FREE NEWSLETTER

Learning to Get By

Matt Trogdon

IT WAS SUMMER 2021. I was working a job I didn’t like. The salary was solid, but I dreaded Monday mornings and lost sleep at least twice a week. This had been going on for months. Finally, I’d had enough.

I looked at my portfolio one last time. I didn’t need to, of course. I’ve been an almost obsessive tracker of my investments for 20 years and, indeed, acutely aware of money since I was a child. I knew I had more than enough saved up to take the leap.

“The only reason I’m in this job anymore is because I haven’t found another job,” I told my fiancée, Sarah. “But I can afford to live off my savings for a bit. Are you okay if I quit?”

“You’re miserable, and we’ll be fine,” she answered. “You’ll get by.”

I left in August 2021 and haven’t looked back. By October, I was back to work, having joined a couple of friends who started a small investment and financial planning firm. While I’m technically an employee, I’m building my own practice and essentially working for myself. My goal now is to continue working for myself for the rest of my life. I’ve never been as professionally fulfilled as I am right now.

Lots of people would be thrilled to have a steady, well-paying salaried job. To be able to walk away from a job and not worry about making ends meet? That’s a privilege, no doubt.

But I also have lots of experience with learning how to “get by.” It’s been the core motivation in my life for more than 30 years. The idea of leaving a salaried job to jump into something riskier was never that scary for me.

Where did this mindset come from? My financial journey began with tragedy. My mother died three weeks before I turned age six. My father died the day before my eighth birthday. I went to live with my maternal grandmother—the only grandparent I had left.

I could write a whole book on how losing my parents at a young age affected me mentally, emotionally and psychologically. I’ve spent many years trying to peel back the layers. The devastating loss also affected how I think and feel about money. It might be somewhat predictable that it provoked a sense of scarcity that I still deal with today. Still, some time after losing my parents, I developed a keen sense of knowing what I needed to survive. I think I’m more dialed into that sense than most people.

Finding money. On a happier note, I grew up in a big Greek family, with plenty of uncles, aunts and cousins. I recall having to create a family tree in grade school. Mine only had one branch, but I put so many cousins in my tree that it made up for it. I got an A.

My family talked about money quite a bit. One of the first things my grandmother did when I went to live with her was open a savings account for me at the local bank. She deposited $50 and told me I was going to receive something called “interest.” She also told me to look out for the mail at the end of the month. The bank would send me something called “a statement,” and I’d find out how much interest I’d earned.

I don’t remember the exact amount, but I think I received about 45 cents that first quarter. When I reflect on that now, I realize that 45 cents annualized on $50 would be a 3.6% return. I’d be thrilled with that from a savings account today. But as an eight-year-old, I wasn’t impressed.

We had enough money. There was always food on the table. But my grandmother never let me think we were anything other than getting by. She sent me to a private school that was walking distance from our house. That’s when I first realized what “rich” looked like. I had classmates whose parents were doctors, lawyers and successful business people. I’d visit their homes and note how much bigger and more lavish they were than ours.

School is where I honed my “getting by” techniques. I got very good at asking for favors. My grandmother didn’t drive at night, so I always needed a ride home from baseball or basketball practice. I would rotate my requests so the same friend’s parents never took me home more than twice in a row.

My grandmother also taught me how to balance a checkbook. We had a separate account for all my expenses, and we wrote three checks each month: one for private school tuition, one for health insurance and one to my grandmother for my “room and board.” I received a Social Security survivor benefit each month, and that was the main source of income for the account.

Our Free Newsletter

I was age 11 or 12 when I realized that we had more money going out of my account each month than coming in. I marched up to my grandmother and pleaded that we needed to do something to fix our monthly shortfall. Deeply religious woman that she was, she just said, “Don’t worry, God will provide.”

I could debate all day about whether God was actually involved or not. But on a practical level, our monthly shortfall wasn’t a problem because there was another account I didn’t know about until I became a teenager. This was an account that was managed by my aunt, who was the executrix of my father’s will and later the trustee of his estate. She would supplement the required funds when necessary. She would help us get by.

I soon learned that there was something called “a trust,” and that it would be mine when I turned 25. My aunt, unlike my grandmother, was a fountain of transparency. She opened the books and showed me exactly what was happening behind the scenes. Was God pulling the strings? Or was it my aunt? At the end of the day, I’m not sure there was much of a difference.

The trust wasn’t massive. It held some brokerage accounts and a couple of rental properties of questionable investment value. Once the books were opened, my aunt gave me the job of collecting all of the investment account statements as they arrived and putting them in a filing cabinet. I successfully executed my job about 40% of the time—I was a teenager, after all.

In the late 1990s, I couldn’t help but notice that the investment account balances were growing quickly each quarter. Again, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I figured there might be more to my position than I’d previously thought. I left for college in August 2000. On my fall break, I went with my aunt to meet with our accountant.

“Your father left you a nice nest egg, Matthew,” he said. “As long as you don’t spend it frivolously, you could be set for life. The way things are going, you could be a millionaire by 30.”

That was October 2000. Two years later, I was home from college for the summer and decided to check my investments to see how things were going. I was appalled. Like everyone else, we suffered significant losses in the tech crash. There was still a rump portfolio left, but becoming a millionaire by 30 was no longer in the cards.

That summer was when everything changed. I dove into my investments head first. Even as a beer-drinking, math-despising history major, I realized that I still held an ace in the hole. As long as I learned about what I had and protected it, I’d be able to get by financially no matter where my life led.

One cousin explained the rule of 72 to me—how you can divide 72 by your expected annual investment return and thereby learn how many years it’ll take to double your money. “Just don’t spend that money,” my cousin told me. “Even If you never save another dime, you’ll be absolutely fine.”

Finding my way. In retrospect, that money was a bit of a double-edged sword. It allowed me to be less serious and less career-focused than I probably should have been. I had lots of friends who’d studied business or economics. Many of them got investment banking jobs and set off on successful career paths. I had other friends who studied history or government. Many of them went to law school.

Meanwhile, I flitted in the wind during the first few years out of school. I worked as a fulltime reading tutor for a year. I spent two years as a history graduate student. Eventually, I went to work at The Motley Fool investment website, where I did a number of different jobs over a period of 12 years. I enjoyed my time there, but I never advanced much in any specific role. Of course, I knew I could get by if I just protected what I had, so how much more did I actually need to achieve?

Fortunately, “the Fool” was a great place to work. Being around people who wrote about investing and personal finance helped deepen my interest and understanding of those topics. The company provided a generous 401(k) matching contribution and offered some great education on how to invest the money. I regularly contributed to the 401(k) throughout my time there, always heeding my cousin’s advice to keep my spending below my income. My financial position improved along with the market.

I finally got serious about my career in 2016 when I decided to try financial planning. I enrolled in Certified Financial Planner coursework and passed the exam in 2018. In 2019, I left the Fool and joined a local firm in Washington, D.C. I took a pay cut to do so, but I didn’t much worry about that. Adjusting my expenses to meet my new, lower income wasn’t a problem.

Today, three years later, my financial situation is one of constant calibration and measurement. My income is uneven as I work to build my planning practice. I know I have a couple of years ahead of me when things will be lean. But I also know how much I need to make each month to avoid dipping into savings. And I can estimate how things will look in the future, depending on different assumed investment rates of return.

Despite knowing the math, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the sense of scarcity that lives deep within me. It’s laughable how frugal I am about some things, given how stable my financial situation is. The best example of this: How I keep my car running instead of getting a new one.

The car is 10 years old. It has so many things wrong with it that I have trouble remembering them all. The alignment is off. The driver’s side door has an unsightly dent. The air-conditioner doesn’t always work. I had to get a waiver just to pass the inspection last year. The pièce de résistance: I can’t take the key out of the ignition without using “the flick trick.”

I drove my friend to a basketball game recently. When we arrived, I told him I can’t pull my key out of the ignition normally. He asked me what I do and I showed him. I pushed the key further forward into the ignition and then released my fingers. The ignition flicked backwards and spat the key out. My friend keeled over laughing.

“How’d you learn how to do that?” he asked.

“I Googled ‘can’t get key out of Volkswagen Jetta ignition.’ The comments said it would cost $6,000 for a new ignition column. Then I saw this ‘flick trick’ video and tried it. It works like a charm.”

He kept laughing.

“Look, if you ever need someone to tell you how to do things the right way or how to pick out the nicest stuff, don’t waste your time calling me,” I continued. “But if you need someone to tell you the trick to making something last just a little longer, I’m your guy.”

My car will get by for another year or so. I have no doubt that I, too, will continue to get by.

Matt Trogdon is a financial planner with Craftwork Capital, LLC. He’s based in Washington, D.C., and has a special interest in helping Gen X and Gen Y families. He also serves as a workshop instructor for the Babson College Financial Literacy ProjectFollow Matt on Twitter @Matt_Trogdon and check out his earlier articles.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
15 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
steveark
steveark
15 days ago

You’ve had quite a journey for someone still a young man. I can’t agree that it’s ever a smart move to quit a job before finding another unless you are retiring and not going to work again. It just doesn’t make sense not to let your current employer fund your job search. For someone frugal that sounds totally out of character. I’ve seen many friends do the same and each time I tried to talk them out of it. Some claim the mental health toll is too high, but really? Nobody’s mental health should be so fragile they can’t stick with a job they’ve already endured for quite awhile long enough, generally only a few months, to find that next best job. To me it’s the best job changing life hack out there. But I’ve got to admit it didn’t hurt you and really didn’t hurt my friends either, I’m an engineer and maybe the logic of the math blinds me to more important issues, wouldn’t be the first time. Wonderfully written story.

Andrejs Pilajevs
Andrejs Pilajevs
10 days ago
Reply to  steveark

Matt,

Thank you for sharing your story!

Steveark,

I think you are missing the point of the article. Financial freedom is not about “sticking with your current job that you have already endured”. Actually, if you ever find yourself in this situation, you are certainly not free, and probably not happy.
Having the ability to leave your job, without having another job lined up, is a luxury, and that’s what the financial freedom is all about. Doing what you want, when you want, with people that you want to do it with, is the financial freedom.

Donny Hrubes
Donny Hrubes
15 days ago

There’s a saying I’ve taught my sons, “Those who can adapt, will fare better in life.” You prove that very well.

I’m also a hanger on of an old car. I think of where my car is at this moment, parked. That’s what the majority of folks vehicles are during a 24 hour span.
I listened to a blog which talked about that fact as well as others in the financial arena and it did make me think.
If I’m not going to use it very much, I’m not going to invest much money in it. Rather, take the amount that would be commanded by a new car payment and put that amount in an emergency fund for a year.
That will pay for air conditioning service.

Thank you Matt. Good insight!!

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
15 days ago

I enjoyed your story, Matt. Thanks for sharing it with us.

The ability to “get by”, no matter how limited the available resources, is a true talent.

Matt Trogdon, CFP®
Matt Trogdon, CFP®
15 days ago

Thank you for the kind words, Andrew! Much appreciated.

Ronald Wayne
Ronald Wayne
15 days ago

Extended families used to mean so much. Glad yours was there for you.

Matt Trogdon, CFP®
Matt Trogdon, CFP®
15 days ago
Reply to  Ronald Wayne

That’s so true, Ronald. I was very fortunate in that regard. Thanks for reading!

Olin
Olin
15 days ago

What a sad beginning but a wonderful story of family taking care of you and that a trust was set up and what you learned from it. I wish the best for you in your new role as a financial planner.

Matt Trogdon, CFP®
Matt Trogdon, CFP®
15 days ago
Reply to  Olin

Thanks for the kind words, Olin. I was extremely fortunate to have an extended family that cared for me. Thanks for reading!

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
15 days ago

Great story! You have a unique and interesting background which will no doubt serve you well as a FP.

I think young people trying to get by can teach us all a few things about getting by. I remember when I got my first job, I was living in a strange city with no relatives or close friends. Many times, I would spend my last dollar for food on payday. It was amazing how often that happened. I never had to borrow money, but just had enough to get by til payday.

Matt Trogdon, CFP®
Matt Trogdon, CFP®
15 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

Thanks for the kind words, Jerry. I appreciate you reading and sharing your own experience. I had a few weeks like that as well when I was in graduate school!

Gary Grisham
Gary Grisham
15 days ago

I like the story too. But I sure wouldn’t want him as MY financial advisor….

Will
Will
15 days ago
Reply to  Gary Grisham

Why is that?

Jim Ray
Jim Ray
15 days ago

I love this story, and your keen awareness of all the people and events that influenced your journey. And beautifully written–thanks for sharing!

Matt Trogdon, CFP®
Matt Trogdon, CFP®
15 days ago
Reply to  Jim Ray

Thank you for the kind words, Jim. All things considered, I was very fortunate to have so many loving and caring people in my life.

Free Newsletter

SHARE