How this Californian paid down debt, started a business, and bought a house—all by age 28

Pam Rodriguez.
Courtesy Pam Rodriguez

Achieving financial health can require some short-term sacrifices to realize long-term benefits. If you go to a checkup with a financial planner, you're likely get a suggestion to curb spending on new clothes, dinners at nice restaurants, and glamorous vacations, so you can save more money for your goals, like building an emergency fund and investing for the future. That advice can be difficult to swallow.

"It's really hard to put aside your human desire," says Pam Rodriguez, a certified financial planner and founder of Fulfilled Finances in Sacramento, California. "We live in a society where you put so much worth in what you look like, what you're driving — what people think about you. It takes people some time to step back and say, 'Wait a sec. What am I doing this all for?'"

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For Rodriguez's clients, it helps that she herself shows them the kinds of goals they can achieve if they too are willing to eat their peas. At just 28 years old, she has paid down student loans and other types of debt, funded her own wedding, bought her first home, and, just over two years ago, started her own advisory business with $70,000 she saved on a salary of $75,000 a year.

Here's how she did it.

She lived frugally on a modest salary while going to school

Rodriguez graduated from high school in 2011, but she didn't go straight to college. Having immigrated with her family from Mexico at age 11, she wasn't yet a citizen, which made securing student loans a lengthier process. In the meantime, she found a job as a teller at Wells Fargo.

When she got her student loans worked out, she began attending community college at night. She continued working full time during the day, though, and quickly got a promotion to banker, which led to an important discovery. "As a banker, I was dealing with a lot of clients, but when people had a certain amount of assets, I had to refer them to the advisor," she says. "I started thinking, 'How do I become what he is? How do I pass those tests?'"

Rodriguez transferred to Liberty University, which had begun piloting a bachelor's degree in financial advising. By age 20, she'd landed a job as an associate financial advisor at a boutique advisory firm in Palm Desert, California.

Rodriguez did everything she could to stretch her $35,000 annual salary. Monthly expenses included $800 for rent on her apartment, a $135 car payment, and a $40 phone plan. "I would shop at 99 cent stores for groceries," she says. "I tried to keep everything very minimal. To this day, I still do."

As she earned more, she upped her savings

She left the gig in Palm Desert, unsure if she wanted to put down roots as a young person in "a retirement town" and seriously considering missionary work. Seven months later, she took an advisory job at Merrill Lynch in Davis, California. The job paid $65,000, and she used the bump in salary to pay off $1,500 in credit card debt.

But she wanted to take a more hands-on approach with her clients, a goal that required her to earn her CFP certification. So she left Merrill Lynch and moved to New York for a couple of years, studying for the CFP exam while working odd jobs, from a short stint as an account manager at Yelp to a few gigs working in restaurants. After passing the test, she interviewed at every advisory in town, she says, settling on an offer from Principal Financial Group.

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Video by Stephen Parkhurst

The job came with a $75,000 salary and eligibility for annual bonuses of 12% to 15%. What's more, though it required her to be on the road four days a week, the company paid her phone bill and reimbursed her for food and travel expenses she incurred while away from the office.

The setup helped Rodriguez turbo-charge her savings. She socked 12% of her salary away in her 401(k), with Principal making an 8% matching contribution. Because she was rarely home, she didn't spring for a fancy place, opting for a room that cost $500 a month.

Factoring in $300 a month for food, $400 a month for her car and insurance payments, and $200 for miscellaneous expenses, Rodriguez was only spending about $1,400 a month – about a third of her monthly income. "The rest was going into my savings," Rodriguez says. "I knew I wanted to start my own business in two or three years. The job at Principal was the biggest accelerator toward my goals."

She and her husband combined incomes and worked as a team

During this time, Rodriguez reached a different sort of milestone. Her boyfriend, Chris, proposed. As Chris was trying to get a small business off the ground, Rodriguez took the responsibility of paying for the wedding, which, after two years of saving two-thirds of her income, she had the ability to do. The couple were married in June of 2018, and Rodriguez paid for the $10,000 wedding in cash.

The pair immediately embarked on plans that saw them meet one financial goal after another. In September of that year, Rodriguez started her advisory, Fulfilled Finances, with $70,000 in savings. Chris landed a job with a $60,000 annual salary at a gym, where he manages the personal training staff.

Since getting married, having the two income streams has made managing financial goals rather straightforward for the two of them: "Everything he makes, we live off of," Rodriguez says. "Everything I make, we reinvest in the business, save, and donate."

The couple used their savings and joint incomes to aggressively pay down debt in 2019, including about $15,000 in student loan debt from Rodriguez and another $15,000 in entrepreneurship debt from Chris.

This year, the couple bought a house. "Going off of his salary only, we had to figure out how much we could afford," Rodriguez says. "We knew we weren't going to be in love with anything at that price. We just wanted to make sure it had good bones, and the rest we could handle by renovating." The couple put a $15,000 down payment on a $300,000 house and spent another $15,000 on renovations.

It's a good thing they have some extra space: They welcomed their first child, London Grace, in April.

She continues to set goals and plan for the future

Rodriguez tells her clients to set goals that are time-specific, work out exactly how much to save per month, and stick to the budget. "Whether it's buying a house, starting a business, wanting to take some time off, spending more time with kids — you need to back that up to how much you need a month so you can visualize it," she says.

That may mean putting away money that you'd rather use to splurge. But Rodriguez's clients have an easier time accepting that advice because they know that their CFP eats her own cooking, so to speak, and that it works for her. "I try to do everything I teach people, and maybe I do deprive myself," she says. "I shop twice a year and only on sales days. And I stick to my budget. I work out the amount I have to put away and stick to it."

Rodriguez and her husband are still saving aggressively. Now that her business is established and profitable, Rodriguez is pumping up her retirement accounts. Having maxed out her rollover IRA this year, she plans to open a SEP IRA, a type of retirement account for self-employed business owners, next year.

In the short to intermediate term, the family hopes to soon be bicoastal. Eventually, they hope to be international, too. They want to be able to spend time with Chris' family in New Jersey, at home in Sacramento, and eventually, with Rodriguez's family in Mexico. So they hope to buy a home on the East Coast in seven years, when Rodriguez will be 35, and a home in Mexico by Rodriguez's 45th birthday.

The article "How a Californian Paid Down Debt, Funded a Wedding, Started a Business and Bought a House by Age 28" originally published on Grow+Acorns.

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