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Real People:
An appetite for frugality
First-time homebuyers Shannon and Bret Wask are debt free and saving one dollar (burrito) at a time.
June 20, 2003: 10:30 AM EDT
By Sarah Max, CNN/Money Staff Writer

New York (CNN/Money) - Saving money and house hunting every weekend don't rank high among life's greatest pleasures, but you wouldn't know that talking to newlyweds Shannon and Bret Wask, both 26.

Every Sunday morning the Alexandria, Va. couple searches the classifieds for open houses that suit their wish list for a home (two or three bedrooms, low maintenance, priced from $300,000 to $340,000). Then they pick out anywhere from five to a dozen places to see that day.

"We leave the house with detailed directions and maps and tell ourselves we have a five-minute time limit in each place," said Bret, who is the finance director for a political candidate in Maryland.

Once yet another marathon of open houses is finished, the couple returns to their rental apartment and begins part two of their Sunday routine. They go through their cookbooks, pick out recipes for the coming week and head to the grocery store. "One of the best things we've done to save money is to eat out less," said Shannon, a recruiting manager for a healthcare research firm.

While a lot of people their age are accumulating credit card debt, the Wasks seem wise beyond their years. They make the most of their combined income of $93,000 by shopping around for the best deals, using coupons and avoiding spur-of-the-moment purchases.

They now have more than $70,000 in savings and no debt other than the $3,000 loan on Bret's Dodge Intrepid, which will be paid off next March. "Neither of us are the type of people who spend a few hundred dollars lightly," said Bret, joking that he'll drive his car until it has half a million miles on the odometer.

One-dollar burritos...

Shortly after their wedding last September, the couple decided to get serious about saving for a house. Thanks to wedding money and company bonuses, they were off to a good start with more than $25,000 in the bank at the beginning of year. Still, they knew they'd need to build on that savings to have a 10 percent down payment in hand within a year.

Because Shannon and Bret already were managing their money pretty carefully, there didn't seem to be many obvious ways to trim their budget -- until Shannon opened her year-end summary of charges for her credit card and realized how much money they were spending on meals out. "It was quite disturbing," Bret recalled. "It was easily a couple hundred dollars a week."

That revelation, along with some other economizing, has helped the couple put an average of $2,000 a month into their house fund, which is now about $34,000.

They've also become pretty good cooks in the process.

"We specialize in Tex Mex," said Bret, who regularly makes "dollar burritos," so named because that's about what they cost.

...lead to a million-dollar net worth

As a political consultant, Bret changes jobs at least annually, which doesn't make saving for retirement easy. Recently he set up a Roth IRA, to which he plans to contribute $2,000 or $3,000 (the max) each year.

Shannon's employer contributes 50 cents for every dollar she puts into her 401(k), up to 4 percent. Right now she's saving just enough to get that full match. "Once we buy our house we plan to focus on the 401(k)," she said.

Nevertheless, the couple has $13,400 in retirement savings, $16,000 in cash in their checking and savings accounts, $3,700 in taxable mutual funds and $10,500 in three individual stocks, the Advisory Board (ABCO: Research, Estimates), Cisco Systems (CSCO: Research, Estimates) andExxon Mobil (XOM: Research, Estimates).

"My godfather gave me one share of Exxon stock when I was born. Now it's worth $1,300," said Bret.

Shannon says that Bret has been talking about being a millionaire since she first met him their freshman year of college at James Madison University in Virginia. By very conservative estimates, the couple could have $1 million in net worth by the time they are 44.

Of course, if their income continues to increase as it has over the past few years and they keep their spending in check, they have a good shot at reaching this goal while still in their 30s.

For now, however, they'd just be happy moving into a place of their own. With interest rates so low, the competition for homes in the Wask's price range is extremely tough.

"The places we're looking at are getting three to seven contracts (offers)," said Bret. "You have to see a place on Sunday and decide by Monday what kind of bid you want to put on it."

Still, after two months of actively shopping for their first home, the Wasks haven't tired of their Sunday routine just yet. "We're still enjoying the process, and we're getting some good decorating ideas along the way," said Shannon.  Top of page

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