The Educator on FI/RE interview series features educators exploring routes to financial independence. They come from a variety of roles and at various points on the path. It’s my hope that these interviews build community and help show other educators what is possible.
Today’s interview features SBR from Small Budget Retirement. I love his story of coming to America with $800 and now having a 10-year plan for financial independence!
Tell us about you.
I am an ESL teacher who works in an elementary school in the Chicago suburbs. I am an immigrant (now a U.S. citizen). A father of four children. And I have been happily married for 16 years.
I came to the United States back in 2001 for a summer with the intention of improving my English conversational skills.
While my friends were going abroad to learn English in expensive schools, I found a work experience in the states through a nonprofit organization. After arriving in New York for my orientation I was informed that I was going to spend the summer in a special needs camp for adults.
I had no experience whatsoever with special needs; I didn’t even know what special needs meant. I was overwhelmed. I was terrified.
I was offered the opportunity of changing my destination within a few days, but I am a firm believer that sometimes things happen for a reason and the best is to flow with life as it unfolds.
That experience was life-changing. Not only because of how enriching it was for my language skills but how much more appreciative it made me. It also made me think about the difference we can make in other people’s lives.
As a result of that experience, I also met my wife, who at the time was doing an internship at the same place.
Fast forward a year and with plans of getting married, I moved to the U.S. permanently. I sold the few possessions I had back home; a surfboard and a 1974 Range Rover were my most valuable assets and together they amounted to $800. That’s all I had to start my new life.
My first official job in the U.S was in construction. I landed a job with a contractor for $10 an hour.
I worked for a year remodeling basements, building decks, fixing water tanks, roofing, and I simply fell in love with everything related to construction. I learned a lot.
After that, someone told me about the possibility of working for $15 an hour as a teacher aide in a school. I did that for 6 months and a new opportunity came up.
I was accepted in a state-funded master’s program in education. At the same time, this program allowed me to work as an ESL teacher with a provisional license.
At this point, I was already married and we have saved up to buy our first home in an OK neighborhood.
What do you like most about working in education?
What I love the most about what I do is the kids and the families I work with mainly immigrants just like myself, and I absolutely love the passion and drive of a lot my students and families. There is always a vibe of never giving up and never losing hope. The only option for them is always to make it in the new country. A lot of them work long days and push their kids to achieve what probably was not available to them. They are driven and always ready to seize opportunities.
The more I learn about American history I see this drive as something rooted in the foundation of this country that now I call home. That mindset of never giving up until you succeed I see it as a perpetual hidden force that pushes us to achieve and always go further as a country.
What do you like least?
The BS. The meetings. Knowing that everybody knows that a lot of the problems we see in our schools are socio-economic related but it’s always easier to blame educators. While there is a multi-million dollar business feeding from taxpayers, in the form of keynote speakers, book publishers, test services, software development companies, universities, and a bureaucratic elite that inhabits offices far-away from classrooms we keep blaming teachers for low scores.
In my 16 years as an educator, I have seen a tremendous change in the dynamics of education and not to my surprise the results do not seem to be any better. Although the universe of skewed school data and research may pretend to show otherwise.
What is your Why of Financial Independence? (Why are you learning about or seeking FI?)
I want to reach financial independence so that I can spend more time with my family. I feel like we spend most of our lives selling out our precious time alive; I want to switch that equation. I want to spend most of my time doing the things I want to do, and work when I want not because I have to.
There are also many things I want to learn and experience and the job really gets the most of my time.
With that said I don’t think I will ever stop coming up with some other endevours.
I never thought of financial independence because where I come from it was simply something out of question. Reserved for a very few.
After moving to the U.S. I was blinded by the buying power we have here; by being able to have what was not available to me before. Buying a brand-new car, a house… those are the things that people in my home country work for, all their lives. That is the end destination.
Getting in touch with the FIRE community helped me consolidate a lot of thoughts and ideas I had about what really matters in my life. It made me reflect on the things that really improve my life quality and happiness; free time, being one of those things.
Finally, it dawned on me that to a certain extent I had bought into the American consumerism. We lived from paycheck to paycheck. A constant fluctuating 8-10K average in credit cards. A student loan( my wife’s). A busy life with 4 kids. Wishing for a bigger house and a better life but always catching up with expenses. The American dream.
Are you FI?
- FI Curious – Just learning and becoming interested in financial independence
- Future FI – On the path, but still learning. Destined for financial independence!
- FI Success – Financially independent!
We are currently on a ten-year track to FI. How? Well, for a long time we have been in the hamster wheel not paying much attention to all the money leaks in our budget. When we felt like eating out we did it. If we ran into a sale we “took advantage” of it.
But we have turned things around and the future is looking bright. If everything goes well by 2029 we should be in safe territory to pull the trigger.
Share any financial numbers you are comfortable sharing.
I am currently very close to reaching a six-figure salary, which has made our lives easier; although I continue to be the only income to my family.
For many years I refused to take more classes and bump my salary but now I am just 3 credit hours away to max out my pay. My first salary was 36K though; it was not always this great.
Another drastic change for us was moving out of our first home to a better area and school environment for the kids. Instead of selling our first home we decided to rent it out. That brings in about 18K a year. After paying taxes and mortgage we have a cashflow of about $300 monthly. If we would have sold it, as most people do when they want to move, we would have walked out with less than 6K after paying taxes and fees three and a half years ago.
I also do wedding photography on the side and even some tropical fish breeding, which brings in around 5K a year.
We contribute regularly to my 403B but we decided to slow down our contributions in order to tackle the student loan.
Our current net worth counting equity in both properties is around 155K. Including an emergency fund for our rental. We are still miles away from FI-ville.
Tell us about your path to FI.
One of our major successes has been renting out our first home. We did some sort of house hacking without knowing it. We lived in that house for almost 13 years, bought another one and rented out the first one. I feel like now I have someone helping me save every day. We get a bit of cash flow, we build equity and we get depreciation tax benefits.
I use all my skills from my construction days to do repairs and improvements. Although, in all these years as a landlord I have done only 3 repairs.
My plan is not very sophisticated or overly complex. After figuring out my yearly expenses, I am shooting for about 60K as yearly income.
About 50k, will come from my pension when I start collecting at 55.
At the moment we are paying my wife’s student loan aggressively and should be completely paid in February 2020. This will liberate some cash.
After that, we will snowball the funds and pour them into our rental mortgage, to also pay it off. We calculate that we could be done by 2025. After that, we will have a great source of extra income, which we want to use for one or two more rental properties before 2029.
What is your long-term goal? Do you have a FI target?
Absolutely, my target is 2029. I would like to pull in between 80K to 100K yearly, between pension, rentals, and 403B.
If you become financially independent will you:
- Retire early?
- Continue to work in education? (How/why?)
- Do something different?
I would definitely retire early if I have the chance. I would like to spend more time with my kids and wife, go to the gym, get better with the guitar, paint and go camping as much as possible.
I am planning on getting a real estate license this year or next, and it is something I would like to do once I call it quits as an educator.
I currently run some hands-on projects with some of our students at my school and would like to potentially continue with some of that but on my own terms.
All these are plans still on the drawing board. I know that as years go by our tastes and likes also change.
Tell us about a short-term goal you’re working towards.
Right now, we are working diligently towards getting rid of the student loan. That would free up almost 1k monthly in cash flow. I feel that’s the key to unlock our financial success.
Who/what inspires you?
I am inspired every day by all the opportunities I see available to us. I feel extremely privileged and lucky. I came to this country with just $800 and I have been able to build a great life for my family. Now, we do not go to eat every weekend or go on crazy vacations. We don’t have the latest tech gadgets; my son plays with a PS1. But we just don’t care.
We go on walks and hikes; biking, fishing, or spend the day in our little backyard pool. We are extremely happy though. I could not ask for anything else.
What’s something you want to say to other educators about financial independence?
My biggest advice to any educator, especially for those who just got started, is do not wait 20 years to start planning your retirement. I waited too long. It’s never too early.
Always have a financial goal. It could be spending less, increase your 403B contribution or paying a credit card or loan.
Do not buy a brand new car. Whatever you do, do not buy a brand new car. It is not worth it. That’s the biggest money trap for consumers.
Do not use your 403B to invest in anything with fees higher than 1.5%. Stay away from annuities.
Fight for better investment options in your district. Most offer 403B plans with several investment opportunities for employees but unfortunately, many providers are annuity companies charging an arm and a leg in hidden fees. Total market index funds are the way to go ( John Bogle and J.L. Collins vouch on that) and readily available through companies like Vanguard, Fidelity and the likes.
Always have a plan B, C and D if you lose your job. Don’t believe that just because you are tenure or have a union you are safe. When they want to get rid of you they find the way. Tracking your expenses and defining what discretionary and non-discretionary expenses will be critical for your savings. Plus, if you are ever in a pinch, you will know exactly where to cut expenses to survive.
Don’t be afraid to talk about money and inform yourself. As much as you want your students to read you should be doing your part too. Every day your life is full of financial decisions. Do your homework every day and be ready!
Is there anything you’d like to get feedback on from the community?
I am always looking for new ideas and advice. I continue learning about the big elephant in the room which is health care. I try to be proactive in keeping the family in shape but I continue exploring options for the future although everything can change radically in the next few years; so I am not very concerned about this yet.
Where can readers reach you if they want to connect?
I am blogging as much as I can with 4 kids and the job. But you can always drop me a line at Small Budget Retirement .
You can also find me on twitter @smallbudgetret1
A teacher with 4 kids, a rental, photography side hustle and a blog? Oh, and definitely our first tropical fish side hustle! I was both exhausted and inspired reading about SBR’s story.
In all seriousness, I love the effort, optimism, and intentionality here. I also completely agree (from personal experience) with the advice to start planning for retirement earlier. Much like SBR, we also lost many years just being blissfully unaware.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, SBR! Leave comments for him below, and check-out Small Budget Retirement for even more about his path to FI!
If you missed it, the last EFI interview with Ms. FP was another great story.
You can find all of our Educator on FIOR Interviews here.