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Wait, and Your Dreams Will Come True
by Robin Gagliardi
The Good Life       Editor's Note: It's not easy to march to a different drummer, but there's real satisfaction in picking your own path. This is my oldest daughter, Robin's story of how she and her husband, Danny, left the fast track and created their own American Dream. Like Nancy and me, they chose to leave high paying jobs and promising careers in the traditional work world in search of a simpler -- but in many ways, much richer -- lifestyle.

      Nancy and I are extremely proud of them, and hope you find their story encouraging, informative -- and inspirational. What they've achieved is well within your reach.

      Although many Americans are living the "Dream," with the big house, two cars, nice furniture, clothes, vacations, etc., the majority are deep in debt.

      With few savings to fall back on, parents have to work long hours just to keep afloat. The kids are in all-day daycare, the divorce rate is very high, annual bankruptcies have passed the million mark, and stress levels are rising.

      It doesn't have to be that way! I know because I'm living the "American Dream," with no debt, low stress, and a very flexible work schedule.

      I'm 33 years old, and my husband Danny, son Zack, and I live in a beautiful four bedroom house in an upper middle class neighborhood. We have two cars, and frequently take wonderful vacations; the two most recent being to Disney World, and France. Although we live just as nicely as the doctors and lawyers on our block, I'm a substitute teacher, and Danny is a Ph.D. student in math. We have summers off and even during the school year, we're both home by 3:00 PM, free to spend the rest of the day together with our son.

      We got on the right track about eight years ago, in Westchester County, the very expensive suburb of New York City, where we both grew up. We were living in an apartment, and although we were earning $75,000 between us, it was clear that we'd never be able to afford a nice house in that area. It would take us forever to save up for a down payment, and even then, the mortgage and taxes would still be over our heads.

      Instead, we bought a real "fixer-upper" we could easily afford. Although the house needed an enormous amount of work, we did 90% of it ourselves, paying professionals for help only in areas that we absolutely couldn't handle on our own or with a little help from family and friends. After a few months, we gave up our apartment and moved into the house, which saved us money, and gave us more time to work on the renovation.

      We put every extra penny we had into our mortgage, having been convinced (by you know who) that pre-paying a mortgage is a great investment. When the fixer upper had been fixed up, we followed another dream. Danny and I quit our jobs in corporate America, and took off to New Mexico where we both enrolled in graduate school.

      We rented out our fixed-up fixer-upper, supported ourselves for two years on assistantships, tutoring, and Danny's earnings from playing bass guitar gigs. All of the money we collected from our tenants, along with any extra we could save, went into our mortgage.

      After two years, with our graduate degrees earned, we headed back to New York, where we got a great sublet on a one bedroom apartment. We quickly found jobs -- mine was back in the mainstream, but Danny fulfilled another of his lifelong dreams, and began teaching math full-time at a college that was an easy bike ride away from our apartment.

      We were back to bringing in big bucks every month. By making enormous pre-payments, we paid off our mortgage just 3 1/2 years from the day we bought the house.

      From then on, our tenants' monthly checks were covering our apartment's rent. We had no debts, and saved the majority of our earnings. We both put away 9% of our pretax salaries into 401(k)s, and invested every other cent we could, every month.

And Then We Had a Baby!

      We didn't completely deprive ourselves, but we did live well below our means. We had one used car, took camping vacations with our son, Zack, hiked, picnicked, watched videos, bought inexpensive clothes, and ate a lot of pasta (which we fortunately love). We certainly went to restaurants, hotels, and movies -- but sparingly. We set our priorities, and stuck to them most of the time.

      Yes, there were occasions when we'd find ourselves feeling extremely jealous -- for example, at friends' houses. "Wow," we'd think, "they have such a beautiful house, and look at those cars, furniture, and all their grown up toys!"

      But then we'd find out how deeply they were in debt, how much interest they were paying, and how hard they had to work just to keep up. The price was too high. We invariably decided to stick to our plan.

Doing What You Love

      Although both of us can earn much higher salaries, we made a lifestyle decision. Danny was done teaching by 2:00 PM, and he had lots of vacation time, including four months off in the summer. I was again working in investment banking, but cut down my hours and salary after Zack was born, so that I could also be home early. We had lots of family time, our satisfaction level was high, and our stress level was very low.

      After only four years back in New York, we had built up a big enough nest egg to buy a house -- not in Westchester, but in many other parts of the country. We sold the house we had renovated, and headed to a small city in the Sun Belt, where family members were already living. We were able to buy our 3,000 square foot home in one of the area's nicest communities with cash -- no mortgage. That still left us with a nice little wad, a college account started for Zack, and several IRA's.

      Although our combined salaries are now only about $25,000 a year, we have no debt, and lots of free time. We're able to pay all of our bills every month, enjoy life's little extras, and we never have to really scrimp.

      I truly believe the key to our success was patience. We waited while our friends spent. Although a lot of them had the things that we now have, five years before we did, they'll be working, sweating, and paying -- for the next 25 years.

      There were some people making double our salaries and more, who weren't able to save as much as we did. They were living above their means from the minute they started working, and they couldn't see how it would be possible to end the cycle.

      May our success story inspire you!

      Editor's note: For more of the ways Robin and Danny spend less -- and still have a good time, see Issue #22.

The Pocket Change Investor, begun in 1990, is a quarterly newsletter published by Marc Eisenson and Nancy Castleman. Each issue focuses on something that costs you and your family a lot of money. Learn how easy it is to profit from your debts, how to finance your child's education, when to rent ... or buy, and how to teach your youngsters to manage their money.

Learn painless ways to save on taxes, credit cards, closing costs, cars, insurance, appliances, utilites, vacations, trips to the supermarket, and the myriad of other expenses that regularly confront us all.

The Pocket Change Investor
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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor© 1998, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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