Andrew and Amanda Argue were both working for public accounting firms in Miami, Florida, when they met. As young, ambitious professionals, they fell right into the hard-charging lifestyle of certified public accountants — where your rapid ascension to partner is determined by the number of hours you rack up. Managing their career trajectories meant that eating out became the norm because, as Amanda put it …
“There was no way I was going to work 80 hours and then come home to cook.”
Andrew brought $55,000 of student loan debt to the marriage, which he never thought twice about. Amanda had no debt, and it was only after they were married that she discovered Andrew had his.
[Editor's correction: Amanda had no debt, and it was only after they were married that she realized what Andrew's student loan debt would mean for their budget.”]
Andrew explains, “We never considered it important to talk about money before we got married. We were making so much money that we just assumed it would take care of everything.”
There was no thought given to building their savings account balance or keeping a budget. Why should they? They had a healthy stream of income and expected they could just deal with any situation life could unexpectedly cast their way with a credit card if it was absolutely necessary.
Life began to unravel
Things went so well that Andrew decided to branch out and start his own business. He understood that new businesses don't become successful overnight, but Amanda still made good money and their business didn't require much capital investment at the start. Building their future with their own business seemed like a no-brainer, so he quit his job to devote himself fully to the venture.
“We were spending money carelessly,” Amanda admits, but it never caused any concern until Andrew noticed that making his student loan payments was getting more difficult. Their savings account, never fat to begin with, was quickly moving into the red.
So, one night Andrew suggested that perhaps they should skip the next golf outing with friends. “Why?” she asked. That's when she learned about the $55,000 sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
[Editor's correction: They had been discussing the difficulty with their budget and that's when Andrew suggested that perhaps they should cut out golf as a way to deal with the $55,000 sword of Damacles hanging over their heads.”]
“Let's talk about it”
At first, she was not impressed. “You mean I'm the main breadwinner, and I'm the one who has to give up my golf? I'm not the one who brought this debt into the marriage. And now I'm supposed to cook so we can eat at home?”
Fortunately, that's not where it ended. When they got married, they chose matching wedding rings, both of which have an inscription: “Let's talk about it.” It reflected a commitment they had made before getting married — to keep no secrets and to have enough faith in the relationship to talk everything through until they arrived on the same page.
This was not a short discussion, as you can imagine.
This is the second in a series of articles looking at American families who are saving major dollars on real-world incomes. Last week: Steve and Arnette Economides. Next week: Thomas Frank of Des Moines.
Persistence finds a dream
It took time, but eventually their discussions led them to a central question: What do we want from life? What is our dream?
They realized that they had never spelled out in detail what “making it” looked like for them, but they both agreed that making partner wasn't worth the hours and sacrifice needed to get there. As they continued to talk, it became clear that, in some way, the nucleus of their dream was independence. Exactly what independence looked like, they still needed to flesh out — but Andrew's business (thebeancounter.com) clearly fit right into that.
Something had to change
In order to get there from where they were, they realized they needed to make some drastic changes. Both were appalled when they looked into the savings account mirror and realized they had nothing, despite their very comfortable income. They immediately applied their accounting knowledge to their own situation.
“It's amazing how people like us can dissect a client's finances in detail and still be clueless about our own.”
There was nobody they could talk to in order to get counsel. For the most part, their circle of friends did not subscribe to this new view of theirs — and besides, nobody ever talked about money.
It wasn't easy, but they changed everything they were doing, swiftly and totally, analyzing each and every single transaction to discover their spending patterns.
They settled on an over-arching principle for spending: Expenses = Income – Savings. Before any dollar was spent on an expense, they removed 10 percent of their income which was automatically transferred into a savings account not to be touched.
Here's how they did it
They started an emergency fund. Their first step was to open a savings account for an emergency fund that would cover three to six months of their expenses. For them, that meant they needed to save roughly $13,000.
They set a budget. They constructed a budget on a spreadsheet. Then they whittled it. Once they articulated their dream as independence, every expense was re-framed: How will this get us from here to there? Anything that would not help them reach the goal was axed without mercy.
They stopped eating out. The no-mercy rule meant they had to give up their fine dining excursions. It was the one thing they had truly become hooked on. Letting go of that was not easy, especially since Amanda was still working many hours a week.
After a few months, they realized they needed to tweak their system to protect them from themselves. They decided to draw their food budget out in cash at the beginning of every month. Thereafter, all food expenses, either grocery shopping or eating out, had to be made in cash. If the budget ran out before the end of the month, it was rice and beans. They allowed themselves no wiggle room on the budget. It took a month or two to bring their food spending under control, but they did it.
They stopped rationalizing. Socially, making the change wasn't easy either. According to Amanda, they found lots of push-back from their friends. She spent anywhere from eight to 10 hours on a Sunday preparing the next week's meals, including her lunches. When coworkers gathered up the usual posse to go to lunch, she would demur in order to stay within the cash food budget.
Invariably, the reaction was something like, “Oh come on! What difference is $10 going to make?” She knew. She knew it wasn't just $10, and it wasn't just one time. Besides, she was not going to waste the food for which she had sacrificed her Sunday.
It came down to the fact that those around them didn't want to “act poor.” But Amanda and Andrew looked in the mirror and said, “Hey, we are poor. No shame acting that way, especially if we know this is going to get us to the place where we aren't poor anymore.”
They relocated and redefined work. They moved from their expensive place in downtown Miami to a studio in suburban Orlando, where the rent and other living expenses were much lower. Andrew's business efforts started to pay off and they were able to pay off the $55,000 in student loan debt in 14 months. Then Amanda quit her job and started a business of her own too.
Amanda works the busy season (tax time) as a contractor — which brings in good money, but obviously only for a limited time. Their income wasn't as predictable as it was before, but their strong budgeting discipline allowed them to save between 30 to 50 percent of their income over the next year or two.
They got even more creative. As they became more experienced in saving money, they became more creative. They kept discovering more ways to live frugally and, since both their businesses were online, they could live anywhere.
For the past year or so, their place of residence has been AirBnB. They've lived in various places, and are considering sites in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. But at the moment, they are renting a house atop a mountain in Costa Rica, for less than $1,000 per month. The longer they've been on AirBnB, the better they've become at sniffing out the best deals.
Philosophies underpinning success
Andrew said, “It's not easy to look into the mirror and own up to your own bad behavior.” However, they discovered they had one thing in their favor:
“Our behavior was our worst problem; but fortunately, that's the one thing we had the most control over.”
When we asked Andrew and Amanda about the philosophies they felt led them to success, they said that they:
- Realized they were “suffering death by a thousand cuts.” Nothing they did was radically expensive or outrageous; but everything added up — and it added up to a lot. They never went into debt because they made enough money, but they didn't save.
- Looked the fear of “acting poor” in the face. They acknowledged that they are poor and then embraced a plan to put an end to that.
- Didn't get out of debt until they made it a top priority. Then they got out of debt fairly quickly.
- Analyzed their spending. Their equation for spending became Expenses = Income – Savings. Then they made cutting their lifestyle to the bone a major stepping stone to future success (not something to be endured for some undefined feeling of “doing the right thing.”)
- Became creative. They kept asking what else they could do which would either cut expenses further, expand their horizons more, equip them with more skill, or some combination.
Along the way, Andrew and Amanda discovered two kinds of reaction to their radical approach to personal finance. Some people shut down the conversation and change the topic. Usually, those are the ones who feel guilty to some degree about living a high-debt lifestyle, but they aren't ready to confront their own situation.
Most people are intrigued, though, and want to know more. Many are relieved to have the topic of money brought into the open. They want to know how they can get rid of their debt monsters; and when they hear how Andrew and Amanda killed $55,000 of debt in little over a year, they become all ears.
The future is bright
Amanda said, “Through it all, we learned how to communicate to each other much more openly than before. We began to build a strong foundation for our marriage and continue to be thankful that we learned this process early on.”
Andrew and Amanda are still young. They still don't know where they will settle or what their life will look like exactly. They still haven't saved that much money, because it's barely been two months since they paid off their debt. Once they've achieved their next goal of owning a home outright, they will turn their attention to investing.
And, every step of the way, they will keep to their wedding ring motto: “Let's talk about it.”
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William Cowie spent 30 years in senior management (CFO/CEO) before retiring. He has a bachelor's, a master's, and a partial doctorate in management and strategy. Author of the book “The Four Seasons of the Economy,” William also assists medium-sized businesses in the use of the Four Season Strategy to help them capitalize on economic cycles. He runs two blogs: Bite the Bullet Investing (investing) and Drop Dead Money (the economy) and writes for several other blogs in addition.