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'Nobody blinked an eye': How the Navy taught this sailor financial discipline

Before joining the Navy, Tony Elion Jr. teetered on the brink of bankruptcy after years of overspending. 

Fast forward to today and he’s sitting on $250,000 that he earned in 13 months, thanks to money discipline he learned in the military and an assist from the book, “Personal Finance for Dummies.” 

Now he preaches the benefits of frugal living and smart investing.

“Before I joined the military I had very, very poor spending habits... it was about accumulating as many things as I could,” Elion, who at the time carried mortgages on two condos, paid $700 a month for a convertible Mercedes Benz, and purchased a timeshare at the height of the Great Recession, told Yahoo Finance.

“Everything was really stacking up,” he added. “I was working so much that I never had an opportunity to enjoy the things I was purchasing, because they were all purchased on credit. It got to a point where I said I can't sustain this, I need to hit the reset button.”

The navy brought ‘financial stability’

Elion turned to the military. He sold his Mercedes, rented out one of the condos, got rid of the timeshare, and enlisted in the Navy.

“I knew if I got in the military, then my housing would be paid for, my utilities would be paid for, health insurance would be paid for, and I'd get a paycheck,” Elio said. “If I could get that financial stability by being in the military, I could get my finances back in order.”

He said that one of the best financial aspects about boot camp was not being able to spend money. He still got paychecks, but because he had no access to the outside world, he couldn’t do anything with it. When he was through with boot camp, Elion had some cash on hand that went to paying down some of his debt.

One beneficial aspect of boot camp is that he couldn't spend any of the money he made while in the military, Tony Elion Jr. said.

When he was stationed in Japan, he learned another lesson about frugality. Instead of getting a luxury car like he used to have, he instead did what his other service members did: He bought a clunker.

“When most people get there, they're on a two- to three-year rotation, so you don't buy an expensive car,’ he said. “You don't buy a brand-new car. You buy a car that is maybe $500, $700, or $1,000 and it gets you from point A to point B.”

Elion said it helped that he wasn’t the only one driving around in a 1998 Nissan.

“Nobody blinked an eye,” he said, noting that he was also able to sell the car for $1,000 — what he originally paid for it — to a fellow Navy member arriving in Japan.

The lesson stuck with Elion when he returned to the U.S. He bought a car for $3,000 on Craigslist and still drives that same 2002 Ford Explorer Sport.

“I will never pay another car note,” he said. “If people don't like what I drive, as long as it's keeping me warm and getting me from point A to point B, that's all I care about.” 

‘I had to go to the library and learn’

Over three years while he was in the military, Elion accumulated around $50,000 in cash. But he had no idea what he should do with it.

“This is like having a helicopter, but you don't know how to fly it,” he said. “If you have a helicopter and don't know how to fly it, what's the point?”

So he checked out “Personal Finance for Dummies.” He worried that if he gave his money to an investor or brokerage firm, they would invest the money but he wouldn’t understand what was happening. He wanted to learn the terms and understand how investing worked.

Tony Elion Jr. learned how to manage his money after checking out "Personal Finance for Dummies" from the library.

“I don't know what they're doing, “he said. “I don't know if this is a good idea or a bad idea. I had to get myself up to date. I had to go to the library and learn.”

Elion figured out the basics: What the stock market does, how investments work, and how to grow your money. But once he got out of the military, he quickly went through the $50,000 — just not as irresponsibly as before.

He paid his rent for the year. He got that cheap car. He paid down his student loan debt. What he didn’t do was invest.

“I blinked and I didn't have $50,000 anymore,” he said. “All of the things that I had learned in the books, the investment books, I didn't apply any of it.”

‘Willy Wonka golden ticket’

Elion was still far from where he wanted to be financially. So he put his GI Bill to work for him.

“The way the GI Bill works is, it’s like the Willy Wonka golden ticket for military members,” Elion said, explaining that the bill will cover the full cost of attending a public university. Any scholarships you receive on top of that will be sent to you as a refund check.

Tony Elion Jr. called the GI Bill the "Willy Wonka ticket for military members." It allows veterans to get a free education.

Elion attended Penn State Law, where he also qualified for a scholarship from the school. Once he received the refund check for the scholarship, he first paid his rent and bills.

“I took the remaining balance of $20,000 and I invested that money into Amazon stock,” he said. In nine months, the share price doubled from $969 a share, when Elion bought it, to about $2,000 per share. Elion, then, was sold on investing for the future.

‘Fortunes were made and money was lost’

His investing streak hasn’t always been full of successes. When the stock market tanked on Christmas Eve in 2018, Elion got scared as his stock holdings fell $25,000 in eight hours.

“It was horrific because now the markets are closed, it's not opening for Christmas,” he said.  “You just have to wait to see what stocks are going to do. So, I couldn't focus on family, I couldn't focus on what was going on.”

The experience stuck with him and he ended up cashing out his Amazon stock holdings a few weeks later, scarred by the volatility. But six months later, the stock hit a new high and he lost $90,000 in returns by cashing out.

“Had I just held on and not been impatient and not been fearful,” he said. “Fortunes were made and money was definitely lost, so you have to be able to watch the ebb and flow of where stocks are going.”

Tony Elion Jr. wants to give back and hopes his financial journey inspires others.

‘Not just here because of the money’

Elion shares his personal finance journey and investing experience in a new book, “Sailor to Student: How I made a quarter of a million dollars in the stock market, and you can too” He’s toying with the idea of doing financial seminars across the country, especially speaking to veterans.

He’s about to take the bar exam and is interested in employment law, among other focuses. No matter what he does, he really wants to help people, especially on their financial journey.

“I'm not just here because of the money, I'm here because I'm passionate about what I'm doing,” he said. “Once you start to actually get free in your finances, it makes life so much simpler because you have the freedom to choose what it is you want to do, how you want to do it, where you want to do it, and why you want it done.”

Janna is an editor for Yahoo Finance and Cashay. Follow her on Twitter @JannaHerron.

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