living with money

‘I Saved $100,000 in 3 Years’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

When she was right out of college, Tori Dunlap, a digital marketing manager based in Seattle, set an extreme goal for herself: She wanted to save $100,000 in three years, by the time she was 25. She recently hit that number a year ahead of schedule. So, how did she actually do it — and still manage to lead a semi-normal life as a 20-something in a major city? It certainly helped that she graduated from college debt-free, which gave her a big leg up. She also made extra money from a side business that she spun out of her savings strategy, Her First $100K. Tori admits that she’s an outlier — two-thirds of U.S. college students graduate with student loans, owing an average of nearly $30,000. And while most of us can’t exactly replicate her plan, it does show that simple savings tactics can pay off in the long run. Here, she talks about staying motivated to put away nearly 30 percent of her income, and how she says no to things outside her budget. 

What made you decide that you were going to try to save $100,000 by the time you were 25?
When I was 22, I read an article about a 25-year-old who had saved $100,000. At the time, I was making $55,000 in my first job out of college. I crunched my numbers and was like, Okay, if I hunker down, I think I can do that too. I was raised to be serious about saving money. When you have control of your money, you have the freedom to leave a relationship you don’t want to be in, or quit a job you hate, or donate to causes you believe in. But I also knew it would be tough — I’ve never made a six-figure salary, and I live in an expensive city.

Did you ever have doubts that you were going to make it?
Oh, yeah. About two years ago, I took a new job with an $80,000 salary. But it ended up being a very toxic place, and I had to quit after ten weeks without another job lined up. I was unemployed for three months, and I had to live off my savings. I started my current marketing job in March of 2018. I was making $70,000 at first, and now I’m making $77,000. I also make additional income from my side hustle offering money and career coaching workshops online — in the past couple of months I’ve made about $8,000 net.

Okay, so, how did you actually do it?
Right now I’m saving 27 percent of my paycheck. It’s automated so I never even see it. I gradually increased up to that number, and it gives me enough flexibility to do the things I want while also hitting my savings goals. Most of my money is in the market. I have a six- to eight-month emergency fund that is liquid, about $12,000. The rest of it is invested, either in a retirement account or a non-retirement brokerage account. I’m mostly invested in VTI [Vanguard’s exchange-traded fund]. I use Personal Capital to track all my savings, and I look at that balance every day. It’s a little bit obsessive.

What do you do when you really want to buy or spend money on something? Do you ever feel too strict with yourself, or wish you could splurge?
I used to struggle with spending money in general — I would tell myself “no” all the time. I didn’t want to go out to eat because I was used to the mindset of, why would you spend money at a restaurant if you have food at home? If it was someone’s birthday dinner or something, I would have to mentally prepare myself for the bill.

Eventually, I realized it was worth it to me to spend money on certain priorities, as opposed to trying to spend as little as possible all the time. I have three “value categories” — the three areas in my life where I get the most joy and I’m willing to spend money. For me, it’s travel, eating out, and nesting. I buy a lot of plants, throw pillows, and stuff like that to make my apartment cute. I live alone, which I love, and pay $1,450 a month in rent. Stuff like clothes, coffee, and makeup are not as important to me, so that’s not where my money goes.

Is it hard to say no to friends who want to do things that involve spending money?
I’m clear about setting boundaries with money and relationships. If somebody asks me to go do something and it costs more than I’m willing to pay, I just say, “Hey, that’s not in my budget right now.” Or, “Instead, can you come over and I’ll make you dinner?” I do that all the time — I’ll have people over and make chicken and sheet pan veggies, or a Thai curry, or fancy grilled cheese with rosemary bread and olive oil and tomato soup. It sounds basic, but people love it. I think it’s about making it clear, “Hey, I value you. I want to spend time with you. Let’s take a walk in the park or I’ll cook you a meal,” as opposed to going out and spending $100 a night at a restaurant, which is easy to do just being social in a big city.

Tell me how you grew up around money. What values and habits did you learn from your parents? 
My parents are both extremely frugal. My dad is a salesman for a truck company, and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I’m an only child, and they planned and waited longer to have me so that she could leave the workforce when I was born.

I never got an allowance — I had to earn my own money. When I was 9, my parents helped me start a business with candy machines, the kind where you put a quarter in and get a handful of candy out. My dad gave me a loan to buy my first one, and I had to use my earnings to pay him back. Then I saved up to buy a bunch more on Craiglist. I put them in local businesses in Tacoma, where I grew up, and restocked them every month. It’s not like I was making tons of money, but I got to keep 10 percent of the profits, and the rest went to my college funds. I probably made about $10,000 from it total, over 11 years.

Did you have to take out loans for college?
I never had student loans, and I know that’s a huge privilege. I got merit-based scholarships and worked three jobs during school. My parents also did contribute financially to my college education. We would sit down before every semester and they would say, “Okay, how much are you contributing? Here’s what we can add.” It’s definitely important to acknowledge that I would not have been able to save $100,000 as quickly if I’d been paying student loan bills.

Does your outlook on money affect your dating life?
Yes. I recently went on a couple of dates with a guy, and on our second date, we started talking about credit scores. So I asked him what his credit score was. It was not an interrogation — the topic just naturally came up. But he still gives me shit for that. He’s like, “You asked me my credit score on our second date!” And I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t see why that’s insane.” Maybe that scares a lot of men off, but those are men that I’m not interested in dating.

How do you talk about money in your relationships?
If you’re friends with me, we’re going to talk about money. This might sound weird, but I think we should have these conversations. If you’re willing to talk about sex with me, you should be willing to talk about money with me. I’m more private about my sex life than I am about my money. I’ll tell you what’s in my bank account before I tell you what happened last night.

‘I Saved $100,000 in 3 Years’