I recently backed up all of Money After Graduation’s posts… manually. I literally copied and pasted every word into word documents, and then saved them in the cloud. This was done primarily to back up the site before its redesign in the coming weeks, but also because I never back anything up and it was becoming too much to comfortably lose. Years of my life are chronicled in this blog, and I feel nostalgic about the record of my twenty-something years in this little corner of the web.
As I went through hundreds and hundreds of posts — dating as far back as four and a half years ago when this was merely a personal blog — and watched my journey through personal finance at an accelerated speed. I was shocked by how much I had forgotten about my own journey, the numbers and the experiences. At one point, I was striving to live on $900/month so I could put the rest of my income towards paying off my debt and building my net worth. That’s dedication I didn’t even know I had! No seriously… I can’t believe I did that. It’s funny to think how much those personal finance efforts absorbed my life, and now how quickly I’ve forgotten most of the details. I was serious about money, but at that time I had no idea how serious my passion would become.
I often write like everyone reading this blog has been subscribing since it’s inception. However, Money After Graduation’s readership continues to grow, I realize that the majority of readers currently checking back every day haven’t been reading for years. They’re new, and I’m new to them. So, now that it comprises a coherent tale, I would like to share my story.
I grew up in a lower middle-class household, and we struggled with money. One of the very first things I understood about money, is that we never had enough of it. My parents worked humble jobs and we lived paycheque-to-paycheque, and sometimes those paycheques ran out. We never faced homelessness, but that was definitely more luck than planning. We did run out of food sometimes. My parents divorced when I was nine, and legal bills devoured anything that would have made life more comfortable. My sisters and I wore secondhand clothes, we participated in free or low-cost extra-curriculars, and for the most part we didn’t even notice our socioeconomic standing.
I didn’t realize until my twenties that all the families I had considered “rich” were actually only middle class. It’s only in recent years that I’m really getting a clear picture of how close to the bottom we were, because it grows increasingly further than where I am now. My parents have not gained any traction as the decades have passed, which is an ever-growing source of frustration and concern for me, but also serves as a nerve-wracking example of what not to do. Additionally, I can see firsthand the widening gap between the rich and the poor. There was rarely ever money leftover to save, but in failing to keep pace as the years went by, my parents are now irrevocably, hopelessly behind. I will probably have to help them through retirement, but I am ok with that.
From birth until age 24, I straddled the poverty line, always at risk of toppling over. After a bumpy childhood on a tattered shoestring budget, I was expected to be financially self-sufficient by age 18. And I was, but it was hard. Having grown up in a household with two parents that didn’t even complete high school, there never was a push to pursue post-secondary education. However, it didn’t take me long to struggle to pay rent on $6/hr before I decided that working entry-level jobs would never lead to a life I wanted to live. I spent a year working for chump change and saving as much of it as I could, and applied to university.
I enrolled in university at age 20, sustained on modest savings and scholarships. When those funds ran out, the bank extended to me a $16,000 line of credit, and I promptly rang up a $10,000 balance. Unsurprisingly, my money mishap parents hadn’t provided me with solid budgeting skills. I took out student loans in years three and four of my Bachelors degree, and somewhere in this mess calculated that I might be over $50,000 in the hole by the time I graduated. I downright panicked. I started using to scholarship money and tips from my serving jobs to pay down my line of credit, and the balance hit zero before I wrapped up my classes. My student loan balance in the meantime had ballooned to just over $20,000. I found Gail Vaz Oxlade and started a casual blog of my own, hoping to chronicle my journey out of student loan debt.
It was 2010 and the market was still climbing out of the 2008 crash. Even though Canada was less severely affected than the US, it wasn’t an ideal environment for a new grad. My $20,000 student loan debt was TERRIFYING, and I desperately needed a job to start hacking off the balance. Much to my dismay, there were few jobs for general science degree holders, so I did what every lost early-twenty-something does: I enrolled in graduate school. I spent a year in a microbial genetics lab, which was one year more than I needed to realize I did not want to spend the rest of my life behind a lab bench. I dropped out of my MSc. at the halfway mark, and took off to France for a month.
Taking a month-long foreign vacation with $20,000 of student loan debt and no direction in life sounds reckless, but it was my first experiment in what would become a powerful philosophy in lifestyle design. With the exception of my plane ticket and accommodations, I lived cheaply in Europe, and spent my time self-indulgently in figuring out my next step rather than visiting tourist spots. In my Paris apartment, I sat down and wrote out a list of everything I wanted in my life: career, relationship, self. In retrospect, it was a list of modest demands: a job in an office, a role where I could use my degree but still gain new skills, a salary of at least $45,000, to start an stock investment portfolio, to pay off my debt in less than 3 years, and so on. But at the time everything was so far from where I was, it felt like I was stretching.
I came home from Europe and knocked everything off my list. Passionately, aggressively, and even more successfully than originally planned. To this day I still scribble my “next steps” in worn notebooks, and when I fill a book, I start another. I don’t call them goals because goals are stupid. These are my next steps, a renewable to-do list to guide my life.
I landed a job at the university I had graduated from as a recruiter and student advisor. My starting salary was $50,000 with a killer benefit plan and more vacation time then I knew what to do with. My personal blog became Money After Graduation, and I started to earn money online. I tackled my student debt with a vengeance, sometimes making payments as high as $1,000 per month and throwing anything extra like income tax refunds or babysitting money at the balance. It was totally gone in less than two years, during which time I had also started saving for retirement and gotten the hang of investing in the stock market.
Personal finance felt like secret I had finally hacked. After a lifetime of money being a leading stressor in my life, it suddenly wasn’t any more. Somehow I had managed to pull myself out of poverty, and for the first time I wasn’t in the lower income or wealth bracket: I was comfortably middle class. It was something my parents had never achieved. By age 27, I was earning as much as both of my parents combined, but I was still unsatisfied. Having lived on the edge for so long, I was constantly terrified that it would be taken away at any moment. I was hungry for a bigger buffer to insulate me from the bottom. I realized middle class wasn’t enough, I wanted to be rich.
During this time, Money After Graduation was continuing to grow. Hundreds of readers had followed my journey out of student debt, and now thousands more were using the site for advice on saving, investing, and career progression. My story was featured by major sites and news sources like Business Insider, The Globe & Mail, and MoneySense magazine. I didn’t think I was unusual millennial, but I was living an unusual life. Unlike most twenty-somethings, I was debt-free, saving for retirement, and I wasn’t afraid of the stock market. But also unlike most twenty-somethings, I didn’t live at home or have my lifestyle subsidized by my parents. I was independent, self-sufficient, and I’d done it all by myself, even with the odds stacked against me. Which meant anyone could do it.
With dollar signs in my eyes, I went back to school for an MBA in Finance. By this time, my online and freelance writing income was nowhere near enough to replace my full-time salary, but enough for me to grind it out as a student for two years without eradicating all my previous hard work. I chose an affordable school, and dramatically downgraded my lifestyle. The MBA now ranks as the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve questioned my sanity in going back to school on more than one occasion, but I met my husband-to-be so it certainly had its upside. By the time I had finished my first year, I knew I didn’t want a career in Finance but I felt too committed to switch out. I worried incessantly that I had shot myself in the foot going back to school, and I should have stayed safe in my cushy academic job.
But then I took this incredible week-long class in the first term of my second year of my MBA, that would change everything. The course was in technology commercialization, and every morning we would study venture capital funding and IPOs, and in the afternoons we had guest speakers that were entrepreneurs and angel investors. Hearing people talk about investing in early-stage companies and building them up to multi-million dollar enterprises was incredible, and I couldn’t help thinking, “I want to do this”. It was a bold admission, particularly for an underpaid intern who’d recently dumped most of their savings into an advanced degree they weren’t entirely certain would pay off.
Inspired, or just plain crazy, I ended up quitting my MBA internship a few weeks later, much in the way I did grad school: with no back-up plan. I was lucky once more, in a way that makes me think I might actually have a superpower that let’s me bend the universe to my will: three weeks after ditching my internship, I got a job as a consultant to early-stage start-ups. I now spend my days evaluating the opportunities and potential of new products and companies — the perfect training ground to eventually become an angel investor or venture capitalist.
My focus right now is this:
to amass $1 million in personal assets and earn an income in excess of $200,000 per year.
Why? That is the criteria to become an accredited investor, the next hurdle I need to clear to pursue my goals of investing in early-stage start-ups.
Those are crazy numbers, but I stopped feeling overwhelmed by crazy numbers a long time ago. I’m not afraid of the things I want, because I’m not afraid of myself. And I’m not afraid of failure, because I do not fail.
My journey in personal finance and my career have been empowering, but they’ve also given me perspective and insight. I KNOW there are certain things you can do to ensure personal, financial, and professional success, because I’ve done them. You CAN lift yourself (and your family) out of poverty, you DON’T need to live paycheque to paycheque, you WILL be a millionaire if you work for it, and your life can look EXACTLY how you want it to, every single day.
I’ll be done with my MBA in Finance in less than one month, but it wasn’t until 3/4’s through the program that it dawned on me that my journey with Money After Graduation was far more about entrepreneurship and lifestyle design than it ever was about money. Money is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is one that you can’t complete the picture without. I’m convinced that if you get your financial house in order, you can do or have anything you want. Which is why I don’t want your debt to crush you, your job to eat your soul, or your budget to keep you from buying the things you want (even if the thing you want most in the whole world is marshmallows).
So thank you for reading, I’m glad you’re here. This is me, but I’d love to get to know you. Leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me your crazy goals, because we’re in this together, and we’re going to knock everything off your list.