A brief history of how we got here.
We met in Bolivia in 2003. We began a relationship in 2007 and got married and moved to the US in 2009-10. We adopted a pup in 2011. Our first (human) baby was born in 2014. Then, we thought it would be nice for him to have a sibling. Our twins (!) were born in 2016. All of a sudden, we were a family of 5 with a dog. Three kids under three. Wild.
From the beginning, we had cultural differences but personal similarities and crossovers. L, who grew up in the US, was often running late and found the forgiving nature of “Bolivia time” a relief. This was frustrating for A, who is Bolivian, but had spent a year as an exchange student in Europe and preferred being more timely.
Living in Bolivia gave us a different perspective on money.
From 2007-08, we were both paid Bolivian salaries, which, while considered a good living there, are poverty wages in the US. When we lived together, we made above the worldwide median annual household income, but not by much. While the cost of living for day-to-day expenses was fine, purchasing plane tickets and traveling on our budget was financially stressful, and I frequently dipped into savings from a previous job to supplement. (But I had savings! Skip below for more on how my family helped make that possible.)
At the same time, we were incredibly aware of how fortunate we were. Our income was considered solidly middle class (if not more) by Bolivian standards. While income inequality and poverty rates have come down significantly since 2000, and GDP (total and per capita) has gone up, Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America, and that legacy manifests itself in many ways, particularly economic marginalization or financial stress for a large portion of the population.
Learning and knowing all of this – on a gut level – gave us a different appreciation for what things cost and a different way of looking at US salaries and what we can do with that money. It amplified our natural frugality.
We had a lot of help.
This is not a bootstraps story. This is not a place where you will hear “How to…” or “And you can too!” We both had a ton of help from our families. They made sure we went to good K-12 schools (public schools in the US for me, private schools in Bolivia for A), fully funded our public university education, provided living space during periods of underemployment or when we wanted to supercharge our savings, cosigned a mortgage loan, taught us the basics of how to be good with money, are financially solvent and independent (retired) themselves, help us with child care, and generally have always been there for us. And that’s something we’d like to provide for our kids as well. We’d also like to be in a position to give back to our parents and families by helping them as they get older.
The privilege of choosing meaningful work.
One of the things that having family help and support allowed me to do was to choose work without having to worry about monthly student loan debt payments. I worked in the advocacy world and for small non-profits for six years for low to tiny paychecks. After that, I worked for a non-profit-like small government agency for eight years. I currently work for a local government, with a nice salary and great benefits. While I make above the median US household income, it’s not even close to the six figures many write about in the personal finance and FIRE world.
But I love what I do and I work with teams of people who care deeply about their work. This is the kind of career people try to get into when looking to downshift from a high-stress, high-paying job. (Not that there isn’t ever any stress, but I’m certainly not working 80 hours a week.) I have to acknowledge that it’s been an absolute privilege – and in many ways, due to my privilege – that I’ve been able to pursue this path. I’m sure this is something I’ll write about again.
Although he had the degree and some experience, suffice to say A was not able to arrive in the US in 2010 with a fresh green card and start working as a civil engineer from day one. He found other work (restaurant, retail) while building up training and credentials. In 2012, he reduced his hours significantly to focus on getting into his career field. It was a tough year of several false starts, but by the end of the year his efforts paid off and he found full-time work – well under the market rate, but as an entry-level civil engineer.
He hustled, getting his new bosses and coworkers and previous Bolivian professors and colleagues to provide references so he could take the professional engineer exams, translating hundreds of pages of syllabi and transcripts from every course he took during his college years, and studying hard to pass both exams on the first try. After his professional engineering license came through, he negotiated a raise, and then negotiated his departure as a W2 employee, continuing to work with them on a project-by-project basis, and launching his own company to work as a consultant.
Working independently gave A the freedom to set his schedule. It also allowed him to pursue a passion project, fixing up and renting out a single family home as an investment property (more on that in future posts).
We have been reading about personal finance for years, starting with Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary and then following various blogs. MMM, Frugalwoods, and Our Next Life, and more recently, the Women’s Personal Finance Facebook group, have played particular roles in inspiring our journey. There are a lot of amazing people writing about personal finance and bringing new perspectives today. We are starting Un País Libre to share our story and in an effort to be less anonymous in this community.
That’s some background on the path that got us here, personally, professionally, and to this particular place on the internet. Stay tuned for what’s next…