My Journey to Fiscal Fitness

A Change is ComingBroke. Touching down in Denver on a flight from Korea in 1994, that reality struck me like a lightning bolt.

Arriving at Fort Bragg, North Carolina a few weeks later – following a short visit with my family in Denver – the first observable instance of my new financial situation presented itself as I had just enough money for the first month’s rent and security deposit on a small apartment.

My wife and I had separated during the year that I was in Korea and I was placed in a difficult position financially. Not only had she failed to make our car payments for a few months, but she had also sold all of our belongings during the time that I was gone. Fortunately, my parents were able to help me get the car payments caught up, ensuring I would have a means of transportation while at Fort Bragg.

To make the situation even more bleak, it would be a few weeks before the few belongings I did have would arrive from Korea. As I did not have the money for bedding, again I was fortunate to have supportive parents, as they had given me some blankets and pillows during my visit to Denver.

Without a radio, a television (I could not afford cable TV anyway), furniture, or the money to do anything, I found myself bedding down on the living room floor (it was cooler than the bedroom) and going to sleep once the sun set during those first few weeks in my new apartment. Broke.

It was during that period I adopted the pizza (Mr. P’s frozen pizza, $0.69 each if memory serves me correctly), ramen noodles, and orange juice diet. Not a great diet from a nutritional perspective, but definitely inexpensive! There were probably 100 different aspects of struggling financially during that period that I would sometimes recall, and occasionally still do. However, the pizza, ramen, and orange juice diet; along with rationing money and giving plasma for cash are the most vivid.

I distinctly remember pumping $1.50 worth of gas at a time because I was typically down to my last $8 or so and I did not want to spend it all on gas lest something come up before the next payday. While I was not able to get a second job at that time, I was able to give plasma. Got plasma? You bet! Prior to arriving at Fort Bragg, I had never heard of giving plasma for money.

However, in speaking with a co-worker about my difficulties in making ends meet, he alerted me to the practice. While it was not much, $10 during the first visit and another $20 if you came back within two weeks, it was a much-needed extra $30/month for someone putting only $1.50 worth of gas at a time in the tank. I have no idea how many times I paid $1.50 – $3.00 for gas or gave plasma; however, it had to be the better part of a year as it took me that long to get on my feet again, or at least what passed for on my feet at that time.

Flash forward to 2001. A prolonged separation and attempted reconciliation ended where it should have seven years previously, with a divorce. At this point I was thirty-four years old, active duty in the United States Army for 17 years – half of my life – and living like many Americans, month to month. My financial situation had not improved over the years and now a divorce.

Soon after my divorce was finalized during the spring of that year, I sat down one afternoon to assess where I was financially. Initially my focus was on the near-term, just trying to keep my head above water for the moment and evaluating how I was positioned on a monthly basis. It was not promising as my monthly expenses slightly exceeded my monthly income. Broke.

While I went to work right away at reducing my expenses, there was a brief period, perhaps three to four months, before I finally deeply considered the long-term implications of living paycheck to paycheck, some months running a slight deficit, others a slight surplus.

Although I do not recall the exact date or moment that my life changed significantly, it was during that period. Conducting the assessment of where I was at that point in 2001 and reflecting on my financial struggles a few years previously lit a fire within me. Soon thereafter I committed myself to changing my fiscal well-being and I have enjoyed tremendous financial success since that time.

Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.

21 Comments

  1. Wow, that’s a pretty incredible experience, and really puts into perspective the things I find myself complaining about sometimes! Food is definitely one area you don’t want to have to skimp on for too long from a nutrition and health perspective.

    It’s a real credit to your character that you can come out of a situation like this and really turn things around for the better.

    • Thanks for stopping by and the kind words, Jason. No doubt there were some lean years; however, I learned a lot from the experience, not only about myself, but the importance of understanding how to effectively manage money and giving myself options. The best thing about having money is that it gives you options … no money, no (or limited) options.

  2. It’s amazing what people can do when they are broke to survive. Giving plasma is not as bad, as people make it to be. You’re getting paid to save someone’s life, is a pretty noble cause. It’s great you turned around your life from living paycheck to paycheck.

    • Thanks for stopping by, my friend. That period was certainly part of the catalyst that forced me to educate myself with respect to personal finance and turn things around, head in a new direction.

  3. Wow, thanks so much for sharing your story! So powerful. Sometimes we hit rock bottom and realize we need to change.

    • Exactly. I often wonder if I would have found the success (financial) I have if I had not hit absolute rock bottom and been forced to learn more and act differently. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and add to the conversation.

      • My only concern is that now that you’ve found financial success/independence through hard work and perserverance, your dollars are not “redistributed” to others……. đŸ™‚

  4. Cooler in the living room? Tell me you weren’t living in Fayetteville without AC!

    I’m so sorry for what happened. I know many others with similar stories. You are amazing, turning the struggle into success and inspiration!

    • Thanks, my friend. There were definitely lessons learned and ultimately, great value in the struggle.

  5. It’s one thing to hit “financial bottom”, but it’s another thing to be able claw your way back up the financial ladder and prosper as you’ve done. What this says is that no matter what stage of financial duress you’re currently experiencing, it’s completely possible to turn things around and prosper. In fact, I think you should market your story to Hollywood!

    I had my “financial duress” moment during my junior year of college. Bar S hot dogs (the ten pack!), Top Ramen and the powdered drink “Tang” kept me alive. I vowed that with my first paycheck after graduation that I would save my USAF flight pay. Actually, I realized that I could save not only my flight pay but an additionaol 25 percent of my take home pay. 31 years later it has paid off but I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t hit bottom.

    Our daughter is going through this now as a college junior and although my wife and I want to jump in and help, we know how important it is for her to experience and learn from this.

    • Ahhh, who could forget Tang, that nearly indescribable orange drink beloved by astronauts the world over? Do they still sell the stuff? If not, these young whippersnappers have no idea what they’re missing!

      In hindsight, my early, severe financial struggles were a blessing. As Fredrick Douglass noted, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

  6. You must be proud of your inner strength that saw you through these problems

    • Thanks, Mike. I believe that I was fortunate for three reasons. First, I had faced difficult circumstances before and I never doubted that I would get through that period; it was only a matter of how and how long. Second, I was fortunate to be in the Army with guaranteed income, health care, etc. There was no chance that I was going to end up on the street. Third, I have always been fortunate to have tremendous friends and family. A solid network of people is so helpful. It really is true that none of us get through this thing called life alone.

  7. Definitely have been there and I still don’t have a huge emergency fund, which is something I want so that I don’t have to worry about a prolonged time of unemployment or some other financial situation. You definitely are not alone in your experiences.

    • Thanks for stopping in and commenting, DC. No doubt that my experience with financial hardship – while unique to me in its own details – is something many can relate to as they have experienced their own financial hardships because of an unforeseen emergency, prolonged unemployment, medical catastrophe, etc. Having your debt under control and an emergency fund, things I did not have at the time, would definitely have mitigated the the severity of the impact.

  8. So many people struggle as you did–however, many don’t have the fortitude to power through and make changes to improve the quality of their life.
    I wish you continued success!

    • Thanks, my friend. It has been quite the journey – a continuing journey – that has taken a lot of interesting turns. I absolutely believe you need to be punched in the face sometimes to really get focused…and come out better on the other side.

  9. Although I did not have the struggle you did, my ex-husband and I struggled as well. If you are in the military, or have been, you will know how much credit gets offered to soldiers and their families. We, both being raised in a poor family, discovered credit and how easy it was to attain. We purchased all the things that we wanted and could never have, on CREDIT. We hit some very rough times struggling to pay bills, especially moving from duty station to duty sation when I was unemployed. Using credit wisely was a VERY hard lesson to learn, but I have turned a new leaf as well, although it took me until my 40’s in which to do so.

    • Great observations. Learning to manage credit can be a very hard lesson, particularly in a hyper consumerism society and in environments where lenders gladly extend credit – at inflated interest rates – to those willing to take it.

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