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Investing In Yourself: Financial Secrets I Didn't Learn In School

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

At a recent family reunion in Lake Tahoe, surrounded by the chatter and laughter of relatives, I found myself stand-up paddle boarding while immersed in an animated conversation with my younger cousins.

One of my cousins, Megan, asked me about the F.I.R.E. movement, which I have been an active participant in for about five years.

F.I.R.E., which stands for Financial Independence Retire Early, is a movement aimed at achieving financial freedom and opting for early retirement. This approach encourages frugality, disciplined saving, and intelligent investing.

The enthusiasm was infectious, but I realized that there was a significant knowledge gap when it came to understanding personal finance and investment.

But my cousins are not alone in their hunger for enhanced financial literacy skills. According to recent data:

As of 2021, the average student loan debt for graduates in the United States is around $37,000. Young adults often start their careers burdened by this debt, which can impact their ability to save and invest.


A survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education found that only 24% of millennials demonstrated basic financial literacy in 2018. This lack of knowledge makes it difficult for young people to effectively manage their finances, budget, and make informed investment decisions.

As a passionate member of the F.I.R.E community, I felt inspired to share the wisdom I've garnered over the years to support my family and students in developing financial literacy skills.

While my career transition from public school teaching into executive function coaching for students has led me to set aside the desire for early retirement, the principles of the F.I.R.E. community still resonate with me.

This article will break down some of the core concepts that can pave the way to financial independence and support young people in school and recently graduated in taking actionable steps toward an improved personal finance system.

Start by tracking your income and expenses

Tracking income and expenses forms the bedrock of financial literacy. It's akin to having a financial map, providing visibility into where your money comes from and where it goes.

By maintaining a simple spreadsheet, you can log all forms of income and categorize your expenses, painting a clear picture of your financial health. This approach allows you to identify patterns, manage spending habits effectively, and find opportunities to save.

Beyond that, it gives you the insight needed to set realistic budgets and financial goals. In essence, it's the first and most important step toward taking control of your finances and setting a course for financial independence.

Check out my interview with Andrew Hallam, author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School, in which he describes how he gained awareness of his income and expenses by tracking every purchase he makes.

And if you want to try using the same budget sheet I use each month to track my income and expense, enter your email below and I'll send it to your email!

The stock market has an average return of 10%

The stock market is like a giant virtual store where people buy and sell pieces of companies. When we talk about the average return of the stock market, we're talking about how much money people typically make by investing in it over time.

In the U.S., when people speak of the stock market, they often refer to something called the S&P 500, which is like a basket of 500 big companies.

Historically, if you put your money in this basket and let it sit there for a long time, on average, it grows about 10% each year. But that's before considering that stuff gets more expensive over time (inflation), so if you take that into account, it's more like 7-8%.

But remember, this is an average – some years it might go up a lot, and other years it might go down. It's kind of like a roller coaster, sometimes thrilling, sometimes scary, but in the long run, it tends to go up.

You need your own brokerage account to invest in the stock market

Most young people are unaware of what a brokerage account entails. Unlike retirement accounts like 401(k)s, a brokerage account allows you to invest in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

I personally use Vanguard due to its not-for-profit nature and trust within the F.I.R.E community. However, there are several other reputable options such as:

  • Fidelity

  • Charles Schwab.

It’s essential to research and choose one that aligns with your goals.

Do you have a personal brokerage account?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Not sure

You need to know the difference between mutual funds and individual stocks

I have chosen to invest a great deal of my wealth in the mutual fund, VTSAX, at Vanguard.

Imagine VTSAX is like a giant bucket filled with tiny pieces of lots of different companies in America. When you put your money in this bucket, you’re giving it a chance to grow because, usually, these companies make more money over time.

And the best part is, instead of picking which company might do well, you’re spreading your money across many of them, so if some don't do well, others might make up for it.

Plus, Vanguard, the company that has this bucket, doesn’t charge a lot to let you join in, which means more of your money stays with you. Think of it like buying a bit of everything at the candy store with just one coin!

A common reason for shying away from investing is the perception of risk.

However, mutual funds often provide a less risky avenue compared to individual stocks. By investing in a diverse range of stocks, they mitigate the risk associated with fluctuations in the stock market.

Avoid fees and high expense ratios like the plague

Imagine your investment as a seed you plant to grow into a big tree. Fees and high expense ratios are like someone snipping off branches and leaves from your tree each year.

If you lose too many branches and leaves, your tree won't grow as big and strong as it could have. The branches and leaves could have helped your tree grow even bigger over time.

Picking mutual funds with low fees is like protecting your tree so it can grow tall and mighty.

When you're ready to "harvest" your tree (or in other words, use the money for something awesome like college or a road trip), it will be much more abundant and fruitful!

You need to create a "rollover" account at your brokerage

Imagine you’ve got this cool collection of trading cards, and you’ve been collecting them at different friends’ houses. But, what if you could bring all those cards into one awesome binder that you keep at home?

Now, let’s talk about something that happened to me. When I was in my early twenties, I worked at Whole Foods. Like a lot of companies, Whole Foods automatically set up a retirement savings account for me called a 401(k). It's kind of like adding a trading card to a collection at a friend's house. I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Fast forward a few years, and I realize that I have these 401(k) accounts from Whole Foods and other places where I worked. It's like having trading cards scattered at different houses. That’s when I learned about the magic of a "rollover" account.

A "rollover" account is like an awesome binder for all your trading cards. I set one up at a brokerage (Vanguard), and this allowed me to take my 401(k) from Whole Foods and public school teaching and put it in one place along with any others I had.

The best part? With this rollover account, I got to choose what to do with the money. It’s like choosing the coolest, most powerful trading cards for my binder.

I decided to pick a mutual fund called VTSAX - think of it like a super rare card that has a good chance of increasing in value over time.

So now, instead of having bits of money here and there with my old jobs like Whole Foods, I have it all in one place, growing and waiting for me when I retire.

Plus, I got to choose the awesome stuff I wanted, like that powerful VTSAX card, instead of Whole Foods picking random "cards" for me.

You are losing money when it sits in the bank

Let's say you have $100 in your savings account at the bank. Now, think of inflation as an invisible force that slowly but surely makes everything more expensive over time.

So, if a pair of sneakers costs $100 today, in a year or two, because of inflation, the price might go up to $105 or more.

Here's the problem: the money you have in your savings account at the bank usually doesn't grow fast enough to keep up with inflation.

Banks often give you a tiny bit of interest, but it’s often so small that it doesn’t make a big difference. So, your $100 is still pretty much $100 a year later, but the sneakers now cost $105.

You’re essentially losing purchasing power - which means, even though the number of dollars you have stays the same, you can't buy as much with them as you could have before.

This is why smart financial management often involves investing money in places that can grow at a rate that beats inflation, like mutual funds, instead of just letting it sit in a savings account.

This way, your money doesn’t lose its value and can actually buy you more in the future.

You need to invest in YOU, not just mutual funds

More valuable than any financial investment is the investment in your own skills and abilities. For me, this looks like:

  • Reading books, attending webinars, and listening to podcasts on topics of interest.

  • Spending time with my family and children to live a well-rounded life.

  • Building relationships for future networking.

  • Taking care of physical and mental health through weekly visits to the gym or outdoors for hikes and swimming.

  • Developing daily habits that boost productivity and focus like short walks, meditations, and breathing exercises

  • Creating content and contributing positively to my field.

When you invest in yourself, you invest in your earning power and long-term abilities.

By constantly upskilling, rather than getting comfortable with my role, I choose to make myself more and more valuable, and thus more and more sought after for my expertise.


As the sun set over Lake Tahoe, and the laughter of my family echoed, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of purpose ignited within me.

The conversations I had with my younger cousins brought to light how vital it is for us to bridge the knowledge gap and plant the seeds of financial literacy in the fertile minds of the younger generation.

The F.I.R.E. movement and principles of frugality, saving, and intelligent investing are the nurturing waters that can help these seeds grow into strong, fruitful trees of financial independence.

It's not just about the money - it's about the freedom, options, and possibilities that financial independence can bring.

But let’s not forget, as we tend to our financial gardens, the most bountiful harvest comes from the investment we make in ourselves through continuous learning, relationships, and personal development.

Together, let’s create a forest of knowledge, empowerment, and prosperity for generations to come. I invite you to keep the conversation going and join a community of like-minded individuals seeking to improve life skills.

Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly tips, and let’s walk this path of financial enlightenment together.

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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.

He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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