You would probably never guess that I was homeless at one point in my life by looking at me. I know it’s stereotypical but most people think of a homeless person as someone who is dirty grungy and hairy who pushes around a shopping cart full of empty beer cans and a rolled up sleeping bag all day long, carrying a piece of cardboard with “will work for food” written on it. But I’m here to tell you that although that might be there stereotypical version, that’s not always the case. It just goes to show that you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
Growing up you could say I was raised in an average middle class earning home. I had two parents with graduate degrees and PHD’s who worked full-time and made good money. They never discussed money with me or how much they made but we always had what we needed. We lived in a spacious 3 bed 2 bath house in Corvallis, Oregon where I was born and raised.
My dads paycheck went straight to my mom and she took care of all the finances. I never got an allowance but anytime I needed money if I asked they would just give it to me. My mom, who spent her free time shopping, would take me with her and buy me clothes or whatever I wanted. It was really easy on my part but that lack of financial responsibility would take its toll on me later in life.
My parents never taught me about money. School definitely didn’t teach me about managing money either. All I knew from watching my parents was that you go to work, make money, pay your bills and spend the rest. I was never educated on saving or planning for the future. From what I could gather was that if you had money you spent it.
I remember one time when I was about 9 years old I was with my mom driving around town and I asked her to stop at the convenient store. I told her to wait in the car while I went in because I had my own money (she never questioned this, probably thinking my dad gave me some money) and wanted to buy a candy bar. I walked into the store and picked out my candy bar, walked up to the counter and confidently laid down my Kit-Kat along with a handful of “play money” seriously thinking that the guy at the counter was going to accept my “cash”. It was the kind of money that comes in a toy cash register with paper bills and plastic coins. I remember the guy looking at me and laughing saying “this isn’t real money”. I was completely embarrassed and ran out to the car wondering how my plan didn’t pan out. This was how clueless I was about money. I was just sure that he would have taken my “money” in exchange for the Kit Kat!
When I was getting close to graduating high school everybody was talking about where they were going to go to college at and I was anxiously waiting for my parents to surprise me with a “secret college fund” but that day never came. I honestly knew they didn’t have any money set aside for my college but I was still secretly hoping that it was a possibility. So college was not on my radar at that point in my life. I didn’t have the money to go and didn’t know what I wanted out of life yet, besides my friends and my social life were top priority for me, nothing else mattered.
My parents informed me during my senior year that they were going to sell our house and move from Oregon to Oklahoma after I graduated since that’s where my dad was originally from and all of my family was there. I remember thinking no way was I going to move to Oklahoma, I loved Oregon and besides that I wasn’t about to leave my friends. That’s when things got real, real quick.
I didn’t have any money saved. My paychecks were dismal to say the least but I was thinking that my parents surely would help me out from time to time as they had been doing up to that point. Wrong. My parents didn’t approve of my group of friends or how my life seemed to have no direction. They had given me an ultimatum, go with them to Oklahoma and start a new life or stay in Oregon and get no financial support from them. I stayed.
I thought I knew it all at that time of my life. I had it all planned out, or so I thought. I figured that I wouldn’t have any problems getting a place on my own. I’d live this blissful life with my then boyfriend, playing house and cooking dinner together and singing show tunes as we went off riding unicorns into the sunset every day! How wrong I was. And how naive. I think naive was my middle name.
It was a strange feeling once my parents moved to not have a house to come home to. I was all alone with all of my family halfway across the US. I had been so used to relying on my parents anytime I needed money that by them cutting me off was truly a struggle. I honestly thought there was no way they wouldn’t help me out if I needed money, especially my dad who never told me no. The first few days on my own were fun and exciting, a true sense of adventure but I quickly learned what “broke” really meant. There were no rainbows and unicorns.
My boyfriend at the time was even more broke then I was so together we were pretty pathetic. We jumped from house to house sleeping on friends couches and crossing our fingers that they would allow us to stay another night. The anxiety and stress of not knowing how long we could stay with someone definitely sucked. I hated the feeling of being dependent on others and imposing on their homes and lives. It was so awkward to have to ask if we could stay just a little longer.
Once we ran through the gamut of friends houses to crash at we were out of options. We didn’t have enough money to even stay in a cheap hotel. So what were we to do? We ended up sleeping in my car, parked next to a city park, everything I owned thrown in the backseat. I was officially homeless. How did I end up in such a predicament? That first night of sleeping in my front seat was extremely depressing to say the least. I could hardly sleep, I was so worried that someone would see us, break the windows, or the police would come by and arrest us for trespassing.
I had a full-time job but I was just making above minimum wage which was barely enough to get by. After a few more weeks and once payday hit we finally scrounged up enough money for a deposit to move into one of the worst apartment complexes in town. A tiny one bedroom corner unit on the second floor. It was so old and run down that our unit had really dirty orange shag carpet with giant faded squares from the sunlight filtering in through the windows. It had wood paneling and was straight up from the 70’s but not in a good fashionable way. It was close to $500 a month, very overpriced for what we were getting considering, but at least it was a place we could call home. Rent was late every month as we tried to stay on top of just being able to eat.
When payday came around I was so excited to go to the grocery store and buy a few things to eat but once that food ran out after a couple of days that was it. I remember one day I was so hungry and we didn’t have any food so I went to my neighbors apartment, knocked on the door, and asked them if I could borrow a potato because I was making a recipe that called for one and I didn’t want to go to the store. The truth was that I couldn’t even afford to go to the store and that potato ended up being the only thing I ate that day.
The hardest part for me was when my car broke down and I was having to walk to work, miles away in the cold and snow. I worked the evening shift so it was even scarier walking home all alone in the dark. I called my mom begging her to send me money to fix it and time and time again she said no. I was on my own. This is what I had wanted, right?! To stay behind and stick it out with a no job having boyfriend who I later found out was also cheating on me regularly as we lived this poor miserable life with no direction.
One evening around 2am my boyfriend and I were watching Jerry Springer in the living room (hey don’t judge, it was the best show back in the day!) when all of a sudden a group of about 5 guys busted down our front door and came running through the house with baseball bats and masks on. They were after my boyfriend. The guys looked at me, obviously seeing how scared I was and told me they weren’t going to hurt me. My boyfriend ran out leaving me behind and was able to escape through a window.
There I was left in a shady apartment complex with a broken down door, a disloyal boyfriend and no money to my name. That’s when I finally came to my senses and said I can’t do this anymore. This was not the kind of life I wanted to live or envisioned for myself. It was a very dark time in my life. I still to this day don’t know why those guys were after my boyfriend but obviously I was caught up in the wrong crowd. Now instead of watching an episode of Jerry Springer I was living my own Jerry Springer episode.
I called my mom the next morning and asked her to send me a one way plane ticket to Oklahoma. She was more than willing and happy to do so, it was the first good conversation we had in months. I packed my suitcase the next day and took off. It was the best decision I had ever made. I left my broken down Honda Accord in the parking lot of the apartment complex and I still have no idea what ever happened to it, nor did I care. I was thankful that I had a ticket to a new life.
Even though my parents never taught me about money, by them cutting me off was the biggest money lesson I ever had and for that I am forever grateful. That tough love taught me more than they could have ever imagined and shaped my entire future for the better. It was a humbling experience to have to rely on my parents once again but there was no way I could have dug myself out of the hole I was in without their help.
I enrolled in college when I got to Oklahoma and started working right away as a Blackjack Dealer. I also picked up another part-time job as a teller at a bank and I worked in the drive through mostly. It was a good job with a fun group of girls that worked there. It was always so interesting to me to see how much money people had in their bank accounts, that job fulfilled my voyeuristic tendencies for sure! Some of the people I would least expect it had so much money, like hundreds of thousands of dollars in their savings! It really opened my eyes to the diversity of funds that people had and it got me thinking about how I should really start getting my finances in order. Plus I was making good money at both of my jobs and I was very driven, a complete turnaround from how I was in Oregon.
I vowed to never get myself in a position to where I couldn’t provide for myself again. I started saving money, spending a lot along the way too (you can read about my shopaholic tendencies here), but at least I now knew the importance of saving at that point. I was paying my own way through college making monthly payments but I did also have to take out a few student loans totaling close to $10,000 for my Bachelors degree (you can check out how I paid those off along with all my other debt here).
I moved into a duplex with my new boyfriend and we split the rent. It felt really good to be in a position to where I could pay all my bills on time and have money leftover. As soon as I found out about a 401K I started investing in it, this was my mid 20’s. I started with investing 8% of my income and through the years slowly increased that number up until I was saving over 20% of my income.
I bought my first home when I was 25 and that was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I remember my dad being really proud of me because I did it all on my own. The day of closing I was so nervous signing all the paperwork by myself and seeing those big numbers but afterwards my real estate agent got me a bottle of champagne and I finally felt like I had reached a financial milestone.
A few years later I met my husband and I sold that house and we bought our dream home out in the country amongst the trees where we currently reside. Right now we are working towards paying off our mortgage early (you can read about that here) so we are investing 15% until that is complete and then we will increase that number as well. Having a paid for house is extremely important to me coming from a security standpoint. Knowing that we will own our home outright is priceless to me after going through a time in my life where I did not have a place to call home.
Having no other debt, an emergency fund saved up, a positive net worth, and investing for retirement is comfortable to say the least. That’s what I call financial peace. It’s crazy for me to think about how far I’ve come from that young girl straight out of high school with not a penny to her name and no real understanding of how important money management was to today where I’m a financial nerd who researches index funds and is pursuing financial independence.
The other part of the equation of why effective money management is so important to me is that I now have kids, one girl and one boy. I want to teach them how to manage their money so that when they get older they won’t have to go through what I did. I know they will have to fly on their own and learn from their own mistakes but at least I can help prepare and educate them.
I definitely learned a lot of hard lessons during my time alone in Oregon. Not just about money, but about life, and the people who you can really count on. I’m grateful for each and every one of them however. If it wasn’t for my parents tough love I could still be there living in poverty, no direction in life, coupled with loser boyfriends and no sense of self-worth. So here’s to my happily ever after. I don’t have everything figured out but I’m learning and I’ve got a good grip on where I’m going.