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Our family looks like a typical Midwestern family. We’re raising two small kids – ages four and one – in a nice suburban house with a big yard. No dogs, but you get the idea.
What’s unusual about us is the absence of something that nearly every household holds: debt.
We were able to pay cash for our house, cars and extensive travel abroad by the age of 30. So how did we do this – and how can you?
Money Lessons from Growing Up
Did we make a ton of money, got lucky with risky investments or had a trust fund? Not even close.
We weren’t high earners, we had the risk tolerance of a 102-year-old, and we came from humble beginnings.
My husband Mark grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Ohio, while my family lost all our possessions in the Bosnian civil war and lived as refugees until we immigrated to North America.
As for all of us, Mark and I were influenced by our early life experiences and upbringing.
Mark’s dad was in his mid-40’s when Mark was born (a happy surprise!). He grew up during the Great Depression, and witnessed how hard his family had to work to make ends meet.
Mark’s grandfather struck a deal with the local mob called “The Black Hand” so he could work in a rock quarry. The mob had influence over who got selected to work in the quarry – and the competition for the few available jobs was fierce. In exchange, Mark’s grandfather had to brew beer and wine for the mob during the Prohibition.
Mark’s dad was only a kid, but he deeply felt his parents’ fear and struggle. As a result, Mark’s dad only spent money on the things he truly valued – and passed some of those habits onto Mark.
I grew up in a different part of the world from Mark, a communist country called Yugoslavia which no longer exists.
My childhood was cut short by a brutal civil war when I was 10 years old. My family left everything behind and became refugees, with almost no possessions and living on food packets provided by the Red Cross.
I realized then how fleeting possessions were, and how little they mattered to me. The things we truly valued, and that no one could take away from us, were our experiences and love for one another.
Three years into the war, my family immigrated to Canada. We struggled to learn English and to make ends meet. But through all that, I never saw myself as poor.
I saw my family as successful because we worked hard to overcome challenges.
I felt that we were on a great adventure together. And I was deeply grateful to be in a peaceful country with limitless opportunity.
Finding Financial Freedom as a Couple
Despite growing up worlds apart, Mark and I came to similar conclusions early in life.
We realized that accumulating material possessions would leave us with a stack of bills and obligations, but wouldn’t make us any happier – so we invested little time and money into possessions.
We rented affordable places throughout our twenties, never drove new cars, and focused on experiences that gave us joy.
Our family of four now lives on one income under six figures – and continues to save enough to make work an option for both of us by the time our youngest starts kindergarten. It boils down to making conscious spending choices based on our values.
Before we met, Mark and I already knew what it felt like to pursue a passion and feel on purpose.
Mark was in a band during college and recorded four albums. While he was trying to make music a career, I was running around with swords. I won the bronze medal at the Canadian fencing championships, with aspirations for the Olympics. We both plowed everything into our passions.
After those stages ended for us, we both experienced a temporary lack of meaning – what we call “The Desert”. But we still knew that spending a bunch of money on possessions wouldn’t make us happy. It would just serve as a temporary distraction.
Instead, we built relationships with friends, traveled a lot, made the time and space to explore other interests and passions, and eventually rediscovered that awesome feeling of being on purpose.
We never stopped valuing our time and the freedom to live life on our terms. That sometimes meant going against the grain and listening to ourselves instead of peer pressure.
Resisting Peer Pressure, Paying with Cash
One major example was deciding if and when to buy a house.
Our well-meaning friends and colleagues told us things like, “Gotta have a place to live – why not own it? You’re just throwing money away on rent.” But we felt that owning a house – and spending our time and money on maintenance and repairs – would have reduced our ability to do what we loved.
So we chose to rent a nice, small two-bedroom condo that cost us $370 per month each, with a gym, pool, condo fees and even some utilities included.
We were very happy there for five years – while continuing to sock money away. We even got some extra cash flow by renting out the basement for a couple of years.
We eventually bought a nice house with cash after our first child was born. But the decision was still bittersweet for us.
When the U-Haul was fully loaded on moving day, we held each other in the empty living room and cried.
Sounds crazy, I know – we just bought a bigger and better house with cash, and yet we were crying.
But we knew that a stage in our lives was ending, and it was hard to imagine having as much freedom and fun as we had in our previous years.
But we recognized that life had changed with a baby – we weren’t exactly going to be jetting off to Paris for a while, no matter how many airline miles we’d amassed. A nice neighborhood, yard, and good schools became more important.
We honestly felt that we were buying the house for her. And so far the house has served us well. It did not end up eating our souls!
Being happy with our financial decisions long-term is a matter of examining why we’re doing the things we’re doing.
This is key!
What do we value the most? What are our goals and priorities?
What will give us flexibility in life, so we can change direction when our interests and passions change – whether that’s changing careers, starting businesses, or being able to spend more time with our kids?
Is the timing right for us to make a major purchase such as buying a house?
When we’re true to ourselves instead of advertising and peer pressure, we’ll be amazed at the freedom and joy we can gain.
Mark Lancia and Mihaela Jekic Ph.D. help guide people down the road toward financial freedom decades before traditional retirement age by helping them make the space to discover their own unique callings in life.
This leads to eliminating peripheral waste and building a financial springboard – so we can take risks, start businesses, pursue our passions, and clear the path to true meaning and purpose in life.
Get three free chapters of their book, “Money for Meaning: Philosophy for a Life of Extraordinary Freedom”.
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