The Meandering Path of a Financial Late Bloomer

The Meandering Path of a Financial Late Bloomer

To get around in New York, most days I take the train. But every once in a while I take the bus. Though slower, the bus is like the scenic route, and I notice my day gets a little bit brighter when I take in the sights along the way. Seeing the city in a new way, when most of the time I’m rushing from point A to B. And even though getting to my final destination takes longer, it still feels like a treat.

When it comes to figuring out money, you could say I took the scenic route.

Compared to other money bloggers, I used to be straight-up reckless. Nowadays, I like to think I’m a calculated risk taker. But when I was fresh out of college, it was my goal to avoid #adulting for as long as possible. This lasted for three years.

Three years where I didn’t have a full-time job. On purpose.

Let’s see what that did to my net worth.

A Brief History of My First Three Years Out of School

Year 1 – I graduated college with an English degree, no job and 17k in student loans. My only “plan?” Backpacking through Europe with my best friend. The other things could wait. To save money, my best friend and I shared a bedroom paying $188 a month each, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We then found the highest-paying jobs we could: painting and maintaining dorm rooms for $8.50 an hour. Yes, I was basically a handyman. I could barely use a drill, but I showed up every day at 7am. Once we saved up $1,500 each, we bought plane tickets and quit our jobs. After I got back from Europe I moved home to figure out a game plan. A local newspaper offered me a job, but I turned it down. I worked at my college newspaper, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do in life. Instead, I took a job as a delivery driver for a Chinese/Japanese restaurant making $7/hour plus tips. A little while after that I went to Asia for a month to visit relatives, and continue avoiding getting a real job.
Net worth: -$17,000

Year 2 – With some money saved, I moved to Boston and lived in this Russian couple’s home office for $450 a month. I blasted out my resume to a few temp agencies and landed a gig coordinating workshops for $11.85/hour. My boss asked me to apply for full time; I said no. Meanwhile, one of my favorite hobbies was hitting up thrift stores and hunting for gems. If I found something that was vintage and beautifully made, I bought it, even if it wasn’t my size. Soon my vintage collection was taking over my entire room. Then I had an idea: I’d try to sell the clothes online. At night and on the weekends, using my ghetto HTML skills from college and bootlegged Photoshop software, I designed and built an online shop. I made my first sale in a day.
Net worth: -$16,000

Year 3 – This is when things stop being cute. I decide to quit my steady, temp job to focus on the online business full time. At the same point, I had to rush to find a new apartment, and the only one I could find before being officially homeless was a $725 studio. The clothes were selling well enough, but not enough to cover my expenses. I further added to the debt by investing in myself and spending hundreds of dollars on classes. I’ve now earned $6,000 in credit card debt.
Net worth: -$24,000

So, to Summarize, I Made Some “Questionable” Financial Decisions

In total, I managed to dig myself into a $24,000 hole. I can imagine the Personal Finance Gods up above, throwing down a lightning bolt for each of my sins:

I chose a major that wasn’t tied to a specific job. I started school undeclared, and by the time sophomore year rolled around, English seemed like the best fit. I liked reading and writing. Nevermind that my mom never understood how to explain my major to her friends.

I prioritized travel over getting a job or paying back my student loans. When I was a kid, there wasn’t a single vacation, not even a camping trip. My mom didn’t go back to her home country for 22 years. TWENTY-TWO YEARS. Growing up, I watched her make excuse after excuse for never returning. I didn’t want to be like that. So for the first time ever, as a newly minted graduate, travel was an option. I could go wherever I wanted, if I put my mind to it. I also recognized that this was the best time in my life to travel cheaply. I had low standards, and could stomach rough-and-tumble travel, like hostels and overnight trains. Once I started working for real, I’d probably rarely have the chance to travel for months on end. So if I didn’t do it while I was really young, I’d probably never do it.

I turned down two job offers. As a free-spirited 22-year-old, when I thought about a full-time job I saw shackles and chains. I wasn’t ready for that just yet.

I started a business that wasn’t scalable. I got high off the idea of owning my own business, but as a one-person shop, I struggled to do everything myself and also keep merchandise levels high.

Yeah, But, What If?

But what if I had followed the well-trodden path? Graduated college, got a job right away, collected my 401k match, stayed at the same company for years. I could look at it like this: Luxe, you dummy, that’s THREE years of savings and compounding you missed out on. You could have been retired by now.

I choose to look at it like this instead:

Life isn’t always about money. Sometimes instead of committing to a job, it’s about being able to see most of western Europe by the time you’re 22. Or instead of a 401k, it’s about having enough faith in yourself to start your own business from scratch. Or instead of taking the first job that comes your way, trusting your intuition that there’s something bigger and better out there for you. When you’re that young, the possibilities are endless. There is never a time in your life where you can be 100% selfish and not seem like a jerk. Because when you get a partner or have kids, that percentage dwindles. That’s just how it works. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing; it just means your life becomes different.

The important thing is, I saw that there was more than one path, and I made a choice. I chose adventure. I didn’t just accept the default path that society told me I should follow. If I hadn’t at least tried to do the things I did, I would have always wondered, “What if?”

How I Got It Together

Eventually, I figured out that being an adult wasn’t so bad. I accepted my first full-time job, which I loved. I realized that settling down with a job doesn’t necessarily mean settling, which was my worst fear. And slowly but surely, I dug myself out of that $24,000 hole. Now I’m amassing the kind of money I never thought would be possible for someone like me. How?

Did I luck into a seven-figure salary? Here’s a look at my salary history so you can see that for the first five years I had pretty average paychecks, all while living in big cities:

33k, 48k, 43k, 54k, 63k, 73k, 80k, 83k

Nope, to turn my money situation around, I used the tried-and-true tactics:

I saved aggressively. Once I did get my first salary, I didn’t just save up just enough to get my 401k match. I started out saving 15%, and kept increasing it from there. I had some catch-up to do.

I dusted off my frugality skills. My mom didn’t have any financial know-how to teach me, but she can out-frugal anyone any day of the week. What I learned growing up was that you don’t need a ton of stuff to be happy. My saving grace was reverting back to my kid days: no eating out, simple at-home cooking, no vacations, no going out. Staying home reading library books and working on sewing projects? Just as fun and way more productive.

I kept fixed expenses low. Reducing recurring expenses, like rent, was critical. Even though I’ve lived in cities, I never felt entitled to living alone in a nice place. For the most part, I either found roommates or lived in less-happening neighborhoods to keep monthly housing costs under $600.

Last Thoughts

I majored in something “useless”, I grew up a Financial Unaware, and worked in low-paying industries as a Creative Person. Usually, those three things aren’t the secret sauce to accelerating wealth. Nowadays people make it seem like if you don’t have the foresight to major in engineering as an 18-year-old, then you’re doomed for pauper status. I don’t believe in that.

So what do I have to show for my seemingly counterproductive qualities? As of today, my net worth is around $270k by myself. I lived in cities, so don’t have a house or a car to include. If I keep doing exactly what I’m doing, I’ll be a millionaire in about nine years. To some people, my number is chump change. To others, that amount seems way out of reach. It’s easy to see someone’s net worth number and feel bad about yourself. But here’s the thing that I think people forget: everybody starts out at a different spot. Some people start out three steps ahead; some start ten steps behind. 

If your financial snapshot looks bleak right now, don’t beat yourself up so much over past decisions.

There are a million factors that affect your money life. Like:

Maybe you were dealt some crappy cards.
Maybe you graduated with crippling student debt.
Maybe you didn’t realize you were doing it “wrong” until you were 40.
Maybe you grew up thinking that new stuff equals happiness.
Maybe, like me, you chose adventure.

You don’t need to make perfect decisions to end up OK. But here’s what you have to dowherever you are right now, you have to make an active choice, instead of humming along on the status quo train. You have to decide yourself that you want to make a change.

Some of us took the scenic route, and some of us didn’t. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all path to doing money. But there are some basic principles that can apply to anyone’s situation. In future posts, I’ll write about actionable, practical steps you can take to actually get good with money, because this post is already way too long. Clearly, I’m incapable of writing short, pithy blog posts 🙂

And while my money situation is always a work in progress, I know I’ll get to where I’m going, too. But I’m going to do it on my own terms and on my own timeline.

Were you a financial late bloomer? If not, do you think my decisions were questionable?

Image: The Luxe Strategist

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  • Not really, no I don’t think so. I mean, in terms of sheer income yes – my trajectory looks pretty darn similar to yours! I’ve always been fairly savvy – it’s been more about my choices in regard to what kind of work (and thus pay) I pursued.

    Loving your writing!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! I’ve been a fan of your blog for quite some time now, even before I started blogging.

      It’s nice to know that some of us aren’t rocking 60k out of the gate salary-wise, and can still end up OK. Sure I could have majored in computer engineering or something, but if I did, I think I would have gotten fired already 🙂

  • Ten Bucks a Week

    I have been concerned with money since I was a kid. After college I was able to travel using credit card points and managed to get 3 months off working abroad for my employer, so I have been quite fortunate.
    However, I’m a late bloomer in investments, I’m terrible still, I know I should index, but just haven’t done it yet.

    • I’m jealous you got to work abroad for three months–living the dream! What’s stopping you from indexing? Too many choices? Not enough time?

  • Finance Patriot

    I wouldn’t call myself a late bloomer, but when I was laid off at 25 I took the summer off and collected unemployment to relax for a bit, until I looked for a job and started in Fall. This clearly slowed my path to FI, but I think age 41 for ER isn’t half bad.

    I have always wanted to invest as much as possible and retire early, since 18 is the earliest I can remember.

    • No, I wouldn’t call you a late bloomer, either 🙂 I’d never been laid off, but I think being able to relax a bit and have fun is important. What’s a life where the only goal is saving money?

      ER at 41 is way more than half-good; it’s a pipe dream to 90% of people. I’m jealous of you!

  • Best read ever. I think we’re the same person or something. I was forever amused at my mom trying to explain my major to her friends, gesturing at her head trying to explain I’m studying how people think.

    I don’t think I was a late financial bloomer but I didn’t continue my career that I sometimes feel like I should have which effects our $ right now. Our salary (the first few years) are very similar except I lived in San Francisco. Then I got married and lost track of the survival instinct. I’m a late career bloomer ;(

    Going car free and living with cheap rent/parents builds wealth like crazy. I was saving 90% of my income to kill my student loans.

    • LOL, my mom did not understand what the hell an English major was. She was like, wait, but you already speak English. So confused…

      You could say you’re an entrepreneur now! And your savings are killer now, so I’d say you made up for whatever past decisions made.

      Your lucky your parents lived in a thriving area. I wish I could have stayed at home longer to save money, but there were no jobs in my mom’s town, except, customer service at the mall or cleaning hotel rooms. If I wanted big bucks, I’d have to move away.

  • Father With Cents

    I am definitely a late bloomer and really admire all these PF millennial bloggers who did not make the mistake I made.
    I did not really gave my finances much thought throughout my 20s, just wanted to travel and enjoy life while paying my debts in minimum. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I(also my fiance gave me an earful) had to clean up all my debts. So I paid off credit card, student loan and medical payments around that time of our wedding. Ever since and now in my late 30s I am debt free and just building my net worth. =)

    • To be honest with you, I think the late bloomers are the most interesting! I don’t think I would have changed any of my decisions, really.

      I’m glad you were able to figure it out in your 30s, and had someone to help you out. That was like me and and my SO (I was the one giving the earful). It’s awesome you’re debt free and working on your net worth!

  • I would definitely say yes, I caught the graduate school bug early on. Was 100% convinced I’d be a professor and run a world-class lab solving all the problems at a top university. Then by the time I got 75% of the way there, I realized… it’s not actually what I want! Long days alone in a lab running the same experiments over and over and writing papers and grants were slowly killing my soul… so I walked away in the 3rd year of a PhD! My ‘salaries’ went: 10.5, 20, 38, 50, 55 and now I’m seconds away from my 30s and sooooo bitter about all the lost time & compound interest… c’est la vie, we can only move on from where we currently stand.

    • Wow, it must have been a really tough decision to quit the PhD. But I’m glad you did that instead of killing your soul. Nothing is ever worth that. Well, it sounds like you have your act together, especially in the food arena! I could also get mad at myself for some of my early choices. I know if I did the math there would be a lot of compounding I missed out on, but I’m glad I did what I did and I’ve been able to catch up a bit by aggressively saving.

  • I’ve combed through your posts. Love the way everything is laid out so clearly and logically. Also, the degree to which we think alike is alarming, and raises questions about whether I’m redundant. -Ivan

    • Hmm, could we be Blog Doppelgangers??? The logic and structure is largely imposed by my husband who happens to be an excellent editor. He’s forced me to write outlines first instead of straight-up word vom 🙂 Anyway, thanks for checking out my stuff, and I look forward to reading more about you and Jennie’s adventures!

  • Frugal Asian Finance

    Wow this post is so inspiring, and your annual salary is in an upward trajectory. Lots of valuable lessons here, especially living low rent to cut costs 🙂

    • Hi, FAF!

      Oh, thanks, yes, my salary has mostly been on an upward trajectory, but that’s also because I’ve moved onto new jobs instead of staying at existing companies and fighting for a raise. Just happens to be my strategy. And yes, I wanted to show that you can make imperfect decisions, start out late, and STILL end up being OK financially.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Wealth From Thirty

    I totally started late. Actually I started saving pennies in high school but meandered my way through Uni and even though I worked casual jobs, by the time I got out I’d spent 4 years doing a 3 year degree (thanks, dating). I joined the air force and earned $38k during training and left after a year to go complete my honours year, worked as a researcher for a year and then another 4 years at Uni on a PhD scholarship of $24k per year. Painful! I didn’t really get started earning a real wage until 30! On top of that, I’ve done it by building my own business so it’s taken a good 12 months to pick up steam. So far this year I pocketed about $61k. But I’m saving tons percentage wise! 😀

    – Thanks for sharing a great post Luxe, I got tons out of reading your story, you must have heaps of determination to do what you’ve done.

    • Wow, it seems like you’ve had quite an interesting life! I was the queen of Casual Jobs after graduating. I don’t think I made more than $12/hour for two years post-grad. Oh, and I guess I get the name of your blog now 🙂 A year to pick up steam with a business is pretty quick. I’m glad you seem to have a great attitude about catching up now. It would be easy to just give up, but every day is a chance to make a change.

      Thanks for stopping by, WFT!