How I Broke the Broke Cycle

I grew up in the very opposite of what I define as financial freedom.  

I was one of six kids raised by my dad.  He was a great father, but he had his hands full trying to provide for us on a factory worker’s salary. It was almost impossible to make ends meet.  We bought groceries only after the refrigerator was empty or it was payday. We put clothes on layaway because we had no other choice. We didn’t have a home phone, so anytime we had to put down a number on an official form, we had to borrow a neighbor’s. As a teenager, that was hard: I felt so limited and restricted.  

I vowed that when I grew up, I’d never feel that way again. I wanted to be free.  

My father hadn’t gone to college, but listening to teachers and guidance counselors at school, I knew my future income would be largely dependent on getting a degree.  One thing my dad taught me was to work hard, so I didn’t mind working full time — at Shoney’s, at Subway, at Walmart — and going to school full time. My brother helped out by letting me live with him rent-free for three years. In exchange, I cooked and helped take care of the house. 

It was tough, but I graduated with almost no student loan debt. 

What really fueled the fire for me, though, was getting divorced and becoming a single mother in 2003. My daughter was nine then, and — though her father was and is involved — I truly felt responsible for providing her with a good life. 

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I remember one time I had to drive her to a school event and the car wouldn’t start—the battery had died. With no family nearby, there was no one to call. I felt so helpless. But because I’d been careful with my money, I realized I was in the financial position to get another car.  It was almost like magic in the way it lifted my worry. 

In fact, it made me want to find out more. I started reading and discovered how much I loved learning about money, how to save it, invest it, and manage it.  

I was amazed at how much I could save and still live a comfortable, middle-class life. I didn’t have to deprive myself. I’m in sales, so my salary fluctuates, but I saved even when I was making as little as $30,000 a year. I just felt I had to have something to fall back on. It’s still the same today:  In good years, I save like a maniac and max out on my 401K and Roth IRA.  In bad years, I save at least my 401k company match and feel relieved that I really socked it away when things were good. 

A few years ago, I decided to check out a meeting of an investment club in Cincinnati, Ohio, supported by BetterInvesting, the world’s largest investor-education nonprofit. I loved it right away. Most of the people were older than me — so they had a lot to teach — but we were all the same in that we were interested in making the best use of our money.

Today, I am president of the Cincinnati Model Investment Club and serve on BetterInvesting’s Regional Board of Directors. I love leading a proactive financial life instead of a reactive one. I don’t buy things wondering how I’m going to pay for them later; I already know how I am going to pay for things before I buy them. If I have an unexpected expense, my emergency fund acts like a cushion. 

I’ve saved for retirement and medical care. I have about 40-percent equity in my home.  If I want to purchase another home or car, I can structure my loan however I want and get the best mortgage rates because of my credit score. It helps that I don’t care about the small things — when I wanted an SUV, I was able to buy it, so who cares what brand of cereal I eat?

Of course, I was always trying to share this with my daughter, especially because she was not being taught about it enough in school, and I knew she would not get it in college. But after about age 15, she didn’t want to listen to a word I said. She did tell me, though, “You’re so good at this, Mom, you ought to write a book.” 

So, I did.  

I self-published it late last year, and titled it, “Money Letters 2 my Daughter.” Each chapter tackles a different topic, and each one is signed: Duly-taxed Mom, Giving (not loaning) Mom, Mom paying herself first, etc. My daughter’s 17 now, and though I know she can’t appreciate many of the lessons yet, the book will be there when she can.  In my heart, I feel it will give her the gift of financial freedom I so desperately fought for my whole life. And then she’ll have options, too. 

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