How to Change Your Life in 5 years or Less

By | 2016-08-15

If you are unhappy with your financial or career situation, read this post and start today. You can change your life in 5 years or less without working 100 hours a week and eating ramen noodles.

I remember sitting down my second week of full time professional work listening to managers give speeches about how they advanced their careers. Most of them had been at the company around 5 years and each speech started the same:

“5 years ago I was sitting where you were, hearing a speech similar to this”

Being the young naive recent college grad I was, these stories were dismissed. There is no way I was going to take 5 years to be successful. I went to college, everything was going to be easy from here on out.

Reality Check

Not long after those speeches, my first Student Loan payment was due (as I took “advantage” of the 6 month deferment). Other bills started coming in and reality struck.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out I couldn’t party all weekend, afford my modest rent and insane student loan payments on my salary. My future wife was going to be moving down to the cities in 6 months and we were going to be stuck in a tiny bedroom in the basement of my buddies house.

We wanted to buy a house, but didn’t have any money saved up for a down payment. Our net worth was close to -$100,000 (without a mortgage) and our incomes were well below average for college graduates.

5 years later, our life looks a lot different. I would like to say that it has been the result of “hard work” but that wouldn’t be accurate. Over time, we figured out how to make money work for us, and more importantly how to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

Read on if you want to see how you can change your life for the better, in 5 years or less.

Face your situation

Are you ignoring your situation hoping that it goes away? If you don’t organize your finances the compounding effect will be in the wrong direction. Debt doesn’t disappear, money doesn’t show up in your 401k account and your spending doesn’t slow if you leave it unchecked. This is a huge step, don’t hide from it.

The 3 questions you need to ask yourself in this stage are

  • Where is your money going? Conduct a spending review every month, figure out what areas you are willing to cut out and get to work. If you are interested, you can see our spending review process in this post: Holding Ourselves Accountable: Credit Card Edition
  • How much debt do you have? If you don’t know, figure it out now. Gather the balance, interest rate and monthly payment. Stack rank from highest interest rate to lowest.
  • Is your money being deployed to the right spot? Make sure your investments are in line with your risk tolerance and age. There are a ton of recommendations out there. I will break this down further in another post, but our mix is 60% US Stocks, 10% bonds, 10% alternatives, 20% International. Thanks to Personal Capital for making it easy to monitor.

We were $95,000 in debt (mostly student loans), were making below average salaries and were only saving/investing around 3% of our income. 

Take Corrective Action

Taking corrective action starts with a plan. The first decision you need to make is if you need to tackle your debt or increase your saving/investing amounts. Our investing to debt payoff ratio is 10:1, mostly because all of our debt is under 5% interest.

If you have credit card debt, I would start there. Credit cards are great tools when used correctly, but if you are carrying a balance the interest rates are sickening.

Setting weekly or monthly goals is key. They can be as simple as “spend $10 less every week for a month”

Other things to do in this stage:

  • Refinancing – Student loans and Mortgages are a good place to start
  • Credit Card – Make sure you have the right rewards card for you. We default to travel rewards, easy way to force travel on ourselves.
  • Avoid Common Money Mistakes – Avoid unnecessary debt, low interest rates on savings accounts, and overpaying for services

5% is my magic number for interest, you can read why in this post

Push your comfort zone


Investing is the cornerstone of changing your financial future. Without investment returns it is incredibly difficult to become Financially Independent or think about early retirement. This gains are small in the beginning, but don’t be discouraged. Use percentages to keep you motivated early on.


You can make the biggest strides in this area, increasing your income is the best way to expedite the results.

This area also requires the hardest work to get ahead. Work on delivering consistently, while expanding your skill set. Avoid short term pushes with long spells of mediocracy.

Side Hustles

Depending on your situation, free time or internal drive to speed this process up, you may want to start side hustling. There are 1000’s of posts about potential side hustles. This is the one area we need to expand on, as soon as this blog is established we will turn our attention here.

Don’t waste opportunities

This is a simple concept, every time you get a raise save at least half. When you payoff your debt, start investing the same amount. If you get a bonus, tax return or amazing financial gift – use at least half to improve your financial situation.

Consider time an opportunity, the longer you have to invest and let your money grow the better off you will be. Don’t waste time – take action today.

Most Importantly – Stick With It

The beginning is rough and deceiving. You will not feel like celebrating weekly or monthly wins, because they seem insignificant. Don’t get discouraged, it WILL work and even though you are expecting it – the results will surprise you.

The changes in our life have been amazing, but for the first 2 years we only focused on earning more. We didn’t push ourselves to save/invest or cut spending until about 3 years ago. It is exciting to watch us hit milestones that I didn’t think were possible.


Take Aways:

The actual “change” can be done in a short period of time. Put in 5-10 hours in a week you can put most of this plan on auto-pilot.

There is rarely a “Big Bang” event that will fix all of your problems. Huge promotions don’t fall in your lap, most people don’t hit home runs buying individual stocks. Small changes done consistently over time that can turn your life around. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can start.


Some products that can help you:

Sofi: I saved a ton of money using SoFI for a Student Loan Refinance. They were great to work with, the process was super easy (compared to my previous refi) and I got a great rate.

Personal Capital: Personal Capital has a ton of great Free features, you can track your spending, net worth and even analyze your portfolio. It has top notch security and I am able to connect all of my accounts. Saves a ton of time! (I may be compensated if you use this link)

32 thoughts on “How to Change Your Life in 5 years or Less

  1. Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies

    I’m really pleased that I’ve stuck with teaching. I’ve ridden out many storms — RIFed twice my first two years, including the DAY after I was rehired. Then, I took a $10k pay cut to switch districts. Because less pay is better than no budget for teachers. And you know what? It’s working out beautifully, especially when I employ the long view. All of your points are great, but I really like the stick with it part. I’m so perfectionistic that I always used to want immediate results.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Glad everything is working out for you – budgets for teachers/education seem to get cut too often. It is a tough profession and there is no way I could do it.

      Totally agree, sticking with it is super important and immediate results aren’t attainable (most of the time)

      Appreciat the comment Penny

  2. G
    Graham @ Reverse The Crush

    Great post!
    A lot of great advice here. I faced a similar reality check after school, however, the most my student loan ever reached was around $21,000. That’s the most negative my net worth ever was. I’ve never really had much debt other than a small amount of credit card debt. I really like how you said “face your situation” because that’s what must be done. It’s so easy to keep putting it to the side, but it will eat away at you and keep you up a night. It will steal your energy. But once you face it, you can break it down into 1 step at a time. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks Graham, Facing your situation can be difficult especially when it has gone unchecked for to long. Its crazy that people would rather stress about the unknown instead of facing their situation head on.

  3. Ty @ Get Rich Quick'ish

    The problem is that most of us want that big bang, the get rich quick scenario, which just doesn’t exist. But 5 years? Totally possible – and a quick’ish enough time frame for most of us to not get discouraged.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      I would definetely take a big bang event, the problem is you lose more chasing them

      5 years can seem like a long time, but it takes time for those little changes to add up. Thanks for the comment Ty

  4. Dollar Engineer

    Great post AE! My first big step after graduating and starting work was figuring out my 401k. I was contributing to it but didn’t have a full grasp on where the money was going. But I’ve got it figured out now and am much more comfortable with my finances. Developing a plan and system was huge for me.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks Dollar Engineer, my 401K plan was a mess. I have been tweaking it over the last 3-4 months to get it closer to where I want it.

      Taking time to put a plan and system is the only reason we have been as successful as we are right now.

  5. Amanda @ centsiblyrich

    “Small changes done consistently over time” – this is spot on! Many small changes made and practiced consistently add up to huge wins, especially when you’re looking at a 5 year time span. And, really, 5 years isn’t that long! Great post!

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks Amanda, appreciate the comment!

      It is amazing what you can accomplish if you stick with it. People burn out to quickly trying to change everything to quickly.

  6. Mr. PIE

    The simple factor of taking advantage of the 401k contribution match is lost on so many people. An example of a small step that is free money and goes a long way to investing in yourself and family. I should run the numbers what the match did for my wife and I over 17 years of contributions. I know the answer is large but the power only comes from taking that small step early. Rinse. Repeat. Stick with it. You just can’t lose.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      I have wondered about that as well – our match is pretty shitty at our current employer, but in the long haul it will still be significant. A little reward for building your retirement fund should never be left on the table.

      Thanks for reading Mr. PIE

  7. [email protected] Smarter Decisions

    You are describing something we learned a lot about in my doctoral program – incrementalism. Many changes that actually “stick” are done this way – and all of your descriptions on how to accomplish small change are excellent!

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks Vicki, unfortunately we went the trial and error route to figure this out. Better late than never

  8. Z
    ZJ Thorne

    I think the 10:1 investment to debt reduction ratio is brilliant for debt under 5%. I began last year with more debt than you had five years ago, but I am making incremental progress. Investing while doing this is showing me how things can work in my favor. My IRA has a nine point something percent gain during this time. I know the markets are at all time highs and are not to be counted until it is time to sell, but it feels good emotionally, which leads to better decisions. Actions compound on themselves.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Hey ZJ, thanks for commenting

      That is a huge gain in your Roth, and even though you are aways away from selling – seeing the progress does work as a great motivator. Incremental progress sticks, keep it up!

  9. Dividends Down Under

    Hey AE,

    Love this post and what you’ve said. It is so easy for people to make a difference in their lives if they put their minds to it. Although we’re young, we’re trying to do what you describe here. Particularly saving and investing in the right places. We just got a raise and we’re saving 100% of it (and other than children I imagine we’ll keep doing that until FI).

    From small things, big things grow!


    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Hey Tristan, Thanks!

      absolutely! Start small, and grow incrementally!

      The 100% plan speeds everything up drastically – I just looked back at how much we were saving monthly 5 months ago and it is significantly higher today because of how we used our raises.

  10. The Green Swan

    Great lessons from someone who has been there and done that! You serve as a great role model for many and a reminder that if you want change in your life, you need to be the change in your life…device a plan and take action. Thanks for laying out the blueprint, Mr. AE.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks Mr Swan, it is great to reap some of the rewards from making changes and sticking with it. Appreciate the comment!

  11. Matt @ Optimize Your Life

    Great reminder, thanks.

    “Small changes done consistently over time that can turn your life around.” I find this to be true not just with money, but with life in general. Small habits build over time and can make you into a whole new person.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Applies to many areas, I need to start it at the gym as well

      Thanks for the comment Matt

  12. [email protected]

    But working 100 hour weeks and eating Ramen noodles wouldn’t hurt? LOL – we actually do eat Ramen once in a while.

    Seriously though, we are planning to totally change our life, a little more than five years from now. If we keep at it, we should be able to pay off all of our debt and semi-retire. Those small changes and better habits can make a huge difference over time.

    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      If you can swing 100 hour weeks and Ramen Noodles everyday more power to you! We occasionally indulge into our college foods as well.

      That is awesome! Time can’t be wasted, the longer people wait the more pain they will have.

  13. Jon @ Be Net Worthy

    AE, this is great advice. Five years may seem like a long time, but it is really the blink of an eye. As someone who’s been in the workforce for over 20 years, I can tell you that the small changes you make over time really add up. Especially the effort at the office. Keep plugging away and doing your best and most likely, your hard work will be rewarded. Most people don’t have the motivation to keep the effort up at work and it is the biggest payoff by far.

  14. Linda @ Brooklyn Bread

    Great post. My husband and I were always struggling for money. Finally last year we decided to get aggressive, come up with a plan and get out of debt and we did it. We have been budgeting since and saving money every month. We have not felt that depressing feeling of being really strapped, putting things on the credit card. It’s amazing, we are not making more money but we feel like we are just because of being intentional and smart. It’s pretty cool when you realize you can fix your finances without your income going up. We all have more control that we think.

  15. B

    The biggest hurdle is starting. Once you do, it snowballs and life gets better by the day. Greta post ! Thanks.


  16. Financial Samurai

    I agree with everything you say. The key really is to just take action and do it long enough until there are results.

    5 years comes quick! Dang, it’ll be 5 years come March 2017 when I first worked a day job. What a trip.

    Cherish every moment!


    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      Thanks for the comment Sam – 5 years does fly by, it feels like I was just graduating from college and entering the work force.

  17. J
    Jen @ CuraDebt

    My reality check was when I got pregnant. I realized how I wasted a lot of opportunities that I had to save my earnings. I’m smarter and wiser when it comes to money now. Motherhood definitely made ma more mature money wise!

  18. Financial Samurai

    I did the small changes done consistently over time. Do just one thing a week, and in a year, 52 things are accomplished!

    I told myself back in 2009 that I would write 3 posts a week for 10 years straight. 2017 will be my 8th year and I plan to commit!

    You got to tell me more about your ice fishing hobbies or send some pictures now that winter is here btw. I’ve never been! Sounds cold 🙂


    1. Apathy Ends Post author

      It can be real cold, but we usually have a shelter and heat (sometimes we rent houses from people and the holes are drilled and its 70* when we get there.


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