I live about 10 minutes from the hospital I was born in. In fact, I’ve always lived about 10 minutes from the hospital I was born in. The apartment complex my wife and I rent from is right in the middle of suburbia. Crime, while present, isn’t exactly rampant, and the school system prepares its students decently well for adult life. At least, I feel like it does. We don’t have many 16-year-old Harvard grads, but our high school graduation ceremonies aren’t empty from dropouts, either. I live right in the heart of middle-class America. The house I grew up in is surrounded by two- and three-bedroom, one story houses with respectable-sized yards and one-car garages. The cars in those garages were mostly minivans and responsible sedans, used to carry the 2.3 children that belonged to the families that owned them.
90% of my childhood life was average. The exception to my average upbringing was middle school, during 7th and 8th grades. My parents felt that the school I was “supposed” to go to based on district boundaries wouldn’t challenge me enough academically, so I was transferred to a different school in a different part of town. This part of town was considerably more upper class. The students there had parents who were business executives and politicians, drove foreign cars, and wore clothes with designer labels attached. As a result, the students themselves had all the latest gadgets, looked forward to promises of their own foreign cars once they turned 16, and wore the same designer clothes. I was unprepared for this sort of culture shock, and it showed. My less-than-wealthy upbringing contributed to some awkward experiences during an already awkward phase of life.
As my two years in that school came to an end, I began to see the other kids as not only different from me, but unattainably so. I wouldn’t ever live like them because my parents weren’t like their parents. The mansions they lived in were just not an option for me. The cars they drove would never be closer than the next lane on the highway. At the close of every school day, I’d go back to my three-bed, one-bath house, sit in my 60-square-foot bedroom, and do the same homework they did, but that would be the only thing I would ever have in common with them. Looking back now, I suppose I felt some resentment towards that, but at the time, it just felt like my lot in life.
As I got older, that mentality persevered. After I wrecked the car that my parents had given me, I knew that its replacement needed to be equally as practical, equally as budget-friendly, equally as plain. I knew that the Wall Street executives I began paying attention to on the news were just a different type of person. And I knew that a six-figure salary would forever be reserved for someone who deserved it more than I did. You know, for the better people. After high school, all these thoughts were reinforced through a relationship I had began with a girl I met. Though she never came out and said it, I always felt that there was this elephant in the room between us. Her parents were the same type of business owners that had the houses and cars that weren’t for someone like me. She went to a private high school that cost more than I could ever expect to earn in a year. She experienced a better life because she was a better person, or so I thought.
After we broke up, I started taking an interest in all things personal finance. I wondered if I could do better than what I had been led to believe all these years. I consumed blogs, news articles, books, podcasts, everything I could, and learned all the different takes on the basics along the way. Some things, like actual retirement and ever being able to pay cash for a car, still seemed out of reach, but I at least knew theoretically how to get there. Spend less than you earn, use savings rather than credit, and be content with what you have. I don’t know how all the parents of my fellow middle school students got to where they were in life, but I knew how to at least put myself on the same path. For the first time, I snapped out of the “I’ll never get there” thought pattern and started seeing that if I would just get up and do something about my situation, it would change.
A year into this journey along the Baby Steps, Rachel and I are doing more than I ever thought we could do. Working four jobs between the two of us, we made under $70,000 last year, but that hasn’t stopped us from making some serious change (no pun intended!). We drive two paid-for cars (they’re 10 and 14 years old), we have no problems paying the rent on our (750 sq. ft., one-bedroom) apartment, we wear comfortable clothes (bought on sale, without logos or names), and we’ve cash flowed several emergencies. We don’t have huge savings accounts or parents to pay for things for us, but we are learning discipline. We’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where you start as much as it matters where you decide to go. Yes, those kids I went to middle school with got a much bigger head start on the road to financial ease than we did, but that doesn’t make it impossible for us to join them.
Our budget has been our biggest ally through all of this. Following it has allowed us to stay within our means, which in turn allows our means to grow little by little every month. Retirement is no longer a far-off dream, it’s our plan. Six-figure salaries may still not be in the cards for us, but they’re not necessary to live comfortably. We’ve learned that there will always be people “ahead” of us along the path of financial success, just like there will always be people “behind” us. Instead of being jealous of the people “ahead,” we’re choosing to learn from them and cheer them on in their successes. And instead of growing complacent in our growth because of or mocking the ones “behind,” we feel called to help them get to where we are, or even succeed beyond our level.
We’re not “there” yet by any stretch of the imagination. We still have approximately an entire salary’s worth of debt. Our net worth is negative, and hasn’t been positive since long before either of us knew each other. Even after we pay all this off, we’re going to be almost starting over again with whatever mortgage we end up taking out. But we aren’t going to let that be the end of our story. We’re going to keep fighting, keep learning, and keep growing so that we can leave a better legacy to our children and live as better stewards of the money God has blessed us with.
Circumstances certainly dictate where you start in life, but they don’t have to dictate where you end up. We’ve all seen the “If I can do it, so can you!” stories and rolled our eyes. “Yeah, maybe I could get where you are if I had your job, or your family support, or your health.” True, you may not always be able to attain the success of your next-door neighbor. But you can absolutely achieve success in your own life, as determined by your own criteria. Small steps in the right direction over a long period of time is all it takes. Get after it!
What about you? What was your “I really CAN do this” moment? If you haven’t gotten there yet, what do you think it would take for someone to convince you that success isn’t just for other people?