Today we have an interview with Liz from Chief Mom Officer. She is a breadwinning mom to 3 boys with a stay at home husband. She climbed up the corporate ladder to earn over 6-figures and now also writes about her life, ideas, and tips over at ChiefMomOfficer.org.
Who are you and what do you do? What is your story? Where did you start, where in the journey are you, and where do you ultimately want to end up?
Hello, everyone! I’m Liz, and I write over at Chief Mom Officer – a blog dedicated to helping moms with their money, work, and frugal family life. I’m also an IT project manager for a Fortune 100 company, and the mother of three boys (13, 9, and 2). Today I’m a six-figure earning MBA, but I wasn’t always a high earner.
My story is one of lots of struggle and hard work to get where I am now. I started by working my way through undergraduate school in a full-time job, going to school full-time nights and weekends, earning only $22k per year. My first job in IT earned me only $35k per year, but at least I was completely debt free, having leveraged my full-time work income as well as employer reimbursements to get there. From there, I worked my way up in income both quickly and slowly. I’m currently 36 years old and leading up $10 million of IT development work in my full-time job, in addition to running a successful blog.
I’ve had personal finance and investing as my hobby ever since I was a teenager. In fact, I like to say that I’ve been on a journey toward FI for the last 20 years. Unfortunately, five years ago, my husband nearly died of septic shock, which was totally unexpected for a 31-year-old mother of (then two) young kids. It took a while to work through that emotionally and financially. I’ve been through job losses (my husbands), job instability during the Great Recession (my own, when my company almost failed), and a medical catastrophe.
Fortunately, we’re now back on the up and up. I have no debt except the mortgage, which I’m on track to get paid off entirely before I’m 40. I’m also aggressively saving for my three kids college – paying off the mortgage is part of that plan. I’m targeting overall financial independence within the next five years, barring any additional crisis. But if something happens? I know I can deal with it.
How did you get started on the path to FI?
I’ve been chasing FI since before it was called that (old lady here). When I was a teenager I would read books like The Wealthy Barber and see just how simple it was to reach financial freedom. My goal has always been financial freedom/financial independence, where I wanted to have enough saved to cover my expenses indefinitely
Please describe what FI really means for you?
I’ve never had the goal of stopping work entirely. My goal has been to be financially free to do what I want – launch a business, work part-time, find location independent work when my kids are older, and other such things. I’m the family breadwinner while my husband is a stay at home dad to our three boys, so I need to make sure we always have enough for food/electricity/phone/heat/etc.
What are your criteria for saying you’re FI?
My criteria are the following:
- No mortgage – I need to be completely debt free
- Fully funded my college compact agreement with each of my three kids
- Enough in pre-tax accounts to sustain my “traditional” retirement and old age using the 4% rule, with a reasonable projection of growth over time
- Enough in post-tax accounts to sustain my lifestyle until I can tap the pre-tax accounts, plus a buffer for opportunities, unexpected events, etc.
Would you say you are more inclined to the not working anymore part of FI or the freedom part of FI?
Definitely the freedom part. FI doesn’t mean not working anymore. FI means you can choose whether or not you want to continue working in the same capacity, or not, or do something else entirely without needing to worry about the money.
What is your preferred way to invest? Do you have a preferred asset class in particular or asset allocation?
Index funds all the way! I’ve been with Vanguard since the early 2000’s, when I first had enough to open an account with them (and before it was “cool”). I’ve been a lurker over on the Bogleheads forum since it was the Morningstar Die-Hards, and feel strongly that a simple index fund portfolio is all you need.
I will say it was hard to hold on to that philosophy through the 2000’s. When I graduated from college, we were in the middle of the tech crash. Then a few years later, the Great Recession wiped out years of savings and investments in a matter of months. People talk about how they’ll be buyers in a down market, but let’s just say that if you haven’t experienced a real crash, you don’t know how you’ll really react. It’s much harder than you think it is to watch years of savings vanish like that.
So, the first 10 years of my investing life, I made nothing in the market. I believe the S&P 500 gained something like 1% over all those years. But I had set a solid financial foundation through regular saving and investing, and that foundation has skyrocketed through the bull market.
Do you invest automatically on every paycheck?
Heck yes! It’s the only way to go. Right now, I automatically have investments in my 401k, college funds, and my mortgage payoff account.
What are your favorite financial tools?
My Excel spreadsheet. I’ve yet to find any app that beats it, although I’ve looked pretty hard.
What are your thoughts on house ownership vs. renting?
Well, I’m writing this from my home of 11 years, so for me personally, I’m very much for home ownership. I bought my first property a few months after I turned 20 – a condo purchased right before the home price run-up of the early 2000’s. I made over $60k on that condo just for living in it for a few years. That money became the down payment on this house.
When I bought this house, it was in early 2006 – near the market peak. So, on this house, I haven’t “made” anything, but I also haven’t lost anything because I haven’t sold it. We bought with an eye to expanding our family, so we didn’t have to move again (moving is expensive and a pain!). We had one kid (then two years old) at the time. Now we have the three boys and there’s still plenty of room for everyone.
When I moved out I made the deliberate decision to buy a condo instead of renting an apartment, and if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have had the down payment for this house. Had I not had the down payment for this house, I wouldn’t be sitting on a ton of equity and be on track to have no mortgage/rent payments by the time I’m 40. So I’m solidly “team homeownership”. But you need to look at your individual situation, and the market where you live, to know if it makes sense for you.
What is the worst financial decision you have ever made?
Letting my family sneak into some debt in our late 20’s/early 30’s. I was getting my MBA at the time and had changed companies, which caused me to miss out on some reimbursements. I took out loans to bridge the gap. We also had gotten a car loan and got burned with the “use the credit cards for everything and pay them off every month” strategy.
After my husband’s near death experience, I wised up. No more credit cards – now we use debit for everything that’s not travel or an online purchase. No more car loan – it was paid off entirely and I still drive that car (102k miles now!), with our other car purchased for cash. And that student loan was entirely paid off just months after I finished the MBA.
What is the best financial decision you have ever made?
Getting my undergraduate degree and MBA. Even though I incurred some debt (which, as I mentioned, I paid off in a few months), my salary has gone way up due to all that hard work and sacrifice to get both degrees. There are lots of people I know who started where I did but made different choices, and they’re still stuck in the same kinds of jobs I had 15 years ago.
What are your plans once you retire?
To not retire! I have plenty of hobbies that would keep me busy, but I’d also be working. Maybe I’d become a CPA (I was an Accounting undergrad) or a CFP for a fun second career!
What is the number one advice you can give a millennial starting out?
Save and invest early, even if you don’t have a specific goal. It’s more important to get into the habit and lay a solid financial foundation for yourself than to be striving toward something specific. Then, once you have a goal (starting a business, buying rental property, becoming FI, putting a down payment on a house, etc.) you’ll have the foundation to get you where you want to go.