Women on Fire – Melissa, the Sun Burnt Saver

Women on fire melissa

Another great entry in my ongoing series on women seeking financial independence – and looking to either retire early or make retirement elective. Today I’ve got my friend Melissa, the Sun Burnt Saver, on the site to share her story with you. And I’m so excited! I know, I know, I say that every time with this series and the breadwinning moms. Can’t help it – I love getting the chance to feature the stories of so many amazing women. 

Melissa is awesome – a young digital nomad who loves to travel. She and her husband are working toward financial independence and early retirement, so they can travel the world.

Tell us about yourself!

I’m Melissa, and I’m a 31-year-old Phoenix native and digital nomad! Or I would be, if not for my husband 🙂 Before meeting my husband, I had absolutely no plans to ever own a home. My goal was to get a rockin’ job in my field, probably move to DC, where the best entry-level jobs in my field were, and spend every free vacation traveling Europe.

This wasn’t just a dream either – I had studied abroad in Spain for 6 months, studied abroad in Chile for one month, CMO Note – Hey, my friend and prior interviewee Laurie spent a lot of time – and met her husband – there! and studied abroad in Mexico for one month from ages 18-21. Study abroad is different from travel, of course, so I had also traveled to Ireland with a two friends at age 22 for fun. 

I had hosted Couchsurfers at my apartment and had Couchsurfed in Amsterdam. I stayed in hostels in London and throughout Spain – with nary a theft at any of those places! I had it down. 

Then I met my husband and life threw a curveball – but a wonderful one! I changed my job and travel plans when I moved in with my husband after graduate school – into a home he owned. Yes, at age 23, my husband also knew what he wanted, and he wanted to be a homeowner.

In hindsight, if I had taken the $80k I “invested” in my graduate degree and put that into a home. My husband’s first mortgage was about $72k. I would have come out so much better… but I digress.

I told my husband, though, that I would never get the travel bug out of my system, and my goal was to make long-term traveling a reality – with or without him. I know, what a mean person I am! Luckily, we got this hashed out BEFORE we got married, agreed on a 5 year plan to get us in a position to do long-term travel – and we’re working our plan! We’re on year 6 of our 5 year plan – yes, delayed by 1 year, but it was actually an unanticipated error on my end which delayed us by a year. Luckily, we’re still on track for this year.
Women on fire melissa

How did you become interested in personal finance, and financial independence?

So remember that $80k of debt I went into for my graduate degree? My husband and parents disagree with me, but I think it wasn’t worth it. Unfortunately, you can’t return degrees and must deal with the stupid decisions you make forever…

Okay, that was melodramatic. But once I realized how much I was throwing away in debt repayments (and I do consider it ‘throwing away’ money but that’s a different discussion!), I got mad. Such a waste! So I started “side hustling” in mid-2014 as a freelance writer to put all the extra money toward debt. Any raises I got at my regular job, after putting an additional 10% into my retirement accounts, went straight toward debt, too. No lifestyle creep for me.

That’s how I got interested in personal finance – debt! I always knew saving for retirement was important, but once I calculated retirement savings + living expenses + debt, I got super angry I was throwing money away toward useless student loan debt instead of putting that $300, 500, $1000/mo toward travel!

I also was writing and blogging in the personal finance sphere, so I learned from the best: J$ of Budgets are Sexy, Michelle from Making Sense of Cents, and Mr. Money Mustache all about personal finance, debt pay off, and living frugally.

As far as financial independence, my job took a turn for the worse, and that experience soured me completely on being financially tied to a job. If I was going to rely on someone else for a paycheck, I wanted to pick and choose my “employer” – so I left my FT job in 2017 to become a FT freelancer! I haven’t regretted any of it and am making more than what I did at my last job.

For my husband, he realized financial independence was possible for him through home ownership. He sold that first home for a profit of roughly $100k – yes, you read it right. Pros and cons of an economic downturn – he bought his home during the bottom of the recession. He was able to pay off much of his debt and have a down payment for our current home.

He’s calculated that once we sell this house, he’ll be able to pay off all of his debt and live on his profits for about 2 years – plus have enough money for a down payment on our next house, 

How is that possible? We’re moving to a cheaper cost of living city! I can’t divulge much right now, but you can follow along as we move from an “expensive” market (Phoenix, “expensive” is debatable here but it is for us) to a “cheaper” market. Cheaper cost of living means our money goes farther, we can enjoy life more in a smaller city, and my husband can become financially independent for a few years until he decides to get another job. Or just do something small to pay his low bills.

Tell us about your FIRE journey – and motivation. What does FIRE mean to you?

To me, FIRE means Financial Independence, Retirement Elective 🙂 I don’t ever want to retire, but I do want to become financially independent by working for myself, where and when I want. I’m almost there – I still do have clients that expect work done at a certain time, but I love what I’m doing. I don’t have any plans to stop as long as they want to keep me around! 

To my husband, FIRE means exactly Financial Independence, Retire Early. My husband’s job is very stressful and burn out rate is extremely high, especially in our state. It’s not worth the money for his health. He made excellent financial decisions in his early 20s (not going to graduate school being the best one in my opinion!) and is now reaping the much-deserved rewards of being financially prudent at a young age.

Instead of seeking to earn a bunch of money, FIRE for us is minimalism, living simply, having few possessions, but eating and traveling well. Well, okay, I want to earn a bunch of money still haha! But a modest income will suit us just fine!


What’s unique about pursuing financial independence as a woman? 

This one was tough to answer! 

From my perspective, I think many people see what I do as “not a real job” but, if my husband were to do this, it would totally be seen as a real job. Pretty much no one really believes that I’m into financial independence as much as my husband – they see my job working from home as “frivolous” since working from home = not a legit job…? CMO note – Yes, the old “women’s work is pin money” thinking. 

At first, I was annoyed by these assumptions but now I’m just like, I’ve got a 5 year plan and you’ll see it when it’s done. If you don’t think I’m serious about being financially free and traveling, then you clearly don’t know me. Or haven’t been paying attention to my, as Cardi B would say, “money moves”!

I also think it’s really hard for my generation as a whole to get ahead. When you live on a lower salary in even a moderately expensive cost-of-living place, it can be really hard to pay off debt + save for retirement + regular expenses + kids (if you choose to have them) + save for a down payment on a house if you want one. I have friends making everywhere from $30k a year to $250k/yr and almost all of them are struggling. They either make too little to pay for everything and save for a house, or they live in a crazy expensive city like Seattle, DC, NYC, and can’t afford a down payment on a house. CMO Note – I would say that’s true of every generation. Saving for and buying a house is usually a milestone people achieved historically in their later working years, because saving up the down payment has always been a challenge.

That’s why people have called my husband and I “crazy” for planning on moving to a smaller city, and I get it – most people can’t just up and leave their jobs for a lower cost of living. But to me, if you can move… it makes a ton of sense to save money, live in a smaller city with, sure, a slower pace of living and reduce your stress levels!

women on fire

What advice would you have for other women on this path?

I realize not everyone has the same advantages I do – I mean, who buys a house at age 23 during a huge recession and then makes a big profit on it? CMO Note – like I did? Like me, most of my friends moved to big cities (because we couldn’t find jobs anywhere else) and/or went to grad school to make ourselves “more marketable.” Debt is a reality for my friends and me, not having a windfall or the ability to work from anywhere.

That said, there are things you can do regardless of your circumstances:

  1. Don’t be afraid to dream.What do you want your life to look like in 5 years? For me, I knew I wanted to travel. It was a deep feeling I knew my life wouldn’t be complete without. So what did I need to do to travel? I needed to reduce expenses and become location independent – or work a career where I could build several weeks of vacation up.  Every step I made had to move me closer to my goal of reducing expenses and becoming location independent in 5 years. Will that promotion get you more weeks of vacation? Take it. Will that home purchase increase your expenses and make you more vulnerable to a loss of or decrease in income? Maybe don’t buy it.
  2. Get everyone on board.If you’ve been married for a while and just now created a big goal, it can be a challenge to get your spouse on board – but not impossible! If you’re not yet married – now is the time to see if s/he is on board with you!  To be financially free takes commitment from both people – if someone is doubling down on debt repayment while the other wants to put entertainment costs on the credit card, you have some talking to do. And if your boy/girlfriend isn’t on board with your big goal – say adios now while you can! Note: you can’t get rid of a spouse as easily so try to get your spouse on board by explaining how it will benefit both of you. I’m definitely not advocating divorce – that’s expensive! 
  3. Set yourself up for success by making adjustments. I’m on year 6 of our 5 year plan. Am I sad about that? Not really, because my plan is still on track. If your goals get delayed a bit  – maybe you’ve had a health emergency that incurred debt, or your spouse lost their job – don’t panic and quit your goal. You just need to re-adjust and set yourself up for success. I highly recommend side hustling to bring in extra income, pursuing passive income (income you bring in with little work), reducing expenses, and having an emergency fund. If you have a “bad” income month, you won’t be going into debt if your expenses are already low and you have an emergency fund.

Where can readers find you?

Thank you so much to Liz for hosting this amazing series and for letting me share my thoughts! I hope I didn’t go on for too long 🙂 I’m just grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, plans, and how we’re living the FIRE-ish life on smaller salaries with lots of debt. It is possible to live a happier, more fulfilling life – that’s all I want people to know! 

If you’ve stuck around, kudos to you! You can find more of me at my blog, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.  If you’re a financial blogger, email me to join our Pinterest group board, PF Bloggers Promote! If you’re looking for an intermediate budget challenge, sign up for my free, intermediate “challenge your budget” email challenge here.

CMO Here Again

Thanks so much to Melissa for sharing her story! I love learning about all the amazing women in the personal finance space. They’re all saving and investing for different reasons, come from different backgrounds, and have different reasons behind their goal, but they have something key in common. They’re all determined, strong, money-smart women with a purpose, a goal, and a dream.

Be sure to leave a comment for Melissa!

Interested in more stories on women seeking financial freedom? Find the full list here.

Be sure to follow my blog for more great posts via e-mail or WordPress, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter and say hello! You can also check out what I’m buying or baking on Instagram,  what I’m pinning on Pinterest, or the latest books I’m reading (or want to read) over on Goodreads.

16 thoughts on “Women on Fire – Melissa, the Sun Burnt Saver”

    1. Yes! So many people we meet, even people our age (early 30s) feel like they are tied down, when really they’re not yet. They definitely think we are crazy for moving, but for our financial and mental health, we have and want to do this!

  1. Frieda | The Frugal Freeway

    Hi Melissa–Great to learn more about you, and I’m curious to learn where you’re moving! I like how you say you’re on year 6 of a 5-year plan. It’s a great reminder that while it’s important to have goals and targets, you also need to roll with the punches–sometimes I avoid setting targets because I’m afraid of missing them. And thanks, CMO, for the series!

    I think you’ve said before your husband is a teacher? Mine was too, and he became burned out and switched professions. But he’s enjoying his second act.

    1. Frieda, it looks like I need to follow your blog! I’m keeping our (potential) move on the down low for now just because we haven’t yet sold our house. If we can’t sell it for what we want, we can’t move… so I don’t like getting my hopes up too high in case it doesn’t work out this year!

      I definitely understand about not setting targets – that’s me and this house sale! A lot of things ride on it but if it doesn’t go through, we just have to keep going on, re-asses, and try again next year. It will be disappointing but nothing is insurmountable!

      My husband is a teacher right now, and it is TOUGH. Whenever I meet teachers, I’m just so excited and overwhelmed for them. It’s such a tough, thankless job and in most states, very low paid (given all the education teachers have to have). Good for your husband to be a teacher – it’s such an important job. I don’t blame him for burning out and switching though – my husband’s in the same boat and I ditched education almost 7 years ago now.

  2. Thank you so much for featuring me, I love this series!! I’m reading your article on home ownership right now – so glad you were able to make a lot in the housing market, too! It can be volatile but it can also be great!

    Re-reading this now, I guess my major takeaway for people (especially young people) is don’t go to graduate school! Haha, looks like I need to write another post on why I come down so against graduate school…

    Thank you again and I look forward to the comments! 🙂

    1. Wow, I didn’t realize it was common for people to buy houses so young! Out of all of my friends from college, only 3 couples (out of our 7 couple friends) have houses, and all of them bought houses after the age of 25. I thought not buying a house was more common!

      But while home ownership isn’t for everyone (or people at different stages of life, as someone points out below), it’s been worth it for us and really a #1 reason for why we’re able to move. You have to take financial opportunities and run with them if you get them! 🙂

      1. chiefmomofficer

        It’s probably only common in the personal finance community. Get together a bunch of money minded folks and you’ll find some financial behavior that’s definitely not typical

    2. Oh and I will definitely let everyone know on my blog/Twitter where we’re moving if/when our house in Phoenix sells!! I’m so excited! 🙂

  3. I agree we all need to have a dream and work towards it.

    I bought property at 19, 23, 30…and was lucky each time to have them appreciate afterwards. 23 seems to be a common number!

    1. Oh wow, that’s my goal – to always have our houses appreciate so we can trade up/down depending on our next goal! 🙂 I guess that’s everyone’s goal for homes, haha. We just don’t plan on living anywhere long term, so making smart financial and housing decisions has to be our mission every time we buy a house.

  4. I bought my first house at 24; sold at a profit. Then became anti-housing (for myself) and now I’m back at neutral. Different things aren’t just right for different people, but also for different stages of your life.

    If you get paid, it’s a job! Glad you have a goal you’re working towards!

    1. I like this a lot!! I completely agree with you, and I like what you said about different stages of your life. Owning a home for me at age 23 wasn’t in the cards because I travelled so much and didn’t have a home base. For my husband, it was a logical financial choice for many reasons.

      You really can’t say, as Liz points out in her home-buying article too, that “renting is throwing away money” because renting might be the best choice for you at a stage in your life. Plus, owning a home costs MONEY – stuff breaks, things need to be updated, etc. It’s truly not for everyone.

      1. There are two circumstances where I think it’s almost 100% that it is wasting money: buying and selling a home several times in quick succession so that you don’t at least break even, same with flipping through cars.

        Renting is far from a waste of money.

  5. financialfitnessfanatic

    Thanks for sharing your story Melissa! Debt is also the reason I’ve taken a huge interest in the FI movement. Unfortunately, FI wasn’t on my radar when I applied for grad school. I happily dropped 42,000 (not including the devastating interest!) on my graduate degree thinking it was worth it for a job that I would love doing until I retired. It would have made sense, if I was willing to work until 65! Discovering the FI movement has completely changed the game for me. While I don’t necessarily *regret* going to grad school, you can bet I’m doing everything I can to get rid of that debt and start making my way towards FI. I’m so encouraged reading stories like yours, especially since none of my friends even have these ideas on their radar yet. So cheers to getting out of debt and getting ahead!


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