When I found myself about to chart a new course in my career in May of 2021, I called my financial planner to see if I could afford to make the leap to go out on my own as an entrepreneur.
My toddler son was two months away from starting a $2,200/month day care and I had just left my six-figure job in marketing to focus on my long-running podcast "Brown Ambition" and start a consulting business. My husband's government salary covered less than half our household expenses, and it seemed like we were going to need to tap into our savings until my bootstrapped business got off the ground.
I hopped on the Zoom call that morning with our financial planner half expecting her to laugh in my face and tell me to start dusting off my LinkedIn profile, but she didn't. Instead, she shared her screen to show me just how far I'd come in the five years since we started working together.
I had increased my net worth tenfold, from $70,000 to more than $700,000. If I stayed on this track even without contributing another cent to my investment portfolio, I'd likely be a millionaire before my 40th birthday.
I just about fell out of my chair. This was happening even after I paid off a total of nearly $30,000 in student loans for myself and my husband, paid cash for my wedding and honeymoon, bought a car outright, took several international getaways, bought my first house, paid for a six-figure renovation, and adopted a dog, all while raising our young child in the middle of a pandemic.
Throughout this process, there wasn't a personal finance book I followed like a treasure map, or a lucky lottery ticket, or check in the mail from a long lost relative's estate. I just made a lot of small choices every day that added up to something greater.
These are the steps I took to get here.
The biggest investment I made over the last five years wasn't in a hot IPO or cryptocurrency. It was in my own career.
Just a couple years into my first job as a journalist, I was laid off and quickly learned that I needed to put my own professional and personal goals first, ahead of any sense of loyalty to an employer.
Since then, I never passed up an opportunity to move on to something new if the compensation was higher and a job gave me a chance to challenge myself. Facing every one of my job changes was never easy. I was anxious every time I leveled up, but I trusted my instincts.
Video by Courtney Stith
Five years ago, I was earning $100,000 a year after two crucial job changes allowed me to triple my income. I knew I had potential for a leadership role and higher earnings, but I wasn't getting that opportunity at my employer. So I decided to take a chance and join a start-up willing to give an untested reporter a shot at running a content team. This move boosted my salary to $145,000, a 45% increase.
From the time I joined that start-up in 2016 to late 2020, I went from running a small freelance content shop to managing over 30 full-time editors and writers. By the time I moved on from that job, I was earning a career high of $300,000, a combination of my salary, vested shares of stock, and bonuses. And as my income grew, I also increased the amount that I was saving and investing.
I realized midway through my career that companies would be willing to offer additional benefits like restricted stock units, so with every new opportunity, I made sure to ask for equity and a signing bonus.
When I accepted the start-up's job offer in 2016, I still had about $35,000 worth of unvested RSUs with my previous employer. I negotiated a cash sign-on bonus to cover the value of the stock I would leave on the table. I was thrilled, but when I called my little brother to celebrate, he quickly brought me back to Earth.
"Cool," he said. "But did you ask them for equity?" My stomach dropped and I wondered if it was too much. They offered me $35,000 cash, a 45% salary bump, and great benefits. Could I really go back and ask for more? I had no idea if an acquisition was in their future, but I was one of their first employees and I knew I was going to be instrumental in building their business. So I called my soon-to-be boss back and asked about equity. They said yes.
Video by Helen Zhao
We worked out a deal where after one year I could choose whether to receive my annual bonus in cash, stock, or a mix of both. Almost one year to the date from when I was hired, the company was purchased for tens of millions of dollars. Technically I didn't hold any equity yet, but I was generously granted my annual bonus as if I had requested it in shares rather than cash. When all was said and done, I had $123,000 in the bank after taxes.
Then our new parent company offered me a compensation package with another equity offer. I was granted about 800 shares vesting on a three-year schedule, and every year I would get access to one-third of the stock. By the time my first batch of shares vested in 2018, the company's stock price had increased by 40%. I held 280 shares worth about $70,000, or roughly $45,000 after taxes.
I decided to cash out my RSUs every time they vested rather than leave a big chunk of change tied up in one company's stock. Usually, I simply diversified with index funds, but I also used some cash to help fund our home purchase and renovation later.
When I took the job at the start-up in 2016, I was also newly engaged and planning a wedding for the following year. I had about $23,000 in the bank, but I considered that my rainy day fund. I didn't want my wedding, or lifestyle inflation in other areas like real estate, to eat away at the gains that I was working so hard for.
At that point, I decided that as a rule, I would aim to spend less than 30% of my monthly income on rent, no matter how much I earned. And I was aggressive with my 401(k) contributions, putting away up to 15% of my income each pay period for retirement, and up to 20% of my earnings for savings.
So even though I was earning more than ever, my then-fiance and I decided that we would move in with his parents so we could live rent-free to set aside money for the wedding. There was nothing glamorous about a two-hour train commute and sharing one bathroom with three other adults. But we stuck it out for about six months and socked away $11,000.
Video by Courtney Stith
I realized early on that for me, being financially secure meant that I would have the money to prioritize things that mattered most to me: memorable travels and nights out with friends, buying my first home and investing in my family's future.
This mindset helped me stay the course during the stay at my in-laws. It also helped me avoid taking on any additional debt for larger expenses like the wedding, or the first car we bought after we got married. We could technically afford a brand new one, but we decided to purchase a certified preowned car that we could pay off in a year and own outright.
And when homeownership seemed like it was in our grasp, I knew when to relax the rigid rules I put in place to keep debt at bay.
At first, I didn't want to purchase a property until we could pay for it in cash. But in 2018, mortgage rates were starting to creep up again, we had a healthy cash cushion, and we were ready to start a family. So after a lot of discussions, we realized that it was the right time to buy and we would take out a mortgage to do so.
Video by Richard Washington
It would have felt amazing to pay cash for our home, but ultimately, we did the math, and we stood to make a higher return by putting cash in the stock market rather than pouring it into a home that would likely appreciate in value at a much slower rate than the S&P.
We established a budget of $500,000, and purchased our home for $445,000 in April 2018, with 15% down. Today, thanks to upgrades we made and a general rise in home values in our ZIP code, it's valued at over $535,000. We've since refinanced to a lower rate and paid down our mortgage to $374,000, leaving us with about $160,000 worth of home equity. That alone is one fifth of our entire net worth.
Although I am the breadwinner in my relationship, my partner has been there for every big decision I've made in my career and my finances. I chose a partner who was reliable, fiscally responsible, and unintimidated by an ambitious, high-earning partner.
That's not to say it's always been easy charting this course together. There were many sleepless nights not knowing if we made the right choices. There were long, painful arguments about whether or not we wanted to buy a house or a car or take that vacation or splurge on the fancy bathroom tile.
There were times when I'm sure my husband questioned my sanity when I told him I was going to counter an already generous job offer. And, of course, there was a baby and then a pandemic.
Still, he's been there by my side through it all. And I definitely would not have been able to launch my own business without the comfort of knowing his job provided health-care benefits that would cover our family.
All of these individual choices, as stressful as they were in the moment, helped get me to where I am today. At 33, I'm 10 times richer than I was just five years ago. And I'm proud that we never forgot what we were fighting for — a life rich in family, friends, and the kind of financial security we've always dreamed of for ourselves and our son.
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