author of "Clever Girl Finance."

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The author, Bola Sokunbi
Credit: Bola Sokunbi
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