This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.
Graham Stephan pulls up to a high-end Hollywood Hills property in his matte black Tesla Model 3. It's a four-bed, 2,300-square-foot home listed for $2.169 million by The Oppenheim Group, where Stephan has worked as a realtor since 2015.
He's sold multiple properties like it — and every time he closes a deal, he collects a nice commission check.
As of September 2019, Stephan has earned $77,152 in real estate commissions on the five properties he's sold so far this year. But that represents just a fraction of his income. While the 29-year-old millionaire got his start in real estate, he now earns most of his money making YouTube videos.
Stephan, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, never dreamed he'd make his living as a YouTuber. He was earning good money as a realtor, a career he started at 18 after he didn't get into college. He'd watched YouTube videos for years — "it was my version of TV," he tells CNBC Make It — but didn't think he had the personality to be a creator himself. "It looked like such a fun thing to do and I'd always wanted to do it, but I also felt like, Who would want to watch me?"
About three years ago, he decided to film and upload a video. It was an explainer on how to be a successful real estate agent that he shot "selfie-style" on his iPhone.
"I remember that video getting nine or 10 views," says Stephan, "and thinking, Oh my God, nine people somewhere have seen this video! So I started making more videos. Once I started doing about two videos a week, the growth really just exploded."
Today, Stephan has close to 1.5 million subscribers across two channels. He earns an average of $90,684 a month on the platform and will bring in well over $1 million for 2019. His videos cover a range of topics, from how to build wealth as a teen to buying a Tesla "for free." And he regularly posts reaction videos to CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, offering commentary on how the subjects could improve their finances.
This year will be the first time he's earned seven figures in a calendar year, a milestone he's been striving for since 2017. "Two years ago, I made a goal challenge video," says Stephan. "My goal was to make $1 million in 2018." He didn't quite achieve it, but he surprised even himself by hitting it just a year later.
Stephan currently has six revenue streams. His average monthly income is $150,420, though it goes up and down month to month, as low as $61,200 and as high as $221,300 in 2019. He's on track to earn a minimum of $1.6 million this year, but could bring home closer to $2 million, he estimates.
The numbers below are based on Stephan's income as of September 2019.
Stephan's main YouTube channel, Graham Stephan, has over 1 million subscribers and focuses on his experiences in the real estate industry. It's earned him, on average, $81,428 a month in 2019, though the most he's made in one month from the channel is $136,330.
He launched a second channel, The Graham Stephan Show, in May 2019. It has over 200,000 subscribers, covers a variety of money and business topics and has brought in, on average, $9,256 per month in 2019, though he's currently earning closer to $24,000 per month from this channel.
Stephan estimates that 85% of his total yearly earnings come from YouTube. Still, he treats it like "bonus income" and hasn't spent any of it. "If YouTube were to vanish tomorrow, I would be disappointed," he says, but from a money perspective, "it's never been something that I've relied on."
Stephan sells two online courses: "The Real Estate Agent Academy," which focuses on how to get started in the industry, and "The YouTube Creator Academy," which helps people grow their YouTube channel and turn it into a business.
The classes, which he started selling in early 2018, earn him nearly $30,000 a month. "Since it's all online, that's pretty much all profit," says Stephan, who pays $90 a month to use the platform Teachable. "There's almost no overhead whatsoever."
That said, creating them was "quite the ordeal," he admits. "'The Real Estate Agent Academy' took me nearly a year to make. That involved speaking with over a dozen real estate agents about their careers, what they wished they learned, what they wanted to improve on ... filming each segment, editing and then putting it together in such a way that the user wouldn't have any questions whatsoever."
Stephan owns and rents out six properties in Los Angeles, including the duplex he lives in.
Three of the properties are paid off, and he is paying down mortgages on the other three. Although Stephan brings in $15,105 from his tenants, after factoring in expenses, which include mortgages, property taxes and insurance, he earns about $5,000 a month in profit.
Renting space has never been challenging, he says: "In L.A., there's such a shortage of housing. Finding tenants has been so easy."
Stephan's career started in real estate. "I got into it as soon as I turned 18 because I had no other options," he says. "I didn't get into college and I saw getting my real estate license as a way to get one year of work experience and then reapply to schools. But it turned out to be a career I really loved."
He didn't earn a lot at first — "It was like $500 or $600 commissions every few weeks," he says — despite working 10 to 12 hour days, six to seven days a week. "I didn't sell my first house until about nine to 10 months into working full time, but once I sold my first, that gave me the confidence that I could actually do it."
Even after he started seeing success, he lived with his dad to save money. After five years of living at home and saving all of his commission money, he had enough in the bank to buy his first property, which he still owns and rents out today. He moved into his own place in his early 20s and continued to work his way up in the real estate industry, eventually selling between $12 and $20 million worth of real estate a year, "which would translate to about $250,000 to $500,000 a year in gross commissions," he says. That's roughly what he was making before his YouTube channel took off.
Stephan still works as a realtor associate for The Oppenheim Group, a brokerage that sells luxury property across L.A. He doesn't spend nearly as much time as he used to selling properties, though. "At this point, it feels like I'm doing YouTube full-time just because of how much time I spend on it. It's become such a profitable endeavor that it's not worth it to me anymore to show properties, unless it's a really good client or a repeat business that I want to help sustain."
Still, he brings in an average of $8,572 in commissions per month.
Partnerships with various companies earn Stephan an average of $7,222 per month.
"Generally, there's a contract signed between myself and the sponsor outlining the details of the expectations," he explains. "Typically, it's a 45-90 second mention in the first minute of the video."
Here's a breakdown of how much Stephan spends in a typical month.
Stephan lives in a duplex in Mid-City Los Angeles that he bought in June 2017. It's a house divided into two separate apartments and includes a parking space and a garage, where he films his YouTube videos.
His monthly mortgage payment is $2,872, but he rents out the other half of the property: "Between the equity I get [from renting] and the tax write-offs from using the garage as my office, it basically works out to be a free place for me to live."
He counts property taxes ($535) and insurance ($135) as business expenses.
Stephan's car payment runs $632 a month.
He bought a Tesla Model 3, which start at $35,000, in April 2019 — but, in a way, Stephan argues, the car was free. He made a YouTube video about the purchase that ended up going viral, he says, and the video itself "paid for the entirety of the car."
There's a reason he decided to finance the car rather than pay for it in cash: "It makes financial sense to keep the loan: It's for six years at 3.75% interest — and I know I would make more money by not paying down that loan and, instead, investing in real estate and getting a higher return somewhere else."
Stephan spends about $200 a month on groceries. He price shops at Trader Joe's, Ralphs and Smart & Final: "I'll make the rounds and stock up on whichever item is the cheapest at which store."
His simple palate helps keep his bill down, he adds: "You'll see in the fridge, it's eggs, oatmeal, ham, cheese, bananas and then some frozen foods." And he doesn't mind repeating meals: "I eat the same thing for breakfast that I have for 10 years: two eggs with ham and cheese, and half a bagel with the generic brand cream cheese."
Stephan spends another $150 on restaurants. He loves all-you-can-eat sushi, which he splits with his girlfriend, and his guilty pleasure, McDonald's. "That's my treat," he says of his trips to the golden arches. He only indulges after finishing all of his work. "I will purposely use that as an incentive to get all my work done. … So, yes, I guess you could say I will work for McDonald's."
"I have the cheapest health plan," says Stephan, who pays $215 a month and doesn't have vision or dental insurance. He pays $125 a month for car insurance.
"My gym membership is absolutely, ridiculously way too expensive," says Stephan, who pays $220 a month to work out at Equinox. But it's convenient, he adds: "It's right down the street from my office at The Oppenheim Group."
Stephan has 12 credit cards: nine for personal use and three for business. Four of them are rewards cards that come with annual fees. He pays a total of $1,545 in fees per year, or about $129 a month.
"I definitely get value from them because of the signup bonus that I get, the points I get back and the perks with the cards," he says.
"I end up saving about 99% of my income, just because my income is so high and I keep my expenses so low," says Stephan, adding: "I'm probably extreme in terms of saving and frugality, and I think a lot of people probably find it pretty intense. But I love it. I love the challenge of saving and trying to handle my money well and grow it."
He keeps between $20,000 and $30,000 in his checking account at all times. Besides that, the rest of his money is automatically sent to various high-yield savings accounts: "Pretty much all of them earn over 2%, so at least I'm getting something on my money, and it's not just sitting there."
He's not saving for anything specific, but plans to eventually buy another property when he finds the right one.
When it comes to investing, "my focus has always been real estate and trying to generate more rental income," he says. He does have some money invested in a Roth IRA and a SEP plan, which are both retirement-specific accounts, but he doesn't contribute to them on a monthly basis.
He also has about $26,000 in outside investments through stock trading apps, though, "I don't contribute anything to these at all," he says. "It's just something that's sitting on the sidelines."
Stephan didn't monetize his YouTube channel overnight. "It took me a few months to actually see any money whatsoever," he says. When he first started earning money, it was less than a dollar a day.
After a few months of posting videos, "I started making a few cents a day," he recalls. "Then it grew to a dollar a day, and I remember thinking at that point, OK, if I go an entire month, that means I can eat an all-you-can-eat sushi dinner entirely for free just with YouTube."
After a full year of making videos, he earned $26,000. It exploded from there.
"I started seeing a lot more growth in the second year," he says. "I made about $260,000." In his third year on the platform, he's on track to make more than $1 million.
"In terms of scaling my income like that, I think a few things played into it," says Stephan. For starters, he was selective about what he posted: "I dedicated a lot more time to the content that I felt my audience would really want to see and that I felt would do well for a YouTube algorithm. Half the time, it's giving the audience what they want to see, but also playing into what I think YouTube is likely to promote.
"Secondly, I think there's a snowball-like growth, in that the more subscribers you have, the more you will get — it constantly builds on one another. But you have to put in the time at the very beginning to get to the point where I am today."
Stephan's original goal was to be a millionaire by 30, but he hit that goal four years early.
His net worth crossed $1 million when he was 26. Becoming a millionaire was an exciting milestone at the time, but now he's more apathetic about it. "I hate to say it, but the hedonic treadmill of life is very real in the sense that, you do get used to things after a little while."
To become a millionaire, "You don't need to be as extreme as I am," says Stephan. "You don't need to skimp on every purchase. You don't need to work 12 hours a day. But you do need to think outside the box. … What works for me won't necessarily work for everyone. I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all approach, but you do need to think creatively and do something differently than what most people are doing."
He has no desire to be a billionaire — "I don't even know what I would possibly do with that amount of money," he says — but his next net worth goal is to reach $10 million.
In terms of lifestyle goals unrelated to money, "the only thing I really want to do that I haven't done is travel," he says, adding: "I could do that if I wanted to, it's just not the right time."
CNBC Make It spoke to Ashley M. Fox, founder of Empify and a personal finance coach with experience managing the assets of high net worth individuals, to get her thoughts on what Stephan is doing right with his money and where he could improve.
It's not always easy being self-employed, especially when it means putting yourself out there on a public platform, says Fox: "I think it takes a lot of self-discipline and confidence to do what he does. In a world where so many people want to be hidden, he chooses to be seen."
Stephan's ability to utilize his personality and technology in tandem to generate income "is phenomenal," she adds. "He's put himself in a position where he's created a passive income, and he doesn't have to rely on working at a job he hates, which is really great."
While it's OK for Stephan to keep some of his money across high-yield savings accounts, it shouldn't be the only place he stashes his cash. "You cannot save your way to wealth," says Fox. "No wealthy person has built their wealth off of maximizing and utilizing savings accounts."
Besides investing in real estate, Fox recommends Stephan invest in the stock market using index funds, which hold every stock in an index such as the S&P 500, including big-name companies like Apple and Google.
Investing in index funds "allows him to diversify his investments, but also gives him the ability to generate additional wealth because he's not just relying on a savings account," says Fox. "He's 29 — he's going to live through a few recessions, so his money will go up and it will go down. But the average return of the stock market over the past hundred years is anywhere between 8% and 10%, which is way more than what these high-yield savings account yield."
Another investment he could consider is a real estate investment trust (REIT), Fox adds: "That allows him to invest in commercial properties but not have to be the landlord."
"He needs to think bigger," says Fox. "He can easily get to $10 million in five to six years, so that's not pushing himself. He's not living out his truest potential. He's living in a level of comfort."
While Stephan doesn't have aspirations to become a billionaire, that's an attainable goal, she adds: "What's wrong with being a billionaire? If you're making a billion dollars, imagine how many more lives you can impact."
Fox encourages Stephan to think about what makes him happy and not be afraid to spend on those experiences: "Where would you volunteer? Where would you travel? Would you build a school? Do that with your money, too. And I think you'll find more joy in giving than you do in saving and keeping."
At the end of the day, "He needs to take advantage of the greatness he's created," she says. "He's showing the world how to live an abundant life on YouTube — and he should, too."
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