Hey there! My name is Brandon Vagner, CPA, PhD, & Wallet Wit Founder. Today I am an Accounting professor, entrepreneur, business advisor, personal finance blogger, and a husband to a wonderful wife. That’s her up there in the picture. I married that beautiful woman 8 years ago and she has taught me a lot over the years. We’re a team with everything in life, but also with our finances…..and that is key! 🔑
Throughout this blog, you’ll find TONS of articles on how to save money, budget, make passive income, retirement tips and tricks, etc…I even have an article on how to start a blog, which I highly recommend you check out. This website/blog is packed full of great insights that everybody should have when it comes to personal finance and creating multiple revenue streams.
Back in 2014 I was working the corporate grind as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) for one of the largest accounting firms in the world, KPMG. It was an amazing job and after just making Manager, my upward mobility was through the roof. However, as I was climbing that corporate ladder, I decided to quit my job to pursue a PhD in business administration with an emphasis in Accounting. I always knew it was something I wanted to pursue, and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity. So, I took the plunge.
I definitely wasn’t ready for the lifestyle shock my wife and I were about to have. I also had no clue that I was going to fall in love with entrepreneurship and personal finance along the way.
Luckily, I discovered the power of online business right before I entered that PhD program and I fell in love ❤ with entrepreneurship. Building multiple revenue streams was important for us at the time because we just flat needed the money to live.
I always read stories about people making money online, but I had no clue how they were doing it. It just seemed like online passive income was only for those tech people, but once I started diving into it I discovered the average-joe can earn extra income online.
When I first started, it was all about just trying to kick in a little extra to help pay the bills ✅. As I’ll get into here shortly, we were living on a tight budget when I decided to quit my corporate job and pursue my PhD. Anything extra would have helped. Our finances have changed drastically since those PhD years, and we now view all of our business revenue as a means to help establish a solid financial foundation for ourselves and future kids. Keep in mind too that I’ve been doing this online passive income thing for a few years, but I’m just now starting to really see things come together and I’ll be sharing those insights with you here on this blog. So, you guys will very much be along for the journey with my wife and I.
Giving & Living the Simple Life
My wife and I are also really into giving, and we view our businesses as a way to increase our giving over time. We very much look forward to having more and more opportunity to help others in life whether that’s through the church, our scholarships, etc.. We both have the mindset of helping others through this crazy thing called life that we’re all doing together.
You’ll notice throughout the blog that my wife and I are all about living simple. We’re not into fancy clothes, big houses, etc…We like simple and happy. I’ve actually been throwing around the idea of a tiny house to my wife. She’s not quite ready for a house under 600 square feet, but she is still very vocal about not wanting a big house.
Prior to me quitting my great corporate job, we were living on a really healthy salary and we didn’t have to really worry about money, but boy was that about to change. I’ll walk through our debt obligations to give you an idea of what we were dealing with; I’ll then I’ll touch on what we had to do when our income dropped; and I’ll explain a little more about Wallet Wit.
Our House History
My wife and I purchased our first home in our early 20’s. It was a townhouse that we got a REALLY good deal on 💪. We were in the market for a house in 2010 when the economy was still suffering and houses in our area were extremely affordable. In 2005 the previous owners built the townhouse for around $200,000. We ended up purchasing it from them in 2010 for $149,000. That was the state of the St. Louis market in 2010. I felt really bad for everybody who was on the other end of things, but that just so happened to be when we were ready to purchase a home. The key with real estate is to buy right. Make sure you’re getting a good deal.
We currently rent that St. Louis property out for $1,450/month and we’re in the process of saving for a downpayment on our next home. Right now, we’re renting a house about 35 minutes south of Nashville TN. As many of you know, the Nashville Real Estate market is HOT 🔥. So, rent isn’t cheap, but neither is housing and we want to make sure we make the right decision on a house AND have at least 20% to put down so we avoid PMI.
Here is the interesting thing….Our townhouse was our primary residence for almost 8 years and then we recently decided to rent it out. We still owe $122,000 as of June 2018. Yes, I made the mistake of getting a 30 year mortgage when I was in my early 20’s. You live and you learn though. Anyhow, that debt is no longer our primary residence and our mindset has shifted to working as hard as we can to pay that debt down to $0.
Some will argue that we’d be better off putting that money in the market and sticking to our 30 year note term. I can understand that argument, but I’ll get into why we’re racing to pay down the debt in more detail within a future blog post.
Our Car History
Here is the 411 on our car situation. When I decided to go pursue my PhD in 2014 (age 28 at the time), we had both our cars paid off, BUT we weren’t driving anything fancy. I was still driving my 2002 Toyota Avalon, aka “The Blue Whale.” I purchased that car used in 2008 with 80,000 miles on it. If I recall correctly, I paid $10,200 for it. That was one of the best financial decisions I ever made. I’ll do an entire article on The Blue Whale so you can read all about my financial experience with it and why I bought that car. The Blue Whale is definitely worthy of its own featured article.
My wife was driving a 2007 Grand Prix that had about 220,000 miles on it when she got it. Her dad worked as a regional sales manager and was given the opportunity to purchase one of the fleet cars for cheap. I believe he got it for around $1,700, and he was nice enough to gift 🎁 it to my wife when she graduated with her Masters of Accountancy degree in 2011. Her parents are not car people and they didn’t want us swimming in car debt. So, they did what they could to keep us from spending a lot on a car. Their tactics worked! She drove that $1,700 car for a long time. I’m very lucky my wife isn’t into cars or what people think.
I had my car paid off by 2012 and we were enjoying no car payments…..that was until Kori’s car started having transmission issues in 2014 and we had to get something different for her. That is the risk of driving a $1,700 car. Keep in mind that this is right before I’m about to enter the PhD program. The time when our savings had never meant so much….
We bit the bullet and purchased a used 2007 Toyota Avalon because we had such great luck with my 20o2. At the time, Kori was commuting about an hour every day in St Louis traffic. She needed something reliable, because she was tired of breaking down on interstate 270 😮. Yes, that did happen to her. Anybody who knows St Louis traffic knows that breaking down on 270 during rush hour is the last thing you want to deal with. I felt so bad for her when that happened.
That said, we paid a little more than we wanted to in the hopes of getting a reliable car for her. We purchased the 2007 Avalon for $10,000. Now, let me first say that I’m a HUGE fan of paying with cash. I don’t believe in financing a car, BUT my mindset was slightly different back then (again, you live and you learn). The interest rate was so low that I only paid $168 in interest over 4 years. I did put $5,000 down and I financed the remaining $5,000 over 4 years. For clarity, we had the cash to pay it all off if we wanted to, but I knew there was a chance we would need most of our savings to help us survive the PhD years to come. So I went against everything I believe and financed half of it just in case we needed that other $5,000. That won’t ever happen again though, and I don’t recommend financing a car! ⚠
As I was heading into the PhD program we only had the mortgage and that small car payment every month. Thank goodness 🙌 for that!
I can’t tell you how many times I drove my wife to the car dealership lot trying to upgrade my 2002 Toyota Avalon, but she always reminded me that a car just gets you from point A to B. If it does that, there is no need for anything new. I completely agree, but it’s tough when you’re a truck guy and you’re driving a 2002 Toyota Avalon. I drove the Blue Whale for 11 years. Recently I did have to sell her due to major mechanical issues, but I made sure to buy a car I could afford (i.e. pay cash for).
We also kicked around other big purchase ideas like a boat, nice furniture for the house, and a bunch of other stupid things we didn’t really need. Luckily, we always decided that we weren’t in a good financial position to do that. Now, we could have easily gotten the loans to do so. That wasn’t a problem for us and it isn’t for most people, but we both came from an accounting background and we knew that financially those big purchases would have weighed us down. We couldn’t cash afford them, but we tried convincing ourselves we could payment afford them. If you can’t cash afford it, then you can’t truly payment afford it. Delayed gratification is a beautiful thing! No matter how many of your friends are purchasing nice things on payment plans…..Don’t try and keep up with the Joneses. Just don’t!
Navigating the Tough Financial Times – The PhD Years & Student Loan Discussion
In 2014 I got accepted to a PhD program 150 miles away from where we lived in St. Louis. That was the same year I was promoted to Manager at KPMG, but I knew I needed to pursue my dream.
The University was in a small town and my wife couldn’t find a teaching position there. So, we made the decision that she would continue to work and live in St Louis while I commuted down every week 😢.
Right off the bat, we had a big decision to make that would significantly impact our finances. I had the choice of getting an apartment 150 miles away or living with my parents for 3-4 days out of the week during the entire PhD program. Looking at our finances, I knew there was no way we could afford an apartment in addition to our townhouse in St Louis that my wife still needed to live in. So, temporarily living with the parentals was a go. Yes, I was in my upper 20’s and crashed at my parents during the week. I had to though to avoid debt. I was determined not to take out any student loans for the PhD program….DETERMINED
I almost forgot….I just mentioned my wife was looking for a teaching position in the town where the University was located, but if you remember from above, she graduated with her Masters of Accountancy. She ended up going back and getting her Masters of Education to pursue her passion of helping others. She hustled her butt off to get a graduate assistant position at Lindenwood University, which waived her tuition as a result of working as the graduate assistant. Talk about a financial life saver!
I’m going to do a blog post about how she hustled to get that graduate assistantship so you guys can use her same strategies.
Kori was out of the workforce for 2 years (2012-2013) pursuing that second masters degree and that resulted in us not being able to save as much as we prepared for my PhD pursuit, BUT she was much happier with her career.
How I Walked Away With No Student Loans
Speaking of no student loans, let’s pause here for a second and talk about that. The market was and still is only meeting about 20% of the demand for Accounting professors. So, the University actually paid me 👀 to get my PhD. Wait, what? Yes, you read that right. They paid me. I taught one class every semester; received a very minimal stipend; and the University waived my tuition. I could have jumped for joy 100 days in a row I was so happy. Anytime you can get an advanced degree and tuition is waived, you’re ahead of the game. That’s not the case for many and I know how lucky I am. I did, however, have to pay for fees every semester, which stung because we were paying with cash for everything. Fees weren’t cheap. It was somewhere around $1,000 every semester.
Sticking on the student loan subject, lets talk for a second about our undergraduate degrees. You probably picked up on the fact that we didn’t have student loans for both our undergraduate degrees. That was a result of a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
Coming out of high school, I had one goal and that was to play NCAA division I golf. As a kid, I played golf just about every day at the small course in our little 4,000 person town. I wasn’t very good at any other sport. So, I just put everything I had into getting good at golf. I wasn’t good enough though straight out of high school to get a NCAA division I golf scholarship. Because of that, I ended up going to a junior college that was ranked high and had a reputation for placing players at NCAA division I schools. That junior college gave me a scholarship that covered my first 2 years of tuition and I mowed yards to help pay for other bills. Since my junior college was 💯 percent covered by the scholarship, I didn’t have any student loans after my sophomore year.
After the junior college years, I ended up getting a 25% golf scholarship to a NCAA division I state University. I received other stipends and scholarships that covered about an additional 50% of my tuition and I was on the hook for the last remaining 25%. Luckily, that University was in state and very affordable though.
So how did I pay for that last 25%, which came to about $4,000 annually for 2 years. Well, my parents are HUGE believers in education. Because of that, they offered to cover the remaining 25% for me. Huge advantage and I’m very appreciative! Had I chosen a more expensive school and not received scholarships, I would have been footing a BIG student loan bill. That’s because my parents would not have chipped in much more than what they were. I knew that though and it played as a factor in where a chose to go. I wasn’t even considering $50,000/year universities. Not a chance!
I know I’m beyond lucky to have parents who were willing to do that for me. I definitely pay it forward now. Just this year alone, my wife and I paid out $1,500 in scholarship money to 2 very lucky students pursuing college educations.
Immediately following my undergraduate degree, I went straight into my Masters of Accountancy program, because I needed 150 credit hours to sit for the CPA exam, which is a requirement to make manager at any of the credible international CPA firms. So, there wasn’t really much of a choice. I had to pursue that masters degree.
Financing the degree was my first concern though. I began lobbying and interviewing for graduate assistant positions. I worked my butt off to land a graduate assistant position for my Masters program, because graduate assistantships waived 💯 percent of the tuition. I’m telling you guys, graduate assistantships are HUGE for your finances. Seek them out!
That’s how I walked away from my undergraduate and graduate degrees with no student loans. My wife’s story is oddly very similar to mine, and I’ll get into that now.
How My Wife Walked Away With No Student Loans
My wife also was a golfer 🚩 and on that scholarship track. However, she made a MAJOR mistake coming out of high school. She decided to go play for a private university that was only willing to give her a 25% scholarship. I’m sure you all are seeing $$$ signs right about now. Yeah, so was she. Now, she did have another scholarship ($4,000/year) she won from a local foundation, but it barely made a dent in those private university bills. She got so buried with tuition bills during her freshman year that her parents stepped in and said we’ll help you out, but you might want to start rethinking things.
She was very smart and decided to transfer to the same junior college I was at. She played golf for them and her sophomore tuition was 💯 percent waived because of the golf scholarship.
By the way, my wife grew up in a neighboring small town, but she also played golf at the same little course I played at growing up. That’s how we met and that course is a large reason as to why we’re talking so much about golf scholarships. Family memberships were well under $1,000/year and junior memberships were something like $300/year. It wasn’t like we were playing at a $25,000/year country club. This was small town golf, but we had a blast at that course.
My wife decided to focus on her studies her junior year and knew she had to give up competitive golf. She went to the same state university I did and she got the same exact undergraduate and graduate degrees I did. Her junior and senior years were funded primarily by her academic scholarship and her parents helped her fund the rest, which was about $6,000 annually. Her parents also firmly believed in education and getting their kids on a path to success. She and I both are very appreciative of their contributions to help her walk away student loan free with an undergraduate degree.
My wife took notice of how beneficial my graduate assistantship was and she worked really hard to get one as well to help pay for her Masters degree. As a result, her graduate tuition was 💯 percent waived and she walked away debt free after her Masters of Accountancy was completed.
I already mentioned above that my wife later went back and got her Masters of Education degree. Again, she worked extremely hard to get a graduate assistantship for that second Masters degree as well. Thank goodness, because 2 years of that private university would have cost us about $45,000. A little hustle can really save you big on education costs. Get a graduate assistantship if you can.
Cash Flow Emergency – Getting Acclimated to the New Income Level
The only reason we were able to even consider me quitting my high paying corporate job to go back and pursue the PhD is because we worked REALLY hard to stay out of deep debt.
So, here is the deal. I can admit that we didn’t live on a budget during the first 5 years of my professional career. That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Pure stupidity, and I knew better. I was working crazy hours at work though, and just didn’t think we would even have time to overspend.
I grew up in an area where people didn’t make much money. For some reason, I thought my big city salary would take care of everything and we didn’t need to follow a formal budget. Not so. We ate out waaaaay too much; purchaesd waaaaay too many $35 items; and my wife had a major love affair with Star Bucks. No, she wasn’t drinking the $2 regular coffee either. We were doing exactly what most of America does.
We were great about not taking on large amounts of debt, but we were not great about having a plan for every single dollar that came in our bank account. We just lived life. If there is anything you take from my blog, don’t just live life without following a budget! Make a budget. Know what you need for the future and where your money is currently going.
You don’t realize the significance of your lack of budgeting until something happens to your revenue stream. That’s when you begin to see your cash savings start to decrease and you realize you really messed up. At that time, you also begin to realize that had you had a budget, you would have waaaaay more in savings. That’s why it’s so important you get started on a budget TODAY. So that 5 years down the road, you have maxed out your savings potential.
We were 💯 percent in denial in the beginning of my PhD program. We started with about $30,000 in cash savings. That’s not including the minimal amounts we had in our retirement funds. The first year in the PhD program, we just continued eating out like we always had and not living on a detailed budget. I did notice the account decreasing every month, but it didn’t seem like a lot at the time. I think my brain was so used to seeing the account increase every month from my old corporate salary, that I was in some way hoping that magically the account would go back up. This is that denial I was talking about.
After about 6 months of this, I finally sat down and worked through our budget in detail. It was a disaster. We had so many leaks it wasn’t funny. Cash going to all kinds of “little” stupid stuff, but I also realized that even if we lived on a VERY strict budget, we were going to eat into our savings every month. Not by much, but it wasn’t like we were going to be building our savings or even maintaining it. The problem though…..I couldn’t have anticipated all the one off things that came up during the PhD program that resulted in us having to shell out a good chunk of cash. That is what really hurt us and made me appreciate budgeting at a whole different level.
Long story short, we had all kinds of one off bills hit us over the next couple years. The cars breaking down, things with the house, etcs…. The list goes on and on. I’ll also say that we decided we were going to go on one family vacation every year. We had already built that into the budget and were ok with losing $1,500/year to enjoy time with the family. That along with all the other one off items quickly took a toll on our account.
Looking back, we could have gotten our family time without going on $1,500 annual vacations. If I could do it over again, I definitely would have tightened up our vacation budget.
I’ll never forget when we got down to our last $1,474. Yup! $30,000 in savings down to $1,474. That was over two years, but I still had something like 8 months still to go before I would be receiving a paycheck from the new job, and we had TONS of costs that we had to foot upfront to make the move for the job.
My wife and I both sat back and just looked at that account balance in amazement and promised each other we would ALWAYS live on a strict budget from that day forward and we continue to avoid debt at all costs, because we knew how important it was that we didn’t have major payments hanging over our heads. We also discovered that we needed a new age way to live on a budget. We had set a budget, but we were still struggling to follow it to a “T.”
We ended up doing what I never thought I’d have to do. We resorted to credit cards. Over those next 8 months we had accumulated around $8,500 in mostly credit card debt. Most of it was just to live, pay bills, and get by. Being in that financial hole was one of the worst feelings. To some that might not sound like a lot, but that’s a heck of a lot of money.
Paying Off Debt
As soon as I started getting paid for by my new job as a professor, we tackled that debt with everything we had. I worked my butt off to earn a job that pays really well, and we were very fortunate that my salary was able to pay that debt off quickly.
I’ll say though that not many families that earn a good salary tackle their debts head on like we did. It’s a huge mistake if you’re one of those families not putting your debt as priority #1. I know multiple people with $100,000+ in non-mortgage debt that just pay the minimum payments and continue to get in more debt while they travel and spend like there is no tomorrow.
The best thing that ever happened to us, was having to learn to live off of less. I learned so much during that period of my life. I’m not sure I would have ever really learned to follow a strict budget if I had stayed in that corporate job. I’m very thankful that I got to experience my personal income dropping from around $85,000 to $18,000. Those PhD years taught us so much about personal finance, but it also motivated me to really dive into retirement planning and creating multiple revenue streams, which I’m excited to share with the Wallet Wit readers.
I now have such an incredible handle on our personal finances that we’re able to save large amounts of income every month. We don’t just save large amounts, but we know exactly what to do with those savings to have the money work for us via smart investments. Yes, that’s right. By investing in the right things, we’re able to realize great returns, and it’s a wonderful feeling knowing that your money is going to work for you. I’ll talk more about our investing approach in future blog posts.
Side Note: I can’t recall exactly what my new salary was as a Manager at KPMG, but it was right around the $85,000 mark mentioned above. I just want to make sure you guys know that number might be off by a couple thousand either up or down. I had just been promoted and knew I wasn’t sticking around. So, my focus wasn’t on the salary I wouldn’t be seeing.
Online Businesses Income
So, you’re probably wondering about the online businesses. Why wasn’t I rolling in cash from these multiple online revenue streams? The first thing you have to understand is that online businesses take time and it’s important to pick the right online business if you want money coming in quickly. My wife and I both look at our businesses as long term investments and we know it can take years of hard work before you see good returns.
I was definitely working my butt off to try and make it happen quickly. I started out focusing on an affiliate marketing business model within the test prep industry. I was making good money, but I was constantly throwing my revenue back into the business to try and grow it. I could have easily taken my foot off the gas and had thousands extra in passive income, but I thought my big month was always right around the corner and I just kept spending capital to help attain that big month. $1,000/mo in revenue were common and I had months that spiked way above that.
Through that process I learned some really great lessons about affiliate marketing that I’ll reserve for a future in-depth blog post. There are multiple reasons why things didn’t take off super quickly, and it had a lot to do with the industry selection and the nature of affiliate marketing.
I’m very thankful though to now have multiple websites established and running like clockwork, but it took a massive amount of effort to get them to where they are. I learned a lot about online business, but one of the most important lessons I learned is to make sure you start a business that you can passionately blog about regularly. That’s why I started Wallet Wit, because I found myself studying personal finance at night for a few hours every night instead of watching TV or doing something else. I didn’t just do this for a couple months either. I consistently went down personal finance rabbit holes almost every night for years. So, I took that as a sign that I should start my own personal finance blog. I really really enjoy it, and I hope you can identify what gives you that kind of excitement too.
One thing I’ve learned is that opportunities arise the more you just put yourself out there. For example, I’ve been a business advisor for a brick and mortar company for 5 years or so. I talk to the owner just about every week and I’ve really helped him think through business strategies and tackle some tough decisions. He approached me recently about being a co-owner in a new online venture he’s looking to do. He has all the vendor relationships and he wants me to bring the online marketing and website development knowledge to the table.
That opportunity would never have presented itself had I never just dove in and started learning online business from the ground up. I am 100% convinced of that. So, get out there and just start doing. See where things take you.
Who knows where things are going to go with our businesses, but I can guarantee you that I’m going to keep learning and pushing forward with online business. I should say though that I absolutely love my day job and the reward of teaching. I can’t imagine not doing that. That’s why online business and blogging for me is something I just do in the evenings and on the weekends. Instead of hanging out at bars and watching TV, I’m working on building and creating. That to me is fun, and I look forward to doing that for a long time to come.