This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.
Jerone Gillespie has a knack for looking on the bright side — even under difficult circumstances.
His water gets turned off? It's only temporary. He has to sleep on his brother's couch because he can't afford an apartment? It's an opportunity to start saving up.
Today, the 23-year-old, who lives just outside of Baltimore, spends part of the year working in a tax preparation office and the rest driving for Uber and Lyft. He expects to earn about $25,000 total in 2020, before taxes.
But he's not stressed about his low salary: He spends his free time investing, studying money, business and science, and planning his next move.
Growing up, Gillespie's family faced their fair share of financial challenges: He remembers the lights getting turned off and eviction notices tacked to the front door. He and his brother and sister always qualified for free lunch at school.
Still, they managed to get by. If the water was getting turned off, they'd fill up the bathtub and make it last. To Gillespie, those incidents were "just things that happen every once in a while… It didn't really bother me because I knew that [the lights] were going to be coming back on sometime soon."
As a result of the hard times, he learned to be careful with his money from a young age. Although his family didn't openly discuss finances much, his mother emphasized the importance of maintaining a good credit score and showed him the value of interest early on. If she borrowed $10 from Gillespie, he knew to expect $12 to $15 in return, depending on how long it her took to pay him back.
Gillespie started college in 2014, and he struggled to afford both food and textbooks, frequently skipping meals. "Eventually, eating once a day just became a habit, so it wasn't something that I really thought about that much. It was just one of those things that I did," he says. "To this day, I still have a habit of sometimes eating once a day."
Going into his senior year of college, Gillespie transferred from a school in Frostburg, Maryland, to one near Baltimore where his brother lived. But as he got settled at the new school, he didn't have anywhere to stay and ended up living in his 1993 Pontiac Firebird for nearly three weeks. After that, he crashed on his brother's couch for almost a year.
Gillespie was thankful for his brother's generosity, but felt uncomfortable sleeping in the living room and not being able to afford his own place. "But at the end of the day, it gave me a wonderful opportunity to save money," he says.
Ultimately, Gillespie decided the benefits of college no longer outweighed the cost. He ended up dropping out in fall 2018, as a fifth-year senior.
He never expected to go to college at all, so he spent his first few years hopping from subject to subject without a plan.
"When I was in eighth grade, I was diagnosed with a heart condition that was potentially deadly. The doctor said, If you exercise real hard, you could die at any moment."
At the time, Gillespie didn't want to change his lifestyle. He continued to exercise and play sports, taking the doctor's warning as a prognosis. "I never really thought that I would make it past high school," he says.
But he did.
"I was kind of in shock because I never really thought about what I wanted to do after high school," he says. "I kind of just went into college empty handed."
As Gillespie went through semester after semester trying to narrow down what he wanted to study, his student debt kept growing and growing. He had interests in science, languages and business, but no clear career path in mind.
When his loans hit $30,000, "I realized I need to sit back and really think about what I want out of life, what I want to achieve and what direction I want to go before I stack up another $30-40,000 in student loan debt."
Two years later, he has more clarity, but he isn't sure when, or if, he'll go back to school.
When the pandemic hit, Gillespie stopped driving for Uber and Lyft to keep himself safe, and he relied solely on his tax job for income. He earns $14.50 an hour as the manager of the tax office.
Now that tax season is over, he's getting back into driving, which is how he earns the bulk of his annual income. In 2019, about 16% of his income came from working at the tax office and 84% came from driving for rideshare services.
He could earn more if he spent more time driving, but he chooses instead to focus on learning about investing, tax preparation and other skills that he hopes will help him build wealth in the future. He also works on his YouTube channel, Moneyology, where he shares personal finance advice based on his own experiences. He's earned some profit from affiliate links, but hasn't otherwise monetized the channel yet.
"One of the reasons why my income is so low is because I spend a lot of my time just reading," he says. "I could be out there working and working, but I spend a lot of that time reading tax books, reading investment books, reading accounting books. That might lower my income here today, but tomorrow, I'll be thanking myself."
Gillespie also took out an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL, for $20,000 to help cover business expenses, including gas and maintenance on his car. Because the interest rate is only 3.75%, and he doesn't have to start paying it back for a year, he figures he'll be able to earn more through investing than the interest will cost him in the long run.
He hopes to get out of the rideshare game soon though. "I want to move on to something that is a bit more lucrative," he says. He's interested in accounting and software engineering but is confident he can still build wealth without going back to school.
Gillespie keeps his monthly expenses low, thanks to living with a roommate and relying on cooking his meals instead of takeout. His biggest splurge is on books since he spends as much time as he can reading, mostly non-fiction. His favorite topics include science, physics, computers, business, self-development, money and investing.
He still owes about $16,000 on his student debt. But earlier this year, he qualified for Economic Hardship Deferment, which gives him a three-year break on paying them down. And because all of the loans he has left are subsidized, they aren't accruing interest during this time.
Here's a look at how he spent his money in July 2020.
Gillespie aims to save and invest around $10,000 a year, but he doesn't contribute to savings on a regular basis. He'll transfer money over when his checking account hits more than he needs to cover his monthly expenses. Currently, he has about $1,300 put away.
He also hopes to max out his Roth IRA by the end of the year. In January, he withdrew $8,500 from it to pay down his student loans before putting them in forbearance, leaving $4,500 in the account. He invests in individual stocks a few times a year and has about $13,200 invested between his Robinhood and Vanguard brokerage accounts.
Although Gillespie hopes to earn six figures one day, he's content with the amount he makes now. "I have everything I could want right now," he says.
Even the times he spent forgoing meals or sleeping on his brother's couch served a purpose. "I was OK with it because I realized that this was just going to motivate me to never be in this situation ever again," he says. "I looked at it as an opportunity to sacrifice today, so tomorrow I won't have to make the sacrifices ever again.
"Right about now, I am thanking myself every single day for that decision that I made to sleep on that couch, to eat once a day, to live that lifestyle, so I don't have to live that lifestyle ever again."
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