I did not come from a privileged background
My dad was the breadwinner in the family and when he moved to the Philippines when I was nine to chase his dreams, he left my mom alone to raise my six-year-old brother and I. We were left with nothing.
My mom raised us the best she could, given the circumstances. She didn’t have an education and had to work minimum wage jobs to get by. She indirectly distilled in us a core set of values, like how money does not buy happiness. While I didn’t exactly believe that at the time, we had no other choice.
We were surviving on less than $20,000 a year (my best estimate, could have been less). Trips to the food bank and relying on financial support from others was the norm. Christmas was always tough because none of us could afford to get each other anything. I would get jealous when my friends went on vacation or got a new toy.
Because I didn’t have a lot, I had a yearning to be popular like the cool kids.
Partly due to not having a father figure and partly due to living in a high-stress environment, I was socially awkward and didn’t know how to interact well with others. As soon as I got home from school the first thing I did was go to my room and play videogames so I could forget about the day.
I thought to myself: if only I had money, then I would be popular and gain confidence.
For the longest time, I thought this was true. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I thought money would solve my problems
I got my first real job when I was 15, making a cool $5.90 an hour at McDonald’s. Thinking I could finally afford to buy the things I wanted, one of the first things I did with my first paycheques was buying new clothes and getting a new haircut. I felt so cool. I was sure I would finally fit in.
The following day at school people looked at me and made snide comments, like “cool hair bro” and “where’s the flood?” (my jeans were too long, which I thought was the style at the time).
I still didn’t fit in and wondered if I ever would. By now others were dating and I didn’t even know how to talk to a girl, let alone make friends other than a select few who shared my fondness for videogames.
I needed some perspective
Things changed when I decided to live with my dad for a year after graduating from high school. In the Philippines, poverty is everywhere. I saw things I cannot forget.
However, the people are nice and the food was second to none.
I’ve never seen so many people with so little give what little they had. I remember having dinner at one of my dad’s employee’s place. They couldn’t have lived in a room bigger than 200 square feet. In it, there was the kitchen, washroom, and bed.
Yet, he cooked dinner for me. I’ll never forget that.
What stood out most when I was living there was watching the kids in the streets laughing and smiling with literally nothing but the clothes on their back.
How could they be happier than I? I was fortunate to live in one of the best countries in the world and I felt like I was missing out.
To make things worse, I didn’t know what to do with my life. My mom was suffering from depression and my brother was suffering from addiction issues back home.
After a year of living in the Philippines, I eventually decided to move back to Canada and go to university.
My first life-lesson: Student debt
Student life was tough. I was working during the summers to help pay off my tuition and so I didn’t get to experience a lot of the same things as my classmates like going on exchange or flying to conferences. I still shared a lot of my high school tendencies and kept to myself for the most part.
Because I didn’t have much money, I had to take out a bunch of student loans. This was my first foray into student debt.
But my strategy and self-sacrifice of working full-time during the summers worked, and after five years of university I graduated with no student loan debt.
Fast forward a few years, I decided to go back to school to do my MBA.
Things were a lot different this time around. Not only was tuition substantially higher (over $50,000 with living costs), but I also couldn’t work the summers to pay it off, given how short the program was.
The only choice was to take out a loan. By the end of it, I was in over $50,000 of student debt.
I was fortunate enough to get a decent job after graduation, though I was still making below six figures.
How could I ever pay back this debt? It seemed like an insurmountable amount of money.
If I saved 10% of my paycheques after-tax, I would be saving by my estimate about $500 a month. At that rate, it would take me over 10 years to pay off my debt.
There had to be a better way
When my ideal financial future seemed unattainable, I reflected on my time in the Philippines. The reason why those kids were so happy was not because of money, so why am I so concerned with it?
Relationships, friends, and family are what’s important. My thinking that buying things would improve my social standing and be able to “show off” was shattered as I began to try to learn from those boys back in the Philippines.
Saving more directly increased my happiness
Reading up on as many books on the topic as possible, and using my past as the fuel to my motivation, I changed my mentality.
No longer would I be buying a new iPhone every year, or buying designer clothes just because I thought it would impress others. Rather, I would focus my spending on what brought me happiness. More often than not, that was spending money on my friends and life experiences instead of material possessions.
Taking this belief to the extreme, I was saving over 60% of my salary and became happier as a result.
This shift in my perspective was life-changing.
Over the next four years, I optimized my savings to maximize my RRSP and TFSA contributions while having my employer match the maximum they could to my pension at work.
Because of this, within those four years I was able to pay off my student debt, have over six-figures saved up in my retirement accounts, and have two down payments saved.
Change of perspective, change of lifestyle
Of course, I am making it sound easier than it was. I made a lot of sacrifices in order to pull off these numbers.
I used to live downtown Calgary, but moved in with a friend in the deep suburbs to save money on my cost of living. My commute went from a 15-minute walk to an hour commute on a good day (and don’t even ask about when it snowed).
Yes, I would question my life choices when the train broke down. My social life also took a hit. But I had my focus and I was determined to become debt-free as fast as I could.
I also found a balance. I went on at least one big trip a year because I valued travelling and I didn’t hold back when it came to treating my friends when we went out.
But I cutback relentlessly on everything else.
How I cut spending to increase my net worth
Meal prepping became my Sunday routine and when I travelled I often waited for a flight deal. Using credit cards carefully to ensure I didn’t carry over a balance every month and maximizing the points on them helped pay for a lot of the flight fares.
I negotiated my bills down to the last dollar, calling my cell phone and insurance providers and asking them to price match the competition.
When it came to my salary at work, I negotiated before I got hired and got a bump before I even started.
I built up a small emergency fund and had a line of credit for any unexpected surprises that may come up.
After a few years, my debt was paid off in full.
That was just the beginning
I went on to apply the same principles to invest in the stock market and to save for my down payments. At this rate I could retire (if I wanted to) before I’m 45.
Whether or not I choose to is a different story. But early retirement is not out of reach and I believe most people can achieve the same if they apply the same principles to their life.
Money should not be a taboo subject
While I was on my financial stability mission, I shied away from speaking about it other than providing piecemeal advice to family and friends. I always thought talking about money was a taboo subject, and so I kept it to myself.
This changed when I thought about who I could help inspire and help financially and make my small impact on this world.
About a year and a half ago I decided I would write about my experience and thus Money Sensei was born along with my first published book, Kicking Financial Ass, where I include strategies I used to help others accomplish the same. I have since started on my second book, all the meanwhile continuing to help others grow, speaking across the country, and creating quality content.
What is most important to learn?
I hope the main thing you take away is that every person is different and every situation is unique.
If you don’t want to live out in the suburbs, then don’t. If saving 60% of your after-tax income is too much, try 20% or 30%. Determine what your financial goals are and figure out what works for you. Have fun and don’t try to save every dollar.
But the core underlying values of what brings happiness doesn’t change.
Realign your spending with your values and that will guide you to hit your financial goals and become debt-free sooner than you think.
This post was a guest post by Chris Dumont, Founder of Moneysensei.com and author of Kicking Financial Ass.