Unemployment is historically low. The stock market is producing unprecedented returns. Banks are paying out great interest rates. Income taxes are reduced.
That’s great, but why are we all still broke?
Here’s the lessons you need today to prosper tomorrow.
My parents grew up poor.
I do not write about other people’s stories that I was not present for, so I will instead cover the circumstances that they were born into.
My father was born into a lower working class family during the Jim Crow era where black Americans lived “separate, but equal” with restricted access to society unless it came through substandard quality housing, education, healthcare, and/or jobs…to name a few. My father’s family was only a couple of generations removed from slavery (being considered “property” and not “human” or even US citizens by the federal government) and my great-grandparents had over a dozen children, so their resources were spread thin. Political differences aside, one of the greatest moments of my life was realizing my grandmother, who grew up separate-but-equal and raised a family during Jim Crow, lived to see Barack Obama be elected President of the United States.
She passed away less than a month before his inauguration.
My mother was born into a lower working class family on the continent of Asia. For those who are not American, our country prospered economically and flourished into a world Superpower through the 1950-1970’s while the remainder of the world rebuilt their cities, infrastructure, and social order…because America did not have a global war happen at home which destroyed everything and left us without a strong government. Prior to WWII, my mother’s country of Malaysia invaded and occupied by Japan during the war before declaring independence in 1957 (almost 15 years after the war ended). Eight years into Malaysia’s 20 year plan to modernize, my mother married my father and immigrated to the United States. Throughout my life, I have heard many friends talk about their grandparents who fought overseas in World War II, but one of the most interesting stories I have ever heard was my grandmother’s account of living and fleeing during World War II when the battle was brought to her hometown.
When they married, my mother told me that my father had virtually no belongings. Considering the circumstances that they were both born into, my parent’s climb from poverty to middle class is a feat that I will always respect them for.
This American Dream.
My parents were in their 30’s and had been married for well over ten years when they bought their first house. It was a four bedroom, two and a half bathroom in the suburbs of Knoxville that we moved into when I was about three years old, shortly before my father’s retirement from the Marine Corps. We lived here for almost ten years before they sold the house and upgraded into another one, which they’ve owed for almost 16 years.
Their ability to create wealth and get me into better schools yielded dozens of opportunities that I am not even cognitive enough to recognize yet, but I can see that it lead me into making the same accomplishments of home-ownership at an even younger age of 22.
[If you want to know how your family’s wealth and neighborhood play into your ability to get jobs and an education, check out my article on that HERE].
For the duration for my life, my parents were always relatively debt free, minus their mortgage.
They financed most of their cars, but refused to extend their loans beyond 36 months, and almost always kept the car for 7+ years after they were paid off. When they bought their home, they mentioned to me that they were qualified to buy something $60,000+ more, but weren’t going to extend themselves that far. Taking on debt was a normal, but strategic and calculated decision for them.
I have never known my parents to be Oprah-flush with cash, but they have always seemingly had an emergency fund on hand. My family was never rich, but we were always far from broke.
However, their circumstances of “The American Dream” are not and will never be the same as mine, just as theirs were not the same as their parents. We are all living and working in a different time.
Rent, or Ramen.
I wrote previously, in detail, about my transition into Adulthood and how I jumped out of my parents nest…and fell flat on the ground. Before I met my husband, I found myself in a volatile and abusive relationship. We didn’t live together, but he was very dependent on me and my ability to provide for the two of us. Sometimes he’d flatter me by buying groceries or doing laundry, but overall–I was the one paying the way for both of us.
A series of events that started with situational depression, bottomed out with a job loss and the diagnosis of my heart condition, and ended with my eviction and being stalked…left me with destroyed credit and sleeping on my parents futon. We were right in the midst of the Great Recession, so my ability to “bounce back” was deeply stopped because everyone in my country was trying to do the same.
Hear it from me, when your life collapses around you, there is suddenly a lot of time left to think about what happened and blame others.
My best and worst quality has always been my ambition, so just as quickly as I mourned my circumstances, I created a plan for my future by rebuilding my self esteem, employment, credit, and creating a list of new rules for myself. Right around this time, I started dating the man that I would eventually marry, and he told me about the poverty that he was born into. Once I realized that our relationship was getting serious, I made a new rule:
I am going to make my husband a millionaire before we die.
I was in my early 20’s when I found myself buried in debt that I had no actual plan to pay off. Even though my parents taught me never to finance a car for more than 3 years, I had an auto loan financed at 7 years. Mom and Dad told me to never buy consumables with a credit card, but I was $5,000+ in debt on mine for items that ranged from last month’s groceries to electronics that were falling out of date. Part of these decisions were due to immaturity and instant gratification, but the majority of this debt came from the inability to pay for our necessities with cash.
We had to spend more money than we made just to survive. The cost to acquire housing, transportation, and entertainment was so steep and came with such large payments that we coudn’t afford it…and groceries. Even then, I still felt like I deserved a bigger house, newer car, and nicer stuff.
After becoming buried in debt, I figured out that the only way I could get ahead of my circumstance was by changing the way I handled money. So much time had been spent getting the house, cars, and vacations while trying to look like we had it “all together”, but the time had come to actually get it together.
For an entire year and a half, we made a plan, cooled off our habits, and I documented my journey online. We didn’t create any new debt, go on vacation, overspend, have big birthday/anniversary/Christmas gifts, or do any home improvement projects. Jay and I worked, came home, slept, went back to work, and paid off debt. I don’t realize how much we actually interrupted our lives to that point because we were determined on changing everything about them. In two years, we went from a net worth of negative $30,000, to being 18% towards my goal of making him a millionaire.
However, all of this happened because we realized one thing: Perception isn’t everything.
Look the part, pay the payment.
Until my husband got a job working with computers, we spent 5 years working in the finance industry together. Even though we had different roles, we both saw the same things:
- The person driving the paid off 15 year old Toyota Camry had $800,000 in their account.
- The person driving the 3 month old Mercedes Benz had $600 in checking and lives paycheck to paycheck.
- The person who dressed in clothes from Walmart had a credit score of 820.
- The person who dressed in clothes from Dolce & Gabbana had a credit score of 570.
It’s truly scary and almost mind-numbing how many people I have met who make way more money per year than me, but are struggling. One of the saddest cases I ever saw was somebody who made $20,000 per month (yes, per month. For reference: Minimum wage = $7.25/hr or $15,080 per year) and had an annual salary of $240,000…but seldom made their car payment on time, never had enough money for holiday gifts, and had credit scores of 550.
This realization lead us to ask this question…
Ultimately, I simply got tired of thinking to myself that I make too much money to feel this poor.
I started my marriage by financing tons of stuff that I told myself that I “deserved” or had “earned” but had no cash in the bank and routinely borrowed my mortgage payment out of my account to pay for stuff, and I currently live modestly with paid off cars and money on deposit with multiple institutions.
Sure, my husband’s car is 12 years old, and we live in an older home that isn’t as large or opulent as we could have been qualified for, but at which point in my marriage do you think we lived happier and more stress-free?
One of my favorite conversations to be a fly-on-the-wall with is anytime somebody talks about what they’d do if they won the lottery. Their answers are always the same.
- Pay off their debt.
- Buy nice homes/cars/stuff.
- Travel the world.
I wait until they’re done talking, then I state that I don’t want to win millions of dollars, I’d just like enough to be debt free/ comfortable…then I wait for the gawking to happen.
Money changes people. Not only will it change you, but it changes how people perceive you. Have you heard the stories about lottery winners who wind up broke, or even get killed by friends/family for their money? It’s just not worth it to me.
Prior to building a career in lending, I always thought that wealthy people were either exponentially better with their money, or had so much excess cash on hand that they could just spend as freely as they wished. I figured that all of my money problems would go away if I just had more of it.
Now that I’ve seen the reality, I realized that rich people stay rich by living modestly, and poor people stay poor by living lavishly. Your wealth has little to do with what you have bought, but rather…how much money you have.
Having more money might change how you spend, but it doesn’t automatically change your common sense. If you are bad at managing 30k a year, you’ll be bad at managing 300k per year, and that’s a fact.
For myself, I believe that struggling financially in 2010 taught me dozens of lessons that I took with me to eventually lay the foundation to my current financial situation.
- My “cheap” car payment isn’t affordable when I get sick or lose my job.
- Rent isn’t fun to pay when it takes up so much of my budget that I don’t have anything left over.
- Working overtime constantly is hurting my health, and that extra money is getting lost in medical bills.
- It’s hard to be optimistic about life when you feel like you’re falling behind.
Many people believe that being poor is the result of bad decisions and doing things like “cutting back” or spending less money is the cure-all solution. In reality, being poor is having to choose between two things you NEED (electricity or groceries) because you can only afford one of them.
Even though I lost my way for a few years, I eventually woke up and smelled the debt. Don’t get me wrong, I still drool over that brand new Lexus that I promised myself “one day” a few years ago, but my Honda is effortlessly affordable and not having that Lexus payment frees up my money to do hundreds of other things with.
Through it all, I learned quickly that I never want to be back in either of those situations ever again.
Since I don’t have millions of dollars, the only thing I have is my ability to make strategic decisions to avoid putting myself in a financial bind.
Our society spends so much time trying to spend, they forget how to save.
Did you know that only 39% of Americans have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency? In other works, 2 out of every 5 people you know have enough cash in the bank to cover a broken water heater, a car wreck, or an unexpected bill.
As somebody who sits here waiting on my background check to be completed for my new job, but still technically unemployed, (after being let go from my last job suddenly), this fact startles me.
This Friday marks the final paycheck I can expect from my previous employer. After that, I’m officially living on savings and I’ve thankfully got enough to be unemployed for about eight months.
Not only has my income stopped coming in, but the week after I lost my job, my utility trailer was hit/totaled and our fireplace sprung a leak. 3 out of every 5 Americans would be in crisis mode if they were me because 61% of people don’t even have enough money to cover 1 of these 3 emergencies.
Emergencies don’t wait for the current one to be resolved before another starts.
It’s good until it isn’t.
“We are living in the most affluent time in all of human history. There are more opportunities to achieve wealth and prosperity today for more people, and in more different ways, than have ever existed in the history of man. It has never been more possible for you to achieve financial independence than right now.” – Who Taught You How To Be Broke
The economy is performing historically well and we hit a milestone last week of the longest high performing stock market in American history. Investors are celebrating, banks are lending money, and Americans are spending it.
By all accounts, we are currently in the most affluent time period of mankind, yet so many of us are still broke.
- We are in the early stages of a student loan debt crisis.
- Wages/Salaries haven’t increased in decades.
- Raises/Wage growth is being wiped out by Inflation.
- People are accepting illegal living situations because housing is so expensive.
Think about that. The Great Recession ended about a decade ago, and we are currently living in the longest positive-performing economy in American history (about 8 years). People are celebrating, spending money freely, and going into deep debt because they have hope that their job prospects will be around for decades to come. However, our current economic situations tells me that things will only be “great” for the remainder of my life for about a period of five years at a time.
You need to ignore everyone’s comments to relax and enjoy our economy’s growth, and be concerned, because things will not be alright for long. Every economic cycle eventually comes to an end, and it’s substantially more difficult to get ahead financially when everyone in the country is suffering.
I used wage growth in 2016-2018 to get out of debt, but that tactic won’t be available when we have another recession and companies cut back on raises, promotions, or even hiring.
Many people cut down on their spending to free up cash and get out of debt, but that will become exponentially harder to do when the cost of your basic necessities such as groceries and gasoline spike.
Paying off your car isn’t justification to finance a new one and paying off your credit card isn’t good reason to charge a “few things” back onto it. I’ve done both, but when the economy bottomed out and took my financial stability with it… I was left owing the monthly payment without the income to match it.
Today’s financial gains won’t matter if we squander them and act like tomorrow’s success is guaranteed. Things are always great…until they aren’t.
If you’re thinking about changing your money and seeking our financial independence, this is the greatest time you’ll have in the next decade to do something about it.
If you’re already on your journey to financial independence, I encourage you to stay focused and push ahead. Don’t forget, there was a time when you wished that you were exactly where you are right now.
If you’ve been thinking about how you’re tired of feeling broke, start here and use our historically strong economy to get ahead while it’s easy…before it becomes incredibly difficult for many years.
Financial literacy is 10% math and 90% behavior. I don’t spend much writing about the math, because the behavior is what counts. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the discipline to manage it, you wont have they money for long.
Economic cycles are inevitable and outside of your control. Thus, I personally use the hot economy to build wealth and get out of debt so I can be financially comfortable, sound, and totally worry free when the market does poorly.
Don’t fall into the false fantasy that things will be great forever because they’re great today. History isn’t on our side. These are the circumstances of our generation.