Yesterday I saw something I haven’t seen in over 10 years. On Personal Capital, my net worth was green. There was no negative sign, and I sat in awe at the sum of my net worth.
Hello, my name is Jean, and I am currently worth $403.
It started off as a challenge, or maybe a requirement, posed to me three years ago by my boyfriend Jesse. The story of my journey from $36,000 in both school and personal debt, to this point in time is also, in many ways, the story of our relationship. It is one born of two very different people, with two very different views on finances, learning to combine their lives. It is a story about how scary that is, and yet a story also about learning, acceptance, and ultimately love. Jesse grew up believing that financial stress was likely to kill relationships. I grew up without that said in so many words, but with the idea that feeling deprived and sacrificing what you love to do due to financial stress was the way things had to be. I entered the relationship confused and perhaps a bit resentful of how tight fisted he was with finances. He was worried that my debt indicated that I could never be both responsible and happy with what I had. In the end, he learned to trust who I was, regardless of whether I accomplished this debt free goal or not. In turn, I learned that the ability to help others and financial freedom can be born out of the right kind of self imposed restrictions. How can you help others if you cannot help yourself?
The biggest lesson learned by both of us, was the power of our choices, and how to accept the choices of one another. So much of both our lives, we trapped ourselves with ideas of how things had to be. For Jesse, he had bought into a certain style life, believing that you needed the standard American dream to be happy. I believed that certain things I always wanted to do (travel, vacations,), and not worrying about large purchases or medical bills, were things that only upper class people did. I could never afford those things, and even if I could, it would cost me the ability to help others through donations.
However, my budget journey changed those ideas in both of us. During these last three years I have averaged a salary of $42,000 in California, and yet managed to pay off $36,000 of debt. I did this while eating local and organic food, donating over $100 a month, and spending and average of $400 a month on travel and family trips. Jesse began investigating minimalism, discovering that he really did not need that many material goods in order to be happy. This freed up more of his resources to purchase organic food and products from more sustainable companies. It was a give and take for both of us, based on what we believed truly mattered. The moral of the story is that even with a lower income, you have the power to make the life you want. If you want to travel, you can travel. If you want to eat well, you can eat well. If you want to donate and make a difference, guess what, you can do that too! You just have to stop seeing your current lifestyle as a given thing. There is nothing saying you can’t do everything you want to do on a lower than average salary. It’s all about your choices.
My personal journey was not easy. My contributions to my debt started off small, at about $900/month, and blossomed to almost $2000 per month this past year. This ability was made possible by three main factors:
- I do not own a car
- I have a roommate
- My grocery budget
If you plan out your apartment location appropriately, cars are not necessary. If you think weather is a problem, think of all the bike commuters in Wisconsin that I saw over the holidays, in minus 10 degrees. I do own a motorcycle that I ride to work once a week. Monthly, my bike maintenance costs me about $15, my motorcycle insurance $45, motorcycle maintenance $25, and gas $3. Compare that $88 to the average of $706 per month for car ownership.
Is it cold and rainy sometimes? Yes. Do I have awesome rain gear? Yes. Do I get to eat so many more desserts because of my self propelled commuting? HELLS YES! If you want to be debt free, suck it up buttercup.
In regards to the roommate, my rent is $500/month. IN CALIFORNIA. In a good neighborhood, by the way. I have a two bedroom apartment in midtown sacramento for $1000 that I split 50/50 with a roommate. We found each other on craigslist, which really isn’t as sketchy as you think. As long as you fill out the correct paperwork you don’t have to worry about liability. II think most of those who complain that California is so expensive to live in do so because they want a garage, yard, and their own personal bathroom. To cut down expenses, you need to stop thinking about the average American life as a need. We are so privileged. One does not need a house to be happy, a car to be happy, or thousands of square feet of living space.
The third and final piece to this accomplishment is my grocery budget. I wanted to be debt free, but I was not willing to sacrifice my health of the planet’s health to do so. Organic, local food was a requirement. Going from about $150 a week to $55 was challenging at first, and I admit I went hungry and I cried. But as I learned to cook and buy in bulk, I developed a whole other relationship with my food. I never knew that so much of what I bought could be made at home, and that it could be so much better, and healthier, than what I bought in the store.
So here I am, and here we are, Jesse and I together. In one week we begin the process of moving me out of my Sacramento apartment, and moving in together in Portland OR. This moving in and making plans for the future, is where both Jesse and I have felt the impact of our combined financial security. Jesse and I have more freedom and more choices than ever before. We can make sustainable purchases that matter to us, and feel secure that our needs will be met. We don’t need to worry about sales, or storing goods just in case we might use them. We can get what we need, of the quality and ethics that we support, when we need it. Furthermore, we are financially stable enough that we can pursue and choose jobs we love, regardless of salary. I am pursuing a master’s degree in Urban Planning, instead of a STEM degree, despite the fact that my starting salary will be lower. Jesse can continue to work on his dream job at Million Mile Secrets, despite accepting a $15,000 per year pay cut to do so. Because of our financial freedom, we can work to enjoy 24 hours a day, not just the few hours when we are not at work. When we have children, we can campaign at work for extra time off and flexible hours, instead of a raise. Without our finances to worry about, we are able to truly live our values, prioritizing our family, our ethics, our ability to create positive change, and our own happiness.
The real question now is, what am I going to do with this blog? And how will my cooking be affected?
To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. But, if the last three years are any indication, Jesse and I are going to figure it out. Together.