I GREW UP IN A SMALL three-bedroom home, the youngest of 14 children. I was always sharing a bed with one older brother or another. My father drove a garbage truck for the county and my mom washed dishes in the school cafeteria.
Money was hard to come by and, when it was in hand, it needed to be spent wisely. My parents engrained in me the importance of education, although neither had a high school diploma. With their encouragement and support, I secured a four-year academic scholarship for college. At age 18, I received the last financial assistance I’d ever get from my parents. Having lived hand to mouth, the life lesson of squeezing the most out of every dollar would follow me for the rest of my life.
During college, I wrote an essay that secured a second scholarship worth $500 a semester, which I used to pay for books. My primary academic scholarship paid for tuition, the dorm room and three meals a day at the school cafeteria. That meant the college refunded to me—for overpayment of tuition—$1,500 a semester, which was the sum I received in Pell grant assistance. I used that money to pay for clothes, haircuts, health care, and occasional fast food when I wanted more variety than the cafeteria could offer.
I got my first credit card and, in a pinch, used it to pay for dental surgery. After receiving the first card statement and realizing how much interest I’d have to pay, I vowed that credit cards would always be a last resort, when I was faced with a financial emergency.
During the first summer in college, I got a job as a valet, parking cars at a casino in Tunica, Mississippi. I saved all the money from my paychecks and tips. That allowed me to buy a used car from my sister. The next two summers were spent at internships, one at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois and the other at NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland. The money I made helped to pay for car maintenance and gas. I could even enjoy the luxury of dating and ultimately found a girlfriend.
My girlfriend and I both graduated from college. She, too, had her education paid for by an academic scholarship. We were also both fortunate to get job offers during 2002’s recession. But while she received multiple offers, I got just one. It was a bit disheartening, but it turned out to be the only offer I needed—and it was at the same company, IBM, and on the same team as the offer that my girlfriend had accepted. We both contributed to the 401(k) up to the 6% match and watched our savings grow. I ended up working for IBM for 17 years.
During summer 2003, I proposed, and she made me the happiest man alive by saying “yes.” Wedding planning began. We had the dreaded financial conversation. I was surprised to learn that my fiancée had $10,000 in credit card debt from her time in college and from the two years following graduation.
At the time, I considered this a huge amount. With the sum she wanted to spend on the wedding, I was a bit concerned. It took some work, but ultimately we agreed on a $10,000 budget for the wedding. This was a significant amount for a frugal guy like me—but for my fiancée it felt like a modest sum.
We each had our own apartments at the time. I did the math and knew that we could both pay off her credit card debt and pay for the wedding in cash if we dipped into savings and also moved in together for the 12 months prior to the wedding. We both gave up our individual one-bedroom apartments and rented a two-bedroom place, allowing us to put more than $600 a month into our wedding fund. A year later, we were married, paying cash for the ceremony—and with her credit cards paid off.
That same year, our lack of debt allowed us to take out a mortgage to purchase our first home at age 24. We started a family three years later. Now, we’re the parents of an 11- and 15-year-old whom we’re attempting to teach about finance and the importance of sound decision-making.
Maybe there was some luck in our ability to win scholarships, meet the requirements to keep them, find employment, secure a home loan and start a family. But there was certainly a whole lot of hard work involved as well. I studied on the bus in high school, went to the library on Friday nights in college and didn’t buy a soda for years—because water was free.
Is the American dream still alive? That’s not a question I can easily answer, given today’s high housing prices and often modest wages. But I share my story in hopes that it might inspire others.
Chris Amos is a 42-year-old father of two. He and his wife have been married for 19 years. He works as a customer success manager at Betty Blocks, the provider of a no code-low code application development platform. Chris loves personal finance.
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.
Great article. I was poor and I made it through college and grad school working too many hours and not having enough time to study or sleep. It was exhausting, but I made it hanging on by my fingernails. Married a sweet wife. We both worked and both our boys made it through college and grad school with very manageable debt, top grades, good careers, and happy marriages. I think it takes 2 or 3 generations to overcome poverty. Even if they become rich the first generation will always be poor on the inside. It’s not a bad experience to have. Thanks for reminding us.
Thanks for sharing your successful American Dream story.
I have never known a scholarship to be awarded for “luck”. Generally there is a need and the recipient demonstrates the skills, dedication, and discipline to honor the scholarship.
Your kids are lucky to have you as an example. You Mr. Amos, were lucky your parents…..who taught you principles that would lead to success.
When I was growing up, my parents just focused on saving, save for college was the mantra. I wasn’t sure what that really meant.
I wanted my children to experience spending. The rules were simple. Any money you received as a gift, at least half needed to be saved. However money they earned could be saved or spent.
These rules allowed me to say no from time to time, but if they really wanted that new shiny toy, they could but it themselves. Their decisions were often very sound.
As adults, they are now 47-53, they are all financially successful with very well grounded children. I credit that early experience of spending and working early as their basic training to becoming careful and responsible.
> Is the American dream still alive? That’s not a question I can easily answer, given today’s high housing prices and often modest wages.
But surely you’ve pondered the questions, since your own children will embark on their quest for the American dream in the next ~7 years! I would be interested in a follow up article from you discussing the specific ways that you try to get through to preteens and teens, who aren’t always the most receptive to parental advice, even if it is essential to their financial success!
You’re right, teens and preteens aren’t the most receptive to parental advice. It takes a village and sometimes they need to hear the message from someone other than me. I’ve signed my children up for summer courses with Wealthy Habits, a site that provides education on financial topics for 11-18 year olds. I’ve reviewed monthly bills with them, told them how much their tutoring cost and let them see the check when we go out to restaurants. They also can’t help but pick up a tip or two when I have the Clark Howard Podcast on in the car or when I convinced the 15 year old to watch ” Get Smart With Money” with me on Netflix. If they’re exposed then they can’t help but learn something along the way. How does the expressing go….. ” Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, but involved me and I’ll learn.”
Thanks for sharing your story, Chris. Your hard work and frugality have certainly paid off.
As for teaching your kids about finance and sound decision making, they’re lucky to have you doing that as our schools are so lacking in this area. But the most profound lessons your kids will learn will be from observing—and remembering—your example.
Whether one calls it “soda”, “pop”, “coke”, “soft drink”, or some other regionalism, it is always a good choice to substitute for water.
Not only does opting for water save money on beverages, it saves money on health care costs! All that sugar can’t be good!
Very true. That was one of the extra benefits I received from not purchasing the sodas.
Love the story Chris! My wife and I’s first jobs were at IBM too. =)
Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks, Chris, for your inspiring story. Your financial acuity and hard work is evident at every turn.
The college dream is less attainable now, I think. Pathways to achieve a degree without much in the way of debt still exist (scholarships, community college, net price bargaining), but the affordability equation for the average student has changed greatly over the years.
I recently found a file of old W2s from my college years in the 1970s. Then, working full time during summer and part time during semesters meant earning enough to attend a state university, including room and board. I attended a private university instead and earned at least 80% of costs.
Working and going to school at the same time can be tough. I admire anyone who does it. I was fortunate enough to have work study during college so I just answered the phone at the front desk of the dorm which also provided the opportunity to study. Thanks for reading the article. I hope you enjoyed it!
There is some research that suggests that working some (say 10-15 hours a week) while going to school helps students with time management and with having some “skin in the game” with regard to earning their education. If they work more than that, it tends to cut into their academic success, not to mention leading to stress and burnout.
When I went to college in the 70s-80s, state school tuition was still cheap (under $200/quarter in my case). My grandfather’s trust paid for my tuition and books plus $200/month for room and board, which even back then meant living on a tight budget. I worked in the summers, living at home with my parents to save expenses, and saved up money to supplement my modest living allowance. A couple of quarters I worked part-time, but in academic roles, specifically as a paid note-taker for classes as I was taking anyway.
Not having the pressure to work lots of hours during the academic years definitely helped me be successful and enjoy my college life. But living on a tight budget was good for me, too. It turned out to be the right balance for me. I graduated with no debt and felt lucky.
Thank you for the inspiration article.
perseverance and hard work seem to always pay off at some point.
thanks for the reminder.
Chris, thanks for the inspiring and fun article. You had me at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt. I spent a lot of my career working with them. My brothers and I also worked in college as a valet for a local country club. We thought it was a great gig – we made good money and got to drive some cool cars.
Yes, it’s possible and you proved it. The secret to success is within us and the decisions we make and you prove that.
And yes, the dream is alive and opportunities abound.
Such an honor to have you comment on my article, when I’ve read so many of yours. Thanks for all you do!
Thank you for sharing your story. After the first couple of paragraphs, I knew I would share it with my teenaged daughter. I echo Larry Saylor’s comment below. How are you “attempting to teach” your two children? Making an effort to pass along values is a priority in my family.
Great article. Thanks. The question I wrestle with – How do we pass these lessons and values on to our children and grandchildren?
I teach my children lessons on finances just as I would any other topic The sooner the better. My son has wanted to purchase $125 tennis shoes. Not owning a pair myself that cost as much myself, I set a budget at $85 with taxes. Beyond that amount, he needs to earn the extra money, mowing the yard, washing the car etc. The more we talk with them about finances , the more comfortable they’ll be and the more they will learn. Teens and preteens need practice, so we’ve given allowance in exchange for chores, and engaged them while paying bills. The children of the “Our Rich Journey” couple, posted videos on youtube so hearing the message from others their own age also helps.