Women on FIRE – Jenny

Today I’ve got another entry in my fabulous series on women seeking financial freedom – Jenny from goodlifebetter.com.

She’s a single woman living in Atlanta, working toward financial freedom in her 50’s after getting a later start. I love getting to feature so many different stories here on the site, and as you read, you’ll see that Jenny hasn’t had the easiest time in life. But she hasn’t let life circumstances get her down – she keeps pursuing financial freedom in the way that she wants to.

Interested in learning more? Read on!

Tell us about yourself!

Hello! I’m Jenny from goodlifebetter.com.  I am in my early 40s, single with no human kids although I do have one of the feline persuasion and am “the cool aunt” to my sister’s kids.

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I’m a proud holder of two post-graduate degrees including a J.D., and a job I like that pays around $125,000.  Currently, I live in Atlanta but hope to move to the D.C. area in 2018 (my employer has offices in both cities but I really want to move so plan on looking for a new job if a transfer isn’t possible).

I grew up working class in the South with a father who worked in a factory and a mother who was an elementary school teacher.  My parents fought a lot when I was young, often about money.  When my dad died when I was 15, he left a decent amount in life insurance but, as my mom liked to point out, it was only about 5 times his salary.

She passed away 11 years later, when I was 26.  She was verbally abusive and manipulative so it was almost a relief when she died.  I know that sounds terrible but if you have experienced this or watched a loved one deal with a toxic relative you know how hard it can be.

After her death, my relationship with my older brother and sister deepened.  My brother was 5 years older than me.  He was on the autism spectrum and my sister, who was only 18 months his junior, had staked out the role of his protector.  I cared deeply for him but had a harder time being as patient with him as she was.

As he got older, my brother struggled more and more with depression and money.  He worked full-time but he didn’t make a lot and wasn’t good at managing what he made.  I didn’t realize how bad things were until after he committed suicide in 2012.

Even though I was familiar with grief having lost my parents young, nothing had prepared me for the pain of losing him.  I talk about his death on my blog some including this post I wrote for suicide prevention month.  If you or a loved one is struggling, I urge you to seek help.

Despite these tragedies, I am a generally happy person.  I love to read and travel, and have an amazing group of friends.  Also, I’m fine with being single.  I would love to meet the right guy, but I have watched too many people in relationships with the wrong guy to consider settling.  Honestly I would rather be by myself and happy than coupled and miserable.

When I started my blog in the summer of 2017, I named it “good life better” because I believed I had a good life with room for improvement, especially in the three areas I write about: money, career and health.

My hope is that my story helps other women—especially other single women who are looking at retiring in the next 15-20 years—make their good lives better too!

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

I started reading the occasional personal finance book back in my 20s but at the time I don’t think I ever believed what they said could happen was something I could make happen.  Creating a life where I didn’t have to work seemed impossible.

Despite my skepticism, I figure there was no harm in following their advice and so, at 28, I started contributing 10 percent of my income to my retirement account.  I kept doing this throughout my 30s, going up to 12% and 15% as my earnings increased (there was a 5% employer match too!).

Outside of my retirement, my money decisions were okay but not fabulous.  I would occasionally contribute to a Roth IRA.  I never had more than $5,000 in credit card debt but almost always owed something.  When I bought my condo in 2005, I took out a 7-year ARM (now refinanced to a 15-year fixed).  I also took out a car loan, and student loans when I went back to school for my J.D.

All this means that when I finally started focusing on my money in late 2014, the situation wasn’t dire but not as good as it could have been: my net worth was right around $215,000. So better than a lot of my peers, but not enough to claim financial independence.

The wonderful thing was that once I started paying attention to my money, and monitoring my progress, I was able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

By the end of 2017, my net worth was almost $500,000.  Most of this increase came in 2017 when I started my debt free journey (and my blog!).  That year I paid off almost $45,000, and watched my investments rise because of the strong market.  The value of my condo also increased (which I wasn’t sure would ever happen).

It wasn’t until after starting my blog that I learned what I was working toward had a name: FI.  It was amazing to find all these people out there who also wanted to be financially independent, working because they chose to do so and not because they have to.

While most of my relationships with the FI community are virtual at the moment, I can’t wait to meet more members in real life, especially more Women on FIRE (FinCon meetup perhaps?). CMO Note – yep I’ll be there! Maybe I should organize a Women on FIRE meetup? Let me know if you’d be interested in the comments.

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

IMG_3092 (2)I feel like money has cast a shadow over my entire life, from my parents fighting about it to having the life insurance after my dad died but not him, from my own money struggles when I wasn’t making much, to its contributions to my brother’s suicide.

As such, I think of Financial Independence—having enough saved to support my current lifestyle even if I choose not to work—as a way to banish that shadow.  My life will still have its complications because life is complicated.  But the money part of it will be sorted out.

The Retire Early part is a bit fuzzier.  I am already in my early 40s and right now anticipate retiring from my full-time job at 57 so I will have the option to continue my health insurance.  If something happens between now and then to stabilize the health insurance market, there is a possibility of retiring from that position a year or two earlier.

I am not sure if I will stop working completely, however, especially in the early years of my “retirement.”  If I continue it would be to blog and/or practice law.  I definitely want to travel but that doesn’t mean I can’t make these other income streams work.

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

I think financial independence is harder for women on both the income and the spending side (and I don’t have easy answers for how to make it better).

On the income side, women just don’t make as much.  They either go into fields that pay less—like teaching or nursing—or earn less than their male counterparts in higher paying fields. CMO Note – this is where folks might want to check out my Breadwinning, Six Figure, Millionaire Moms series. It’s full of stories of women who earn high incomes, and has some great advice for you.

On the spending side, I think women also face a barrier that men do not.  And no, it’s not being “shopaholics.”  It’s supporting their families, both their immediate family and their extended family.

My experience reflects these challenges.  My plan was to be a high school English teacher. That lasted until a summer job helped me see I would have been miserable teaching.  Still driven to make the world better, I took a job at a nonprofit. I’ve been in the public sector ever since.

Could I have made more in the private sector?  Probably.  I am almost 100% certain I could earn more now in the private sector.  But I believe in the mission of the organization I work for so will just have to make it work.

I also have less saved today because I have helped my family out over the years: the college funds for my niece and nephew, summer camps, dance lessons, field trips, and tuition.  I helped my brother buy a car and paid for a new engine for my sister’s car. Also, I helped pay for my brother-in-law finish college.

I know you are reading this and thinking I could have said no, but it felt impossible to do so at the time.  None of these were extravagant experiences. It wasn’t as if my brother and sister didn’t work or were spending frivolously elsewhere. Or that they had anyone else to turn to.

Since he died, my brother’s suicide is also a factor.  Am I really going to complain about working another year or two if it means my niece attends a better school and has a greater chance of success as an adult?  Or my nephew comes out of college without crushing student loan debt?  That’s just not me.

Maybe men experience these questions too on their journey to FI but if so, I haven’t come across many blog posts about it.  Reading their stories would lead you to conclude it’s all about the math.  In my experience, the math is just one part of it.

None of this is to imply FI is impossible for women.  It just means our path may not be linear.  The good news?  More and more of us are figuring out a way to make it work (as illustrated by the stories CMO shares on her site). We’re here to help other women figure it out too.

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

My biggest piece of advice is to begin today.  I was making $25,000 a year when I started putting away 10% for retirement.  It’s easy to think “$2,500 isn’t going to make a difference so I won’t bother”. But over the nearly two decades since then, not only has that $2,500 grown into a much larger number but that habit of savings continued.

Other tips are:

Where can readers find you?

Thank you so much CMO for letting me share my story with your readers!  They can find me on my blog, on Pinterest, Twitter, and Facebook.

CMO Here Again

Thanks so much to Jenny for stopping by and sharing her story. I found it interesting how she addressed the feeling many women have of an obligation to help others in our circle of friends and family. This is a feeling not necessarily shared by many men.

Financial independence is about math, yes, but it’s about much more than just the math. It’s about each of our individual stories, goals, and dreams. Sometimes those goals and dreams involve providing a better future for our kids. In Jenny’s case, she’s passionate about helping her niece and nephew. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Financial freedom is a way to achieve whatever dreams are part of our individual stories.

Be sure to leave Jenny a comment below!

Want to connect with other money smart women? Join in my Breadwinning Women or Women on FIRE Facebook Groups and find other money smart women like yourself.

Women on FIRE Interviews

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10 thoughts on “Women on FIRE – Jenny”

  1. Jenny, thanks for sharing your story! The part of your story where you talk about supporting your niece and nephew and making the trade off to retire a year or two later is so great. You’re consciously thinking about the trade offs you’re making, and you’re deciding they’re worth it. And the gift you’re giving your niece and nephew is priceless. Pretty cool.

    1. Thank you–I am so glad I have been able to do this and know my sister is appreciative. And the kids are worth it, for sure!

  2. Jenny, great to see you on CMO. I’m sorry to hear of your brother. But awesome aunts rule! (My sister is an awesome aunt.) I agree with you regarding women and family support obligations, both in terms of time and money.

    Also, I think we’re about the same age, so I really enjoy hearing your perspective on pursuing FI in one’s forties.

    1. Thank you! I was very fortunate after my brother died to get involved with a support group for people who have lost loved ones to suicide. I learned there that sharing my story not only helps me but helps others because it creates a safe space for them to share their stories too. No matter how much I wish for it to happen, I can’t bring him back but I can honor his memory by helping others.

  3. Hi Jenny – thanks for sharing, I’m so impressed how happy and cheery you are despite losing many family members already.

    And we need more feline pics – what a cutie.

    1. Thank you–I have battled anxiety some but mostly I just want to keep living and doing. Having my trusty feline side-kick helps. He is sitting behind me in his kitty bed as I write this. Pets make things better!

  4. Wow, Jenny! I am inspired by you. I am so sorry for the abuse & untimely losses you’ve experienced. As soon as I am done commenting I am reading the article you wrote for suicide prevention month.

    We have quite a bit in common -single, 40’s, cool aunt. I appreciate your decisions to help out your family financially. Sometimes those payoffs are better than the market 😉.

    CMO, I applied for a scholarship to FinCon so if I am able to go, yesss to a women FIRE meet up!

  5. Thank you! And I couldn’t agree more on the returns on investing in my niece and nephews. I regret a lot of things when it comes to my money but not helping them out.

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