I believe that problems are part and parcel of life. We cannot rid our life of problems, but we can strive to have ‘better quality problems’. Even in my journey towards FIRE (financial independence retiring early), I anticipate there will be problems. I hope these will be better quality problems than the ones I face today. For example, people that have reached financial freedom do not work because they ‘have to work’; they work because they ‘choose to work.’ That is a better quality problem. For these people the question becomes, “what work do I want to do that fulfills me?” instead of “what work can I do to keep the lights on and the family fed?” Although my husband and I are not close to reaching FIRE, we work at it every day. We have aligned our lifestyle and values towards this goal which we both see as a better quality problem.
As I review my life’s journey, I recall times when I felt I had encountered a ‘setback’; how this stage in my life has shaped who I am today and where I want to be in the future. I now realize that a lot of these ‘setbacks’ were really just ‘setting me up’ to strengthen me as a person, build my character and resilience to lead me towards success. Although, at the time it did not feel that way. Let me share with you two experiences I felt were setbacks in my life that I now see have actually helped me become who I am today.
Senior high school (and onward): Life without parents:
For those who have read my previous posts, you know that when I was 17 years old my parents moved back to their motherland within the continent of Africa. Having been accustomed to life with them in Canada from when I was 4 (that is when we moved to Canada as a family) until I was 17 this was a big adjustment for me. The emotional support system that I had grown to know and probably taken for granted, too, was suddenly gone. Not being able to share the ins and outs of my then ‘oh sooooooo important’ life (said sarcastically) with my mom or joke with my dad – well to put it mildly – really sucked.
I don’t know, perhaps because I am the youngest of six siblings, I found it difficult to cope. My older siblings were either married or doing their own thing, or they were in university at the time while I was finishing senior high school with my older sister.
I completed Grade 11 and 12 without my parents around. It was a big deal for me! Even though I had a large network of siblings across the country to lean on, there is something special and different about the emotional support that parents bring into the mix. The pressure to prepare for post-secondary education and show up in life without my parents around was real. Indeed the situation felt like it was a problem. However, they taught me well and I finished high school with honors and received acceptance into the school of my choice. Then there were other ‘problems’, too: There were heart breaks to deal with, fights with my girlfriends every now and then, a bad grade to contemplate about, and a missed opportunity to cry over. So long a list. My world was different. Period. I would phone my parents occasionally, in keeping with the eight hour time zone difference, and would visit with them every 3 years. I lacked the physical presence of my immediate family; a problem of which I understood had to occur.
On a positive note, I learned to rely on wisdom and insight from my siblings and, first and foremost, from God. When I had a dilemma, I relied on the wisdom from scripture, then sought for guidance from close family members. I bring up my faith because it was (and continues to be) my guiding light. The scripture has shaped who I am today; it has brought me closer to family and friends. Today, I am active in my church and community. I would not trade for anything the events that took place during this special period of my life.
Paying off student loan debt
My student loan debt was probably the best thing that ever happened to me J. Yes, I said it! That’s right. My husband (then boyfriend) and I amassed $120,000 of student loan debt while we were in university. I owed $64,000 of that debt even though I worked throughout school. Even though I worked throughout school, I collected two degrees – a business degree and an MBA. On top of that, we were both had been paying rent separately during our entire post-secondary education.
The never-ending expenses really sucked. At the time, I envied my friends who got to go home and live with their parents for the summer. They would work and save money for the next school year. Because my parents lived half way across the world, that was not an option for me. I worked most summers and visited my parents every couple of years while I was a student.
Of course, I would be lying if I did not say that some of the debt was from ‘stupid spending’. Going out with friends, buying expensive clothes, trips outside of the city with girlfriends, and so on. I was not living under my parents’ roof and my summertime income was not much, so I grew accustomed to receiving the maximum loan issued each semester. It was amazing to have that much money handed over to me at 18. I was financially illiterate. Although I studied business, in business school I was not taught personal finance, by the way. I vividly recall, one time one of my friends received a larger loan amount than I did and I was kind of bumped out about it. I felt so wronged! When I look back, I think to myself that surely it was so stupid of me to feel that way. If I could go back to my younger self and knock some sense into me, I would.
I completed my first degree in April of 2009, during the financial crisis of 2008/2009. It was not a good time to be a graduate with minimal ‘real world’ work experience. With little job prospects at the time (and to some extent still to this day), a lot of my friends moved back home to live with their parents. They hoped to weather the storm, get a handle on their student loans and contemplate the next move. Frankly, if I were in their shoes, more likely than not, I would have done the same.
Luckily or not, depending on how you look at it, I did not have such options. I knew I had to find a good paying job that would cover my daily living and also allow me to attack my student loan debt. I felt strongly about it. I felt my financial future depended on getting rid of this debt. It took a few years of working okay jobs, moving on to better paying jobs and we still have a long way to go. During this period, my university sweetheart – now husband and I had to make some tough decisions. First, we had to move from Ontario to Alberta. We moved for better job opportunities. Even though my family is all over today, I still have family in Ontario. I miss my many families dearly. It is a problem, but again, it is a better quality problem today because both my husband and I are lucky enough to have jobs. We have forged a life that makes us happy here in Alberta. Because of my past life experiences, I have the tools and resources to cope with life’s many ‘problems’ much better now. Second, we had to decide whether to rent or to buy for now. For as long as I can remember, I have been renting. Although, on paper, my husband and I can manage to own a home now, we would have very little left in savings each month and are choosing to wait. We have opted to grow our financial investments first. Based on the real estate market here, the reality is, I can rent a place in my neighborhood that I like for less than half the cost it would take to own and maintain it each month. Buying a home is definitely an option for us in the future, but just not today. To ensure we are not falling behind on building assets, we have implemented certain things we do with our money to reach financial independence sooner. We have some fairly ambitious financial goals for 2016.
Looking back, I have no regrets. I believe in self-reflection: I re-evaluate my life periodically to learn from my experiences, to gain insight and, to seek and find better quality problems.
What about you, are there any setbacks in your life which you now feel were setting you up for success?