Talking to Diania Merriam, you'd never guess that the semi-retired host of a financial advice podcast ever had problems with money.
But the 35-year-old says that just a few years ago, she was "completely financially illiterate."
Merriam spent her 20s in Brooklyn, New York, where she earned $135,000 a year working in the consumer goods industry. She focused on working hard and making money, rather than on spending what she did have responsibly.
"At my worst, I was probably spending about $2,000 to $3,000 a month just going out and partying," she tells CNBC Make It. "I was going out for drinks after work. I was going out to dinner every night. I was partying pretty hard and I just simply was not paying attention to where my money was going."
Before she knew it, Merriam had racked up $15,000 in credit card debt to go along with the $15,000 she still had left over from her student loans.
For years, the debt didn't bother her. But in 2016, when she decided she wanted to take on Spain's famous Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek that takes a couple of weeks to hike, the challenge inspired her to finally tackle her debt as well.
"I don't think I had the ambition of retiring early," Merriam says. "I just knew that I wanted to get out of debt. I wanted to walk the Camino and I wanted to find some financial stability."
She realized her food spending had gotten out of control and set about trying to trim it down.
"I started bringing lunch to work every day, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner and really focusing on those food costs," she says. She also traded expensive nights out for hosting dinner parties at her apartment.
With her increased savings, Merriam was able to pay off her debt in just 11 months. From there, she decided to put all the money she was saving toward her investments and began pursuing FIRE, which stands for "Financial Independence, Retire Early."
She moved to Ohio in 2017, leaving Brooklyn behind in favor of a slower pace of life in Cincinnati.
"I went from paying $1,800 a month for a cockroach-infested apartment in Brooklyn to paying a $600 mortgage in the nicest place I've ever lived," she says.
By January of 2021, Merriam left what she calls "W-2 work" in favor of hosting a financial advice podcast. She currently has a net worth of around $470,000, including about $350,000 in savings and investments, and earns about $3,000 per month from the podcast. She works around 7½ hours per week.
Merriam describes her current financial situation as "Coast-Fi," a breakoff of the FIRE movement. Being Coast-Fi means she only needs to earn enough money to cover her expenses because she already has adequate savings and investments to support herself once she reaches a traditional retirement age.
For now, Merriam is happy to remain Coast-Fi and isn't actively trying to fully retire. Her $2,000 monthly spend — which includes her mortgage, car and other expenses — is lower than what she was spending going out with friends in New York and gives her flexibility on how she spends her time.
The process of eliminating her debt and then pursuing FIRE, she says, gave her a new perspective on her relationship with money.
"It definitely helped me see how wasteful I was being," she says. "That experience showed me I didn't really have an income problem, I had a spending and money management problem."
Watch the video above to learn more about Diania Merriam's story.