Growing up, I was told to follow the typical path: go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, and have children. Of course, my Asian parents slightly modified the path to include get good grades, major in engineering, get a PhD, and become a professor. And for the majority of my life, I followed their advice and traveled down that path. I got good grades, I went to college, I majored in engineering, and I went to grad school to get a PhD. Check, check, check.
All along the way, I saved my money, sometimes at the expense of having fun and enjoying myself. I worked nearly every summer in high school and college instead of relaxing and barely spent any of my earnings. I mostly shopped from the sales rack at stores and turned down opportunities to spend my money on traveling or studying abroad. And this hard work and frugality paid off. By the time I was two years into grad school, I had already saved up more than $30k.
Unlike most people, I didn’t have any specific goals in mind while I was saving. No dream vacation or dream wedding fund. I just inherently knew that in order to keep progressing down the path I was heading and hit the upcoming milestones, I needed to save money. To be honest, back then, I was mindlessly saving… and mindlessly living.
And for a while, that approach to life worked for me. That is, until my third year of grad school when I finally realized that my one and only career/life plan was making me absolutely miserable. It was quite a rude awakening. And as a result, I began questioning everything.
What was I doing with my life?
What would happen if I stopped following my plan?
What the hell was I saving all of this money for?
It felt like saving my money was for all for nothing and my “smart” decision to take the practical route was trapping me into a life I didn’t want to have. My frugality and sensibleness, traits that I had once been proud of, now seemed like curses. I guess you could say I was having my quarter-life crisis a few years early. But instead of buying an expensive sports car or getting a makeover, I started to critically think about all of the things I thought I needed and desired.
Was it really worth toughing it out in grad school to earn a PhD, even though I was miserable? Did I really care about buying a big house and a nice car? What did I really need to be happy?
I realized I didn’t need three letters after my name or a fancy professional title. And I didn’t care that much about having a big house or a nice car. I could be happy with an apartment or a small house, a modest car, and a decent living.
So, I ended up leaving grad school with a Master’s instead of a PhD. Although I can now say that was one of the best decisions of my life, I felt like a failure and disappointment. Because I had only one plan my entire life and no backup plan, I was at a loss of what to do next. I didn’t have the slightest clue about what I enjoyed doing or even what I wanted in life. Even though I had more than nine months living expenses saved up, I was so worried about having a negative cash flow that I couldn’t stomach the thought of living off of my savings to figure that stuff out.
Life after Grad School
Shortly after deciding to leave grad school, I serendipitously met a hiring manager at a networking event. She told me they were hiring and asked if I wanted to interview. Even though I knew basically nothing about the job, I agreed and ended up getting an offer. Because I thought I didn’t have any other options and the salary was nearly triple my grad student stipend, I gladly accepted.
My excitement for the job quickly deflated as I discovered how draining my commute was (a total of 3 hours each day) and how uninterested I was in my work*. For a while, I thought I was again getting trapped into a life I didn’t want to have. But this time, because I had a positive cash flow, I felt secure enough to take some time to think about what I wanted to do next. Plus, thanks to limiting my lifestyle inflation, I was able to save up another $20k.
Living in the Bay Area for three years had exposed me to the tech industry and I realized I wanted to be a part of it. Stories of free snacks, good salaries, and flexible work hours made tech seem so glamorous. On top of that, a lot of tech companies were located in San Francisco, the city where I had been longing to live for a while. So, the idea of being able to work and live in SF was a dream for me.
*Looking back, that job was actually not as bad as I thought, aside from the 3 hour commute. I think my unhappiness mostly came from my immaturity and difficulty in transitioning from a student to an employee.
How my savings saved me
Several months earlier, I had learned about a programming bootcamp in San Francisco from a high school friend who had gone through it. The price tag of nearly $18k was pretty steep (more than one year of my college tuition) and the time commitment was so intense (11 hours a day, 6 days a week for 3 months) that I would have to quit my job. But it seemed like the best and fastest way for me to transition into a career in tech. And at that point, I was finally ready to take control of my life and go down a path I had come up with rather than one that came from my parents or society. Plus, I enjoyed programming much more than what I was doing at my job or what I had studied in school.
Fortunately, due to my natural saving habits, I already had the money ready for it, just sitting in my bank account. Unlike other students I met, I didn’t need to take a loan or borrow money from my parents. Because I’ve always been afraid of being in debt, if I hadn’t had the money readily available, I might not have ended up going and would probably have a different life than I have today.
By spending the time and money to invest in myself, I was able to expand my skill set, change careers, and achieve the lifestyle I wanted. Within 3 months of completing the bootcamp, I found both a job as a software engineer and an apartment in SF. On top of that, I increased my salary by 25% (though, my rent also increased).
Although my life didn’t go according to my original plan, it turns out that not following the plan was for the better. And even though, at one point, it had seemed like my frugality and practicality were for nothing, without my savings, changing careers and getting the lifestyle I wanted would have been much more difficult.
My savings saved me from a life I didn’t want to have and have empowered me to go after my dreams. I now understand what the hell I was saving all that money for. It wasn’t for a big house, a fancy car, or any material good. My savings were and still are for opening doors and creating opportunities to build the life and lifestyle I want to have.
How have your savings helped you? Have you used your savings to invest in yourself? What did you spend your savings on?