This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
Lani Huang has never had a "normal" year as a teacher.
She began her career in 2017 teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and took part in the 2018 teacher walkouts at the end of her first year. In the fall of 2019, she relocated to a new school in Dallas and ended the term in the spring of 2020 like millions of other teachers and students around the world — interacting with her class virtually as her school district shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, the 25-year-old is back in the classroom teaching middle school math to students spaced six feet apart, shielded by face masks with Plexiglas separating their desks, while also instructing a group of students who remain at home through Zoom.
This year, Huang will earn $58,400 as a public middle school math teacher. She made an additional $1,212 from teaching virtual summer school and making instructional math videos for her school district to air on the local PBS channel. She also received a $250 stipend for serving as a mentor to two new teachers on her team and $128 for covering a class for a colleague in December.
Despite the many challenges over the past few years, Huang has achieved some major milestones: She paid off her student loans, moved to a new state, bought her first house and moved in with her boyfriend.
Huang felt it was important to share her journey to financial independence as a second-generation American raised by a single mother. She hopes to encourage young people from similar backgrounds that they can achieve similar goals.
Here's how Huang manages her money.
Huang's mom, Jan, is one of 10 kids and the only one to leave Thailand for the U.S. She arrived in Chicago when she was 25 with a plan to work and go to college. She gave birth to her only daughter when she was in her 40s.
Huang says her mom — who worked long hours for the Chicago Public School district and as a nursing assistant and stretched the household budget on a single income in an expensive city — is the biggest influence in how she perceives money today.
First and foremost, Huang learned from her the importance of saving from an early age, and she now tries to stash away $1,000 per month. She learned that material possessions lose value and prefers to spend on experiences, like travel and concerts, over things.
Perhaps most importantly, Huang's mom taught her to not rely on anyone else while working toward her goals. "My mom always told me to not wait for a man to get what I wanted or what I needed," she says. "I think that's what made me work so hard. If I want something, I know that I have to find a way to do it."
Huang studied psychology and Mandarin Chinese at her mom's alma mater, DePaul University, while working food-service and hospitality jobs. She graduated with about $16,000 in student debt.
During her senior year, she was recruited by Teach for America to become a certified educator and teach at a school that serves low-income students in Tulsa. She taught there for two years and used her demanding schedule, low cost of living and limited social activities to her advantage to save as much money as possible — usually a few hundred dollars each month.
Through its partnership with AmeriCorp, Teach for America covered roughly $12,000 of Huang's student loans in exchange for her teaching service. And on August 2, 2019 — the day before her 24th birthday — Huang paid off the remaining $4,000 principal in one lump sum as a gift to herself.
Once she was debt-free, she set her sights on another goal on her list: buying a home.
After growing up in rented apartments, "it's always been a dream of mine to own my own home," Huang says.
She moved to Dallas during the summer of 2019 and quickly started her house hunt. By January 2020, she found a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom house that she negotiated from $165,000 down to $155,000. She made a down payment of $10,000 and part of her closing costs were covered by the realtor's commission through the Teachers Next Door program.
Homeownership has come with some surprise costs — namely higher utility bills, as it's not cheap to cool the 1,500 square-foot space during Dallas summers. But Huang has embraced time at home during the pandemic to complete DIY projects in her kitchen, bathrooms and garage. "Anything that I can learn how to do myself, I'll learn how to do it through YouTube," she says.
People are often surprised to learn that she bought the house on her own, since she and her boyfriend, Andrew, have been dating for almost two years and now live together. "They're like, 'Oh, did you guys buy it together?' That's always one of their first questions," Huang says. "When I tell them 'no, I did this myself,' it's always so surprising."
While living in Tulsa, Huang missed city life, but she also knew returning to Chicago would be pricey. As she planned her exit from Tulsa, an annual mother-daughter trip took her on a tour through Texas.
Huang was surprised to see a sizable Asian population around Dallas — "it was almost excitement, like, 'Wow, there's Asian people and I'm not in an Asian restaurant or Asian market,'" she says — which was an important factor for her in choosing a new place to live. Recent U.S. Census data shows Asian residents continue to be major drivers of Dallas-Fort Worth's population boom, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Plus, leaving Oklahoma, which has some of the lowest teacher pay in the country, and working for a Texas school would bump Huang's pay from the $30,000-range to the $50,000-range.
Access to a major international airport sealed the deal: "I love to travel, especially with having family back in Thailand. So I found it important to also choose a city that had a big airport where flights would be affordable."
Here's how Huang spent her money in October 2020:
Huang's savings targets aren't as aggressive now that she's paid off her college debt and bought a house, but she still tries to put away $1,000 per month. However, she was waylaid in October by a surprise wisdom teeth surgery that she had to cover out of pocket. She currently has about $10,000 in savings and keeps a $5,000 cushion in her checking account.
She saves for retirement through a 403(b) plan, but she didn't contribute in October. She continues to pay into her Texas teacher's retirement pension. Altogether, she has nearly $10,000 saved for retirement.
Huang considers herself financially savvy but feels she has more to learn about investing. She began investing in stocks through Robinhood two years ago, contributes to the brokerage account every now and then and has about $2,200 invested so far.
Huang met Andrew in Tulsa two years ago, and they moved in together this past February. Due to his move and the job market during the pandemic, Andrew was unemployed until late October. Huang covered the majority of shared expenses until recently and hopes to work toward a 50/50 split. In October, Andrew contributed $450 to shared living costs. They keep separate food budgets but pay for each others' meals on dates.
Huang says while it was stressful to cover new homeownership costs without splitting it with a partner, she didn't mind too much as long as Andrew saw the situation as temporary.
"As a teen," she says, "I always knew that I didn't mind working and I didn't mind being the breadwinner as long as my significant other balanced that out" by taking on more household responsibilities. As she sees it, "it's important for me to make sure that the people around me are building better saving habits themselves and not just relying on one person, because that's my personal philosophy."
Shortly after she was born, Huang spent four years in Thailand being raised by her grandma, aunts and older cousins while her mom continued to work in Chicago. As she got older, she realized that her extended family in Thailand lived more comfortably than she and her mom did, due in part to the lower cost of living there.
"A lot of times, the narrative is that when the family immigrates to the U.S. and they start making money, they send money home to Thailand," Huang explains. "But that wasn't the case for my family. My extended family actually helped support me and my mom growing up."
She visits Thailand every few years, and those experiences have inspired her to make charitable giving a fixture in her budget, primarily by contributing to individual fundraising efforts of former students and colleagues. In October, she donated to two former students' efforts to raise money to cover funeral costs for people impacted by Covid-19.
Teaching students both in-person and online at the same time, on top of keeping everyone's health and safety top of mind, has been a difficult transition for Huang and her colleagues.
As teachers continue to be essential workers and community leaders during the pandemic, Huang believes it's crucial people value the work that teachers do and compensate them fairly. And in the meantime, she hopes negative connotations around teacher pay don't dissuade people from entering the field, especially if they have big financial dreams like she does.
"Since I've increased my salary, I don't think I'm as nit-picky about cutting costs, and I finally feel at the point where I don't have to be so obsessed with my finances," Huang says. "Now that I have that, I want to enjoy the moment. If you're always looking toward the next thing, you're never going to feel like you have enough. So I think I'm currently pretty content with where I am."
What's your budget breakdown? Share your story with us for a chance to be featured in a future installment.