There Is No Failing With FI

There Is No Failing With FI | 208

Bianca shares her story of financial resiliency. As a flight attendant, she reached Financial Independence in her late 30’s after many bumps in the road.

  • Bianca made the choice to become a flight attendant after deciding that a career in education wasn’t for her. After a friend suggested the career path, she applied to three companies and landed at an incredible opportunity. After a few weeks of flight training, she was able to start working a few months later.
  • As a flight attendant, Bianca started out making around $14.61 per hour. With more time spent at the company, she has grown her hourly wage to the upper tier. At the higher end of the pay scale, a flight attendant can earn well above the median income with a lot of flexibility built in. For example, she earned $50,000 last year but didn’t work for 7 months out of the year. She knows many senior flight attendants that earn well over $100,000.
  • When you start as a flight attendant, you are usually placed on reserve with a schedule of four days on and three days off. However, there is a lot of flexibility in terms of the hours you work and the earning potential. If you work more hours, then you’ll earn more money. But you’ll have the option to keep your benefits while working minimal hours during different periods of your life.
  • After landing her steady job as a flight attendant, Bianca decided to make her foray into real estate. She started by buying a property for herself to live in, then became a realtor and bought some investment properties. However, the market bottomed out from under her and led to three separate short sales.
  • The short sale process was not a quick fix to get out of these properties. In fact, it was a seemingly endless stream of calls and paperwork to fill out. Eventually, she was able to walk away from three properties via short sales. As a result, her credit score dropped from 820 to 620.
  • If you must go through the short sale process, ensure that your final closing includes a clause that the bank cannot come after you for the remainder of the loan in the future. You want to seal off this part of your finances forever.
  • Once the short sales were over, Bianca also finalized a divorce. She left that period of her life in her early 30s with around $100,000 in her 401(k) but no other assets. At this point, she really dug into her work and started on the path to FI.
  • Currently, she has been able to keep her living expenses around $2,500 per month. Bianca splits her time between Longmont and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, she owns a caboose that has been converted into a living space in a community of around 30 other similar units. With friends, she is working to build a community of like-minded people there.

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Meet Bianca

Jonathan: All right, everyone, I'm very excited about this episode. This episode really is long overdue and what we're actually talking about today is financial resilience and we're doing this through the lens of Bianca DiValerio's story.

And honestly, I feel this… the reason I say this as long overdue is actually in some ways is MarketWatch beat us to this story. They released an article in November of 2019 the title was, “This flight attendant has saved enough money to retire at 44 but she wants to keep working.”

Now there's a lot there we can actually take, we could look at this through the lens of a really cool career opportunity that maybe people haven't really considered. We could look at it through the lens of the obstacles that she had to overcome. This was not… what I mean, we will be able to ask her, what was your biggest financial mistake? And there is a lot to choose from. This has not been an easy path. And the shame, the part about that, that actually I feel like is an opportunity for us is if you would actually go to the MarketWatch article and you were to scroll down to the bottom and read the comments, you would see they're just horrible.

I actually hope Bianca didn't spend any time reading them, but everything there from people and accusing her of basically this just being an inheritance, having a sugar daddy. Basically, all the cop away saying, “I can't do this. They only did this because of whatever.”

And what I see is someone that had to go, they went through a short sale, they went through a divorce, they went through the downturn in the market, no college education, so no degree to fall back on. And yet they overcame. And they are in this incredible place where they have designed their future reclaiming decades of their life. And I want you to see that not only was this possible for her, but it's possible for you as well.

I'm incredibly excited to share this with you and to help me with this, I have my cohost Brad here with me today. How are you doing buddy?

Brad: Hey Jonathan, I am doing quite well and you're exactly right. It is possible for everybody, right? It's hard work. It's perseverance and it's resilience. And Bianca's story has a little bit of everything. And selfishly, I'm really, really excited about this interview because Bianca is a longtime friend of mine and it's cool to just get to ask her these questions that sadly I've never asked in person and now is my opportunity. So this should be really, really exciting.

So Bianca, with that welcome to ChooseFI.

Bianca: Hi guys. Thanks for having me.

Jonathan: We did it.

Bianca: I've been trying to do this for a while. Okay. Just to correct you real quickly. It was not one but three short sales.

Jonathan: Oh wow.

Bianca: Not my best thing, but-

Jonathan: All right, well, let's actually go, I want to go back to your story because of the part about this that's pretty compelling is you reached Financial Independence in your late 30s, basically. And we talked about in the context of this was not based on a degree, a doctorate degree. Actually, it was something that you found this job and it didn't require a college education.

So before we even talk about the short sales, let's go straight to your career choice. Like where did your money story really begin?

Becoming A Flight Attendant

Bianca: Yeah. In terms of career choice, I don't feel like I chose it so much as it kind of chose me. I did go to school for a small amount of time. I wanted to do something in education. And I went to community college in Chicago where I was from and then also moved to Oregon and did it there. But I was paying a lot of money to go to school and I wasn't certain that's what I wanted to do.

So I had an opportunity to come back to Chicago and teach at a Montessori school and I did it for a year and a half and decided I didn't love it, I didn't like the education system that I was in and it was very political and it just wasn't my thing.

And so I talked to some family friends at one point at a party and they were, one was a flight attendant, one was a pilot, they were married and they said, “Well you love to travel, why don't you try being a flight attendant?” And obviously, it never had occurred to me. And I guess my lifestyle and the choices that I made up that point, it just made sense. The two fit in. Someone else had to tell me to do it before I could even choose it for myself.

Jonathan: So you're just kind of talking about your zone of awareness and so many of us are just kind of limited to maybe what our parents did or those few individuals around us. Once the idea of becoming a flight attendant was on your radar, what was the next step?

Bianca: Well, I applied three and this is almost 20 years ago. I applied to three different airlines. I got very lucky to get the airline that I did and I don't think I'm allowed to say it, but I'm pretty sure anyone who's seen anything about me or knows me at all, knows which airline it is. But I wound up at one of the best airlines that I could possibly be at.

And it was a process of maybe a five-week training at that time. Now it's down to like three and a half weeks. So not a lot of training these days, but five weeks.

And it was my first real college experience going to, we shared hotel rooms at the time. So me and a roommate shared a hotel room and we're there maybe five, six days a week for eight to 10 hours we're in class and then one day off and back and doing it again. And it was a really cool experience, but even going through it, I still thought this is going to be a summer job. I'm shocked that I'm still there 18 years later, but it really is a career and I'm very happy to have kind of found it and, or it found me, I don't know.

Brad: So Bianca, 18 years later you're still a flight attendant with the same airline and we're always looking for this kind of, I guess little hacks, let's say, or careers that will enable people to get to FI. Right? And you did this without a college degree. And as we said in the intro, there's been some bumps in the road, certainly.

So it sounds like this was a real positive career on your path to FI. I'd love to hear about the positives and maybe any negatives that you see for people who might be thinking about this while they're pursuing FI.

Bianca: Yeah. I have told all my friends, even when I was starting at 23, so at 23 I was telling all my friends, go be a flight attendant because it's flexible. You work three or four days a week, you're off the other day, so you can change your schedule around so you can be working one week on, one week off, whatever it may be. And no one took me up on it.

But it is a bit of a circus too, you're away from home. It creates kind of an unstable home life if you don't have people around you that understand the job and the fact that you're not going to be around for holidays or birthdays or other big occasions. And that's in the beginning, you're on reserve and 18 years and now I'm the top of the pay scale we're like I said, hourly employees.

So but top of the pay scale is way better than when I started I think it was $14.61. I mean it was not a lot of money, so the pay is tough in the beginning. But it's a great second career choice. In the last three years, I worked for two and a half of those in hiring on the hiring side.

So I'd fly to Dallas and do interviews in a lot of the people that are coming in for this position out are people who are doing their second careers. They've raised their children. I mean, it's mostly a female base worker, but I think we're about 20% male at this point, which is very high. When I started it was maybe 10%. So it's changed a lot over the years.

And again, this is a second career choice for a lot of people now. And I think that that's great. I'm happy to see older men and women taking this opportunity because it creates such a flexible lifestyle as well. The insurance is great, the benefits are great. And I mean, my aunt also did, I come from a line of flight attendants too now, but my aunt and my stepmom were both flight attendants. I didn't understand it when I was younger, but I understand now what a great career choice it could be.

Jonathan: So I'm not gonna try to dive too deeply into the actual airline you work for because I'm really trying to pull out more of the data for people as they kind of try to wrap their minds around it. We'll just say with this particular airline, both the crew and the passengers always look happy. So I'll give them a little plug.

Bianca: Yes.

The Salary Potential For A Flight Attendant

Jonathan: All right. But I am curious. So we talked about kind of that starting pay scale. I think one of the things that's important for people is, we're trying to find a way to… if there a way to start working faster? It'd be able to actually do what it is that you want to do faster without incurring massive student loan debt.

So we basically said, all right, this job, you would be eligible for this without a college degree. We talked about how when you started it was around $14 an hour. What would be… and you could just talk about as a general for the industry as a flight attendant, what would be a median pay scale and what's the upper range?

I know it's an hourly employee, but how would you kind of… what would you project out if you were talking to a friend or family member and advising them to look into this?

Bianca: Well, at my particular company, it takes 13 years to top out. So, that means you're at the top of the pay scale.

I would say the very low end, I barely worked last year and I made around $30,000 which is… I really barely, I didn't work for seven months of that. So, besides that, now I would say probably $50,000.

In the beginning, we say it's around $25,000 to $30,000. If you don't pick up any work, so you're just flying your line, which is our schedule. So that's four days on, three days off when you're on reserve if you pick up any additional trips and it'll go higher than that. So starting wage is around $25,000. Is that what I said the first time I said it? $25,000?

Jonathan: I think you just said $14 an hour, which Is fine. And then top of the pay scale, give me the other end of that where like if you were doing this all the way through.

Bianca: We have people making over $100,000 a year and far into it. So I'm not one of those people because I don't work that much. But I have friends that make $150,000 to $200,000 a year being a flight attendant.

We have people making over $100,000 a year and far into it. So I'm not one of those people because I don't work that much. But I have friends that make $150,000 to $200,000 a year being a flight attendant.

Jonathan: Wow.

Bianca: Which actually mentioning what you said in your opening where people are like, there's no way.

One of the comments, because I did read a few of them before this ridiculous, one of the comments was there's no way that a flight attendant makes that much and they're wrong. The thing that people aren't used to, I think in today's work culture is staying at a job for 20 years. There's a lot that goes with longevity and there's no way I would've been able to retire early if I was at the beginning pay scale and I quit after two years.

So being there for as long as I was really helped me to be able to be financially independent at this age.

Brad: Bianca, people are generally looking for flexibility in their lives and certainly either on the path to FI or maybe as they're transitioning or getting closer to FI. I'm curious if you could talk us through how it works as far as getting benefits and insurance. How few, I guess, shifts you would have to take in a given month. Is it something that someone could start as a flight attendant and only work X number of days per month? Talk me through how that would work for someone who's thinking about this as a later on the path to FI type career.

Bianca: So a lot of companies have a minimum of 70 trips per month and trips are interesting.

So the way that this is, we don't work normal hours. We only get paid when the plane's door's closed. And we're pushed away from the gate. So anytime that you are on the ground or there's a delay on the ground and no one's loaded, we're not getting paid for any of that.

Also, a pro tip, don't go complain to your flight attendant at all when that happens because we're not getting paid, complain to someone else.

Anyways. So, if we go by that it's 70 hours minimum per month. Now let me say, my airline doesn't have any minimums. So why I said at the beginning that I lucked out it's because for me to be in this position now where I don't have to work at all, I keep all my benefits. The only thing that I have to do is bid for a line. So my schedule and then I can give it away to other flight attendants that want to work more and then I don't have to work.

So I'd have to do recurrent training one day a month or one day a year, I'm sorry. And that's it. But for normal flights it's three days on, four days off is what most normal schedules look like. Unless you're reserved, then it's four days on, three days off. And 70 hours would be the minimum.

Bianca: And the only thing that you can't do is work more than seven days. So you can only work six days on in a row and you have to take 24 hours off before you work your next one. So if you really want to bust your butt, you can work almost every day of the month. You'd have to take off maybe four days and then be working the whole rest of the time.

Jonathan: So there's a lot here and I want to point people towards the flexibility both when you really want to boost up your earning income, but also when you want to be able to have significant benefits that have maximum flexibility with your free time because either you're enjoying a life where money's not really as much of a concern or priority or a life where you're pursuing additional side hustles, et cetera.

So on your end, you can really lean into this and dial-up your schedule as much as possible. There's probably a fairly significant workforce that's willing to give away shifts. So if you want those shifts, you have the ability to grab extra.

Jonathan: But on the other end of that if, if you effectively want to have a job with amazing, incredible benefits, you can go sign up for your shifts and then you can also at some point just say, “Hey, does anybody want these?” Usually, you're not going to be able to find someone and you could work as little as four or five days a month or less all the way down to zero in some very extreme cases. Is that accurate?

Bianca: Yeah. You're working with mostly female workforce, right? So when you have people who are pregnant for one thing, they have to take time off of work, especially after having the baby. So if we had it where we had minimum throughout the whole time, even with maternity leave, you still need time off after that because flying isn't exactly the safest job either. So if they had minimums for all that time, it'd be really difficult to keep your workforce, which is why our company again is one of the best to work for because they understand that.

The Benefits Of Being A Flight Attendant

Jonathan: So we just talked about the benefits. I actually want to come back and highlight that. Give us a sense. The two main benefits that I would imagine most people are interested in is a retirement plan and health insurance.

So you're an hourly employee. How does your company stack up for both of those?

Bianca: So health insurance, I have an HSA. We have multiple different options, but I have an HSA and mine costs $13 a month. It might've gone up to $16. This knows it's breaking the bank now, so it went up to $16 this year.

But the benefit is they give us $400 in our bank at the beginning of the year if we use the HSA. So basically it's paying for itself. They also have a program where if we do these, I forget what they call it now, but if we walk a certain amount per day or whatever it may be, it's like an incentive. They'll give you $250 more at the start of the next year. So I'm getting $650 put directly into my HSA at the start of the year. So that's paying for all my insurance.

In terms of retirement, my 401(k), we get a 9.3% match on anything we put in it. So I put in 10% now and so my match is fully covered and we have really great options in there too. There's some Vanguard accounts in there.

Overall, the benefits are great and again it does come with some of the downsides. We can fly up to seven legs in a day. That's a lot of flying. That's not easy. There's turbulence, there's a lot of, you're dealing with the public, which is really difficult.

Overall, the benefits are great and again it does come with some of the downsides. We can fly up to seven legs in a day. That's a lot of flying. That's not easy. There's turbulence, there's a lot of, you're dealing with the public, which is really difficult.

But overall, I think if you can deal with those kind of negative sides of it, and by the way, I love people, but not all people are nice to you. If you can deal with that, then it's well worth it for all those benefits.

But overall, I think if you can deal with those kind of negative sides of it, and by the way, I love people, but not all people are nice to you. If you can deal with that, then it's well worth it for all those benefits.

Getting Into Real Estate

Jonathan: If we look at your path to Financial Independence. And again for our audience in review, reaching Financial Independence in your late 30s one of the main catalysts for this was a very intentional spending level, which we'll talk about in a little bit here. And then also this career path as a flight attendant giving you this incredible flexibility and income.

But when you actually look, if you go back to those early days and your money story, at what point did you actually start saving some money? Reaching Financial Independence requires that you save your money. At what point were you able to start doing that and… give us kind of the behind the scenes there.

Bianca: Well, I got hired in 2001, which as most people know was not a great time for the airline industry. I got accepted my job offer right before September 11th. I was due to go into training 10 days after. And at that time they didn't know if they were going to continue flying, what was going to happen? Were they going to furlough, what was going to happen with anything in the industry?

So they wound up calling us and telling us that class wasn't going to happen. I'd already quit my job and moved out of my apartment. So, that was kind of a bummer. Not obviously as bad as most people had it at that time. But when they called us back a few weeks later and said they're just going to push it back.

So when I started my job, everybody was happy to have a job in the airline industry at that time so many people were furloughed with other companies everybody was working.

Bianca: So I sat on reserve for the first six months, I didn't get used once. I was home the entire time doing jigsaw puzzles because you get really nervous to leave the house just in case they call, your on reserve like you got to be there.

So during that time, I also was living in a house and the woman that was a landlord was a realtor. And she kept telling me, “Well, you have a really steady job now. You should buy real estate, you should buy your first place.” And I thought that was kind of crazy. But then when I thought about it, I was paying her mortgage and when I started to do the numbers, I could buy a place and I could probably be saving more than I'm paying in rent at that time.

And so I started looking at options and wound up buying my first place. I was 25 and I wound up being a realtor right after that because I didn't have a great experience as a first-time buyer. She kind of pushed me into a neighborhood that wasn't right for me. It was all families and children and I was 20 something years old.

And so within a year I got my license, I sold my property and I moved to the city. So I bought my second property there. And that was much better. I was in a position I should be in and all my friends were also in a position to start buying too. I had a lot of flight attendant friends with their new jobs and their new careers and they could afford to get places. And so I was their realtor and then a few years later things started to crumble a little bit with the market in general.

Brad: So Bianca, with that first property or I guess a second property, the one in the city, were you just living there by yourself? Was there any house hacking component to this? Did you have any other flight attendant friends living with you or was this just, “Hey I'm a grownup, I'm getting my own place at that point.”

Bianca: I bought a studio. So yes I was living alone in a really cute building and it was… the price was really fair for the area. This is almost, we're almost topping the market at some point here, but it was a really great area. And so I bought this one studio, decided that I could afford to buy another one and that way instead of buying a two-bedroom and having an apartment, I would have two studios but I wouldn't have to live with my roommate because she'd have her own place.

So it was kind of a hack in my own head before I knew what house hacking was, I just thought I was really clever. Soon I have to live with my roommate to have her own place. And so that's what I did. I bought a second unit and I rented it out. It was easy to rent out right away.

So I didn't know anything about the 1% rule when I first started buying real estate, I bought a studio in the city and decided my house hack would be buying a second studio maybe six months later. And that way I wouldn't have to live with a roommate, but I'd have someone else paying for basically what would have been half of about two-bedroom apartment. But it's just two studios instead.

And it was going great in the beginning but as I kind of more comfortable with that idea, the market around us was going crazy and people were buying properties left and right. It was 0% down. And all the buildings that were apartments were turning into condos. And so a lot of things looked new. They were newly developed and it was exciting and I got wrapped up in it, like a lot of people got wrapped up in it at the time.

So what happened was the studio that I was living in with my boyfriend at the time was getting a little small for the two of us together. So I decided we were going to move to a one-bedroom apartment on the North side of town, which is a little bit dicey of an area, but we decided to move up there and then I would rent out the studio that I was living in currently living in.

So at that point then I had three properties. Two of them were rented out, one of them I lived in.

I bought that last one for $169,000 and within a few years, it sold for $60,000 that was what the market did to Chicago area at least. So we lost a lot of value in a very short amount of time. And the properties that were in the other building, the studios were bought at $100,000 and they sold for $40,000 later or short sold for $40,000 later.

So what I didn't see coming when the market was going up, up, up, and everyone's buying and everything's great and I was putting 20% down on my properties, everything folded with it when the prices of the properties, the tenants were no longer living there.

So I bought those two studios for $100,000 and eventually they were worth $40,000, so prices were going down in the area. Tenants were moving out because they were moving home. Especially studios, these are kids who just came out of school who are getting their first jobs in a big city. Now they're losing jobs too because with the real estate market went a lot of other job opportunities.

So I bought those two studios for $100,000 and eventually they were worth $40,000, so prices were going down in the area. Tenants were moving out because they were moving home. Especially studios, these are kids who just came out of school who are getting their first jobs in a big city. Now they're losing jobs too because with the real estate market went a lot of other job opportunities.

And I had some vacancy in my units, I had one girl who didn't pay me for several months and was very difficult to evict, so I was trying to cover all of it at the same time and it got to be too much.

Brad: All right, Bianca, so at that point, it sounds like you had exhausted your options, right?

I was thinking, okay sure the prices are going down, but obviously, it sounds like you put 20% down. I'm assuming you didn't have an adjustable-rate mortgage, but I'd love to hear the answer to that for sure. But at that point, the vacancy is really what became an issue. If the place is empty or even worse, you essentially have somebody living in there and not paying, then you are just hemorrhaging money every month.

Then like you said, that's where the decrease in the value becomes a major issue because, “Okay, what's my next option? It's to sell,” but you're significantly underwater. So, I mean, talk me through what happens then.

Bianca: So there were multiple other factors at that time. But one of the biggest ones is that I also had a $5,000 assessment on both properties.

So now I owed $10,000 more just for the property alone that had nothing to do with the bank. So what happens at this point is I am paying month after month, after month to keep these properties going. I can't rent them for anything close to what the mortgages are. As it was, I was already paying over with the mortgages was every month or what the rent income was every month to cover the mortgage and assessments and taxes.

So what happens in my specific building, losing 60% of value, the only people that are going to buy at that time are going to be investors and my building was not allowing investors anymore because they have owner occupancy. So they have to have 75% of the properties be owners only and 25% can be rentals. So I couldn't even sell my property if I had wanted to at that time.

Jonathan: Okay. Yeah, that's interesting. So we've actually had a fair number of guests on our show over the last several years talk about becoming a landlord and investing in real estate as an incredible opportunity to build wealth for yourself with relatively little capital out the gate.

And one thing, a pain point or a fear point for me personally has always been, what about vacancies? And we've gotten some good insight into how to go about finding tenants, placing tenants, making sure you have good tenants. And I know that you're not opposed to real estate.

In fact, I believe you still have a rental property, but if you're kind of doing some forensics on this experience and you're kind of deconstructing what you did, what you did poorly and what you would do differently if you are looking, I'm curious, could this have been avoided were you just really a victim of 2008, 2009 and this was a Black Swan event or with the experience, you have now, would you have gone about acquiring and getting those properties filled with tenants differently?

Bianca: Both. So it could have been avoided. Absolutely. I definitely was over-leveraged. At the end of this whole thing. So there was another property involved and I bought a house at the time, I got married. A lot was going on at this time.

When I finally sat down and wrote about it a couple of years ago, I was $500,000 in mortgage debt on around $40,000 a year. I should have never been able to get those loans in the first place. But as I said, banks were going crazy. They were giving loans to anybody. And the fact that I was willing to put 20% down when nobody else was at that time, they wanted that money. And so they took it.

And so yes, I definitely am at fault for that.

But when the market crashed in such a way that it did, a lot of people who only had one property also did short sales because they were so underwater. And the thing about real estate is, and this is my own personal opinion at this point, is if you don't plan to be there for five years, don't even bother, don't bother to get into a property is expensive, to get out of a property is expensive. And if the market's going to fluctuate at any point during that time, it can be a bad investment. And we all know that. We all know real estate can be a bad investment.

The way that I did it was not good for sure. But I also feel like if the market hadn't crashed the way that did, I could've floated for quite some time. And I probably would have survived it, but the vacancies, the special assessment, all the other things that I didn't think of was the biggest problem.

The Short Sale Process

Jonathan: I could spend time digging into the special assessment because that's kind of a something I haven't really talked about in the past, but I don't think for this episode since this really isn't going to be a real estate show, I'm going to spend as much time here.

So what I wanted to do is actually talk about the short sale and I want to do this through the lens of financial resilience. I want people to remember that again, you reach Financial Independence in your late 30s and you're not one of these individuals that can say, “I didn't make any financial mistakes.” Clearly, right?

So I know that there was a lot of stuff going on both with your relationships and with your financial picture through this whole short sale process. Kind of walk us through this. I would say this is probably kind of a dark time, right? For you financially, for emotionally. A lot of stuff's going on here from the short sale level. Clearly, bankruptcy nukes your credit for a period of time. It absolutely does, but a short sale is not dramatically better. What was your credit as this was starting and what happened when you finish the short sale process? Where was it at then?

Bianca: So my credit was around 840 when I first started, I had great credit. I have never had any issues with anything really financially. I was always someone who paid my bills on time. I didn't carry a balance. So when this started to happen, that was one of the biggest issues for me. I was so upset that my credit score was going to get tanked and to be honest, I don't know what happened because for the first year after the final short-sale, which was in 2013, I didn't look at my credit score because it was gut-wrenching and go through the process.

This process alone is very difficult, but when you're going through three of them at the same time, it was unbearable, really. But when I did finally poke my head out of the sand and look at it again, I was around 620, I think. And now several years later, obviously, I'm back up to an 820 credit score. So it definitely hurts, but it's something that you can get past relatively quickly.

Brad: So, Bianca, you said you were a credit score when you finally decided to look was at 620? And it has jumped back up to an 820 in the intervening years. But we obviously on this show we talk about the benefits of having good credit and you get in different ranges for insurance and for mortgages and for car loans and things like this.

But realistically, did you experience any downside when you were at the 620? Did this impact you or was the fact that you had saved money, did that help mitigate the damage? Talk me through the practical reality of, “Oh wow, I'm at a 620 credit score.”

Bianca: I think it was mostly mental for me because I wasn't taking on new credit cards. I don't really use credit cards. I pay off my balance every year. At that point, you also can't get another mortgage for four years after your last short sale. So I wasn't going to apply for a mortgage. I didn't need to buy a car at that time.

So it didn't really affect me. It was more the mental impact of it because I felt like I'd worked so hard and I was so responsible with my credit and all these things leading up to it to have it go down like that it was difficult. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed about the whole thing. But being that I didn't need credit at that time, it didn't really hurt me much.

Jonathan: And we've talked about short sales, but I think it's probably important for our audience to actually kind of define what exactly it is that we're talking about here and why that would actually have an impact on your credit.

You own this house, you can sell forever you want, you know why does it affect you if you sell it for a lot less than you expect? And my understanding of the short sale process is basically that you and your bank have agreed on a mortgage amount. “Hey, this how I'm going to take a loan out for $120,000 and I promise to pay this bank back over the next 30 years.” You try to sell it for whatever dollar amount above that to be able to pay back the mortgage that you took off from the bank. You can't, nobody will buy it at that price. You try to go maybe down to 100, 80, 90,  it turns out with the homes that you described, some of them were selling as low as $40,000 now that means normally you would be responsible for paying the other 80,000 but you can't. You're like, “Well I can't.”

And so the only way that we're going to resolve this is if the bank who gave you the mortgage is willing to accept less than they loaned out. They have to write off some of that. And that you're penalized, by that drop in your credit score, but your bank has to agree to allow you to sell the home for less. You have to come to a common cause on what that dollar amount is. Is that accurate? Is there anything you would add to that?

Bianca: No, that's correct. In that case, when the entire market was crashing, they were doing loan modifications for people who are living in their homes. So, that was a way where they could agree to a new balance.

But because the last property that was available after my divorce and the only property that I bought with a investment mortgage, because it was an investment mortgage, they would not modify that loan. So I, I got into this last property and stayed there trying to work with the bank and say, “Can we please modify this loan? Can we change it? Could we do anything?”

And because of the loan that I had originally taken out, they wouldn't modify it, later they did modify those loans, but not when I had it.

Brad: And Bianca, I'm curious, are there any additional issues that you have to deal with with the short sales?

So at that point, let's say in Jonathan's hypothetical, you had $120,000 mortgage, you short sold it for $40,000. So theoretically you and the banker agreeing in some way, let's say this $80,000 is being written off. Are there tax implications? Are there other implications? Do you say to the bank, “I'll pay you a portion of it,” talk people through any other implications and if you have any takeaways that you learned throughout this process that you could pass along to the audience?

Bianca: My attorney was really good. He placed a clause in the closing because… and all the properties have to go through another closing. So he placed a clause in it saying that they could not come back to me later to get the difference that was promised. This was happening all over town to all sorts of properties. And the reason why it was happening was because of the banks.

Jonathan: And Brad. So great point about the clause. I think honestly if someone is going through the short sale process, that is the single most valuable piece of information they could get out of this episode. You need that clause attached. That's the entire point of doing something like this. Otherwise, you're just like, you're going to have so many sleepless nights down the road. When that bean counter figures it out, they'll come back to you and you'll just have that sort of nightmare in your future. Get that clause added to closing.

So great point about the clause. I think honestly if someone is going through the short sale process, that is the single most valuable piece of information they could get out of this episode. You need that clause attached. That's the entire point of doing something like this. Otherwise, you're just like, you're going to have so many sleepless nights down the road. When that bean counter figures it out, they'll come back to you and you'll just have that sort of nightmare in your future. Get that clause added to closing.

Second point that Brad asked, I'm just curious, what were the tax implications of having $80,000 worth of debt effectively written off?

Bianca: I should know that and I don't because again, I was coming out of a complete fog and I don't recall it at being anything big because I wouldn't have been able to afford it if it was. So I can't say that affected me much.

But what I do want to add is if anyone has not begun this process and thinking that it's going to be a quick fix to get you out of a property you don't want to be in, it's not, it is a really awful situation to be in. It's constant from the banks' calls and paperwork you have to fill out and all sorts of things. And again it ruins your credit and it's just not an easy thing. It's not a quick fix, that's for sure.

Jonathan: But you can survive it. And I want to point out as we kind of mentioned that you kind of dropped in there. I mean you had these three short sales, you went through a divorce in the same period of time. You came out the other side.

So let's just talk about the other side. Not now, but like when your head came out of the fog, the splitting of assets, your actual net worth and then your willingness to say, “All right, what's the next step?” Where were you at that particular point in time?

Bianca: So all the properties that I bought, I bought in my name only before I met my husband. So he had nothing to do with those properties. Now when I met him, we wound up buying a house together as well. And because I was already going through the short sale process and because my credit was now shot when we were deciding what to do with the house, he didn't want it. I really wanted it.

But I couldn't afford it because we could not roll the loan now into just my name because of my short sales.

So I wound up signing it over to him. Again this is a property that we bought for 200,000 I think. And we put 20% down on it. We did a lot of construction, a lot of rehab, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into that and money. And I walked away with $5,000, so that was all that he gave me. That's all I asked for. I was just completely signing off on it and everything in it.

Jonathan: So at this point in time, how old are you and what is your net worth with this $5,000 that you've pulled out of this house?

Bianca: So I was around 33 or 34 at this time. My net worth… only because when I was young and in flight attendant school, they taught us about a 401(k) and told us to put 10% down or 10% in it every month. So all I had left was I think $80 to $100,000 in a 401(k) and cash wise nothing. I was broke.

So I was literally starting over from… all the things that I did financially that I thought were going to be my retirement, in the end, were completely gone.

So I was literally starting over from… all the things that I did financially that I thought were going to be my retirement, in the end, were completely gone.

And the process of building all that was saving up 20% for a property, buying a property, saving up again buying another property, this ladder effect that I was doing ultimately I was back on the bottom rung.

And the process of building all that was saving up 20% for a property, buying a property, saving up again buying another property, this ladder effect that I was doing ultimately I was back on the bottom rung.

Starting Over

Jonathan: All right, you're on the bottom rung. This is eight or nine years ago. You're featured on MarketWatch now present tense. You've reached Financial Independence. How, I mean, this is effectively ground zero. This is really where your path to Financial Independence begins. What gets us to us having this conversation today, what do you do? You went in a different direction, what happened?

Bianca: Yeah, I kicked it into high gear, as an hourly employee during all that time when I was going through those short sales, I wasn't working much because for one, I was dealing with the banks constantly and with a job that takes you away from home three days a week, it's difficult to kind of continue that process while you're gone and you're flying and your phone's off.

And I tried it in the beginning. It just wasn't working. And plus my cost of living was low because now I don't have a mortgage I'm paying or any mortgages I'm paying.

So like I said, I stuck my head in the sand until it was all over. And when I came out of it I thought, “What am I going to do now? I need to start completely over.” And the one thing that I've known about myself since I was a kid since I first started working, I have a great work ethic. I can work really hard. I can do what I have to do to rebuild.

But I think at that time I needed some time to just chill out and process what had happened. And as soon as I took one month walk across Spain and I came back and I was ready.

So I started working double the amount of hours I was doing before, also at this time I'm making more than I was before. So the money started to add up really quickly.

Brad: So Bianca, obviously the money is now coming in, but what are your expenses and do you have any memory of what your savings rate was at that point and where you were putting this money?

Bianca: I did not open a brokerage account until 2015, late 2015 when I first found out about the FIRE movement. So before that, I was just saving cash because I was thinking about where was I going to live in the future. I was so used to paying a mortgage that took on multiple ones, I guess that paying rent was killing me. It wasn't expensive. I wound up actually renting in the same building that I had the two short sales in the studios.

So I rented another studio from a friend. The rent was around $750. My expenses were very low because I was working mostly, I didn't go out at all. I really was gone most of the time for work.

So, I started saving a lot of money in about a year later, there was an apartment, a studio upstairs for sale and it was for sale for $65,000. And I was able to buy in cash. And when I did that for one, I stopped paying rent, which was the best thing. Buying it in cash, met my living expenses now we're only $300 a month. That's what taxes and assessments were for that unit. And not having a mortgage or rent to pay made me be able to start saving a lot. So I bought that property in 2014, I opened my investment account in 2015.

Jonathan: All right. And your savings rate once you were able to basically wipe out your mortgage and now what are your expenses and what's your savings rate for the last several years?

Bianca: Geez, well at that time I wasn't tracking it. I think I started tracking it in 2016 and I believe it was around 75% and I don't know the exact number of those earlier years. I'm sure it was probably even higher because I was working much more. But my savings rate has always been since I've been tracking it, always around 75%.

Jonathan: Wow. So I think that kind of sets us up. So, I mean for you to go from $80,000 net worth to a number that you kind of feel more or less comfortable with in terms of being able to fund your current lifestyle, like what it is right now, which is a paid-off mortgage. I don't know how much would you say your life costs now?

Bianca: It's around $2,000 a month. Maybe a little bit higher at times because I'm not as lean as I once was, I'm definitely traveling more, I visit friends more, I go out more than I did before. But I can afford to also I put the work in to be able to do that.

Jonathan: All right, Bianca, well, I know a lot has actually happened since we've kind of gone through some of these big moves and changes in your life and I know you're not in that, even though you had that paid off home, that's not where you are now.

And so it feels like there's a little bit more here. There's the lifestyle optimization side and there's also kind of how you've let out the reins a little bit with how much you're spending is like, where are you now?

Bianca: So I currently split my time between Longmont and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. But what happened with that property that I lived in Chicago is now rented. So I bought it at $65,000. It rents for $975 a month. So well above the 1% rule, which offsets my cost of living here.

And my current rents, I do split a house with two other women and my current rent is $525 a month. So I'm getting additional income from the property back at Chicago basically.

Brad: So Bianca, when you quoted us that roughly $2,000 a month in living expenses, is that… so you're taking that $2,000 and then subtracting out the rental income or is that net of the rental income?

Bianca: I use the rental income to offset my expenses. So if I earn $2,000 a month, basically I'm spending around $2,500 a month.

Brad: Gotcha. So that brings you doing out of pocket about $2,000 a month in your current living expenses.

Bianca: Yeah.

Building Community

Brad: Very cool. Now let's talk about the lifestyle design here a little bit. Because this is kind of a piece where as your net worth is built up, as you realize that point at which you might completely step away from your job as it approaches, getting a little bit closer, although it's maybe not here right now, you're starting to think about what's next.

And you very pointedly mentioned two towns, Longmont, which really doesn't need much explanation for people. There's some very familiar faces there, including the Jensens, Mr. and Mrs. 1500 and also Mr. Money Mustache call Longmont their home. But I want to talk about this with Wisconsin places. Well, what's the draw for Wisconsin?

Bianca: So Wisconsin always has been a big town for me. I've always loved it. My parents had… my mother had a condo there. It's a resort area just north of Chicago and in this resort area, they have a line of 33 cabooses, train cars all in a row. It used to be a hotel and they since converted in the mid-'90s to individual units condos. And so I own one of those.

Brad: All right. Now we spend around about five, 10 minutes here if you want. I think we should probably talk about the world of Caboose.

Jonathan: Wow.

Bianca: Yes.

Brad: So there are cabooses lined up in a row and you own them. I think people's heads are exploding out there. Talk us through how is that even possible? I don't have any other legitimate question other than tell us more.

Bianca: So I own one of them. My friend, Marla, who also was a guest in your podcast. She owns one and our friend Michael Robinson also owns one. He is also in the community. So what we are trying to do is build a community there of like-minded folks. And it's a great location. We're only half a mile to the Lake and it's beautiful and it's quirky and weird, which I think is one of the more fun parts of the whole thing.

So it looks like a studio inside. They're small, they're maybe 200 square feet and mine and my friends' face each other. And then we have a huge 500 square foot deck. So we spend a lot of time outside. It backs up to a preserve. So it's really quiet there and peaceful and yeah, I don't know. It's so hard to describe it because unless you've seen it or been there, it just sounds weird. And it is, I guess.

Jonathan: Well, it's awesomely weird now. Every train set that my son has ever brought into our house that only has one caboose. But this sounds like this is an entire rail line full of cabeese. Is that accurate and is your caboose red?

Bianca: All of our cabeese are red and we do have also, we have a pool. We have a clubhouse, although it's not anywhere you want to be right now, racoons kind of took it over. So that's part of also why we want to put some love into this community because the people who've owned there for a long time, they haven't kept it up as well as I think that if we inject some new love and personality into it that we can do it.

And yeah it's my passion project right now.

Jonathan: Well, it sounds like a few individuals from the FIRE community have really taken this on as a project of love. Tell us what you guys have planned for the next couple of months.

Bianca: Well, we had a lot of visitors last year, so I'm sure we're going to have quite a few more this year. So everyone who comes to see it falls in love with it. The problem with it is people don't know how much they'll use it. And so it's not a great investment I don't think we call it a fun investment because we're there really to have fun with it.

And I think it over the next years, we actually have one right now that we're in the process of buying. There's multiple buyers for that unit within our community. Also, there's two more for sale that we haven't quite figured out who's going to be buying those. But there's a list of people that are interested in the community and really it's just a lovely area and you have great neighbors and so we're hoping to kind of take it over, I guess.

Don't tell my neighbors. They're not happy about this. We're taking it over.

Bianca's Advice To Those On The Path To FI

Jonathan: Awesome. All right. Well Bianca, I guess, did you ever think… You got featured, you were in Money magazine featured right alongside Vicki Robin and you on MarketWatch where they were talking about your story and basically what you've accomplished.

And I'm just looking, if you reflect back on how you got here, is there anything you just want to share with people that maybe when they see your story, how does your life maybe match up to their first impression and what additional information would you want to provide?

Bianca: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things with any of these stories is to take the things that inspire and lead the rest. You had mentioned some of the comments on those sites and people who don't feel like they can do it, get really angry about it. And if you hear my story and think, “Well, I could never do that,” for one, you're probably wrong.

I think a lot of people can do it. Not everyone can do it as quickly, but if you look at the course of how long it took me to get here, it wasn't just the last seven years that got me here. It was really the work ethic that I had. It was sticking with a job for 18 years, even in the years that I hated it and didn't want to go back.

I think a lot of people can do it. Not everyone can do it as quickly, but if you look at the course of how long it took me to get here, it wasn't just the last seven years that got me here. It was really the work ethic that I had. It was sticking with a job for 18 years, even in the years that I hated it and didn't want to go back.

There's a lot that goes into it. This isn't reaching FIRE is not easy for anybody. So if you're really committed to it though, it goes much faster than you expect it to. And it's so worth it to be able to have the time and the opportunity to make choices for yourself or if you have to make them for your family or whatever it may be. To have that time available it's like nothing else really.

There's a lot that goes into it. This isn't reaching FIRE is not easy for anybody. So if you're really committed to it though, it goes much faster than you expect it to. And it's so worth it to be able to have the time and the opportunity to make choices for yourself or if you have to make them for your family or whatever it may be. To have that time available it's like nothing else really.

The Hot Seat

Jonathan: All right, Bianca, on most shows, that would be the end of the episode, but on this show, we would love to give you the chance to tackle the hot seat. Are you ready for this?

Bianca: And let me sit up tall. I'm ready.

Jonathan: All right.

Brad: All right, Bianca, question number one, what is your favorite blog, podcast or book of all time?

Bianca: So does it have to be money related?

Brad: No. It could be anything.

Bianca: Okay. Well, let me say this. I'm going to say my favorite blog is 1500 Days because they're my landlords-

Brad: Please lower her rent.

Bianca DiValerio: I will be very smart. I don't want them to raise the rent on me, but also I think Carl has a very unique perspective.

Yes, he had a high income but he is very authentic in his writing and I really appreciate that and it's hard to find. So I don't read a lot of blogs these days only because it's a lot for my brain to process now that I'm kind of on my path. But I do check him with quite a few and he is consistently good. And I just really like following him.

Jonathan: Fun fact about Carl, Mr. 1500. I was actually when he started doing an email list, I was his 11th subscriber.

Bianca: Ooh.

Brad: Oh wow.

Jonathan: Almost made the top 10.

Brad: That's amazing.

Bianca: Another fun fact about Carl, he lived in the same building that I had the short sales in and currently own a property in.

Brad: Oh wow.

Bianca: And then I followed him and now I live in his house. So basically anywhere he goes.

Brad: There you are.

Jonathan: All right. Question number two, an inflection point in your life that was particularly memorable or meaningful?

Bianca: Really, I have to say that conversation with my family friends all those years ago and then encouraging me to go into the flight attendant well, because it's something I never would have thought of, it's completely outside of… that would have to be it because I'm most grateful for anything in my life and that's really one of the biggest ones besides my health. But yeah, I think that that's it for sure.

Jonathan: Alright, Bianca, we're always looking. So question number three, I'm just going to state it, we're always looking for a strategy, a tip or technique, something that you figured out that you don't want to share with everybody. A productivity tip or otherwise.

What would be one thing that you'd want to share with people?

Bianca: Can I say my job again? Because really you guys should be flight attendants. Look it, you can travel anywhere for free. This is the greatest life hack ever because after I retire, you can retire… I'm going to retire in a couple of years because it's your age plus years of service. The minimum, you have to work as 10 years, but once you're done, you can fly anywhere for free. Why wouldn't you want to do that? And there's great benefits, also so come on.

Jonathan: Nice.

Brad: Bianca when you say retire, is there a pension involved in this?

Bianca: We don't get a pension, but my 401(k) obviously is that there no pension. So no.

But when I retire it means that I'll have flight benefits for life. And for some reason I always think I'm going to get fired for, I don't know why, because I'm not even barely working. And also I'm really great flight attendant, but you just never know. You don't know what's going to happen with the industry.

So to be able to get out knowing that I have that benefit for life is great. And I've always thought that maybe I would go into the hotel business also because if I stayed there and retire from there and then I would have free flights and hotels for life.

Brad: Then you're golden.

Jonathan: Oh my goodness. That's amazing.

Brad: All right, Bianca, question number four, we've covered a few of them. So I'm curious to hear what is your biggest financial mistake?

Bianca: Oh, clearly being over-leveraged with property. It's a mistake, but I don't regret it. I'm really… I don't know if proud is the right word, but it didn't beat me down. I got up and I survived it and I moved on from it and I talk about it now because to let other people know that you can get past it. But yeah. Overleveraging was no bueno.

Jonathan: Yeah, okay. Question number five. The advice you would give your younger self.

Bianca: Oh, just chill out. I had such high anxiety and I still do over certain things. And one of that is being likable and not making mistakes and basically being a robot and not being human. And now my favorite people are the most authentic people I know. They're relaxed in who they are. It takes a long time to get there and I feel like I'm getting there too. So just chill out. Don't worry about everything so much because adding stress and anxiety to any bad situation isn't going to help it.

So whether it's someone doesn't like you or you goof up and do something stupid, who cares? Move on with it.

Jonathan: All right, Brad, we have a bonus question.

Brad: We do. All right, Bianca, the purchase you've made and let's say the last year or so that has added the most value to your life?

Bianca: So, my dog is elderly now she's 13 and she doesn't walk so well. So I bought her a stroller. And you guys, this is not one of the tiny little ones that cute and she can be in a little backpack or something. She's a giant. So it's a huge stroller and I'm walking down the street with this thing and it's hysterical. People stop their cars because they think there's a child in it and they waved me on by. It's the best. I can go out add that to the life hack also. Get yourself a big stroller.

Brad: That's amazing.

Jonathan: Is it called a wagon? The wagon.

Bianca: No, I mean it's like those bike cargo carrier or carriers for kids.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Bianca: It's like that.

Brad: Oh wow. I think we need a picture for the show notes here. Bianca, if you could send that over.

Bianca: I am so happy to.

Brad: All right awesome.

Bianca: I'm so happy to, it's hysterical.

Bianca's dog stroller.

How To Connect

Jonathan: All right, Bianca, someone's listening to this. They want to find out more. They're going to take you up on that offer and fly around the world. Full transparency.

Bianca: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jonathan: And, or maybe they just want some insight. I didn't say that-

Brad: Somebody got it.

Jonathan: And, or maybe they just want to follow up another aspect of the story.

What is the best way for them to connect with you and connect with your concept?

Bianca: So really right now I guess Twitter or Instagram. It's Miss Mazuma and I do have a blog. I don't write very often, but you can find me there as well. There's an email address there too.

Jonathan: What is the name of the blog?

Bianca: Oh, I'm sorry, missmazuma.com. I'm sorry. From now just find missmazuma.com.

Brad: Find her on Twitter.

Jonathan: Yeah.

Bianca: Basically, I'm on Twitter.

Jonathan: Bianca. Thanks so much for joining us on the show. This has been great.

Bianca: Yeah, thanks for having me guys.

Jonathan: You know Brad, it's one of my favorite things to do these different career profiles and see all the amazing ways that people are finding to get an above, and this is very important, and above-median income, right? And do it regardless or without a degree, without a college degree. That's amazing.

When you pair that with the flexibility that Bianca described, it really opens up the doors to the possibilities of what is out there. If you're willing to think about things just a little bit differently.

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2 thoughts on “There Is No Failing With FI | 208”

  1. This is truly the story of the irresponsible path to FI. I am appalled that Brad and Jonathan think this is an admirable story, or a story worth telling

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