How I Saved $1 Million

Editor’s Note: Jeannette Bajalia’s father died when she was only 26, leaving nothing behind for her mother but a $545 monthly social security check. Jeanette explains how she stepped up to care for her mom, worked her way up from being a secretary—and still saved more than $1 million.

Growing up, I really didn’t have a relationship to money. Money was never abundant, so there was not much to manage back then. Rather, my family’s attitude was: you work to generate enough to keep food on the table and provide for the basic needs of a large extended family, including grandparents, who need support. 

You see, I was the fifth daughter born into a family of immigrant parents who came to America for a better life. My parents couldn’t speak English when they arrived from Palestine, but they had an entrepreneurial spirit. My father started a business, a grocery store. I began to help him in this store in Jacksonville, Fla., at the age of 7. I learned early on how to run the family business and learned basic cash management concepts there. 

When I graduated from high school at 16, there was no money in the family for college. 

So I went to work as an executive secretary at a major insurance company the day after I graduated. I was expected to marry and have someone take care of me back then. Instead, I worked hard. 

I moved into other clerical roles and found myself in middle management by age 21. That’s when I decided to go to college. Since I worked in insurance and underwriting, I wasn’t at all oriented toward financial concepts, but my company did offer a tuition reimbursement program and they paid for my degrees. 

I majored in industrial psychology for my undergraduate studies. Then I majored in human resources management for my master’s degree. The tuition reimbursement definitely gave me the incentive to educate myself. In fact, the company paid for books if we got As. I made it a point to get As.

I went to college at night while working days at the insurance company. My biggest motivator was knowing that I needed to generate a lot of income to take care of two aging family members while saving for my future.

Then my father passed away. I was just 26. I learned he’d left absolutely nothing for my mother except for a $545 monthly social security check. And I inherited the financial responsibility of caring for my mother and great aunt.

When I first had to take over the support of my mother and aunt, it was overwhelming. I had to scale back on my savings temporarily. That lasted about two years until I figured things out. I had them move in with me to cut expenses. I bit the bullet for the benefit of my finances. 

Good thing I did. Later, I had to add another $40,000 expense annually to my budget when I needed to hire a caregiver to help take care of my mother. But I still had to take out an equity line of credit to add a handicapped bedroom onto my home to accommodate her needs.

I should say that in our family, helping each other is expected. We lived at home longer than other families. We each paid our parents $25 a week to live there, though, which helped us learn that we had to pay for a roof over our head (plus it helped them out with daily expenses). 

By my thirties, I found myself still single and realized there might not be a man to take charge of financial matters as my parents once told me. So I set out to figure it out myself.

At first, I knew nothing about investing or managing money. All I knew was how to save.  When my company implemented a 401(k), I was excited when I learned they would match my contributions. Anytime I got a pay raise, I contributed more to the fund. It came directly out of my paycheck. I also saved by never getting caught up in what others were doing. I didn’t spend on excessive recreation or travel, for example. I always saved more than I spent. 

I had no magical strategy. What I did was consistently save over time and it paid off. Ten years ago, at the age of 52, I’d saved $1 million for retirement!  It was as simple as that. 

I didn’t know enough to have investment insights when I was young. I just read what successful people did and that they invested for the long term. The only edge I had was staying put in a diversified portfolio and not getting emotional about markets going up or down. 

I think the harder part is having the discipline to save. So my tip is: save now or pay later. Far too many people wake up in their sixties and realize they don’t have enough money. I say, let go of the mentality of spending money for immediate gratification to protect yourself in the long-term.

I pinched pennies to have more to save in my 401K, and I learned a few things:  

  • Set up a consistent monthly budget and live by it. If there were added expenses in an upcoming month, like if I was going to be in my friend’s wedding, then I cut out other things in my budget. Charging to a credit card to accommodate a lifestyle was not an option for me.
  • If you buy something on sale, put the savings from your purchase into a savings account. Let’s say I saved $10 off a blouse. I would put away that $10 into a savings account immediately. And, I learned never to pay full price for anything—not clothes, shoes, food, cars, furniture, absolutely NOTHING. I still go for the BOGO (Buy One Get One free) offers at grocery stores!
  • Socialize frugally. I hung out with a group of friends who’d get together and take turns preparing food instead of going to high-end restaurants. Even on shopping trips, we always hit up sales. We’d never buy anything full-price and even traded clothes with one another. This always kept me with a fresh wardrobe without cost.

Looking back, I’d have to thank my mother for showing me how to stretch a dollar. In my family, we never had our own cars, for example. When my mother shopped for us and my nieces and nephews, she would go to “basement” department stores. I’d often wear shorts for 10 cents, pajamas for 50 cents and any kind of items that were being closed out.

Vacations, too, were nearby, like Clearwater, Tampa or Orlando and only by car. To be honest, I didn’t feel deprived. We didn’t care where we were going as long as we were together as a family. We often stayed four—and many times more!—to a room. And if we traveled further, then we stayed with relatives to save on lodging costs. 

I guess one of the main things I learned from the corporate world about saving for retirement was about sticking to things. I realized early on that I had to stay in my career regardless of how challenging it became. Bouncing around to different jobs does not give you the opportunity to vest into pension plans. I stuck it out many times because I knew the grass may not be greener if I left. I just kept my focus on the goals. Money follows sound decisions.

Jeannette Bajalia left the insurance world and wrote a book in 2012 called “Wi$e Up, Women! A Guide To Total Fiscal and Physical Well Being.” It’s geared to women like her with a unique set of challenges to face, like fewer assets, longevity and long-term healthcare costs.

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