This guest post from Heather Roth is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. Heather lives and writes in Indiana, Pa., with her doctoral student husband and two ever-curious ferrets. She writes about life as a small-town journalist at her personal blog.
There were plenty of days when I resisted it, this making of budgets and accumulating of dollars in untouched bank accounts for “someday.” But standing outside the small, two-bedroom house we'd just bought on a hot August afternoon, everything I'd given up seemed small and unimportant.
I'm a reporter, complete with the legendary small salary and all. He's a doctoral student. And somehow, between good fortune and careful stewardship, we've found ourselves debt-free homeowners at age 25.
Our story begins years before either of us was born, long before we met.
Fortune and frugality
I had the good fortune of being the daughter of the son of an entrepreneur, and grew up seeing business opportunities around every corner. I also learned money management, watching my mother feed an ever-growing family on red beans and rice and potatoes and ground turkey.
By the time the man and I were engaged, I had received a sizable ($18,000) inheritance from my late great-grandmother's land investments — and an oft-repeated warning from my father to save every penny for a down payment on a house.
We started life together in the expensive Washington, D.C., area, and for several months struggled to live on his just-out-of-college income of about $35,000 while I looked for work. We had no health insurance, spent $25 a week on groceries, and loved visits from parents who always brought along canned goods and meat for the freezer.
We became pretty good at living on a little.
I found my first reporting job four months later, one that came with health insurance, and we moved to a nicer apartment and raised our food budget by $10; it felt luxurious. But the rest of my salary was added to the savings account for a year and a half before being diverted to pay for my husband's master's degree.
We left the D.C. area in February of 2010, planning to live off my salary while he went after the doctorate. His assistantship would cover tuition, and the incredible drop in car insurance and rent in Western Pennsylvania made it easy to live on a smaller income.
We left D.C. about $50,000 worth of savings.
We didn't plan to buy a house in Pennsylvania. But when I saw the listing in the classifieds section of our local paper that summer — listed at around $49,000 — we had to check it out.
The kitchen was coated in old grease and hedges threatened to swallow the front porch. The house was old (1950s) and in need of serious cleaning and a lot of cosmetic repair:
- Ancient, falling-apart and hideous carpets had to be pulled out immediately
- The bathroom floor was cracked and cheap tiles were falling from the wall
- The kitchen counters were probably original and haven't aged well
But structurally, it was sound. And grease and paint and hedges can all be taken care of with time and sweat and effort.
We bought the house for around $46,000 — just enough to cover what the seller still owed on his mortgage. And we immediately replaced the carpets with wood laminate flooring and attacked jungle hedges and mounds of drying vines.
Most of the work can be done in bits and pieces, and we can learn to do almost all of it ourselves. And there's a pride and a joy in looking around our home, with all its quirks and old paint, and knowing that it is all-the-way ours; and that every little update we've done is making it better.
We're still living carefully, though we're not adding much to our depleted savings account. But I'm more onboard with this budgeting idea now. Before it was my husband's motivation that designed (and kept) the budget; I tried to get away with splurging as often as I could, because I didn't see the long-term value over the short-term, stronger, desire.
Standing outside our home for the first time that August afternoon, I'm glad his long-term vision won out.