This story is part of CNBC Make It Millennium Money The series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
Like many US immigrant stories, Hassam Sheikh’s journey west begins with a relatively small amount of money in his pocket – $2,000. When he moved to Orlando, Florida in 2016, his landlord wanted three installments of his $600 monthly rent.
That didn’t leave much financial wiggle room for Sheikh, especially when he started working as a teaching assistant at the University of Central Florida, making just $1,400 a month.
Perhaps that’s where his story begins: Sheikh came to America to pursue a doctorate in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Sheikh, now 33, suspects it was a move that would pay off even if he had a rough few years. “My financial life as a PhD student was a mess,” he tells CNBC Make It.
From the monthly stipend received nine months out of the year, Shaikh allocated $600 for rent and another $400 for food and put the rest into savings.
“I literally lived below the poverty line for four years, but it was a great experience,” he says. “If I had to do a Ph.D. again—to be at this point in life that I am now, I would definitely choose it again.”
Hassam Sheikh, 33, earns about $250,000 a year as an AI research scientist.
Since its inception, Ph.D. In his early internship program, Shaikh estimates he was able to snag around $10,000. These days, what he saves puts that number to shame.
In May 2020, Sheikh began an internship at an Intel lab that would turn into a full-time gig as a research scientist, about seven months later.
In addition to his $187,000 annual base salary, Sheikh receives bonuses and stock compensation that, in 2023, will earn him about $250,000. From the start of the year through July, between contributions to his 401(k), individual investment accounts, employee stock program and health savings account, Sheikh has saved $87,000.
Sheikh’s relationship with money has not always been so bright. Growing up in a middle-class family in Lahore, Pakistan, finances were a constant topic of discussion, he says.
The questions of having enough money and how to earn more money were, “Actually, it was not a topic of discussion. It was always the most discussed topic in the house,” says Shaikh.
For much of his life, the name of the game for Sheikh was working for high-paying jobs and discipline when it came to how he spent his money.
“I’ve never been on a holiday in my life – not even as a child. I don’t know what a holiday is,” he says. “We basically focused on needs all the time. I felt like I was always programmed to look for needs.”
For Shaikh, that meant feeding, sheltering and clothing himself while studying. He completed his Bachelors in Computer Engineering from University of Lahore in 2012 and directly pursued Masters in Advanced Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from University of Manchester. After a short stay in Pakistan, he went to the US to pursue his doctorate.
“I spent my entire youth, my 20s, in education,” he says. And because of his emphasis on living frugally and never going into debt, “I never really enjoyed it.”
Sheikh has bought three cars since moving to Orlando, each time negotiating a higher interest rate and lower sales price. He usually pays them in full within a few months.
These days, he finds things more enjoyable.
On his full-time salary at Intel, it took Sheikh just six months to save $60,000 — enough for a down payment on a 6-bedroom house in Orlando, which he bought in 2021. He shares his home with his two cats — Deborah Donatella and Diana Wintour — and occasionally rents out rooms to UCF graduate students to help offset the $2,300 monthly mortgage payment.
His car – the third he’s owned since 2021 after two trade-ins – has been paid for in full. He negotiates a higher interest rate on his car loan in exchange for the dealer lowering the selling price every time he makes a purchase. Once he signs the contract, he pays off the entire loan arrears within a few months.
Sheikh manages his spending on six credit cards in hopes of maximizing his rewards.
Observers could be forgiven for thinking that Sheikh these days considers money management a game. He thinks about things a little more scientifically: “For me, I would say it’s an optimization problem.”
Here’s how Sheikh spent his money in July 2023.
- Housing and Utilities: $2,728 between his mortgage payment, homeowners association fees, internet, water and electric bills
- Home Improvement: $2,329 for materials and tools for DIY home projects
- Savings and Investments: $905 deposited into his 401(k), HSA and ESPP accounts
- food: $611 for groceries and meals
- Health Care: $330 on medical treatment and prescriptions
- Transportation: $289 on car insurance, petrol and tolls
- Discretionary: $213 on airfare, plus a few miscellaneous purchases for his mother, who visited and stayed with him in July
- Pets: $165 on food and supplies for his cats
- Subscriptions and Subscriptions: $41 on gym membership, Amazon Music and Google Storage. Other subscriptions like Peacock and Walmart+ are included in its credit card benefits.
- phone: $23
The two line items at the top of the list may surprise you: the relatively small amount Sheikh made in July and the total amount he spent on home improvements.
Some of Sheikh’s savings are set on autopilot in the form of paycheck deductions. Each pay period, Sheikh contributes 15% of his income to Intel’s employee stock purchase program, which allows him to receive shares of his company’s stock at a 15% discount to the market price.
To get the maximum matching contribution offered by his employer, Sheikh contributes 5% to his 401(k). It is also enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, a type of insurance plan that allows employees to contribute to a tax-advantaged health savings account. Sheikh puts 2% of his salary into his HSA.
Sheikhs make other contributions to their retirement accounts at irregular intervals throughout the year. In February, for example, he purchased $40,000 worth of certificates of deposit with different maturity dates. In April, he deposited $10,000 into his personal brokerage account.
All told, he aims to save at least $100,000 a year in his investment accounts. Then, once he’s taken care of other needs, like housing, utilities, and transportation, he’s happy to spend on fun things.
Sheikh’s version of fun is lots of trips to Home Depot and Lowe’s. When he’s not working on machine learning, he’s probably working around the house. His most recent project: a patio paver path, complete with light fixtures. His all-time favorite: a gateway for his cats designed to look like a miniature castle.
Sheikh’s favorite DIY project: a cat door, which Deborah Donatella, one of the two cats he owns, is using.
“What gives me the most joy is that I love to build things with my own hands. It gives me a lot of joy,” says Shaikh. “Seeing something in physical form gives me so much joy. So I try to build everything myself from scratch.”
It occasionally requires special tools or materials. No matter, Sheikh says: “I just bought a stone cutter to cut three stones with a diamond plate. The whole thing cost me about $500. I’ve only used it once and it’s still in my garage.”
The same approach applies to cooking. Sheikhs are happy to buy gourmet ingredients or kitchen gadgets if they are allowed to recreate recipes from Michelin-starred restaurants.
“For me, there’s always a dish that I’ve been trying to recreate for two to three weeks,” he says. “So that particular substance becomes my obsession until I reach a point of satisfaction.”
Sheikh’s extraordinary annual savings are steps toward his ultimate goal of saving a total of $10 million. Once he reaches this figure, he hopes to retire early and live off his investment withdrawals.
That means eventually having to take that vacation.
“I’ve always had a goal to buy a big RV and tour the United States to as many cities or states as possible,” he says. Earning $10 million “will allow me to travel as much as possible without sacrificing quality of life.”
Sheikh is a prodigious saver, but also happy to spend when it comes to tools and gadgets for DIY projects and preparing fancy meals.
That is still several years away. By mid-August, assets in Shaikh’s investment accounts totaled about $270,000.
In the meantime, Sheikh wants to expand his social life (many of his friends and classmates have moved out of the Orlando area, where he still works from home) and continue his research, which he finds fascinating but not world-changing.
“Unlike most people (in high-powered STEM fields), I don’t have any lofty goals of solving world hunger or solving cancer,” he says. And given the trouble it took to get to where he is now, “I think I’ve put in a lot of work. And for me, I want to enjoy the rest of my life.”
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