Help or Hard Work?

One interesting challenge of being a personal finance writer with a popular website like The Simple Dollar is that I get a lot of feedback from readers, both by email and on social media, particularly from my personal Facebook page.

Ninety-five percent of the feedback I get is positive – people thanking me for a particular article I’ve written or how reading a lot of my articles brought about some positive change in my life, and I’m very humbled by that.

But today I want to talk a little about the other 5%. In particular, I want to talk about one common thread that comes through much of the criticism, the idea that I didn’t really earn debt freedom or my progress toward financial independence, that I was greatly helped or that it was given to me.

First of all, I absolutely was helped along that path, in more ways than I can count. For example:

I had parents that did everything in their power to help me as a child and have been supportive of every choice that I’ve made since then.

I have a college degree in computer science and a second one in the life sciences, giving me a lot of career opportunities.

I have a very supportive and wonderful wife.

I have had a number of wonderful mentors in my career, particularly three people who I can’t possibly thank enough for shaping my thoughts and perspectives on the world.

I have had reasonable health along the way (though this is something I’m going to come back to in a bit).

But given all of that, here’s what I didn’t have.

I was born with deafness in my left ear, blindness in my right eye, and with a highly dysfunctional thyroid gland that caused me to have to start on a daily medication at the tender age of three days old that somewhat replaces it — a medication that I’m still taking.

During my childhood, I had somewhere between 12 and 20 full anesthetic surgeries to repair various ailments. I came perilously close to dying during one of those surgeries. According to my count, I spent somewhere between six months and a year of my childhood in a hospital. These surgeries were often scheduled around the vagaries of my father’s employment status (and thus availability of health insurance). I still have incredibly poor balance and can actually fall over sometimes when doing completely normal activities.

I didn’t have wealthy parents. I grew up quite poor, in fact. There were many periods in my childhood where both of my parents were unemployed. I grew up in a tiny house that usually had more people living there than it could really support. There were spots on the floor where you shouldn’t step unless you wanted to fall through. There were parts of walls that were simply crumbling. I didn’t participate in several things I wanted to do as a child – very ordinary things – simply because there wasn’t enough money for it.

I went to school in a small rural school district, so small it didn’t have a football team or a drama club or most of the things you might expect a thriving school district to have. There were no nearby colleges other than a community college, and my parents didn’t have funds for any of that.

My parents did not pay for a dime of my college education other than buying my textbooks for a couple of semesters. They haven’t given me any money since my first or second year in college.

In fact, during much of my college career, I felt like an outcast in many ways. Even though I was going to a public state university, virtually everyone around me was from a significantly wealthier family than mine. Most of the kids received money and clothing constantly from their parents. I didn’t.

So, how exactly did I play this hand that was dealt to me?

When I was in the hospital or recuperating from procedures, I read all the time. I practically wore out my library card checking out books from the nearest public library of any size. I read books on countless topics. I would literally sit down and read encyclopedias from beginning to end just to grow my base of knowledge. I used to borrow math books from my teacher and do the work at home on my own. I’d ask my english teacher for advanced book suggestions and check them out from the library.

Because of this, I earned a lot of merit-based scholarships to college – not need-based, but merit-based. This paid for a healthy portion of my college education (but not nearly all of it – I still needed student loans to finish it out).

During every semester in college after the first, I worked at least 20 hours a week at various jobs while also studying full time for a STEM degree, which means the classes weren’t easy. To start, I asked my academic advisor if he could help me find some on-campus work related to my area of study and he did that in spades, helping me find a wide variety of jobs on campus. I worked like crazy at these jobs. I pulled all-nighters finishing projects for those jobs along the way and eventually I earned a “student employee of the year” award for the whole university for my efforts.

I got a very tenuous job after graduating, one that paid fairly well but lasted only for a year. During that year, my job was to work with a team of three to develop a pilot project. One of the team members essentially refused to work and just collected a paycheck; the other person’s skill set didn’t enable him to write any computer code. Over the course of five months, I singlehandedly wrote the code for the entire finished product and offered a fully-functional product at the end of our six-month project review, something we didn’t even need to deliver for another six months. This project is still in use today; even after countless revisions by others, big portions of my original code from many, many years ago are still in place.

That job turned into a full-time job after that. The new full-time job not only required more than 40 hours a week of work, but also required extensive work-related trips. However, even with all that work, I constantly filled my spare time with side gigs. I started a computer consulting business. I started an automated online poker business (I wrote a simple ‘bot program to automatically play online poker during the game’s heyday, using a very simple algorithm that made quite a bit of money). I started several blogs, including The Simple Dollar (which now forms the backbone of my full-time work). All of this was in my spare time.

For a few years, I made many dumb financial moves, but starting in 2006, I began to fix that. Within a year, I had the remainder of my student loans paid off, my car loan paid off, and all of my credit cards paid off, achieving complete debt freedom.

My wife and I (and our kids) currently live off of somewhere between 50% and 60% of our annual income. We do that largely by being smart about our spending. We don’t drive BMWs or Lexuses. In fact, I currently drive a 13-year-old Honda SUV that I bought off of Craigslist. We live in a very modest home that’s fully paid for – we have no debt whatsoever, but that’s in part because of our choice of a modest home and modest cars. Most days, I’m dressed in plain t-shirts and blue jeans, meaning my wardrobe is dirt cheap – but it’s comfortable. My biggest “foolish” expense is occasional board game purchases and occasional Kindle books.

We are on the road to financial independence because of all of this. My wife and I hope to both retire sometime shortly after our youngest child leaves the nest. According to our projections, we’ll have enough money to live off of the income from our investments at that point, investments built up by the fact that we live off of a little over half of our income.

You can talk about “luck” and “help” all you want, but behind pretty much every financial independence story out there – mine included – is a lot of hard work and a lot of hard choices along the way. We took any and all “luck” and “help” that we had and forged it into something far more than we had before.

In the end, the hard work and the hard choices were my choices.

I could have chosen to spend the free time in my life watching television instead of studying and reading books and learning. I chose the road less travelled.

I could have went to tons of parties in high school and college instead of studying and working at my on-campus jobs. I chose the road less traveled.

I could have done the minimum in my professional life and just collected a paycheck instead of busting my rear end to build something lasting. I chose the road less traveled.

I could have burnt a lot more of my spare time in my twenties goofing off with friends, playing golf, and so on instead of launching countless side businesses until something took off. I chose the road less traveled.

I could have had all of the same “luck” and “help” along the way, but if I had chosen the easier path in all of those junctures, I would not be on the road to financial independence today. I might have a “better” life in some regards – who’s to say – but the choices I made and the work I did paved this road.

Because of all of that, I can look forward to some great years ahead of me. I’m still in my thirties and the end of my working years feels completely within reach to me.

The road to financial independence is undoubtedly aided by the help of others and a little luck, but if you don’t do something useful with that luck and that help, you’ll never be able to move down that road. A person who lives a life of idleness can have all of the “help” and “luck” in the world and still never have the life that they want.

It’s the effort – the sustained effort over a long period – that makes the difference.

In the end, it’s your choices that make the difference.

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