I was in yoga class one night when I realized that I’ve been speaking to you guys about money and ways to achieve financial goals but you barely know anything about me, Katie Scarlett. After bringing this fact up to my son, I decided to be more open with you guys. I want to share with you why I want to achieve financial independence and early retirement (FIRE). I feel privileged that so many of you have shared your stories and goals with me privately via email or Facebook messenger. And to balance that out, I think it’s now my turn to tell you more about myself.
So gather ’round kids, ‘coz mawma’s going to spin you a tale.
Katie Scarlett – the early years
Most of my life, I’ve been poor. I remember when I was around 7 or 8 years old and I was so excited to receive a package of old bread from my aunts. (P.S. Since we were living in a plantation about 2 hours or so on foot from the nearest town, the bread were already at least a few days old before they get to us. My aunts did not give us their old bread. The bread was new to them before given to us.) There was a time when my parents literally didn’t own a single peso.
At around the same time, I was farmed off to distant relatives so I can attend school. If you’re not familiar with this scheme, this is when poorer relatives send their children to their better-off relations so that the child can get an education, in exchange for the said child doing unpaid housework. Although this only lasted a year, being farmed off was one of my life’s formative experiences, teaching me self-reliance and self-control.
I resolved that in the future, I will be rich. I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in poverty like the people around me. I didn’t want to be poor for the rest of my life. I probably radiated disdain for our circumstances, which irritated adults because even before I was a teenager, they kept throwing the word ambisyosa, ambitious, to my face. Like having ambitions was wrong.
My parents simultaneously believed in me and were doubtful that I can achieve my dreams. They were probably scared that I was too ambitious for my own good. Not that the ambitions I professed were outrageously out of this world. I just wanted to do well enough that I can hire somebody to clean my house, eat in restaurants daily, and travel the world. To be fair, in a family composed of generations of farm laborers and fishermen, these things were almost next to impossible. Why should I be any different from everyone?
Generational poverty is no joke.
So as you can imagine, since I was a little girl, I’ve always been finding ways to earn money. Among the income-generating activities I did over the years were:
Selling plastics bags
I used to sell plastic bags at the local mercado every Thursday when I was 10 years old. If you remember back then, when you go to the wet market, children will flock at you every time you buy something, hoping that you buy a plastic bag. I was one of those kids.
During the weekly tienda (market) day, I staked my claim as the plastic vendor of choice of the most popular stalls to maximize my earnings. I achieved this by waking up at 4 a.m. to be one of the first plastic vendor kids at the market, thus, being able to survey the field ahead of time; by being cute and polite to the stall owners and their customers, always saying thank you when they buy from me; and by leaving late, when I will be one of the last vendors left and customers are surprisingly generous, paying an entire peso for a plastic bag which costs 25 or 50 centavos.
My profits regularly reached 300%. I got the plastic bag by consignment from my parent’s store and paid by mid-day. Once I count my profits, I roam around the tienda and look at the wonderful merchandise available. These riches included notebooks with photos of local actors in various costumes on the cover and cheap plastic accessories.
This is one of my favorite childhood stories because it’s guaranteed to drive my son to tears. In the rare instance that he’s slacking off in school, I remind him that his Nanay used to sell plastic bags. This usually results in my son shedding a few tears out of pity and guilt. Yes, pity and guilt are part of my parenting repertoire. And I have zero remorse in using them.
During my elementary years, my parents supplied puto (rice cakes) to the major kapehan (coffee shops) in our baranggay. They usually made extra for me to sell on my way to school while walking with my siblings. I also sold rice cakes to teachers and classmates. It might sound weird that a grade school child was selling food in the classroom, but it wasn’t weird in our province at all.
Other than rice cakes, I also sold other items from our store like junk food, pastillas, and bubblegum. I also made balled yema by myself to sell at 25 centavos each.
In junior year in high school, I sold tuna sandwiches to my classmates. In true Pinoy fashion, a number of other classmates decided to sell different sandwiches, forcing competition and cutting into my profit margin. I stopped selling after 2-3 months.
This was my favorite gig. It combined two of my favorite activities: reading and earning money. What I did was buy the most popular komiks of the day and rent them in front of our store. To entice customers, I hung the komiks on strings and put chairs on the sidewalk in front of our store. The trick was to make sure that readers don’t damage the komiks because the rent will go down from Php 1.50 to 50 centavos.
As you can see, from an early age, I’ve always found ways to earn money.
It was also during my early years when I realized that I’m not a lucky person. Obviously, I’m not lucky because we were very poor. Also, even though my parents and I spent a lot of time joining raffles, the most we won were two reams of cigarettes.
In the early 90s, I spent a lot of time in front of the tv waiting for the letters A,B,S,C,B,N to appear so that we can send entries to win 1 million for the ABS-CBN 50th anniversary. I think my parents sent the most entries for that raffle in the entire Philippines (I’m not sure, but it felt like). We also spent a lot of time looking for and stuffing cigarette wrappers to envelopes and mailing them for prizes. That’s the bizarre combination of desperation and hope we were in then.
Because of this, I don’t join raffles or anything that requires luck to win. I don’t buy lottery tickets and will only buy raffle tickets for charity.
The most money I had as a kid was Php 90, which I won from jai-alai (lucky number 3-6-10!). I used part of the money to buy my first Cornetto ice cream when I was in 5th grade.
Getting free education
My relatives thought I was so smart as a child that they helped my family to move to Manila from the province to attend a private school. Then I learned to be ashamed of being poor.
For the first time, I had peers whose parents attended college and were professionals. In the province, my classmates’ parents were mostly farm laborers. So although before we were also poor, it didn’t matter so much because everyone was poor. In high school, I dreaded class exercises when we had to tell everyone about our families because I was ashamed to say that my father was a taxi driver.
Then one of the kids in my class found out that my entire family lived in a rundown one-bedroom place and proceeded to tell everyone she knew. I considered not going to school the following day.
This is another story I tell my son when he’s being a rebellious teen, to great effect. And by great I mean he cries because he pities his mother.
In high school, my idea of rich was somebody with their own house and lot and a car (or two). Eventually, my father discovered Robert Kiyosaki and Rich Dad Poor Dad, where I first encountered the term financial independence. I was in also high school when my parents were bitten by the networking/multilevel marketing bug, from which they never fully recovered, until now. Unfortunately, they never quite achieved success in this front.
Despite feeling ashamed most of the time, high school went okay. Because I was surrounded by middle-class kids, I thought that my life moving forward will follow the same trajectory as middle-class kids. I was in for a rude awakening.
When college was about to start, my parents reminded me that they can’t afford to send me to school. I was accepted to only 1 university (because I only took 2 college entrance exams, foolishly) and my aunt, who has been supporting me, can’t commit to paying for everything for four years. So while my friends were already happily preparing for the first year of college, I wasn’t sure yet if I can even attend.
This was when I made one of the most important decisions in my life. Despite the fact that I didn’t have any formal training, I auditioned and was accepted into the university’s dance team so that I can have an athletic scholarship. Kapal lang talaga ng mukha ang puhunan. This enabled me to finish college in one of the country’s top universities, have free formal dance training, and gain a lot of transferrable skills which I still use up to now. Equally importantly, I made a lot of life-long friends.
Call center work is not for “stupid people”
A couple of weeks after graduation, I joined the tens of thousands of fresh college graduates to join the then-new call center industry. Back then, there was a stigma connected to working in call centers. People used to look down on us. One of my neighbors even told my mother that she’s never going to allow her son to work in a call center because “it’s for stupid people”. She told that to my mother. Who had a daughter working in a call center. Unbelievable.
In any case, I needed the job because my parents depended on me to send my two siblings to college, even though I only earned Php 13,500 monthly on my first job as a call center agent. My first few years as a professional were hard because of the heavy responsibility I was given and also because of my own actions. I gave birth to my son barely a year after I graduated from college.
While working in the call center industry, I met a lot of amazing people who I still consider as close friends to this day. I met a lot of very hardworking and intelligent people who worked for their families and to achieve better lives and careers. Some sent siblings to college, even to law and medicine schools. Some were finishing their degrees or were taking graduate school classes while working. I myself attended graduate school at the top Philippine university while working in a BPO.
Because I started learning about investments while I was still in school, I started investing as soon as possible, even though I had very little money left after everything was factored in. After receiving my first 13th-month pay, I bought my first stock holding through an IPO (initial public offering). Prior to the popularity of online brokerages, people had to personally appear at the offices of the underwriters to sign forms and hand over money.
The long, hard climb out of poverty
I probably need an entire book to describe the feelings of shame, anger, resentment, helplessness, fear, and indignity of being in poverty. Even now that I’m no longer in that situation, remembering the hardships that we faced still makes me cry.
People who have no idea how it is to be in poverty and have never encountered hardship in their life will tell you that it’s your fault that you’re poor because you’re lazy. If you only work hard enough, you won’t be poor, they say. As if working in the fields or driving a taxi for over 20 hours is not hard work. Slightly better off people will subject your parents to disdainful looks. They will tell you that “hanggang dyan ka nalang” as a way to put you down.
Statistically speaking, as a young, unwed mother, I should’ve been doomed to live most of my life in poverty. But I’m made of sterner stuff. I wanted to make it up to my parents, who were deeply disappointed (although they tried very hard not to show it) when I got pregnant at an early age. I didn’t want my son to experience what I went through. I want to give him a bright future and have a happy and healthy life. I want him to be able to achieve greatness.
Not to toot my own horn, but people who know me in real life would all agree that I’m awesome. I didn’t only overcome, I came through.
I didn’t start at the starting line, at zero. I started waaaay beyond, at negative, and worked hard to get to other people’s starting point. I’m finally on track to achieving financial independence.
I still have so many goals. I want to be able to make sure that my parents are comfortable in their old age. I want to help my son achieve his goals. He doesn’t know yet where he wants to go to college or what program to take. I told him it’s okay as long as he attends one of the world’s top 100 universities and that it doesn’t matter what course he takes as long as he finishes his PhD (I’m only slightly kidding).
I want to continue helping the rest of my extended family by subsidizing the education of some of my younger cousins so that the cycle of poverty will end. I want to continue traveling the world. There are so many things I want to do.
P.S. If you want to read about some of the strategies I took to get out of poverty, you can read my post, How to Break Your Financial Vicious Cycle Part 2.
This has been a long post. Writing it has been cathartic for me. How about you? Why do you want to achieve FIRE?