Making A Fresh Start

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Most people are skeptical when they read about people who achieve FIRE (financial independence, retire early). Conventional wisdom says saving a high percentage of your income to become financially independent in only a decade or two is for the privileged few. When I first started reading FIRE blogs, I admit I shared that skepticism. 

Sunrise over Kilimanjaro

Despite my skepticism, I dug deeper into these FIRE blogs. There I found many simple but solid principles that when applied together can radically change your life’s trajectory. As I changed my own life’s trajectory, it became my mission to convey these principles in a way that other “normal” people could apply to their own lives.

As we start a new year, many of you have resolved to take action to change your financial trajectory. So I asked Mark Bovair, who made his own fresh start nearly a decade ago, to share his story on the blog. (Disclosure: We have no financial relationship.)

This isn’t a story of someone who turned it all around overnight and is now financially independent and retired early. But he is in a far different financial, and more importantly mental, space than he was a few short years ago. If you are looking to make your own fresh start this year, there’s a lot here for you.

Take it away Mark…

Start Where You Are

In 2013, at the age of 33, I found myself divorced with no savings and a big pile of debt. I was a single father of three young kids and I had nothing. 

I was emotionally and financially spent. There was little I could do beyond survive each day. 

Keep it together for the kids. Keep food on the table. Perform enough at work to keep my job. It took all I had to maintain daily life. There was no room to worry about debt or, are you kidding me, saving for retirement!

The Low Point

Only a few months earlier, my ex-wife and I finished paying off tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We had kids young, and we built a lifestyle we couldn’t afford. But together, over the previous five years, we had climbed our way out of the hole and were on the verge of accelerating our savings and getting ahead once and for all. 

Then the divorce hit, unexpectedly. Legal fees and a negotiated short sale on our family home left me with half of a brand new debt, which was tens of thousands of dollars. 

Only this time I faced this debt alone. I had no one to share the journey with. A lonely time indeed, but more importantly, I was digging out of this hole with only one income instead of two. It felt insurmountable. So much so that I largely ignored it for the first year. 

I can’t think of anything short of a devastating illness that comes close to the financial cost of a divorce. Not only is the process costly, but splitting resources between two households instead of one will leave both parties struggling for many years following.

Now, here I am at 40, writing a guest post on a popular blog (thanks Chris!) while debt free (except the mortgage) and I’m saving thousands every month towards my goals. 

How did I turn things around like that? Here are the five things I did over the last five years that helped me get out of debt and start saving again.

I Locked In Low Housing Costs

When I first divorced I lost my home. It was devastating. But I still needed a place to live. 

My first place was a “single dad special”, otherwise known as a two bedroom condo. All three kids shared one bedroom. It wasn’t ideal, but it was inexpensive. It was about half the monthly cost of our previous mortgage, and since I was working with half the income, it worked out. The kids didn’t like being away from their school friends and it was a long drive from school, so it was only temporary.

I will touch on this again later, but I got a huge break when an old neighbor from my marital home called me up and offered to rent me his home. It was right around the block from my old home. The kids and I would be right back in the neighborhood.

Best of all, he was desperate to rent it as he had bought a new home and the market was not good. We both helped each other out.

Don’t be afraid to chat with people about your life. He only knew I was looking to move because I shared with him my disappointment of having to leave my old home. He immediately thought of me when the time came. 

A few years later, when the market improved, I would end up buying the home from him for a good price and locked my housing costs in with a 30 year fixed rate mortgage at a low interest rate. 

This was a big win from a cash flow perspective. Keeping housing costs low is essential to paying down debt and getting ahead. It wasn’t the time for 15 year mortgages. It was a time for low monthly payments.

I Went With a Cheap Car

You’ve heard it a million times, but I will say it again, transportation costs are a massive drain on cash flow. I won’t bore you with the details here, but let’s just say I was a newly single 30-something guy driving around in a used Chrysler minivan. My ego took the loss on that one, but my cash flow was pleased with that decision.

I Set Myself Up for Big Breaks

Like I said above, I got a big break when my friend rented his home to me. I pounced on it.

Another big break came when I switched jobs in 2017. I was still treading water on my debt payoff. Things were stable, but it was tough to find much extra cash to crush the debt. 

Then I got a new job that cut my commute by ⅔ AND gave me a lump sum cash payout from an old pension plan. Yeah, I know, using retirement money to kill debt isn’t popular in these parts, but it was a gift. (Editor’s note: No judgement here. Sometimes “bad decisions” work out great!)

I was given a chance at debt freedom and I took it. When you are drowning you don’t question the rope that lands next to you, you take it. I won’t ever run the numbers on that transaction, but I was free at last and that was priceless. 

The key is to be ready for the breaks. When things aren’t moving forward, don’t despair. Staying in place and avoiding falling backwards can be the best you can do sometimes. That’s ok.

Hold steady and wait. More often than not there will be a break that cuts you loose and you start to move forward again.

I Started Hustling

Not at billiards, though that could be fun. It wasn’t until about the third year that I started to make extra money on the side. 

Until then, I didn’t have the time capacity. Once I did, I started to add income streams. A few hundred dollars a month of side income is like throwing gasoline on the fire, only it was debt I was burning. 

I started moonlighting as a bookkeeper (my day job is accounting). A few small jobs, a few hours a week, and suddenly I was paying off more debt than ever. 

I could call every creditor, the cable company, the cell phone company, the insurance company, etc and lower my bills, but that doesn’t come close to the feeling of adding a new cash flow stream!

I Started Tracking My Cash Flow

This is the least exciting part of the story, probably why it’s the last thing I did. I used to run my finances based on “feel”, figuring I had a good handle on how much I was spending each month without having to track anything. I was WRONG. It’s like estimating the calories in a piece of chocolate cake. I was always underestimating my cash outflow.

Even as I was getting ahead, I was leaving a lot of money on the table. I tried lots of finance tools and software, but nothing really worked. So I developed my own spreadsheet that I still use to this day.

The key to tracking wasn’t the spreadsheet or even the numbers, it was the act of manually entering each transaction that mattered the most. A painful reminder of my choices each time I sat down to track. Five minutes a day and it changed my financial future for good. 

It was painful for a long time, but now it’s quite satisfying to sit down and track my cash flow as I see the numbers in green go up more and more. I am saving more than ever and it feels great. 

I’m 40 and have the recommended savings of a 25-year-old, but I’m on my way. I don’t wish things were different since the lessons I’ve learned are part of who I am today. 

I have a lot of catching up to do, which is why I will continue to hustle. Growing my income is the only way I’ll get “caught up” and realize my early retirement dreams, and I’m ok with that.

My $.02

Mark and I met about a year and a half ago when I was in Detroit promoting my book. He came out to the event and stayed after to talk. I assumed that anyone who showed that much interest in the book must have already drank the Cool-Aid and was financially independent or well on their way.

Mark and I have stayed in touch online since then, and he interviewed me for a podcast he was experimenting with. As I learned more about his story, I was surprised to learn my assumptions were wrong. 

I became more intrigued by and impressed with him. It would be easy for Mark to look at the concept of FIRE and see all of the reasons why it doesn’t apply to him and he could never retire securely, let alone early. 

Instead, he got curious. More importantly, he took action. And he persists even when it is tough.

Specific Actions

Though our circumstances were very different, the specific actions that allowed Mark to make this turn around are the same ones that allowed me to develop a large savings rate and achieve financial independence decades earlier than most.

  • Control your biggest expenses (housing and cars),
  • Increase your income,
  • Track your spending to get a better understanding of where your money is going,
  • Over time increase your savings rate by growing the gap between income and spending.

None of this is rocket science. But none of it is easy either. It requires being intentional, getting started, and being persistent year after year. This is why it is so vital to get the big things right and then put as many aspects of your financial life on autopilot as possible.

Gaining Momentum

Many people are getting a late start saving for retirement. Such a large and far off goal can lead to a feeling of overwhelm that prevents starting.

As most of us have experienced, getting traction with your finances is hard when starting out in debt. Personal finance gets a whole lot more fun and interesting when you start saving and putting compounding to work for you.

Better yet, tax advantaged saving allows us to cut a massive expense that no one likes to pay. Learning to avoid conflicted investment advice and getting started with a simple investment strategy allows your money to grow with little effort, complexity, or cost.

Make Your Own Fresh Start

As we enter a new year, many of you are looking to make a fresh start with your finances. This blog has been going for nearly a decade to help readers to those ends.

Darrow and I will continue to share our ideas and stories here, but I’d like to hear from more of you. While the principles we all apply are universal, we each face unique challenges, circumstances, and opportunities and can learn from one another. I already have a few interesting reader profiles lined up for the coming months. 

As I try to keep things fresh for you as readers and me as a content producer, I crave your feedback as to what you find most helpful. I’m also always looking for interesting ideas and stories. Leave a comment below or drop me an email if you have an idea or would like to share your story. Thanks for reading!

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to chris@caniretireyet.com. Financial planning inquiries can be sent to chris@abundowealth.com]

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Disclosure: Can I Retire Yet? has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Can I Retire Yet? and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Other links on this site, like the Amazon, NewRetirement, Pralana, and Personal Capital links are also affiliate links. As an affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases. If you click on one of these links and buy from the affiliated company, then we receive some compensation. The income helps to keep this blog going. Affiliate links do not increase your cost, and we only use them for products or services that we're familiar with and that we feel may deliver value to you. By contrast, we have limited control over most of the display ads on this site. Though we do attempt to block objectionable content. Buyer beware.

17 Comments

  1. Hi Chris, and Happy New Year. Are you going to be publishing your 2021 Portfolio? Always a great read! Keep up with the great blog. Thanks.

  2. “Personal finance gets a whole lot more fun and interesting when you start saving and putting compounding to work for you.” This sentence really hit home!

    Saving for retirement was an abstract concept to me when I started out 20 years ago (at age 24), but I did it anyway. Lived well below our means and eventually started maxing out both IRA and 401k contributions. Didn’t look much at the investments except to occasionally rebalance. It took about 15 years before the benefits of compounding and dollar cost averaging really started to pay off. I started calculating net worth on a quarterly basis back in March 2019 (I also use a bar graph to show a quick visual of growth quarter-to-quarter). We are definitely on track to retire at 55- will probably be able to at 50 if we want.

    I tell all my younger coworkers to start saving, whatever amount they can, and increase the amount over time. Hopefully they are listening to me!

    Anyway, really enjoy this blog and keep the good stuff coming!

    Janette L.

    1. Thanks for sharing that Janette. I think it’s important to hear it from as many people as possible. It is really hard for most people to get started because progress is so slow in the beginning. Unfortunately, it’s the only way for most people to get to the point where assets are enough to eventually get enough momentum to provide financial independence.

      Cheers!
      Chris

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for sharing your story and detailing your comeback trail.

    They ask about the divorce? We are thinking about having our third child, but I’m afraid about the strain of her child presents. There are obviously also health risks for both child and mother given we are older now.

    How much did children play a part in the divorce? I often wonder about the process of having multiple children and then getting divorced. What are some of the things you would’ve done differently?

    I’m so tired everyday with childcare that I don’t think we have the energy for a third. With no schooling, it’s tough.

    Thanks,

    Sam

  4. “It was painful for a long time, but now it’s quite satisfying to sit down and track my cash flow as I see the numbers in green go up more and more. I am saving more than ever and it feels great. ”

    I always felt that physical fitness is a lot like personal financial fitness. It hard to get started but once it’s a habit, it feels good. And once a routine, if you don’t exercise or save, you feel bad.

    1. Good observation Phillip. As a former physical therapist and general fitness enthusiast, I also see great overlap b/t personal fitness and personal finance. With both, it’s easy to focus on the short term pain immediately in front of you obscuring the much bigger long-term benefits hiding behind it.

      Best,
      Chris

  5. I think you are a hero for taking care of those kids first and foremost. And, yeah, driving a minivan, that had to be penance for anything wrong you ever did! Great story, inspirational to so many who feel they are late to the party or buried by misfortune. The thing that showed through was an undercurrent of optimism and determination to make life work. I hate you had to go through all that but I’m guessing it helped make you the winner you are. By comparison I feel very unworthy. Great post!

  6. Mark, congratulations not only on your financial successes, but on all of your dogged efforts to attain them, as well. Building financial stability, eliminating debt and saving substantially for retirement are challenges that are not fun, not easy and certainly not for the faint of heart. I ‘m impressed by the way you tackled your situation one step at a time, focusing on various facets of your financial life. Your hard work and diligent efforts have paid off in spades and set a good example for your children. Good for all of you!

    Chris, You know I’m a fan of your writing and the detailed info you provide in your posts, so no points against you here. But I will say it was intriguing to learn Mark’s story and follow his plan of attack. Very impressive. Thanks to both of you for sharing.

  7. It is great to hear a story of someone who did not have an easy time. I am also , divorced and it is brutal.

    Just keeping your head above water the first few years is a huge accomplishment.

    Thank you

    1. Thanks for reading Carrie. Keep plugging! I hope you get value from Mark’s story both in the form of inspiration from someone who has faced similar challenges and practical advice that spurs your own action.

      Best wishes,
      Chris

  8. Thanks Chris and Mark for an inspiring story with a different twist. It inspired me to plan a slightly different action. I’ve retired and we plan to move to a co-housing community in the next year. Pre-retirement, we were pretty good at estimating expenses, living below our means, and saving. The result is a plenty adequate but not huge kitty. What we don’t have is an acccurate estimate of expenses in retirement. I plan to restart the exercise of writing down every expense, probably for a year, and use the results to plan. All my pre-retirement estimates look good, but we need some real-life data.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Connor. One of my big take homes from Darrow’s 2nd book is that once you retire, you still have to do the same basic things that got you there. This includes understanding your income and spending and making periodic adjustments to stay on course.

      Best,
      Chris

  9. Nice to read a story of someone that is less than perfect but applies the same goals and fundamentals to make progress. I suspect a lot of folks are in this boat but don’t discuss it.

    Varied content like this is a good thing that while does not apply to me keeps me coming back for the next interesting post 🙂

    1. Thanks Dave. I agree this is not the typical content for this blog, but as I try to expand this message to a wider audience who often assume what we write about is unattainable, I think this is a great example that is not true.

      Best,
      Chris

  10. Thanks for this, it was a great read and I look forward to reading more posts from those who either started late or who are simply following a different path. Not all of us got everything right from day one and although it’s great to hear stories from those who did, it’s also so valuable and inspiring to hear from those who didn’t

    1. Thanks for that feedback Brendon.

      I will say no one gets everything right, but you’re point is taken that some of us get later starts, have bigger obstacles, etc. That’s exactly why I wanted to share Mark’s story. I hope it will give hope to others who have a hard time seeing how to get started.

      Best,
      Chris

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