On Wednesday I turned 40. I started this blog with that birthday in the forefront of my mind. The three year experiment was an exercise in using the last three years of my 30s well, in reaching a financial and lifestyle goal before I hit the big 4-0.
To celebrate this auspicious occasion, I went with a group of friends to a Korean restaurant where we rented a private karaoke room. Several friends drove or flew in to Davidson to help me celebrate. I had that perfect, happy feeling of being well celebrated and surrounded by people I loved all night.
Time is a funny thing. The memory of my 30th birthday is so clear, and yet it happened a decade ago now. Junior ThreeYear was two then and now he’s twelve.
I’ve done a lot of living in those ten years. Just ten months after my 30th birthday, we moved from Atlanta to New Hampshire, and then eight years later, on to North Carolina. We had a second child. We sold two and bought two houses in that decade. I’ve run over ten half- and full-marathons. I’ve had half a dozen jobs. We lived through eight New Hampshire winters. We’ve gone on countless trips. I’ve made lifelong friends.
We’ve done a lot with our money in that time–we’ve grown our net worth substantially. We’ve paid off our apartment in Chile as well as many cars and large chunks of mortgage debt. We’ve built a college fund for the kids. We’ve gotten a month ahead with our budgeting. We’ve learned to be a bit more frugal, to spend according to our values.
I’ll tell you this. I don’t feel sad to be turning 40. On Wednesday, as people were teasing me about arriving at this massive birthday, I didn’t feel regret. I didn’t pinch my chin or bemoan my arm waggle (and there is arm waggle). I thought, “Damn, am I grateful to have arrived at this birthday. I am grateful for all the time on Earth. I’m profoundly, humblingly, on-my-knees, I-am-not-worthy, relieved, to have made it here. To have not died. To be healthy. To have a family, a precious husband, my two boys, beside me.”
I don’t always feel that way. Sometimes I pinch my arm fat and sigh at the ridiculous vessel that is an aging body. But on Wednesday I felt grateful.
I thought about what kind of post I wanted to write to commemorate 40 years on the earth. I could easily have done a “40 Lessons in 40 Years” post. I’ve learned many more lessons than that in the four decades I’ve completed on this planet. But I could barely get through Taylor Swift’s “30 Lessons” post. 40 lessons might be pushing it, especially given my summer of blogging less.
Maybe, I thought, it might be a more productive (and entertaining) exercise, to condense my four decades down into four lessons. Four truths.
But that’s hard. I mean, I’ve lived a long time. Done a lot of stuff. Made a lot of mistakes, which means a lot of lessons. So maybe it makes more sense to stay in my lane, writing-wise, and come up with four money lessons each of my four decades taught me. After all, my financial lessons are the reasons this blog is in existence.
So, without further ado, I bring you the four money lessons I’ve learned over four decades of living.
Decade 1: The Lesson of Security
In my first decade, surrounded by two loving parents, extended family, and a wealth of friends, I learned the lesson of security. I’m acutely aware that other children, like my husband, learn much different lessons growing up, but I had the very good luck to be born into a family who taught me that enough money brings security.
Although I remember occasional comments made by my parents, indicating that money was tight (when they were building our house) or that we couldn’t afford a particular thing, in general, we had plenty of everything, and I never felt like we were in any kind of financial turmoil.
My dad worked a lot and so did my mom, but they were also incredibly loving parents who made sure we got to do tons of fun activities, lessons, and camps, and occasionally take really incredible trips (if you wonder where my love of travel started). I went to Alta, Utah, on a skiing trip in third grade. I went out to Napa Valley at ten (the wine tasting wasn’t much fun for a ten year old but the convertible we rented sure was!). During summers, we went to the beach with my grandparents and I went to camp with my friends.
I learned, in my earliest years, that the way you get money is by working. My dad worked incredibly hard and sacrificially to build his pediatric practice, which he owned. For years, whenever we sat down to eat dinner, the phone would ring, and he’d get up, usually several times a meal, to answer questions from concerned parents about their kiddos. My dad would get so annoyed that parents wouldn’t bring kids, who’d been sick all day, in to the doctor, but he always said, ” it’s not the kids’ fault their parents are idiots.” (This also taught me to bring my kids into the doctor during office hours). I began to help my dad in his pediatric practice, filing files and answering the phone, at age nine.
I also learned that having enough money means you can pay for the things you need and want. While we occasionally didn’t get the things we wanted, we always had everything we needed.
Woven into my earliest years were smaller lessons of restraint, almost inevitably from my mom. We rejoiced when a new box of hand-me-downs arrived from a cousin (and now, a generation later, so do my kids). We used decades-old appliances until they finally sputtered out and died (or we convinced my mom that they were certain to cause an electrical fire if she didn’t replace them). We ate left-overs a lot. Sooo many left-overs.
Decade 2: The Lesson of Scarcity
As I entered my teenage years, I began to learn the lesson of scarcity.
Despite what life coaches would have you believe, we do, in fact, have finite resources on this earth. The amount of money that we have is limited, even the super rich among us. So is our time and our energy. We have to make choices about how we spend our limited resources.
My mom loves to tell the story (perhaps a little too much) of how, when I was a preteen, I would beg her for one more outfit when we went shopping at the mall, how I was never satisfied, no matter how many clothes she bought me. Then she wised up and gave me a weekly allowance.
She always conveniently forgets that I was the one who suggested the allowance, thanks to my 7th grade teacher, Mr. Bell, who explained that his own kids received a generous weekly allowance but had to pay for all their expenses, including school lunches, clothes, and shoes. I loved the idea and promptly went home and talked my parents into it.
To their credit, they were game, and I began to receive $25 weekly, a veritable fortune to my 7th grade self.
A veritable fortune, that is, until I began to have to make choices on how to spend it. As my mom loves to recount, once I had to pay for my own clothes, I quickly started buying a lot less. My $25 had to pay for not only my clothes and shoes, but also my school lunches, activities with friends, and any books or trinkets I may have wanted.
The weekly allowance showed me, in a very real way, that money is finite, and that I had to make hard choices about how to spend it.
The lesson was repeated when I went to college at age 18. My weekly allowance became a monthly allowance of $250. That probably sounds generous to many readers, but I had friends at my tony university whose parents gave them credit cards to use carte blanche for expenses (perhaps sadly, for them, who may still have trouble with financial limits). Straining against these limits, I got a job my sophomore year of college and made more money. But I could only work so much, because of time and energy scarcity. The more money I made, the more I wore myself thin juggling work and school.
I learned that I had to make choices about how I spent my time and my money, and I made some poor choices. I worked a lot to buy too many clothes I didn’t need. I also made better choices, like buying a trip to Jamaica for Spring Break that I still remember.
Decade 3: The Lesson of Debt
Oh, what a hard decade my third was. I finished school, moved to Chile, and began my very first (real) job. I relearned the lesson of scarcity, as I had to make my meager paycheck cover my rent, utilities, and all the eating and drinking out that I was doing.
But once I began making a wee bit more, met Mr. ThreeYear, and moved back to the US, I attempted to override the lesson of scarcity and impose my own financial limits on my life, independent of my actual financial reality.
Mr. ThreeYear and I went from being a debt-free young couple with two paid-for cars and $0 in student loans to a massively in-debt couple with an underwater mortgage, car loans, and credit card debt, all in the matter of about three years.
You know the saying “Pay now and play later, or play now and pay later”? We thought that we could skip the hard parts of life, i.e., the living within our means and making hard choices about cars and houses, and instead do whatever we wanted now and pay ourselves back later with what were sure to be ever-increasing salaries.
Except life had some lessons to teach. After Mr. ThreeYear was laid off and I stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom, we realized those assumptions about our salaries were false, and our money didn’t go as far as we thought it did.
I saw that all of the debt we’d accumulated was essentially a shaky house of cards that could come toppling over any minute.
Climbing out of that debt was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, but it was also one of the best. I never realized what a physical and mental toil our debt was, until we were on the other side of it and had money in the bank.
The Lesson of Debt was the least pleasant lesson I had to learn. It’s fair to say that my third decade was the hardest of my life in many ways.
But, like hard lessons do, it taught me the most. It changed me the most and improved me the most. The Lesson of Debt made me more humble, less sure I had all the answers. It made me realize I wasn’t better than other people, as I tended to subconsciously thin. It taught me I was just as, if not more, stupid.
The Lesson of Debt also gave me a new, lasting appreciation, for the sacrifices of my Depression-era grandfather, for frugality, for being careful with your scarce resources.
Decade 4: The Lesson of Delayed Gratification
As I began my fourth decade, around year 30, I was happy to start anew, to have payed off most of my debt, and to begin building our family’s net worth.
We moved to New Hampshire when I was still 30, almost 31, and began implementing the strategies that would help us become financially independent.
My fourth decade was a decade of massive focus, restraint, and financial purpose. We saved a large amount of our incomes, from 30-45%+.
We maxed out our retirement accounts, took out 15-year mortgages, and lived on less, rather than more, than what we made.
I learned to wait for the things I wanted. I waited for years to save up for furniture, cars, bikes, and vacations.
We took our 10-year anniversary trip on our 12th anniversary, because it took that long to save up for it.
We worked really hard to become more frugal, shaving off recurring expenses and automatically saving a large portion of our incomes.
I went back to work and began to save a large portion of my income.
We saved and invested, saved and invested. For a while, it felt as if nothing were happening. And then, slowly, our net worth began to grow, picking up a bit of momentum. We added on additional $100Ks ever faster, cutting growing time from two years to six months. Sometimes our nest egg grew faster, sometimes it grew slower. Sometimes, we took financial hits, like when we moved to North Carolina last summer.
But overall, we saw that the work our past selves had done to improve our financial situation had made the present day’s situation better.
We learned that saving up to buy something was a lot more satisfying than making payments. We slept better at night.
Sure, we occasionally bemoaned the fact that we had to wait for everything, that we perennially drove older, high-mileage cars, that it seemed like everyone around us had more money, nicer stuff, and less sacrifice than we did.
But slowly, we realized that we were creating something that other people didn’t have, which was the peace of mind of a burgeoning financial independence.
These aren’t really final thoughts. I’ll keep growing, and learning more, relearning these same lessons, and making new mistakes, for the rest of my life.
Next month, when school starts, I’ll be a newbie once again, faltering and erroring as I learn how to be a (hopefully good) Spanish teacher.
I hope that when I stop to reflect on my life a decade hence, I will have continued to cultivate humility and gratitude. I hope I’ll have continued to prioritize the things with long-term value, such as my family, my relationships, and my health.
I hope my finances become a happy but less-important backdrop to my life, although I’m sure they’ll have more lessons to teach me.
Thank you for sharing my journey with me. As always, I appreciate you reading and being a part of my life.