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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Herbst

FIRE Series Part #2: Early Money Fears & Embracing a New Way of Being

A money mindset developed from a young age

I grew up in one of the wealthiest suburbs in all of America, right outside New York City. In second grade, my nice white parents moved one mile away so that we could live in another town with better school systems. The current schools were more than adequate, but this wasn’t enough for my far too aspirational father. This one mile move felt like a million miles. Everything was different. The cars, the clothes, the personalities. And I very much felt out of place from the beginning. I had a few close friends here and there, but never felt at home and couldn’t wait to grow up and move on.

Me (right) and my siblings just before the big move.

A badass in the making, and she just doesn't know it yet!

In my new town, everyone seemed to have a lot of money, but no one talked about money. Discussing money was considered gauche. I always wanted to understand how money worked and how you made it, but no one seemed to have any real answers. I’d ask my mom and dad and they kind of shirk off the question. Or a friend’s father who was a banker seemed “too busy” and “too important” to explain such “complicated” concepts to a teenager. So at some point, I just pretended to know how it all worked so that I didn’t seem stupid.

As an adult, I now realize why no one was ever able to give any insights into finances…it’s because even though these people were wealthy, many of them still did not know how money actually worked. It was just simply life circumstances that made them wealthy, and helped them stay wealthy.

My parents themselves were weird about finances. We lived in this fancy town, but then often we lived as if we had no money. My dad would shut the fridge door on us if we opened it for more than 3 seconds (gotta save electricity!). My mom would rather us wear ripped stockings to synagogue than buy us new ones (what rips?). My parents never bought any fresh food for us because even if an ounce of it went bad, they’d scold us (how wasteful!). So we grew up eating frozen pizza and canned beans, but somehow my parents paid well into 5 figures in property taxes. Some people call this penny smart, pound foolish, or careful about small amounts of money but not about large amounts. This felt confusing as a child. I wasn’t sure whether we were super rich or surprisingly poor or somewhere in between.

And this definitely played into how I thought about my finances as I got older. I developed a scarcity mindset, meaning money, food and resources would always feel limited to me.

Financial beliefs before FIRE

As I grew up and went onto college, my main goal upon graduation was to get a high-paying job. While of course I thought it would be nice to have a job that I was passionate about, my desire to earn a good salary surpassed most other plans. Growing up with a scarcity mindset didn’t allow a lot of space to think of other plans. And even though I went to a top US college, my liberal arts degree had taught me nothing about money.

Throughout my twenties, my general approach to money remained steady. Here were my core beliefs:

  • I limited spending on big ticket items: Because my parents were always complaining about how expensive it was to live in New York, I became extremely focused on spending as little as possible on big stuff like rent, cars, furniture etc. In the end, this actually played out very well for me on my FIRE journey because it’s the big recurring expenses that will eventually eat away at your overall wealth. I was more than happy to have 3 roommates and buy used furniture well into my thirties.

  • Travel, experiences, and education over “stuff”: I liked living minimally in smaller spaces so I could spend my time and energy exploring and learning.

  • I was fairly relaxed on expenditures less than $100: Because I felt so limited as a child in this space, I leaned more into experiences like spending money on food and drinks with friends, buying clothes that fit me nicely, make up, etc. I never leaned too far in this direction just because of the pressure I still felt from my family to keep this spending low. This again worked in my favor for my FIRE journey because I learned to lean into things I love, but not go too crazy.

  • Work is your value: And your salary is what matters. I’d fight for promotions and raises and placed a ton of my focus on titles and numbers. However, the most important part about FIRE is not just your income, it’s actually your savings rate. If you make $100k a year but spend $90k, you’re actually a lot worse off than if you make $70k a year and spend $50k. But I didn’t understand this concept quite yet, and I also didn’t understand the power of investing, so I was very focused on work and kept running on that same hamster wheel.

Early twenties, extremely career driven Rebecca!

A move abroad changed everything

While my money philosophies remained fairly steady throughout my twenties, I did begin to question why my successful commercial real estate career wasn’t making me as happy as I thought it should be. I was investing a lot of time and energy into clients and colleagues, and often felt little support in return. I worked in a dog-eat-dog industry and was constantly faced with challenging personalities and high expectations. To give you a small sense of my work life, one of my bosses called me stupid after messing up a simple project, and another refused me for a promotion because they didn't think I was “ready” even though all the other senior members of my team supported the decision. Not everyone was a bully at my work, in fact, I worked with some really amazing people that I still call friends today. But I did feel like I could disappear tomorrow and very few people would care. And this would actually prove VERY true when I pulled the FIRE trigger.

In itching for a change, I took a leap of faith and moved from Boston to Singapore with my same company. And with the move came so many new experiences and exposure to different places and cultures. Almost immediately, I was struck by how different my peers were from other parts of the world. They were life focused, not work focused like my colleagues back in the US. Don’t get me wrong. I worked my butt off in Singapore (so many night calls, ugh!), but I found myself simultaneously letting loose a lot more. I snuck in more breaks throughout the day and booked longer vacations. I actually took 41 PTO days in one year, when I was only allocated 22 days. No one said anything…well not to my face anyways. I took a lot of liberties, and found myself pushing the boundaries more and more.

Adventures around Cambodia, one of the many trips I did while in Singapore.

Three years later when I moved back to Boston with the same company, a move I wanted to make to be closer to home, I was smacked in the face with how different I now felt from my old Boston colleagues. Walking back into my old office was like taking a step backward into the mundane. Seeing the same people in the same suits years later after I felt I had changed so much, made me feel stagnant.

And I felt stuck.

And then I discovered FIRE

About a year or so after moving back to Boston, I met Joe, my now partner. On our third date, he mentioned that he was pursuing this crazy goal called FIRE. My immediate thought? Skepticism. Who is this overly confident, straight, white male who thinks he can quit his job early?! Despite this (or maybe in part because of this), I fell for Joe. Over the course of the next year, we talked about FIRE but I didn’t buy into the theory right away. It was a slow burn, despite me already having many of the building blocks of FIRE in place. I was a high-income earner and a natural saver (at that point, I was saving 40-50% of my take home pay depending on the year). But I just simply thought FIRE was too risky, and WEIRD.

What are you gonna do with your time? Aren’t you going to be bored? What is your value if not work? What will you tell people you do for a living? What if you get into a car accident and end up with major healthcare bills?

For so many years I wanted to learn about finances, and here was my answer! A man who loved me and wanted to show me the ins and outs of money. But instead I was so focused on how “extreme” Joe’s lifestyle choices seemed: the fact that he cut his own hair, ate leftovers well beyond a healthy date, rode his bike in the pouring rain to work, and always ordered the cheapest beer possible at the bar (BTW, Joe will admit himself that he is more on the frugal side, but there are loads more people out there more frugal than him!).

In fact, Joe even made me a somewhat ridiculous PowerPoint presentation about FIRE, and even then I didn’t bite. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And I was a stubborn horse.

Questionable pictures of Joe from his presentation to me about FIRE!

So yes, dear reader, I am the prime example of someone who wanted to learn the investment teachings of FI, but was too scared to learn because I thought the people who pursued RE were crazy.

So what finally clicked for me?

Joe and I were on vacation in the Philippines for a friend’s wedding. He read a book called Playing with FIRE and decided to bring it along. Relaxing by the beach with nothing to do but read, I devoured the book in two days. I realized from it that there were so many different ways to pursue FIRE. And my way didn’t have to look like Joe’s.

I started reading more books and blogs. And it was then I realized I wanted to meet people in person who were pursuing FIRE. For me, I want to meet in-person mentors. If I see someone putting something into practice, it makes it feel that much more real for me. I went to a ChooseFI Boston meetup, and felt like I was entering a cool kids club of people who had their sh*t figured out. And I wanted to figure my sh*t out too. There was no turning back.

Within two months I increased my savings rate from 40% to 65% and finally started investing my money with informed intention. The increase in my net worth was noticeable immediately.

For me, it ultimately wasn’t hard to deploy the investment teachings of FI, it was the mindset shift around making big life changes and not being scared to go against life’s grain.

And this came with a lot of hard money choices, which I talk about more in Part 3 of this series. Read on!


Disclaimer: The information contained in the Yield & Spread website, course materials and all other related content is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for obtaining accounting, tax, or financial advice, and may not be suitable for every individual. Yield & Spread is not a registered investment, legal or tax advisor or a broker/dealer.


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