BiggerPockets Money Podcast

BiggerPockets Money Podcast 101: Building a Life of Financial Independence, Starting From Less Than Zero with Sunitha Rao

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Sunitha Rao remembers a childhood of scarcity. Born to immigrant parents, some of her first memories are of her home being broken into and her things being stolen. The only money lessons she was taught as a child were frugality and saving, because you never knew what was going to happen.

Her father had grand tennis plans for her, pushing her into the sport. By age nine, she was playing tennis six hours a day. School was so low on the priority list, she dropped out in sixth grade to pursue tennis full-time.

She turned pro at age 14, but all the money she made went back into her career: coaches, traveling to events, more training.

When Sunitha retired from tennis, she had nothing left. She estimates she “maybe had $1,000 in the bank.” Her relationship with her father was so abusive, she sought a restraining order against him and started over, rebuilding her life at age 23.

Starting off at community college, Sunitha researched endowment programs in Boston. She liked the city and reached out to colleges that offered scholarships. Upon finishing college, she got a corporate job, which was her goal—until she started working. She realized her corporation didn't have any loyalty toward her, so she started looking for ways to generate income outside of her salary, which led to discovering real estate.

She now owns multiple units in the Midwest and is on the path to financial independence, starting with nothing but a sixth-grade education at age 23. If you’re thinking you started too late, Sunitha’s story shows that financial independence is possible—at any age.

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Scott: Welcome to the BiggerPockets Money Podcast, show number 101 with Sunitha Rao.

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Sunitha: Once I found a new job, I started researching everything I could about personal finance and that’s where things got a little bit challenging initially because when we talk finance, when we talk money, it’s like this giant umbrella of everything. There’s so many things you can do and it’s really overwhelming.

Scott: It’s time for a new American dream, one that doesn’t involve working in a cubicle for 40 years, barely scraping by. Whether you’re looking to get your financial house in order, invest the money you already have or discover new paths for wealth creation, you’re in the right place. This show is for anyone who has money or wants more. This is the BiggerPockets Money Podcast. How’s it going everybody, I’m Scott Trench and I’m here with my cohost Mindy Jensen. How you doing today Mindy?

Mindy: Scott, I’m doing really, really well today. How are you today?

Scott: I’m doing fantastic. Wow! Is Sunitha just awesome? What, I mean, what an incredible story from all these different… She’s had an amazingly diverse career and set of life experiences that I think make her story incredibly inspiring and relatable. No matter where you are in your money journey, I think you’re going to have a lot to learn from Suni today.

Mindy: Yeah. She has like seven different lives crammed into one existence. Something that we talk about near the end of the show is domestic abuse and financial abuse. This show, I wanted to point this out at the beginning of the show because it could maybe be a trigger for people who have lived through this and aren’t ready to hear about it. But I think that it is really important to share this story. We haven’t covered this topic yet and she had an abusive home life as a child.
She has the story of her getting past that. That’s not the way to say it. I feel terrible when I say, “Oh, you got past it.” Like its something to just overcome. I don’t mean it like that, but she has wrapped her mind around it, dealt with it, moved on with her life and become a fairly successful investor and very successful in the corporate world despite having originally a sixth grade education.

Scott: Yeah. So, we’ll dive into all of this for sure in the coming minutes here. But Sunitha was a professional tennis player who had a successful career for nine years as a professional tennis player all over the world, traveling everywhere. She had to start over at the age of 23 with her new career after she retired. So, really interesting perspective here with the story. I think, again, everyone’s going to have a lot to learn and take away from it. Should we bring her in Mindy?

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Sunitha: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

Mindy: I am so excited that we’re finally getting to connect. Cody Berman introduced us a hundred years ago and we had a few mis-connections but now we’re on the show today, we’ve got you on the show and I’m so excited to have you share your experiences and education about your own educational process with the financial independence movement. With financial independence in general, I guess, not the movement. So, Sunitha, where does your journey with money begin?

Sunitha: So, the basic kind of premises that have shaped my attitude towards money began when I was very young. So my parents were immigrants. They came over from small villages in India. My mother didn’t finish high school, my father had a master’s degree, but he had trouble holding down a job. My mother worked second shift at like a book factory when I was very young. So, kind of between those two dynamics, money was always a cause for concern in our household.
During that time period, I was very young when they were struggling the most, when our family was on welfare, I was three, four, two, three, four years old. My strongest memories of those times would be the occasions when our apartment got broken into. That is what I remember in my childhood. Being in a bad area, having my apartment broken into, having my things being stolen, never knowing like what was happening.
Even though my parents were eventually able to work themselves out of that, there were still a scarcity mindset around money for years to come and that embedded itself into my own thinking. So, scarcity around money and the need to save because you never knew what would happen in the future. Those were the premises that really began my financial journey.

Scott: Where was this hometown?

Sunitha: So this was when we were, I was born in Jersey City, so this is when we were living up there.

Scott: Got it. How did that evolve over the years as you kind of got into maybe middle and high school years?

Sunitha: So, being frugal, [inaudible 00:07:54]on mind, those are like the last things I learned about money for a long time and those kind of conditions were only exacerbated as I got older because when I was 14 I turned pro. I played tennis professionally for nine years. So, I wasn’t accustomed to like a normal life. I was accustomed to a life where a lot of money was spent to travel, to train and all of that. However, when I turned 18 I was funding my own career.
So, with the tour, you never know how much money you’re going to make any given week, $200 one week, $15,000 the next week. But those weeks of 15,000 didn’t really happen often.

Scott: Can we just back up a minute? Because you’re a professional athlete, so I think we really need some build up and lead into-

Sunitha: [inaudible 00:08:44].

Scott: Yeah. They’re going pro in this. So, can you walk us through kind of maybe like the entry into professional to your career at 14?

Sunitha: Yeah. So, I mean that was kind of like the predetermined path for me. My father wanted me to play tennis well before I was even born, well, before I was conceived, well before I came into this world. So, when I was young, even back in the times when we were in Jersey and not doing well, he would take me out on runs, he would throw tennis balls at me. That was just the thing. So, growing up I trained even when I was in first grade, three, four hours a day after school.
When I got a little bit older, nine, 10, 11, 12. That would be like more like six hours or so. And then you get to kind of a point where there aren’t enough hours in the day to train and you need to be training more in order to be increasing your skillset so that you can progress and compete at a higher, higher level. That’s where schooling starts to kind of like bump up against that time frame. So, the priority was tennis, the priority was not education. So, with my parents blessing, I dropped out of school after sixth grade so that I could train full-time.
So that meant spending nine hours a day on the court. I was supposed to be doing homework. I never did. I didn’t want to. I also didn’t have any energy to after training nine hours a day. So, just compete at the state level, local level, national level, international level. Eventually it got to a point where I could compete as a professional when I was 14.

Scott: Wow!

Mindy: How do you drop out of school in sixth grade? You just completely stopped going, you didn’t have like homeschool or anything. I’m not… that’s not so judgy. I’m not trying to be judgy.

Sunitha: It’s totally fine. I know it doesn’t make any sense. You would think there’d be like child protective services or something, but there wasn’t. I was supposed to be homeschooled. I did maybe like 15% of the work and then just like didn’t do anymore. I mean in the tennis world and sport world, that’s not that abnormal. So, nobody really cares. They did not [inaudible 00:10:44]. You’re supposed to not need an education if you’re making millions of dollars, what do you need to know geometry for?

Mindy: Yeah. But you just said you made $200 a week, some weeks and 15,000. I mean, 15,000 a week is great. I’d like that. But $200 a week is not so awesome.

Sunitha: It’s not. People don’t always realize the realities of what it actually looks like when they’re pushing their kids to do it. They just see that pinnacle of winning $1 million and getting all the endorsement chats and all that stuff. So.

Mindy: Wow!

Scott: So, what happens to the money as a minor when you’re earning that? Is there a family dynamic going on there or is that-

Sunitha: Yeah. Well it really depends on how healthy the family dynamic is. If there’s money left over, I should add, because when you’re competing, you need to pay for a coach, that’s a six figure salary. You need to pay for your own travel, which is like being on vacation every single week. You need to pay for your coaches expenses, which is like two people being on vacation every single week. This is before credit card hacking was a thing. So, it’s not like you can just get free stuff.
So, a lot of money that you make goes out and when you're a minor, either your agent controls it or your parents control it. So, it just depends. Hopefully you have good people in your corner and don't lose all of it. But that happens to a lot of people.

Mindy: So, what happened to your money?

Sunitha: I lost it. No. So, for me it was more about the expenses. It’s like any other business where you need money to make money, you need to invest to go to the correct events. That can mean traveling from New York to China, to Japan, to Korea, then to Australia, all within six weeks. So, those are insane expenses and that’s the life I was living in. Everything I made went back into my career. At the end of the day, 10 years later, when I retired at the age of 23, I didn’t have any money left.
I maybe had like $1,000 in a bank account and no certifiable skillset to really move forward in life except for maybe teaching tennis, which is just, it can be very tough.

Mindy: So what did you do?

Sunitha: I taught tennis for a little bit. So, at that point I needed a stable paycheck more than anything. I needed a stable pay check and I was walking away from a career where I had dreams, where I was very successful, but I had not fulfilled all of my dreams. So, I just had this need to really be successful. But I knew it wasn’t going to be in the tennis world. So, I was like, where else can I be successful? I wanted to be successful in the corporate world.
That was my next thing because it represented the absolute opposite of everything I ever knew. People who were educated, people who wore suits and weren’t running around sweaty and grungy and all that stuff. So, I want me to get an education. Fortunately, unfortunately not many places will accept a high school equivalency diploma and a sixth grade education. So, I started at my local community college, which is actually a great financial decision in retrospect because I didn’t pay.
After like FAFSA, Federal Aid and everything, I didn’t pay much for it. Then my other decision was like, okay, I’m in a community college for a short amount of time, but I need to be able to afford to go to a better school. In order to do that, again, need resources, but I had a finite amount of time from the time I enrolled in local community college to the time I was going to get myself to some better institution. So, I basically maximized all of that time that I could to work and to make as much money as possible.
So, that meant squishing all of my classes at community college until like two or three days. Then working mornings at a resort teaching tennis because resorts pay well. Afternoons, teaching competitive juniors because that was really all I could get in the early afternoons and then nights bartending and waiting tables until three in the morning, waking up at six, doing it all over again.

Scott: So, at 23 years old, you completely start over, but you are able to at least leverage your career as professional to have a reasonable source of income.

Sunitha: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Scott: Wow! What happens next?

Sunitha: Well, so we’ll fast forward a little bit. I ended up getting into a better college. I moved to a different part of the country. I had applied to schools that had strong endowment programs because I felt like that was the best way to get into a college where I could receive financial assistance that paid off. So, I ended up at a school where I got a full merit scholarship. Merit/academic, which is like, just so funny because again, it’s this great education academic scholarship.
But, did that, worked really hard. Everything was great. Graduated, got a good job at a Fortune 500 company where I was in their management training program. So, I thought life was great.

Scott: So, yeah. Can we talk about how you found this program, what school you went to, all of that kind of stuff, what you chose to study and how you thought about planning your career at this point?

Sunitha: Sure. Yeah. So, I ended up in Boston at Babson College. I honestly just Googled endowment programs. I knew I wanted to be in the Boston area. I had clients in the tennis world who were from the area and they had all done well, so why not, right? So, applied to a bunch of places and it’s just, it’s really simple if you just go, it’s amazing what you can find on Google. Just started talking to people who knew of the different colleges I wanted to get into and just following up with one person.
Ask them if they can introduce me to anyone else who could provide feedback. Eventually you can find your way into different institutions. So, with that, I was able to eventually connect with the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. He liked my story enough to ask me what was going to be the deciding factor between ending up at Babson and ending up somewhere else. I straight up told them it was money, which is a hard thing to admit, but it was the truth.
I was making a decent income, but it wasn’t decent enough at that time. It was like at least $50,000 a year at that college as for many of the colleges I was applying to. I didn’t have enough to afford that, didn’t want to go into debt. So.

Mindy: So, wait, he asked you what was holding you back from coming to the college and you said money and then he just gave you money?

Sunitha: Well, he said, okay. We talked about a few other things. That was it. I was kicking myself for saying that because I felt like an idiot because I didn’t know what else to say. But then when I got my acceptance letter with it came my like an assistance package. The assistance package didn’t come first, the letter came first. I was already freaking out. Getting into a good college with my background? Are you kidding me? I was not holding it together.
Then the assistance package came through. All I saw was like five and then like four zeros next to it. Even though I’d had paychecks that were pretty big in the past, like that money just went away so quickly. It doesn’t even seem real. But to have this other like pool of money coming in that was netting more than you had ever made in your life, game over.

Scott: That’s awesome. So, what did you end up choosing to study?

Sunitha: Business and finance. I wasn’t 100% sure exactly which way I wanted to go with that. But knowing numbers, knowing business, had really done well for me in managing my career. So, I figured I couldn’t really go wrong, I would figure it out and optimize it as I went along.

Scott: Can you walk us through maybe some of the key point, like the key things that maybe that you remember about going to college as someone maybe a different age bracket than probably mostly undergraduate students.

Sunitha: Being very isolated, not wanting to live on campus. It has its pros and its cons because I think I got a lot out of it. I definitely appreciate it more and I try to, I think a lot harder than some of my peers because this is like my second chance at the life that I wanted. But being 26 and being around 20 year olds, it’s just challenging and it does allow for a lot of growth. You learn to see things through the eyes of others, which I think has really helped me just in life generally.

Scott: Got it. Could you give us a quick overview of your professional tennis career? Maybe some of the best stories or highs and lows points.

Sunitha: Yeah, I have a lot of those. So, high points. I think one of the best memories I have of my career would be at the 2018 Beijing Olympics. In tennis, Olympics, just our goal will be the greatest [inaudible 00:19:46]. The Olympics are great, but they’re not a part of our vision. However, to be a part of something that means so much to so many, to see people come in when they’ve trained for this their entire lives, the energy in the village is just, it’s palpable.
It’s like I didn’t sleep I think more than two hours a night that entire week because every time I look up there’d be like a box or running laps in the courtyard. There’s so much going on. It was incredible. Walking out into the arena during the opening ceremonies, it was like just this sea of people and you could see lights from like cameras and stuff, but you couldn’t see anything. People use the term like a sea of people, this was an actual sea.
So, to see so many people kind of come together for something that meant so much, that was probably one of the best things to be a part of in my entire career. In terms of low points because I was financing my own career, there were a lot of those. So, there plenty of times where I would book a ticket to go somewhere and I’d be there for like maybe three weeks, not have enough money, I wouldn’t have a ticket home. I’d be like, hopefully I won enough in week one or week two that this check can cash and I can get home.
Times where I need to have money to buy myself dinner. I had a stash in my wallet that I conveniently sometimes forgot about of like 20 or 30 U.S. dollars. There was one night where I was like in Rome. I was going coming home the next day, but it was like four o’clock, I was starving and I realized I didn’t have any money left. I was just like, what is my life? What am I even doing? I looked in my wallet for some reason I found that $20 and I was like, “Yes, I can buy dinner, I can buy breakfast, I can have food until I get back home. And maybe these checks cashed by then.”
So, definitely like diametrically opposing experiences when you have people cheering for you, giving you a standing ovation and can’t even feed yourself. So…

Scott: Wow!

Mindy: Wow! I thought all professional athletes made millions and millions.

Scott: No, that’s amazing. That’s like, it’s just a side of this life that you don’t see. It just seems like the be all end all. Like what everyone would aspire to be. It’s interesting to hear your perspective having lived it.

Sunitha: Yeah. There’s always a price to pay.

Scott: Okay. So, you graduate, so, you hustle your way into and through college and then you get, it sounds like a great job. Can you walk us through the next part of your career?

Sunitha: Yeah. So, everything was great for a while. I was as happy as could be. I knew how much money I was making, when I was making it, whenever I needed to do something. It’s not like I was necessarily constrained by resources. I was used to pretty sparse life anyway so just having this money coming in and kind of accumulating and not having to think about it, like I was just, everything was set. I was content. That being said, as I got to know my coworkers, I realized that I was living pretty comfortably, but that comfort came with a price.
Although I wasn’t necessarily having to pay that price then, I would have to in time, so that price came in the form of options. So, living, working and trying to accelerate your career in a corporate setting or giving up your nights, your weekends, they had all these things that they wanted to do with their lives. Spend more time with their families, spend more time with their kids, put their kids in private school, do this, do that, but they weren’t governed by insufficient resources.
So, hearing that and then seeing people who would literally… So, I was working for a defense company where there were people who had worked there for literally 40 years and that was longer than I’d been alive. I was like, how do you do that? Is this my life? What’s happening? So, all those things are kind of peddling in the background. I mean, it wasn’t really enough to, for me to actually do anything about it, but there were things I was thinking about.
But then as time went on, I think anybody whose kind of had a corporate job has had this moment where you’re like, I am working so hard. At that time I was, I was working nights and weekends and doing anything I could to get ahead. Even though I am working so hard, giving so much and caring so much, who I am caring, what I’m caring about, doesn’t care about me to same in return. In fact, it probably, it’s debatable whether it cares about me at all. So, that realization was what really sparked my journey into financial independence because it really paralleled parts of my past.
As I say, parallels not exact, and I say this because I was reliant upon one single source for my future. So the decisions we make, the lifestyle choices that we live out, like these are all governed by resources, time and money, and technically by the idea of insufficient resources. About no matter how much you think you have, it always feels insufficient, right? There’s really no one source to basically live out my dreams and the rest of my life. My mother, she did the same thing.
She wasn’t reliant on a company, she was reliant on a person. She was reliant on my father and didn’t have any other outlet in which to establish economic independence. Unfortunately, for her and for my family, that resulted in being trapped in a extremely violent house. Our house was governed by the domestic abuse that my father perpetrated. So as I said, parallels not exactly the same, but it was close enough like that dependency on that single source, that realization was close enough for me to realize that, you know what, there’s going to be a price to pay and I don’t want to pay that.
I want to be diversified so I can make choices independent of what any one part of whatever I’m reliant on whatever that outcome is.

Mindy: So, what was your first step when you realized this? Did you, and even before that, what was your financial position when you realized that you didn't have student loan debt, right? Okay.

Sunitha: Nope.

Mindy: So, no student loan debt. Did you have any sort of savings or was it more of a paycheck to paycheck existence?

Sunitha: It wasn’t a paycheck to paycheck existence, thankfully, because I had been saving. However, I didn’t have a ton at the time. I had just started grad school. So, and I didn’t want debts, so I was, my employer was paying for part of that, but I was paying heavily into that as well. So, I didn’t have a ton of savings, maybe like five or 6,000, which I guess is pretty privileged compared to where a lot of people are, but I didn’t really, yeah, that’s kind of the position that I was in.
Then my first choice was to find a new situation. So, I found a new job because I just, I couldn’t condone being in that environment anymore just with other things that happen. So find a new job. Once I found a new job, I started researching everything I could about personal finance and that’s where things got a little bit challenging initially because when we talk finance, when we talk money, it’s like this giant umbrella of everything. There’s so many things you can do and it’s really overwhelming.
So, I looked at travel hacking, but there’s a ceiling there. There’s only so much you can travel because you still have a job. I looked at couponing, but, oh my gosh, there’s only so many times I can save 10 cents before I start [inaudible 00:27:20]. Then I looked at all these other things and they’re all great. I still do a lot of them in small increments, but it was one I found BiggerPockets actually, real estate investing and read Rich Dad, Poor Dad that my paradigm, like how I viewed life and the things that could be possible, but that’s when the big shift happened.
I realized, “Hey, there is a huge opportunity out there if I’m willing to put in the work and understand what is going on, but I could change my life and those I care about fundamentally moving forward.”

Mindy: Okay. You just said something so brilliant. There is a huge opportunity if I’m willing to put in the work, nothing just is given. Well, I guess that’s not true. Sometimes things are given, but you have to do the work. Most people will find success when they do the work. There’s this huge opportunity, “Oh, I’d rather watch TV.” I read something. Americans watch something like five or eight hours of TV a day. I don’t have five minutes, but still like five hours.

Sunitha: I think it’s probably five, yeah.

Mindy: I don’t have five hours of free time to just sit in front of the TV. I’ve got things going on, but then.

Sunitha: I don’t even have a TV.

Scott: I thought you’re retiring. I have some questions here. So, you’re in this position, right? And it sounds like you have some savings, how many years into your career would this, do this kind of moment in time happen? Your new career.

Sunitha: Three.

Scott: Three. Okay. So, about three years into the new career and it sounded like you were contemplating business school or you’re already in business school.

Sunitha: I already was.

Scott: Okay. All right. So, it sounds several things are going on here at once. You’re a couple of years into your career, you have some savings because you’re practicing basically sound money management and then you have this epiphany. You read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, find a wonderful website called and you start realizing that there’s another path here. What decision you’ve, it sounds like you’d already started business school at this point. What changes about your trajectory, how you’re planning for the future? How you’re managing money after this realization?

Sunitha: So, again, I truly believe in being diversified. I found this opportunity, I didn’t know how it would work out or what that would look like. So, I didn’t stop going to grad school. I finished grad school. I mean it was expensive, especially when I changed jobs and my tuition reimbursement was degrees, but I still needed different opportunities. I still need the ability to optimize different opportunities. So, I finished that. However, that did not allow me to save enough to invest for a while.
I still had another two years. So, in that time period, what I did instead was basically every minute that I wasn’t either working or studying for grad school, I was studying real estate podcasts in the car, books on vacation. I was in Italy on the beach reading about how to vet property managers when investing long distance, just that single minded focus to set myself up for the next step. However, I couldn’t take that step for two years.

Scott: Got it. So walk us through, when did you end up taking that step or what happened next with your portfolio?

Sunitha: Yeah. So, I definitely did about a year and a half ago, I purchased, this is when I was still living in Boston. So, I was living in Boston working the corporate job and I purchased a property in Indiana. Indianapolis. Got a duplex, got that going, went on the next, had those two units. Fast forward another six months, closed on another three units. So, built up, started that business and then realized, okay, so I’m starting this, this is going well.
However, there are definitely areas in which I do not have the competitive advantage and will still be hard for me to reach my economic goals, investing at a distance. So, six months ago I packed up and moved to Indiana. I live in Indiana now.

Scott: So, why did you choose Indiana in the first place?

Sunitha: Because I love data. I love numbers. That’s how I make a lot of my decisions, good or bad. So, when I was trying to figure out where to invest, I knew Boston wouldn’t be an option. I can’t compete with foreign investors who are coming in with millions of dollars in cash, [inaudible 00:31:40], no contingencies, et cetera. So, I looked at about I think 20 different cities in the U.S. and looked at a variety of economic statistics and compared their performances both current and projected against the U.S. national average.
Looked at where basically this is my finance nerd talking about conditionally formatting it so that where ever things are performing well it would pop out on the Excel charts. I just had so much data and then narrowed it down to those cities and start to find people, start to understand demographics, started to find a team. After all that ended up in Indianapolis.

Scott: So, where did you… Okay. After this is over, I want to talk to you about where you got all that data from.

Mindy: I want to jump in and say, do not apologize for being a data nerd or a finance nerd. This is your place. You are speaking to your people. They’re all like, yes, yes, I have a spreadsheet too.

Sunitha: My tribe. I have found my people.

Scott: No, that’s awesome. Okay. So, you chose to purchase properties in Indiana. What were you doing at the time for your work?

Sunitha: I was working as a senior financial analyst for a bio-pharma firm. So, doing corporate financial plan analysis, managing expenses, budgets for subsets of the company.

Scott: Got it. Okay.

Mindy: Were you working there in Boston?

Sunitha: Yes.

Mindy: Then, so did you work from home or did they transfer you, they happened to have an Indianapolis office?

Sunitha: Well, they did happen to have an Indianapolis office, but they would have been happy with me working from home. Even though I had transitioned a lot of my focus into real estate, again with a diversification, I still worked really hard at my job. That was really important to still maintain that because that was going, that wasn’t, is going to be what supports my real estate endeavors. That’s, I need that W-2 income. Right? So, I had set myself apart and done well enough to where they were like, “You know what? You’ve performed well, you’ve been a great employee, go to Indiana, we trust you. Do what you got to do.”

Mindy: That is awesome.

Scott: That’s awesome.

Mindy: I love that you said the W-2 employee or the W-2 is going to fund your real estate endeavors for a while. I’m on the forums of BiggerPockets all the time and I see people say things like, “I just quit my job. How do I buy my first property?” I’m like-

Sunitha: They’ll give me a heart attack, I’m having a little heart attack.

Scott: Yeah, that’s… Yeah. You definitely, you quit your job after you have accumulated a substantial portfolio in real estate. During the accumulation phase, your job is your best friend. Speaking of which, how did you finance the down payments for your rental properties?

Sunitha: With my W-2 income Scott.

Mindy: What a unique way to fund real estate.

Sunitha: What a novel idea.

Mindy: Oh yeah. I see these people say this and like, no, go-

Sunitha: Other people’s money and everything else.

Mindy: Yeah. No. Go beg for your job back.

Sunitha: There’s a place for that. Yeah.

Scott: So, with that though with graduate school, it sounds you were able to leverage just your W-2 job and your savings to finance these down payments and you kind of slowly started accumulating these one by one over a period of how long?

Sunitha: The property, sorry, say that again. The properties or the money?

Scott: Walk us through the quick timeline of the overall acquisitions that you’ve made in Indiana today.

Sunitha: Today. Okay. So, I started actively looking to acquire end of 2017. Found a property probably April of 2018 the first. Closed on that, had a little bit more money, closed on the second set of property September 2018, one set of, it was like a portfolio package. It was smaller portfolio. One was conventionally finance, one was seller finance. That was the only reason I could get into it. Into both. So, close on those five doors, moved out to… Still renovating.
Got all those basically all of them cash flowing positively by February of 2019 because they were renovations and then trying to lease out during winter and all that fun stuff. Moved out here April of this year, 2019. After moving out, found another house, one that I'm now living in and I'm house hacking that. So, yeah.

Scott: Awesome. So you’re aggressively all in on Indianapolis.

Sunitha: Yes. Yes. Well if you’re going to do anything, be aggressively all in otherwise, what’s the point? So…

Scott: So, what are your goals going forward? It sounds like you have a great job, you’ve got real estate. I imagine you’re living very frugally if your house hacking Indiana.

Sunitha: Yeah.

Scott: What’s next?

Sunitha: What’s next is to continue to grow my portfolio and to meet others. I would love to see if there are other people who have struggled with the same things that I have to see if I can help them. Eventually I would like to be in a position where I can choose between my W-2 jobs and spending more time giving back and doing things that make… that I believe create more value in the world. Whether that’s nonprofit causes, spending time with the people I care about, that sort of thing.

Scott: Love it. All right. Hope you’re enjoying the show. We’ll be right back after a word from today’s show sponsor.

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Okay, so we glossed over a fairly key part of your story that I didn’t want to gloss over, but there were other questions that I wanted to ask and the domestic abuse and the financial abuse that you talked about. I think there’s… that’s way too prevalent in our society and I think that a lot of people don’t talk about it. There’s shame involved when there shouldn’t be shame. It isn’t your fault that your father is abusive. It isn’t your fault that he withholds money and you know all of that.
But there’s a lot of shame around that. I wanted to bring you in here to talk about there isn’t, you shouldn’t be ashamed of that. That’s not something that you should be feeling bad … Yay, it’s so great. That’s not, I’m totally fudging this up, but-

Sunitha: It’s okay. It’s a hard subject to talk about. There’s a lot of shame and there’s the shame whether you’re the child and the shame whether you’re the one who entered into the relationship, but at the end of the day, these things, it’s like a slippery slope and nobody realizes what’s happening and until it’s too late and you’re essentially trapped. The role that finance plays in these dynamics is critical. There are many different ways in which…
So violent relations, basically violent relationships, whether regardless of which gender is the perpetrator, which gender is a survivor, they have a common theme in that it’s all about power and control. So, if we talk about how we want to live our life, again, resources play a huge role in that. What happens when you’re with someone who takes away those resources or finds a way to control those resources, you suddenly don’t have nearly as many choices as you did before and that can mean leaving violent relationship if you wanted to because then you couldn’t, so if you left, then you couldn’t support yourself.
The other option was living in a homeless shelter, that sort of thing and those were definitely the thoughts that I encountered growing up, like my father did this deliberately. I’ve seen this happen with other people deliberately where from the time I was five, six, seven, I would hear what’s your mother going to do? How can she leave? She can’t do anything in reference to the money that she did not have. Let me also caveat that by saying just because a person who is a survivor of this dynamic, even if they have financial independence, it’s still very hard to leave.
There are many more things that come into play. So, that is not the sole reason a person can or can’t leave, but maintaining independence financially and knowing how to take care of yourself and take care of those you care about from an economic perspective is critical. I’m very passionate obviously about women’s financial independence after being a female, seeing what my mother went through, but regardless of whether you’re male or female or what type of relationship that you’re in, that is absolutely critical in order for you to not only live your optimal life but to live a safe life and to live a happy life.

Scott: But what does someone do who feels that the other partner has all of the financial power in the relationship and that maybe they feel, “Hey, it would be really hard for me to go get a job.” Or, “I don’t really understand money or whatever.” Therefore, at least that to your point, that’s at least one part of the equation that’s keeping me in a place where I maybe don’t want to be. How does someone go about taking the first steps towards fixing that situation?

Sunitha: That’s a hard question to answer because it can be so varied and it depends on what they have access to. There are definitely resources and hotlines and places where you can call to get, I think professional help to understand where to go from where you are, but I think figuring out what that looks through a professional outlet would be probably step one. Then depending on your area, depending on your situation, depending on your level of safety, it then needs to be altered to make sure that the person is safe and can slowly rebuild their lives so that they can transition safely.

Mindy: Okay. I was looking up the national domestic violence hotline number, which is 1-800-799-SAFE. S-A-F-E. You can also go online at and there are… There’s a way to chat with somebody online. There’s some red flags that you should look for. Then the phone number again is on there and we will include all of these in our show notes, which are at Yeah. So, how did you leave this relationship?

Sunitha: That was hard. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. So, I was traveling. I was 19, 18, 19 traveling. I was in Asia at the time and I refused specifically to my [inaudible 00:44:12]to come home. My father wanted me to come home, I refused to. I changed all my tickets, flew to Australia instead. I had, essentially, he had control of my money. See a common theme. I managed to snag a couple of my own paychecks and open up a bank account in secret so that I had two or $3,000 to fly to Australia.
Which is basically everything to fly to Australia and stay there through a couple of events, make a little bit more money and then hopefully that was enough to get me started. So, it kind of was. However, perpetrators are a little bit sneaky and so he found out when I was coming home. He met me at the airport. My brother is three years younger than me, but at the time 16, he’s bigger and stronger than I am. He tried to tell my brother to force me into the car [inaudible 00:45:02].
So, long story short, I caused a scene for the first time in my life and when it came to that and got a restraining order. Had it in place for more than a decade and just had to rebuild from there. I learned everything. Whether that was opening a bank account, trying to figure out how debit cards work, how credit cards work, how to build a credit score, how to get a car, all of that stuff.

Scott: That’s outrageous.

Sunitha: Yeah.

Scott: I’m sorry that that happened. That sounds… But, good for you for being able to break free.

Sunitha: Yeah. It’s, I read this quote the other day about reframing negative experiences. It can be the worst thing that happened to you, but there are good things that come from it. So, I’m resilient, empathetic and know how to survive as do many survivors. So, if these are the things that we walk away with, those are pretty good things to have in your life, so.

Scott: Absolutely.

Mindy: Was there anything that triggered this or did you just decide that you were done?

Sunitha: I think honestly it was turning 18 because at that time I was an adult and either I could make it… I didn’t need to put up with it. It was no longer child abuse. I was no longer a minor. I was not a child. So, at that point, it was either I left or I stayed and I condoned what was happening to me. I lucky in that I was able to get away, many can’t. Because statistically the most dangerous time for a person, for a survivor is when they are trying to leave. So, I was very lucky that I was able to do that.
I’m not saying that my situation should like relay… If others want to do the same who are in a similar situation, make sure that you have a support system, et cetera around you to do so safely.

Scott: Got it. So, one of the questions I have, because this is a finance show, is if this, our podcast or Rich Dad Poor Dad or some of that stuff that you discovered about financial independence is helpful to people in this situation from that concept, because my imagining the situation is that someone in that situation feels helpless. They feel like an inability to economically produce income on their own or to support themselves on their own to a certain degree. Is that a fair assessment? Is that-

Sunitha: The thing that’s tough, it would be if they were able to make the choices that we can make. Like, we can save more money, we can go get a job. However, it’s hard to keep a job if whoever is abusing you shows up at your work to cause a scene every day, you’re going to get fired. It’s hard to save when they take all your money. It’s hard to get up to that point. It’s hard to learn when they control the resources that you have access to.
Like my mom doesn’t know how to use a computer. If she wanted to learn about BiggerPockets, she couldn’t. She doesn’t know how to drive a car. She couldn’t go out to finance seminar. So, to an extent it could, but I feel that might be diminishing the severity of some of these situations.

Scott: No, fair enough. Yeah. I don’t know what I don’t know about this topic.

Mindy: Okay. Suni, thank you so much for sharing this with us because that’s something like Scott said, I don’t know what I don’t know about this. I don’t know what I don’t know about this except I know that it’s really helpful to hear that other people are in this situation too or have been, and they got out, this is how I got out. Maybe some part of your story will help somebody else get out of their situation so they can go on and lead the life that they really want to lead.
So, now it’s time for the famous four. The same four questions that we ask of all of our guests. Are you ready, Suni?

Sunitha: I think so.

Mindy: Okay. Number one, what is your favorite finance book?

Sunitha: So, this is probably an answer that is more prevalent on the BiggerPocket Real Estate podcast, but it’s definitely got to be Rich Dad Poor Dad. It was, I listened to a lot of podcasts, but in terms of actual books, that’s the one that made me change how I think about money and how I think about my life.

Scott: Love it. We get that book a lot. So, if you haven’t read it yet, it’s time to go check it out. What was your biggest money mistake?

Sunitha: Not investing earlier. When I was living in Florida, before I moved to Boston for undergrad, I was in this townhouse that was, I could buy for about 35, $40,000 but rent was $825. I didn’t realize the arbitrage opportunity there at all. I actually did try to buy it, but I had one year’s worth of income and they said no. It was such a small loan. They didn’t want to be bothered. I just said okay and I left. That was a [inaudible 00:49:44]. I mean I would give a lot to go back in time and I think it make better decisions like that and maybe not lease out a car the year before it comes out a brand new model and ridiculous things that. Yeah.

Mindy: Yeah. That car comes up a lot.

Scott: I love that, it’s opportunity cost.

Mindy: What is your best piece of advice for people who are just starting out?

Sunitha: I think just getting started in some way. When we think about money and when we think about finances, it’s like this big thing that affects so many parts of our lives. So, it can be very overwhelming. But if you just look at it like maybe one small section and that’s what I did, like think about your food, how much are you spending on food and how can we optimize that? Once you get to a decent point there, weed that out as it is, and then move on to maybe your car or your telephone bill.
It doesn’t have to be this big thing that needs to be tackled all at once. It’s just making small changes that you can stick to. It’s a lifestyle change. So, just doing little things and figuring out what works for you.

Mindy: I love that.

Sunitha: Being patient.

Mindy: Yes. Small changes are easier to handle and not like 50 small changes all at once, but one small change and then when that’s commonplace, then you do another small change and then that’s commonplace and another small change. I love it. Scott.

Scott: What is your favorite joke to tell at parties?

Sunitha: I have a bunch.

Scott: All right. Let’s do all of them.

Sunitha: Okay. But I don’t actually tell these at parties. Maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I should, but my friends are really into puny and dad jokes. So-

Mindy: Oh my God.

Scott: Perfect.

Sunitha: Two days ago I was like guys, give me what you got. This is the only time I’ll ever ask you for these, so make it count. So if a child refuses to sleep during that time, are they guilty of resisting arrest?

Scott: Nice. Love it.

Sunitha: Don’t trust Adams, they make up everything.

Mindy: That one I love.

Sunitha: Why did the invisible man turn down the job offer? He couldn’t see himself doing it.

Scott: These are amazing.

Sunitha: Right? Okay. Last one. You get to try to answer this one. What’s the best part about living in Switzerland?

Mindy: Chocolate.

Scott: The Alps, the… I don’t know.

Sunitha: Okay. I don’t know, but the flag is a big plus.

Scott: That’s awesome.

Sunitha: Ended on the best.

Scott: All right.

Mindy: Okay. Where can people find out more about you?

Sunitha: They can go to my website

Mindy: Can you spell that first word?

Sunitha: Sure. G-R-I-F-F-I-X.

Mindy: Okay. All of these links will be found in our show notes at Suni, thank you so much for being on the show today. This was really a great story and I know that there’s going to be a lot of people that can learn something from this.

Sunitha: Thank you so much for having me and for allowing me to share my story.

Mindy: Yeah, this was awesome. Okay. Well we will talk to you soon.

Scott: This was phenomenal. Thank you.

Sunitha: Can’t wait. Thank you.

Scott: All right. That was Sunitha Rao. Mindy, what’d you think?

Mindy: You know Scott, I feel weird saying I love her story because clearly I wish that all of those negative things didn’t happen to her. Nobody’s like, “Yay! Domestic abuse, that’s the best thing ever!” But I love her attitude towards it. She didn’t take this and say, wow, I guess this is just what I am for the rest of my life. She said, I am not going to deal with this anymore. I am going to change my narrative by taking charge of my life. That comment she made at the end, the taking the negative and turning it into a positive, she’s learned so much from her experiences. She’s a pretty powerful woman.

Scott: Absolutely. I mean this story is one of hustle, competition, right? Being reborn with a career. Those kinds of things, she went out, she had a… I mean how bad ass do you have to be to be a professional athlete of any type, let alone travel the world at 14 to 19 to 23 as a professional tennis player, doing it largely on your own and then have to restart in community college, working a hundred hours a week, in conjunction with taking classes, I mean it’s crazy how much she’s been able to accomplish in spite of some of the hurdles that she’s come across.

Mindy: I am just so impressed by her story because she had a sixth grade education. She basically quit school in sixth grade to play tennis. Then I can see someone who is maybe less driven and that’s, I feel like I’m talking smack about somebody I don’t even know. But I can see somebody less driven saying, you know what, I’m just going to coach tennis for the rest of my life. She was saying that tennis coaches have a six figure salaries and their coachees, their athletes, I guess, are paying for them to travel with them. So, it’s not a horrible life, but that’s not the life she wanted.
So, she’s like, you know what? I’m just going to do it different. I’m going to go to college even though I only have a sixth grade education, I’m going to figure out how to get to college. So she did, and then she didn’t know how to pay for it. So she figured that out too. She just, she’s really, really strong and I love that part.

Scott: One of the things I think is an interesting takeaway about this podcast with Sunitha was that a lot of times we talk about how important it is to get these habits rights started early and how that can compound over time. But a trade off that sometimes occurs is, and you don’t want to be a trade off, is you may have to give up on a certain timeline or a dream line in order to pursue financial independence and I think Sunitha shows you don’t have to do that. She was a professional athlete.
She ended a nine year career, didn't finish high school, didn't go to college normal time and started at 23 with nothing yet is still able to move on and rapidly pursue financial freedom in an aggressive manner with her current circumstances. So, I think that kind of shows like, hey, there is room to go after that thing that is your dream and passion and then transition and go after this financial freedom. You can go after it anytime, any starting circumstances.

Mindy: Yeah. What did she say earlier? If you’re going to be all in, be aggressively all in.

Scott: Yeah. I love that comment. That’s awesome.

Mindy: That is fantastic.

Scott: Couldn’t agree more with that.

Mindy: Okay. Scott, should we get out of here?

Scott: Let’s do it.

Mindy: Okay. From episode 101 of the BiggerPockets Money Podcast, this is Mindy Jensen and Scott Trench saying it’s time to scoot little newt.

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In This Episode We Cover:

  • Sunitha’s journey with money
  • Scarcity mindset around money
  • How she turned into a professional tennis player at age 14
  • What happened to the money she earned from tennis
  • Goals within the corporate world
  • Her experience at a community college
  • How she found endowment programs
  • Pros and cons about going to college at an atypical age
  • Her highs and lows as a professional tennis player
  • The realization that sparked her journey to financial independence
  • Beliefs on diversification
  • Started real estate business in Indianapolis
  • What her goals are going forward
  • Domestic and financial abuse
  • Leaving a domestically violent relationship
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned in this Show:

Tweetable Topic:

  • “It does allow for a lot of growth. You learn to see things through the eyes of others.” (Tweet This!)
  • “There is an opportunity if you’re willing to put in the work.” (Tweet This!)
  • “Well, if you’re going to do anything, be aggressively all in—otherwise what’s the point?” (Tweet This!)
  • “Statistically, the most dangerous time for a person, for a survivor, is when they are trying to leave.” (Tweet This!)

Connect with Sunitha

The BiggerPockets Money Podcast is for anyone who has money… or want to have more! Join BiggerPockets Community Manager and Podcast Director Mindy Jensen and CEO Scott Trench weekly for the BiggerP...
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    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied 7 months ago
    101 is a good number for a podcast on financial education (and what most Americans desperately need)