Photo: Ajay Batra.

This is my good friend Joe Carroll dancing at my wedding last year.

It's OK to judge.

Many of the thoughts rolling around in your head are probably correct: He's goofy, perpetually single, and by most accounts immature for his age.

If you wouldn't trust him to pick you up at the airport as promised, you'd be right 50% of the time.

And in line with not understanding the concept of sleeves, he isn't big on following social norms or conventional thinking. Heck, his brain allows him to believe in Sasquatch, Catholicism, and UFOs all at the same time.

Is there anything he doesn't believe in? Yes ...

Delayed gratification
Joe's 38 years old, and on days that aren't paydays, his bank account balance is lucky to hit three figures.

If that doesn't surprise you, this might: At his job working with mentally challenged youth, he's actually very responsible. Having seen him interacting with his clients a number of times over the years, I can attest that he's darn good at what he does. He cares, and he's a natural. 

The job pays decently, and he works hard, putting in a good amount of overtime. His annual income isn't far off from that of the average Joe.

So where does the money go?

All over the place, but not where you'd think.

Joe doesn't blow his money in the standard, cliched ways. As you'll hear about soon enough, he shares housing. His car is a decade-old PT Cruiser that had to have come at a discount based on color scheme alone (a bright, unnatural shade of green, if you're wondering). He doesn't do fancy restaurants or bars. He has no addictions. You've seen his clothes. Vacations aren't elaborate -- he's flown only once (for work). And he can usually play his favorite pastime, Frisbee golf, for free.

Heck, he doesn't even pay credit card interest or fees, because he doesn't have a credit card. As he puts it, "I'm responsible enough to know I'm not responsible enough to have a credit card."

Since Joe isn't one for detailed paperwork, the best I can figure it is that there are three ways Joe drives that bank account toward zero:

1. Gas. Frisbee golf greens fees are free, but when one of your life goals is playing every Frisbee golf course in Ohio (surprisingly, there are more than 150 of them), you rack up some miles. He also loves driving his not-so-fuel-efficient car the two hours back to our hometown to get slaw dogs (a chili dog with cole slaw mixed in) or the hour south to get Ski -- the soda he drank at Boy Scout camp as a kid. Add in the occasional day trip from his home in Columbus to places as far away as St. Louis and Buffalo, and you can easily see how rising gas prices get to Joe more than to most.

2. Lack of impulse control. If you hear him start with the phrase "when else am I ever going to get the chance to," hide his wallet before he nickels and dimes his retirement away. Yes, he'd like fries with that. He'll also take that Mr. T nostalgia item and sign up for that tour of the haunted house while he's in the neighborhood.

3. Not paying attention. Forget reading the fine print; Joe doesn't even read the headlines. I've seen him get docked an entire week of pay because he didn't follow his job's vacation paperwork directions. I've also seen him pay more than $100 in Canadian roaming charges for a call lasting less than five minutes. Yes, that was after my clear, explicit warning that that would happen.

Throw in more colorful versions of the financial speed bumps we all face (car repairs, health problems, parking tickets, what have you), and Joe's always got an extenuating circumstance for why you can't cash his check just yet.

As you'd expect, playing his financial life that close to the razor's edge makes for many a mini-crisis. He's like the James Bond of getting by -- relying on his disarming calm and cheeky smirk in the face of danger. And a little help from his friends ...

Here's a slice of life. He rents a room from our mutual friend, Chris Costine. Since he can't trust himself to save up for a monthly payment, each payday he places cash equal to half his monthly rent on the countertop.

When Joe does pay on time (not a given), it's on Chris to grab the money off the counter before Joe runs into a crunch and self-approves a loan to himself.

His savings grace
But I promised to show you why, in the face of all this, he's better off than you'd think he is ... perhaps even better off than you.

He did it by by answering just one question correctly.

In 2002, in his late 20s, he began work at one of the two companies he currently splits time between. As part of the new-hire paperwork process, the HR guy asked him if he wanted to participate in the company's 401(k) program. Joe shrugged and said "sure" in the same way you'd say "sure" to someone offering you the uneaten half of their sandwich. You aren't really hungry, you don't particularly like tuna, but why not?

Perhaps predictably, he was enrolled at the minimum of 4%. But that seemingly small step did a lot. It took money out of his slippery, irresponsible hands and put it somewhere he'd be too lazy to access. It got him a few hundred bucks in free money each year via the company match. And it got him into the habit of saying "yes" to automatic savings.

About five years later, when he added his second job, their HR guy asked Joe the same question. This time, he ended up choosing to sock away 10% of his salary. When I pressed Joe, he said it was probably because the company had him meet with a 401(k) representative who suggested the higher percentage.

Today, he's still as irresponsible and cash-strapped as ever. As I write this, he has $60 in his checking account and $40 in his savings account. But thanks to that one good decision a dozen years ago, he's sitting on more than $50,000 in his retirement accounts.

Scroll back up and take another look at that picture of Joe. Are you really going to tell me you can't do better?

For after you contribute to your 401(k) ...
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Anand Chokkavelu believes in Joe Carroll, deep dish pizza, and everything on the Internet. You can follow him on TwitterWe Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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