Kris and I love our neighborhood. People are friendly and helpful, yet mostly mind their own business. It’s a perfect combination. One of our favorite neighbors is the old guy next door. Let’s call him John.

John is a 71-year-old retired shop teacher who lives in a modest ranch house on half an acre, the same house he’s had for over forty years. He has an old barn filled with salvaged lumber, outdated appliances, and who knows what else. When he’s around, he drives a junkie 25-year-old station wagon. But most of the time, he’s not around.

He spends his winters in New Zealand helping friends on a dairy farm. His summers are spent fishing in Alaska. For a couple of months each year, he’s home, puttering in the yard. Year-round, he rents his house to boarders. He leads a very active retirement.

John is full of advice, all of it laden with colorful euphemisms. When I erected my berry patch, he was the one who told me how to build the trellises and gave me the material to do so. He’s eager to help us prune our shrubberies. “I can get my chainsaw and cut the damn things out,” he says with a big grin.

A few months ago, John asked if I had a roll of plastic. “Actually, I do,” I said. “It’s greenhouse plastic. Will that work?”

“Sure,” he said. “I’m just going to use it to make storm windows. I build a wooden frame and then stretch the plastic around it, and that lets me save money on my heating bill.”

John was working in the yard recently when I returned from a trip to the book store. “What do you have there?” he asked by way of conversation.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Just a few books on personal finance.” I showed him the titles. His face broke out in a grin, and a twinkle appeared in his eye.

“That’s great,” he said. “That’s really great. I’m glad to see somebody as young as you are interested in investing.”

“I’m not that young,” I muttered.

“Sure you are,” he said. “You have a long time ahead of you. And if you get started now, you can save a hell of a lot of money.” We’d never talked about money before (and he had no idea I keep a web site about personal finance).

“Let me tell you something,” he said. “I was a school teacher. I didn’t have a big salary. But I saved what I could, and I invested it. I got a little lucky, but mostly I just kept putting the money away. Do you know much I have now?” I shook my head. “Over a million dollars,” he said. “And all because I kept at it. And because I did stuff like this.” He waved his hand to indicate his yard.

I looked at his apple tree and his grape vines and his raspberry canes. I looked at the house with the make-shift storm windows. I looked at his 25-year-old station wagon. I looked at his beat-up charcoal grill. I looked at his shabby clothes.

“I don’t buy anything unless I need it,” he said. “And even then I try to find something used. Let other people buy the new stuff. I try to scrounge for everything I need. It may not seem like much, but it makes a real difference. By pinching my pennies right along, I’ve been able to set aside money to invest. And now I can do whatever the hell I want.”

This exchange made me smile, of course. Here’s a man who has lived the philosophy I’ve adopted for myself, who has lived the philosophy I espouse on this web site. He has lived this life and has been successful. Here’s a man who is happy and fulfilled. Here’s a man who is a real-life millionaire next door.

Best of all, here’s a man who brings me fresh-caught Alaskan salmon every fall.

Sometimes people write to tell me that nobody can get rich slowly. “That’s no way to live,” they say. I don’t believe them. I’ve seen enough examples of people in my own life who have become rich the slow and steady way. John is one of them. It’s true I’ve known a couple of people who inherited wealth, and a couple more who achieved wealth via small business. But I’ve never known anyone personally who got rich quickly.

135 Comments