My Money Optimist Story

Sun Nov 13 2022

I grew up in a small, tight-knit town in rural Illinois where money wasn't ever talked about at family outings or around the dinner table. A lot of people lived a middle-class life, paycheck to paycheck with just enough savings to retire at 65, rely on social security, and live a comfortable life. Financial education wasn’t taught in school. The only time I remember learning about money was from my mother who showed me how to balance my checkbook. While a masterful skill in the ’90s, it doesn’t serve me much use today (sorry Mom). However, the basic balancing of my minuscule checking account from my various minimum wage jobs gave me my first taste of budgeting.

When I left home for college, I had the typical college education where again financial education class wasn’t.  We were supposed to be getting the education we needed to survive in the real world, yet there was no class for basic budgeting. No instruction on how to save for a home or how to go about paying off all of the student loans I was accumulating.  After 4 years of undergrad, I graduated with $16k in student loans, which is far less than most people today, and no real financial education to prepare me for my journey into adulthood.

I landed what I thought was my dream job working in finance in New York City, though unfortunately, the year was 2008. Like most 22-year-olds, it was my first time making and managing a full-time salary and truly being on my own financially. After my first month, I quickly realized that this money management stuff was harder than it looked. My rent was higher than anticipated (duh) and my nights out minimized any progress I made on my student loans. At the end of every month, I’d have nothing left to save. In the fall of ‘08 while my employer, Lehman Brothers, was starting the financial crisis, I was having one of my own. I would spend hours a day at my job, tinkering with my budget, trying to find a way to live a 20-something, New York life while making progress on my debt. 4 years later, after watching my salary climb to $100k/yr, I left NYC with $3,000 in savings and $11,000 in student loan debt. I couldn’t believe it. How could I have squandered 4 years of a good salary and walked away with basically nothing in the bank? It’s so obvious looking back now, but at the time I felt humiliated, ashamed, and just defeated. On the outside I was living this dream life yet I was broke.

I knew I needed to have a better relationship with money. I needed to approach the way I lived, valued things, and managed my money very differently. So I began reading personal finance book after personal finance book. I became obsessed with budgeting. I started managing my money with online tools and I became reinvigorated by the thought of what a new approach to money could bring to my life.

Fast forward through two years of business school, I was now starting a full-time job in NYC and luckily making a good salary once again. But now I had a mountain of $150k in student loan debt to tackle. However, after spending the last two years learning everything I could about money- listening to personal finance podcasts daily, reading countless blogs, and taking classes in business school on the behavioral psychology of money - I knew this time would be different.

In those first two years back at work, with a new approach to money, my wife and I started to drastically change our financial picture. I was energized by the FIRE movement and wanted to start my journey towards financial independence. We put 50% of our money towards savings and tackling debt. We would have monthly “pacing meetings” where we discussed our budget, our money goals and checked in to make sure our spending aligned with what we valued. We learned so much through this process and made huge strides in our journey to financial freedom. We paid down that $150k in student loan debt in 15 months. We got married and paid for the wedding in cash. We saved up an emergency fund, started maxing out our 401ks, and saved for a downpayment on a condo. It felt great knowing that we were building a strong financial foundation for our future but when money came up in chats with friends and family, I would hear story after story that sounded very similar to mine.

People are still living paycheck to paycheck, drowning in student loan debt, and struggling to retire on time. Why isn’t the money advice that I learned over these past 10 years easily available to people? Why is the financial system set up in a way that only the “1%” can afford good financial advice? I realized that the system is broken and there has to be a better way to help people become financially secure and see their money life with some optimism.

And that’s why I’m here. I’ve tried starting Money Optimist about 3,348 times over the past 10 years because I passionately believe that everyone deserves access to unbiased, honest financial advice and education. I tried to start and then ultimately stopped creating this site because the problem is so big and I couldn’t quite figure out what the solution should be. Then I realized that just writing about my story and what I have learned could be enough of a start. We will be writing more about our money journey and sharing all of the thoughts, strategies, and tools we’ve learned along the way.

Happy optimizing.

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