A Woman’s Journey To Financial Independence: From Broke To Freedom

Money was never my parents’ forte. It was a constant source of stress in their lives – like a sore wound that wouldn’t heal. Thus, it came as no surprise that money was a root cause of their divorce.

Growing up in a somewhat broken, working-class family gave me the gift of grit and perseverance. Despite the difficult times, I’m thankful that I managed to have plenty of happy childhood memories.

If you ever heard your parents fight about money when you were a child, you know how unsettling and scary it can feel. As a result, I used to worry a lot about money when I was young.

Every time my dad lost his job, I’d worry if my parents would be able to pay their bills. But, the positive side effect was that the older I got, the more I wanted to become a financially independent woman as soon as possible.


My Parent’s Weakness Became My Strength

I wanted to turn my parents’ weakness with money into my own strength. Neither of my parents went to college, which limited their compensation potential throughout their careers.

My dad’s challenges in keeping a steady blue-collar job as an electrician gave me the fire to lock down an office job I could confidently rely on without the fear of getting let go unexpectedly.

My mom’s countless hours of overtime at a low-wage clerical job motivated me to not only go to college, but also secure a higher-paying job.

With a hunger for FI and an undertone of fear propelling me forward, I studied hard and made my way through school with hand-me-downs, scholarships, loans, and part-time jobs.

I didn’t have amazing SAT scores, but my grades and extra curricular activities helped get me into The College Of William and Mary. That’s where Sam and I met. He was a senior. I was a freshman. Sparks flew and our 20+ year friendship began.

I couldn’t be more grateful!

Taking Flight To FI

In order to attend college, my parents took out loans to cover half of my in-state college tuition and told me I was responsible for the other half. Knowing I would graduate with debt put my skin in the game from the get go. It drove me even harder to do well in school because I knew I wouldn’t be able to rely on my parents to bail me out. They were already buried in debt with unstable jobs. I didn’t want to make them worse off.

I decided I would graduate as soon as possible. No super senior year for me. Thus, I barely had a social life in college but I didn’t care. My priorities were a diploma, solid employment, and financial independence.

I couldn’t wait to sell my textbooks, go out on my own, get a job, and start saving money. I kept my head down, piled on classes, and graduated in 3.5 years!

Graduating in December was a little strange because I wasn’t in a traditional graduation ceremony. I didn’t get to wear a cap and gown or cheer with friends, but it was worth it.

After graduating, I packed a suitcase, moved from Williamsburg to San Francisco and didn’t look back. I saved everywhere I could and took a minimum wage part-time job right away to keep me afloat while I searched for full-time work. My part-time job only paid about $8/hour, but it was better than nothing.

About a month later, I landed a full-time job as an Executive Assistant for a micro, private investment management office. I was thrilled. My starting salary was a modest $32,000 in 2002, but the skills I picked up helped propel me forward.

First Came A Fear Of Money, Then Came Love

Although I attribute my fears of not having enough money as my initial motivation to work hard and build my career, I attribute my love of money as the ongoing impetus that allowed me to reach financial independence and maintain it.

It may sound odd or greedy to say, “I love money,” but I do. I don’t love money because I want a heaping collection of designer handbags or a house full of luxury goods. My favorite store is actually Target, where I shop maybe once a year.

I love money because it provides security, flexibility, freedom, a comfortable lifestyle, and the ability to help others.

I appreciate money so much that I don’t want to spend it very often. (Although, I admit I enjoy spending money on our son.) Overall, I prefer the excitement and satisfaction of seeing my bank and investment accounts grow instead. I’m sure many of you feel the same way too.

Key Steps That Lead To My FI

I could easily ramble on and on about other things I did from age 21 to my late 30s on my FI journey. Instead here are some key steps I took:

  • Chose an affordable in-state public college, worked part-time while taking classes, took unpaid but relevant internships every summer, and graduated in only 3.5 years.
  • Made sure I could pay off my credit card bills in full every month since my early 20s.
  • Prioritized saving over spending and fell in love with a frugal lifestyle.
  • I opened a Roth IRA as soon as I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck.
  • Once I got a 401k, I stretched to get the full company match asap, and then maxed out my contributions as soon as I could afford it.
  • By the time I turned 25, I’d doubled my income and was earning more than both my parents combined for most of their careers.
  • After a brief quarter-life career crisis, I decided to pursue more interests alongside my reliable full-time job and started side hustling.
    • I tried photography and acting in commercials for fun, but quickly realized I’d quickly go broke trying and smartly gave that up.
    • Started cat sitting and dog sitting for some extra cash.
    • Taught violin and piano lessons to adults a couple times a week.
    • Began blogging and started regular freelance writing assignments.
  • We opted for an intimate, low budget wedding that saved us tens of thousands and was completely stress-free to plan.
  • Proactively met with my managers every six months to discuss my performance and interest in promotions and raises.
  • By age 30, I finally broke the $100,000 mark at my day job and was earning an extra 10k or so in side hustles and part-time work during my “free” time.
  • Opened a couple brokerage accounts in my 20s and 30s in order to generate passive income.
  • When I turned 34, Sam and I agreed that I would join him in early retirement since that’s the age he left work too. He helped me negotiate a really comfortable severance package that provided a lot of flexibility.
  • By age 36 I surpassed a $1 million net worth. Growing up I never imagined I could achieve a goal like this.
  • At age 37 we were blessed with our son. Today, at 39, I plan on helping more with the website.

The Grind Was Not Easy

Reaching financial independence was exhausting and incredibly stressful.

College wasn’t fun for me. It was a total grind. In order to graduate in 3.5 years, I took a crazy amount of credits each semester and studied non-stop. When I wasn’t studying, I was working part-time for $4-6/hour, volunteering, or performing with the symphony.

I didn’t coast in my full-time jobs either. The various roles I held over the years required a ton of attention to detail and long hours. If I were to fat-finger one number, miss a deadline, or upload the wrong file, a six or seven digit error could erupt.

Even if I did my job 100% accurately, I was still at the mercy of my colleagues and subordinates. If anyone working on my client accounts made a mistake, we were all screwed.

Trying to put out fires someone else caused while getting yelled at by my clients wasn’t something I could envision doing for another 10, 20, 30 years.

Yearning, Then Earning Freedom

I realized I needed change when I hit my early-to-mid 30s. I was struggling with health issues that likely resulted from my intense career. It was frustrating. A sour churn in my gut told me I needed change.

Side hustling, a growing net worth, and multiple income streams outside of my day job gave me hope that I could transform my lifestyle. When I was rejected for a promotion at age 33 that I believed I deserved, I was livid. What was the point of working so hard and risking my health if I wasn’t going to be recognized for my efforts?

Long story short, I raised “hell” in a respectful manner and got my promo six months later. While the raise and title were great, a multitude of other things were simultaneously going wrong by then with office politics, re-orgs, turnover, and rising client turmoil.

Later that year, I remember taking a cab home from work at 9pm one night and crying myself to sleep. As I lay in bed that night I made my decision to pull the ripcord. I was ready to get out.

Sam had already engineered his layoff by then, and we immediately started strategizing how I could do the same. I’m so grateful that in 2015, I successfully walked away from my day-job with a severance and a smile from ear-to-ear.

After I left my full-time job, we took several trips we’d been longing for but had been putting off. I also have continued to write, edit, do back-end work, freelance, take on part-time projects here and there, and became a full-time mom. It is an incredible ongoing adventure.

Did I earn my freedom? I like to think so. The bull market over the past 10 years certainly helped a lot. But I don’t really consider myself retired yet though. Maybe once our son goes off to college I’ll feel fully retired; we’ll see.

I certainly wake up happy every day now that I no longer have to commute to a job where I’d get yelled at. Although now I get yelled at by a toddler instead. But at least I get to make all the rules. 😉

Passing The Torch

A Woman's Journey To Financial Independence: From Broke To Freedom

Even though I’ve done pretty well for myself, I don’t view FI as a one and done achievement. It’s something I’m continually working to maintain and grow, especially now that we have a family.

Sam and I regularly wonder how our son will view the world and money as he grows into an adult. Watching a child grow up is certainly a momentous journey. And we surely hope we can pass our love and respect of hard work and financial independence on to him.

Sometimes I forget how much I used to fear not having enough money to pay bills due to my upbringing in a household that always struggled to earn a steady paycheck.

Thankfully, things have worked out and I’m extremely grateful to have a partner to purposefully live the life we want to live.

Takeaways For Financial Independence

Here’s a quick summary of some steps that helped me achieve financial independence.

  • Don’t plan to rely on your parents for financial support after college. Put your skin in the game early on.
  • Know that it is possible to get an undergraduate degree in under 4 years. It’s not easy, but it can be done and helps save on student loans.
  • Communicate openly with your partner about your finances and set individual and shared goals both before and after marriage
  • Have regular, open dialogues with your managers at work. Know your worth. All too often if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  • Take retirement planning seriously in your 20s. Learn to love money for the independence, security, and options it provides.

Every day I humbly continue to slice through money’s mysteries.

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