Trusted money expert and certified financial nerd, Zach is passionate about seeing people succeed in their finances. He's spent the last decade devouring every source of money advice he could get his hands on, and now uses that knowledge to help others get out of debt, learn how to invest, and build their dream futures.
It’s 2010, I’m 19 years old, I’m home from college for winter break, and I’ve just stuck my thumb in a table saw. The pain is unlike anything I’ve felt before. I steal a glance at my thumb to see what may be left of it, immediately regret my decision to do so, and race into the house, leaving the still-running table saw endlessly cutting the air. I can’t figure out the words to use to explain what has happened, so instead I start screaming.
My parents are away for the night, so my sister rushes up the stairs, thinks I’m pulling a prank, and almost turns around. “No! I’m serious!” I plead with her. My thumb does the rest of the convincing, and she grabs the keys and jumps into the car.
Once at the hospital, in what is all too familiar a scene for those of you who have also had the misfortune to visit the ER, I’m forced to stay in the waiting room for what feels like an eternity. The clock moves in slow motion, or perhaps doesn't move at all. I'm not sure but it’s definitely not moving in real time because the second hand seems to be inching its way around that clock face, slowly taunting me with its laziness. Minutes, hours - to this day I’m not sure how long I paced back and forth, trying to stay calm while other waiting patients snuck stares at the red towel covering my hand. I repeat the only words I can muster over and over and over again, “Please, Lord….”
Eventually, mercifully, I am taken back for x-rays. I'm awash with relief that the wait is over as the technician helps me position my hand for the imaging. But, as I try to hold my trembling hand still, I find myself seeing dollar signs in the air with every hum of the machine.
X-rays completed, I’m given a treatment room and put in a hospital bed, and await the arrival of my parents, who by now had been called and were on their way. Again I find myself watching the clock, but this time it seems to move too quickly, with sounds of a cash register with every tick.
When my parents arrive, my mom attempts to comfort me. This is the same mother who just a year earlier had caught her own hand in a winch, but didn’t get to go to the hospital. She didn’t get to go because we couldn’t afford it, and as I sit in that ER room with the doctor explaining the treatment my thumb will require, an intense feeling of guilt wells up in my chest for the medical bills that are now on their way.
For most of my life, I would categorize my family as lower middle class. Not poor - we had enough to not lack for any necessity and to still get gifts on Christmas, but never enough to feel fully comfortable or safe. The type of kinda-making-it where I could be on the soccer team, but my cleats were held together with duct tape and if I tried to change directions too quickly, my foot would go through the bottom and my cleat would be suspended in the air halfway up my ankle. Where we had a car, but it had 240,000 miles and leaked exhaust fumes through the vents so we had to drive with the windows down at all times in order to not pass out, even in the middle of Minnesotan winters.
But things now were worse. My dad was a pastor, and in 2010, since lots of people were also struggling from the Great Recession that had hit the country, tithing at the church was down, and his income, when he did get paid, was small, and barely enough to keep our family of 7 in our house. At one point, sensing my parents’ stress, my 4 siblings and I offered to lend my dad the small amounts of money we'd saved up in old peanut butter jars to help pay the bills. When he seriously considered it before turning us down, my heart dropped in my chest. Things must really be bad now.
It was with this backdrop that I graduate high school and leave for college. I'm in a big city 600 miles from home, with a jar full of laundry quarters and a few hundred dollars in my checking account, and no backstop if things go south.
So when my student aid package is consistently delayed and I don't get the money I'll need for textbooks when classes start, I go without books for the first month of each semester. When friends go out to eat, I go with but pretend I'm stuffed full already and order only water. When I catch bronchitis from lack of sleep and stress, I don't even consider going to the doctor because I don't have the money to pay for a visit even if I knew where to find one. And when my checking account is empty and my small credit card maxed out, I skip meals to save money on groceries rather than phoning home for help, because I'm afraid that if I do, I'll be taking food away from the rest of my family.
When I do buy food, it takes me hours of wandering the grocery store, trying to find the cheapest food that I can buy per serving without having a pure ramen noodle diet. I wish it could be PB&J, but every time I stand in line at the register, the knot in my stomach squeezes tighter and tighter, and I start taking items out of my cart as I tally up the total for the twentieth time, and the peanut butter never makes the final cut.
Then one day late in my senior year, a letter comes in the mail. It’s a job offer with a starting salary of $64,000 in a small town 3 hours away. This is better news than I could ever ask for, and I feel like I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel! I buy a cheap car, pack up my few possessions, and take off for the new city. I drain my bank account all the way in order to put down a deposit on an apartment, which leaves no money left for furniture so I’ll have to spend the first month living there with only my clothes and a sleeping bag to fill it, but it’s fine because I’m here with this new job and soon my paycheck will be coming.
But then, during orientation, I learn that although I start work on January 1st, my first paycheck won’t be coming until the 31st, leaving a whole month of time where I’ll have to survive with what I have left. I try to hold on for as long as I can, but eventually I can’t limp along any further. My car’s gas tank is empty, my pantry is bare, my credit card is maxed out and my bank account has less than $2 in it, and there’s still 3 weeks until my first paycheck.
As I sit there alone on my sleeping bag in my empty apartment in a city where I don’t know a soul, I realize I have to do the one thing I’ve been trying to avoid at all costs for the last four years.
I call my dad for help.
He sends me $300, and I’m immediately awash in guilt and swear to him that I’ll pay him back - but I take the money, and it gets me through to that first payday, and I make it.
A few months later, I find myself wandering the grocery store aisles again. I’m newly married, and my wife is talking to me, debating what vegetables to buy. She chooses one, puts it in the cart, and for the very first time, that knot doesn’t grip my stomach as hard as it used to. We continue to walk through the store and shop, adding even more items to the cart, and I realize grocery shopping has gone from something I dread to something I look forward to now that I’m no longer on the ragged edge of getting by, and I vow in that moment to do everything in my power to never be in that place again.
What followed next was more than a decade of a relentless pursuit of financial independence and any knowledge that could help take me there. If this was a movie, it would be my Rocky cut scene. I started tearing through books and podcasts, reading the latest research studies, going to real estate meetups, pouring over stock market P/E ratios and real estate appreciation maps. At the end of every month I’d drive around the dumpsters at my apartment complex to find furniture people threw out when they moved and couldn’t fit everything in their Uhaul, throw it on the roof of my car, bring it home and flip it on Craigslist. Soon I had paid off my debt, was investing in my 401k, buying and selling real estate, renting out my garage, and running an Airbnb above my house.
If there’s a way to make, save, or invest money, I tried it.
Some of the things I found worked well; others didn't. I opened businesses only to close them a month later. I sold a piece of real estate and only afterwards realized I received no cash from the sale after paying taxes. I bought Tesla stock before it was big, sold it for a small profit, then watched with dismay as it shot up 20X from where I had sold it. I made mistake after mistake on my path to financial freedom.
And still, my wife and I have been able to pay for over $70,000 of medical and dental bills without taking on any debt, build up a 401k that will become several million dollars by the time we retire, whether we keep adding to it or not, and, as I write this, we’re finishing up our sixth month of traveling around the country this past year, all while averaging an income of less than $100,000 a year.
I’ve tried all of the financial “hacks” and tricks to get ahead. I’ve read all the books, I’ve run countless experiments. And I’ve separated out the noise of what doesn’t work at all, what kind of works but isn’t worth the time, and what few, key activities turbocharge your path to wealth. And now I teach people how to use those key activities to build their dream futures.
I’ve seen and lived first-hand what it’s like to struggle financially. What it feels like to be worried if my rent check is going to overdraft my checking account. I know the dread that presses down on you. The shame. The powerlessness. And I hate that millions of people are currently living like I did.
I am absolutely convinced that the world is bursting at the seams with human potential, ready to change the world - but it’s stuck in people who are so stressed out by their money problems that they can never dream large enough to become who they were made to be. Maybe people like you.
I created Fifteen 5 Finance to do all that I can to unleash that potential by teaching people how to turn money from a source of stress to a force of good propelling them towards their dreams. I made that change myself, and I’ve helped many, many others do the same. If you’re ready, I’d love to help you do it too.