It was 98 degrees outside, and I had the windows down in my 1995 Chevrolet S10 pickup with no air conditioning, trying to stay cool in the afternoon heat. Cruising down Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City, Utah felt like being inside an oven. After six hours of poor sleep at a KOA Campground in Mountain Home, Idaho and a cup of coffee, I had been driving much of the day. In-N-Out Burger, a rare treat so far from California, became lunch and dinner. Crawling back into my “heater”, I pressed on; my goal was to reach Farmington, New Mexico before the next day. I finally arrived at my “crashpad” there around three o’clock in the morning, unpacked the truck, and went to sleep on an open couch.
It was late July, eight years ago. I was 22 and single, had just graduated college, and was starting my airline pilot career. I’d recently completed first officer training with Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and my pilot base would be Farmington: a slightly-depressed, yet enchanting desert town near the Four Corners area. I had three days off from work to travel home to Ellensburg, Washington, pack my weathered S10, and move to New Mexico. I asked Great Lakes for more time, but they said “unable”, so I resolved to do whatever necessary to make it happen.
The traditional payoff for modest starting income and sometimes difficult quality of life at many regional airlines is fast-accruing flight time and career progression to larger, major airlines. My ultimate goal was to obtain the experience required to be hired at a major airline in about four years, move back to Washington state, and spend the rest of my airline career at my dream job. But how does this story of humble beginnings relate to financial savviness?
My first year at Great Lakes Airlines, my net income barely topped $1,000 some months. The second year, my 2013 W2 showed a mean average of $1,691 gross income per month before federal taxes, health insurance, 401k, and union dues were deducted. I relentlessly cut costs anywhere I could, determined to stay out of debt. For almost four years, as I rotated through different pilot bases, I lived in multiple crashpads in different states with sometimes four pilots sleeping in a single room (not uncommon in the airline industry, especially if you are based in one city but live and commute from somewhere else). I had to get creative to budget out for tithing, housing, gas, groceries, insurance, spending money, savings, 401k, and Roth IRA contributions on less than $2,000 per month on average. I understand the challenges and limitations a lower income brings, because I’ve been there: living on a shoestring, working hard, hoping to reap a harvest from the seeds being planted.
Fast-forward to 2020. I’m pulling weeds and working on house projects at home in Enumclaw. My wife and I met in 2013, married in 2015, moved back to Washington in 2016 after I was hired at the major airline I pursued, and we bought our first home on the Plateau in 2017. In 2019, I finally sold the Chevy S10, my first car, after 11 years of adventures without air conditioning.
Through adversity, I learned managing even a small income well fosters a lifetime of fiscal responsibility. Actively seeking out good tools and practices helped me manage money then the same way my wife and I do today.
I began cultivating one important habit 10 years ago while in college: each day, I’d take about five minutes to categorize my recent spending transactions into the correct budget categories for that month. My wife and I still do this, instantaneously giving us an accurate budget snapshot and answering the question, “can we afford to do or buy _____ this month?” I use the free Mint.com app for iPhone, but many digital tools exist, such as Dave Ramsey’s EveryDollar or You Need a Budget (YNAB).
In Chris Hogan’s book, Everyday Millionaires, he shares recent results from surveying over 10,000 millionaires in the U.S. – the largest such study ever conducted. His illustration uses a $35,000 annual salary, but good investing habits can begin on far less, as I discovered in my post-college years. According to Hogan: “If you stay out of debt and live within your means, you should be able to invest the recommended 15% of your income, which comes to $437 a month. Putting $437 into a retirement account every month from age twenty-two to sixty-five will leave you with nearly $3.5 million at retirement. And that’s if you never got a raise, never saved any extra, never became a two-income household, never paid off your house, and never invested more.”
Does that get your attention? It got mine! What if living paycheck to paycheck didn’t have to be “normal” anymore? Initial setup of your management system and certain fiscal chores will obviously take some intentionality. Yet, I would argue healthy money management and a secure retirement are built by habits such as spending a few minutes most days checking up on your finances.
Actions you can take today, right now: each day, trade five minutes of social media or TV to check in on your monthly budget and spending – while sipping coffee in the morning, waiting for an appointment, during your lunch break. Whatever it takes. If you don’t have a budget, start by creating one. It’s the single most important thing you can do to make your money go where you want it to go. Next column, we’ll dive into practical tips and ideas for budgeting, but you’re welcome to work ahead!
Remember: drastic changes to your routine rarely stick (New Year’s Resolutions, anyone?). Small changes to something you already do can help solidify a habit. Five minutes per day becomes 30 hours per year and 304 hours in 10 years. The Nielsen Total Audience Report for April 2020 finds the average U.S. adult spends over 3.5 hours per day watching live TV. We have the time.
Will you look back 10 years from now and be the same, or different? Author and entrepreneur Donald Miller summarizes it well: “Get up day after day and plow a field. Plant seeds and pray for rain. The desire for instant victory is akin to playing the lottery.”
Do you have any questions about how you should be itemizing what you spend your money on? Do you live paycheck to paycheck, and don’t know what you can cut from your budget? Or maybe you’ve had similar experiences and want to share them with our readers? Send your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and your email may be featured in an upcoming edition of “Few Minute Finance.”
Luke Miller is passionate about helping others succeed in their finances, careers, and lives. A fourth-generation aviator, he is a pilot for a Seattle-based major airline. Luke and his wife live locally in Enumclaw. This article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice.