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Published: Jan 24, 2019 11 min read

Many Americans struggle with retirement savings. A study by GoBankingRates reports that only about 12% of Americans have $100,000 or more saved for retirement -- and that's among all age groups.

But some millennials are bucking the trend and super-saving in their retirement accounts. From a tech worker in the Midwest to a hedge fund manager-turned-blogger, to a commercial real estate worker in Washington, D.C., these three managed to save at least $100,000 in their retirement accounts before the age of 30.

Yes, all three enjoyed above-average salaries. But they still worked for it, pairing their paychecks with a plan to save diligently and a commitment to avoiding lifestyle inflation. That’s the tendency to increase your spending as your salary rises, upgrading your car and your house and other pricey items whose payments then devour a larger chunk of your paycheck.

But even if you didn’t start saving early like these folks did -- or you don't earn as much -- you can still aim for that first $100,000 sooner rather than later. It’s always a good time to start focusing on retirement savings.

While these three workers had access to 401(k) accounts, it’s possible to save even if you don’t. Open up an IRA (or a SEP IRA, if you’re self-employed) at an online brokerage and set up automatic withdrawals into it from your bank account.


Gwen Mertz, $128,000 by age 27

Gwen was a high earner, with the added bonus of being in a low-cost area of the country. She worked for a large equipment manufacturer in the Midwest, making roughly $100,000.

By 27 years old, Gwen had saved $128,000 in her 401(k) from her former employer, $28,000 in her Roth IRA, and $10,000 in her Health Savings Account (HSA). After a stint as a freelancer, Gwen now works as a government contractor and is back to participating in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Like Chelsea, Gwen started her contributions early, beginning when she was just an intern with a contribution of $1,500 one summer. She opened a Roth IRA in college after receiving a small inheritance from her grandmother.

Her company matched her 2% contributions 300% (yep, that’s right: a 300% match!), and the next 4% she contributed after that was matched at 100%. Gwen took full advantage of this generous match for her entire time working there.

Gwen is a member of the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) community, and is interested in financial independence for herself. This definitely shaped her decision to max out her retirement contributions at a young age, and to keep her spending in check.

Gwen designed her budget around her desire to max out her 401(k) (the maximum contribution allowed is $19,000 in 2019). Those kind of savings required that she cut back on her spending, even as a six-figure earner.

“I really wanted to max out my 401(k), but I couldn't do that while spending around $1,100 a month on living expenses, so I got a roommate to help offset the cost of my rental house," Gwen says. "That brought my housing expenses down to roughly $600 a month, allowing me to put more money away and save faster.”

She also stuck with her old car. It may have been unglamorous, but it was already paid off, which meant the price was right. “I paid for my 2005 Pontiac Vibe with cash in college and didn't trade it in for something nicer and newer upon graduation since I really enjoyed not having a car payment," says Gwen. The insurance and registration fees were also lower on an older car, she notes.

Gwen’s advice to those looking to cross that $100,000 mark? “Save first, then spend the rest. If you spend your money and save what's left over, you won't get very far, very fast. Being deliberate about your savings goals will help you get to $100,000 quicker than you thought possible!”

Drew, $100,000 by age 26

Like many other millennials, Drew has spent his twenties working for a few different companies in his chosen field, which in his case is commercial real estate. He discovered the concept of FIRE sometime around 2013, and was drawn to the idea that he could make enough money in a 10-year career to last him the rest of his life.

“Originally, I always thought I wanted to be uber rich and live a ‘baller’ life. I quickly learned that I don’t actually have lavish tastes and like a simple lifestyle. I don’t need a McMansion or a Country Club membership to be happy,” says Drew, who requested his last name be withheld so as not to alert his employer to his early retirement plans.

With the goal of a shorter career in mind, Drew started to change his lifestyle.

“I started contributing to my retirement accounts in 2013. I've maxed out my Roth IRA every year since, says Drew, whose starting salary in Washington, D.C. was $65,000.

He originally contributed 10% to his 401(k), taking advantage of the company match whenever possible. Then, after building an emergency fund and avoiding lifestyle inflation, he felt more comfortable contributing a larger portion of his paycheck to his 401(k), maxing out his account for two years now. His salary is now in the low six figures, and he has access to a HSA that he also maxes out.

He also kept his lifestyle in check: “I continued to live with roommates and house hacked to keep my cost of living low.”

“House hacking” is a phrase used to describe using your house as an asset to generate cash flow. For most people, that means renting a bedroom out to a roommate or to Airbnb users. That’s what Drew did-- rented a room out to his roommate to help cover the mortgage. It can also mean renting your garage space to a friend, or letting someone park their RV in your driveway for a fee.

Drew embraced a frugal lifestyle in order to save more. “I drove an old car and would bike to work," says Drew. "Also, I cooked most of my meals and did not eat out often. A favorite low-cost meal is crock pot chicken fajitas. Simply add chicken, a few bell peppers, an onion, and salsa to a crock pot. Let it sit for a few hours - and boom, you have a delicious meal that costs less than $2 per serving.”

Drew also used side hustles to make extra money, working as a freelance photographer focused on real estate photos and as a ‘swim practice taxi,’ which involved him waking up every morning at 3:40am to drive a kid to and from practice before he went to work.

Drew’s advice? “Get the ball rolling on your savings as soon as possible. If you don't get in the game you'll never get to where you want to be. Automate your finances and increase your contributions over time. Lastly, track your progress. It's important to know if you are making progress towards your goals.”

Jennifer Cimino Photography http://www.jenniferciminophotography.com

Chelsea B, $220,000 by age 28

Not quite 30 yet, Chelsea has a little over $220,000 tucked away in her retirement accounts. She began her career on Wall Street at age 21, working as a hedge fund manager for seven years, and started contributing to her retirement savings right away.

She always contributed to get the full match and increased her percentage contribution over time. Most of her $220,000 currently sits in IRAs since she did 401(k) rollovers when she moved to self-employment.

Now in her second year of working for herself, Chelsea runs the website ‘Smart Money Mamas,’ where she teaches moms and families about family money management. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two sons and requested her full last name be withheld to protect her family's privacy. She hasn’t contributed to her retirement since leaving Wall Street, but plans to get back to saving by the end of 2019.

Certainly, Chelsea’s high salary helped her sock away a lot of money in a short amount of time. Her income ranged from $80,000 at the start of her career to $450,000 when she left at age 27. But that wasn’t the only factor in her success. She also avoided the temptation to splurge on the lifestyle boosts that her high-flying peers in finance enjoyed. “Many people bought houses larger and sooner than my husband and I did," Chelsea says. "A few even had vacation houses before they turned 30.”

Chelsea describes herself as “...risk averse and a bit of a compulsive saver,” so saving for retirement early and often was a way to mitigate financial stress. What’s more, she knew her ample cushion would also be her escape route from the extreme work lifestyle of a hedge fund manager. She wanted her future to include options for a variety of other lifestyles, whether that was taking a lower paying job that had more social impact, or pursuing early retirement.

To hit that high savings rate, “I stuck to low-cost hobbies like playing in a local street hockey league and biking,” Chelsea says. “And I love cooking at home so we limited how often we did take-out or went to restaurants. I also didn't love living in the city, so moved out to a lower cost house rental in the suburbs with my now-husband when I was 22.”

Chelsea’s advice for those looking to reach their first $100,000 in retirement savings? “Start with contributing at least enough to get your full employer match, if available. Then try increasing your percentage contribution 1 percentage point every 6 months. The change in your paycheck should be small enough to not cause a major shock to your budget. Keep creeping your contributions up until that contribution is really missed.”