From the moment Steve Chen saw his first paycheck, he knew the job wasn’t going to pan out. He started his career as a public-school teacher in 2014, teaching math to middle-school students in Los Angeles, and the pay just wasn’t enough.

He was making a little over $5,000 a month before taxes. But after all the taxes and benefits were deducted, he was left with barely enough money to enjoy his life the way he wanted to.

“I live in California. A lot of the stuff here is super expensive, like with taxes, food, and living costs. I did the math on it and I was like, even if I lived super frugally and just ate ramen every day or whatever, and saved $500 or $1,000 every month in my checking and my savings accounts, there’s no way that I can live comfortably when it comes to retirement,” Chen said. “That’s when I decided to make a change in my life.”

He hopped on the internet and began researching how others were retiring early. Six years later, in February 2020, he quit his job at 33 after tucking away enough money to live on his investments. He now has four sources of income that bring him about $28,000 a month and allow him to work as much or as little as he wants to.

As a teacher by profession, he’s since dedicated his time to teaching others how to follow their path to financial independence through his website Call to Leap. He’s also amassed more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, where he uses his platform to discuss simple financial concepts in short videos.

Below, Chen shared with Insider how he achieved financial independence, along with some of his tips, tricks, and realizations along the way.

1. He opened a brokerage account and started investing

Chen had always thought about the stock market as an exclusive thing that only rich people bought into. But when he started reading about ways to retire early, he realized that all sorts of people were participating by investing a little bit of money every month over a long period of time. That’s when he opened his first brokerage account. 

“I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning. I just bought [stocks from companies] that I saw in everyday life,” Chen told Insider.

Eventually, he discovered exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and realized he could invest in a fund that had all the companies he had already bought shares in, and more. He began investing in ETFs such as the Vanguard 500 (VOO), which tracks the S&P 500. He started seeing steady growth of 10{98cae0078f524eff3ab8ec32cf55b261677ef6c8a6ed6e94d92a4234b93f46b6} a year in his portfolio.

The trial-and-error part of the journey wasn’t easy, and Chen did lose money along the way. He recommends reading a lot of books and getting into the right mindset before starting to invest. 

2. He slashed his budget to save more money

Over time, Chen witnessed his portfolio grow and realized that it was working. It encouraged him to live frugally so that he’d have more money to invest. 

He began looking for ways to save every month. One of the biggest cutbacks he made was eating out. He started meal prepping every Sunday, making his lunch for the entire week. It saved him $120 a month, he said.

He found alternate ways of spending his leisure time that didn’t include spending money or buying things. Instead of going out for dinner on weekends, he and his friends started hiking, going to the gym, and playing board games at home. It allowed him to save about $400 a month, he said.

He became strategic with which credit cards he used to maximize cash-back opportunities. He kept a calendar that showed him which card was offering cash back during a certain season. When he purchased something, he’d use the card that would save him the most money. He regularly rotated between Chase Freedom, Bank of America Cash Rewards, Chase Freedom Unlimited, and Chase Sapphire Reserve. This strategy got him about $50 to $100 cash back each month.

He’s also a bargain hunter. Rather than buying expensive designer clothes or overpriced household items, Chen often shopped in the clearance section. When it came to clothes, thrift stores were his go-to. They weren’t only easy on his pocket but also good for the environment. As for everyday necessities, anything he knows he’ll need that doesn’t have an expiry date is bought in bulk, which saves him about $10 to $20 a trip to the store each week, he said.

3. He started a side hustle to boost his income

Once he maximized what he could save, he turned to his earning potential. Since he was a teacher, he used his skills to tutor after hours. He started by adding a few hours to his schedule every week, giving him an additional $1,000 to $2,000 a month. As students began referring other clients, the income coming in from his side hustle gradually increased. Any money he generated from this was sent right to his brokerage account.

As he saw more money come in from his tutoring job, he developed a more entrepreneurial mindset and started scaling his tutoring business. Today, he continues to tutor for a few hours a day, and is able to bring in an additional $8,000 a month from it. 

4. He started a 2nd side hustle teaching what he’s learned to others

Chen found a way to generate more income by putting what he’s learned into teachable formats for others. Between his website, TikTok, YouTube, and sponsorship deals, they generate roughly 35{98cae0078f524eff3ab8ec32cf55b261677ef6c8a6ed6e94d92a4234b93f46b6} of his monthly income.

“When I first started investing, it was a pretty lonely journey for me. I didn’t really know who to talk to. My mom and dad didn’t really know anything about the stock market. My coworkers didn’t really know when I tried to ask them about it. I didn’t know where to learn from,” Chen said. “So I wanted to build a safe community for people with a similar mindset, and that’s what we have on our site.”

The followers he’s amassed on his various platforms mean social-media companies like TikTok pay him for views, while brands sponsor some of the videos he makes. He puts together short, informative videos about financial concepts and can make anywhere between $1,000 to $1,500 per video from these sponsorship deals. 

5. He added real estate to his portfolio 

Chen used money he saved up from working his side hustles to purchase two single-family homes. He rents those properties out for additional income, and they make up a small percentage of his monthly revenue. 

6. He had an emergency fund before he started his journey

Though Chen had ups and downs on his journey to financial independence, he always had an emergency fund set aside. He still keeps about six months of his living expenses in that fund. 

Today, Chen generates a great deal more income than he used to, but he still sticks to the same principles of living below his means while continuing to build wealth. His focus now is on continuing to share his wisdom and spreading positive wealth habits so that others can reach their potential. 

“I felt like there was a lot of pressure lifted off my shoulders because I felt like I had so many more options in my life, like I can do whatever it is that I want now. I am not so tied down to this job where I have to be at this place at a certain time,” Chen said of achieving financial independence. “Now I am in control of my own time. I have my own business. I get to be very creative in what it is that I do. I just felt free.”

Laila Maidan is the personal-finance-storytelling fellow at Insider. She covers personal stories about peoples’ financial journeys. Have a story about a financial accomplishment to share? Email [email protected].

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