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.