This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people across the U.S. and details how they earn, spend and give away their money.
To Emilio Dominguez, family is everything.
The 28-year-old husband and father works hard to support himself, his wife Jimena, and their two-year-old daughter, Valentina, on the $90,000 income he earns as the bar manager at his family's Mexican restaurant in South Florida.
Dominguez never expected to end up working alongside his own father. "I went to school purposefully to not be in the restaurant business," he tells CNBC Make It. "I saw the hours my dad worked and and how much time he had to commit to it, and I thought that that wasn't for me."
But, he found, "sometimes life has a way of putting you back where you need to be."
After immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico in 1986 at 19 years old, Dominguez's father, with whom he shares a name, started as a dishwasher at a Peruvian restaurant in Miami. Emilio Sr. worked his way up and, after opening and closing his first establishment, opened Casa Maya Grill in 2008.
Growing up in South Florida, Dominguez frequently helped out at his dad's previous restaurant, but he never aspired to work in the industry long-term. "I started in the restaurant business when I was 10 years old, busing tables for $20 a day," he says. "When I would get bad grades, I'd have to wash dishes."
Because of that, "I learned early on to focus on school."
In 2009, a year after he graduated from high school, Dominguez moved to Connecticut from Florida to join the Air National Guard, fulfilling a long-held dream. "Ever since I was about 13 years old, I knew I wanted to be in the military," he says. "Most of the men in my family served and it was something that I knew that I wanted to do."
Dominguez attended basic training and served in active duty for a year. After that, his military schedule allowed him to start college and work. He attended Quinnipiac University, where he studied international business. Dominguez alternated between going to school for a few semesters and then working full-time for a few semesters, and he still had to take on some student loans to cover the cost of tuition.
Throughout this period, Dominguez held numerous catering positions throughout New York City and then ran his own catering company for a year. In 2016, he left Quinnipiac a few credits short of his degree and returned to South Florida to start a construction business with a friend and to be closer to family, because he and Jimena found out they had a baby on the way.
When the construction business didn't pan out, he knew it was time to re-enter the restaurant world.
"I've always had the restaurant business and my family's business to fall back on," he says. "I was fortunate to fall into a role where I'm fulfilled and useful, and I make enough money to support my family."
Beginning in September 2016, Dominguez served as a part-time bartender at Casa Maya Grill. He worked his way up and took over the full-time role of bar manager in June 2017.
"I started as a bartender working two nights a week making about $30 a night," he says. But it wasn't nearly enough money to live on: "I wasn't supporting the family on that."
Now, Dominguez earns around $90,000 a year as the bar manager. "I work so much," he says. "The restaurant business is unforgiving."
Luckily, he enjoys what he does and is thankful for the team he works with. "Our restaurant is not just a job for us," he says. "It's our business, it's our livelihood, our lifestyle."
In his role, Dominguez creates and updates the cocktail menu, meets with distributors, develops promotions, trains new staff members and manages the day-to-day activities in the space. He also considers how he can continue to grow and bolster the restaurant's influence.
"My father's built a great business and a great restaurant, and my goals now are to turn it into a brand," he says. That includes expanding Casa Maya's business, potentially by opening a second location and developing a line of products based on the restaurant's signature sauces.
Dominguez says he feels comfortable with the salary he currently earns, especially considering where he started: "When I moved back to the Florida in 2016, I went from making $50,000 a year to making $600 a week," which comes out to just over $30,000 per year.
Plus, "we just found out that my wife was pregnant, my student loans were going to be due, I had a credit card debt." In total, he started with $30,000 in student loans and $17,000 in credit card debt, which he has since worked to pay down.
Although Dominguez admits that "being the sole income earner is a little bit stressful at times," he says he's learned to manage his money well. "I feel very fortunate that I make what I make," he says. "It's definitely enough as long as we budget properly."
Here's a breakdown of everything Dominguez spends in a typical month.
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Dominguez pays $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom house in Pompano Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
Dominguez puts around $130 toward car insurance each month and another $50 to life insurance.
Because he's a veteran, his health insurance is free through the Department of Veteran Affairs. His wife and daughter are covered by the V.A. as well.
Food is one of Dominguez's largest expenses, though he and his wife try to cook at home as much as possible. They eat at Casa Maya somewhat frequently but limit meals at other restaurants.
"We go out maybe once or twice a week," he says.
In addition to car insurance, Dominguez also makes a $500 monthly car payment on the Kia he shares with his wife. He spends another $40 per week filling up his tank, which comes to $160 a month on gas.
Dominguez realizes that his monthly payments are high: "I had negative equity built in from another car, " he explains. "That's why I pay $500 a month."
That means that when Dominguez traded in his previous car, the amount he still owed was more than the vehicle itself was worth. So when he makes his car payments now, he's not only paying for his current car but working off his previous balance as well.
Although Dominguez's cable is folded in with his utilities payment, he supplements it with additional subscriptions, including $25 for Sling TV, $10 for a UFC fight pass and $5 for ESPN+.
He also pays $13 a month for Amazon Prime.
Dominguez has around $30,000 in student loans and $10,000 in credit card debt. He's working to pay off both: He puts $400 a month toward his loans and $200 toward his card balance.
Each month, Dominguez contributes $240 to a Roth IRA.
He also aims to save another $1,000, which he keeps in a savings account. He recently liquidated an investment account, which brought his liquid savings up to around $11,000 total. However, the amount he puts in monthly can vary.
"Because of having a family, there's months where we'll have a $3,000 bill for something," he says. "My savings will fluctuate between $50 and $2,000."
He wants to keep plenty of cash available, rather than in investments, since "right now I'm saving to buy a house in three years," he says. "My goals are to pay the credit cards off in three years and only be left with the student loan debt. "
Dominguez and his wife are on a family phone plan with his mother, which she covers. When the family moved back to Florida, "she was actually on my plan," he says. "Then to get new phones, we switched services and it was easier to put it in her name for a slew of reasons."
Westlin applauds Dominguez for not only having financial goals but also working toward them. "He's not just thinking about what are his minimum debt debts and making those payments," he says.
Instead, Dominguez is working to pay off both credit card and student debt, save up to buy a home and put away money for the future.
And because Dominguez liquidated some of his investments so he could stockpile cash, he's created an emergency fund that can be used for any unexpected expenses.
Having a rainy day fund is "really important when there is one source of income," Westlin says. "As you're paying off debt, you need to make sure you have some emergency fallback in case something happens to his job or he was out of work for a period of time."
First and foremost, Dominguez should work to pay down any high-interest debt, which may include his credit card balance, even if it means putting other financial goals on hold, Westlin says.
That means potentially halting payments into his Roth IRA and diverting that cash toward his debt because the amount of interest he's paying is probably more than he'd be earning. "There's a general rule of thumb that we go with," Westlin explains. "If your interest rate on a loan is above 5%, we would recommend that you start paying that down more aggressively than saving."
There are exceptions to this rule, however. "If you have a 401(k) and you get a match on that 401(k), we generally say you should save to get the full match because that's a 100% return and you don't want to leave money on the table," Westlin says.
But because Dominguez doesn't have an employer-sponsored plan, it makes sense for him to take the first route and completely pause on adding to his retirement savings while he focuses on knocking out his credit card debt. That way, he'll also possibly boost his credit score, "which could make him more attractive when obtaining a mortgage for a lower interest rate," Westlin says.
Dominguez puts money into a life insurance policy each month, which Westlin says is a wise move. "When you have others relying on your income, it's really important to make sure that you're able to provide protection and income insurance for your family," Westlin notes.
Dominguez should make sure he's properly covered. "Generally speaking, he should have total life insurance coverage around 10 times their gross income," he says. "If his gross income is about $90,000, that's life insurance coverage of about $900,000."
Already having life insurance puts Dominguez a step ahead. But "it's never a bad thing to review," Westlin says, in order to make sure your policy is still adequate. "If he has that coverage already, that's fantastic, but if he doesn't, he can go out and look for an additional policy to supplement that coverage he has."
Buying a home is a major purchase, and it's great that Dominguez and his wife are taking steps toward making it happen. Building a detailed plan could help them reach those goals faster.
First, they should think about the type of home they want and figure out how much they can afford to spend. To do that, Westlin recommends a system called "reverse budgeting," which has also been referred to as "paying yourself first."
Dominguez and his wife should then look at their other financial goals, such as saving for retirement or contributing to a college fund for their daughter, and decide how much they'll need to put away each month for those. That, combined with their fixed expenses, will give them a sense of how much they'll have left to put toward a mortgage payment and other housing costs.
And if they're serious about buying a home in the next few years, it might mean putting other priorities on hold.
"I don't like to tell people to put off retirement because the more you save and the earlier you can save, the better off you are," Westlin says. "But when you're faced with a goal like retirement, which for someone like Emilio could be several decades off, versus near-term goals like wanting to buy a home and paying off debt, sometimes you have to make tough choices and determine what's a higher priority to you."
In deciding how much they're aiming to spend on a home, it's also good to keep in mind that "a common benchmark you can use is that your all-in housing payment, which includes mortgage, insurance, property taxes, should not exceed about 28% of your gross income," Westlin says.
Overall, "Emilio has taken some great first steps towards improving his financial situation, like liquidating stock investments to create a stable emergency fund," Westlin says.
And he's setting himself up to successfully complete his goals: "With a few adjustments to his order of operations, he will be in a better position to start thinking about buying a home."
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