Momentum Series Interview – ESI Money: Early Retirement, Real Estate & Rockstar
This marks feature #16 in the Momentum Series – an interview series to share the stories of bloggers from across the personal finance community.
The goal is to showcase their story, the wins, the losses and the actionable advice that others can take value from and insights about their blogging journey. Whether that be conquering debt, maximizing career earnings, the road to financial independence or other strategies for financial and blogging success.
I’m excited to say that this week’s Momentum Series Interview is with John, the man behind ESI Money and owner of Rockstar Finance.
John retired at the age of 52 with a $3.2 million net worth and currently lives in Colorado Springs with his family. Today he stops by to share his financial journey, give insights on the real estate portfolio he has built and discusses his 13+ years in the financial blogging space.
If you want to connect with John aka ESI Money:
With that said, let’s get started. Ladies and gentlemen please welcome John! Here is the Momentum Series Interview – ESI Money: Early Retirement, Real Estate & Rockstar.
My name is John, I’m 54, been married for 26 years, have two kids (one at home and one in college), and live in Colorado Springs, CO.
For 28 years I worked as an executive in primarily marketing functions. At 52 I finally decided to call it quits and retired. Since then I’ve been enjoying life doing a wide variety of fun activities.
My personal site is ESI Money, a blog about achieving financial independence through earning, saving, and investing (ESI). There I share what’s worked for me and detail how others can implement those successes in their lives.
I also own Rockstar Finance, the leading curation site for the best personal finance articles.
I have a Bachelor of Science degree as well as an MBA.
Out of graduate school I was hired by one of the top consumer packaged goods companies in the world. From there I worked in a variety of companies and businesses, eventually becoming the president of a $100 million company with 800 employees.
After posting record sales and fourth best profit year in that company’s history, I was fired two weeks after a new CEO was hired. I had one other job after that for just a year but my heart wasn’t in it. Plus I had enough saved to retire so I did! Here’s my retirement story if you’re interested.
You retired early and taking control of your finances has clearly been a major priority in order to achieve that. Was that focus on finances always the case from an early age or what influenced you to head down this path?
I had no financial role models. My parents didn’t know a lot about money nor did anyone else in my life.
My financial education began when my wife and I volunteered to teach basic finances at our church (we were just married and wanted to serve together). We had to go through some significant training where we learned how to manage money. As you might guess, the teaching covered the basics: spend less than you earn, avoid debt, live on a budget, etc.
Once we learned, we began to coach others, mostly on how to develop and manage a budget. We learned so much what NOT to do from the various financial disasters we saw in our sessions.
Then in 2005 I started a personal finance blog (which I don’t reveal these days as I was outed there). Writing about money forced me to decide what I believed and put it into practice. Though the site did quite well (it just passed 25 million lifetime pageviews), the biggest benefit for me was learning what I personally should do and then holding myself accountable to do it.
That said, the concept of Financial Independence was not as widespread then as it is today. Mr. Money Mustache and his hoards of followers were not yet on the scene, so retiring “early” was still somewhere around 60. As I looked back, I was financially independent in my early 40’s and could have retired much sooner.
When you think of the common money problems facing families and individuals in connection to the “S” and “I” of ESI (saving and investing), what problems come to mind?
Well, first of all, let me comment on the E-S-I philosophy.
My first site really made me think about what was most important in personal finance. I knew I wanted my next site to reflect only the most vital steps to becoming wealthy. In the first site I wrote about anything and everything and I wanted a bit more focus the second time around.
As I looked at the original site as well as at my life, I boiled it all down to the following:
- Earning as much as you can.
- Saving as much as you can.
- Investing those savings for growth and income.
It really does come down to these three. I repeat them in both my millionaire interviews and ESI Scale interviews (interviews for those with less than $1 million net worth).
Now to your question about saving and investing.
For savings the biggest issue to me is self-control. Yes, we live in a consumer-based got-to-have-the-biggest-and-the-best-now society full of a gazillion ways you could spend your money. To make it out alive financially you must have self-control — you must control your spending so that you can save as much as possible. Those that have it and can save become wealthy. Those who can’t, don’t.
But it’s hard to simply save your way to wealth. You need to super-charge the money you save or it will take a long, long time to grow to the point where it’s meaningful. This is where investing comes in. By putting our money in the right places, it will multiply much faster.
The key problem with investing is that people have no idea what they are doing. They are poorly educated about everything — what a decent investment is, the costs associated with investing and the impact they have, how time plays a huge role in investing success, and on and on. They are lost and then either 1) don’t take any action (a killer because you lose time) or 2) take the wrong action (a killer because it often results in losses, sub-optimal returns, and/or high expenses).
Is there an area or area(s) of your own personal finances that you’re still looking to better master and improve upon?
From a pure financial standpoint, not really.
We have our assets deployed so they earn more income each year than what we need, meaning we don’t need to drawdown our assets. So I don’t think we’re looking to improve upon that situation.
That said, we do have a few steps to take regarding updating our estate plan and deciding how our assets are allocated at our deaths.
If you had to send a memo to every 18-22 year old about mastering their money and taking control of their finances for success but it could only be 3 sentences long, what would it say?
Haha! I think by now you know what I’d say!
But let me expand a bit on the above since you’ve given me three whole sentences:
- Earn as much as you can by growing your career and supplementing it with a profitable side hustle.
- Save as much as you can by tracking, managing, and controlling your expenses, spending on things you desire but saving big in areas that aren’t as important to you.
- Invest those savings early and often for growth initially and then income as you get older.
What does the future look like in retirement for you and the ESI family? Are there any major goals or bucket list items coming up?
I want to keep blogging since I enjoy it and it keeps me mentally challenged.
I want to travel AT LEAST once a year (and maybe more) to the Caribbean. We went to Grand Cayman this past January and I must go back there.
I MIGHT want to give living on a cruise ship a shot. My wife is not excited about the opportunity, so it’s an uphill battle. I would certainly give it a go for a year to see if I liked it.
We moved to Colorado three years ago so there’s still lots to do here and we plan to keep seeing sights, hiking, and so on until we can’t any longer.
One often overlooked and under discussed lever on the road to financial independence is how powerful your career actually is. The 7 steps to make the most of your career that you’ve discussed on your blog has always stuck with me. Can you share those with the Making Momentum readers?
As background, the seven steps were developed during my career mostly by trial and error. As I recognized actions I thought would make me successful, I put them into practice, keeping what worked and discarding what didn’t. That’s how I found the best seven.
In addition, I not only considered what worked for my career, but I had insights into the careers of hundreds of others. From early on in my career I managed people and could see what worked for them as well. I knew what I valued in employees and what they did that made me want to pay them more. So I incorporated these learnings into my list as well.
Using these seven I was able to grow my salary by an average of over 8% per year for 28 years. Do the math on that one — it adds up nicely.
In summary, the seven steps are:
- Be likeable
- Be attractive
- Continue learning and developing skills
- Know how to manage yourself
- Know how to market yourself
You can read about these in detail on my post titled How to Manage Your Career to Make Millions More.
Most people vastly underestimate the value their careers have and the impact even a small increase can have over time. That’s why I created the career growth calculator — to show people they could literally earn millions more throughout their careers if they applied a handful of simple actions and received only a few percentage points more in raises each year.
These results have not only been true in my life but are also evident in the lives of almost every millionaire that I’ve interviewed (and I’m fast approaching 100 of them). Yes, you can become wealthy with a lower income, but it’s much, much easier to do with a higher one and millionaire interview after millionaire interview confirms this.
What are some of the most influential resources that have shaped your money mindset and financial situation?
I’ve read more books about money than anyone should ever consider reading. That’s why I boiled them down to the only five money books anyone ever needs. Then they can feel free to forget the rest.
My top five:
- The Millionaire Next Door
- The Richest Man in Babylon
- Your Money or Your Life
- The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing
- How Much Money Do I Need to Retire?
Read these five, do what they say, and you will become wealthy.
The podcasts I listen to have changed over time depending on what I was most interested in, what I wanted/needed to learn, and so forth.
Here are my favorites as of now…
- For personal finance, I like ChooseFI.
- For career growth (even though I don’t have a career any longer), I like Lead to Win.
- For personal growth, I like The School of Greatness.
- For general interest and learning, I like The Tim Ferriss Show and Freakonomics.
- For entertainment, I like The Way I Heard It.
I read hundreds of blogs since it’s kinda my “job” running Rockstar Finance.
We have almost 1,800 money blogs in our directory producing 1,200 to 1,500 posts per week on our feeds page. I look over all posts every week (at least the title and summary) and select a handful to read completely for potential features at Rockstar Finance.
If you force me to name blogs I read and enjoy most, I would say my favorites are:
Apps or Service(s)
I have used Quicken for over 20 years and have reams of data on my finances.
I use my Chase app more than any other money app — mostly transferring money to my daughter in college.
My investments are at Vanguard.
You’ve had some real successes through real estate investing, can you share the timeline and growth from when you got started to where you’re at today?
Here are the highlights:
- I was interested in real estate soon after the housing collapse because 1) I knew there was blood in the water, I had cash, and thought I could get good deals and 2) I was interested in generating more income with my investments.
- I found a mentor who taught me the ropes in our market (Grand Rapids, Michigan).
- Over a couple years I bought three properties with five total buildings and 14 rental units. Those properties generate a 10% return on invested money plus have appreciated about 45% since I bought them.
My biggest mistake was that I was too fixated on getting a 10% return. If I had been willing to “settle” for 9% I would have twice the number of properties now.
Do you have any plans to continue to grow that portfolio in the future?
If the market presents a buying opportunity.
Both of the markets we would want properties in (Grand Rapids, where our current places are and Colorado Springs, where we live now) are very overpriced. Prices would need to drop a lot for us to buy.
We have been accumulating cash since we earn more than we spend and we’ve been liquidating our Lending Club loans, so we do need to deploy that cash somewhere. One option is investing in businesses our kids could run.
If someone wanted to get started with real estate investing, what advice would you give them to begin building that foundation of knowledge?
Find a mentor like I did.
My deal with him was “you teach me real estate investing and I’ll buy my properties through you” (he was both an investor and an agent.) It worked out well for us both.
What’s one of the cons or challenges of real estate that doesn’t get discussed enough and you feel those interested should dig deeper into understanding?
The large, unplanned costs that come up. They seem to come in packs and can be brutal.
How did you get started in this personal finance blogging world? What influenced you to do so and to keep going?
I started blogging with three sites in 2005. I was working for an ice cream company and wanted to drive traffic to its site. Of the three I tried, the personal finance one was the only one that took off. That site was the top referrer to our ice cream site other than Google.
I loved doing it so I kept blogging at that site through the years until co-workers (at a new company) found out that it was my site. I started ESI Money soon after that so I could be anonymous again.
I keep going because I enjoy it, it keeps my mind sharp, and I earn a decent income at it.
I bought Rockstar Finance last December as an investment, both in the site itself as well as a way to boost my own site.
What have been some of the biggest changes or shifts in trends within the personal finance blogging landscape you’ve noticed in recent years?
It’s much harder to make money than it used to be. When the economy melted down in 2008-2009, a bunch of regulations followed and limited many of the lucrative money-related affiliate programs.
It’s also much harder to rank on Google than it used to be. Seems like in the early years you could write a post and a week later be on the first page of Google.
If there’s a blogger in the personal finance space reading this now that is either just starting their blog or has been publishing for less than 6 months, what advice would give them if their goal is to have their blog develop into an income generating business?
Write frequently (at least three times per week) and market those posts aggressively.
Start building your email list from day one.
Write guest posts for whoever will take them and then use that experience to write for larger and larger sites.
Keep at it for a long time.
You’ve written about your decision to purchase Rockstar Finance, so I won’t ask you about that. But what have been some of the most surprising things (positive or negative) you’ve experienced or discovered since taking ownership of the website?
From a positive standpoint, I LOVE working with our Rockstar Finance VIB Program partners. It gives me a lot of personal satisfaction to help newer bloggers become successful. We just had our first blogger go from virtually nothing to enough sessions to qualify for premium ads with Mediavine — all within four months. I’m looking forward to doing more of that in the future.
From a negative side, there are a lot of expectations that go along with owning Rockstar Finance. Specifically, most people can not view their own writing objectively and think (and expect) it should be featured on Rockstar Finance frequently.
Your blog continues to publish awesome millionaire interviews and engaging original posts covering the spectrum of finance. So what’s on the horizon? What’s next for ESI Money?
I will soon publish my 100th millionaire interview and plan to do a large summary post of what we’ve learned so far. I’ve been compiling the stats and it’s quite interesting.
I may do some follow-up series where I share key findings or turn some of them into an ebook as well. It’s too soon to tell on that.
From there I simply want to keep writing about topics that interest me. My idea spreadsheet currently has 352 line items of ideas, so I shouldn’t run out of topics anytime soon.
I also plan to publish more guest posts from bloggers who have unique knowledge in an area I think my readers would enjoy — like buying a business, investing in mobile homes, and so forth. This will not only give my readers something to enjoy but also allow smaller bloggers to showcase their talents to a larger audience.
If you could recommend 3 of your blog posts for Making Momentum readers to check out, what would those be?
Only three, huh? 🙂
First I would have to say my millionaire interviews series. I’m a big believer in learning from those who have done something you’d like to do, so if you want to become wealthy, what better source is there than millionaires?
Second would be my ESI Scale interview series. I like the work-in-progress nature of the stories plus the constant reminder to readers that success boils down to E, S, and I.
Finally I love my post on retiring on a cruise ship because it’s something I’d love to try. Maybe in a few years I’ll be blogging from a cruise ship full time, sharing both money tips and pics of great locations. How cool would that be?
Any final pieces of advice or recommendations?
If you’ve made it this far, I offer you my thanks and congratulations. I appreciate you reading and I can tell you’re the sort of person who doesn’t give up easily. 🙂
Any special shoutouts?
I would like to say thanks to all my money blogging friends. There are too many to name them individually, but they know who they are. I appreciate working with all of you to grow our sites together.