My Journey to Fiscal Fitness

Broke. 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.

James
 

James retired in 2005 after serving 21 years in the United States Army. During the latter part of his career, James' interest in personal finance was piqued based on his own experiences and observations of the way most Americans plan – or more accurately, fail to plan – for retirement and the difficulty many face in starting the process. His most valued education has been lessons learned from personal experience and through conversations with smart, savvy friends.

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