“How long are you going to sail with Stuart? Wait, you’re not working when you go? Wow, he must make a lot of money.” This is exactly what someone said to me today. I am used to getting variations on this, but usually it’s a bit more subtle. How can I explain in just a quick moment that I have been trying to get a job on board and despite many attempts it hasn’t come to fruition and that while I am doing pretty well with that right now the constant rejection of it over the last year and a half has left me feeling broken and useless so much of the time? How do I explain that we have been making life choices for the past 15 years to get to a financially stable place? How do I explain that for the last 10 years I almost always had two or three jobs so I could get ahead? How I do explain that the socially accepted thing is to think all of these things in your head instead of saying them out loud?
The truth is – you don’t. There is no way to quickly sum up what those simple three sentences meant.
Sometimes it feels like there is no winning. If I didn’t go to the ship with Stuart everyone says “wow, three months without seeing your husband? I could never do that.” Then, if I go to the ship the people onboard say “wow, I would get so bored if I were you”, someone even once added to that “I would be so bored, I think I’d kill myself.”
If I stay at home and work while Stuart is away people assume we’re broke. If I go to the ship people assume that we’re loaded.
If I don’t work people assume I’m lazy. If I stay home to work they think I’m putting work above spending time with my husband.
Just because I am not living a traditional life does not mean I am not living my life right. It is, after all, my life.
The frustrations about not having a job on board is something that I am actively working through and working on. I have good days and I have days that the constant rejection hits me in the gut. I read books called ‘How to Fail’ and listen to pod casts about learning lessons out of the times things don’t go right. I’m working on it. However, being financially stable to live the life I want – whatever version that might be – is something I have been working towards since I was 16.
While the life I am living now isn’t even remotely what I imagined for myself, my hard work and intelligent financial decisions in my late teens and twenties, combined with the fact that I married someone that also cares about financial security, has put us in the position we are in today.
Now, it is time to tell you the story of how I ended up here:
Growing up we didn’t have much money. This isn’t one of those stories where we were on the verge of loosing a place to live or anything like that. The majority of life isn’t quite that dramatic. It is one of those stories where there wasn’t a long term savings account set up. Where we but didn’t have much extra but we always made it through.
We always had food in our bellies and a roof over our head. While I didn’t get a new pair of soccer cleats every year, I had a pair and if I wanted violin lessons, well, we couldn’t afford to buy a violin right now but we could rent one. There are a lot of scholarships for lower-income kids to still participate in a million things and my mom made sure she signed me up for all of the ones I wanted to do. My mom in particular prioritized doing things with my brother and I – whether it be saving up for big things like a trip to Florida – or small things like going swimming down at the lake.
My dad made time with us in his own way. He spent a lot of time farming, but when my brother and I were learning how to ski he decided he was going to learn, too. So, in the winter for quite a few years, every weekend we would get up and get the chores in the barn done, then pile into his little silver Ford Escort that was small enough his skis would stick through the space between the two front seats. It was a standard and sometimes when he would press the clutch in he’d have us reach through from the back to shift for him. He’d wear a “slow moving vehicle” sign on his back while skiing, partially as a joke but definitely with some truth. My parents weren’t perfect (no parents are – and hell, no kids are either), but they were good parents. There were days we disagreed, and there are definitely things I wish I could change. I’m sure most people feel this way, but hindsight after death will certainly bring those things to life. My brother and I always had everything we needed and we were very loved, we also had wonderful grandparents that would drive us wherever we needed to go, watch us when we were home sick from school, and give us some good lessons in hard work.
We didn’t have financial security though. I always knew that there was a part of our life that was somewhat living paycheck to paycheck and I knew I didn’t want that. I grew up having no doubt that I was capable and no doubt that I could do or be anything that I wanted. I had this idea that I wanted to design cruise ships, and that idea later morphed into working as an architectural engineer, but behind all of the “dreaming” part of it I knew that I wanted financial security. A lot of people thought I should go to school to be a music teacher. It would have been a perfect fit since I love working with children and loved music. My dad’s girlfriend was a music teacher though, and I saw that it didn’t necessarily bring much financial security. So, while I might have a love for music, I didn’t see it as the career for me.
Fast forward a bit and my brother finds out about this program where you can do your senior year of high school as your freshman year of college. Nowadays this kind of program is much more common, but 15 years ago this type program was a rarity. He applied, got in, and he had his first year of college paid for.
Whenever I looked at colleges I was looking at the price tag. I knew that I didn’t want any student loans since I didn’t want to get bogged down with that after college. So, a free year of college sounded great to me.
I applied and was accepted. I gave up a good chunk of the activities I did at my high school (some quite regrettably), but in life you don’t always get to focus on the things that are fun, more often than not you have to focus on the practical, and I was focused on the bottom line.
After finishing my freshman year I decided to stay at the same college. I liked my professors (mostly), and liked my classmates (mostly). At some points I regretted staying – thinking I could have found a degree I was more passionate about at a bigger university. I loved the cost though: affordable. I was also eligible for a few different grants and was awarded some scholarships. I waitressed on weekends and I worked for the admissions office during the week. I also started house-sitting and my connections with the administration of the college paid off as I house-sat for probably 15 different families (more than half of which I met through the college – the others were referrals). When a semester would start I would walk to the Admin building, get my checkbook out and write a check. I would pick up some extra shifts and I would eat Ramen.
Now, there is a lot that happened in college. Big things and small things, the biggest though was that my dad died the day before spring semester one year. I learned more from that experience than in all of my years of school combined (all of my years of living combined). It kicked my ass. I was a shell of a human. It took a little bit but I found therapy. Yay therapy! My therapist Katie helped bring me back to life. Big boo that insurance didn’t pay for it. I certainly realized what mental health was worth though, and so I went every other week.
The feelings of wishing I had switched to a bigger university were gone. Throughout that semester I saw how lucky I was to be going to a small college where people actually cared about me. A friend at the college could see I was hurting for money and had a couple of cows that he was getting beefed (remember I was at a rural college in Vermont), so he just gave me the check for them – $600. It paid my rent that month when I couldn’t function well enough to go to work.
I had a professor that found me crying in the bathroom one day and she brought me to her office and let me stay there as long as I wanted. She even went to the classroom I was in and collected my bags. (Hindsight is 20/20 – I clearly should have taken more than one week off of classes.) For all the good I saw some pretty terrible sides of people, too. Thinking of the girl that told me it was “just a little bump in the road… you’ll get over it” still just seems unnecessarily cruel.
But, let’s go to the main life lesson that I got out of it: Life is short. It is short, and if you save up everything you want to do until you retire, you might never get to do it, because you might not make it until then.
I kept going with that idea. I made it through college and when I graduated I applied to work on a cruise ship. I wanted to travel but I didn’t want to go into debt doing it and I couldn’t afford it out of pocket. I got the job and went to sea (how was it so easy that first time? – Timing in life is everything). I had made it through college with no student loans (yay multiple jobs!), and was ready to go to work. The job where I had waitressed from high school to college was supportive, and I would go work on the ship – then come home and waitress. I stayed at my mom’s house and luckily didn’t have to pay rent. A couple years into this I decided to get a big kid (read: land based 9-5) job.
I got a job at an engineering consulting firm basically doing AutoCAD all day but with a bit of mechanical design work thrown in – it paid well, had benefits, and at the time there was a big project going on so we were expected to work 60 hours a week. That meant 20 hours of overtime pay each week – and I was still picking up waitress shifts. That was the first time I really felt like all of that college was paying off. I wasn’t just making money, I was making enough money to help pay for things at my moms house, and combined with the ship money that I hadn’t really spent – I was building up a pretty good savings account for myself.
Well, that job was a bust. The stress of that big project on my boss didn’t suit him well, and thus didn’t suit me well because I did not feel like dealing with that bullshit regardless of how much they were paying me. I wasn’t passionate about my work and it’s not worth getting treated like crap for a job I didn’t really care about. This definitely brought to light that maybe I went to the right college, but maybe I had the wrong major. (Whomp).
So, I went back to ships for a quick little contract and while onboard used all my internet time to work on interviewing for new land jobs. I got one that I thought I would love. We set my first day to be a week after my ship contract ended and I was all set to move to land.
My mom started buying rental properties after her and my dad divorced when I was little. Overall it was a good investment, but it has certainly shown me how much of a pain in the ass being a landlord can be. Tell all the stories you want about how bad landlords are and I will tell you just as many stories about shitty tenants. Seriously, they can be terrible. But anyways, she had a house that was empty. A small two bedroom that some people had just moved out of. It needed a coat of paint but I could move in for $600 a month (with nothing included). While in my early twenties I would have had more fun living in the city instead of commuting a half hour in I realized this was a great deal. My mom had this property for awhile and it was paid off – no mortgage – so she did the mom thing and helped me out.
Then I realized something else. What if I bought this little house? I had enough saved up to pay for almost a third of it as a down payment. Damn. Okay, let’s do the math – how long would it take me to pay it off? Maybe 5 years? Shit. In 5 years – that was before I would even turn 30 (I was 23 at the time) I could have a house paid off and literally have the biggest step towards achieving financial security. I might not have the social life of living downtown by I knew this would get me closer to my financial goals. Now, the financial security I was looking to achieve was two parts: one, to not live paycheck to paycheck, and two: to not be tied down in some job I hated just to pay rent or a mortgage. I had my waitressing job that I didn’t mind. I wanted to get to the point that if I wanted to leave a job without having the next full time one figured out I could and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I wanted to not necessarily need a full time job to survive. I wanted to get to a point where I could design my own life instead of having it designed for me by the constraints of a “normal” job.
So, I did it. I bought myself a house. I made more than the minimum payments almost always. I had a family member ask me “why are you buying that house” with all of the emphasis and condescension that could possibly be put into the word “that”. After which she had the gall to ask me how much I paid for it. I’m sure it was more than just her that was wondering what the heck I was thinking. Needless to say this wasn’t a big fancy house. It wasn’t even a small fancy house. It had been a rental property for a long time and it was a fixer upper. But damn it, it was mine.
I spent a couple of years fixing it up. I was working for a residential construction company, and the vendors that I worked with seriously helped me out with discounts on building supplies. While I’m sure it was just because we brought them a lot of business every year, I’d like to also think it was because I made them homemade cookies every Christmas to say thanks that really did it.
The other part is a whole hearted attitude of “I can do anything I set my mind to”, and so I did, because I can. (P.S. you can, too – don’t let the nay-sayers get you down!)
This all comes around to how I am where I am today. People really struggle to understand how Stuart and I’s life works: me sailing with him, us having a house in Vermont and a house in Scotland. While this might not make sense for us to do in the long term, this is where we are at right now. We don’t have all the answers but for now having our own space when we are at home, whether that home be in Vermont or Scotland, has made our relationship stronger, as well as our relationship with our families. People then look at us and wonder “how do you make that all work?” We didn’t win the lottery. We worked hard and made some good money moves. For instance, after I had those big kid adult jobs and decided to go back to working on cruise ships – I rented out my little house and that, combined with my cruise ship pay – paid off that little house in Vermont.
What it really is my friends is that a girl that already had financial security on her mind and made the conscious decision to chose to go to an inexpensive college so she could graduate with no student loans then lost her dad when she was 19. She realized life was short and that she wanted financial security. So, she worked many jobs and long hours and went to college for something she wasn’t necessarily passionate about but knew would pay well and then she worked some more. She saved her pennies (for instance: I didn’t have internet at my house for the first year I lived there, I split firewood off of our farmland to heat the house). She worked double shifts, going from her office job to waitressing with the only break in between being the drive to and from. And she got herself to the point of financial security that allows her to dream up what she wants her life to look like. I figured out what I wanted and I worked towards it. Now, I was lucky that I grew up on a farm because working a double shift for regular jobs is like working one normal day on the farm. I grew up knowing that hard work can pay off and knowing how to work hard.
My favorite saying is “don’t complain about a situation you can control”. In at least some way you can control your life and you can control your future. Figure out what you want. Figure out how to make it happen. No one is going to give you anything so prepare to work for it. Side hustles? Two jobs? Not buying that thing you want now so that maybe you can afford something else you want in the future?
I am living my life the best I can for where I am at right now. You aren’t living my life, just as I am not living yours. It isn’t coincidence or luck that we have gotten to this place. There are two things I want you to get out of this: the first is that asking for or accepting help along the way doesn’t make you weak – in fact it could end up making you stronger – the other is to figure out what you want, make a plan to go do it, and then when the haters hate, just Shake It Off.