FS = former student
I’m a high school teacher, and this past summer I was very honoured to be invited to the wedding of a former student (I’ll call her FS). Even in her rebellious teen years, FS knew how to work hard. A co-op student in the school library for 3 semesters, she always loved books. After graduating from high school, FS worked as a custodian for 3 years before finally chasing her dream and enrolling in library studies at college.
While pursuing her diploma, FS has worked part-time at the library of a government department downtown, and she has a great chance of being hired there full-time once she graduates next spring from college. FS recently came into her old high school to give me an update on her life: Just before she graduates, she’ll have a baby!
FS grew up below the poverty line, and so did her husband. She has given me permission to write this post – which is a letter of financial advice to her. I write it with a great belief in and hope for her future.
Dear Former Student,
Thank you for indulging me and letting me write this letter of advice to you. You are at such a critical time of life – just starting your marriage, just about to start your career, just about to become a mom! The decisions you make now and the habits you form now will have powerful ripple effects into your future – for better or for worse. And I’m hoping better!
I don’t know if you’re aware of how amazing your accomplishments so far have been.
You grew up in challenging circumstances – with a single mom on disability, a distant dad, limited resources … You left home as a teen and made your living through part-time jobs as you finished high school. In your social life, you had more than enough drama, and you acted out plenty of rebellion – as many teens do without anything close to your excuse.
But hiccups and all, you kept moving forward. You worked for 3 years to save as much money as you could before going to college to pursue your dream career. You’re on your way to secure employment – with benefits, a good salary, and high job satisfaction at a place where people value your work ethic. And you met a young man – with a tender heart and a steady character and a great love for you – and you’re starting a family together.
Wow. Wow. And wow!
It will be challenging to start up your career and your family at the same time, but you’ve got a plan, and since you’re someone who stubbornly makes things happen, I believe it will all work out. You’ll have the full-time job. Your husband will be the main care-giver and work part-time on weekends. You’ve already got your breast-milk pump. All set.
You are on your way to the middle class. Welcome. And beware.
First of all, I say “beware” because old patterns die hard. Growing up, you and your husband both had to deal with hardships that were beyond your control. Your troubles were not of your making, but they were your reality. It can be very hard to release an expectation of adversity. It can be very strange to embrace hope. So watch out for old patterns of thought and reaction and habit that you might not even be conscious of. The ones that will try to keep you rooted in struggle. The ones that will work to sabotage your forward progress. Be on the alert for them, and be ready to challenge them and face them down.
And then there are the people in your life who won’t be comfortable with the changes they will see in you. They are used to you being a struggler against the odds who is ultimately stuck. But that’s not who you are. You are a struggler against the odds who is moving in a radically new direction. People don’t like “new”, so be prepared for the efforts of some of your friends to pull you back to the place where they first knew you – where they’re comfortable with you being. Your “new” will be an insecurity for them. A threat. And some might feel entitled to your financial support. Be prepared to assert boundaries.
“the middle class is filled with people who blow their privilege”
Another reason I say “beware” is that the middle class is filled with people who blow their privilege by maxing out through debt. I should know. The marketing machine of Buy-now-pay-later! because You-deserve-it! and Owning-this-will-make-you-a-winner! is extremely powerful.. Very smart people do very dumb things with their money all of the time.
Right now, you say you are living like your mother because she is the “best teacher for how to use the least money to provide the most comfort and stability.” Keep following her example for as long as possible – even when you’ve got that great full-time job. In partnership with your husband, get a solid grip on your numbers. What is your take-home pay? What are your expenses? Create a plan to build your wealth through savings – right from the get-go. If you can only save 3% of your take-home pay, great! If you can save 10%, better! If you can save 30% or even more, why not? Make it a no-brainer. A thing you do by automatic default. Save.
The secret to financial health is to live below your means.
Don’t buy on credit. Use short-term savings to purchase all consumer goods in full. Don’t get a car loan. Save a small car-payment’s worth every month until you can buy your (used) car outright – and then drive it for as many years as possible – while saving for the next one.
When the time comes to buy a house, don’t max out on the mortgage. Choose a home that you can pay off in 15 years by putting no more than 25% of your take-home income towards regular payments. Don’t rely solely on your work’s pension plan for your retirement savings. Invest long-term in your own financial freedom.
“The company you keep will rub off on you – for better or for worse.”
Find role models, and learn from them. Learn from couples who have been happily married for many years. Learn from families that function well. Learn from people who manage their money wisely. Spend time with people who have built their lives on a firm foundation. The company you keep will rub off on you – again, for better or for worse.
FS, I believe that you are undergoing a remarkable transformation. And the life that you provide for your child will be very different from the childhood you experienced. Your hard work, your perseverance, your proactive measures to make things work, and your wonderful choice of life partner all combine to spell out good things. I promise you that a wisely planned, intentional financial management strategy will play into all other aspects of your life – from marriage to parenting to work to social life – for the better.
So all the best to you. Here’s to your family, your career, your future. Here’s to the firm foundation upon which you’ll build your life. And here’s to the day when people seeking life wisdom seek you.
Your old teacher,
Your comments are welcome.