Free at last

This guest post is from Mary Newcome.

Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. 

I remember what it was like to live in my first apartment at age 17. Although not old enough to legally sign a lease agreement, I guess my full-time employment just days after graduating high school was enough to convince the landlord that I was responsible.

At first I was in heaven; freedom at last from my moody, mostly distant father and his girlfriend 24 years his junior. Let's just say a college fund was never in my future, much less financial support. If I was going to get there, anywhere, I had to get there myself.

It was not long before this new-found freedom wore off, replaced by loneliness, boredom, and the financial stress of barely getting by.  However, as I look back so many years later, I realize just how valuable this time in my life was and how much l unknowingly taught myself about being frugal, budgeting, financial independence and the desire to succeed that would catapult me to places I had never dreamed.

I did not own a car when I lived in my apartment.  I had wrecked it earlier by rear-ending someone stopped in front of me (we did not even have text back then — doy).  Although the car was paid for, the financial burden of that one stung since I had emptied out my savings account to buy it. I also now had to walk to and from work, five miles both ways (yes, in the snow and rain).  At the time, I did not see how much money I was saving by not having the car. I just knew that was a heck of a long walk.  I had no cable TV, no phone, and certainly no internet or computer.

At 17, almost 18, I barely made minimum wage.  During the early 1980s, a job was hard to come by to say the least, much less a full-time one like the one I had.  It was mind-numbing, repetitive, unskilled, and a dead-end street — but it covered the basics such as food and rent.  I remember cashing my check, paying my rent and utilities. and putting the rest in an envelope so that I could actually see what was left before the end of the month. There was no shopping at Macy's and no lavish vacations, just the day-to-day grind to fill that envelope so that I could pay the rent and do it all over again. I was dying. I had to do something.

At 19, I left my apartment and joined the Air Force.  I loved it.  It was the best thing I have ever done.  It filled a drive in me that I did not have the opportunity to fill anywhere else.  I loved the uniforms, the routines, and the endless educational opportunities. I loved all the studying and classroom time in basic training and technical school. I was actually using my brain again.  I also loved the fact that, if I wanted to, I could stay in the military and retire at 39 years old!!  I felt, once again, that I had made it and I was free at last.

Fast forward to age 24. I had met and married my wonderful husband, who was someone that shared the same financial goals as I. After two and half years of saving, we started our family and I separated from the military.  Before my husband and I made that important decision, we took a hard look at our finances.  In a word, for a young couple with a brand new baby, we were loaded. We were also completely debt free.

After our assignment overseas (our daughter was born in Okinawa and for years she asked why she was not Japanese), we were stationed in Tampa, Florida.  On my daughters first birthday, I went back to work accepting a part-time position at a credit union.  This started a career in banking that continues to this day.

I quickly learned that, to get anywhere in the financial sector, a bachelor's degree is typically required. So I went back to school and finished my four-year degree when our second child was 18 months old.  I look back now 30 years later and wonder where I got all the energy to work a part-time job, go to school full time, take care of two babies and keep up the house (I'm a clean freak).  I was busy, fulfilled. I had purpose, a lot of goals, and I was happy, happy, happy.

Our financial picture was something else, though. Over the years, I had become pre-occupied with climbing the corporate ladder and, although the military helped, they did not pay for my education. Saving and being frugal fell away and, before we knew it, we were like every other married couple we knew, in debt. We had a mortgage and a new car payment.  We still had some savings, but it was growing far slower than either of us had hoped, and we had NO retirement savings since we were counting on my husband's military retirement.

Then, after 10 years in the military, my husband also separated.  Haven developed Type I Diabetes while overseas (a weight lifter in perfect health with no history of diabetes in his family. Huh?) It just became too difficult for him to control his blood sugars while keeping up with the demands of military life.  We were at a brick wall.  What in the world would we do? And most of all, where were we going to go?  We knew we did not want to raise our children in a big city.

Fast forward two years.  My husband is working at the VA Hospital and I have begun my career in commercial banking at a community bank in my hometown in Oregon.  Neither of our jobs paid well; but combined, our two full-time jobs brought in about $50K a year.  We bought a very small fixer-up home, my husband drove a $500 Chevy Truck, and I continued to drive the car we bought in Tampa, which was now paid for.  I fell in love with Amy Dacyczyn of the Tightwad Gazette and, although I did not follow all of her advice, we once again started living frugally. We took lots of walks, tent-camped for family vacations, entertained friends at home instead of eating at restaurants and bought cloth at thrift stores.  We put our heads down, concentrated on our future, and never looked back.

Today, we are completely financially independent and debt free with a nest egg of over $1 million.  We own two acres in the country and each have about a seven-minute drive to work. My husband continues to work at the VA and I am still employed at the same bank, 17 years later!!  (This rarely happens, I know).  We could retire, but we really like what we do.  Our kids are grown and are both financially independent of us. Our daughter chose college; our son chose a meat-cutting apprentice program.  They are also debt free.

How did we do this? Go back to the first part of this article.  I truly believe that if I had not had those earlier experiences as a youngster living on her own with absolutely no financial support from either parent, I would have turned into a different adult. I did not know it at the time and I may have resented my folks, but those life lessons were invaluable. I shopped at thrift stores, ate healthy but inexpensively, cooked all my meals, walked instead of drove a car, and learned what it was like to stretch a dollar. This is something that followed me into adulthood and continues today.

What about you? What life lessons have helped you the most? What makes you free?

More about...Debt

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FrugalSage
FrugalSage
7 years ago

I am still early on in my journey, and I started later than most. But the two main things that have supercharged my chances are: – Diligent savings regime for the first few years of work – almost to the detriment of all else. – Avoiding debt, but still willing to utilize it when opportunities too good to pass up appear in front of you. Congrats on your journey. I hope you instilled the values into your kids. To be honest, i was hoping for a few more hints about what you’ve done along the path. There is an enormous… Read more »

mary newcome
mary newcome
7 years ago
Reply to  FrugalSage

Hello Frugal Sage, Thank you for your comments, you are right I did not give a lot of details because I did not want the article to be too long. It was not too hard to save $1 million if I really think about it. We sold our first home for a large profit due to all the home improvements that we did ourselves to include roofing, new kitchen cabinets, added a bathroom, landscaped, etc. We also bought some property in early 2000 and sold it in 2005 before the crash, making a profit of about $20K. We have always… Read more »

Chaz
Chaz
7 years ago

Thanks for your story and good job keeping the monster of consumerism at bay! You guys seem to have not bought into that consumerist ideology which too often results in the driving priorities in peoples’ lives turning into a chase for the perceived security of some nebulous, idealized lifestyle and the (often wrong)validation of choices made along the way in favor of this quest. A quest that too often ends in an unfulfilled life and the late realization that life consisted of what one “did for a living” and that the “good life” was never there to be purchased and… Read more »

Carole
Carole
7 years ago

This is really an inspirational story. The meat cutting apprenticeship sounds like a good career opportunity for someone who doesn’t want to go the college route. It would be interesting to know in more detail how they managed to accumulate so much money. I have a soft spot in my heart for people who make it on their own.

Mary Newcome
Mary Newcome
7 years ago
Reply to  Carole

Matt, We lived well below our means. Anytime there was an opportunity to earn extra money through incentives with sales promotions, I took it and we saved it. Because my husband and I have had the great fortune of staying employed with the same companies, our income has also grown. I am now a Vice President. We started maxing out our 401K as soon as we could and just let it grow. We have also had a long happy marriage (26 years), which has not been possible for a lot of people. There has been a lot of hard work… Read more »

Anne
Anne
7 years ago
Reply to  Carole

Yes, I really liked the story but wondered how they got from dirt poor to having a million dollars. That was a big skip!

getagrip
getagrip
7 years ago
Reply to  Anne

I wondered about the 17 years to 1M as well because that is a big accomplishment on $50K a year and having paid off a mortgage over the same period. I would guess either their income grew substantially and they banked a whole lot of it ($30-50K a year to get to $1M in 17 years) or they got very successful in their investments. Great accomplishment either way, just curious.

FI Journey
FI Journey
7 years ago

Thanks for sharing your story! As an “alternatives to college” kind of guy, I love reading stories of people who choose what they want to do BEFORE committing to college. It’s also cool to read about someone who has achieved FI while working a job they really enjoy. The best of both worlds!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I enjoyed this story because I see so many people (sometimes myself included, I confess!) who complain because this or that financially successful person had advantages that we don’t. At the end of the day, we all have to play the hand we’re dealt! Kudos to Mary – and thanks for the kick in the butt 😉

Petra
Petra
7 years ago

Diabetes type I is essentially an auto-immune disease where your body thinks the insulin-producing sells are foreign and need to be destroyed. And thus they are destroyed and do not produce enough insulin anymore.

Thus, it has very little to do with lifestyle or physical activity or how you eat.

It’s just bad luck.

(One source about this could be wikipedia, there’s a whole article about diabetes mellitus type 1).

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Petra

I’m glad someone mentioned this… I came back to comment the same thing.

The downside of society’s emphasis on prevention is that people who do develop chronic conditions are often seen as being at fault. Autoimmune disorders aren’t very well understood.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Type II diabetes is also apparently autoimmune.

Mike
Mike
6 years ago
Reply to  SLCCOM

Up to 2 years ago, I would normally agree with you…. until I tried low carb diet. 6’2″, 270lbs, 34 years old. Don’t smoke, but alot of extra weight on me, basically my whole life…. blah blah. Anyways, at my wits end, after hearing about this and researching it for several months, I decided to take the plunge. I started in May 2012, and within 2 months lost 30lbs. I’m down to 220lbs now, having lost 50lbs total. If you don’t believe me, research it yourself and come to your own conclusion, but too much blood sugar causes your body… Read more »

Laura
Laura
7 years ago

Holy cow. Mary, the beginning of your story absolutely mirrors mine – out of the house and on my own to escape the family at age 17 around 1980, working a dead-end job that barely paid the rent. Unfortunately it took me longer to figure out the frugal angle, mostly because while I could and did handle the responsibility of doing it completely on my own, I also still wanted to be a partying teen and blew a lot of my money on concert tickets (although to this day I’m not sure I regret it – 4th row center seats… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

Great story, thanks! I like that this is a real reader story, not an infomercial for some other blog. It’s a real joy to read something like this on an early Sunday morning. Very inspirational. Thanks again. And congrats!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I’ll second that 🙂

Alexandra @ Real Simple Finances
Alexandra @ Real Simple Finances
7 years ago

Thanks for sharing your story! It’s great to see determination, persistence and a strong family system pay off.

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
7 years ago

Great story.

My story is opposite of yours. I hadn’t learned to stretch a dollar thin but instead got into trouble with student loans. Because of that I learned my lesson and have a whole different perspective of finance.

Madeline
Madeline
7 years ago

I really enjoyed reading your story. Your experience shows that it takes time to find your passion, and a lifestyle that is comfortable. As we grow up, these things change-but our relationship with money can stay the same (if we want it to!)

M
M
7 years ago

A life lesson I wouldn’t wish on others– my mother died when I was 13 years old. I learned early that life is short and I wasn’t invincible. While on one hand I was incredibly naive about things (I spent a lot of my childhood isolated while caring for my mother) I was also responsible and focused on making a meaningful life for myself. My SS survivor’s benefits helped pay for college and I graduated debt-free. That opened up options for me. My other life lesson? Sometimes people enter your life at just the right time, and ultimately they save… Read more »

Money Diva Leah
Money Diva Leah
7 years ago

Well written and inspiring.
I posted/tweeted your link, hope it goes viral!

Two points stand out for me:
> Finding a good partner and working towards a common goal
> Compounding both your savings and your income generating skills.

Thanks for sharing!

Mary Newcome
Mary Newcome
7 years ago

Money Diva,

I have gone to your site and read about you. We have very similar stories. Thank you for your comments and post. Best of luck to you helping others find their financial freedom.

barb
barb
7 years ago

In 1983 I got a 13.75% mortgage on my home.
Ouch! I remember the Tightwad Gazette too.
What on earth did we do before computers?

Anne
Anne
7 years ago
Reply to  barb

Amy Dacyzyn is my idol and I still have every one of her Tightwad Gazettes. I was always frugal but she really sharpened my focus.

Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago

Mary, I love your story, and I think what I love most about it is all the “we” sprinkled throughout. You guys became a team, shared goals, and worked together. I think that’s the recipe for a happy marriage!

teinegurl
teinegurl
7 years ago

Thank you , thank you, thank you for your story. A lot of the stories on here while relevant don’t particularly relate directly to me. I love the fact that you didn’t have parents to bail you because a lot of young people are in the situation and don’t know what to do with finances. It’s a lot of hard expensive lessons along the way.

Diane C
Diane C
7 years ago

Love, love, love this story, but who is on the editor’s desk, puh-leeze??

The Godmother of All Things Frugal is Amy
D-a-c-y-c-z-y-n. Spelling her name wrong or even just fumble-fingering it is practically frugal blasphemy!

Linda Vergon
Linda Vergon
7 years ago
Reply to  Diane C

Hi Diane!
Your humble, fumble-fingering editor thanks you for this correction and I’ll fix it now! 🙂

Student Loans Worked Out
Student Loans Worked Out
7 years ago

Something does not add up. According to this calculator: http://investor.gov/tools/calculators/compound-interest-calculator, if one puts down $5K, and then contributes $2400 MONTHLY for 17 years, one ends up with $990,506.59 (assuming 8% interest rate). $2400 monthly is a hefty amount to contribute while bring 50K yearly total while paying federal and state taxes, Medicare, Social Security, raising two kids and paying off mortgage. Now, if there was a small side income of, say, $150K dollars a year – yeah. Then I believe it.

mary newcome
mary newcome
7 years ago

Student Loan Worked out, Please do not assume we have made $50K per year for over 17 years. When we were seperated from the military and started working, we were only making $50K but we of course of have gotten several promotions over the years. We also bought a home and land and sold them both for a profit. You could never calculate a persons life earnings on your little chart as they ebb and flow for several reasons. It would be a very large article to explain the long road to financial freedom that we traveled. Perhaps a blog… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago

Thank you for sharing your story with us. It was interesting, motivating and well-written. I really love these “by the bootstraps” kind of stories because it just goes to show that goals and drive can carry you anywhere.

Sometimes that “brick wall” feeling is a blessing as you’ve shown. It really forces your brain to go into creative overdrive to think of ways to overcome it. I welcome those sorts of challenges…it’s what really drives me to think of solutions that turn out better than what the original plan was.

Good for you!

Georgina Goosen
Georgina Goosen
6 years ago

Thank you for the wonderfully inspirational story. Congratulations to a life of good work. We all need signposts and pep talks on the way. One can never realize the help it gives those who are still striving.

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