Millionaires in the Making: The Johnsons
Matt says he's squandered his money on cars and even a tattoo. But with wife Kristina's discipline, the couple is on their way to financial security.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Matt Johnson can remember a time when he was barely in control of his money, let alone in command of it.
"At one point in college I spent my last $80 on a tattoo," Matt said. "It just seemed like a great thing to buy at the time."
He was also in the habit of buying a brand new car every two years, going through four cars between 1997 and 2003.
"But Kristina has really helped me change because she approaches money in such an organized way," he said.
Matt met future wife Kristina in their sophomore year at Maryland's Villa Julie College, and they got engaged soon after graduation in 1998. Kristina was an accounting major, and applied some fiscal discipline to Matt's previously free-spending ways.
Now married, Kristina takes care of all the budgeting and bills, and Matt handles the investing.
"We rein each other in," said Matt. "I have a thing for cars, and she has a weakness for shoes and clothes. But we do a good job of keeping each other grounded."
"I don't think we've ever had a serious argument about money," he said. "Well, maybe once we had to have a talk about cars."
The couple has also managed to stash away $200,000 and built up over $120,000 in home equity - and they're both just 30 years old.
How they save
It doesn't hurt that Matt and Kristina take home a combined $147,000 a year - but that alone doesn't keep their finances in good shape.
"We're big believers in doing paycheck deductions - don't even let that savings money into your bank account," said Matt. "It's the whole idea of not even seeing the money."
They both began contributing to their 401(k)s as soon as they began working. Matt became well-acquainted with the culture of saving while working in the 401(k) division at T. Rowe Price as a communications consultant. And Kristina built her budgeting skills while working as an accountant, spending five years doing auditing work for Bank of America.
Currently, Matt puts 10 percent of his income towards his 401(k) - with a plan of increasing his contribution one percentage point each year - and Kristina contributes five percent at her current job at Bay National Bank.
They're still trying to figure out how to invest $65,000 that they have in cash. Some of it they are slating for home improvements on their new home in Parkton, north of Baltimore, and some will go towards a diversified investment portfolio.
And they've kept their regular expenses to a minimum, starting off their marriage living in an affordable apartment while looking for a townhouse. Rather than renew the lease, the couple moved in with Kristina's parents for several months while they continued the home search. ("We probably wouldn't repeat that decision," said an older and wiser Matt.)
He describes Kristina as a "total coupon freak," and says the couple save 15 to 20 percent off their grocery bills most weeks.
With the birth of Nicholas earlier this year, the couple put $1,000 into a 529 college savings, and decided to allot one percent of Matt's paycheck this year, with a plan to increase that amount each year.
Both of their jobs offer annual bonuses, but the couple are putting those toward paying off their mortgage.
How they spend
Kristina says the adjustment between Matt's formerly free-spending ways and her budget-balancing accountant side wasn't as hard as it might seem.
"We didn't live together before we got married, so we definitely went through an adjustment period," said Kristina. "But we agreed when we got married that we didn't want to live life extravagantly, although we do enjoy traveling and going out to dinner with friends sometimes."
When the couple jumped and bought a townhouse near Baltimore in 2000, they made sure they weren't maxing out their budget.
"We paid $156,000 for the house - which felt like a lot of money at the time - but then we sold it in 2005 for $308,000," said Matt. "It's the best investment we didn't know we were making."
They found their new house one year ago, while Kristina was several months pregnant. They were just casually looking for homes, sending pictures back and forth online, waiting for the right combination of house, neighborhood and school system.
When Matt found it, the couple made the biggest long-term investment of their life, putting $50,000 down on it and took out a mortgage for $500,000.
They are currently paying about $3200 a month, but are hoping to pay the mortgage down as quickly as possible by steps like applying their bonuses to it.
"Had we not been as fiscally conservative over the years, there's no way we would've been able to do this," said Matt. "We did sell high, but we also had to buy high."
The couple also kept credit card expenditures to a minimum, while not forsaking plastic completely. "We've never paid a finance fee on a credit card," said Kristina.
They do put cards to work for them, however. "We use a Marriott credit card, and we haven't paid for a hotel room in five years," said Matt. "We're going to Las Vegas in early November, and we're doing it on my flight points and her hotel points."
And to satisfy their travel itch, they've vacationed in Italy, Hawaii, Mexico and England.
Matt's car habit has been happily curtailed, and he professes happiness at driving (and frequently sharing) a 2003 Toyota Highlander that they bought new. And Kristina drives a '98 Acura Integra. The cars are completely paid off.
When Kristina returned to work after giving birth to Nicholas, the couple also confronted the reality of day-care payments, to the tune of $1,000 a month.
"It's definitely worth the flexibility, but it does hurt the pocketbook," said Matt. "But the provider is top-notch and we knew if we were going to spend the money, we were going to do it right."
The future is full of options for the couple, and that's just the way they've planned it.
Both of them want to keep indulging their passion for travel, and Kristina is thinking about opening her own business some day.
"I used to dance ballet, and someday I'd love to open my own dance studio," she said.
With all the details of their financial life, it's baby Nicholas that's taking their attention now. "Having the baby around, you definitely refocus what you spend money on, and how you want to spend your life," said Kristina. "We're thinking about money, but also about finding time for Matt and I to just hang out."
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