The blog over at Our Next Life recently called out the FIRE community, and demanded that we all come clean. While this website is not strictly focused on FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), I do say a lot about becoming financially independent in my early to mid 40s with plans to retire at age 50. So, I guess I owe it to the FIRE community to explain where I come from, what I have, and where I am going. This way, you’ll know if you can relate to my advice or not. Fortunately, I think many will be able to relate.
While not quite a rags to riches story, I came from humble beginnings.
Unfortunately, this is a complicated and twisting tale, but I guess it’ll help you understand who I am, which is probably not a bad thing. If my children should ever happen upon this website, it’ll probably help them, too.
During the 1990s, my dad was a nuclear engineer. Mom was a homemaker for my two sisters and me. I remember growing up in upper middle class America in the northeast during that time.
We lived in a town-home connected to 8 or 9 other town homes. Winters were cold, but we were able to have a lot of fun sledding on the hills and building snow forts after the snow plows came through and pushed the snow up against the brick wall of the last town-home.
My dad and I loved playing sports despite my dad’s disability (more below) and watching The X-Files together in his Lazy-Boy recliner. Life was good.
I loved that place. That would all come crashing to an end, though, when I was 10 years old. My dad noticed some unsafe practices at his nuclear power plant, and reported them. Nothing happened, and so he went over his superior’s head to report it formally.
He tried to do the right thing, and was fired for it. They black-balled him so that he couldn’t get hired. All the while they blamed it on his inability to perform the same work he had been performing for 5 years because of his disability (The American Disability Act protects against such a thing).
See, my dad was disabled following a major hunting accident in 1980, five years before I was born.
[It’s a miracle that I am even here, actually].
While on leave from his service in the Navy, he sustained several injuries from a Springfield 30-30 gun shot wound (spinal cord injuries, complex regional pain syndrome, and much more). His friend thought his rifle was empty, and a bullet was still in the chamber and misfired.
Fortunately, he is able to walk despite his atrophied musculature below his knees, though his strength declines daily now.
The Beginnings of My Financial Experience
My parents were not just unfortunate when it came to their prior circumstances. They were also financially illiterate. That was a problem, because it led our family through some bad financial times.
To this day, I cannot remember a moment where my parents didn’t purchase everything using credit cards. When I was young and naive, I just understood that this was how things worked.
Plastic meant money.
Now that I know better, I understand that it was really just bad spending practices. They normalized debt for me to the extent that I didn’t even think about how much medical school would cost at the beginning. It was just debt, right?
These bad spending habits led my parents to have an ever accumulating amount of debt, which became a massive problem when my dad was fired from his nuclear engineer job.
My dad spent the next year looking for a job. My sister was enrolled in an inner-city high school where someone was shot on campus. I was stuck in a terrible elementary school where my parents grew up. It wasn’t challenging enough for me. So, their solution was more busy work.
After 9 months, my dad eventually found the next job… but they had accumulated $100,000 in debt with pretty much zero assets (despite selling all of their 401K retirement accounts, which they did each time he moved to a new job).
In dire straits, they declared bankruptcy. The Christmas before that year, I got everything I wanted. The Christmas after I got a bike (maybe a used bike?) and a Winnie-the-pooh pillow. My sister got a boom box. I am sure that all of this was bought using credit cards. My parents were honestly and sincerely trying as hard as they could, but they just didn’t know any better.
The next phase
That all ended, and I lived a pretty normal upper middle class American life again. My parents had an awesome Teal astrostar and a Chevy cavalier wagon. We moved even further south for my dad’s next job where he would later retire at the age of 44 (actually from his disabilities this time, which had worsened).
Unlike many reading this website, my parent’s retirement income has come from fixed income payments (disability and service in the military).
When my dad retired, I was a freshman in high school. I have fond memories of playing catch with my dad during this time despite his disabilities. He wouldn’t be able to walk for the rest of the day, because his pain would be unbearable. Looking back, I feel like a selfish prick for asking him to catch for me, but being a dad now I also get it. He wouldn’t have had it any other way. The man was my hero growing up.
College and Medical School
Four years of high school later, and I ended up going to college on a full-ride after winning a scholarship competition involving several rounds of interviews. Challenging stuff, but well worth the $100,000 that I received in return. Coming out of undergrad with no debt was great. I also met the love of my life there.
I was accepted to my private medical school four years later and planned on taking a shellacking financially. With room, board, and cost of living…I was anticipating coming out with more than $250,000 in debt. I had been wait-listed and wasn’t “Scholarship material.” Or, well, I thought I wasn’t.
A Twist of Fate
Two months into medical school, I became the class president; and something else happened, too. [I am not sure if they were related]. The financial aid office asked me to come up to the office following one of my classes, and told me “You’re the lucky winner!” To which, I replied, “Haha, funny. What did I forget to sign?“
They said, “No, really. You are being given a scholarship that has become available.” I was then given a full-tuition scholarship. Apparently, someone else who had previously been given this scholarship was given a full-ride (tuition + fees and living expenses) and gave this scholarship up. I almost passed out.
There were many other people who were more deserving of that scholarship, but I was happy (and still am) to have received it. Having to only ask for living expenses ($25,000 per year), I came out of medical school with $100,000 in student loans.
Then, I was an idiot (maybe because of my poor financial upbringing, or because I didn’t do my due diligence; maybe both) and went into forbearance on that to allow it to become $140,000 by the end of residency. Add that to my wife’s grad school loans for school administration, and we had about $185,000 when I finished training.
After all the interest was included, we paid back $200,000 in student loans.
In retrospect, I should have come out with little to no medical school debt for a lot of reasons. I didn’t know how to use the GI-Bill. I was getting married and my wife’s income should have covered our living expenses. Makes me sick to think about now, but I was young and stupid. I hope to save some people from the same fate with this website.
What’s the point?
The point of all of this is that I want you to know where I came from financially before I spend the next 1000 posts telling you what my plans are going forward. I felt that this post might be helpful for you to get to know me a little better and understand my now deep-rooted hatred for debt.
I hope this also serves as a reminder that if you have kids (or someday will) it is your responsibility to teach them. Teach them about the important stuff: sacrificial love, grace, forgiveness, compassion, being open minded. But also teach them about practical stuff like personal finances and compound interest.
What are your thoughts? Do any of you come from a similar background? Was debt normal for you? Or are you thankful for the teaching your parents provided you regarding personal finance topics? Leave a comment.