I was not always debt averse. Like so many millions of Americans, I used to embrace the idea of debt as a given, a necessary evil. Only recently did I realize that only half of that term “necessary evil” was true. I graduated dental school about a year ago, with a staggering debt of over $550,000. Many of my classmates graduated with a similar debt and the common concensus was, “God this sucks, but this had to have happened for us to be here today.” While part of that may be true, because none of us had half a million dollars lying around at age 22, or whenever it was that we started dental school, it did not have to be such an overwhelming total sum. There was a voice in my head telling me that this was just not right. I must have messed up somewhere (and I did) but I did not know where. This unsettling feeling in my stomach prompted me to get my financial story straight. I hired a financial planner even before I started work to start understanding why being in so much debt was bothering me.
Some people can have financial debt up the wazoo and not bat an eyelid. Apparently, I am of a different breed. In the past five years, I experienced an ever-growing discomfort with my ever-increasing debt. They came hand in hand. In order to tackle the debt, I had to first see where it all started and what led me to this moment. One of the first things our financial advisor did when he met us, even before he hatched a plan or gave us any insight on how to regain control of our finances, was give us an assignment. He had us draw our money eggs. The money egg was supposed to include every experience we have had regarding finances from birth until now. We could also only draw pictures of those experiences, with our non-dominant hands. At this point, Mike was rolling his eyes to the back of his head. I had convinced him that a financial planner was what we needed but this was turning into a sort of psych therapy situation for him. I, on the other hand, practically jumped up and down with excitement and worked on the assignment as soon as I could. It ended up being a very smart way to begin approaching our finances.
My money egg totally explained my progression toward debt aversion and ironically, my progression towards a minimalist lifestyle. This is my money egg. Warning: it’s basically my financial life story and then some, and I’ve been alive twenty seven years, so yeah, it’s long.
I was born in the Philippines, a third world country, to parents who came from opposite social classes. My mom was from what was considered to be a well-off family, had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom got what they wanted and more growing up. My dad came from a small province near Manila which my mom called the ghetto and from my dad’s childhood stories, I can believe that it was true. By the time I was born, my parents were what you would consider successful folk in Manila. My dad and mom were both engineers and when I was born, they were both working. We were well–off enough that my mom was able to quit her job, and they were still able to provide a personal nanny (or yaya) for me, my sister, and my brother. We had three yayas living with us in our home. I remember having two dogs, pet fish, two doves. My sister and I went to private schools and enjoyed privileges that our neighbors could not. But it was still a third world country. Definition of privilege there was like, as cute as a little girl wearing her mother’s heels.
When I was eight, my dad was offered a job in the States. In hopes to provide his children with better access to, well, everything, my dad accepted and we moved to California. We went from having three nannies to living in a single bedroom of a home of one of my dad’s friends (coworkers?), who I didn’t even know. I remember the single bed my parents shared with my two year old brother, and my sister and I were squished sleeping on the floor in the space between the bed and the desk. I vaguely remember having to step over each other to move around in that space. It was summer, all the kids were out of school, so we were stuck in that one bedroom all day long. We were rarely allowed out because my parents did not want us to bother the owner, but the few moments we were allowed to sit on the couch in the living room were the best. We were growing kids and we had to stretch our legs. I remember it always being hot, hot, hot. That’s what I remember most. The terrible heat.
Eventually, my parents moved us to a townhouse in Milpitas, CA. I know that my parents were determined to give us kids a wonderful life, and they worked hard to do that. We started to get our bearings and move up the social ladder. My dad moved jobs frequently, always in search for a better life for his kids. I really appreciated his hard work, motivation, and pretty much, for just biting the bullet and doing what he had to in order to do what he thought was right. My mom was doing the same thing at home. One of the things that I really appreciated about my parents was that they worked. They worked their butts off.
After a few more years, my parents bought a beautiful four bedroom home in Pleasanton, CA. Each of us had our own rooms again! My dad also at this time was working three jobs. I hardly saw my dad during this time period. I remember begging my mom to wake me up at 6am so that I could go with her to the train station so I could drop him off and wave goodbye as the train took him off to work, not to return until midnight. Sometimes I’d try to hide silent tears rolling down my cheeks as he zoomed by. He worked a 9-5 job as an engineer, and then worked afterwards as a janitor for Blockbuster when it still existed (or was it Hollywood Video?), and later on as a janitor at Staples. At one point, he also was a retail salesperson at Robinsons-May (also when it still existed). He was in the lingerie department, and he hated it. But he did it anyway because he did what had to be done. It was also at this time that my brother started kindergarten and my mom started volunteering at school. Eventually, she started to work part-time for the school district. They were climbing up that social ladder real fast. We hosted parties nearly every weekend. We were the kids that always got the newest gaming console the night it was released. What I didn’t realize was that while I was getting every Disney sweater I wanted, my parents were working harder and we were eating mac and cheese and spam once a week. It was the most interesting paradox. We got every console that was released for Christmas, but I ate more beans from a can with rice and Vienna sausages on toast than my classmates. After two years, my parents decided to move yet again to Irvine in SoCal. They sold the house and my dad took an “even better job” in Orange County. All for the sake of searching for a better, more improved life.
This is where I stop and say, as kids, we hated the moves. I moved 10 times before I got into high school, including moves from house to apartment to apartment to motel to house etc. We lost a lot of friends along the way, and growing up, that was a pretty big deal. I was thirteen when we moved to SoCal, which in my head, the most “CRUCIAL” time in my life, aka the most dramatic time in my life. I think my sister took it harder than I did. I have never seen anyone resist my parents as much as she did. She fought until she got out. But I couldn’t blame my parents for trying to give us what they thought was a better life. In retrospect, I think if we just grew up in the same spot and established roots somewhere, (anywhere!), we would have probably had an improved life at home during our teen years. Less rebellion, less discontent, and more stability in general.
But on with the story about the continual search for more. We moved to Irvine and my dad started his new job and my mom started working at Irvine Unified School District. It only lasted one year before we moved into an extended stay motel, preparing to move yet again to Ladera Ranch. My parents bought another four bedroom home because my mom couldn’t stand living in a tiny apartment any more. My parents were ecstatic at finally owning a house again. A house located in a very affluent neighborhood, with well-paved streets and maintained parks, doggie bags included. 8 pools within a 3 mile radius, it was glorious. And off course, with each move, the accumulation of more stuff.
My dad continued to work for Robinsons-May even after it turned into Macy’s until he set his foot down in December when he said he did not want to work on Christmas Eve because he was going to put his family and kids first over money. I really admired him for making that move. He never went back to retail after that point. It was a wonderful Christmas, except I think my sister rebelled on the night of Christmas Eve and it actually turned into a tear-stained Christmas. Nothing short of usual family drama. Not shortly after, my mom took a second job in the afternoons at a tutoring company, Mathnasium. It is from here that she will eventually launch her own tutoring side business a few years down the road.
Up until this point, my parents have been trying to achieve an improved life for us. I would argue that they already achieved that in Pleasanton. We had what we needed and much more, and we kids were very happy kids. There’s a line between need and want. And then there is want-for-no-reason-at-all-just-because-you-can. The page turns, and that is where life took us. This is where I (slowly) started to learn that money cannot buy happiness. It can, but only up to a certain extent. Once you cover your basic needs, as well as ensure a stable income to the point where you don’t have to constantly worry if you will be supported next week or next month, money does not buy more happiness. Sometimes, I think the opposite could be true. It was the constant moving that got to my sister and I. Most of our arguments with our parents stemmed from that. Most of the blame and the resentment. My sister was never the same after our final move to Ladera Ranch. Granted, those were also the teen years and maybe it would have happened anyway, her turning rogue on us like that. But then again, maybe not.
At age sixteen, I started to work at Jamba Juice. My parents raised me to be a hard-worker too, and I liked the money I was making. I remember my mom telling me that, now that I was making money, I could start buying my own clothes, with the implication that I needed more clothes. When I started work, I opened my first debit card and my first credit card. My mom had her name assigned to my debit card so she could “help me monitor it”. What that also allowed her to do was to withdraw money from the account whenever she needed to borrow extra. By 18 years old, she had convinced me to open up 2 more general credit cards, which she later used to buy groceries and to buy other things that she “needed”. She also convinced me to open a credit card at Banana Republic, which I was working at during that time, so that I could “make use of the discounts”. I bought into it and spent paycheck after paycheck on clothes, saving very little for myself. It was a reward, she justified. I also bought clothes for her when sales were happening, and she paid me back, albeit a few days or weeks later. And I was okay with it.
When I was 18, my mom insisted on throwing me a traditional debutant ball. I told her that was not necessary. A debutant is kind of like a Quincenera, but for Filipinos. I dreaded the thought of going up in front of everyone and perform dances and speeches and whatever else. But she insisted and like a good daughter I went along with it. It was a $10,000 birthday party. With photographers, videographers, two gowns, everything. It wasn’t for me, and I don’t even want to say it was for her. It was for our friends and relatives, to show them how well-off we were. So well-off that she could flippantly throw a $10k birthday party for an 18 year old. The following year, my mom insisted my sister had one too, and despite my sister’s much stronger resistance to the thing, she got one whether she wanted to or not. After my sister’s debutante ball, my credit cards were maxed out because my mom had used her account holder abilities to pay both parties with my cards, and they would stay maxed out until I was 25. One was maxed at $2500 and the other $8500. Where was all the money going? I did not know it then, but I know now that all that money went to buy social status symbols. Symbols such as debutante balls and Banana Republic clothes and gaming consoles, random dinners and social events, everything a regular American typically spends money on. Well, minus the debutant parties. But that’s where a lot of the money was going to. In fact, I started receiving letters in the mail addressed to me saying that the payments on my credit cards were not being made. They were overdue, consistently, month after month. There were threatening emails saying the cards would be suspended if minimum balances weren’t met. I kept asking my mom about it and she kept brushing it off and saying, “Don’t worry about it.” But I WAS worrying about it. Eventually, at age 20, I got the cards back and closed both accounts. I forced my mom to open her own Banana Republic credit card. And I removed her from my debit card account. Today, only the $2500 credit card is paid off. The other one still has money unpaid. But I give them props, because they are at least working on paying that down now, after repeated, heavy arguing over the last five years.
Let me pause here (again) and say that I am not an ungrateful child. My parents were doing what they were taught to be the right thing to do and I don’t hate them for that. They are good people. But they were misled by an American Dream. I am very appreciative of their efforts. They bought my sister and I brand new cars for our first car, which I am so grateful for! Even though compared to other kids I went to school with, these weren’t crazy expensive cars like theirs were, but these were still brand new. That’s amazing and sweet and generous and kind. But as I look back on it now, I can’t help but think that that was also soooooo unnecessary.
Maybe in the back of my mind, I always knew we were short on money. I worried about money all the time. I worried about it enough that I felt the need to get a job at 16 years old. I even knew it enough that I chose my college based on how much money I would save living at home. I got into UCLA, which is where my boyfriend at the time decided to go, and which was viewed as a higher ranking college than UCI, but I chose UCI because I knew that I was the one who had to pay for my college education and I needed to save every bit that I could. My high school teachers and friends all thought I was crazy and tried to convince me to go to UCLA. But some part of me knew that I shouldn’t. I was slowly starting to become debt averse. However, even though I was smart enough to realize all of that, I was wrongly convinced that I could reward myself every time I got a paycheck with clothes and dinners and events and stuff in general. My parents sure supported that kind of lifestyle. “You can never have too many shoes. And you need more professional clothes, even at 18!” But I always had this feeling…
I graduated undergrad in three years and an extra quarter. I worked hard to pull that off so that I wouldn’t have to pay more money for the last two quarters. People asked why I did not just stay in school and take fun classes, and my answer what that I honestly did not want to spend more money. By this time, at age 20, I was working three jobs, just like my ole man. I was working as a dental assistant every day the dental office was open, averaging 33 hours a week. It was an emotionally taxing job, serving a community of people who had very high expectations and demands in an environment that caused a lot of fear in patients. On the days the dental office was closed, I was working at Banana Republic (still!) on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before the stores would open. I lifted mannequins above my head and climbed ladders twice my height, nearly breaking my back every day to set up the shop windows before the customers came in. If it was a Sunday, I would work the floor, following consumers as they dropped piles of clothes on the floor and I folded it back for them into perfectly neat stacks. I saw customers throw clothes at sales people when they were displeased, complaining of the heat in the store when there were too many other customers walking around, and slamming dressing room doors because they waited so long in the lines. Retail was a place where I learned how NOT to treat people. And it was where I saw the first glimpse of how “things” could turn people into such monsters. After a long physical day at BR, I would have a few hours to myself before I would drive to Irvine to tutor high school kids from Corona Del Mar. Not exactly mentally draining, these sessions did provide me further insight into lives of very very rich people. Back then, I wanted that lifestyle. These kids were driving Mercedes and Maseratis like it was nothing. Their parents owned boats and they went on international vacations by themselves every holiday. Who didn’t want money when they saw that? What I didn’t internalize was that many of these kids were taking anti-anxiety pills. ADD pills. Disliked their parents, or never even saw them. They were stressed more than I was, because of the high expectations that were set upon them by their parents and their peers. They know of more people their age who committed suicide than I did from watching television. I mean, these kids were paying $80/hour to talk to me about their problems at school and at home. All I could see was the prestige, their beautiful clothes, their lavish vacations, their lack of concern for money. And I was blinded to believe that that was what I was working towards.
In between graduating undergrad and getting into dental school, I made a lot of dumb mistakes. I was making good money working three jobs, but I didn’t tackle my student loans. Instead, I went out frequently. Spent money on clothes, food, alcohol and more alcohol. I even did a celebratory trip to Hawaii with Mike to celebrate getting into dental school. My loans sat there and I paid the bare minimum which didn’t even cover interest. And so my loans grew. I was working my butt off, but my debt continued to grow. I was working so damn hard that I was sick for months at a time, because my body could not keep up with the stress. I couldn’t wait until I got into dental school so that the payments could be delayed another four years.
I didn’t apply to many dental schools, but I did get into two schools right away, as early as December the year before. Ohio State University and University of Southern California. I wanted to stay in California to be with Mike and be close to home, so I decided to choose USC, which happens to be voted THE most expensive dental school in the United States. I swear I wasn’t getting any smarter with the finances thing. I mean, I KNEW it was the most expensive. I got an apartment to myself across the street from campus, which also meant I was spending A LOT of money on housing alone. Two weeks after dental school started at USC, I got an offer to go to dental school at UCLA, which started a week later. I denied it! You want to know why? It wasn’t because I liked USC better. It was because of sheer laziness! I was already set up in my apartment, moved in, and I already met a few people at school. I did not want to start all over or commute across the city. That’s it! That is the reason I said no. It was probably the worst financial move in the entirety of my life. And I hope never to make a mistake like that ever again.
Debt is never a good thing. More debt in exchange for a supposedly more prestigious school does not make the debt valuable. It’s not worth it. End of story. Yes, in order for me to achieve my dream of becoming a dentist, I had to go into debt. But I had a choice to take less debt, and I was a moron.
It was also around this time that my parents lost their house to the bank. This was the same year they had to take money out of their retirement fund to pay for something or other and were slashed with a big tax fee at the end of the year. But who was I to judge them? I stayed at USC. That single decision put me more in debt than my parents. So I cannot judge them for their financial decisions. I should be focused on working on my own spending habits rather than over-analyzing theirs. Plus, it turns out, I was growing up to be just like them.
Since I was living by myself in an apartment across the street from USC, I was dwindling down the few extra bucks I saved working three jobs during my one and a half years off. I was taking out the maximum loans possible (over $100k a year!) and still, by the end of my first year, I had no extra money in my bank account. I decided to move in with a roommate a little further away from school, but still in downtown LA. It made rent $100 cheaper per month. But it still wasn’t enough. In my second year of dental school, to the shock of my dental classmates, I took on a job as a librarian on campus and worked 20 hours a week, on top of being at the dental campus over 40 hours a week. I was exhausted, sickly, hardly spoke to my roommate and released all of my stress on Mike at the end of the day. After all the money financial aid was handing me, and the extra hours I was working, I was still going into further debt. Mikey had to lend me $1000-3000 at the end of every trimester to make ends meet. I would pay him back the minute I got my funds for the following trimester, which meant that at the end of the next trimester, I would need to borrow even more from him. How was this possible?!
It’s all those little things that you don’t even think about when you buy them. It’s that one shopping spree that you went on just because you were feeling down. It’s the new picture frame your apartment needed. It’s the chips and ice cream that you had to add to your grocery bill. It’s the second pair of Nikes you have because the last one has a mark on it. It’s the wedding dress you had to buy to attend your friend’s wedding, because she has seen you wear all the other dresses you owned. It’s the fifty books you have yet to read but buy impulsively because the cover calls to you. It’s that one time you were too lazy to cook so you went out to dinner with your friends. It’s when you got hammered at your friend’s party and offered to buy everyone a round of drinks. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. One bad financial decision after another. And these were just the little things. The big things were worse. The choice of housing for the sake of convenience. The choice of school due to laziness. The choice to borrow money from someone else for lack of discipline. It’s not consumption that’s the problem. We are human, and we need things. But it’s compulsive consumption that is the issue. The failure to see the difference between need and want.
By the summer after my second year of dental school, I was drowning in debt and I couldn’t take it anymore. I told my roommate I was moving out by the end of the week. A bitch move, and I can’t believe we are still close friends after that. I moved to Torrance to live with my boyfriend and his two guy friends, where my rent changed from $1200/month to $345/month. I quit my librarian job and paid Mike back every single penny. I committed to cooking meals at home with Mike as much as possible, and started budgeting our grocery bill to $50/week. I still follow this budget until today. I was taking a step towards debt aversion. But I continued to be a bad spender, or rather, a spender period. After all the money I saved, I spent any excess loan amount I had to travel or to dine out! Oy vey. I was so excited that I had “extra money” that I could not wait until the end of the trimesters to see how much I had left in order to live the good life. The truth that we all know is that, I have never had any extra money. As long as you are in debt, you don’t have money. I have been in debt since the day I opened my first credit card. But I spent the “extra money” anyway instead of paying back my loans. I continued this toxic cycle up until the day I graduated.
I wish I could say all of this ended after graduating dental school. After the loans stopped coming in and I was left with whatever debt’s version of a black hole is. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The summer after I graduated, I had to borrow money from Mikey. I was out of loans. In our entire relationship, I was very adamant about splitting everything in half. Down to the last penny. So any money I borrowed from Mikey, I kept tabs on. Until I graduated from dental school, Mikey and I were Even Stevens. I owed him over $16,000 by the time I started work. $16,000! That’s a lot of money I didn’t have. That summer, I was even more obsessed with spending. I had to have a nice loft apartment and I had to buy new furniture for it. I spent his money to take classes and workshops. I was in denial that I had to face a burdensome monstrous debt. I knew I had a problem, then.
Here is my issue with money. You might not have this issue but I did. And it all started with things.
The more things I wanted to buy, the less money I had.
The less money I had, the harder I had to work.
The harder I had to work,
The more stressed I was.
The less time I had with my friends.
The more sick I became.
The faster I tired.
The less personal growth I had.
And if I wasn’t growing,
Then I was dying.
And that had to change. ASAP.
I was just like my parents. Just like so many other Americans. We have too many choices and that was a problem for me. I thought I needed to have every choice offered to me. When I had to present my money egg, I knew all of this. I was aware of the entire story as it was unfolding, as I was living it day to day. In fact, I was hyper-aware, and that’s what made me worry so often since I was a young teenager. I knew this because I watched my parents go through it. But I was also in denial. I deserve this. I worked hard for this. This is my reward. If they can have it, so can I. I am in less debt than they are. This is worth the money. All of these are excuses and lies that I fed myself. When I finished presenting my money egg, I couldn’t help but think to myself, that for once in my life, I made the right financial move. I hired myself a financial planner who did not tell me what to do with my money, but had me change my whole perspective of life in general. After presenting my money egg, he had me and Mike discuss our priorities, our future goals, and our dreams. He asked us questions like, what brought us happiness, what projects we wanted to start, when we saw ourselves retiring, what retirement looked like for us. He asked us what we wish we could had done in life if we were told that we had an incurable disease and we were to die by the end of the year. Then he asked us what we wish we could have done if we were told we were going to die tomorrow. If you were to die and had a million dollars in assets, how would you divvy that up? By asking us these questions, and writing down all our answers, he came back at us and said, look. From all the answers that were provided, there were a few things that mattered to Mike and I. Family seems to be the most important thing. Next came travel, hobbies, and self-improvement. After that was contributing beyond ourselves. There was no mention of a house or stuff. So we had to approach our financial situation in a way that allowed us those things not only in the future, but more importantly in the present. It was like a switch flipped in me. I radically altered my lifestyle. It was around this time that I started to embrace what I would consider the simple life and the concept of minimalism.
Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can focus on life’s more important things, which aren’t really things, at all.
In the last year throughout this process of gaining more and more control over my financial life, this is what I learned.
The less stuff I bought, the more money I had.
The more money I had, the more focused I was on paying down my debt.
The smaller the debt got, the less I worried about my finances.
The less I worried about finances, the less time I had to work.
The less time I had to work, the more time I had to learn about myself.
The more I learned about myself, the more focused I was.
The more focused I was, the more clear my priorities became.
The more clear my priorities became, the better my relationships got.
The better my relationships got, the more meaningful my life got.
As I discovered what was meaningful to me,
I realized that it never had anything to do with stuff after all.