Financial Ups and Downs

It's been a roller coaster ride! Photo of La Ronde from

It’s been a roller coaster ride! Photo of La Ronde from

Today I was going to write about how I started investing – inspired by Krystal at Give Me Back My Five Bucks (the very first financial blog I ever found, and still read). Then I started compiling a time line of all the big financial decisions I’ve made, and their outcomes. I realized my time line looks like a rather grim story – a roller coaster ride of stops and starts. Regular readers know my adult life hasn’t been smooth sailing. I felt discouraged when I looked at the overview of my financial life on paper, and debated cancelling the post. But I thought that you, my frequent commenters, might like to read about it anyway. You know that I never give financial advice, and you would not be likely to mock me for my past mistakes! First-time visitors to the blog can come along for the ride and be forewarned that this is a What Not to Do post. So here goes.

I’ll start with a good, but difficult, situation. I lived at home until I was 23, and received free room and board there while taking two university degrees back to back. By combining this free living arrangement with scholarships, fellowships and numerous part-time and summer jobs, I graduated debt-free. However, I am not bragging or suggesting that today’s students do the same. It’s a different world out there, and you can no longer earn a year’s tuition with a four-month summer job, as my generation did. The negative for me was that I didn’t learn any real-life skills in my early 20s, such as living on my own, living with room mates, or household budgeting. I know lots of adults who share a home with their parents and have mature living and budgeting arrangements. I wasn’t in that category – I had younger brothers and sisters at home with me, and I think it extended my adolescence by 5 years!

After university, I was so desperate to be independent that I moved across the country for my first career job, with my then-boyfriend, carrying along my aforementioned lack of life skills. I had saved for a few months to cover new apartment start-up costs, and my new employer was to cover moving expenses.  I was floored when I found out that my first pay cheque would not be issued for four weeks – and the library reneged on its moving expenses offer, eventually settling on paying just half of my receipts. (A misunderstanding of the policy, I was told). I was immediately plunged into debt and had to borrow from family members, as well as putting everyday expenses on my graduating-student credit card. I like to think I could have pulled myself out of it if it weren’t for my BFs spendthrift ways. That may or may not be true, but one year later we had been married and divorced and I was left paying off his impulsive car purchase, the credit card, and the bills for both a divorce and an annulment – gulp!

Oncoming train from

Oncoming train from

I moved twice, into successively cheaper apartments, and was promoted twice at work. I was on the right track and perhaps should have stayed there. But I met a man with a professional career, from a good family, who also wanted to settle down and have children. I knew my life would be so much better if we went forward together. In retrospect – what can I say? I am still privileged to know his lovely family. My heart was in the right place. But I was gullible. Mr. Right proved to be Mr. Train Wreck, no disrespect intended. Despite living on my own and functioning so well at work, I explained away all signs of trouble. We got married, had a child, bought a house, and moved across the country for his career, suspending mine. I found myself and our child financially dependent on someone with a serious substance abuse problem that soon claimed his life. By this time we had even followed his job from Canada to the US, where we had no legal status after his death.

Life insurance proceeds allowed us to return to Canada, get settled again, and for me to re-establish my career. I have now been happily employed in the same library system for 10 years, my child has been launched (so to speak), and I’ve been remarried for 5 years.

Getting back to my original idea for this post, to ask “What was my first investment?” seems like a farce. Investing money implies being successful at saving money. And how can you save money when you are busy downgrading your apartment and surviving romantic entanglements and paying lawyers? It took me forever to start saving for the future. Before that I was always saving for the present – for the first and last month’s rent on an apartment, or moving expenses, or new baby expenses, or legal bills. My one “indulgence” was that I lived thousands of miles from family and visited them once  a year, forgoing all other vacations.

My early attempts at investing didn’t pan out. Pre-motherhood, I started my own RRSP account (private retirement savings), but cashed in my lone $2000 contribution to pay legal bills. In Year 2000, I ventured into the stock market with $3000, and we all know how that ended – with my capital taking a hit post-9/11. My first employer pension was locked in and is still getting good returns today. My second career job was in the US, and when I left the country, I couldn’t transfer it tax-free back to Canada. So I reluctantly paid the taxes on it and re-invested it – and fortunately, that fund is making steady returns as well. Then I spent 6 years saving for Link’s university costs, only to have said child not pursue a college education. So that money is now in TFSAs and is being used as a help-out and emergency fund.

It’s really only now that I have income surplus to needs on a regular basis, so I can top up RRSPs and TFSAs on a regular basis. It is hard to get past the mindset that some calamity will happen and I will need to cash in my investments. I have worked with a financial advisor to set an appropriate risk profile, but I leave more in cash and short-term GICs than most people would. And I am sure I pay a higher expense ratio too.

Rather than concluding “There’s no point in saving because life gets in the way,” any little pockets of saving I had softened the blows of hard times, so I could recover and move on. I’m glad I didn’t treat my investments as sacred, and they were available to tap into when I needed them.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken the standard financial advice that you should make a habit of saving, no matter how little. At age 25, I didn’t even have $20 left over by payday. But as my fortunes waxed and waned, I wish I had put aside even $10 a week, because it would have given me a feeling of accomplishment. And I could have practiced investing while the stakes were still small – instead of when I had to cash out a pension plan!

So as you see, it was quite a road to become as Exacting as I am now 🙂

Has anyone else started investing and then been derailed, like I was?

Pretending this is me. Feet on the ground - and all suited up! Photo:

Pretending this is me. Feet on the ground – and all suited up! Photo:




  1. Interesting post. It sounds much like my early life…I too made decisions for love that left me worse off…even now I am jobless and broke because of my life choices. It’s just one of those things I guess, but it has taught me to be more exacting also!

  2. I think most wage-earning people in the western world wish they had saved regularly and from the start, even if it was just a little bit. I think we all realise this as we get older and mature. But then when having fun in your 20s who thinks about your 70s?

    I put my have up and say, “Yeap, I haven’t saved or invested much too.” Now I’m in the last decade or two of income earning, I look more carefully at where I’m going. I’d like to retire by 62, but it really means having savings. Our govt has just raised the pension to 70, and I believe they will raise the age you can access your super so people don’t spend it all early and then put out their hand out for the pension. So my current goal is to pay off the mortgage quick smart. Then I plan to invest the same amount that I was paying into the mortgage. So not to go wild and spend but still live off what I am now.

    I found a term for what you got from your first marriage, STD = sexually transmitted debt. Women seem more vulnerable to it.

    Then again all the stops and starts, and stumbles, and spending on silly, frivolous, fun things make for life. As do the scary things – and I imagine being in another country with a husband with an addiction was quite scary! But you’re clearly a strong woman – and have become quite independent!

    • STD, LOL, I will remember that!

      Our govt pension age has gone up to 67 but I wouldn’t be surprised if it increases. So I am saving wildly for that eventuality. My reading says that most people retire earlier than planned because of either health, or having to care for someone else. I always think I will beat the odds, but who knows?

      I hardly have any regrets; c’est la vie!

  3. This is an honest, real-life post on savings. Life does get in the way, which is why you must save. And, saving early will mean much more later. There are so many people who have been downsized and needed to tap nest eggs to supplement unemployment. Yet, hopefully you can save beyond the rainy day fund. Best wishes.

  4. I’ve always been extremely frugal, but since I went to grad school, I ended up getting my first job at 30. I realized in horror that I had lost my 20s–at least financially. Then I felt I had to wait for some job security before having kids–at 35 and 37.

    So i’ve done OK, but think I was overly frugal for many years due to that late start. And I wish I had started a family a bit earlier, because I would have liked to have another child or two.

    Link might end up going to college after all. I think it is a wise child who knows that college is not the right step at a particular time. I have many students in serious debt from starting/stopping/starting–and borrowing all the way. BTW, I really like your emphasis (in an earlier post) on generously gifting your child as a help in starting adult life. I do this too, though it goes against conventional wisdom (the idea is that it weakens the kid). Both my children have so far been good stewards, and, as you say, I would rather give my kid some pots and pans than replace my own still good ones.

    • Hi FS, I started work at age almost-24 and had one child at 29.

      Yes, as a parent I “never say never” when it comes to Link’s education!

      I truly appreciate your last comment since most people disagree with this approach. Glad I am not the only one!

  5. I love the term STD – some of my closest friends got it from their ex’s.
    I learned how to save money early on- it was the only way to buy the clothes and stuff I wanted. I baby sat, worked at Baskin Robbins (not the best job for a chubby teen), and did some tutoring. When I got my first real job, money was tight, but I got good advice from one of the older guys at work.
    He told me to start with 1% of my salary in a 401K, then every time I got a salary adjustment or raise to up the percentage by putting 1/2 of the raise in the 401K (3% raise, 1.5% additonal in the 401K). He told me that eventually I would hit the maximum contribution rate, but I wouldn’t notice the loss of income. Then he told me to forget about the money and let it compound, and not to get freaked out about the ups and downs of the stock market.
    It was good advice and I would never have saved as much as I did if I tried to do it on my own.

    • That was excellent advice, Jamie! I wish I’d had someone to give me a little nudge. I am sure help was there if I wanted to ask for it, but it never occurred to me (d’uh!)

      • When I moved from the planning department into schedules, I was 27 years old and was working with a bunch of old guys (in their late forties and early fifties).
        Lots of unsolicited advice on credit card debt, mortgages, and savings. They were all “self-made” men – depression babies – from poor or working class families and very proud that they made it to the middle class. They were into being economical and self sufficient – useful traits, and they liked to brag about it and razz anyone they considered overly fancy or pretentious. So I learned to watch my step.

  6. This post makes me realise how lucky I’ve been! I’m currently reading “Nice girls don’t get rich” and it’s clear that the author (like my mother) hasn’t always had the fortune of knowing how to manage her money.

    I think, partly as the daughter of a banker, and perhaps just my nature, I’ve always saved – since my floristry job in high school. I always thought ‘I’ll finish high school and how will I self support?’ as that was the expectation I had!

    Thankfully, I’ve yet to get tangled up with STD! The current relationship has a shared bank account, which the BF is adamant is 50:50 contributions, and covers SHARED expenses (food, rent, meals out together). Naturally, after 2 years together, and a year living together, if things were to go sour, my financial position might be challenged, as law permits. That being said, very little of my ‘fortune’ is directly exposed. And we both have a very similar philosophy to savings, spending and all things money. So there but for the grace of God, go I! Thank you for sharing how different life can be, and making me realise how much good fortune I’ve had.

  7. I loved this post, Dar. It often amazes me that you seem to have such a calm and patient demeanor when you have had such serious ‘roadblocks’ along the way. You have done a great job. I’m glad I read this particularly today, as we have some big financial decisions ahead of us this week. It really helps to get a reminder to ‘think about the future’ and cut through the immediate emotional and other issues.

    • That’s funny, Fiona – when I wrote the post, I was thinking, “You can’t always think of the far future – sometimes you just have to take care of the present!” My mom said to me last week that if I were going to have roadblocks, it’s probably good they happened in my adulthood – when I had more resources to get over them (education, career, finances, etc.) – as opposed to in childhood, when they can leave greater scars.

  8. gamKau

    Though I have plenty of spending regrets, fiscal responsibility is one of my strengths. I’ve always managed to live under my means and have never had any debt aside from a mortgage. It is important to me to pay for the education of my kids as well as help towards their first home if needed. I think frugality is my natural setting though I’m prone to being impetuous as well.

    • The best I can say is that I haven’t carried consumer debt other than mortgage or car – since I was about 26. But I’ve often been on a shoestring budget because of legal bills or car repairs. Things are much, much better now!

  9. That is a financial roller coaster! Hindsight really is 20/20. I can relate because I made some poor decisions (based on what I thought was love) when I was younger. That learning process was rough, but I still cringe thinking how much worse it could’ve been, especially after reading your story! I’m so glad to hear things worked out for you in the end.

    I’m so grateful to my parents in regards to money. When I started working (still living at home), they said I had to save half of every paycheck. I paid for my toiletries and clothes out of the money I had left, and always seemed close to having no money (which made me cut back so I never actually ran out). This works well for me as an adult – I have pension, retirement, and savings money taken out of my paycheck before I even see it, and I make do with the rest.

    • Believe it or not, I often count my blessings too. I have, fortunately, never been in an abusive relationship and I was able to take the time I needed to extricate myself from the relationships I was in. And, I always had my own career and salary, and somehow never had to split half of my assets with an ex.

      I had friends whose parents were a little fiercer and made them save a percentage of their earnings while they lived at home, but mine never did!

  10. Lisa

    Live and learn, and you certainly have! Some people go through the lessons, but do not learn from them or grow. I witnessed, and was affected by, a number of these life situations through my mother. I watched a single mom, always struggle with money even with a good job. She just didn’t have a head for money nor luck with relationships. I’m thankful she stuck with a decent paying job for 36 years and had an adequate pension/health care plan, especially since she was struck with early onset dementia and was in care for several years.

    Whether it was from living with my mom or an inherent ability, or both, I have always been a saver, frugal and debt-adverse. However, my mom could not help me with university so I did graduate with debt, but I paid it all off within 4 years, even underemployed. My mortgage was paid off within 6 years. Savy investors would have said paying off low-interest debts (my school-loans were not low interest, but mortgage was) was not a smart move, but to me it is peace of mind and an easier savings than negotiating a lot of the financial products out there. That has been my weak area – investing. I, also, wish I had started in my 20s. Although I was always saving, I was usually saving for something to buy in cash e.g., a car. I didn’t start investing until my late 20s and then was hit by the post-9/11 stock market plunge. Then my savings sat in horrible funds for years. It has only been since about 2009 that I have made some better investment moves. I now fully care for our investments in a self-directed account. It is a learning process, and one I wish I had completed at a younger age. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hi Lisa, I think an education is a great investment and students should get student loans if they need them! I also paid off my house against the advice of my financial advisor who thought I should take out a 25 year mortgage at a low rate and use my savings to play the market. My home has gained in value 40% in the 10 years since I bought it. I might have done better by investing, but I probably would have panicked and pulled out of the market during low ebbs! So I am fine with that decision. I did have money parked in poor performing funds for a few years but I have that straightened out now, like you.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story! Most of my terrible financial history is detailed on my site.
    In my twenties and thirties I went from one stupid mistake to another. I was desperate to be independent (and start earning) at 18, and didn’t even consider going to University as I couldn’t face another 3 years without any money. Thankfully I got a job, in a bank, with a compulsory company pension scheme. And although it’s the only investing I did until my forties, that pension would save me in my old age if I need it too.

  12. Thanks for sharing – I love reading other people’s financial stories. I’ve always been fairly frugal, but like frugalscholar, I’m 30 and am looking for my first full time job, which means I lost the ability to do any serious saving throughout that period. We’re lucky here in Australia, that there are no fees, but I’ve lost the full time income I would have earned over the four years.

    I’m still not convinced that the PhD was the right choice. I don’t know if it will help me get a job (the market is not good at the moment and our government appears to hate the environment!), but it’s done now and I need to find a job and start saving!

  13. Lane

    What a great story, and with a happy ending , too! I think we all have our “soap opera” stage that we just could not have even invented.

    My wonderful parents, both children of immigrants, were frugal all their lives, so I grew up with an allergy to debt. They could not contribute much to my college education, but I too recall the time when summer jobs would cover half the tuition of a private US college. I paid off college debt in my 20’s, but then had 7 years of further training so that was through early 30’s. My dear MLane and I have always lived below our means, saved the maximum in the retirement accounts and outside of them, and achieved financial independence in our 50’s, allowing us to work as we wish at this point–or not. I saw many in my profession making far more than we did, blowing through huge amounts of cash and racking up debt with massive houses, cars, vacays who are now envious of our freedom.

    My kids had their ( considerable!) tuition paid for by us and have always been expected to work summers for extra income. They now realize what a gift it is to have no loans! They are in their early 20’s and largely independent except for some medical bills.

    I wish I could track my expenses as closely as you do! lol

    • Hi Lane, You are very further trained, then 🙂 It bothers me when people comment that folks like you are “lucky” when in fact you’ve worked very hard and made all kinds of tough choices to be where you are. Congrats!

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