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?