How To Earn A Six-Figure Income By Age 21

The following is a guest post from John, a regular reader of Financial Samurai, on how to earn a six figure income right out of college.

My first interaction with Sam was a comment I made on what would become one of Financial Samurai's most popular posts of all time: The Average Net Worth For The Above Average Person. I argued some point and disclosed my six figure income at the ripe age of 23. Sam suggested I share my story due to seeing widespread doubt that many people like me exist out there.

In true optimistic fashion, I interpreted that to be a guest post opportunity over four years later. Financial Samurai has been the only site I've followed consistently and it continues to inspire. I'm convinced he has secret writers to be able to put out so much content, but I'm honored to be a part of it!

Calling All Juveniles Delinquents

This post is for you. Now is the time to cut the crap out if you want to make a six figure income. The scoreboard of life started in 9th grade. And that means better grades and less Pokémon GO. The best ones were Pokémon Red and Blue anyway. But, you're too young for that, aren't you?

If my parents showed me a site like this, I might have made better decisions during that critical time. Instead, all I had back in 2005 was the Bureau of Labor website telling me my selected career was going to be in decline for the next 10 years.

If you or your person of interest has an inclination towards math and science and a strong work ethic, I believe the following is the best bang-for-the-buck strategy of earning a six figure income by the age of 21.

Step 1: High School – Be Aggressive. Be Be Aggressive!

You have a maximum of one semester to screw around in high school. I did so myself until I found out some idiot from my childhood had a higher rank than mine. Quite childish, but it was the spark that lit the fire under my rear.

In the comeback of the century, my rank rose from 32 to numero uno by the beginning of senior year, just in time for college applications. Much of my carefree youth was sacrificed during this time.

But don't worry. You don't have to make it all the way to the top, because you're not going to an Ivy League school (see Step 3 and Should I Go To A Public Or Private School). Instead, channel your aggression towards maximizing Advanced Placement (AP) and community college courses. Why? Because these translate into real college credits later for a fraction of the cost now.

You should still shoot to be in the top 5% of your class. Pure determination alone can get you into the top 10%, and that's likely going to get you a spot in a public university. For example, students in Texas are guaranteed admission into any public university in the state if they are within the top 7% of their class (formerly 10%). There's a similar program at Georgia. Check if your state schools have similar guaranteed admission criteria.

If you choose a good public school and follow all the steps to earn a six figure income, you are setting yourself up for a path to wealth.

Step 2: Choose Petroleum Engineering

A petroleum engineering degree holds the best value out there from a financial aspect. If you want to earn a six figure income, selecting a lucrative major is important. The Bureau of Labor has even lightened up their view, claiming future growth of “10 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations.”

Unfortunately, their guess is worthless. These same jokers predicted a sustained industry decline 10 years ago. I remember because my parents and friends all advised against it. Sure enough, 2006-2014 was arguably the best time in history to be in the industry. Remember $4 for a gallon of gas?

However, the petroleum business is a commodity business, which means there are good times and bad. I'm surprised the Bureau of Labor hasn't flip flopped on their outlook yet due to the oil price collapse.

Truthfully, it's been an absolute fecal-tsunami recently with a lot of experienced hands leaving the industry. But, you'll have three years to wait out the storm. Global demand for oil and natural gas isn't going anywhere in this generation, and the industry will be ripe with opportunities when the sun comes out again.

The drilling rig: one with nature.

College majors with the highest and lowest earnings post college

Step 3: Attend a Public University

The top programs for petroleum engineering are offered by public universities. Notably The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, Louisiana State University, and Colorado School of Mines. Much of the value of a PE degree comes from being able to obtain the best education on the market from public schools like these rather than obscenely priced private schools.

The sticker price to study one year at MIT is about $50,000. For a school like UT Austin, it's about $37,000. The trick though is to stay within your state. Instead of $37,000, a Texas resident will only pay $10,500, netting a discount of over 70%.

Here's another tip on your journey to a six figure income. If your state doesn't have a great petroleum engineering program, select chemical engineering. It's not as lucrative and you might be a step behind, but oil and gas companies will still hire you. After about 3 years, there won't even be any differentiation at all.

Further, the ultimate advantage chemical engineers have is that they are not limited to the dirty oil industry! If solar wins out and the oil price tanks for good, you'll have several industries where you can jump ship to: biotech, food, pharmaceutical, nuclear, you name it.

Another advantage public schools have is their far broader acceptance of AP and community college courses. After all of my credits were applied, I entered college as a junior and graduated in 3 years instead of 4. That's an extra savings of $10,500 or $50,000 if I were smart enough to get into a school like MIT. I'm not even including room and board and textbook expenses. Absolutely huge.

Maybe you don't have as many AP credits as I did? You can still accelerate your schedule by knocking out basic classes through community colleges while at the university!

Related: Should I Attend A Public Or Private University? Depends On Your Fear And Guilt Tolerance

Step 4: Obtain an Internship

Forget working part time at Starbucks during the school year and instead, invest your time studying. The top priority is collecting internship experience, because you're only here for 3 years. And since freshmen typically don't have relevant work experience, the only way companies can judge your worthiness is through your GPA.

While grades aren't everything, they do an excellent job of sticking out in a pile of resumes and getting your foot in the interview room. For example, I absolutely sucked at networking. I remember attending some welcome reception and walking around the room for 5 minutes before going back to my hotel room!  

However, because I had a 4.0 GPA, I still got invited to over 25 interviews that semester. As a result, I became a Level 99 interviewee primed for dominance the following recruiting season.

After the first internship, it's much easier to get the second because now you have work experience to talk about. Further, if you show up to work, do a good job and engage with people, they'll likely ask you to come back. But if you're following my 3 year plan, the second internship will be your last so choose wisely.

The perfect scenario is interning for a company you admire and receiving a full time offer at the end of the summer. This would normally be in August after your junior year, with your full time job to start in the summer after graduation…meaning you can coast your entire senior year.

You can party, find your true self or whatever you kids do these days. A few B+'s here or there won't ruin your life anymore, but just don't flunk. A solid internship will make it easier to get a great job with a six figure income.

The Best Bang For Your Buck

Well here we are. You've finished college in three years at age 21 and have the coveted six figure income. Back in 2010, the starting salaries were in the $80,000-$90,000 range with a $5000-$20,000 signing bonus. The starting salaries have crept up over the years and can now be over $100,000 without any bonuses.

Petroleum engineering only requires a bachelor's degree. Lawyers, doctors and pharmacists can make six figure incomes out of the gate too. But when does the gate open? After 3-5 years of additional schooling? After a couple years of residency when you turn 30 and have $200,000 in student loans?

The beauty of this job is that a masters degree, PhD or an MBA are not required to advance, not even for the vice presidents who clear $300,000-500,000 in salary and who knows what in stock options.

Petroleum engineers can maintain a normal life. Perhaps you're thinking of a career in finance. I know I still wonder what could've been every time I visit Sam's site. However, a senior engineering role (6-10 years) can command a $200,000 per year salary. 

Despite the high pay, I rarely see anyone consistently working more than 40 hours per week. When you calculate the hourly rate, it's equivalent to someone who earns $300,000 but working 60 hours per week.

Oil companies are concentrated in low cost of living cities. Houston, Texas is the oil capital of the world. While certainly less glamorous, a $100,000 income will get you a lot further in a city like Houston or Dallas than in San Francisco or New York City.

Related: How To Make Six Figures At Almost Any Age

The Final Step To A Six Figure Income

Petroleum engineering is just one example towards a high paying career, and there are many other avenues as you can see in the chart above. I was blessed with market timing, geographic location, and an interest in the math and sciences.

Ultimately though, it's still a J-O-B where you'll be working for the man and trading five days for two. But it's a heck of a safety net while you start the process over again. Oh, you thought you made it to the end? Nope! The final step is creating your own six figure salary, this time without an employer.

That's what sites like Financial Samurai are for, helping people build multiple income streams and accelerating their wealth through sound financial principles. I hope to do the same!

Related: The First Million Might Be The Easiest: Millionaire By 30

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166 thoughts on “How To Earn A Six-Figure Income By Age 21”

  1. This is a good framework, that’s for sure. That said, I think there are quite a few good paths one could take to achieve the same goal.

    – Study anything and become an investment banker; this is the path I took and I earned $130,000 when I was 22. The knock on this path is you can burn out very quickly.
    – Study computer science and work take advantage of the current supply/demand imbalance; 22 year old engineers at Google or Facebook can make $110,000 base salaries; bonus and stock grants can push you toward $200,000 quickly
    – Study statistics/actuarial science and become an actuary; you will start at $80,000-$85,000 and you will only work 40 hours; if you can continue to pass exams, breaking $100,000 is possible in 1-2 years, and reaching $200,000 is attainable before you’re 30; the key is you work 40 hours a week

    There are several more, but they have to do with sales. Ad sales, insurance sales, etc.

    One thing in common for these paths is you have to have your act together in high school, that is one point I truly agree with. While everyone is trying to be cool in high school, or skipping class in college, having extreme focus can pay off very quickly and lucratively at 21/22. This point cannot be stressed enough.

  2. Hi there,

    This will probably annoy you, but I’ll bet you change your mind about living in Wisconsin for the rest of your life…you could be limiting yourself greatly. If you’re truly in it for only 1-3 years, I’m not sure it’s even worth getting a degree as you’d be in school longer than the workforce.

    I don’t have firsthand data but I believe you’d earn a similar amount working in investment banking as in Pet E for the first few years. However, you’d probably work up to twice the hours (60-80+ per week). If you do well and stay in the industry you could make an extremely high income…much more potential. Might have to go to a prestigious school and be at the top of your class however.

    As a Pet E. out of college, you’d likely earn around 100k + bonuses. After 3 years, you’ll probably earn around 115 – 130k working only 40 hrs a week. This gives you time to work on other businesses. However, you’re subject to downturns like the one we’re facing now. Lots of graduates and even experienced people unable to find jobs currently until the oil price turns around, so it’s a bit of a gamble.

    With your geographics and your desire to start a business, I’d choose a business degree. Pet E. is extremely specific and you’ll only be marketable to the oil and gas industry. I’m also not aware of much activity in Wisconsin. I would be cautious about your assumptions on getting out after 1-3 years unless you have some kind of funding from other sources. 100k is only 50k after taxes and a frugal living style.

    1. Thank you for the reply.

      Now that I think about it, I’ll probably move out of WI later in life.

      My parents will be paying for all of my education.

      Now, I will be attending UW-Madison, which is not a good school for Pet E. However, it is a top 25 school for IB. Nonetheless, now the decision is between Software Engineer and IB.

      Software Engineering:
      Wallstreetplayboys states that Facebook, Google and IBM will still be around in a decade and having a set of skills that are difficult to learn will help land positions at major technology companies. Negatively, this segment will also be cut between the haves and have nots.

      Wallstreetplayboys states “The only problem is each individual should choose carefully. If the sector goes into secular decline, either you will be fired or you will get lucky and be a multi-industry expert as spaces consolidate.
      Long-story short, there are really only two paths that make sense. A major bank within a good sector (either the bank is good at getting on deals or they are expanding) and secondly within advisory.”

      By the time I graduate college (2022), will IB or SE be in higher demand? If you were in my shoes, what would you do?

      P.s.: by business degree did you mean a segree for IB?

      1. Only piece of advice I’ll leave is to take everything with a grain of salt. No one (me included) can predict which industry will be in high demand and or which career will be the right fit for you individually.

        Income potential is important for picking your degree but make sure you have enough interest to last through the school work and the 5-10 yrs of work that come after it to make the degree worth the time and cost regardless of who is paying.

        I suppose I meant a more general business degree since it’s broader and you plan to start your own business sooner rather than later. Good luck!

  3. Hey man,
    I’m currently a high school senior who lives in Wisconsin, amd I plan on living here for the rest of my life.
    Right now I’m choosing between investment banking and petroleum engineering. Both being the top 2 paid jobs right out of college.
    My plan is to make as much money as I can and then quit after 1-3 years so I can use the money and go all out on my future business.

    According to my geographics, when it comes to making the most money right out college, what would you choose if you were in my place? A job as an investment banker or petroleum engineer?

    1. Sorry I meant to respond to your comment but instead I started a new reply below. Letting you know in case you don’t get notification.

  4. Middle Class Millionaire

    Great post!

    I did things a little differently but ended up in a similar boat. I got married when I was 18. My wife went to nursing school (2 year program at the local community college) and I went into the police academy (6 month program).

    By the time I was 22 years old, we brought in just over $200k in 2012 from our combined incomes. Luckily my wife and I are on the same page when it comes to our personal finances, so right away we started saving about 40% of our after tax income.

    Almost 5 years later we are making even more from our jobs, but we still continue to save about 40% of our income. With this money we have been investing mostly into cash flow real estate and a few other investments. The plan is to continue saving 40%, investing that money, and re-investing the profits from our investments. As time passes, our growth is beginning to become exponential (kind of like how compound interest works).

    We live in a modest 3 bed 2 bath house that is about 1,300 square feet. I drive a Toyota Prius that I bought in 2013 for $24,000 which I paid off in early 2015. My wife drives a Subaru Forester which we bought for about $25,000 and will have it paid off in less than 2 years from now. My point is, we know better than to spend our money on luxuries at this early stage in our financial careers. If we invest all of this excess now, how much better off will we be 15 years from now when we are in our early 40’s?

    The best part is that there is no reason that anyone cannot do this. Even if you are still flying solo…. if you can figure out how to live on only 50-70% of your income, you will be surprised how quickly you can save up a good chunk of money to start investing in a meaningful way.

    1. I have a very similar story. I became a nurse as a career change, and now make over $200k. It’s very easy to work OT and second jobs as a nurse. My wife and I live in our 2 family, and rent out the basement apartment to help with the mortgage. Drive Prius and used Subaru, still able to do vacations, not worry about money month to month, we are in our late 30s now, 2 small kids, net worth over $600k and saving >50k per year.

  5. I think you are on the right track about his willingness, or lack thereof to relocate. Knowing him, he is quite passive and possibly only limiting himself to local options. He has interned and maintained good grades. Despite his lack of ambition and possible reluctance to relocate, I am still surprised that he is having such a hard time finding something local as if there are no jobs in NY in Chem Eng field at all. Any advise I can pass on to my passive friend other than relocating?

  6. Interesting post. I made about 110k at age 25 working less than 40 hrs and about 4 weeks off. It was my first gig and a non engineering degree. I graduated with a Masters and now make much more simply because i work more hrs. Im in the healthcare field. Job is tolerable and hrs are flexible with a high level of freedom and flexibility. My path was different from most as i fell into the profession, rather than having a concrete plan. I am blessed I suppose. I have a friend who gruduated with a Chemical Engineering degree and has not worked in the field since graduating from a reputable Uni about 4 yrs ago. Last we spoke, he was working night shift at Dunkin Donuts. He tells me he cant find any work in the field. Whats up with that? He is in NYC.

    1. I don’t know of your friend’s particular situation but I’m curious as to what his resume look likes or what kind of grades he made. Is he willing to relocate or is he looking for a specific type of job? There are so many reasons why someone with a Chemical Engineering degree will say they haven’t found a job but I’ve found that top of that list is people who decided they hated the major a little too late, made poor grades or those who are not open to relocation or field work. Four years is a long long time for a ChemE to not find a job, he’s doing something wrong.

  7. Love this! I have a Bachelors and Masters in Chemical Engineering and live in the great energy capital of the world. I know everyone’s path is different and everything isn’t about money but boy am I glad I chose this path.

    I rarely work more than 40 hours (neither does my boss), my job is challenging in terms of problem solving but not stressful- read i’m not bored, my coworkers generally keep to themselves – no office drama, I get a nice raise and bonus every year, time off is generous, I work from home 25% of the time and I make around 150k all in. Graduate school was free through research and my undergrad degree cost less than my annual salary – paid for by bank of daddy. My house costs less than my annual salary. I don’t know of any other field that gives you such a high reward for very little effort. I didn’t have to go to med school for 10 years neither do I have to work 60 hour weeks or wear a stuffy suit. I wear blouses and jeans to work everyday and I’m easily the best dressed. Instead of jumping ship to management like many Engineers I’m developing my skills in a highly technical and specialized area with hopes of becoming an Independent Contractor around the 12 year mark, targeting around $220 and hour. You can do anything with a Chemical Engineering degree – both the diploma and the skills you will learn, I can’t sell this dream enough!

    If you like math, listen to the writer. I literally don’t know what I will be if I wasn’t an Engineer!

  8. Nice post John and great to see your stuff here on FS! I have a similar path as the one you described just for biomedical engineering. I’m not making six figures yet but hope to be soon within the next few years and would like to ultimately end up in more leadership/management roles. I think the engineer path is a great one but for people who don’t like the route you described I think plenty of routes through healthcare, finance, and of course the professional schools are great to go through as well.

  9. GovtEmployee

    Here’s my perspective as someone who took the safe route with engineering.

    I work for the US government as an Engineer (degree is mechanical engineering). The ultimate safe route.

    1) I chose to work and live in an extremely low cost of living area while my pay is based on the equivalent of living in one of the most expensive cities in America.
    2)I knew that although my salary would not be as high as private industry, I will be receiving an annuity (aka pension) once I choose to retire early at 50 years of age.
    3) my place of location has pay for performance, which isn’t as lucrative as private industry, but allows for me to get more salary for quality work, relative to how the rest of the government works.
    4) I knew going in I would get an annuity, FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, and if I choose, my wife can receive a portion of that annuity for the rest of HER LIFE. I can retire at 50. Calculating my salary projection versus how much my annuity will be once I activate it, I’ll be smooth sailing post retirement.
    5) a 401k with a 0.026% to 0.038% management fee????? you can’t beat that. For every 100k, I pay 26 to 38 dollars.
    6) job security through the roof.
    7) 40 hour work week. That’s it.

    I just hit 8 years of working for the man, I make just below 100k, will be hitting it next year, with enough career growth for another 20 years.

    Job satisfaction is high, I get to do ACTUAL MEANINGFUL WORK. Humble brag, my work has saved lives.

    Engineering was the safe route, working for the government an even safer route. I won’t be making big dollars like some of my private industry friends, but neither do I have the long hours or extra stress.
    It’s what I am doing with my dollars that makes the biggest difference.

    I did not come from wealth, I’m the first from my extended family to go to a 4 year school, and I have goals.

    1. Have enough money to live off the interest for retirement.
    2. Pay for my children’s education.
    3. Have a nice pot of money to pass on to my children.

  10. I also work in the O&G industry as a petroleum geologist. Geologists typically have to get a M.S. degree in order to get hired into O&G but they also start above $100,000 base salary. I also enjoy an awesome work-life balance, hardly ever having to work more than 40 hours per week. I love my job but the roller-coaster ride of commodity prices can be disheartening at times.

  11. Great article. I disagree with step 2. Do not choose Petroleum Engineering as a first degree. One can always do this for a masters degree instead. Best to choose mechanical engineering. The chance of ending up with a high paying job in the oil/oil service industry is the same with a mechanical engineering degree. Most of my professors in grad school in the Petroleum engineering department were mechanical engineers.

    1. Yes, you can always do a masters but that’s two more years of schooling = 2 years of lost income. It is a risk vs. reward thing…but perhaps the best option is a chemical engineering degree. Chem E is treated nearly like Pet E most of the time. They do however differentiate between mechanical in terms of pay…unless you get a masters like you say.

  12. Sam,
    Long time reader, first time ever commenting!
    Lousy HS student. State school, liberal arts and sciences degree. Grad school at night (Ivy, no idea how I got in) while working full time in health insurance, having kids and rehabbing houses on the side in my mid-20’s. $100k at 28.
    As you can see from my abbreviated history above, I hustled. I’m in my 40’s now and glad I did and haven’t let up. Didn’t have the best SAT scores, not the best grades. Read business books voraciously including The Millionaire Next Door and realized my grades ages 14-22 didn’t define me unless I let them. Everyone else was drinking and parting, and I was busting my butt in my 20’s. Glad I did.

    Sam, I follow and reference your “just start a website, dammit” advice and started my own a few months back. Goal is to post once every 7-10 days, and move that to once a week, soon. Without being “that guy” I’ll post the address below if you’ll allow it through. The site is very niche and (as far as I can tell) very unique. Well, maybe the end result in my
    mind after 2-3 years of posting is!

    Lastly, even though I’ve read your Uber posts, I recently signed up for both Lyft and Uber, mainly to see if I can expense my commute and pick up some gas/parking money along the way. I in no way need it; just part of my DNA hustle. Lol. Keep writing great material and occasionally introducing us to great guest posters. Thanks.

  13. Hi John,

    I have some follow-on questions for you as I read more about your thoughts on your site.

    It seems like you no longer want to work so much and are trying to break free ASAP in your mid-to-late 20s? Is this true? If so, why do you think you burned out so quickly from petro engineering, especially if it only takes you 40 hours a week? 40 hours a week is a walk in the park in comparison to banking, consulting, law, medical etc. Why not just work as a petro engineer for longer?

    What exactly does a petro engineer do? Can I do what you do? I’ve found that a lot of stuff is automated or dictated by technology, and all one has to do is learn how to use the technology and understand the figures. How much of the job can be learned on the job? What components of the job do you think are fun?

    If the job is causing you to burn out so soon, maybe it’s best to go the even higher paying route if you plan to call it quits within 10 years anyway?



    1. Sam,

      Seeing as I am already in my late twenties, I’d say those dreams have been squashed sufficiently. I’m much more about FI than ER however. The goal is building alternate income streams and optionality rather than trying to quit early. As many have mentioned here, it’s also about enjoying the ride.

      Perhaps my dry humor blurs my message, but I don’t consider myself to be burned out. I think that would be an insult to everyone working more hours than me with perhaps less pay. Not to mention those in actual physically demanding jobs. I have extra energy to burn and am making moves to explore working in the banking side of things. Acquisition and merger activity is expected to pick up with smaller oil companies struggling.

      Not to be delusional, but all the things you said about petroleum engineering do not apply. I would say you could not do what I do without learning about fluid mechanics. A very large part of the job is using sparse data to weave together a story using engineering principles.

      A petroleum engineer is responsible for determining how much oil is in the ground and forecast how fast it can be produced through wells. Much of the time is spent building computer models of the underground oil reservoirs and justifying to management that your predictions are reasonable.

      I say models, but truthfully, an oil reservoir is not something that can be automated and predicted with high certainty. By the time you learn everything about the field, there’s not much more oil left and you’ve already spent the capital. And every single oilfield is different than the next one. You can press buttons and get a number, but without knowledge of the underlying physics and experience of theory vs. practical, you’ll have a hard time defending your forecast.

      For example, when mechanical engineers design parts of an airplane, the process can be tested and refined before production and sales. In the oilfield, companies are drilling up to 30,000 ft where the reservoir will never be seen by anyone. Yet, engineers must still construct models based on a few well points in the ground. Imagine filling in the entire map of San Francisco with just 4 known street intersections. This is why companies can spend $100 million on a single well and find nothing but rock and water.

      An aspect I enjoy from the job is when the team you’re working on all comes together to present a final story. Each person (geologists, other engineers, economics) has their part and supports each other. Being a global industry, I’ve also enjoyed meeting people from all parts of the world. I’ve been able to travel about 8 times internationally..another perk (depending on the person) I did not really touch on.

      This is probably a lot more than you asked for, but I wanted to hit all your questions. Perhaps this can help some aspiring engineers make their career choice. Thank you for the opportunity to reach so many people at once. I really enjoyed interacting with all your readers.

  14. Hey FS,

    I am indeed from Texas and attended UT Austin. Is the bias that obvious? ;-) The elusive passive income is what I’m after as well, but some personal decisions and reflections have slowed it down a bit for me.

    It is a hard time for all employees tied to oil and gas. The 30 year employees have gone through about 10 of these…so it’s about as boom and bust of an industry you can get! The ones who have made it through though will retire with unbelievable financial security. Monthly pensions of 15-20k+!

  15. FIRECracker

    With the oil crash, I’m not sure petroleum and chemical engineering is the best choice anymore. Though I would DEFINITELy say “STEM” degrees give you way more bang for your buck than arts degrees. I’m a computer engineer turned published children’s author, so I’ve been in both fields. Engineer is gruelling and doesn’t have the emotional payoff that writing does, but man is it lucrative. For those who don’t like engineering, they could work there for 10 years, make enough to retire early, and then do whatever their little heart desires. It worked for me and it was worth it. Can’t easily do that with most arts degrees. If I had to choose again, I’d definitely choose engineering…or accounting.

    Absolutely agree with you that internships are the key. Since I had an internship/co-op program in college, I graduated with ZERO student debt and a job offer. Having the ability to work for your tuition, housing, and food has been a lifesaver and I love not having to rely on student loans or the “bank of mom and dad”. Highly recommended.

    1. While new petroleum engineers might be in danger in the short term, chemical engineers should still be fine. They are not exclusive to the oil and gas industry, and actually the oil refining side does quite well when oil price is low (Chem E’s can work in refining).

      During my short time writing posts, I’ve also noticed quite a difference in emotional payoff. I imagine after spending 10-15 years in engineering, the hardest thing to do will be walking away from a consistent income to do something you find more fulfillment in. I hear though that it’s worth it!

  16. Finance Solver

    Fantastic, thanks for sharing your story John! I am curious, you talk about UT a lot, are you by any chance from UT or in the Texas area? I’m not sure I can make 6 figures before the age of 25 with my employer but I’m going to look for other passive income opportunities to make sure that I get to make 6 figures by that age. It’s a bold goal but I hope that I can make it. Petroleum engineers are having a hard time right now but that’s the boom and bust of any commodity, right?

  17. I’d like to present another alternative to engineering, for those who don’t find that appealing: become an airline pilot. The major airlines are facing a tremendous shortage of pilots in the coming decade and for most that is due to the huge looming wave of mandatory retirements. That means not only will there be incredible demand for new pilots, but those who get hired in the next few years will move up the seniority lists very fast and enjoy the commensurate benefits of seniority (higher pay, more days off, more vacation, etc) far sooner than those of us who entered the industry twenty years ago. And life at a major airline can be pretty good. Nearly every major airline captain these days is making north of $200k, and some of the more senior bring in closer to $300k. And that is without a requirement for an advanced degree; a four-year degree from any accredited institution gets you in the door.

    Of course there are some drawbacks. Learning to fly isn’t cheap. Another $50,000-$100,000 on top of the costs of a college education is realistic for most. But just as with college tuition, there are loans available to help pay for flying education. And one can flight instruct part-time while attending college to not only help pay for classes, but also gain valuable flight experience. Obviously the military, either active duty or national guard, is another potential option for defraying the costs of flight training.

    Also, airline pilots don’t spend every night in their own bed, generally speaking. But the potential for a lot of time at home is very high, particularly as one’s seniority improves. 17-20 days off per month isn’t at all uncommon, and they can be arranged in any number of ways to suit one’s preferences.

    I believe that for a college student who plans ahead and starts early, this is a very good time to start a career as an airline pilot, possibly better than any we’ve seen in this lifetime.

    1. Brian, thanks for posting this. I’ve always been fascinated by aircrafts and piloting. What are the chances for a 30 year old with no experience?

      How long does it take to reach commercial airline pilot, and do people lose their enjoyment in flying during that?

      As you mention, flight school and the cost to learn has always been a barrier. Are there such things as scholarships or mainly just loans?

      1. Hi John, 30 years old with no experience is no problem. You could realistically be employable at a major airline by age 35, and you’d still have a 30 year career ahead of you. It took me longer than that to get here, but as I mentioned before, there’s a severe pilot shortage coming and I think anyone starting now will have a quicker path to the majors than I did.

        As for losing the enjoyment…flying for a living is like any other job. You’ll have good days and bad days, and it will start to feel like a job if you do it long enough. But of course it is very different than a typical desk job and it certainly affords one plenty of time off to pursue other interests if one chooses.

        There are a limited number of scholarships available for flight students but I wouldn’t count on those; competition is fierce and there are very few awarded. Anyone starting now and taking the civilian path to a flying job needs to be prepared to make a hefty initial investment. There’s really no getting around that, but as you said there loans are certainly an option. Also, for those with prior military service, the GI Bill can be used for flight training. Hope this helps.

  18. I liked your post. I was a Mechanical Engineering undergrad and got a Masters in Aerospace Engineering and was working by age 23 for a Fortune 50 company making Aircraft Wheels & Brakes. Since then I’ve moved to several fields and got into management. Made over $100k per year ($140K) at age 27 and onward and upward from there. My grades were poor, too much lack of focus the first two years of undergrad so then did an undergrad research position and co-published a paper to help me get a scholarship into grad school. Now I love learning about new businesses and leading people to achieve good business outcomes. It makes me a better investor too.

    At age 43 I am entry level FI with a young family but am still working and enjoy it as of now. Make sure you take time to smell the roses along the way!


    1. Awesome, thanks for the story. $140k 15 years ago must have been huge at age 27. I hope to also find a real passion in my work…I imagine it makes it easier to smell the roses :-)

  19. I basically followed the same plan. Chose mechanical engineering @ Colorado school of mines. Back to Houston to work in O&G. Started at $67k 22yr old. Bumped to $78 6 months after. Been at $96k for the last couple years due to pay freezes. I’d like to get over 100k soon but I guess I’m just lucky to have a job at this point.

    My wife is in a different field which diversifies our income…plus we run a profitable blog where I get to exercise my business muscles! Life is great!

    Following a plan like this is the key to getting ahead early in life. But that’s also the problem, you need to figure it out early in life too…I was fortunate to have great parents and mentors.

    1. That’s quite a large bump in salary after only 6 months! My increases have been leveling off, but I’ll occasionally step back and remember I’m still employed.

      It’s nice to have that safety buffer from a second income in a different industry.

  20. A little off topic. If you think demand for oil and gas isn’t going anywhere, do you think the investments in oil/gas sector will rise and shine again? I’ve been throwing quite a bit of money there this year.

    I’ve always wanted to work on an Oil Rig and have been doing some research. Working as an engineer there will save you TONS of money. Free food, free accommodation, Free entertainment. AND you have no where to spend your money. Great for fresh grads.

    Software Engineers in the Bay Area usually make 6 figures as well as a new grad, but usually half of it goes to rent. And since it’s all relative, engineers are just average joes in the bay area, since everyone engineer makes 6 figure.

    Internship definitely helps. My GPA was so bad I was embarrassed to tell anyone, but one internship landed me another, then landed me a full time job, and now I could go where ever I want. If you don’t have GPA or internship, I’d say you might be screwed and your starting point after graduation will be much lower than those with internship experience or good GPA. There was a point I felt like my life was over and I’ll never be able to get a job after graduation. There were also thoughts of working at McDs or a sales rep at the mall.

    1. I absolutely believe the oil/gas sector will rise again. The million dollar question is when. In 2008, the oil price went from $140 down to $40 but recovered quickly. In the late 80’s, price collapsed and would remain depressed for 20 years…leading to the the significant gap in people with 15-25 yrs of experience.

      Eventually, supply will run low as the easy oil gets consumed. As the shortage causes the price to spike, oil companies will again invest in more difficult oil projects because the economics make sense again. Ideally…companies should be continually investing so prices are stable but short term financial targets always seem to be paramount.

      As oil truly runs out, I believe economics will spur investment into alternative energy rather than politicians or environmentalists. As much as people may hate Big Oil, they are the ones best positioned to start the process. They will have the capital from record oil profits. They already have all the engineers and R&D on staff. Most of all, implementing gigantic capital projects has been their bread and butter. Sorry, this is probably more than you asked for.

    2. As someone that works offshore. Yes all of those things are free but with Ebay and Amazon a click away it’s easy to spend money. Having the discipline to save when you’re not working is harder than you think. I find it easier to travel(this is me), stay out late, and justify more expensive hobbies which all of these can drain the money you’ve saved while working. .

  21. My only question is what is the problem with Ivy League Schools? I was getting the feeling you were telling people not to go there, or were you just assuming most couldn’t get accepted?

    1. No real problem with Ivy League schools…it’s just that they could cost up to 5x more without 5x more benefit to your career. However, it may make complete sense to attend Ivy League level schools depending on what industry you’re trying to get into.

      My discussion is meant to be very specific to the oil and gas industry. You will get a hire salary from an oil company graduating with a Pet E degree than an electrical engineering degree from MIT. Further, the best Pet E programs happen to be taught by public schools.

  22. Mr. Tako @ Mr. Tako Escapes

    Great story, but I disagree being top of your class is important.

    I was consistently top of my class with perfect marks, and it never got me anywhere near what you were making in chemical engineering.

    Frankly, I don’t think employers want to pay for the best and the brightest. I think they want the best value for the money…which sometimes means outsourcing your job to “foreign competition”.

    Just my experience, thanks for the great story Sam and John.

    1. Interesting perspective. It appears you’ve done quite well the past 13 years without having been near top of class, which proves your point.

      I agree that grades aren’t everything, but more often than not they can give you more options. If an employer is going to outsource, I suppose nobody stands a chance, but you’d want as many advantages in your favor when competing for jobs in which there is a chance!

  23. Interesting topic Sam, but it applies where you live, mostly, because the cost of the living ratios.
    It would be really great if you could do a topic of living costs with top earnings for different countries.

    I got in top 0.7% in my country and under 25, but compared to USA I’m in the low-income bracket. While the percent is really something over here, it’s not that great compared with USA.

  24. Great post! I majored in Electrical Engineering, instead of going the tech route (mistake?) I went into infrastructure and engineering services. The work is pretty easy and I work no more than 40 hours a week. I’m in my early 30s moving up proves to be very hard even with PM experience and being a licensed PE, this industry is very flat… So I’m going to business school this fall to get an MBA part time. I sat in some classes and I actually love it. I never explored the possibility of studying business before but nonetheless I’ve had side interest in economics and leadership psychology for a long time and read a lot. Don’t know if I will see an ROI immediately but I am probably going to enjoy these courses.

    1. The PE license seemed pretty difficult to obtain especially since I ignored the FE when I had the chance. Do you think it has helped get you further in your career?

      Sounds like you’re making moves towards your interests so that is great. I think most of the potential in obtaining an MBA is making connections with your classmates. You never know what kind of opportunity those can lead to!

  25. Fiscally Free

    I followed this plan pretty much exactly, except I chose mechanical engineering, and it worked out well for me.
    I will admit I am getting burned out, but it’s not because I don’t love the work. It’s because I hate the BS involved with working for a big company. That’s why I’m on the verge of “retirement.”

    In response to Sam’s question “But what if you aren’t so smart?” I would say you probably don’t deserve to earn a lot of money, unless you are willing to work really hard at something not a lot of other people can do.

    1. I’m in the same boat. I don’t know how major corporations still operate with profit w/ the amount of BS that goes on. I sometimes consider working for a smaller company but I know there’s BS there too…just a different kind.

      1. Ryan Hooper

        Have you seen that image of a person jumping over a fence because the grass is greener on that side, but as soon as they get over there the grass turns brown and now the other side of the fence is green.

        not sure if links are allowed:

  26. Congrats. I grew up in an oil country, and most of my peers went into oil (offshore, etc). Yes, it pays well, but I wasn’t happy (and our high school pretty much filtered EVERYONE into the oil industry). I personally have no interest in the oil industry; I like the tech industry more :)

    1. There’s definitely an oilfield culture…particularly in smaller companies. My family does not come from oil country and I believe I was the only Pet E major from my high school. I do not fit in at all and that’s probably why I work with one of the major companies…a bit more diversity.

  27. I have a relatively similar story. I am a 24 year old with a Computer Engineering degree. Did well in high school, scholarship to a good public school and I’m now making ~140k plus bonuses and stock options. I currently live on the east coast, but know tons of college friends in silicon valley making even more (although the cost of living is much higher).

    I like what I do but eventually would like to start my own engineering company. I feel like this is different than what Sam was referring to with regards to dissatisfaction with the work that engineers do. Engineering is a pretty easy gig honestly. I work 40 hours a week on engineering work and occasionally work a few extra hours on business development. I’m going to finish my masters in a few months (completely paid for by my company) and then be looking to make ~160 after that.

    As has been said above, if you are a decent engineer in a high demand field (computer, electrical, petroleum), you could make 100k right away. I have job offers come in weekly and could easily make more if money was the only thing that I was looking for in a job.

    1. Having that level of job security must feel great and re-assuring. When I visit other personal finance forums (particularly on reddit) half of the success stories seem to come from computer science majors. It might be the perfect blend of degree value, job availability, and work levels/flexibility. The ability to freelance or work remotely seems to be another potential benefit.

  28. Yes reaching FI is important, but let that alone drive you to freedom (or boredom) sooner! How about balance act of – raising good family (in timely manner, don’t have a down kid at age 44 — rather finish having healthy litter by age 35!). PACE your life and goals – enjoy the journey as much as the destination — because, once you reach your “made-up” destination, there is no “coronation” ceremony !!

    Now – no beating down on the FI topic, definitely strive to achieve it! Start early, decent career, good salary, great savings (do 401K max-out!!), additional specialization, either publish papers, patents, or present at conferences — which grows your respect and network (future job prospects). Do buy a home in “good” location/school-district, raise great kids/family, while increasing your equity in the house. Do have limited exposure to bad-habbits (but “controlled” ones, might I add), do cater to that inner-self/devil a bit.

    As you progress your mid-career 6-figure/+ salary, and full 401K contributions over the years, along other bonuses/stocks/investments you may have made/saved., you are on your path to that million and/or FI.. As you reach into late 30s, early 40s, see the financial picture: your 401K+investments growing about 7% average — on a typical 800K investments — that amount to $56K/year, your salary (don’t forget savings!), plus say 25K/year growth on your home-equity (in good town/school-district)., you will be closing “double” the six-figure income. Keep the progress going, cruise-control, and enjoy the ride along the way — you be on your way to FI soon. Do learn Golf, you know how to hob-nob with big boys (or girls)

    Now – if you are more ambitious, go for additional streams: have your own company, web-site, rental-homes, and/or other ways to invest time/money to generate more income! Go for it. Hi, you can infact reach FI without these extra streams of income!! Although, more dough will help your endeavors better :-)


    1. I have been living the FI life for the past 8 years (left the workforce before age 40), and I couldn’t agree with you more. Don’t put life off for the sake of reaching FI, enjoy the journey while getting there.

    2. Hi sc,

      I appreciate your perspective and the advice from someone who’s perhaps been through it all.

      Enjoying the journey as much as the destination is in my view the most difficult aspect of striving for financial independence. Also easier said than done!

      Naturally, my personality loves to sacrifice the present for the future, but then I’ll wake up one day and wonder if I’ve wasted the past 5 years of my life.

      1. In my opinion, the one thing you never want to sacrifice for reaching FI is starting a family, if you want one.

    3. 7% seems like a generous expectation of stock returns (on average) given there is over $12 trillion of negative interest rate debt out there and the 10 year at 1.5%. Although, I hope that you are correct that 7% still happens.

      1. My stock portfolio is 8.2% for the year. This seems very doable. But we shall see what the volatility will bring :)

        1. The up-years aren’t the problem with hitting 7% equity returns. It’s averaging in the -20 to -60% years. Always amazing people after 6-7 years of a bull market forget the shoe will fall again, although that’s use a sign the market is close to a peak when retail piles in.

  29. My wife and I have a very similar story. I graduated in 2011 with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from a public university. I took an engineering job with a major oil and gas company making $80k starting. With steady pay raises and 5 years experience, I’m now making $125k. My wife started out in the oil and gas industry working for a consulting engineering company for $75k in 2012 and steadily rose to $88k. However, there are definitely drawbacks to the profession. I have lived in 4 different cities since I started working (you have to move where the work is). Also, I was laid off from my previous employer in April 2015 due to the downturn in oil prices. I was very fortunate to find a job with another oil major in September 2015, but it required relocating to a different state away from my fiancee (married just a few months ago!) and family at the time. My wife was laid off from her O&G job in Feb 2016 as well. I can honestly say that the sacrifices I and my wife have to make by working in oil and gas have been worth it though. We’ve aggressively saved our money, and we’ve made money on each of the relocations. We’re on track to reach financial independence much, much sooner than if we had chosen careers in another industry. I also thoroughly enjoy working in the O&G industry which is more than many people can see about their jobs/career path.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Sorry to hear about all the layoffs and relocations, but on the bright side you probably gained a lot of varied experience and perspective of different cities.

      I’ve been spared so far…but I’m always on edge. If you’re going to get laid off, I think the trick is to get laid off quickly so you can find another job before the market dries up indefinitely!

  30. Very interesting post! This post missed me by a couple of years as I’m just a few years outside of college. Nevertheless, I never had a knack or interest in engineering. I always brag that my science class is college was geography, but I envy those that have such a cool technical skill such as engineering!

    I am currently 24 and have above a 100k salary, but fall within the category of a financier. I work at a company that invests debt and equity into medium sized businesses. I also invest in equities on the side while managing my blog. I think I followed the post well, other than the fact that I didn’t go into engineering. I had to work very hard, get very good grades and develop my analysis skills to get where I am today. I love reading sites like this to continue to learn ways to boost my income and to hear from other like-minded individuals!

    1. Same here, I envy those that have creative skills. I imagine you need them to come up with those whacky deals to finance businesses, right? :-)

      Just kidding, but lately I’ve been having thoughts working for financial institutions. They occasionally need engineers to help them decide if they’re investing money into good oil fields or crappy ones!

  31. Kate @ TaxOptimizedInvestment

    If you work for the “big four” tech companies, namely Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, you can also make 6 figures before 25.

    On a side note, while in law school, I also came across a few engineers that went to law school for a career change.

    1. It seems the competition is much more fierce to get into those companies. You did not list Apple, is there a reason for that?

      I knew someone who worked for Google and the perks sounded amazing. The concentration of younger staff would also be quite a change for me. In my 6 years or so, I’d estimate the average age of my co-workers to be around 45.

  32. I also worked my ass off during high school, went to a public university with enough AP credit to graduate in three years with an English degree (gasp!) then received a Master’s in journalism (double gasp!) that costed next to nothing, because I moved back home with my parents and didn’t have to divulge their income on the FAFSA for a graduate degree. I went into tech marketing and was making six figures by the time I was 25.

    The not-so-secret, of course, is that I moved to the Bay Area, so starting salaries are already much higher than the rest of the country. But I’m at least proof that you don’t need to be a comp sci grad to make $100k in the Silicon Valley!

    1. Another 3 year graduate and another way to six figures, awesome. Lots of high achievers reading this site!

      Despite the cost, I’d say living in the Bay Area can be seen as an advantage. I visited last February and only have dreams of moving there…

      1. 100k in the Bay area is like 50k in most of the country adjusted for cost of living. I really wish we used adjusted salary more frequently in the US – including welfare, taxes etc. So many T10, T20 B schools are graded based off average nominal salary, which drastically overstates NE and California B-Schools in terms of their value due to their typical placement location.

  33. Alright Sam,

    Another engineer who made 6 figures before 25, but for me in Electrical Engineering.

    So like John here I busted my ass through school though I never have taken an easy semester since Elementary School. I always killed myself K-12, then undergrad and now grad school.

    I definitely agree on taking as many AP classes and college classes as possible. I did 13 APs in HS and 2 college classes. My only regret is I didn’t take fewer AP and more college classes. An AP class takes 1 full year and an exam you have to pay for at the end of the year. The college class takes 1 semester and usually the school district pays for it… and the classes are usually a lot easier than an AP exam.

    Second, I 100% agree you want to go to a state school! Not only did I graduate undergrad with a 6 figure offer in Electrical Engineering, I graduated with a 6 figure net worth from working those internships and investing (woot woot), and obviously debt free too (got to love full ride academic scholarships)! Though I used my 4th year of scholarships to do my first year of my MBA cause who doesn’t love free money while working 30 hours a week as an engineer. While I did this I lived in my parents studio apartment and saved over 95% of every penny I earned (that’s what’s so great about engineering during school – when you work and do school you make a ton and are too busy too spend it).

    So then I graduate… and my company offers to send me to any school in the country for my Master’s; pay my salary + the degree and then give me another raise when I graduate… So me being the person I am I applied to a bunch of top schools cause not like I was paying so another full ride (woot woot). So now I’m about to finish my Master’s this December at a top 10 program by the age of 23 and I expect my income and investments to net me probably 140k with a LOT of upward mobility. I live in a state much cheaper than cities like Houston/Dallas… so for sheer buying power I would say I am probably pulling 400k equivalent to someone in the Bay Area or NYC. So if you bust your ass you can crush it out there.

    I’m currently looking for ways to get my MBA covered (at a top 20 – my company will pay the local state schools no problem) and work too, to further accelerate my way into management and chase down a 250k+ job before 30 (excluding investments). Similar to what John said most people at my company only work 40 hours a week. I work closer to 50-60 on average but that is by choice to learn more skills while I am young and is not required. High tech is where it is at for sure.

    I’m also with you John, wondering how my life would have turned out if I went into Finance… (I’ll be finishing my mba with that focus and real estate though so perhaps later in life I’ll find out). There are plenty of opportunities to crush it out there folks. However, be weary of living in the Valley, cost of living will eat you alive. I know a few engineers I met when I was on my campus tour at Berkeley getting starting offers on their BS 105-115k + 40k in stock options at companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple… After you factor in costs you can’t save much so from building your NW I’m not sure that’s the best play…

    John loved the post (though petroleum is not all it’s cut out to be)… my buddy started at 125k + 25k signing in 2015. Was laid off 9 months later (got a 3 month severance). So he made 150k for 9 months worth of work but now he can’t find a job and he’s been looking about a year now… Electrical, Computer, and Chemical are very safe paths to quick bucks (assuming you have stellar grades – I graduated with a 3.9). Petroleum can have that boom, bust cycle that can screw the new guy! Not saying don’t go into it, just know the risks! And remember work your ass off – ADD VALUE to your company and make yourself INDISPENSIBLE so they won’t lay you off.

    If anyone has any other questions I’m happy to answer them as time allows; anything money related is my favorite topic after all :).

    1. Jon,

      13 AP’s…come on man, you’re embarrassing me. Agreed, take more college community courses instead of AP if they yield the same credit.

      You’re going to have to give more detail about graduating school with a 6 figure net worth. That is great! What % was due to investing vs. staying at home and saving cash?

      I am also curious as to what industry you work in. I’ve not heard of many 6 figure starting offers + education costs for electrical engineers but then again I don’t know that many EE’s.

      I’ll agree that petroleum has more risks than other engineering degrees, but perhaps more reward on average. I suspect you may be an outlier! (but perhaps not) Congrats on the success and thank you for sharing it here.

      1. Yeah… HS was a busy time! School 730-230, sports 3-5, hw 7-12 M-F, Sunday hw 10-1am. I did that grades 9-11. Grade 12 I was ahead and worked a ton during the school year (32 hours a week) + sports + school. I actually didn’t do any community college courses, I did them at the state college that I attended. I was admitted as a HS student and the school district paid for everything – made it easier not having to worry about transfer credits.

        Alright, so I started doing construction work for my parents as they remodeled their house. They paid me 10 an hour. This probably started when I was ~ 13. Then I started lifeguarding at 15 and did that until I was 16 (2 summers). I would work about 60 hours a week during that time + continue to work construction on my days off from lifeguarding. Between 13-16 I was able to stockpile ~25k. I used 10k to buy a BMW cash at 16 (which I still drive to this day). The car was a depreciating asset for sure. So I went into junior year of high school with about 15k in cash and a 10k BMW (which was worth 15k but the market was falling out under itself so the dealer sold to me because I had cash and he needed money).

        Fast forward until junior year of high school and I got a job doing an engineering internship at a prestigious national internship. I believe I made ~11-12 an hour @ 17. That summer I made about 7700, So now I’m entering HS with about 23-25k in cash. Now senior year starts and I get a raise to 13ish (woot woot). I work 32 hours a week because I’m really far ahead on my credits, and do night school and sports to allow me to work a ton. In that year I make around 13k. That puts me just under 40k going into the summer. By the end of the summer as I start undergrad in engineering I have 40-45k + 5-10k in assets between my car, and some other hard assets. 18 years old – NW ~ 45-55k.

        I work the first month of school but then quit my job because the engineering was too intense to work and do the workload and expect to get stellar grades. I live in my parents studio apartment, have a full ride scholarship that pays 100% of everything + pays me extra money. I am now making money to attend school and have a new profit for my income/expenses for the school year. Then I get into another engineering internship for the summer. I believe I make around 8k for that. NW is 50-60k going into sophomore year. I get another internship for NASA this summer making 16.75 an hour * 16 weeks. I was a contractor so I have to pay the full SS amount. I probably clear around 7k there. Pushing my NW to 60-70k. Then the next year I start working a year round job junior year (rising senior). I am ahead on my credits again so I work 25-30 hours a week during senior year and full time during the school year. I pull down around 37k over that summer senior year. Pushing my NW to ~ 110k. I graduate around 110k NW, debt free with a job offering me a job package of ~110k a year at 22 and sending me to get my MSEE. I work that summer and save another 15k. I go into graduate school with ~120k or so in the bank. I move to another state for graduate school get a large fellowship + a portion of my salary to go to school. Finish the school year and work 1 more summer and here I am. 23 ~ NW about 140k going into my final semester of grad school.

        Things to note – in senior year I applied my scholarship to do my first year of my MBA in finance at my university. At 23 I bought an apartment complex which gives 10%+ ROI. At graduation in December I’m eyeing to be pulling 140k before my 24th bday. So that’s been my journey. To a high net worth ~130-140k + a ~ 140k income at 23. My issue is I’ll have a NW still around 140k at 24 (because I’m living it up this 1 semester woot woot and not saving much for 4 months). So I’m troubled figuring out how I can turn 140k + my high income to 1 million before 28 to keep pace with Sam. When school finishes I plan to buy more apartment complex’s continue to buy index funds, save over 95% still and get back to working on a project and finance site as I’ll have more free time with engineering school over finally. Still with that, I’m not sure how to make 860k in 4 years… thinking I’ll have to go to finance or consulting and pray for big bonuses to make it happen because otherwise I’m not sure how to keep up with Sam :) any ideas people?

        1. lol, you’re in a different time now, where all assets have already skyrocketed for 5+ years. Easy money is hard to come by these days.

          1. I would say that I’ve only made 10-20k from stocks. Most of my money was from pure saving and aggressively working as much as I could. I’ve tried to limit my portfolio exposure to protect capital to ensure I can buy real estate. The real estate is now giving out over 10% returns and seems very low risk. I think I will continue this strategy. Lots of easy money to still be made from the day job and real estate :)! The market has me spooked as well! For me it’s all about cash flow to grow that income!

            1. Jon, you are doing awesome. You were asking how to make 860k in 4 years. I’m saying the past five years is different from the next five. 860k was relatively easy to make using leverage on SF real estate (as Sam did), or on a good stock pick (lots in an 8 year bull market) the past 5 years. I just don’t see any easy opportunities for the next 5 years. 10% a year return won’t make you 860k in 4 years.

              But I don’t think you need to rush, you’re in a great position already! No need to take excessive risk at this time.

      2. Electrical engineers can crush it out of the park. Think startups and stock options. There’s not too many startups in oil industry, and I’m guessing only high level employees get stock. In electrical engineering, low level employees get stock. For me personally, despite earning a very high salary, it’s nowhere near what I made from stock… salary is almost negligible.

        1. I don’t want to go to Silicon Valley for a startup though. I turned down berkeleys master and phd programs (that I had a full ride to) because I don’t want to work out there. I prefer to get all the connections in Texas! Low cost of living and no income tax! Woot woot! And the women are gorgeous too!

  34. Jack Catchem

    OOOOOOOOHH. 6 figures before 25? Challenge accepted. It could be done with an accelerated version of my own path, but it would be tight. Here’s the schedule:

    18 years old: out of high school, into the military as a reservist. One weekend a month, two weeks during the summer. Initial training will be 6 months to a year depending on specialty. Take the 6 year commitment for enhanced college tuition assistance. Start getting a degree! (Important for later bonuses.)

    19.5 years old: while still a reservist, join a sheriffs agency ( to start your seniority clock (again important for bonuses.)

    22-23 years: complete that degree and shift into a top-tier California police department (Los Gatos, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Anaheim, Napa, etc.). I should note this schedule only works on the west coast. East coast policing is a different beast. You may also think of getting a masters.

    25.5 years: if you stayed on schedule you should now have 6 years of step increases, an Advanced POST certification, and a BA/MA. Depending on department, you should have between $80-110k base and a passive 10-20% bonus based on years worked/education/and POST certificate. Congrats!

    Between 3 combat deployments and other inefficiencies, I didn’t make it past a passive six digits (OT shouldn’t count) until age 32. No regrets, but if you wanted to have that salary at 25 you can!

    Just be careful you aren’t too smart to be a cop. ) Again, east coast policing: different beast.

    1. Now this is a path I’ve never even thought of. Thank you for sharing. I didn’t think base salaries could be up to 110k for law enforcement unless you were high up on the chain. What does that salary look like without the degree and what kind of degrees do people get?

      I know the police has been taking a media beating lately…any interesting stories/perspectives that the rest of us might be getting wrong?

      1. Jack Catchem

        No, thank you, John. It was an excellent post and one that got me thinking about how one could take a fastrak to six digits within my own career.

        Only in the richest cities will base salaries top out at $110 before bonuses, but they do exist. For example a Los Gatos PD officer tops out at $52.74 / hr. Extrapolated out: $109,699 / yr before bonuses for seniority, education, and POST certification.

        Before anyone gets too worried about where your tax dollars are being spent, my scenario only works with the best paying cities in California, and they really do hire only the best candidates.

        As for type of degree, any degree works for bonuses and promotions. The best would be a degree in a foreign language and concomitant fluency. This vastly increases your ability to reach that community and most departments will compete to hire you for those skills. (Also there’s a pay bonus in most departments to reflect this.)

        For policing in the media, it’s something I’ve been covering often in my blog. Some situations talk about themselves with body cameras. Officers make mistakes. Other times there is no mistake, but it “looks” bad even if fully justifiable. Other times it’s fully justified to those with a legal grounding, but the public is shocked. Hopefully without offering platitudes everything officers do are on the table for observation. Regardless of the current issue, if someone calls, we will show up.

        I “nerd out” over salary and benefits (the price of switching departments and being inspired by people like Sam) but the baseline officer is a person too who is looking to improve their community. The suspicion and caution are endemic to the job, but once verified, cops are ready to help.

        I had an officer talk to me on duty the other day. He was visiting The City from Toronto. The first thing he did was show me his credentials, not say he was a detective and ask to hang out. Provide some baseline for officers to believe you, and the world is yours.

  35. Noah @ Money Metagame

    I can share a similar story from the computer engineering side, but unfortunately don’t think I can add much value as it would pretty much just be a quick find/replace from “petroleum engineering” to “computer sciences/computer engineering” in the above article.

    Taking AP courses in high school and attending a reasonably priced public university apply equally to computer science, getting an internship early works about the same way, and once again a bachelor’s degree is more than sufficient to launch in the job market at $100k+/year and still be able to advance as high as you’d like to over time.

    Personally, I don’t hate the job at the giant tech company, but it’s also something I don’t want to be doing for very long. Along with my wife, we’re taking the approach of living simply and saving ~70% of our income so we can walk away from it all financially independent in 5-10 years if we choose. If any of my side projects take off, we might be able to move onto a more digital-nomad type of location independent life even sooner than that.

    Whatever your goals are, if a high income job right out of school in your early 20’s will help significantly, there’s definitely a framework you can follow with a little hard work to make it happen.

    1. Noah,

      I had considered taking computer science back then as well but didn’t realize the income potential was that high so early. What are some of the top computer science programs and does it matter significantly for finding employment?

      70% is very high and impressive…I think I started out around there but mine has lowered considerably as I’ve relaxed a bit over the years.

  36. As someone who also works in the Oil & Gas industry I can give some insight on another possibility if you didn’t put in the effort in high school or even college. Right now the industry is a bloodbath but like John mentioned it’s cyclical. There has also been a large talent drain due to Boomers retiring and people leaving the industry because of the cyclical nature.

    There are inexpensive options to attend technical and community colleges to obtain a 2 year degree in a technical field that O&G recruits. The industry is getting more complex so if you’re able to get an associates degree in Instrumentation and Controls and graduate at/or near the top of your class where major oil companies recruit you have a good chance of landing a job where you can make 100k+ less than 2 years out of college.

    The opportunities for advancement with higher pay or fewer but if you were to go into a management role those guys pull down almost 200k. There is the negative/benefit of the schedule, you normally work a 7/7, 14/14, or a 28/28(overseas with crazy earning potential) where you work as many days as you’re off. When you’re working you’re not spending any money on living expenses and when you’re off you have the opportunity to pursue a side hustle.

    1. Thanks Jeff for the additional insight. I have very limited exposure to the operations side and therefore did not discuss any of it in my post. This could be a great shortcut if you’re much more hands on and willing to deal with the volatility and work schedule.

      My understanding is these types of roles typically do not translate into the corporate office, which is more of the arena of this post. Is that correct?

      1. My company has a program to promote people into jobs at the corporate office. The interest in these roles isn’t that great as the initial pay is comparable or less than what you make working in operations. Can’t forget the negatives of having to work in a corporate environment…commuting every day, being within driving distance of the office, having to maintain a certain appearance, etc. For me I have no interest in working a typical schedule ever again.

        1. The differences between field and office are night and day…I can see people comfortable in one environment struggle in the other. I’d be a good example of that, just based on a few weeks in the field.

  37. Listen up kids! Except for the petroleum part, this worked for me.
    1) Graduated HS with 26 AP credits
    2) Graduated from a fancy college in 3 years saving ~$50k. Did chemical engineering for the flexibility (ended up designing catalytic converter systems in automotive industry)
    3) Got an internship/masters project at a company. Was nice, curious, and worked hard
    4) Got a full time offer at same company based on student job
    5) Made 6 figures very early, basic FI at 31… will be comfortable by 35

    The only thing to skip is the fancy school because most of my colleagues went to midwestern state schools. To Sam’s point, many engineers see an MBA as a way to move up when they get stuck and wonder “what’s next”… depending on circumstance, I’ve found this to be a bit of an illusion without a total career change. Anyway, I’m self-aware enough to admit that the glad-handing and corporate buzzword stuff isn’t my strength, so I’m happy to chill in the very low 6 figures with reduced effort now that I’ve mastered the job. To get ahead, I leveraged simplistic living/frugality (65% savings rate) as opposed to further career growth.

    1. Sounds like you’re a few steps ahead of me on the same path. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it into management…not sure if I can talk that smoothly and not sure if I can sell myself out!

      65% is quite high, which means you are either super frugal or have raised your income considerably. Do you have family and what alternative income streams do you focus on?

  38. Fellow mid-twenties PE here! I loved reading your story as it sounded very similar to mine. Congrats on your success thus far and best of luck going forward!

  39. I very much enjoy your posts and insights, thank you.

    Is it possible to be financially saavy while still having an eye to a larger picture? i.e. How the choice of career or industry can affect the planet and our descendants? What good is it to have a six figure income if, in it’s application, the planet is not habitable for our grandchildren, or the purchase and consumption results in a feudal state of massive inequality? Have you noticed there is only one winner in a game of Monopoly, the rest are left bereft.

    1. Thanks for the thought provoking comment. It’s a question of idealism vs. practicality to me. I would absolutely support dictatorship or socialism if it meant responsible management of resources, equality and peace of life. But from history, we know leaders get corrupted or people take advantage of the system. Thus, we all play the game by ourselves to fight for our right to live the way we like…at least for those who are fortunate to be in a country that allows it.

      On the flip side, is the world really a better place for our descendants if we stop advancing and go back to our primitive state, the way mother nature intended?

      In regards to the the oil industry and environment, the choice is made by the collective populations of the world. As long as the world demands energy, there will be a market for it and that may come at the expense of the environment. I’m not saying that’s right, but consumers share the same amount of responsibilities of our planet as oil producers. Without the consumers, producers will not exist.

  40. Good Post and offers the youth a hustle mindset many don’t have. ITs not what you earn its what you keep aka Save. If you can start with a big salary that’s great, but most 21 year olds will waste it all. So learning frugality will go a long way even if you earn a pittance of 60K some folks scoff at.

    1. Very true…and I’m not sure whether to blame the education system for lack of financial awareness or just human nature.

      The first thing I did after graduation was purchase a new car. I could’ve gone down a terrible path from there, but fortunately I found the value in being in control of my finances. I also try not to go overboard on the frugality side either.

  41. Nothing is untrue about this post, I just have a different take perhaps because I am 55 and I have also raised 7 children of diverse interests into adulthood. First – i am a board certified Veterinary Pathologist and work for the pharmaceutical industry. A niche career, not well known by peiple outside of the field but i have loved it and it has been great to me and it pays AMAZINGLY. I didn’t even know the option existed when I was in high school, college or even until well through veterinary school. I followed my passion and talant. Remeber what you decide to do you get up and do everyday – so if being a petrolium engineer and living in TX giges you the heeby-jeebies well, don’t follow this guy’s advice. You have to have a reason to get up everyday and it may not be to earn as much money as you can in 5 years and retire – maybe it is, but then you still have to do something with your time.

    Second, I gave hired a lot of summer interns over the years as well as people just coming out of their bachelors. Degrees from top schools do matter. Sorry, but they do. Not necessarily Ivy league, but we all know the to- programs in our fields and the best internships go to people in those programs. A lot of internships are gained through connections and connections come from professors and people known in their field so where you are in school matters. That said, going your first couple years ar a community college is a great strategy to save money and figure out what degree you want to oursue. Transfering to a right program is easier and smarter than getting in as a freshman.

    My 7 kids? 1 got a full ride to an Ivy League and is a venture capital banker, 1 U of Chicago and a Masters at Carnegi Mellon, another an Early Childhood Ed degree (and reconsidering the economics of that decision, but it was hers and she is owning it), another did community college until she decided on Physical Therapy and is ready to transfer – she is passionate and it is right for her, one tried college and said – nope not for me, is a minamalist, did some community college works part of the year in sustainable landscaping and the rest of the year is a nomad exploring. My baby is going to do community college and occupational therapy. All found there way.

    But if you want to make money – there are things to do besides be an engineer and having been one of those that did a bachelors, medical degree and post doc before I ever had a real job – worked fine even with the loans. I was the first in my family to acheive a graduate degree, paid for it with loans, but my niche career choice I found out about during my pathology traing way down the line worked out.

    My advice – be flexible. Don’t make too many plans you can’t adapt or change along the way because feces happen, you change and what you want out of life changes.

    1. Sorry, i can spell and write better than my post suggests. Should have proof read or not done on my phone.

      1. Long ago and far away

        If your youngest child is really interested in OT, then I suggest Colorado State University’s program. I have several friends who were in the OT program there while I was a post-doc in the chemistry dept. Its a great program, and about 98% of grads land jobs immediately. Also, Fort Collins is a nice town on the Front Range with access to all kinds of outdoor fun. Its not far from Denver or Boulder. The people are friendly, and the cost of living is pretty cheap. I work on the East Coast now at a biotech, but not a day goes by that I don’t dream of moving back to CO.

        1. Thanks for the tip. By the way, instead of fast fi I adopted and invested in my kids – brought me imense satisfaction, personal growth and reward beyond anything a big bank account would have.

    2. Sandra,

      I do appreciate you providing the other side of my argument which of course is just as valid. With life experience and 7 successful kids, I imagine you have a much better perspective of the world than myself.

      I am curious exactly what a typical day of a Veterinary Pathologist looks like. Is it something you can go into right out of school or only for those w/ specialized skills? I’d also be interested in the range of pay it can offer.

      As for public vs. private schools, I was only talking in context for Pet E. The best programs happen to be offered by public schools. In many other industries, the best programs can be those fancy ivy league schools and that may be the ticket in.

      I believe for many people including myself, the elusive passion that yields happiness and fulfillment is still unknown even well into adulthood. Personally, if money wasn’t a factor I’m not sure what I would be doing…and that’s what I’d like to figure out. In the meanwhile though, building financial independence can provide options down the road and keep you flexible.

  42. Thanks for the guest post John and Sam!

    Another path for engineers/scientists to consider is getting into the patent field. There are a variety of patent jobs that range from good money and a great lifestyle to big money and still a pretty good lifestyle.

    I am an industrial engineer turned patent attorney. In the patent field, you can easily earn six figures by age 25 working at a CUSHY government job as a Patent Examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office (no law degree required!). I worked full time as a Patent Examiner for a few years while I got my law degree attending evening classes.

    If you decide to become a patent agent (no law degree) or a patent attorney (law degree), you can crush it (multiple six figure income by age 30). Some of the jobs are a big grind, like IP litigation, which I do not do. I found an awesome mid-sized law firm where I write patent applications for inventors at big tech companies. At the right firm, you can make multiple six figures working a reasonable 45-50 hours per week.

    Thanks again!

    1. Multiple six figures as a patent attorney by age 30 while needing to take another 3 years for a law degree after college? Not bad for 45-50 hours a week.

      I spoke to a patent attorney when I was thinking about inventing this secret billion dollar product in my head, and boy was getting a patent or patent pending expensive. The whole patent industry squatting thing is also kind of annoying.

      How long do you think you can / want to do your patent job for? And how long have you been doing it?

      1. Hi Sam,

        I was a patent examiner for 5 years, and have now been a patent attorney for 4 years. As a patent examiner, I was making $112,000 plus bonuses when I left the Patent Office to join a law firm, and that was with only 25-30 hours a week of actual work.

        The Patent Office is an ideal place to work for engineers looking to start a side gig. I went to law school instead (poor choice maybe, but I wasn’t reading your blog back then). Depending on the economy, the Patent Office pays for law school as well. They didn’t pay when I was there during the recession, but because the salary is good I was able to go to a top IP law school (George Washington) with only $30k in loans, which I paid off within a year of graduating.

        I see myself at my current firm long-term, at least until I reach financial independence. I’ve been trying to take your advice and start a website to generate passive income, but I struggle with it because the status quo is so good. It’s so easy to take the short view and earn an extra $3000 by hammering out another patent application rather than looking at the big picture and working toward passive income. I struggle with not seeing quick results. Any advice for conquering this mindset?


        1. It’s hard to focus on the long game. But do know that after 10 years of doing the same thing, you will probably get tired of it. The key is to do something 10 years ago so that by the time you get tired of doing your main job you’ll have something financially to fall back on.

          One way to get motivated is to talk to people tend to 20 years her senior and ask them what they should’ve done differently if anything. Life comes quick. Developing buffers for your financial buffers is highly recommended.

        2. Neil,

          This is one avenue I’ve not heard of so thank you for mentioning it with detail. I never considered it because I always assumed you’d need a law degree first.

          What do patent offices like to do with engineers? What might be a typical day?

          I might consider this if I get laid off here in the next few weeks! :-)

          1. Hi John,

            Thanks for sharing your story! A buddy of mine is a marine engineer who helped develop the top hat used to capture oil from the BP oil spill. He and I share a dream of retiring by 40!

            The day-to-day work of a patent examiner involves reading, researching, and writing about new technology. The job of a patent examiner is to make sure that patents are only granted for inventions that are new. A typical day involves reading a patent application to understand the invention, searching for related patents to see what already exists, making a decision regarding whether the invention is new, and writing a report about your findings.

            The job is way different from a typical engineering gig, and is a great way to develop writing skills that are sometimes lacking in engineering (and are necessary if you want to start a blog on the side!).

            Another perk that I forgot to mention (there are so many of them!) is that after two years in the Alexandria, Virginia office, you can work from home anywhere in the country! This creates huge arbitrage opportunities — An examiner friend of mine lives in the middle of nowhere (Vincennes, Indiana), and is basically the king of his town.

            I would be happy to share more about how to make a killing in the patent field if anybody is interested! Thanks again!

  43. Matt @ Distilled Dollar

    Excellent post! I had a similar path by choosing an accounting undergrad from a public school. Not quite as early as you, but 100k by 27 which I’m more than thrilled about.

    1. Matt,

      That is good to know you can break the 100k mark early in accounting. Are you still in accounting or did you branch off towards another path to reach that income?

      I think I would’ve done well in accounting because I’m quite detailed and good at following rules. However, I recall some of my friends got into one of the big four companies working 60-80 hr weeks and getting paid around 50-60k. Is this accurate still and how long does that go on for until the salary begins to increase significantly?

      1. Matt @ Distilled Dollar

        60 sounds like a dream! ;)

        Yep – I started off mid 50s and it took me 4 years to break 100k. I think the standard route will get you there by the 5th or 6th year, but I’ve benefited from two separate negotiations that helped me boost my income.

        The standard route is to work in public accounting and then branch out. So, I wouldn’t consider the public accounting route to be typical, but within ten years you can expect an income to be closer to 200k or as high as 350k if you make partner. Making partner also requires a lot of buy into the partnership shares, so you can think of that as taking on a mortgage. I could get into more detail, but I hope that answers your question!

        1. I always heard about putting up with the grind for a chance to become a partner. I did not know you had to buy into partnership shares…thanks for the info.

  44. Great post! I took a similar route only with Mining engineering. One thing I didn’t see mentioned is the aid available for these type of programs (less recently). When I started school companies would sponsor a full YEAR of tuition with the stipulation you graduate within the mining program, and you didn’t have to work for that company (scholarships booyah!!) These industries have a huge age gap with the majority of senior engineers retiring or recently retired. Can you say desperate? While I do still work for the man, at least I get to play with huge machines and blow s*** up!

    1. That is quite interesting…we have a similar age gap in the oil and gas industry as well. They refer to it as the “crew change”. I do recall company sponsored scholarships but nothing too crazy…or I just didn’t get them.

      However, I did see many students from foreign countries (Kazakhstan and Nigeria for example) that were given full rides + living expenses from their governments. International tuition rates were about triple the in-state tuition costs so quite expensive.

      These are countries that have considerable oil fields but limited local talent to produce them. They are trying to shift away from relying on western international oil companies. After finishing studies, the students had to work a certain amount for their national oil companies in return for the scholarships.

  45. Engineers can get into management, but I doubt most engineers prefer managing to engineering.

    This was inspiring. Lots of arbitrage going on there! Right place, right time, right interests, right school, right dedication! Both a tale of hard work and luck.

    1. Thanks Ricky for the kind words. Indeed, a good portion can be considered circumstantial.

      Most of the management in oil and gas consist of engineers. Perhaps that’s due to the technical uncertainty that’s inherent within producing oil fields. The main focus is on how to profitably and safely extract oil rather than trying to market or sell to customers. The oil business will have customers no matter what.

      That being said, I believe your statement is correct. A good chunk of good engineers get told to manage rather than aspire to manage.

  46. Boocoo Money

    Great Post!

    It’s always nice to see people doing things that other’s thought was impossible. I wish I saw these post 10 years ago. But, I can make sure my niece and nephew knows what path to take that will yield them a great future.

    Sincerely Boocoo Money

    1. Thank you! I too wish I found sites like Sam’s earlier as well…I might have ended up with a lot less student debt or perhaps even a surplus. I’ve tried to impart my wisdom on younger people but the challenge seems to be not getting blown off as some old fart!

  47. This is impressive focus. I definitely made sure I graduated ahead of a jerk from childhood. It was not, but it was one extra hair flip in my favor.

    All of my engineering friends are delighted with their careers and finances ten years out from college. They do interesting things for great pay. I didn’t realize that petroleum engineers had such great work-life balance.

    1. Ah, jerks…the true motivators in our lives. Can’t let them win.

      I will say oil and gas is definitely an interesting and innovative industry, on par with NASA… just in the opposite direction. The scale of operations and capital investments are huge, the technical uncertainty and risks make things even more interesting…and throw in the global politics in there as well.

      Some companies can go out their way to ensure work/life balance, almost to the point where employees can take it for granted. Many years ago when Pet E’s were scarce, they introduced the 9/80 concept to entice staff. 9/80 means you work an extra hour per day but you can take an entire Friday off every other week, but not all companies do this.

  48. Not quite there on the $100k salary yet, over half way there though :) If only I’d decided to be an engineer instead! I wouldn’t describe myself as happy with the salary that I earn, but I’m now doing further education to earn more. It’ll also help with further blogging and our own business too! It’ll all be worth it in the end.


    1. Hey Tristan,

      It’s about the journey, right! One of my dreams is to build and own a sustainable business that I care about and can sustain my lifestyle. I’m woefully behind on that. I imagine the day that happens though, it will indeed be all worth it in the end.

  49. Frugal Familia

    Good post, if only you had wrote 12 years ago when I was 21, I would be ringing on the cash register right now :) It will be interesting to see what happens to the oil industry as the auto industry shifts towards electric cars and autonomous ride sharing.

    1. I hear you…what career path did you take instead?

      I believe how we deal with declining fossil fuels could be the major shift of our lifetime. The electric cars have made great progress, but ultimately the batteries are still powered by natural gas or coal. I always thought we should move straight from gasoline to natural gas vehicles since they are much cleaner and North America as so much of it…but it looks like we’ll use natural gas more indirectly through batteries.

      It’s true oil and gas will see its final day, but technology continues to discover new oil and better recover old oil. In an oil field, it is very common for up to 50% or more of the oil to be left behind. Until we truly run out and oil price skyrockets, alternative energy sources will be challenged.

  50. Adam and Jane


    Thanks for sharing. Parents will definitely find your info helpful! We agree with you on public universities. My wife and I went to city universities and both of us majored in Computer Science in the early 80’s. My wife is the smarter one and she went to college for free. My parents paid 6K for my 4.5 years. It around $450 per semester back then. I think we got a great education. I can’t imagine parents paying over 50K plus per year these days.

    We started making 19K each in the 86-87 and did not break 6 figures until 13 years later at age 35. It must be amazing earning 6 figures at age 22-23!

    What is your daily job like?

    Do you love your job? After 29-30 in the same company, we hate our IT jobs now but it has a pension so we endure.

    If you are not already FI, do your have plans to do so and how would you proceed?


    1. Hi Adam,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It is crazy to hear tuition costs of $450 per semester. We can blame inflation, but I’m curious to hear what equivalent amount today did $450 feel like during that time? Also, was there as much scrutiny between public vs. private schools?

      Earning a high salary as a 21 year old was quite surreal because I would work together with much older staff in their 50’s (support staff) who had spent their entire working career at the same company but still made less than an entering engineer. I make sure to stay grateful and remember that it can be taken away at any moment.

      The principle job of a reservoir engineer is to predict how much oil is in the ground and how quickly these volumes can be recovered. This involves working with geologists and other engineers to build computer models to forecast production. The unique thing about this industry is the uncertainty of it all. I’ve been on a team where all the engineers, assurers, managers propose a project…get the company to spend a billion dollars…and end in complete disaster. So a considerable amount of hand-waving is involved.

      I would say I do not love my is a means to an end. However, I’ve met some great people through it and I believe it’s my best chance of enabling my desired lifestyle in the future.

      I am far from FI unless I choose to live off bare necessities. I hope to replace my income by my mid thirties and am using real estate as my main vehicle. However, I do envision working for a long time, but perhaps with a more meaningful purpose than acquiring money. But only time will tell!

      1. Adam and Jane


        Thanks for the additional info. Looking for oil is definitely more exciting than our programming jobs.

        When our college was $450 a term, I recalled that hot dogs were .50 cents each, gas around around $1.25 a gallon, and I think pizza was a dollar. My cuz is three years younger than me and he went to NYU for $15K a year which was a lot of money back then since a new Honda Accord was around $15K.

        I don’t know too many ppl that love their jobs but like you said it is a means to an end. Many ppl invest in RE to become FI. You are on the right track by buying bare necessities to save as much as you can. Sam has a KILLER diverse passive income portfolio that includes RE.


  51. This is a great post and I’m going to share it with my two kids who are both in high-school now. They are getting great grades and interested in STEM careers, but this will be a good reinforcement that they are making the right decision. Thanks for guest posting!

    Sam, I’m one of those engineers you saw in b-school. Industrial Engineer for five years and then off to b-school to move into management and make more money! I did not crack the six-figure mark until after b-school unfortunately, but am doing great at my Fortune 50 company now.

    Very inspirational post and I would encourage anyone with high-school kids to share it with them. They don’t need to become Petroleum Engineers, but the principle of going for a high-paying major and getting out in three years is powerful stuff!

    1. Agreed, petroleum engineering is just one answer. The main idea is to get high schoolers to really think about the financial value of their future degrees instead of just the personal aspect.

      Fulfilling a passion may increase your happiness, but it should be balanced by the unhappiness that might result from being straddled with debt and being unable to reach independence.

      1. The only thing I will counter with is that there must be at least some interest in the field or grades and job performance will suffer. For my kids, who will be in college after we’ve all been hooked to the Matrix (unless we already have?) in 20 years, I’m going to highly recommend double majoring: one passion major and one practical. Double majors really are a great value and not always that time consuming if you’ve already eliminated pre reqs with APs.

  52. I would counter and say not to get a petroleum engineering degree but rather a mechanical or chemical degree and find a job in the O&G industry. Petroleum degrees limit you to a specific industry and from what I’ve heard (I’m in the industry) many companies are now leaning towards those with mechanical or chemical degrees over the once popular petroleum degrees. Further when the industry hits a down turn like we’re currently in, those with the more general engineering degree will have a better shot at finding work in other industries.

    I do wish I had started in O&G industry though, it definitely pays more.

    1. Hey Ryan,

      I would agree with your counter full heartedly. Honestly, if I were to go back I may have chosen chemical engineering with the intent of entering the oil and gas industry. They are paid a little bit less in the beginning but can quickly catch up with far more industry options.

      This has been quite a sore point for me recently however. With the drop in prices and hiring, many major companies don’t want to pay the premium for petroleum engineering degrees and instead hire mechanical and chemical engineers with plans to train them up through work experience.

      This is BS because Mech E and Chem E curriculums don’t cover fluid flow in porous media which is what petroleum engineering is all about. Further, Pet Es have essentially dedicated their career to oil and gas with limited options to go into other industries. To avoid hiring them due to saving $10-15,000 in starting salaries is a slap in the face. The least petroleum companies can do is hire petroleum engineers and simply offer less money!

      1. I’m sure this isn’t the case for you, but most of my friends who work for the majors are non petroleum engineers, essentially with petroleum engineering jobs. From what they’ve told me, their managers prefer to get the high level Mech and Chem E’s and train them, as you’ve said.

        Their manager’s argument is that the kids graduating with petroleum degrees expect high salary just because of the degree they picked, but offer little else to the company.

        Also as of late, again the last few years or so, the O&G companies have been looking for engineers from other industries to gain new perspectives which are hard to come by as most of the current aging workforce are set in their ways.

        1. I would disagree with your manager. Pet E’s offer specialized knowledge around porous media and drilling/production background.

          If people think Pet E’s have high salaries, a novel idea might be to just lower the salaries…I guarantee you Pet E’s will still take the job.

          You can train other disciplines but that also costs $5000 or more per course plus worktime. A course is typically 1 week and is in no way comparable to a semester of studies.

          1. Perhaps it would be beneficial to delineate the roles of reservoir versus operations/prod engineering. Mech can easily fit into ops and chem can easily fit into res.

            Further, res exp is transferable to both IB and PE. Ops is easily transferable into service sector and consulting.

  53. Crystal Ball

    Thanks John and Sam – I’ll shoot this one over to my 22 yr old daughter who is about to graduate with an applied math degree. She plans to work for technology companies, probably starting with data analysis and visualization, which will pay over $100k within a few yrs depending on how much she wants to work. There isn’t any reason she can’t earn over $100k by 25, esp with me to help her get in (I’m in the biz…for maybe a few more years). I’m quite curious to see what kind of lifestyle she chooses. She’s smart and a good communicator, but she definitely isn’t the one yelling, “how high?” when some life-hating micromanager screams “JUMP!” :-)

    As for my young self’s income, I’ve told a few pieces of my story in comments for other FS posts, but here is some history that aligns with the content of this post and answers a couple of Sam’s questions: I can’t remember if I made over $100k by 25 or by 26, but was a millionaire by 27 due to a mostly lucky break with tech company stock options in the Roaring 90s. The path: I graduated high school as co-valedictorian, but will call myself #2 because the other guy took harder classes so deserves the #1 spot. I started college in mechanical engineering, hated it (and esp. one evil professor), switched to international studies, liked it. I got decent grades, partied a lot to make up for a choir boy high school experience, and worked all the way through college…full time my senior year…but just sweat jobs, no internships. Paid for college myself. After college, I traveled and partied a bit more, dabbled in a few different jobs and ended up convincing a small software company to pay for a basic software testing programming course in exchange for about 6 months of service (got that through casual networking inspired by a dose of nepotism). I wrote a test script they were able to sell, so negotiated an early break and landed a test engineer contracting job at a large software company via the worst interview in the history of interviews (the recruiter had to come get me in the parking lot as I was getting in my car to leave…the hiring manager’s closing question was an incredulous “…ummm…so, why should I hire you?” which I answered by jumping to my feet with both arms in the air to yell, “Cuz I’m the best!” He laughed and told me to get lost.). After a year at that job, I did a couple other tech contracting gigs, then converted to a full time gig with a pay cut for a junior mgmt job in exchange for lots of stock…which split 4 times in 12 months, thus the millionaire thing at 27. I lost 75% of that money via bad (a.k.a. zero) investment mgmt by 29, but had a fantastic time bouncing around the world adventuring and doing a little non-technology work (including teaching English in a Mexican university and training teachers in Los Angeles, both of which I liked). I eventually got married and went back to madam technology, but as I hinted above, this old whore (hey, “44” rhymes with “whore”..whaddyaknow..I’ll remember that for my birthday next week ;-)) has about run out of energy or interest for working the corporate red light district. I’ve created some other income streams, but want more of that before I leave tech and spend more time the way I now want to. This site is good inspiration for that.

    That was more words the I intended to tap out on my phone screen…probably because I’m hurtling through the dark in a bullet train somewhere between Tokyo and Aomori toward the tail end of 3 countries in three days on two sides of the Pacific Ocean (for fun, not work) and my time-warped brain dropped into story time. My wife just told me to eat my bento box meal. I’m getting old. :-)

    1. Sounds like you are on an adventure right now! I’m curious to know how it felt like being a stock millionaire by 27 and then losing 75% of it? Did your attitude towards money, luck, work ethic etc change? And how long did it take to get back to the millionaire stat if you did reclaim that figure?

      Every time I got stock from my company I tried to sell as much as I could every year and diversify into other asset classes like real estate. The banking industry stunk, and I didn’t want my career, salary, and stock to all be tied to the stock market. But stock grants as part of my bonus kept coming faster than I could sell. My old company stock is down 50% this year alone!

      1. Crystal Ball

        Ha! I not only lost 75% of it, I lost it in 3 weeks while wandering around in the Nepalese Himalayas…found out it was gone when I stumbled into an internet cafe after getting out of the mountains. I’d just had some perspective-altering experiences, including a night of protection from the Nepalese army while I watched Maoists firebomb a mountain town I’d just passed through…and an earlier surreal moment when I had to step over the dead bodies of a mother and child in India so I could get cash from a Citibank cash machine. At the exact moment my account came up in that Nepalese cafe and I blinked twice to make sure that small number was right, I heard bells ringing from outside the screenless window to my left. I looked over at an old man slumped down in the seat of his wooden cart absently flicking a donkey’s ass (is that redundant?) to keep them rolling down the dirt street. The cart passed malnourished children standing under prayer flags, snot running from their nostrils to their mouths, ignored, as usual. I turned back to my screen and laughed – sold most of what was left, logged off and got something to eat. That was the year 2000.

        I didn’t go back to technology until 2004 and didn’t start getting more focused on reclaiming financial independence until about 5 yrs ago, I guess. I’m still not as focused on FI as you and many of your readers are (or maybe used to be) – balance NOW is just as important to me as FI SOON. I’m wary of selling the present to the future, even if the future promises a sweet deal in exchange.

        So, that answers part if your question…yes, my attitude toward work, humans, merit, fairness, money, work ethic and many other things changed in the years of my first early retirement…not really enough room in this format to dive into that, but maybe we can chat about it sometime. That said, the wife and I reclaimed millionaire mountain by 2013 and are looking to check out of the corporate grind again within the next 5 yrs or sooner depending on how the global economic drama plays out. Oh, and yup – I also sell most company stock grants soon after they vest.

        1. I love the attitude! And imagery. I can see it all as I visited New Delhi, a girl, hydra bod, and Bangalore back into thousand and three and then in Mumbai into thousand eight and two weeks before the terrorist attacks at my hotel ov visited New Delhi, agra, Hyderabad l, and Bangalore back into thousand and three and then in Mumbai into thousand eight and two weeks before the terrorist attacks hit my hotel oberoi!

          I feel we are in a tech and Internet bubble again, but this time there’s just absolutely zero liquidity! So on the bright side, at least people are not spending money recklessly and are much more prudent given the experience of the past.
          Recklessly and are much more prudent given the experience of the past.

          If you are up for writing a guest post about your experiences, I’d love to have it! You write in a entertaining and adventurous wit you write in a entertaining and adventurous way.

          1. Selling stock options early (but at what were seemingly good prices at the time) rather than holding until today cost me $80 million, how’s that for a story? :-S

            1. Not exactly, but did OK with a low 8 figure net worth. The 2% of my original stock grants are still worth over $2 million. Mixed results on other investments:

              1. Bought a house, paid it off within a year, remodeled it. All in cost of 900k, worth $2 million now.
              2. Bought rental properties for $220k, worth $700k now.
              3. Invested $250k in real estate development a couple of years before the financial crisis, nothing left.
              4. Diversified ~$500k of stock options into other companies circa dotcom crash. Hard to say how much this turned into since it’s been a long time, maybe $2 million? But original stock options would now be worth $30 million.
              5. Sold off a few million worth to solidify an early retirement in late 30s.

              I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who failed to diversify, but not too many about people who did… just goes to show how much of a factor luck is in the grand scheme of things.

          2. Crystal Ball

            Agreed re: bubble (again) in tech stocks and other sectors. Thanks for the kind words – a guest post sounds fun! I’ll ping you via email.

    2. That is one hell of a career path. Thanks for sharing it. I did things by the book because it felt safer, but your way sounds much more satisfying. It just proves that with some craftiness and determination, you can thrive on your own terms. The thing that stuck out to me was exchanging service for a training course.

      I am also curious if you got back to millionaire status and what all that meant to you?

      As for your daughter, I’ve seen a few applied math majors in this industry become petroleum (reservoir) engineers over time. We use numerical simulators to model petroleum reservoirs and many of the software developers have a background in applied math. Since they know best how the tool works, they often become an expert in simulation which leads to a transition into petroleum engineering.

      1. Crystal Ball

        Hi John – thanks for the angle on applying applied math to the petroleum industry. I’ve been surprised at how disinterested my daughter’s math dept. seems to be in giving her tips like that to explore. Maybe I’m not all that surprised…in the west side of WA state a general apathy seems to have gradually settled in over the last few years like low fog on a cool morning. People just don’t seemed to stop caring about service…like they’re still doing their jobs but checked out at some point. They look at you with “gone fishing” signs in both eyes and leave their pride on the floor like a dropped fork. I’m not sure if others have noticed a similar change where they live – it aint a good sign socially or economically.

        (BTW, you may have already seen my answer to your question re: getting back to a net worth of $1M+ embedded in the thread with Sam above.)

  54. Nuclear Real Estate

    This is remarkably similar to my path.

    Step 1

    Hammered away at AP classes, such that i exhasuted the math and science curriculum (AP Calc, AP Physics, AP Chem) as a Jr, and therefor went to University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee for mornings my Sr. year in order to take 3rd semester Calc, and Organic Chem. This was paid for by the state due to exhausting HS curriculum.

    Another trick is that you dont necessarily need to take the AP class in order to take the AP test… I lobbied my school to proctore the AP Economics test, studied from Princeton Review and got a 4 & 5 in Micro and Macro Economics tests, high enough for 3 college credits, despite never taking the class.

    Step 2

    Chose Nuclear Engineering, but double majored in Mechanical Engineering as a hedge against limited Nuclear jobs. Nuclear is highly specialized so you can get a high salary quickly

    Step 3

    Kind of, I went to a public University (Cal-Berkeley), but it was out of state. Still, I entered with ~35 credits, and managed to graduate in 3 years at the age of 20. Also planned my credit hours so I only took 12 in my last semester so I could focus on job hunt. Secured job with GE amongst competing offers prior to graduation

    Step 4

    Didn’t do this, but as an alternative I played a varsity sport and won 3 national titles. Between my sports experiance and my high school work experiance, interviews never questioned my lack of internship etc

    Final Step

    Nearing this, currently 50-60k in annual profits from rental property at age 30. should clear 6 figures within 2 years. Also, leveraged my job to pay for a Masters in Engineering and an MBA (Feb-17 completion) to assist in career growth.

    1. You sir, are a smart and dedicated individual! To also be able to compete athletically at the same time as well is quite impressive.

      Thank you for highlighting the tip around not needing the actual AP course. My strategy for Economics and Government was to not even take the AP test! The universities here accepted community college credits for those courses which I did during one of my high school summers. I never had the cahonies however to take an AP test without a course!

      I don’t know anyone involved in the nuclear engineering industry. How is the competition there and what kind of entry and mid level salaries (10 yrs experience) could someone expect?

      Lastly, which part of the country do you invest in real estate and what class of properties? I am curious because real estate is my main strategy as well!

      1. Nuclear Real Estate

        The nuclear industry is interesting because it is relatively small, and not exactly thriving in the US, but there are so few nuclear engineers, and the workforce is aging dramatically so there are interesting opportunities.

        I honestly don’t have the best insight into starting salaries anymore since I haven’t hired any new hires, only experienced hires.

        By the 10 yr mark you kind of settle into three career paths:

        1) individual contributor in a standard 40hr/week job where if you have decent performance you are probably making ~120

        2) individual contributor working refueling outages. How much you make here really depends on your performance / reputation / willingness to work. It is not out of the question for someone with 10yrs experience to command $100/hr + per diem for working outages. Which, if you are working 7-12s with 1.5 OT and 2x on Sundays translates to $9,400/week + $800 per diem / week. I’ve never worked outages as it is tough tough work with the constant travel demanding hours etc. But you can make a ton of money. I have a friend who cleared 250k one year working outages as a welding inspector prior to even getting his degree. but he was working 80+hr weeks and nightshift.

        3) B/c of the aging population you have younger professionals that are getting higher management opportunities earlier in their careers than you’d have seen in the past. This is the category I fall in. When you reach director level positions 200k+ is not atypical

        I invest locally in Augusta, GA. Closed on townhome #8 yesterday, with townhome #9 end of the month.

  55. Interesting information that a Ph.D. or MSc is not required to advance in petroleum engineering.

    Not so in the pharmaceutical / biotech industry. Take a look at the executive teams of these companies where the Chief Scientific or Medical Officers all have at least a Ph.D. and/ or a M.D.

    I started in pharma back in the UK in 1992, moved to the US in 1998. That move helped my wealth story as my salary more than doubled then.

    If you have an inclination to chemistry, biology, can present your science well and work well across line functions, the biotech / pharma industry is a great place to build a career. And it’s not cyclical. Huge unmet need in so many diseases and the constant demand for more efficacious medicines will always require innovative young scientists to come to the fore.

    1. Advanced degrees are not required because the industry had a real shortage of petroleum engineers at one point.

      Interesting on moving from the UK…what were the main factors that increased your wealth by moving to the US?

      Don’t take your industry stability for granted! :-) This will be my first major bust in oil price (other have gone through 10 or more) and it is a real downside of being in this industry.

      1. Our wealth got an instant bump by my salary doubling and Mrs. PIE salary jumping nearly 50%. And more generous stock option plans. Combine that with a lower cost of living in general and it became light and day.

        Although our industry is not cyclical that is not to say it is not without significant chaos. Mergers, acquisitions and resulting plans for “maximizing synergies” aka head count loss created untold carnage. Pfizer royally screwed tens of thousands with this strategy in the 2000’s. Not good.

        We are actually advising our kids to consider chemical engineering as opposed to just chemistry if they ever go down the science path….

  56. DIY Money Guy

    I earned a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering Degree and a Masters in Management. The University I attended didn’t offer petroleum engineering but I do have several friends that were ChemE’s, as we used to call them. I agree that my ChemE friends who went into the oil industry definitely started out with highers salaries. But from my perspective these guys are working significantly more than the standard 40 hours a week contrary to what the article proposed.

    I chose the railroad industry and am now a mid-level manager. I have been with the same railroad for right at 10 years now and crossed the six figure mark a couple of years ago. I could have made more much sooner in my career had I been willing to move a few more times.

    I agree a persons entry level career potential really does start in 9th grade as they try to rise to the top of their class. But as John mentioned in his article, after a few years your work performance and aptitude is the largest factor in determining future salary, not someone’s educational background. A degree gets you a job. Your experience and performance get you to be the high income earner though.

    1. I will say the workload for a petroleum engineer can vary depending on the company and role. If your Chem E friends went into planning or management, they could be working more than the 40 hour standard. Also, smaller aggressive companies typically like to work their employees harder with perhaps a bigger equity reward down the road. That being said, I’ve worked in a 50 person company and most employees there maintained normal hours.

      Have you considered looking at other railroads? Perhaps you might be able to accelerate your salary if you consider jumping but I imagine the stability you have is a great factor.

      I agree that the degree only gets you a job and the rest is up to your performance. However, if the starting point is higher you might have a better chance of becoming a high earner!

  57. Love this story! I finished college in 3 years back in the 80’s because of AP/community college credits and stayed another year to finish my Master’s degree (which was required in my state for professional certification). And I swam fast and got money to help each year. I also got my entire doctorate paid for which was awesome! Not an engineer though – a teacher, but still got me to FI earlier than many!
    My daughter is at a state university now finishing in 3 years (Chemistry) and we are currently “engineering” my son’s last year in high school so that he will finish college easily in 3 years or less (at a state school too!) I told him he couldn’t go to a school that wouldn’t accept his AP/Community College credits and when he saw that he would be starting as at least a second semester sophomore – he “got it”.
    I’ve seen college programs where they tell kids to “slow down” and take fewer credits to “ease in” to school and be successful. (My most recent job was college professor!) SURE – fewer credits, more years of college and a crapload more money for the school and debt for the student. There’s a difference between part-time (living at home, working, etc.) and slowing down (living on campus, taking at least 5-6 years to finish a degree).
    Thanks for sharing your story! Sending my son to your site today!

    1. Awesome, and congratulations on FI. I’m glad that there are others out there who think the same way. You are doing a real service to your kids! In my experience, school counselors both in high school and colleges do not put sufficient focus on the financial aspect.

      I also had a counselor tell me to slow down and smooth the transition into college, but they weren’t going to pay for my extra tuition! I hope you can spread the word!

    2. The MAD Consultant

      First of all great article John, and thanks for sharing your story. What Vicki says about her kids resonates with me. My parents limited me to schools I could commute to. In the back of my head I always knew that was better financially, but it was still tough to think of what I was missing out on. I still got by and had a blast in school so it worked out. Everything is what you make of it.

      Now you don’t need college credits to make school affordable. I went to a private school myself which I paid for all of except part of my first semester which my parents split until I had better jobs. By the time I finished I actually paid less than what my parents paid to put me through a private HS which at the time averaged $3,900/yr. I did it with scholarships and grants. I applied for everything I could. In total my 4yr degree cost me around $3,400/yr. You could add in maybe another 200/yr for books as I always kept a tight lid on that expense. I also worked hard as heck. At one point I even decided to take out a student loan to invest it in CD’s since the rate was much higher. Why? I wasn’t even concerned with paying it back since I had built up the money, and it’s not often you get a highly discounted lunch.

      Also if you don’t have AP credits you can choose to cram in credit hours for a few semesters. It will take most your “fun” time, but you could essentially cut out a semester or two by sacrificing a little here and there. Shooting for 18 or more credit hours would be the goal. You could strategize it anyway you’d like. A couple semesters at 21 hours will really help you cut down your time in school. Now I didn’t employ this strategy but in hindsight I should have. I had a handful of business student friends that did this, and they seemed to have perfectly fine lives. They were even sighted at the occasional party or two, and were always happy.

      1. You make a great point on scholarships on grants, which I completely ignored. I got a few scholarships, but I would have spent far more focus on applying for them if I were able to go back. Someone should calculate the rate of return on those…I bet they’d beat out part time jobs if you have good grades.

  58. Apathy Ends

    Interesting story and I have heard similar pay scales up in the North Dakota oil fields – cost of living up there is insanely low. However they are being squeezed pretty hard at the current prices and everything has slowed way down.

    Most types of engineering pay very well, if I could do it over again I would have buckled down and stuck with the engineering path. Software engineers can have a pretty awesome work/life balance while making good money as well.

    1. North Dakota had a very significant boom and nearly all of that was tied to oil companies paying top dollar to relocate. Most positions were temporary or related to field operations rather than corporate offices moving in. When prices and activity fell, unfortunately these people had limited options for finding work in other industries in North Dakota. Perhaps the growth was too dependent on a single factor.

      Engineers will likely not make the crazy salaries/bonuses, but I can confirm the work/life balance can be found!

  59. I personally didn’t earn six figures by the time I was 25 years old, but I’m still SO GLAD I didn’t go through with my engineering degree (I put 3 years into an engineering education, and then switched to finance). I agree with you Sam. I see so many engineers that feel trapped. They want to move up in the company, but it seems incredibly difficult. Sure, they can earn a good wage, but if they don’t love what they do, they’re stuck for quite a while.

    1. Hi Derek,

      I’ve indeed ignored the very significant factor of personal satisfaction of the job and have just focused on the financial aspects. This is something I constantly struggle with myself…how much value am I really providing to the world by helping some oil company increase profits? On the other hand, I can rationalize that the world needs energy, and engineers help find it.

      Most oil companies are run by those with an engineering background which may be different than other industries. However, petroleum is a specialized degree so the risk is being tied to one industry.

      1. Steve Adams

        Yeah providing cost effective energy to run the world economy is pretty lame – similar to baseball players and liquor distributors.

    2. Nuclear Real Estate

      I’ll add another spin on it, which hopefully doesn’t sound too harsh but it’s been my experience in engineering.

      LOTS of people feel the way you described in terms of being trapped and not being able to move up. I’d argue through, that in a lot of the cases engineers are kind of awkward, while also being kind of arrogant and entitled. I’ve experienced person after person express dislike for their job or inability to get promoted, but they don’t get company paid for masters degrees, they don’t get PMP certifications, they don’t even do the work of applying for other jobs, they just whine about it…

      Engineering is the perfect job to suck you into comfortable misery, you dislike your job but you are paid well and have a good life so you never get uncomfortable enough to do something about it

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