I’m Becky, I’m 64 years old and have been married to Stephen for more than 40 years. We have three adult children. Like many, we’ve faced life challenges and didn’t always make the most calculated or ideal financial choices. While we are fortunate to have found sound financial footing, we’ve come a long way since the beginning.
I grew up in a home with two working parents. My mom was a school teacher and my dad was a blue collar worker. We had what we needed, but not a lot of extras. Mom was the main provider and decision maker. Dad was impulsive and grew up in a family with an attitude of entitlement. Unfortunately, that got passed to me.
I was an adult before I realized the attitude I had about my employer and co-workers was skewed. I grew up in a Christian home, but faith and money were rarely discussed, if ever. We either had the money for something I might want or we didn’t. There was no education on how to handle money.
What is the True Meaning of the American Dream?
Stephen, my husband, and I met in college and married after graduation. We both secured good jobs earning more than our parents. We thought we were all that. Little did we know, a disaster was coming. One of the first things we did in our newly married life was buy a new car and a house. That’s what you did, right?
This was the late 70s when oil was booming and things were only going up. The advice we received was not only buy a house but also get as much house as you could afford. So we did. Six months into our new marriage and we were homeowners at a 13.25% interest rate. If you lived through the 80’s, you know it got even worse.
We were making our payments fine, but not much of it was going to principal. Someone even told us about making extra principal payments to shorten the 30 year mortgage and save a lot of interest, but we didn’t listen. We were too busy spending everything we made. After all, we were in a position to have fun and have some material things for the first time in our lives. This even included a sailboat and yacht club membership. Life was good.
We had no vision for the future. We knew we really needed to think about it, but that was not a priority. “We’ll do that another day,” we thought. Our lives seemed to be on autopilot. Problem is, autopilot became us just drifting through each week, month, and year.
The Financial Challenges of Parenthood
When our first child arrived, we decided I would stay home with our son. This was a big decision because my salary was a little over 50% of our income (we had never heard of the “save one salary and live on the other” idea).
A few years later, Stephen’s company transferred us from Houston to Boston. Our hope was for a large increase in salary that wouldn’t be walked back when we returned to Texas. This was not to be. Our home in Texas was rented at a loss and his salary didn’t keep up with the increased cost of living. The final insult happened when we returned to Texas. Soon after moving back, his company started downsizing and he was laid off. So much for the salary bump!
There were several job changes after that, but never one that really helped our financial situation. A day came when he decided that the ethics of his coworkers did not match that for which he was striving. He decided that something had to change and he started his own business and worked from home.
There were good years and some not so good. But like the old MasterCard commercial, having Dad at home was “priceless”. He attended every school sporting event or concert. We were blessed by him being at home and in control of his schedule.
Now, back to the financial part of this story. Remember, we had not saved anything for the future. That means no retirement OR college savings. While Stephen owned his own business, there was not enough income to start any savings — or so we thought. Oh, how I wish someone had shown us the miracle of compound interest.
Fighting to Keep our Financial Heads Above Water
In the same year, two of Stephen’s clients decided not to pay him. I know this happens in business, but we had not experienced it.The amount was equal to about a year’s salary. This sent our finances and our relationship into a death spiral. Not only did we not have any income, but other companies that Stephen had contracted still needed to be paid.
Our financial situation deteriorated to the point that it was affecting our marriage and family life. I was frightened and Stephen felt like a failure. We set ourselves up for hardship because of our failure to even have an emergency fund. All our poor choices and indifference to the future had landed us in the middle of this storm and we were paralyzed. We had what felt like a mountain of debt, we were buying groceries with a credit card and we were about to start the college phase of life with three kids.
We were well into adulthood and looking at debt of greater than 50K with additional financial stress right around the corner. I felt like we would be paying for the rest of our lives and never overcome debt. This was an awful time for our family.
From Survival to Recovery
Stephen made the hard decision to close his business and seek a W-2 job. He connected with a small business owner that had a position to fill. He was hired and we were finally in a place of stability with a steady paycheck. He worked in this position for two years and paid off his old business debt. We had room to breathe.
After those two years, Stephen took another position at a firm he had admired for many years. It was perfect and he fit right in. The salary was good and the bonuses were even better.
Stephen started this position in 2008. Our oldest son was on a full-ride scholarship. Our second son would be starting college soon and had a ¾ scholarship. We were in a much better position than before, but still didn’t know how to handle our finances well. We just knew we didn’t EVER want to go back to where we’d been.
The Dave Ramsey Days
A friend mentioned some tapes they had from someone named Dave Ramsey (Yes, I said tapes, as in cassette tapes). I listened to a few and after discussing what I heard with Stephen, we decided “What can it hurt?” It didn’t take long before we realized we needed a change in our thinking and our attitudes.
We saw how big changes could be made if you worked at it and we wanted more. We were hooked on Ramsey’s simple, bible-based approach to finances. After getting our house in order, a desire for helping others out of their mess and hopelessness became a passion of ours. Stephen and I became Dave Ramsey leaders. It was very rewarding to see others make positive changes that can last a lifetime.
Better Choices, Better Habits, Better Future
The next few years consisted of paying for college and saving everything we could, which still wasn’t much. The important piece of the puzzle was that we had a different attitude about our spending. When our youngest was done with college, we were able to really focus on saving.
Stephen’s salary and bonuses continued to grow our retirement savings. It felt so good! And, we had three adult children with four degrees between them and none ended up with college debt. Funny thing about making better decisions. God can bless them. It was like He was waiting for us to grow up, act like adults and then He truly poured blessings on us.
Choosing Financial Independence
After we got to a place of stability, we thought our lives could somewhat go back on autopilot. Not only that, but we could loosen the purse strings a bit and enjoy some of the income we had. At that point, we assumed retirement would come at “normal” retirement age of 66 or 67. In May of 2017, our oldest son introduced us to the ChooseFI podcast (we had not entered the podcast world yet).
We listened to a few selected episodes and were quickly hooked. The information covered in ChooseFI, along with other podcasts and blogs, took what we knew and put it into warp drive. We learned about travel rewards, tax optimization, investment fees and many other topics. After re-evaluating our position and checking out some of the spreadsheets found on blogs by Big ERN at Early Retirement Now and Fritz at The Retirement Manifesto, we decided to keep our spending low. That allowed us to shave three years and retire at 63. Not early, but early for us.
Our family survived the bad years and came out the other side in good shape. A little charred from the experience, but in good shape. In fact, I thought many times that I never want to go back to where we were, but we learned lessons we wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t think we would be in the great place we are now if we hadn’t walked through that pain.
We probably would have continued to drift through life thinking normal is good enough. Unfortunately, normal is in debt and living paycheck to paycheck. Also, many people assume that normal can’t be changed. Normal can be changed drastically with a shift in your thinking. We’ve had our eyes opened to better attitudes and more efficient ways of handling money and life.
By Becky Heptig of www.startedat50.com