NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For Scott Ellman, awareness is the key to his financial well-being.
Three years ago the Appalachian State alumnus like most recent college graduates, paid little attention to his personal balance sheet. He had a good job selling business telephone systems and lived well.
But Ellman, now a newlywed at 26, then used personal-finance software to perform a self-audit, complete with graphs and charts. He went over all his expenditures and income for the preceding year and a half, and was shocked by what he found.
"I was spending lots of money on clothes, going out to eat, having drinks with friends, spending $6 or $7 for lunch," he said. "Every month I was coming in at plus or minus $100."
In other words, not saving a dime.
Ellman quickly made some simple changes -- making his own lunch, buying things on sale, cutting back on weekend revelries – and went from barely breaking even to banking $300 a month. The he started casting about for ways to leverage his newfound savings.
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His father and his grandparents had been long-time real estate investors, and Ellman considered doing that in the Charlotte, N.C., market where he lives, and where some bargain housing can still be had.
He ultimately decided that his best first step would be to buy a duplex, and to live in one half while renting out the other. He found one for $150,000 in March of 2001 with two, two-bedroom apartments.
After he put 3 percent down on his mortgage from the Federal Housing Authority (which finances owner-occupied, low-downpayment house purchases), his monthly payment came to $1,191. That was twice as much as his old rent, but his tenant paid him $590.
Fast forward a year.
He now had a rent-paying roommate in addition to his tenant, which dropped his housing costs to less than $100 a month. A raise in salary meant he had added about $1,000 a month to his savings and he had $20,000 burning a hole in his checking account.
He bought another duplex in August of 2002 for $159,000, rented out the apartments, and started booking $300 in monthly cash flow from that investment.
The value of his stake in the two properties comes to about $50,000.
For the past year or so, he delayed his master financial plan in favor of an August wedding to new wife Kelly.
"With paying for the wedding, the wedding ring, a honeymoon, I thought if I could just break even this year that'd be fine," said Ellman. "Buying another property would be a bonus."
Back in action
Now with two incomes (Kelly works in the collections division of a bank), the couple plans to return to the real estate market.
"We'll put the majority of her income into savings," Ellman said. "Within 12 months or so we'll have $20,000-to-$25,000 and we'll try to buy another property." Ellman expects to purchase one to four properties a year for the next five years.
The couple does not contribute actively to a 401(k) or a Roth IRA. "Many disagree with this," said Ellman, "but we feel that the higher rates of return and security are found in real estate."
But is the national real estate boom making it difficult to find good properties at the right price? "A lot of people are jumping into real estate," conceded Ellman. "More talk about it than actually do it. But I was surprised recently to find out that two or three friends of mine who had been just talking are now actually doing."
Ellman has made a good start toward millionaire status, with savings and stock investments totaling $12,500, and retirement accounts of $15,000, and the equity in his properties. He carries no credit card debt, but Kelly owes about $15,000 for student loans.
In the long term, the Ellmans hope to buy a franchise, from Subway, perhaps, or Sylvan Learning Systems -- a "business where I can call the shots," he said.
The goal is not simply wealth accumulation. What he's looking for is the freedom of choice and flexibility that riches bring.