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OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Save first, spend second, carries couple through parenthood

by SARAH CATHERINE GUTIERREZ | February 17, 2021 at 2:13 a.m.

We planned to meet virtually at noon on Sunday, and like clockwork at 11:59 they had entered the Zoom waiting room. Of course -- two high school teachers. As the camera comes on, I see Brad and then his wife Jesse coming into focus (they prefer their real names to remain private). These beaming, former college sweethearts snuggled on their couch had agreed to relinquish precious moments of quiet and peace on a Sunday to share with me their process to launch their daughter that had started 18 years earlier. No, scratch that. It had started even before that.

Jesse and Brad, even as young, broke teachers operated on two core principles. They pay themselves first, no matter what. They save for college first, no matter what. Then they live within their means on the rest.

Jesse acknowledged that in their mid-20s saving for retirement and college was tough. They had a mortgage, day care, and a $250 per month student loan bill that seemed far more urgent and, sometimes, impossible. Retirement was easier since saving was a forgone conclusion with their pensions, so it was really how to save for college that was a toss-up. Jesse's "aha" moment came while teaching a computer coding class building amortization tables. Through that repetitive process she realized, "Time and money can work against you. But it can also work for you." Each month they scraped all the dollars they could find to put $50 here, $25 there into college accounts for their daughter and, a couple of years later, for their son, in order to allow compound interest enough time to work its magic.

Jesse was a natural saver. Growing up, saving was discussed often and linked to the value of independence. Her mom would constantly say, "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or do without." While Brad had more of a spending bent, he immediately caught the savings bug as a newlywed. In fact, he took on the budgeting and bill-paying role.

Their daughter chimed in during the interview "yeah, twice a month on Friday evenings everyone had to be quiet because 'Dad's doing bills!'" When he would get the urge to go out to eat as a family, Brad would also be the one to know precisely if there was money in the budget to do it.

Over time as the student loans were paid in full, day care was in the past and modest raises came, Jesse and Brad started saving outside their pensions into side accounts until they were saving at least 10% and then started an automated deposit of $75 per month into each kid's college account. Their goal was to be able to pay the tuition for their local university and let the kids stay with them through college. Not a blank check for the college experience -- basically a path to each kid getting a degree and not having to take on debt.

Their home purchase was a defining moment early in their marriage. As they were shopping for a home, the banks approved them for a $300,000 house with a payment that seemed, to them, laughable. Instead, they settled on a $150,000 home with a $1,000 payment that was still a stretch. By the world's judgment this was a "starter home," and though they got tempted to upgrade their 2-bedroom house when their kids got a little older, instead, with other life priorities, they decided to retrofit their house and stay put.

In 18 months, that "starter home" will be paid off.

Over the years, they have made side income, received raises and been able to enjoy increasing luxuries. Do they have any regrets about how they have lived their lives? Not many -- they love their modest cars, their house full of memories, and the joy in slowly upgrading their furniture with money from side gigs, like the series of tutoring sessions or speaking at a conference. They love the educational and extra-curricular opportunities like classes and camps that they have prioritized for their kids.

Their one regret? Jesse said, "When other families went to Europe, we went to Tulsa."

I asked if it was hard to live this way for so long, living below their means when our consumer culture begs and pleads for us to live differently. Brad attributed a lot of their financial focus to their circle of friends. They didn't have a "keeping up with the Joneses" relationship and also found themselves having honest conversations about money.

So, you ask, how's it going?

Most importantly, they are very much on track for retirement and with their house being paid off soon and the first kid launched in 7 months they will have the option to accelerate savings for retirement and maybe even retire a little earlier than planned -- or take the family trip to Europe. As for college, the short answer is that college offers have started coming in, and it appears that all shall be well. In fact, their daughter may end up with money left over for grad school in her 529 plan.

They shared one tidbit that is downright ingenious. They had their daughter substitute a study hall for a class in the fall, solely dedicated to college and scholarship applications. She ended up completing 13 applications for colleges and applied for an untold number of scholarships. They correctly reasoned that this work could pay off dramatically but knew that limited time in the evening with school and work would make that tough.

I got a chance to ask their daughter what she thought of all this. She remembers a couple years ago sitting down with her parents and learning about how much was saved for college. Her comment that stood out was how much she appreciated being a part of the conversation and knowing that there were savings for her.

Since Jesse and Brad are high school teachers and parents of teens, I wanted to know what advice they give to other young people. Brad immediately piped up, "I tell all these kids. Get a degree, but not in a way that will sink your ship before you sail."

While this is certainly a happy financial story of a couple that scrimped and saved for their kids' college funds, I think Brad's quotation applies to life. Maybe for newlyweds or newly engaged it would be, "Get married, but don't make financial decisions that will sink your ship before you sail."

And folks, this happy couple is sailing.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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