This post is part of the Humans of FI project which tend to be longer than usual.
They are less concerned about the numbers, but more about the human story which led them to the path of financial independence.
The stories can be raw and un-sanitised.
Please contact me if you wish to get involved.
Let me introduce Lauren
Lauren is 34 and lives in the US with her husband and children.*
This is a story of how she met her husband and together, they have both reached financial independence well before they’re 40.
So without further ado, over to Lauren…
I’m a 34 year old engineer and my husband is a 35 year old entrepreneur. We live with our two children (3 and 8 years old) in the suburbs of a large city in the US. My husband and I both have a passion for gardening and travelling.
This is our story of how we have already reached financial independence at a relatively young age. It involves finding my life partner by chance, a deportation, and multiple trips to Guatemala.
Both my husband and I come from large families. I grew up in a small town in the midwestern US. I’m the third of six children, raised in a middle class family. My father worked for a local university as a computer programmer while my mother stayed home to take care of all of us kids. Talking about money in our family was taboo.
My husband is the 7th of eight children. He was raised in a small village in Guatemala. His childhood home had two rooms and a dirt floor, similar to the one shown below.
His family was dedicated to subsistence farming, for which they rented small plots of land to grow crops to eat. Sometimes the only plots of land they could afford to rent would be hours away from their home by bike.
At the age of 8, my husband began his first job outside of helping grow crops, which was to sell bread around his village. During his childhood, his country was still in a brutal decades-long civil war. One of his older brothers was killed during this time, and his family decided to flee. They took what belongings they had and fled to a more remote area of the country. Upon his 16th birthday, my husband was trafficked illegally to the US in order to work and send money back to support his family.
Arriving in the US
It was Spring 2001 when he crossed the Rio Grande River near Brownsville, TX. He was picked up by a smuggler and put on a bus going North. A job was already lined up for him in the Midwest, in a Chinese restaurant that relied heavily on illegal immigrant labor. He shared an apartment with three other Guatemalan men who also worked at the restaurant. He slept on a mattress on the floor and biked to work. His first order of business: to pay off his human smuggling debt of several thousand dollars. In his spare time, he took free English courses.
My first job
Jumping forward a few years, I was a senior in high school. I had just borrowed a thousand dollars from my parents to go on a school trip. I got a job working evenings after school to pay back my debt. It was at that Chinese restaurant. This is where I met my future husband, who was the cook. At this point, I was 18 and he was 19.
On our first date, I remember being surprised as he explained how he had come alone to this country as a 16 year old, working to send money to his parents so they could have a better life. He had just finished building a modern home for them and was in the process of helping them to invest in starting a larger farm that could provide beyond their basic needs.
In 2004, I started college, and we got engaged. As someone who was in the US illegally, the law at the time required my then-fiancé to leave the US for 10 years before he could even be considered for a visa to get back in.
In 2005, my husband self-deported back to his home country to get the 10 year clock ticking as soon as possible. We got married later that year.
I was lucky to enter college with more than a full-ride scholarship. I had excess scholarships, so this meant that my university actually paid me to go there. I received $20,000 in excess money my first year, and about $8,000 each subsequent year.
I worked in various laboratories and offices on campus throughout the school year to earn money, and each summer and long break I would fly to Guatemala to visit my husband and travel around Central America.
To reduce expenditures, I lived on my parents’ couch and did all immigration paperwork myself. I applied for a Hardship Waiver for my husband in the hopes he could return the the US early, but didn’t imagine our case would actually qualify. During this time, my husband lived at the home he built in Guatemala, along with his parents, helping them to establish the family farm. We planned to move to some other country together after I finished college to wait out the rest of the 10 years.
It was rough to have a long distance marriage, but also really fun in many ways. I flew to Guatemala so often that the pilots on my route got to know me and let me even steer the plane once (looking back on this as a more mature person now, I would say that was super unsafe and I do not recommend doing this!!)
Unexpectedly, my husband ended up being granted a Hardship Waiver and was allowed to return to the US about 8 years ahead of schedule in 2007. He was soon hired as a manager at the restaurant where we had once worked together.
Around this time, I won a $120,000 fellowship for graduate school. In those days, we made pretty good money but usually spent it all. Our only investments we were making at that time were buying land and livestock in Guatemala. The main reason for these investments were that we were hoping that my husband’s parents could become self-sufficient with these resources and eventually not require us to send them money on a monthly basis. And it worked! My in-laws now work the farm and use the income they generate to support themselves and extended family as the need arises.
My first career
We continued to invest in land after I graduated. Upon finishing graduate school in 2010, we decided to move to a larger city where my husband and I could both have more job opportunities. I found a job with a teaching nonprofit and moved first. My take-home pay was only $20 more per month than what I made as a graduate student, but I was enamoured with the mission of the nonprofit, which was to help end the cycle of poverty by helping underprivileged youth get ready for college.
My husband planned to follow me once his company was able to transfer him. I had also just found out I was pregnant with our first child. When I was seven months pregnant, my husband’s company determined they could not transfer him anytime before the baby was to be born. So he quit his job and started moving the rest of our belongings to our new home.
The same day as he was driving the moving van, the Human Resources team at my job informed me that I could only take four days for my upcoming maternity leave; otherwise, I would be let go. I was blindsided by this, and full of fear that both my husband and I could potentially be out of jobs with a newborn to care for and not much money in the bank.
I felt so stupid for getting my family into this type of situation and cried for days and days. After much backlash from other employees, my employer allowed me to stay as long as other employees donated their hard-earned vacation days to cover my maternity leave.
Needless to say, it was a very awkward situation. As soon as I could after having my son, I started looking for a new career.
Our current careers
After a few interviews, I found a new job in the engineering field. In this new job, I was making significantly more than I did in the nonprofit world. I also was only required to work 40 hours per week, compared to the 80 that was needed in the previous job.
Eight years later, I’m still at the same place working in new product development. Sometimes my job takes me around the world to interesting places such as Italy, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. I love what I do and enjoy working with my coworkers and customers.
At a coffee shop in Mexico, sign reads “Today is a perfect day to be happy”
My husband left the corporate restaurant world in 2012 to start his own business. He purchases unpaid storage units and resells the contents. His career is totally flexible, which gives him the ability to travel to his home country as needed and to take care of the kids when I’m travelling.
Changing our money habits
As we grew into our new careers, our expenses also grew. While my husband was always very careful with money, I would say I probably led him astray financially in those early years. At that time, we were living a normal middle class American lifestyle, and if we didn’t have the money for something we wanted, we would just borrow the difference. For example, we borrowed $800 for a cell phone which subsequently fell into a creek. It was common for me to spend $500 at a time shopping online for random stuff I didn’t actually need.
A coworker introduced me to the idea that people can actually live without debt. This was in 2014. By this time, my husband and I had already accumulated some savings in addition to two houses, some land, and livestock. But, we also had around $40K in debt, including our mortgage on our home in the US.
A debt free life was a totally new idea to me.
My husband and I started listening to the Dave Ramsey podcast a lot. We were both hooked (and my husband was probably very relieved that I was on board). This podcast really encouraged us to become more disciplined and intentional with our money. We started talking more about our dreams and goals. We became totally debt free including the house in 2014. After that, we started maxing out my 401k retirement plan at work and have opened college savings accounts for the kids.
We are able to keep very low expenses today because we work in a high-income area but live about 16 miles away in a very low cost of living area. Our home is relatively small for our area (900 sq ft). We also have saved about four years of liquid expenses in our Freedom Fund (maybe too much!) but we are thinking about our next moves so want to have lots of options.
As an avid Dave Ramsey listener, I also like to read articles on personal finance. I recently came across a news article about the FIRE movement and was intrigued. There was a link to the CfC’s FI Score Test [FIST] and decided to plug in our numbers. I was shocked to learn that my family is already considered 100% FI!
Our current annual expenses are $37,850, which includes $13,200 for daycare. For my FIST calculation, I subtracted the $13,200 from our annual expenses, since if I weren’t working then we would not need daycare.
The early jobs my husband and I had in the Chinese restaurant paid us each about $7.35/hr, which is about $15,000/yr for a full time employee. To see how we have gone from that to achieving early financial independence, below are a few more details. First is a chart showing my annual salary since I left college. The nice jump in 2011 was due to my career change.
My husband’s income has followed a similar trend, although he has never attended college. He started out making around $45,000 in 2007, and now makes about the same amount as me. We don’t currently have any passive income sources.
Our net worth
We started tracking our net worth in 2016. Our net worth number is made up of our two homes, Roth IRA, Roth 401k, regular 401k, liquid savings, college savings for the kids, Health Savings Account, land, and livestock.
|Year||Net Worth ($)||Increase vs. Previous Year|
|Target for end of 2019||773,039||116,542|
Lessons & Advice
The main thing I have learned along my journey so far is that the best time to start being intentional with your money is right now. Why not? Probably the biggest challenge for me is the peer pressure in our modern culture to conform to certain ways of spending, such as having a nice new car, a large home, or participate in extravagant gift-giving . If you are not yet at a place in your financial journey to be able to afford these types of things, then trying to keep up with the Joneses will only drag you down and lead to increased stress in your life.
My advice to anyone who is starting out on a FIRE journey would be to find a like-minded community online or in-person to help you stay on track.
If you are in a relationship and your partner has different views on money than you do, I would recommend to start talking about money with them as soon as possible. If you can develop mutual goals around money based on both of your hopes and dreams, then a united front can propel you forward towards these goals very quickly.
We have come to the realization that our level of financial discipline now can totally change our family’s future. If we can keep our current savings rate, then within a matter of years, the little boy that was once selling bread on the streets of Guatemala will have become a millionaire.
This was a story about not giving up and against the odds, a young family has worked hard and made the most of the opportunities to be able to reach financial independence so early.
It has confirmed to me how important it is for someone who is not single to start having money conversations very early on.
What continues to shock me every time is how many new mothers are treated in the American workplace. Four days for maternity leave!? For real?! This means that new mothers are faced with two ridiculous choices: 1) quit their job and face any of the financial consequences; or 2) leave their new born at a time in their lives when they were needed the most.
There may be some who would read this story, disregard everything and focus solely on Lauren’s salary …”yeah, they are both earning six-figures!”; or “but she had a full scholarship and huge fellowship”.
Whilst those points are true, they could have equally squandered their money and let life-style inflation take hold. Instead, they continued to keep their spending relatively low, currently have a jaw-dropping 85% savings rate and worked hard to be totally debt free.
Just like Lauren and her family has.
*Lauren is not her real name. She doesn’t currently have a blog. Her and others’ FI Score results can be seen here.
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