When I was growing up, each of my parents filed for bankruptcy, not once, but twice—independently of each other and for different reasons.
My dad because he always struggled with managing his debt. He didn’t get his college degree until he was 55 years old and was making around $45,000 a year.
My mother, who remarried after their divorce when I was three years old, lived a typical middle-class lifestyle and her bankruptcies were a direct result of she and her new partner over-leveraging themselves.
The first involved mortgages on five different properties and the second related to investing in Las Vegas real estate before the 2008 financial crisis.
Throughout my childhood, both my parents told me that I needed to save money, but they never really showed me how. A lot of key financial lessons I didn’t learn until I was in college; including the restraint from immediate gratification and understanding the power of compounding interest.
Because of my parents’ financial struggles, I never really had a lot of money, so I began working when I was rather young. At 16 years old, I can remember being in high school, working 20 to 30 hours a week while I was a full-time student.
Even though I was making good money for a teenager, I would blow my entire check on clothes —I loved the Gap—and eating out. I had already adopted the living paycheck-to-paycheck mindset, and I didn’t even know it.
After dropping out of college and working a dead-end cubicle job, I decided to join the Army National Guard. I hoped it would help me pay for school while developing some much-needed discipline.
While it did give me the discipline to go back to school, it didn’t give me the discipline to stop living like I was rich.
When it finally came time to choose a major, I knew that I wanted to major in business primarily—largely because my stepdad always wore business suits with cufflinks. I had no idea what he did, but I was always impressed with his attire, and the fact that he had a car phone before car phones were a thing.
Not knowing which specific major to choose in business, I asked my real dad whether he would choose accounting or finance.
“Have you ever met an accountant with a personality?” he asked me. I didn’t know any accountants at that time, but I got his point. Finance would be a lot more fun. And it was.
My parents hadn’t saved anything to pay for school, so I knew the financial responsibility was on me if I had any hopes of graduating with a degree.
In addition to the benefits the National Guard offered, I worked a part-time job, usually averaging 25 to 30 hours a week, while I was a full-time student.
And yes, despite having the financial resources that I did, I still found a way to blow it all and go further into debt. I took out as many student loans as they would allow me and signed up for every credit card that I could get approved for.
Before I knew it, I had maxed out student loans for two years and had between $10,000 to $15,000 of credit card debt on purchases I couldn’t even remember.
While I was still in college, the debt didn’t affect me emotionally at all. I was in debt denial, not realizing the impact it was having on my future self.
Nothing changed until my girlfriend started challenging me on whether I could afford some of the purchases that I wanted. For example, when flat-screen TVs were a thing, I really wanted one. I had just started working as a financial advisor and was making around $20,000 a year.
When I told my dad about the flat-screen TV, his suggestion was to open a 0 percent credit card and head to Best Buy. When I shared this idea with my girlfriend, now my wife, she asked a simple question: “Can you really afford this?”
Initially, I was angered by her response, but after I had time to think about it, I knew that she was right. That’s when I made the decision to stop buying things I couldn’t afford and really focus on paying off my debt.
It was around one year after becoming laser-focused on paying off my loans that I found out my National Guard unit was being deployed to Iraq. While I was definitely terrified of going into a combat zone, I also knew that from a financial standpoint, this gave me an opportunity to get ahead.
While I was deployed, our main goal was to save $5,000, pay off all of our debt, and max out our Roth IRAs—and that’s exactly what we did. I went from being a chronic spender to an obsessive saver, really questioning any purchase that I wanted to make.
It took just over a year and half to pay all of my debt off. The extra money from the deployment helped to pay off the final of the credit card bills.
I don’t remember exactly how much of my income was going towards debt repayments each month—I was deployed so my job was to stay alive. But, if I had to guess, it was somewhere in the ballpark of 30 to 40 percent.
During the first half of my deployment, my wife was still living in a house we were renting with three of my close friends, so living expenses were minimal and we could throw as much as possible towards the debt. She was still finishing her MBA so my income was all we had at that point.
Finally paying off my debt was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Even though I was on a clear path to be debt-free, subconsciously I don’t think I believed I could actually get there.
Seeing both my parents struggle with debt, especially my dad, I think made me feel I was also destined to struggle for the rest of my life.
So to send in that last payment and be done, I just remember walking outside of my house and pumping my fists in celebration. It was awesome!
After coming home from Iraq, I returned to my job as a financial planner. This was really a career path that allowed me to learn the power of investing and taking charge of my financial life.
I became passionate about financial planning, especially when I started to see both of my parents and their financial shortcomings for what they really were. I don’t think I understood until then how many of their financial decisions and blunders could have been avoided.
Eventually, that led to me co-founding an investment firm with three other advisors, and then as my financial blog, GoodFinancialCents, grew in popularity, it made sense for the next venture of forming my own wealth management firm.
The biggest lesson I have learned throughout my financial journey is that you are not defined by your past mistakes.
When I was living paycheck to paycheck on a path of financial destruction, with $30,000 in debt and climbing, I easily could have used that as an excuse that I would never get ahead, and never achieve wealthy or rich status because of those stupid mistakes.
Instead, I used them as a catalyst to improve myself, to make things right, and to take charge of my own financial life.
Another crucial life lesson learned is the importance of investing in yourself.
My journey through education, the discipline acquired from the Army National Guard, and the continuous learning and adaptation in my career path underscore the value of self-investment, which has been pivotal in overcoming financial hurdles and achieving professional success.
Jeff Rose is the founder and chief financial planner of GoodFinancialCents.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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