Get Rich Slowly started as a place for J.D. to write about money. Over the past five-plus years, it’s grown beyond that. It’s now a multi-author blog. Last winter, the staff writers shared brief bios to give readers a little background. Today, our newest staff writer Sarah Gilbert does the same.
I used to be an investment banker. But before that, I was your average poor public school kid.
I grew up the oldest of five siblings in a neighborhood in Portland, Oregon that could be described as “up-and-coming” but, in the 1980s, was far more “coming” than “up.” We weren’t quite dirt poor, because my mom was (and is) incredibly frugal, raised in the post-Depression era when frugality could never have been imagined as something to which to attach “maven” or “-ista.”
We were on food stamps, free lunch, and our churches’ various charity lists. My mom grew a big vegetable garden, baked bread, and bartered for food all her life. Even today, when she and my father can probably afford better, she shops at the thrift store and buys Christmas presents for her growing troupe of grandchildren at the dollar store.
If you could say that I learned a lot from my mother — and you could! — you could also say that I ran away from poverty and frugality as fast and as hard as I could. I got my first part-time job at the age of 14, at a local fast food chain, and proceeded to break all the child labor laws so I could earn as much money as possible. I spent it on my cheerleading uniforms, makeup, clothes and chocolate chip cookies and ice cream for lunch. I know I must have saved a little, because the uniforms were expensive, but once football games started each fall the money was gone.
I never stopped being a hard worker, and I never saved for more than a few months. I got a full-ride scholarship to college (at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia) and worked for the school’s catering department, worked for restaurants, worked for pubs. I had a double major and I ran track and was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and I worked 25 or 30 hours a week. I spent money on clothes and eating out and books and more clothes. My mother’s frugality affected me a little; I’d buy from the outlet stores or on sale. But I’d buy, and buy, and buy.
When interview season rolled around my senior year, I had already decided that the entry-level jobs for my dream career (a columnist for Sports Illustrated) were achingly boring and poorly paid. I could make more as a waitress! I started interviewing for investment banking analyst positions — I’ve always been good at math, I figured — and got lots of call-backs, but only one job offer, as a loan syndications analyst at First Union in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The secrets of Wall Street
I’d never used Excel or been taught what the difference between investment grade and high yield debt, but I took to it like a duck to water. Soon I was teaching the associates how to format their Excel models so they’d print right for our offering memoranda, and talking about deal tranches and LIBOR spreads with bankers from all over the world.
I also found out the most important investing “secret” I’d ever learn: that you can know everything you need to know about a company from the conduct of the CEO, and the Vice President of Finance, and their relationship. You know that look a woman gives her husband when he’s promised something rashly, or agreed to let his mother stay for a month without consulting her first? That murderous, ruinous look? If you see the VP of Finance give the CEO that look, especially if it’s after he’s just made some grand statement about future profits, take your money and run.
Like all good investment bankers must, I went on to business school at Wharton, got my MBA, worked on the “real” Wall Street at Merrill Lynch, and then followed a boyfriend straight into the airiest bit of the dot-com bubble. Our startup was doomed for failure but it would teach me more lessons about CEOs and venture capitalists and what they call “overbuilding.” The relationship was even more doomed, and even though I was making fantastic money for a woman in her late twenties, I was spending even more than I made. I had a beautiful luxury car and a growing wardrobe of Italian clothes (bought on sale, of course!).
When I decided to leave the boyfriend and the job all at once, I moved home to Portland, bought a fixer-upper house close to my old neighborhood, and began a family with a high school almost-sweetheart. By the end of our honeymoon I had to accept the fact: I couldn’t, any longer, pursue my ways of living beyond my means. I canceled all my credit cards and began the slow, aching process of paying them off.
Multiple streams of income
One of my jobs was for a little software startup; in order to help market the software the engineers were writing, I thought it would be a great idea to start a blog. Thus was born cafemama, and, eventually, a career in blogging that would take me to AOL, where I would launch and run BloggingStocks and WalletPop.
But when my third little boy was born, and my oldest was diagnosed with a variety of emotional and behavioral disorders (I now have diagnoses for all three of my boys), I gratefully took an offer to leave full-time work and transition to freelance blogging. The farther I’ve gotten away from being a full-time employee, the more financially secure I feel; I have a variety of jobs now (diversification of revenues!) and, when AOL made the decision to close WalletPop at the end of July 2011, I had more work than I could handle.
Thanks in part to my husband’s income as an Army Reservist — he goes back to Kuwait in September for his second one-year tour — we’ve started paying off our debts a little faster. My goal is to get our debts so low that we can live with one income; now that we’ve given up the fancy luxury car and switched our family to biking and public transportation only, our financial needs are very little apart from those debt payments: just mortgage, utilities, and food.
We’ve come full circle; though we don’t quite qualify for food stamps, we do get lots of charity boxes of hand-me-downs from friends and family. Instead of feeling ashamed about it, though, now I see it just as an environmentally and financially sound choice. I don’t shop for clothes any more; instead, I go to “Naked Mama” parties thrown by my friends, where we trade clothes, and browse free boxes and garage sales for Portlandia-style bargains. I keep a large garden, I bake bread, I can my own tomatoes and even tuna. I make gifts for my nieces and nephews and siblings; I’ve been known to happily give and receive family Christmas gifts from the Goodwill Outlet.
I’ve written millions of words, according to the AOL content management system, on all kinds of finance topics. Here are a few posts I thought were particularly “about me”:
- Gas Prices Got You Down? Think Different
- Make-Ahead Freezer Meals Done Better
- Child Care Issues an Impossible Challenge for Military Moms
- Keeping Emergencies Off Your Credit
- How a Low-Car Diet Reduced My Stuff
And there’s one more: a post from my personal web site in which I redefine, again, “success”: Most Likely to Succeed.