This is the true story about my childhood and why I care so much about financial independence.
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My first memories of financial scarcity
When I was in middle school, my family’s sole source of income hit the reality of the recession of the early 90s. We were a single income family in the suburbs of New Jersey, with my dad’s chosen occupation of commercial real estate. I understand now that this was one of many professions he’d pursued over his lifetime. By the time we settled into our suburban life in New Jersey, he was in the business of brokering real estate deals. Unfortunately, this sector almost completely dried up during the recession.
With no deals happening in New York where he worked, my father took a risk and started a construction business in Puerto Rico. He spent most of the year in San Juan, only visiting us once in a while.
It was during this period that my family fell behind on our mortgage payments. I still remember the menacing phone calls from the creditors. We weren’t allowed to answer the phone, so they would leave their threats and insults on the answering machine. Back then, the machine would play messages in real-time, so every time they called, we’d all be reminded of our precarious situation. While I didn’t fully understand what was going on, I was old enough to know that something was very wrong.
Shortly after that summer, we lost our house. The messages from the creditors grew more and more threatening, and then one day my mother announced that we had to pack. Within a few days we were out of the house and into a rental. The bank had repossessed my childhood home.
Food became scarce
Things got so dire at times that it was a struggle for my mom to buy food for dinner. She already cooked everything from scratch because that was the most cost effective way to do it. Most of our meals were rice and vegetables with simple cuts of meat that were on sale at the time.
My mother’s a talented cook, but I still have uncomfortable memories of those meals. After all this time, I don’t know if it was the quality of the ingredients or the family stress that makes my memory of the meals so unpleasant.
My father’s brother was in law school at that time, and stayed with us for a time in our rental home while he attended school. He had a fondness for used motorcycles and sports cars, and I remember during that summer our garage and driveway were full of his beat up machines.
The worst part of having my uncle around what is that it drove home my father’s absence all the more. It would’ve been more tolerable if my uncle had been a decent father substitute. But in addition to lacking any parental instincts, he also made no effort to contribute to our household in any way, financially or otherwise.
He had a particularly nasty habit of going out to purchase food on his own, bringing it home, and then eating it by himself. He usually would eat in private, but the scent of the food would drift through the whole house.
Let me tell you, when one’s dinner throughout the week is mainly rice and vegetables, a hamburger or slice of pizza smells like the most delicious thing in the world.
The meatball sub
One summer afternoon, I remember coming inside to find him eating a meatball sub from the pizzeria down the street. On this day, he was feeling especially gracious and let me have one bite from the meatball sub. My mom was hanging out in the same room and I remember turning to her and saying, “Mom, this is so good. Can you please buy this for me sometime?”
Decades later, my mom confessed that she cried for hours that night because of my request. She knew we couldn’t afford to buy meatball subs.
I know now that my parents still harbor bitterness against my uncle because of that day. I can’t blame them. Although I feel guilty at having caused her so much heartache that day, I also furious at my uncle for having put me in a position to unknowingly hurt my mother.
Many years later, in college, the unconscious desire for a stable job strongly influenced my decision to go pre-Med. While at the time I knew nothing about the doctor shortage facing the United States, I did know that people get sick and need medical care whether the economy is in boom or bust.
Now as a urologic surgeon, you would think that the worry of financial insolvency would have left long ago. But I don’t think you ever outgrow a childhood marred by financial scarcity. Even as I move down the road to FIRE, I remain plagued by the vague sense that I’m one misstep away from losing it all.
But if we can stay on track, I hope to create a future where my children and hopefully even future descendants will never experience those dark days.
I think it’s easy to look at a snapshot of someone’s financial situation and make assumptions about where they came from. But when I tell you that my current situation is hard fought, now you know why.
As I continue on the path to financial freedom, there are nagging neuroses I still have related to money. I call these my “financial scars” and I trace them back to memories like this from my youth.
What are your financial scars?
This is just a glimpse into what motivates me towards financial independence. Do you have an origin story pushing you towards FIRE? Comment below!
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Painful and beautiful story- the strive for financial (and emotional) stability can be so powerful.
Thanks for your thoughts, Kirsten. This is a window into the underpinnings of my motivations for FIRE, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.