My Story

My start on the money game goes back to a time when I was already much too late for American standards of independence. I was 27. Not a penny to invest. Fresh out of college, hustling small jobs to plan my future which usually wouldn’t go further than a couple of weeks. Not necessarily because I was blowing the money away but because I grew up in one of those countries where you hear people live on $1 a day.
I didn’t know about frugality for a long time. To me, frugality was simply the way of living.  I was operating at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for most of my first 27 years of life.
The idea of retirement was so unattainable that most people don’t even think about it, and certainly, I didn’t. But beyond not thinking about it as reachable, I had put it on that spot in my mind where fears live. Where all those voices telling us “you can’t” or “it’s not for you” inhabit and fester perpetuating our situations.

At some point, in an effort to improve my English I signed myself up to have a work experience in the U.S and found who is my wife today.

I made the decision of leaving my country, my family and sell every single thing I had, including my then 27 year old car to scrape $1500 dollars; which actually resulted in barely $800 after the government imposed a new exchange rate for the U.S. Dollar and I almost lost half my lifetime “wealth”. $800 wasn’t even enough for an airplane ticket!!

17 years later I am still married, with 4 kids plus a dog.

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One Sunday morning, my wife and I are sitting on the couch sipping coffee, pondering the idea of how the hell to pay off our credit card… make money go a little bit farther…

As we cope with the kids shouting, jumping, screaming and whining we managed to mention something about Suze Orman. On top of that, if you listen to Suze these days you know that besides getting denied to even a glass of water she thinks that unless you have $10,000,000 you do not deserve to retire.

Then searching for ideas on Youtube my wife mentions something about Dave Ramsey; I didn’t even know who he was. We talked about the envelope idea. You know, allocate a certain amount of money to each of your expenses and put them cash in an envelope so you don’t go over budget, etc. We had done it in the past but it kind of wore out after a couple of months. However, Ramsey did have a few interesting points. He was talking about how someone can become a millionaire by just saving $100bucks a month in a mutual fund with 12% return. He explained the idea of “compound interest” which was something I didn’t quite believe at the time. I was still very skeptical about the market after the 2008 crisis.

From that video, I did a quick search for “compound interest” and I ran into the light of the FIRE (Financial independence, retire early)community. My first stop was the MadFientist. I started listening to all his podcasts, some of them many times! I read many of the books written by some of the MadFientist guests. One thing led to another and from there the game was on! I started analyzing my own finances. I was ready to take control. I wanted to know where every single penny was going, read every book I could, make spreadsheets to track my expenses and budget every month. More importantly, I wanted to decide what my money does rather than our money dictating our lives as it had for so many years.

We were frugal by nature. After our first daughter was born we had a terrible daycare experience and decided a job wasn’t worth our kid’s safety. My wife sacrificed her career as a teacher to stay home and take care of our family. We had to be frugal; there was no option.

Once I started exploring FI it was comforting to hear all these various people in the FI community living frugally like we have lived for years. In a way though, it seemed like a lot of these folks live frugally not because they need to but as a life purpose; pretending a life of scarcity and resourcefulness to meet a need for freedom. The same frugality and simple living I have experienced my whole life but now with a different purpose and in the most affluent country in the world. A country where you can buy anything you want on credit!

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I have done my share of odd jobs in my life. From juice stands, street market vegetable seller, to Fedex driver, translator, interperter, construction worker, photographer, teacher, and few others that I rather not to talk about. LOL

Coming from a country where I couldn’t afford much, where I couldn’t just go for coffee or eating for fun and now find myself in a country where you can buy a pair of brand shoes and still have money for the rest of your monthly expenses was simply mind-blowing to me.

Credit cards, which I never had, now I could have as many as I wanted. NOW, I could even turn them down! And I was just doing construction for $10/hr. I worked for a contractor and I was getting paid $400 a week, $1,600 a month. My then girlfriend, now wife was making maybe a bit more than that but not much more. We were able to rent a small place of two bedrooms in the Chicago suburbs. We had two old cars; quite reliable for my homeland standards and THAT WAS IT! That’s what people where I come from work for their whole life. Just to buy or rent a place where to live. That equates to a successful life.

With no kids we were able to save enough for a downpayment on a house that prior to 2008 cost $185,000. With an FHA loan we were able to put down $4,000 and in the spring of 2003, 2 years after migrating to the U.S. with $800 I was able to buy a house, with the salary of just a few months of work. Incredible!

From working construction, I found an opportunity to work as a teacher aid in an elementary school. I had some experience teaching from my home country and speaking English and Spanish opened some doors in the job market. I went from $10/hr to $15/hr plus benefits.

Later on, I was told that I could get a temporary teacher license as long as I would compromise to work towards a standard teacher license within 6 years.  Sure enough, I became an accidental teacher. A couple of years later I found a state-funded program that paid fully for a master’s program tuition at a reputable university to get my masters’ in education along with the endorsement I needed.

My first salary was $36,000! I couldn’t believe it! An amount in my country that people work their whole life for. Meaning that in 30-40 years of work only very few achieve such level of earnings.

But like adage says, the more you make the more you spend. Plus remember, retirement, where I come from, was not on the equation. You simply work, and if there is money in the account you are good to go and never worry about the future.

Life went on. A little bit of debt here and there. Nothing major.  3 more kids came along and so did 2008. With that, the once cute neighborhood got plagued with foreclosures left and right. Investors came in, bought some of the properties and the neighborhood went through a complete transformation. From cute and quaint with neighbors saying hi, to dudes strolling the street, hanging out at each corner, cars blasting music, and lots of Pitbulls. Please know, I  have nothing against Pitbulls, but when it’s the predominant dog you see in your neighborhood and people leave them unleashed, IT is a problem.

The neighborhood schools were not ranked the best but after 2008 they really tanked, so did the student population scores. My two oldest would come home talking about people going to “juvi” and many other things that definitely were not part of getting an education.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was some cat-calling to my wife by a group of guys on a neighboring driveway. That was it! We wanted out. It was 2015 and the area had not picked up enough that we could sell for a profit larger than $5,000. After all the commissions and taxes, we were going to walk out with maybe $5,000. I refuse to calculate how much I have paid in just in interest after all those years we lived there!

Where could you go with $5,000? We were so desperate that we were willing to go into a 2 bedroom house! We were willing to sacrifice space (Lots of it) for a better environment. Going from 4 bedrooms to two was not going to be easy; especially in the winter months.

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In the past, prior to 2008, I developed an interest in real estate through some family memebers who had leveraged themselves into over a hundred units in a Midwest college town. Houses of 3 and 4 units could be bought for 50 to 60K for almost no down payment. It looked like it was too good of a deal to let it pass.

Fortunately, we were left out of the deal. When 2008 hit they lost it at all. That leverage that once made them feel proud of, had come against them like a freight train.

I learned a lot from seeing them going through that experience. I learned that most of the times when a deal is too good to let it pass, most likely it’s better to let actually let it pass. I also learned that businesses are too complicated as they are, and it is better to leave family members out.

Going back to my own predicament of having to move from my first home I was set on the idea of renting out my house rather than selling it. I figured I could rent my house and pocket about $500 a month. If things went bad, I figured I could sell after a year or two and come out in better shape financially.

It was difficult to find a tenant that was not under the subsidized housing program of the area. I interviewed several people and check their credits( not much help). Finally, I found someone who I felt I could work with and before I knew it I became an acidental landlord! I have been a landlord now for over 3 years and I can say today that it was one the best decisions I have made in my life.

All these changes, experiences plus the fact that I am now in my mid 40’s have brought me to think about retirement.

Now, when you hear about early retirement I don’t make the cut anymore because most early retirees take the plunge rather in their mid 30’s; I am way passed that point.  I can only cry and regret what I didn’t do,  but I can’t blame myself for not knowing what I didn’t know. And actually, in hindsight, when  I think about what I have accomplished growing my net worth is quite impressive.

Taking in consideration that I have been living and working in the U.S. since 2002 and I started with merely $800. I have made a fortune although it never felt that way until I looked into the numbers. Until I decided to get in charge of my money and my life.

If I look into my net worth today and divided by 15, which represents the number of years living in the U.S. I would end up with an equivalent of 1,366% yearly! Wow!

I know, I know. I have made many extra contributions to my net worth over the years, which means that my contribution was not only $800. However, my net worth grew exponentially thanks to many different choices I have made in my life along with my wife and family. Can I retire now? Not even close. But is it possible? Absolutely!

As a teacher, I am in a way screwed though because I depend on a pension and I could not collect a dime before turning 55; that would be taking a 30% penalty if I decided to go at 55. On the other hand, if I stay until I am 60 years old I would be able to collect a handsome amount yearly that otherwise would take over $1,500,000 in the market to safely withdraw every year following the 4% rule.

There lies the conundrum. Should I retire in eleven years and enjoy my family and the things I still want to do and explore, or bite the bullet for five more years?

Well, I do like my job, but it is still a job subject to all the B.S. of a job. All the meetings, the politics of any business office; today more than ever. With the same token, I do get a lot of time off that I get to enjoy with my family and does allow me to explore some of my interests.

Here is where I stand today. In eleven years I want to be ready to go. I might stay for the longer ride, but I want to be ready to go. J. L. Collins talks about the importance of having F… you money. Well, my 55 I want it to be my F…you stage. I want to work without any concerns. Potentially even take a leave of absence if I want to.

If you have read this far, you may be wondering what’s the point of this long essay…

Well, first of all thank you for taking the time to read my story.

But you didn’t come here to just read somebody’s story. You landed on my site because you are trying to figure out your own finances and find a way to your FI.

FI might look crazy and unreachable now but in reality it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. And certainly NOT a financial adviser!

I will be sharing through this blog what my family of six have done to make ends meet over the years with one teacher salary, at the same time that we manage a rental property and we are half way from maxing out my school 403B.

This blog will be a cocktail of frugality, saving strategies, SYSM( Save yourself some money), and smart money moves with a small budget in order to reach FI at any age. It is also an accountability piece for me since I also want to reach my own financial goals.

You can do this from any starting point. Remember I started at $800. You can do this!

Tag along with my ongoing journey and feel free to ask questions or give any suggestions. That’s what the FI community is about. We learn from each other.

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