At the end of 2022, I decided to set some money goals for myself.
One key takeaway after a nearly nine-year career writing about people who are good at managing money is that they have multiple income streams. While there’s a cap on how much you can save, there’s no limit on how much you can earn. The wealthiest individuals dream up ways to make more money, rather than think about how to tighten their belt.
With that in mind, I came up with two objectives for 2023: diversify my income streams (ideally, create at least one passive stream) and buy my first property (ideally, an investment property; at minimum, a primary residence that I could “house hack” to offset my mortgage). I even wrote about these goals to hold myself accountable.
In a perfect world, they would go hand-in-hand: succeeding at objective No. 2 would mean creating another revenue stream (in the form of rental income) and, therefore, achieving objective No. 1.
And so in January, overcome with that inflated optimism one feels at the turn of the year, I got to work: I spoke to multiple lenders, got pre-approved for a mortgage, found a realtor, started looking at properties, and continued putting cash into a savings account earmarked for my down payment.
Fast-forward 12 months and I’m still a tenant, I don’t own a primary residence or an investment property, and while I have multiple revenue streams, none of them are completely passive.
I could write 2023 off as a financial failure, but I’m an optimist (even after the new-year enthusiasm wears off) and refuse to frame it that way.
I learned a lot: getting pre-approved for a loan is a shockingly simple process; it really is difficult to buy a home in America right now; and having accessible cash savings for when life inevitably happens is exceedingly important. I also got closer to hitting my goals, which have evolved, as has my perspective on money.
How a cross-country move to NYC derailed my progress and affected my financial goals
The first half of 2023 was business as usual: I was renting an apartment in Los Angeles, splitting housing costs with two roommates, bringing in an extra thousand dollars a month from my side hustle (teaching tennis), and living well within my means.
My finances were on autopilot. I had money going into three different accounts for three time horizons: a 401(k) for long-term savings, an investment account for medium-term savings, and a high-yield account for short-term savings goals (including the investment property) that also acted as my emergency fund.
If January through June represented stability, July through the rest of the year was characterized by transition — or, perhaps more accurately, chaos.
In July, I moved across the country, from one expensive city to an even more expensive one: New York City.
It was my choice — the impetus was to be closer to my family, who all live on the East Coast — and the optimist in me figured it wouldn’t change my financial standing or goals significantly. Sure, I wouldn’t be house-hunting in California anymore, but I could look at primary residences in New York or investment opportunities in Charlotte, where most of my family reside. I reached out to realtors in both areas.
In reality, the cross-country move was more of a major life event than I gave it credit for — and it completely derailed my financial goals.
For starters, a major move is a major expense, no matter how much DIY is involved. I didn’t hire movers — my dad and I packed up my 2007 Toyota and drove all of my belongings from one side of the country to the other — but I did get hit with a slew of moving-related expenses: furniture, miscellaneous items you end up buying during every move (shower curtain hooks, paper towels, a vacuum, hangers), and the gallons of gas required to drive 2,800 miles across the country.
Plus, since I was moving to New York City, I paid the inevitable and egregious broker fee (15% of my annual rent) when I signed a lease on an apartment. Along with the broker fee, I had to put down a security deposit and pay first month’s rent, meaning I was transferring nearly five-figures over the course of one week. I felt grateful I’d built up a decent cash cushion and never felt stretched but guilty for dipping into savings that could go towards a down payment.
That brings me to the next major change my personal finances underwent: higher fixed costs. Moving from a three-bedroom apartment with roommates in west LA to a studio apartment in Brooklyn doubled my rent. I couldn’t save nearly as much as I wanted to.
I should note that I sold my car after the move, which helped offset the moving expenses, and removed some transportation-related line items from my budget: gas, parking, and maintenance.
Perhaps what set me back even more than my moving costs and increased cost of living was the toll that comes with a major transition. I feel like I’ve been “settling in” to my new city for months, focusing on establishing a routine and finding communities in New York. Everything else, including my financial goals, has taken a back seat. I stopped looking at listings; I was slow to respond to my realtors; I was overwhelmed, lost momentum, blinked, and it’s nearly 2024.
A new perspective on money: There’s no one-size-fits-all path to wealth
To be clear, 2023 as a whole wasn’t a complete financial failure for me. I added a revenue stream by picking up a part-time, weekend job and even earned my first real-estate-related cash by subletting my apartment a few weeks while I was out of town. It was my first time having a “tenant” of sorts and gave me an idea of just how hands-on and “passive” the process really is.
My big takeaway, from my experiences this year and also from continuing to interview and write about so many financially independent individuals, is that there’s no cookie-cutter path to wealth.
Looking back, one mistake I made at the beginning of 2023 was fixating on real estate as the singular path to wealth. After all, most of the financially independent individuals I speak to have built wealth through some form of real-estate investing.
My mistake wasn’t necessarily selecting real-estate investing to pursue; it was assuming it’s the only way, rather than asking myself: What’s the best wealth-building path for me and my situation?
I would still love to own real estate in some way, shape, or form within the next couple of years — and I now know how to shop around lenders, how interest rates affect your mortgage payment, and that it’s generally not a good idea to buy while picking up and moving. However, as I learned by talking to more financially independent investors this year, there are more ways to create relatively passive income streams, from building an e-commerce business to franchise investing.
Heading into 2024, I want to home in on another goal I set last year and fell short of: having a specific plan for my money. I had a semi-plan — buy a property — but not a clear vision (Do I buy a home or an investment property in LA? Oh, now I’m moving to New York; should I buy there? I can’t afford to own in New York. What about an investment property in Charlotte?). I was all over the place, which made it difficult to execute much of anything.
As successful investors have told me, you won’t get anywhere fast without any direction. That’s why a lot of them set highly specific money goals — whether that’s acquiring a specific number of properties by a particular year or earning a certain amount of monthly income from their side hustle — and then piece together a plan that will result in them achieving that goal.
Of course, there’s a major difference between knowing what steps to take and actually taking action. You can spend hours self-educating but if you never put into practice what you learn, a year can pass and you find yourself in the exact same position.
Here’s to moving the needle in 2024.