The road to financial freedom starts here
June 29, 2015
The following blog post is part of The Road to Financial Wellness Blog Tour. Over a period of 30 days, the Phroogal team will go to 30 locations to raise awareness about financial empowerment. Today they will be in San Francisco! Our goal is to help people learn about money by starting the conversation. We understand that local conversations can help bring about national awareness.
Fifteen years ago, I had $78 stashed into my (actual) piggy bank, a $1000 scholarship for college expenses, and an optimistic plan for my life: college, post-grad education, and a career.
Reality paid us a visit and in quick succession:
My parents lost their businesses after years of toiling 18-hour days, 365 days a year.
My grandmother moved in with us for end of life care.
My mom was diagnosed with a chronically debilitating disease (terminally, as it turns out).
My sibling, always irresponsible, started on his lifelong co-dependent relationship with debt.
And I turned 18.
Today, I’m happily married to the best partner I could ask for, have a wonderful dog and hilarious baby, and am nurturing a solid nest egg for our future.
I can hear “Well BULLY FOR YOU”. Hold on a second. I’m not gloating, and there’s a point to all this.
This wasn’t the plan. Any of this. I had a very clear vision of buying homes, getting doctorates, and there was nothing in there about getting married or having kids.
As my family fell apart, I coped by planning to take care of them, get them on their feet, then move on with the regularly scheduled program. Five years, tops. Five years turned into six, then seven, then eight. Around year 10, it sank in. This was it. There was no magic solution. Another $5,000 wasn’t going to cure Mom, or my brother, or get Dad a job.
This was my journey out of debt
I’m not sharing this to say “If I can do it, anyone can!” Though I would like to believe it, that’s too simplistic. While it’s true that if *I* can learn a new skill, almost anyone could probably also learn a helpful new skill but that doesn’t mean that my road is your road is the other person’s road.
I am saying that, given the inclination and a few resources, we can usually make the improbable happen.
These are some of the key lessons I learned, maybe sharing these will help someone avoid learning the hard way.
Debt is awful.
The tens of thousands of dollars in debts incurred over years of running their small businesses, some on credit cards and some in personal loans, meant that my parents were shackled to huge monthly payments forever and ever amen. Paying the minimum every month made them the credit card company’s dream. Sure, keep on paying 1% of the principal plus 27% of pure profit, make their day.
I used my as yet unblemished credit history to shuffle high (think, 27%) interest debts over to 0% interest credit lines, $5,000 at a time, to actually start paying down principal. Rinse and repeat several times.
With each credit card down, I tucked away a little bit more cash, so that the next time an emergency happened (and it would, many times), I wasn’t just jumping back into the black hole of credit card debt.
To this day, the only recurring debt that doesn’t give me the screaming heebie-jeebies is mortgage debt and that’s only because we have to live somewhere.
Making money usually means work.
It wasn’t always fun and it definitely wasn’t pretty. But the end result of working my tuchus off was surviving college without any debt, emerging with some savings, and even better yet, seriously reducing that debt.
Scarlett O’Hara had a point
I never (ever ever ever) wanted to go back to that so I maximized savings and income. Overtime was my best friend. So were coupons, credit card bonuses, and credit card rewards. Points programs for surveys? Points programs for email clicks? I was all over them. Every penny.
Negotiating raises and promotions was awkward and nerve-wracking but I dove in, flailing like drunken monkey. It stayed awkward but I kept trying.
Being poor sucks but it doesn’t make you a bad person
There was a certain amount of luck involved. There’s been a bit of help from people that I couldn’t ever repay. This is true of most people, even if they don’t know or acknowledge it.
But throughout it all, I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I hadn’t pulled off the Rescue. I was ashamed that my family I’d been so proud of for so long was unable, or unwilling, to do what was needed to fix our problems.
It didn’t matter that going from being a schoolkid to a student supporting a whole family in a single step was probably too large a leap. It didn’t matter that I had been traveling an almost parallel course of chronically declining health, with very few answers, even as I struggled to prop my family up.
It felt like our economic status was a reflection on me and if I didn’t want to be judged, no one could know our struggle or that we were poor. It’s strange living in a country viewed by many as the land of opportunity, particularly as the first generation of immigrants born here. You’re in the unique position of having been given a gift of life in one of the best possible places (a first world country rather than second or third) and you’ve got to make the best of that gift.
It’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right, either. I should make the best of winning the genetic lottery, yes, but the problems we faced, just because I had taken on the responsibilities, they weren’t my fault. It wasn’t my failure. That’s probably been the hardest lesson to learn.
The most painful conversation of my life was the one I had with my dad was the day before my wedding. I finally confessed that I felt unbearably responsible for Mom’s last years, for my brother’s inability to do life like a fully cognizant human being, for being unable to fix everything and everyone. The guilt I carried was worse than the heavy lifting of the work itself and I finally had to lay it down.
Taking our next steps
These days, it feels like I’m living the high life. Sure, compared to my regional neighbors (ahem, Silicon Valley), we’re pretty far down the economic food chain, but for me? We’re doing well. We can always do better and I’ll keep working at it because there is still so much I want to do. I love to help people with their finances, but on a larger scale, there’s still so many people out there that need help.
The better life gets, the more we can give back. Years ago, others who were doing well took the time to lend me a hand, to support or encourage me in some way that was small to them, but huge to me. This is a life cycle I’m proud to be a part of.