Updated: Jan 6, 2020
It was an unseasonably hot day in late May in 2010. I was sprinting to the University administration building. My head had been pounding all morning because I was quite hungover. It was the day I would be receiving my degree. Naturally, I had been out celebrating with friends until the early hours of the morning.
Around 11:00 AM, I got a call from the finance department of the University. They informed me that the check I wrote them for the final installment of my tuition had bounced. If I did not pay them the $950 I still owed them, I would not be allowed to walk across the stage and receive my degree.
While my friends met up at our usual breakfast spot to nurse their hangovers and trade stories from the last 4-years of University, I was wracking my brain with any way I could come up with $950 on such short notice.
This was the first moment that defined my decade.
Christmas is no fun when you’re broke
The second moment that defined my decade was in a gas station parking lot around the corner from the house I grew up in. It was a week before Christmas in 2011 and my dad and I were in a heated argument.
My family was in the process of bankruptcy and the house that I had so many incredible Christmas memories in was being foreclosed upon. He had just borrowed money from a private lender, who as charging double-digit interest rates, to buy Christmas gifts.
“This is crazy!” I told him.
“I don’t give a Fu*k!” he shouted back.
This is the moment I realized things were not going to go back to the way they used to be. My “new normal” for the next several years could be best described by the constant tightness I felt in my stomach.
Rolling the dice
About 7 months after the gas station exchange I met one of my University professors for a beer. He was a mentor and by this point had become a good friend. I was lamenting about how much I hated my job working as a financial advisor. “Advisor” is really not the right term for it because what I really did was sell products. Specifically, products that I did not believe in. High-cost mutual funds and permanent life insurance. Two things I spend quite a bit of time urging people NOT to buy in my writing these days.
I must have sounded particularly miserable that day because he abruptly told me that I should quit my job.
“Why don’t you go back and do your Masters degree?” He asked.
“I don’t know if that’s the right move for me” I replied.
As miserable as I was in my job it was a job. I had been so stressed about money the past few years that I would rather cling to a paycheck from a job I hated than take a chance on something new.
This is what desperation does to a person. It keeps you thinking small. I was too worried about doing mental math if I had enough money to pay for my second beer than to think about moving across the country to pursue my Master’s degree.
4 beers later after my professor assured me that he could help me secure funding and a job at the university, I agreed to apply.
25 months later I graduated. This time, my tuition had been paid in full ahead of time.
My first big-boy job
In September 2013 I was sitting on my tiny, uncomfortable bed watching a movie on my laptop. I had completed my Master’s degree but my financial position had never been more precarious.
My funding and job at the University ended with my enrollment. The Contract I had as a data analyst had just expired and I had been fired as my third job as waiter (I may have lied about my experience waiting tables).
I had exactly enough money to pay my rent and cover my very meager living expenses for the month. If I did not find a job in the next 3 weeks I would be forced to catch a Greyhound back home. Which in my mind would have been a total failure.
Suddenly the phone rang and I had been informed I made it to the final round of interviews at a job in public policy. I knew at that moment I would get the job because there was no other option. I needed this job more than anyone else they were interviewing and I made that interview into my Superbowl.
I spent the next researching everything I could about the organization I was interviewing for. I found out my perspective boss completed the same Master’s degree from the same University I had just finished. I went back to the department library and found his thesis paper from more than a decade ago.
I read that thesis inside-out and even quoted his findings and dropped a copy of the thesis on the table during the interview.
The other applicants did not stand a chance.
Suddenly I had a strong salary, full benefits, and a Defined Benefit pension. This was the beginning of a new era of financial stability.
I had received the break I so desperately needed and that so many people never get. I knew I would make good on it.
Living like a student
Long before I discovered the concept of Financial Independence, I knew a simple truth; the only way to guarantee financial security was to keep my living expenses as low as possible. I knew all too well that things can turn on a dime. I needed to give my self as much breathing room as possible.
I spent the next two years living like a student.
My diet continued to be based around rice, peanut butter and other foods that had a low cost per calorie.I continued living in my crappy apartment with my two friends who were doing their Ph.D.I spent next to nothing on travel or any luxury goods.
I used nearly all of the money from my paycheck to build an emergency fund and then go all out on paying off my debt. I did not know it at the time, but I had just started down the path to financial independence.
Learning to be happy again
While living like a student and paying off debt at a rapid pace was putting me in a strong financial position, I would not say it was a particularly enjoyable period of my life.
In May 2014 I met my now wife. Of all the moments in the past decade (or my entire life) this is the most important because this represented a time when I began to feel happy again.
Fast forward two years to June 2016 and we bought our first house. I would like to say that I was feeling mostly feelings of pride in becoming a homeowner just six years after the house I grew up in was foreclosed upon. If I’m being honest, I was mostly happy to be accumulating more assets.
At this point, my $50,000 in debt was gone. Both my wife and I had workplace pensions and I began investing money in a personal account. Acquiring a house was a way to rapidly increase our net worth.
This was important because there is a direct relationship between our net worth and my continued financial anxiety. The more our net worth climbed, the less stressed I was about money.
In February 2017 we bought a second house. My parents needed a stable living situation so we dug into our savings to put a down payment on a nice fixer-upper family home for my parents to live in.
Playing with a lead
As we close out 2019 I am happy to report my financial anxiety is lower than at any point in the past decade. My wife and I are expecting our first child in February. She will be taking at least a year off for maternity leave. This means at least a year where we will not have her paycheck coming in.
As recently as a year ago, the idea of losing one of our paychecks for any amount of time would have had me breathing into a brown paper bag. Today, all I feel is excitement that she will be home looking after our son for a year or more.
To me, this is a reflection of the strong financial position we have put ourselves in. We could live on either of our incomes which is a huge luxury and the ultimate form of financial security.
It’s also a reflection of time. 10 years have passed since that day I was scrambling to pay off my tuition in time to graduate. A lot of moments have come and gone since that point. I sit here today knowing that if I could get through those moments on my own, my wife and I can take on any moments that come our way together.
With that, I am ready to bring on the 2020’s.