[This post is brought to you by my cousin Ross! If you’re interested in contributing at The-Military-Guide.com, please see our posting guidelines.]
I knew I had a spending problem after I contemplated purchasing a new TV to avoid the hassle of calling the warranty department for a six month old set that was on the fritz.
The whole process began with some idle musing about the admittedly minor annoyance we’d been experiencing. Our new smart TV would restart itself unpredictably while streaming, and there was no easy way to know why, let alone when it would happen next.
Angry at myself for wasting a few hundred bucks just six months prior, I decided the best course of action would be to buy a new television.
Fifteen minutes later I had browser tabs open with articles from The Wirecutter and CNET so I could research the best replacement. Thirty minutes later I had a whole plan to shift the main set down to our basement gym – that we barely use – which would entail moving the set currently down there up to my office… after all, maybe it would be nice to have some noise in the background during these crazy work-from-home times. In the space of an hour I had my credit card out.
Essentially, I’d contrived an excuse to drop $2000 on a new 65” OLED TV (only the best of the best for our household) and to move several pieces of furniture and electronics up and down the stairs of our home, all so I could avoid calling the manufacturer of our defective television. The worst part is that I didn’t stop because I realized the insanity of the whole process; it was when I thought to myself: “Wait a minute, Ross, you don’t even like watching TV all that much.”
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with money. I grew up in a single parent household that, these days, might politely be described as “disadvantaged.” With an absent father and a busy mom who held down multiple jobs while pursuing her degree, it really isn’t surprising that no one really took the time to sit down and talk to me about the importance of money.
In retrospect, I think my Mom actually had a really good system. I can remember her sitting down at the dining room table at the end of every month to balance her checkbook, and in reminiscing with her about those times I came to realize that she was making calculated moves to shift us up the rungs of the economic ladder. But we didn’t actually talk about money in our family. In our extended family we considered that sort of conversation to be gauche. Though – also in retrospect – that was really just our way of passive-aggressively avoiding an honest talk about how some members of our family had been wildly successful, and others decidedly had not.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I realized you could aspire to stop working before traditional retirement age. I’m fortunate to call Doug Nordman my cousin, and due to a precocious interest in all things military we’ve been trading messages since the late 80s. They started out with this child of the Reagan era pestering Nords for all the details about the guns on his submarine. (Uh, they don’t have guns anymore kid.) Eventually, as I grew more capable of writing down complex thoughts, and as email became more common, our letters became long-winded musings about the state of wartime industrial manufacturing in a potential long term conflict with a near peer adversary. You know, just the sort of chat every family has– right?
By now you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I enlisted to join the Army in my senior year of high school. That same year presented an interesting opportunity, too – my cousin Doug was going to visit MacDill AFB, just across Tampa Bay from where we lived, and I’d finally get to meet him! We’d probably been trading messages on and off for a decade at this point, and he was already pretty ticked off at the Navy recruiter who accidentally talked me out of joining his own beloved service. * Wait, that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this conversation, does it? Oh right, what does matter about Doug’s Navy service is that it was almost at an end.
This would have been around the winter of 1999-2000, and Doug was closing in on the twenty year mark. At the big get-together we held to see far-flung cousin Doug, my grand-uncles Randy (USMC vet) and Myron (Army vet) swapped all sorts of
lies sea stories with him at first. Eventually though, they each wanted to hear what his plan was when he retired from the Navy. They laughed good-naturedly at his seemingly pat response: “I’ll stop going to work I guess.” Then they started grilling him, for real this time, about what he planned to do. And I’ll never forget how the conversation in the room just ground to a halt as he explained that, no really, the plan was to retire at age 42.
I was vaguely aware that you could do twenty years in the military and retire with a pension, and I was also vaguely aware of the stock market the way any half-awake kid in the 90s dot com bubble might have been. But I was astounded to hear that Doug had aggressively saved, invested pretty wisely, ** and really could just…stop going to work.
As I recall we traded some additional messages in the run up to my own enlistment in the summer after high school. Doug gave me all sorts of wise advice about how to automatically contribute part of my pay to the Thrift Savings Plan, and which index funds to go after with my extra savings, and all sorts of other wise statements about money. All of which, to the surprise of absolutely no one, I promptly ignored.
What did I know? I was a kid who had never had much money before, and all of a sudden it felt like I was rich every other week when that fat paycheck came in from Uncle Sugar. I even remember getting the talk from that one sergeant in the administrative detachment when I reported to my first unit, about how to budget wisely, invest in the downturn we were experiencing, and grow my wealth steadily so I could be “financially independent.” (Although I think that particular NCO used slightly more colorful language. ***) I won’t bore you with the long drawn out details of the ensuing twenty years other than to mention that, while I avoided buying a Mustang at a 43% APR, I never really mastered my finances until the past five years or so. Somewhere along the line I had, somewhat intelligently, realized that I might need to out-earn my spending proclivities, and between then and now I largely managed to do that.
Which brings us to the current day. Here I am, contemplating a $2k purchase for the latest and greatest television set, when I have a really nice six-month-old one sitting in my living room that honestly works 99.95% of the time. Sure, I get frustrated with it now and then, but you know what? The dang thing is still under warranty! Fifteen minutes after I called the manufacturer they had scheduled me for in-home service despite the burgeoning COVID crisis. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my wake-up call.
In another post, I’ll explain how I managed to bumble my way in the general direction of a fat FIRE exit despite the countless mistakes I’ve made since that time Doug told me he was just going to stop going to work.
[* Nords note: That month the Navy recruiters clearly had no quotas for submariners. I was frustrated by how they discouraged an impressionable teen of incredible potential… while I was struggling with three-section duty. Not that I’m still bitter about it.]
[** Nords note: How I wish I’d invested back then.]
[*** Nords note: JL Collins writes it better than I ever could.]
About the author:
A Florida native, Ross enlisted in the Army after high school. He served as an infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment for three years prior to his acceptance to West Point. He deployed three times to Afghanistan and Iraq during the first years of the War – Ross likes to brag that he’d invaded two countries by the time he was twenty-one! After graduating from the Academy, he spent five additional years as an infantry officer with the First Cavalry Division, including another deployment to Iraq. During his final months in the Army, Ross considered a career in medicine as either a doctor or nurse before deciding he was best suited for work in “Corporate America.”
After transitioning from the military, Ross spent an additional year as a proud Army spouse supporting his wife, Camilla, at her terminal assignment with the 10th Special Forces Group at Ft. Carson. He worked as a telecommunications sales engineer during this time. When Camilla was accepted to the Premedical Post-Bacc program at Goucher College he happily followed her to Baltimore, where he worked as a project manager for a residential construction company. After Camilla graduated from Goucher, Ross decided to attend the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, where he graduated with his MBA in 2016. Post-graduation Ross first worked as a consultant with Bain & Co., then in direct mail marketing as a Senior Business Manager at Capital One. Since 2019 Ross has been happily employed as an internal consultant at Fannie Mae, where he continues to polish his financial services pedigree.
Ross is passionate about giving back to the veteran community. He and his wife co-founded Vet2MD, a non-profit organization that exists solely to increase awareness about the medical profession as a career option for transitioning veterans. He has been a volunteer with Team Rubicon since 2013, and is an active member of the DC chapter of Operation Code. Ross also enjoys serving as an informal transition coach to veterans, helping them talk through their background and passions to understand their best fit in the civilian world. After holding a string of jobs that weren’t great fits and finally stumbling into one that is, he’s well positioned to talk to most industries and roles! You’re welcome to connect with Ross on LinkedIn.
The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement Price: By Doug Nordman: This book provides servicemembers, veterans, and their families with a critical roadmap for becoming financially independent.
Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence Price: Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence - The New Book from Doug Nordman & Carol Pittner
When Should You Stop Working? – Determining the Best Time to Retire