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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Herbst

Student Stories: On the path to FI from humble beginnings

Introducing Karina

Karina came across the Learn to Invest course by recommendation of a colleague at her consulting firm. In getting to know her a bit better, I found Karina had a story to tell. From her upbringing in the US and the Caribbean, to her educational experiences, to her time in the military, and now her work at a high-powered consulting firm. I remain extremely impressed with her commitment to learn and grow, and her empathy for others. I think we all can learn a thing or two from Karina’s experiences.

Read more about the leaps and bounds she and her partner have made…

Hi Karina, can you tell us about your upbringing?

I come from humble beginnings. I’m technically an immigrant since I was born in the Dominican Republic, but my parents migrated to New York when I was barely a toddler, so from my point of view, this is home. One of my parents graduated high school, and the other only finished third grade. When my mom worked, she was a janitor at the local police station, and my father bussed tables at a restaurant. I entered foster care at age 11 and aged out of the system at age 17, at which point I was completely independent. Things were tight, and I had access to some government programs due to my status as ward of the state (for example, food stamps).

What inspired you to push forward?

Education saved and transformed my life. I graduated with Bachelor degrees in Philosophy and Women & Gender Studies and a Master’s in Clinical Social Work. At age 20, I enlisted in the military for stability and served nine years in the Army Corps of Engineers. I now work in tech consulting. Spirituality and social justice are core tenets of who I am and what I believe in.

What’s got you motivated today?

Lately, I’m inspired by my partner and the life I want for us. I envision a life of ease, peace and joy. One that gives us the ability to be happy, healthy, surrounded by a loving community. A life that has free time and enables us to invest in things we truly care about. A life of adventure.

I also want to be a mom. One that breaks generational curses and showers her kids with morning kisses every day. I want to take care of my health. I want to buy a house with my partner. Our dream is to live outside the US soon so we can enjoy some of our younger years in a different environment with our future kids.

We are pursuing FI (Financial Independence) and eventually RE (Retire Early) but are still deciding numbers and timeline goals. We’d like to leave the workforce in the next 5 to 10 years. I love working and being productive, but I just want to do something that allows me to have a better life balance…on my terms. My partner is brilliant, and I believe they could become an entrepreneur that builds a meaningful and impactful career themself.

What was the catalyst for your financial journey?

I first learned about FIRE from a dear friend. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of designing a life I wanted to live. I began the FIRE journey when I finished grad school and started banging out the consumer debt I’d accumulated. I paid off about $40k in less than two years!

Wow! On paper, it seems like you have a good handle on things. What’s happened since you paid off that debt?

I’ve had to bootstrap all my life and frankly, I’m naturally frugal and resourceful. However in Spring 2021, I moved in with my partner, CJ, and it’s taken me for a loop. Building and sharing a life with someone takes work! We’re so similar (both veterans and work in consulting) but also quite different. Among those differences is our relationship with money. Last year was the first full calendar year living together and let me tell you, I’ve never spent so much money in my life. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw how much we spent!

With a whole lot of effort, we’ve been able to turn our act around. We had to do much re-learning (still are), but we ended up cutting our expenses in half over the past year. It was no small feat but we are on the right track.

(Rebecca here: Karina and I bonded over this overspending experience. Read the $20,000 mistake Joe and I will never make again).

How did you cut your savings in half?

We used a product called Co-Pilot to help us gather all our information in one place. We were making preventable mistakes like paying for a gym membership in a state we left over a year ago (ouch!), or the classic example, overspending on food. It’s challenging though – I think the whole world is calibrating on what the value of money is today and what amounts can get you which goods. It’s a mess and we have to continue to fight the good fight towards financial freedom. No one said it would be easy – in fact, the feeling of effort lets me know we’re on the right track, and the absence of it tells me the opposite.

Here are some moves we made:

  • Canceled recurring costs for services we weren’t using

  • Had difficult conversations about which expenses were necessary and which weren’t

  • Built an income-based budget to equitably distribute expenses

  • Changed income allocations to have cash directly deposit into different accounts instead of landing in our checking accounts in part to discourage spending

  • Stopped trying to do all financial and big purchase goals at once; elected to prioritize saving for a house and investing in retirement right now

(For other unique ideas on how to save money, check out our resource 68 ways to save a buck!)

Ok, lots of budgeting moves, what about investing?

Taking the Learn to Invest course helped me focus on the other piece of the puzzle, building wealth. Here are some moves I’ve made since taking the course:

  • I now contribute 10% to my pre-tax 401(k) and 5% to my Roth IRA. I’ve grown my 401(k) four times its balance in 2019 by doing my best to max out each year.

  • We are executing the Mega Backdoor Roth, an awesome perk we have from our employer

  • Since we are looking to buy a house, I allocate 30% of my income to a high-yield savings account for the down payment. I’ve also considered a short term bond to take advantage of the market in a different way considering rates on cash today.

  • Have a bag of other tactics and technique to deploy once we accomplish some goals (opening 529 accounts for ourselves is on our shortlist due to new roll-over benefits)

Watching our net worth grow is a true dopamine boost! It inspires us to budget even more so we can have room to invest.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

We’re far from perfect and have lapses here and there. We’re human! What matters is keeping the ball rolling and continuing to improve over the long-term.


A huge thanks to Karina (and her partner CJ) for sharing their story with the Y&S community!

Boost your Wallet. Wellbeing. World.



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