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Investing & Retirement

How One Man Went From $30,000 a Year to a Million-Dollar Future

5 Minute Read

Most folks would say Rob Welniak is flying high.

At 38 years old, he’s a commercial airline pilot with no mortgage and a six-figure nest egg. This year alone, he’s socked away $33,000 and could retire with $1–3 million at 65. And that’s if he doesn’t add a cent more to his retirement fund.

You’re probably thinking all that’s easy when life’s been handed to you on a silver platter.

But 10 years ago, Rob was supporting his family on just $30,000 a year. So how did he get where he is today? Let’s take a look at four money-smart decisions that turned this average Joe into a big investor.

Don’t Build Your Dreams on Debt

Rob had his eye on the sky from a young age. But as the son of a dairy farmer, he couldn’t afford to pay $100,000 for a college commercial pilot program. So he went to work for a tool and die manufacturer right out of high school and put his dream on the backburner.

After a few years earning a wage, Rob decided to pursue his pilot’s license. All his free time and money went toward training. He traded nights out with the guys for nights in hitting the books and found creative ways to keep expenses down. In the end, Rob paid just $10,000 to become a commercial pilot. The best part? He cash flowed it all.

By the time Rob married his wife Erin, he had landed his first airline job. With a new family to support and a mortgage to pay—all on a $30,000 salary—he was thankful he didn’t rely on debt to finance his dreams.

Boost Your Income, Not Your Budget

Growing up on a farm, Rob learned the value of contentment. Nothing was expendable. Everything was repairable. Brand new wasn’t an option.

This mindset came in handy as Rob and Erin learned to fit family life into $30,000 a year. It also served his family well when a promotion nearly tripled his income. That’s because, for the most part, their budget stayed the same.

Sure, they had more cash in their slush fund and increased their lifestyle a bit. But they didn’t go from ramen noodles to steak dinners. They bought their kids’ clothes at consignment and kept driving decade-old cars. When the bank approved them for a $350,000 mortgage, they built a home for half the cost.

Give Your Goals a Purpose

By 2011, Rob was making $100,000 a year. That’s when the fear set in. “I started to realize the more money I make, the harder it is to replace if something were to happen,” Rob says.

So he got a crazy idea. If they made a few tweaks to the budget and quit blowing their slush money, they could pay off their mortgage in just two years.

Rob worked overtime whenever he could to fuel their progress and got another promotion along the way. By that point, they were throwing $4,000 toward the mortgage every month and living on less than $2,000.

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Was it easy? Nope.

But he knew that money had a purpose. Being debt-free meant Erin could continue working as a stay-at-home mom—no matter what the future brought—and Rob could spend more time at home being a dad and a husband.

The Welniaks’ efforts paid off in 2013. They kissed their mortgage goodbye on Erin’s birthday, just shy of their two-year deadline.

Start Small and Finish Big

Rob may be a big investor today, but he didn’t start out that way. By 2007, the Welniaks had a solid emergency fund, and the mortgage was the only debt to their name. So they started saving for retirement.

“At first, we were only investing a couple percent into my company’s 401(k),” Rob says.

When they decided to pay off their home, they continued investing just enough to get his company 401(k) match. After all, Rob’s not one to leave free money on the table. “This was a tough call, but we arrived at this decision based on our two-year plan to pay off the mortgage,” Rob says.

Once the mortgage was out of the way, Rob and Erin got serious about investing. They bumped their 401(k) contributions up to 18%, opened two Roth IRAs, and started college funds for their two kids. Today, they invest about $2,500 a month and have already maxed out both Roth IRAs and their health savings account for the year. “The 401(k) will be maxed by October,” Rob says.

What a difference a few years makes!

You Can Do It Too!

So you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Rob’s story is proof that financial success has more to do with grit than goods.

“I'm not sophisticated. I’m the son of a dairy farmer,” Rob says. “I know hard work. I know simple arithmetic. And I know that rainy days will come.”

If you’re working hard to win with money, you’re on the right track! Just start where you are and build your way up.

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