How Did I Get Here? My Financial Journey: From Unemployed and Broke in 2017, to Saving Enough to Leave the Workforce

“There’s no magic formula besides: spend less money AND/OR earn more money X as long as it takes.”

Julie B. Rose, “Money and Mindset: How to Take a Sabbatical”

Six years ago, I was unintentionally jobless.

My severance package had run out, and I hadn’t found another suitable job.

My emergency fund was all but drained.

I was receiving $240 a week in unemployment benefit payments, but that wasn’t going to cover my $1,400 monthly mortgage payment and house bills.

It took some time, but I turned it around — and now, I’m semi-retired, working on my own terms and own timeline, and traveling the world. Let me tell you how. 

But first, growing up in Minnesota… in a middle class, single income household 

My upbringing was pretty average, I think. My siblings and I went on a vacation each year, we got presents under the tree at Christmas, and when I needed some new clothing, or wanted to try a new hobby, I generally could.

My family lived out in the Minneapolis suburbs; my dad an insurance agent, my mom stay-at-home. We had what we needed and more, but I sometimes felt jealous that friends or classmates had what I didn’t. My family didn’t have a summer cabin, a boat, or cable television — but we had an above-ground swimming pool (until it caved in and was never replaced).

When I was young, for spending money, I sold bookmarks that I laminated and designed with Microsoft Publisher. I babysat neighborhood kids. I served onion rings at the Sherburne County Fair. And I got my first “legal” job at age 15, working at Panera for $5.25 an hour. I held a number of other jobs afterwards: barista, hostess, cashier, server, and bartender. 

My parents taught me how to be financially responsible — which to them, meant: save a little bit of your money, don’t overdraw your checking account, and pay off loans as quickly as possible. My dad gave my brothers and I a leg up when it came to college (he helped pay for about half of my public college education) and also helped us with the downpayment on our first cars.

My dad encouraged me to study, and work, and save, and get ahead. My parents even gave me a financial incentive to get As in my classes — $20 per A! 

I got good grades, and I worked a lot of hours. Through high school and college, I kept my nose to the grindstone, spurred on by my parents’ pride and recognition. My eating disorder was easy to hide from my parents between school and my crazy work schedule. And I was chronically tired from overwork: sometimes, I was chastised by my bosses for not being “cheery” enough to customers. (This was also the era of “You look so much prettier when you smile, hon.” Aaargh.)

2007, post-college: setting off on my own!

After I graduated college with a degree in mass communications and an emphasis on broadcast journalism, I went back home for the summer to serve and bartend at the golf course. I also searched and applied for news producer or reporter jobs.

After summer ended, and I hadn’t found the right job yet, my dad started to charge me rent. 

“It will be $100 the first month, $200 the next month, and $400 the month after that,” he said. He would double it every month to make sure I was serious about finding that professional job and getting out of the house.

I interviewed for a television news reporter position in Traverse City, Michigan, and they offered me the job. The salary was $21,000 per year, about $10 an hour. I made more serving and bartending at weddings on the golf course! I didn’t take it. 

Finally, I landed a web content producer job in Minneapolis. The salary was $33,000 a year, and I promptly went out and rented a $750/month 1-bedroom apartment and financed a $22,000 car, because… that’s what you did, right? With my $400-and-some car payment, auto insurance, and rent, I could barely afford to eat. (I consumed a lot of baked potatoes that year.) I had to get a second job part-time making smoothies at the gym just to make ends meet.

And then, in 2009, I was laid off (more on that here), I got in a car accident and totaled my brand new car, and I moved to Phoenix for another job.

The next chapter: Phoenix, and still fighting my poor spending habits

I bought a new car (to my credit, a more affordable model than the last one I totaled)… but I still followed the typical script — buy the things you want, go do the things you can afford to do (or what everybody else is doing), and save whatever’s left. No matter what, don’t leave a balance on your credit card or overdraw your account — otherwise, go for it! 

It never really occurred to me to live any other way than paycheck to paycheck. One, I didn’t even make enough money to save, I told myself. I just barely contributed to my 401K, if the companies I worked for offered them. And there were so many things I needed just to stay afloat! I got a couple raises over the years, and any extra I had went to those big purchases — trading-in for another new car and saving for a house. 

In 2013, I bought a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house in Phoenix for $175,000, because equity, and I wanted to have a starter house for my boyfriend and I as we got more serious. The house needed work, and of course, I had to fill it up with furniture and decor to impress all the people I would invite over. He wasn’t on the mortgage or deed because he had poor credit, but he contributed to the mortgage and repairs. 

When we broke up and he moved out, I decided to Airbnb my guest bedroom for extra income instead of getting a roommate. This was 2014, and people thought I was crazy for letting strangers into my home. (Some of the experiences weren’t the best — like the male guest who said, “Wow, you’re so pretty in person!” when I greeted him for the first time.)

It helped me stash away a bit more for those big purchases — the upcoming kitchen renovation, and the next vehicle trade-in — an Infiniti G37 convertible — that I looked so cute driving.

In 2015, my then-boyfriend called me out for owning a convertible that — with the loan payment, gas, insurance, and maintenance — was eating up one-quarter of my income. I was now making $60,000 a year pre-tax, but month-over-month, I kept spending a little more than I should. 

I mean… I had a budget, but I didn’t necessarily stick to it. 

“You’re driving a car that you can’t afford. Trade it in for a junker and stop overspending!” was his unsolicited advice

I did trade in my vehicle, but not for a junker (I couldn’t quite go that far). But by doing so, I cut my monthly car expenses in half, and lowered my auto loan balance. 

Then, I got my “dream job,” and it paid 20 percent more. I continued to put money into my “emergency fund,” which was really just where I saved money that I would later spend.

2017: Unemployed and broke, vowing to never be in a position of financial insecurity again

That dream job laid me off in June 2017, a few months after I spent $13,000 renovating my kitchen. My emergency fund was nearly drained, but I had a generous severance, and decided to travel before jumping back into the workforce. 

In October, I was still jobless and on unemployment benefits. My savings had dwindled to my last $1,500. If I was unemployed for much longer, I would’ve been on the brink of being unable to pay my $1,400/month mortgage and all my other bills.

My glass house was about to come crashing down: I was panicked, powerless, and bitterly regretful of my previous spending choices. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that long until I found a job perfect for me. And I got smart: I never wanted to be in that position of weakness again. I vowed to be more responsible with my money. 

I refinanced my house into a lower monthly payment, and I saved the remainder. I tackled my only outstanding loan besides the mortgage: and paid off my car. I maxed out my 401K and then my Roth for several years in a row. I lived beneath my means and I rented out my house while I traveled. I stopped “saving” — and instead, started INVESTING. (I detail a lot more of my saving and earning tactics in my eBook.)

Then in 2020, I sold my house at a profit. (And I haven’t needed to tap my house earnings yet!)

2021: It’s not you, it’s me: I quit

At the end of 2021, I quit the job. I had saved over $30K in cash to take a sabbatical and “travel for a while” —a dream I hatched during my four weeks in Europe four years prior. It was a decision I had been putting it off: I suffered too long over financial fears about having enough.

Finally, I just shoved myself off the precipice (and now, my relationship with money is really healthy). And even though the stock market has been on a wild ride, I’m not worried — I’m here for the long haul, and it’s got a lot of compounding to do!

The moral of my story? If you weren’t set up for success when you were younger, if you weren’t handed the world, if you missed opportunities, if you made mistakes… we’ve been in the same boat. Optimistic, smart, motivated, and talented people WILL prevail… be intentional. Make a plan. Keep an open mind. We can accomplish ANYTHING if we think it short-term, incremental goals are more attainable than huge goals, and lifestyle creep comes with an opportunity cost to something better.

Nothing in my financial journey has been overnight. 2022 was my first year without a real paycheck since I was 15, although I did earn a few thousand dollars in passive income and interest. And in 2023, I’ve secured a couple income streams that will lend itself to my first real revenue-producing year for the blog and “business!” (I love my clients!)

While I’m excited to see cash flow, STILL — money is not the goal: what money can enable is the goal… but not just what money can enable, what DO I WANT that money can enable. I am making conscious choices. I am thoughtful and intentional about how I spend what I earn. And I will only give my time to causes I deem worthy. Money is time: time back for our own desires, endeavors, and passions.

Cheering you on in your own financial journey 😘❤️ 

You can live richly without being rich — and freedom from lifestyle worship is the greatest wealth.

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One thought on “How Did I Get Here? My Financial Journey: From Unemployed and Broke in 2017, to Saving Enough to Leave the Workforce

  1. Kudos Julie! I have a similar story with some variations and a generation before you. I actually started my first job in high school making $1.65 hr min. wage working concrete, and was able to save money! 😳 I was buying stocks as a I graduated high school, and building ever since. Self employed since I was 25, and can’t imagine doing it any other way. When I was laid off from a very good job during a recession at 25, I decided never again will I rely on others for my economic success. Keep going Julie and live the dream life, as you know money does not make you happy … maybe a little more comfortable, but too much comfort brings unhappiness. Cheers!

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