Since it’s the start of a new decade, I can’t help but reminisce and look back to the last 10 years, both to see how far I’ve come and to remind myself of how far I need to go.
I’ve always been open about sharing with you guys how I grew up in poverty and the reasons why want to achieve financial independence. If you haven’t read that post yet and you’re curious, go to Why I Want to FIRE – A Personal Tale of Early Woes and Awesome Wins. Despite my disadvantaged background, I worked hard to get out of poverty, slowly built a positive net worth and amass a respectable investment portfolio that’s consistently growing.
Getting to the starting line
One of the hardest things a person who experienced generational poverty – meaning generations of your family have been in poverty – is to arrive at everybody else’s starting line.
If you’re in poverty, it’s not just you who’s poor, it’s everyone in your family. So if you were lucky enough to get an education and find a well-paying job, you will be expected to help with the family finances. Your parents will expect that you will send your siblings to college, give a higher contribution to home expenses, and help random family members who find themselves in emergencies. The list goes on and on.
And yes, this is still true even if you’re already married and/or already have a family of your own. In family-centric countries like the Philippines, it is virtually impossible not to help your family when you’re already earning money. This was and is still true for me. As one of the first few members of my clan to go to college (at a prestigious private university at that – thank you, athletic scholarship! ), not only did everyone expected that I help out, I expected myself to help out.
I consider getting to zero as one of the major highlights of my decade. And it took me **only** 10 years.
I was only able to get to zero net worth by the middle of the 2010s. Before that I was only able to juggle all my filial responsibilities, raising a son with my then-partner, and working towards improving my career and credentials by job-hopping between call centers, always looking for higher salary and better benefits and going into debt through personal loans and credit cards.
For almost a decade after graduating from college I was never able to hold more than Php 50,000 in my account for more than a week. There was always something that needed to be paid, replaced, checked, and bought.
I was always so defeated and believed I would be better off if I max my credit cards and then pay what I owe the bank. I thought that at least when I’m forced to pay the bank, I would be able to buy something for myself instead of the money just disappearing to pay the never-ending pile of bills.
What got me out of negative net worth?
Ready for the secret? I… got a job with a much higher salary than what I was earning before.
Sorry to those who were looking for a magic solution to this problem, but there really is none.
Don’t believe the hacks that tell you that “it’s not how much you earn, it’s how much you keep” if you’re beginning from below zero. That’s a filthy and dangerous lie. If you’re earning minimum wage or even higher but only barely enough to cover all your expenses, you won’t be able to keep much, would you? And what you keep is probably going to be needed tomorrow to pay for an emergency that inevitably comes up somewhere. That advise only works for those who have no other responsibilities apart from their responsibilities to themselves. That’s some burgis sh*t.
How do I feel about people who are not expected to help their families once they have jobs? Jealous.
You guys probably haven’t experienced thinking of throwing yourself in front of an MRT in Guadalupe station during rush hour because you’re so tired and scared of all the responsibilities and of falling short.
You probably sleep well at night without feeling a huge boulder on your chest stopping you from breathing. You also probably don’t wake up in a cold sweat, scared what will happen if you suddenly die (and leaving everyone without financial support, or worse, with debt).
If you had negative net worth all your life, having peace of mind is one of the most beneficial side effects of getting to zero net worth.
Slowly building wealth
I think I’m entitled to feel proud of myself for getting from negative net worth in 2010, to zero net worth by the middle of the decade, and to having US$ 100,000 by the end of 2019. I got from poor to hundred thousand-nair in the last decade.
For me, key to slowly building wealth are:
- Making sure my siblings finished college, which both of them did. In theory, this should mean that after college, I should not be expected to help them financially. Plus, I get to hold this fact against them forever. 😀 To this day, my sister still gets teary-eyed when she remembers how hard we had it when I was still sending her to the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. I jokingly tell her that she’s part of my retirement plan.
- Always making sure that my financial house is in order. I have a full emergency fund and have proper health and life insurance coverage. I won’t be in a position to help anybody if I’m sick or goes back to poverty due to sickness.
- Ensuring that parents keep healthy. This is crucial for me because my father suffers from clinical depression and both of my parents have accumulated pains and illnesses over the years. Of course, since I cannot monitor them all the time, there will be times when they will skip buying medication or going to the clinic for tests because they think they are saving my money.
- Don’t get into debt again. This has been a challenge for me, not because I personally got into debt, but because my parents, due to their bad judgment (calling a spade a spade – it was bad judgment on their part) acquired a huge debt in the past couple of years. They were lucky that I was in a position to get them out of a bad situation in time and help pay. Instead of being able to use that money to improve their lifestyle, they’re using it to pay off unnecessary credit card debt.
- Not join any get rich-quick schemes or buy overly risky investments like cryptocurrency or stock trading.
These are things I do to keep from sliding back to negative net worth. If like me you belong to a family whose members are not financially literate, you’d better monitor them like a hawk so they can’t destroy your plans and bring you down.
On the other hand, for asset acquisition, I am fortunate that my employer offers a provident fund for retirement, wherein they match my retirement contribution. I also keep investing simple, mostly following the Boglehead philosophy:
- One portion of my portfolio is invested in Philippine index funds, specifically, in First Metro ETF (ticker: FMETF). If you want to read and learn about the best index funds to buy in the Philippines, read my post, The Ultimate Guide to Philippine Index Funds.
- Another portion is invested in Vanguard’s S&P500 ETF through my TD Ameritrade account. If you also want to open an online brokerage account in the US, read How to Open a TD Ameritrade Account Outside of the USA.
- I max out my annual PERA contribution. I started contributing in 2017. I’m scared of growing old in poverty.
- Not part of the Boglehead philosophy but crucial to my peace of mind, I have 3 real estate properties: a simple low-cost row house outside of Manila where my parents live and 2 condominium units. 1 condo unit is already being rented out and is paying for itself (and more). The other unit I just acquired last December (so it can still be considered part of my 2010s acquisition).
- A smaller portfolio of blue-chip stocks which I keep for dividends.
- A couple of small investments on friends’ businesses, because their businesses are fun and I believe in their vision and business skills.
In addition to these, I also keep a separate portfolio for my son’s college fund. Even when I had negative net worth, my son’s college account had money in it. So there was a time when my child had more money than me. Since it has been my experience that a college education will lift you out or poverty and set you up for life, if you let it, I am meticulous in making sure that if I die, my son will have more than enough money to go to college and even beyond. Even abroad if he chooses to. His college fund is divided into:
- Vanguard Total Index ETF; and
- Philippine index fund with First Metro ETF
Building a great career
At the beginning of the decade I was working in a call center. I shifted to another career path around the middle of the decade, which paid more. That’s how I was able to get out of negative net worth and finally achieve zero net worth.
If you’re a work colleague (I know some of you are reading this, heeeeeeey!) you’re probably surprised by my previous financial situation.
I’m so thankful (to myself) for powering through and sticking to my goal of finding a position for myself in my current workplace. Not only was I able to turn my life around, I actually find satisfaction in my current career. It’s challenging and I make a difference. And although my goal – which I chronicle in this blog – is to achieve financial independence AND early retirement (FIRE), I have actually no reason (yet) to retire early.
I have so many career goals that I want to meet by the end of this decade.
And because I want to reduce my risks, I’m also developing alternate careers. I read in the book The Start Up of You written by Linked in co-founder Reid Hoffman, that you should be constantly developing your career and managing it like a start-up business. You should develop plans B, C, and even beyond.
Right now I can’t share with you what my current career is and what alternate career plans I’m considering, but at least let me share that one of them involves being in the personal finance/finance space in some capacity, either by continuing this blog and monetizing it, working with brands and other collaborators, or being a television (or at least YouTube) talking head.
Fulfilling childhood dreams
During the latter half of the 2010s, I was able to fulfill some of my childhood dreams.
One of them is building a kick-ass collection of books. Well, ever since I started working I’ve already been buying books I liked, but those were mostly in mass paperback editions. Now that I have more disposable income, I’m building a collection of books that I can pass down to my child and his children (at least that’s how it works in my fantasy). I have a great collection of hard-bound books from Folio Society, including some limited editions and first editions of Salman Rushdie books (I’m a huge Rushdie fan).
Much more mind-blowing for me is that I was able to travel to places that I’ve only read about in history books. I was able to travel to Angkor Wat, which overwhelmed me to the point of tears (I have a dramatic streak) and do yoga retreats in Bali, like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love. I started the 2010s by being able to (barely) afford doing Filipino burgis stuff and I ended the decade graduating to doing white, rich woman stuff. 😀
I did a Silk Road tour where I visited ancient cities, both still living and already in ruins, in Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. I also climbed the Machu Picchu, ate alpaca meat and went island hopping in Lake Titicaca, and saw the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Traveling in a new place where I don’t speak the language and there’s a hint of danger just makes me feel so alive.
I have always suspected that the world is so much larger than my limited childhood circumstances showed me. Traveling confirmed it. I plan to travel more in 2020s.
I know that if I didn’t travel I would’ve saved and invested more. I would’ve been closer to reaching my financial goals. But I also believe in living in the present as long as your financial house is in order. I would not be able to do these kinds of trips when I hit my 50s or 60s. I need to do them when I ‘m physically able and the place is (relatively) peaceful. I don’t know what the future holds.
And in a way I think traveling is a kind of investment in myself. I have always wanted to understand the world; by traveling, I get a glimpse of what’s happening in the wider world and how it affects me and mine. As a humanist, traveling strengthens my belief in the capacity and magnificence of humanity.
I became a mother barely out of college so that means my child is now in his teens. Being a young single mother with responsibilities as heavy as mine, it would’ve been easy and maybe even understandable if I caved in and just gave up on life. But my natural ambition and my will to provide a great future for this amazing little human being drove me to work hard to get where I am now and to achieve my personal dreams.
I wanted 2 things: I want this little boy to not be encumbered by an impoverished family and I want to show him that he can achieve anything he puts his mind into. So far I think I’m getting there.
Of course my priority is to make sure that he’s healthy, happy, and become a contributing member of society. Everything else is just gravy. At least that’s what I tell him to his face hahaha. I actually want him to achieve so much more and fly higher that I ever did and ever will.
My ex-partner and I look at our son and we marvel at how privileged he is compared to us, but we won’t have it any other way. Sometimes I worry that he won’t develop the grit and desperation that drove me because of the comparatively easy life he has. But then, I remember that in his way, my son is preparing himself for a great and fulfilling future.
He learned how to play different kinds of guitars in a span of a few months, consistently practicing alone, with his friends, and with his father. He’s very serious about his writing, seeking a mentor in his school, attending writing workshops, and actually writing. He’s becoming an awesome Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master (DM). He’s able to have meaningful and close friendships with kids of different genders. He’s a weird combination of conservatism and liberal mindedness.
It’s showing differently, but I see traces of myself in this kid. But he’s gentler, more philosophical, more thoughtful (he literally spends time just sitting around to think), and more introverted than me.
Being an OFW living and working away from the Philippines and my son, I don’t get to be with him and support him 24/7. I’m lucky that my son’s father (my ex-partner) and the rest of our families are there to support him. You may be surprised that as a mother, I have zero regrets about leaving my son in the Philippines. Sadness yes, regrets no. It’s not as if we can’t afford to travel to see each other.
Plus, unlike before when the only way for people to communicate over long distances is through expensive telephone calls and letters, we now have technology to pester each other basically all the time. We send each other memes and jokes (an effective form of communication) constantly. There are times when he basically just seen-zones me. Teenagers.
What I want by the end of 2020s
All in all, it was a great decade for me (and by extension, my family). I started kind of slow, then picked up in the middle and then it went really good towards the end. Like a movie that will get mixed reviews.
It was challenging, heartbreaking, and tiring work. I don’t want to hustle that hard again.
Or rather, I want to do a different hustle this time, where I am thriving instead of playing catch up with everybody else. I want to get my first million dollars! My book deal! Erase the fine lines on my nasal-labial folds! My son succeeding in college! I want it all!
I’m so full of enthusiasm for the 2020s, and not just because I discovered facial yoga at the start of January this year. I finally feel like a bona fide adult. You’d think that birthing a child will force you to be an adult, but you’re wrong.
I started feeling the faint stirrings of adulthood when I bought my first vacuum cleaner a few years back, followed by when my ass summarily rejected wearing thong underwear a year ago. Adulthood was sealed when my body refused to accept my belly button ring without provocation after my South America trip in the middle of 2019.
My muses for this decade are Cardi B., for being confident of how much of a boss and rich she is (my goal is to be able to sing the Bodak Yellow lyrics “I’m rich I’m rich I’m rich” and everyone around me say, “she’s right”) and Lizzo for loving herself and embracing the queen she is. When someone tells me I’m fat, or ugly, or not smart enough, I’ll just laugh at their face.
Now I’m a fully realized adult – legally and emotionally. And I have the means to support my very ambitious personal and professional goals because I’m no longer as scared as before and I have money, henny.
I hope you had as awesome a decade as I did. If not, I hope you do better in the 2020s. I’m rooting for you!