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From Childhood Poverty to Financial Freedom by Age 32 with Jillian Johnsrud

The BiggerPockets Money Podcast
55 min read
From Childhood Poverty to Financial Freedom by Age 32 with Jillian Johnsrud

Jillian Johnsrud grew up lacking the privileges that many of us take for granted.

Jillian Johnsrud grew up poor, with an abusive step father and a mother unable to leave due to lack of funds. She emancipated herself during her junior year of high school, living in a camper in high school, waiting tables after class. Still, she managed to save $8,000 by the time she graduated.

She married young, and medical debt and student loan debt put her family in a tough starting position. From there, however, Jillian began building wealth. In adventures that span tons of different states and even a stint in Europe, Jillian was able to eliminate her debt and achieve financial freedom—all while never earning more than a median income.

Hear Jillian’s story of investing when everyone thinks you’re crazy, adopting a group of siblings, and “creating a life that is such a perfect fit she never wants to retire from it.”

Click here to listen on iTunes.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

Scott: Welcome to the BiggerPockets Money podcast show number 36 where we interviewed Jillian Johnsrud from Montana Money Adventures.

Jillian: For the most part we just lived on one salary and then eventually as we started making a little bit more money and I started making a little bit more money, we tried to look what about 80% of his salary. I always say that the happiness is in the margins of our budget. There’s so much joy in the money that we don’t spend.

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.

Scott: how’s it going everybody I’m Scott Trench I’m here with my co-host Miss Mindy Jensen. How you doing today Mindy?

Mindy: Scott, I’m having a fantastic day! How are you today?

Scott: I’m doing great. I’m looking forward to our interview with Jillian.

Mindy: Yes, I love talking to Jillian. She’s so smart and she has such a great story. 

Scott: She’s very charismatic about how she presents that story too. She’s just really a good way with words.

Mindy: I love her story because she doesn’t start off from a place of extreme wealth or even comfort. She emancipated herself from her parents at age 18. She got married at 19. She had a fair amount of debt for a 19 year old, but figured out a way to pay it off and started down this journey without a fancy job or a huge title. She was a waitress, she worked at Starbucks, and her husband was in the military. They just continued on and her story really proves that you don’t have to be making six figures. Literally anybody can do this.

Scott: Yes and what’s also great about her story is that each of these steps you know seems from my position of relative privilege in the world with my upbringing seems really difficult. It seems like she’s been through a lot of difficult times and overcome an enormous number of challenges with the stole incredibly altruistic view in the world and incredible optimism for the future.

Mindy: Yes and you know she doesn’t have the perfect story. She’s had some heartache and she’s continued on the path. She’s continuing to shoulder on, she doesn’t use that as an excuse to just quit.

Scott: Yes, I think it’s great and let’s go ahead and bring her in.

Mindy: Yes, we don’t need to tell her story. We’ll let her do it. Before we bring Jillian in let’s hear from today’s sponsor.

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Scott: All right, big thanks to today’s sponsor. Jillian, welcome to the BiggerPockets Money podcast. How’s it going?

Jillian: Thank you so much for having me! It is awesome.

Scott: Awesome. Well, I thought we could just jump right into it. Could you kind of walk us through where you believe that your journey to financial independence began? For the very beginning, let’s kind of start walking through your journey.

Jillian: Yes. It started, I call it like my flashpoint and I didn’t have a fancy acronym or there wasn’t blogs about it yet, but I had a conversation with my mom. That was probably twelve, eleven I think it was like in the fifth grade. The man that she had married over the years had started drinking a lot. The mood of the home had become just very abusive I would say. It was very negative if nothing else.

I just begged her to leave. I said, “We just have to get out of here. I don’t care, I don’t care if we go and live in the little tiny apartments over the grocery store. I can work. I’ll help pay for things. We just have to get out.” She said, “Jillian, I just can’t, like that’s just not an option. I have three little kids. I can’t take care all of you on my own.” I just went up to my bed and I cried hot tears into my pillow. It was that moment that I thought money equals choices and it equals freedom and I desperately wanted to have more choices.

Scott: Wow.

Mindy: Oh my goodness! Yes, I’m typing this right now, “Money equals choices, money equals freedom.” That’s so true. That’s so perfect!

Scott: Yes, it’s so powerful. I mean that’s like the extreme that this can take. Is when you don’t have these resources you become under the power of or in control of somebody and now you’re at the mercy of chance in some ways. Where if you’re unlucky you end up in a situation that your mother’s what was found herself in. While some other luckier people have more of a loving and better situation, but I think that’s just really powerful example of how this can be an extreme result of not making the correct choices with money.

Jillian: Yes. When you’re in poverty you just feel like you don’t have a lot of options, you don’t have a lot of choices and you don’t have a lot of power. All the choices have been made for you.

I started working. I worked from eighth grade all the way up to my senior year. After my junior year I was able to move out. I saved enough money and I moved out on my own. Me and my mom have an amazing relationship, but it gave me that option and it gave me an option to move away for college. I took all of the money I had saved waiting tables. I bought a camper, like a really cheap, ugly, 1980s, burnt orange interior, 28-foot camper and I moved into it. I said this is how I’m going to make it happen.

Mindy: Wow! How much was the camper?

Jillian: I think I paid $5,000 for it which was an enormous amount of money. By the time I graduated I was living on my own and I’d saved $8,000 which was just insane for me, like that was so much money. It felt like so much opportunity because you know growing up we were the family that like you never filled up the gas tank. We always had like five bucks for gas. I remember like the very first time I had a full tank of gas in our LTD and I was just beside myself with joy. Having $8,000 felt huge and then be able to own my own place to live so like I was invincible.

Scott: Let’s just walk through this, you say in high school you start waiting tables and you save up this five grand by the camper and then as soon as you have the camper you move out of the household.

Jillian: No, actually I moved out my junior year.

Scott: How did that work?

Jillian: I just left. I just left and I lived with a co-worker and they lived with his friends and we rented apartment. I don’t think there was a crazy person who has thought, “Yes, let’s just rent an apartment to like a 17 year old and a 21 year old and a 22 year old,” but they did, and so we had a place to stay.

Mindy: Thank goodness for landlords who don’t do background checks.

Scott: What happened after this period? You leave, you move out, you’re still working and going to school. What happens next?

Jillian: As I met my husband when I was 19, we’ve been married for 16 years now, but I met my husband and well, I felt like I was kind of on like things were getting better and better. When I married him he had $45,000 worth of debt. I was just like, “Oh! Sweet Baby Jesus.” Now, why we’re going so far in the wrong direction? It turns out after we paid-off that debt, we had gone to apply for a house to see maybe we should buy a house like that’s what we do. As soon as we paid-off our debt we buy a house.

In that process of applying and then running my credit score I guess debt collection agency found me and I received my very first bill for $10,000. I think we all have those moments where we making so much progress and things are going so great and then all of a sudden we get blindsided. It was honestly so discouraging because I felt like we’re doing everything right and then this. Again, something from my past came and wasn’t going to hold us back again.

Scott: Taking a quick step back you say you get married at 19 and your husband has $45,000 in debt. Are you saying that between that time and 21 you paid-off the debt? Then you find out about this additional $10,000 at 21? Is that what you’re saying here?

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: Wow! That would be debt thing.

Jillian: My husband had joined the army because 35,000 of that was student loan. They said, “Okay, join the army will pay off your student loans.” Then he went to basic and we saved every penny while he was gone. We had been paying it off that first year of my marriage, but we saved every penny. We took whole of his enlistment bonus and we were able to pay off the credit card debt probably within the first six months of him finishing his basic training in his AIT.

Scott: Awesome! That’s really good. I mean that’s just very efficient. All of a sudden you pay that off for a couple years, ready to buy a house. $10,000 bill, what do you do once you get hit with that news? That you weren’t expecting?

Jillian: I think in each time when I’ve experienced a big setback like it’s okay to stay stuck in the, “Holy crap, this is horrible,” for at least a couple of minutes. Like feel those feelings, but then we need to come up with a plan. I called the credit agency; I called the hospital where I’ve stayed. I just started saying, “Listen, I never received a bill for this. I’m so sorry with your collections, but I didn’t know.” They’re like, “Look, we have this medical scholarship. You could have applied for,” and I’m like, I didn’t know. I thought it was taken cared off.

Well, we can’t run. We can’t much more actively apply for it now that it’s gone to collections, but sometimes you just need to show up and kind of deal with things head-on. I know a lot of people who have a medical debt, of credit cards and the bills come and they just put them in a drawer. The bills come and they just put them in a drawer because they’re tired of seeing them stack on the table. It’s so much better just to call. To like lean-on and deal with it head-on. Eventually, we negotiated that if we could pay it off in six months they would cut it in half. I was like, that we can do. We can do 5,000 in six months. I think we had about two and a half thousand saved and then we just paid the rest of it off.

Mindy: What were you doing for work right then?

Jillian: My husband was in the army. He was like an E1 or an E2, so he’d get like, $1,000 a month. I had started, yes; we were rolling in the cash. I had started working at the Starbucks. I worked for Starbucks for a couple of years. Also making like 12 bucks an hour.

Scott: Going back to the medical debt thing. This is something that a lot of people I’ve talked to are just kind of getting started out on these things. Maybe they have bad credit score or whatever. A lot of it seems to be this medical debt that’s stuck around for a couple years that they forgot about having looked at, haven’t wanted to look at. Didn’t know about. Whatever it is this is bad medical debt.

Every time I mean I don’t have data on this because I don’t collect data on this subject, but every time I’ve talked to somebody and they’ve called to work out medical debt that’s old where they have maybe a bad credit score something, they’re able to negotiate a huge discount. Often in the ballpark of that 50% reduction in debt.

It’s just amazing that phone call can be worth $5,000 an hour for someone to just call, plug up the courage and go and see what you can do. Because the collection agency is thinking you’re never going to pay. They’re thinking you’re going to put it under your mattress and forget about it. If you would call they’re like, “Yes, half is way better than nothing.” Good for them is what they’re thinking. I just think it’s very good that you got up and did that and a good example for others to follow, people who has medical debt.

Mindy: Even just calling up and negotiating a payment plan. You don’t have $10,000 to pay them, “Hey, can I negotiate a payment plan?” “Oh, okay.” Even if you still have to pay the whole $10,000. Now they’re not going to continue to go to collections because they know you’re paying and as long as you continue on the payment plan. Call them up if maybe you have a flat tire and you’re trying to get ahead and whatever and you can’t make the payment this month, let them know because the creditors want your money, but more importantly they want you to be able to pay them back long term.

If you can’t make it this month maybe they make them note in your account or they you know charge you higher interest rate, but they still want your money and you don’t want to be in collections.

When I had my second daughter I called them up. It was like a really heavy month when the bill finally came, it was like Christmas time. Can I just pay this next month? I don’t want it to ding my credit. I called them up and I said, “Is there any sort of payment plan?” She said, “Well, I can stretch it out for a year, but anything more than that you have to talk to the credit department.” I’m like, I was just looking for a month, but I’ll take that. Instead of paying $500 this month at $500 next month I’ll pay $100 a month for a year. I bought my baby on payment plans.

Jillian: I always encourage people two things. One, try to keep it with the hospital if possible. Like in mine because it happened a few years before, I had argued on to collections, but I called the hospital and I called collection and I kept calling until the hospital eventually re-assumed that debt from collections. Which I think is rare, but if you can make sure it doesn’t go to collections you’re far, far better off because the hospital just has a lot more resources and flexibility.

Then the second thing is just remember people are people. Like, you’re just talking to a real person on the other end of the line. You want to be as much in their good graces as possible because they have a lot of options and you want to have access to all of those options. Be kind and be honest and be thoughtful and be respectful, but just try to really be a good person. Sometimes me with my medical professionals like I bring gift baskets because people are people and they might remember me… who brought a gift basket and hopefully catch my cancer earlier or something, I don’t know. Still it’s just a safe policy.

Mindy: This is the nice patient. Yes, let’s be nice to her too. When you go in and you’re nasty all of a sudden there’s no openings for you for the next six months.

Scott: Well, so you see you caught the other phone with these folks. You negotiate down to $5,000 in six months. What you do to continue to pay that off and what happened after that?

Jillian: We had
 always loved the idea of living on half of our income that we will live on Adam’s salary and save mine. We did this after the first year because he pretty much went to school first time full-time and I just worked. For the most part we just lived on one salary. Then eventually as he started making a little bit more money and I started making a little bit more money we tried to live with about 80% of his salary.

I always say that the happiness is in the margins of our budget. There’s so much joy in the money that we don’t spend. It can be really tempting to just max out our budget and spend all of it, because we think, “Oh, that’s $300.” Instead of just letting it sit in my bank account I would be much happier if I bought it a new car, or took on another payment, but just with the hope.

I used to read David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich and I would literally earmark the pages that showed compound interest like the little charts. Every time I felt discourage I would go back to those compound interest charges and be like, “Okay, it’s going to work out. Okay, it’s going to work out.” I just have to keep going.

Scott: I wondering if there were maybe a couple of turning points here. It seems like the first kind of interaction you had with money is understanding how a lack of money leads to a lack of control and real consequences from that, but somewhere in this it sounds like you began reading books on wealth building. You just mentioned David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich. When did you begin reading those and was there a mindset shift at some point in this where you were like, “Hey, I just need enough to get by to. I want to begin building wealth,” in a more serious manner?

Jillian: Yes, so actually I post about this on my sites. Probably the most popular posts, but the worst advice I ever received. It was when me and Adam had just gotten married and I went to a bookstore with a family member. We were going to go through the bookstore and I saw this book about personal finance, it was a really expensive. It was $18 and this was like 20 you know 16 years ago. It was an enormous amount of money for me. I thought, maybe this will pay off and my family member say, “Oh Jillian, don’t waste your money on that. Just ask your uncle. He will tell you anything you need to know.” Which is a joke because my uncle never taught me anything about money, but he was very much a tabloid topic.

I’m thinking, I don’t know where were things that’s going to happen, but I took that risk and I bought that first book. I remember feeling so scared because it was so much money for us and we’re still trying to pay off debt, but it was really, really simple book. It was just all over the basics of personal finances. How to start a budget, it was how to start investing, like where to save. This was information I never been exposed to. I had never learned. I had never saw anyone else do this.

I was really good at saving during high school you know. I was the kid that my mom would borrow 20 bucks from to buy groceries or make sure our water didn’t get turned off. I was good at like saving money, but not any of these grown-up things. That was the first book and I say that books are my highest ROI item I’ve ever invested in. It took a long time to kind of get over that fear, “buy it.” Yes. Now I read about 50 books a year.

Scott: That’s awesome. I love that quote, “Books are the highest ROI item you’ve invested in.” Yes, I think that’s fantastic. This book just to recap all this is, is David Bach’s Smart Couples Finish Rich? That you’re referring to, right. There’s date in all your book?

Jillian: No, I don’t see when it in print. It was just a little family finance book. I ended up picking up David Bach’s Smart Couple Finish Rich a couple years later. It was a great kind of well-rounded, comprehensive look at personal finance. Stuff that like I had never done that stuff either.

Scott: After reading these books and after getting married you have all this debt, you have this disadvantage, a tough start basically to begin building a financial foundation, but you approach it basically right from the beginning with a mindset of building wealth and kind of putting these habits together with the kind of a long-term financial goals. Is that fair to say?

Jillian: I don’t know if I would have even used the word “wealth,” because that seemed outrageous. Like that seemed like crazy talk. I just wanted a little bit more financial freedom. I just wanted a little bit more options, a few more choices. We had really big dreams. We really wanted to adopt. We wanted to travel the world. I wanted to be able to pay cash for a house. I wanted that things more than wealth which I mean we never like earned more than above the poverty line.

I just kind of have this mindset like, I just never going to earn a lot of money. I just really have to be smart with the money I’m going to earn because I had mentally capped our earning potential. I just assumed that’s not going to happen, so I need to be really smart with the choices I do have.

Mindy: Well, wait a second. If you don’t make a lot of money then you can’t be financially independent? Isn’t that what everybody says? You can’t.


Jillian: Everyone would say, yes.

Mindy: Either you’re lying about being financially independent or you’re lying about not making a lot of money, right? You somehow figured out a way to do this and buck the trend.

Jillian: There is a truth in the middle where sometimes you just have to do the best you can with what you have. I think that creativity actually thrives in constraint. Having low income is definitely a hard constraint, but it allows you to be more creative and flexible and think outside the box so we had to do that. I kind of have this like, I don’t know; I’ve a little bit of grit in me. I was like, I’m just willing to work harder and to do things that suck more and to run longer than everyone else. I’m not going to have those advantages, I’m not going to have those privileges so I just have to double down on what I can do which is suffer well and have fun.

Scott: What does that translate to in terms of your lifestyle during this period of time? How are you living and how are you managing to save so much money, living of with just 80% of one salary. These aren’t exactly even median incomes I imagine for an annual basis.

Jillian: No, we were living the DC area. Not exactly a low cost of living area by any means, but I think it goes back to saving up enough money to buy a camper. I drove a Geo Metro, the pregnant roller skate because I had 15 year old Geo Metro and I drove that for like five years. I’ll just do what it takes! I’ll just do what it takes because I have to. I think a lot of people say if would have had $8,000 would not have said, “You know maybe I was married to a camper and look like a homeless person and drive this really crappy car,” with the hope that maybe one day this is going to give me more choices because it’s not guaranteed. It definitely did not feel guaranteed.

Scott: You were living in the camper in DC and getting…

Jillian: No, after we left college I sold my camper. We wanted Todo, like that was the plan, we’ll buy a nicer camper. That we were going to upgrade our camper. This is for sure and we’re going to, but once we got stationed in DC we started looking at the camping options and they were pretty slim. That plan which I thought was a great plan, didn’t work because they don’t have tremendous metaphorical campgrounds there, surprisingly.

My husband got a housing site minutes and we found something. We lived in a tower apartment which was my least favorite for the first year. A little tiny tower apartment, but then they said, “We’re going to raise your rent 10% every year guaranteed.” Where are we going to get a thousand dollars which our housing has been covered, but it was like, “Oh my God.” Just going to raise a hundred dollars a year, every year? We were going to be out-priced really soon.

We ended up moving a little bit further out and we found a four-bedroom house that has sat on the market for a long time because there were some issues with the functionality of this house. Like the washing machine was in the kitchen and the dryer was in the garage that you had to go outside and pull up with your hand. It wasn’t like most families aren’t like, “Oh, that’s ideal.” Exactly. Hop all the load, Jillian. No dishwasher of course because I put a washing machine there.

We were able to negotiate it down. They wanted I think 16 or 1,700 a month. We were able to negotiate it to 1,500 because we were going to stay longer so they locked in our rate and they said, “We only want one couple,” like there’s no extra adults allowed. I said, “If by chance we happen to find an amazing roommate and you really liked him, do you think you might make an exception?” This wasn’t even the owners; this was a property management company. They said, “Well, maybe, if we really like him.”

A week later I was like, “I found someone! You will really like him!” They were like, “Oh, yes, he’s perfect.” An insurance adjuster for GEICO, they’re like, “That’s exactly what we want,” but that one choice and at this point we had one going on two kids. That one choice was enormously effective strategy for us. One, because the money was tax-free because we were renting. We weren’t actually earning that income. He was paying part of the rent, but our housing stipend continued to grow which was tax-free income and he paid all sending them home at $800 a month.

Mindy: Your renter?

Jillian: For three years.

Mindy: Your renter gave you $800 a month and you’re paying $1,500 a month.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Getting a roommate now has turned your rent into you’re down $300 a month from the thousand dollars in this little tower apartment that you didn’t like anyway.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Scott, what do we call that at BiggerPockets?

Scott: We call it house hacking, but I thought you’re not able to do that and get a roommate if you have children and a family.

Mindy: No, you can’t!

Scott: It’s impossible to share a home with a family, isn’t it?

Jillian: You know there’s plus and minuses of every situation and I always encourage people. There’s things that we think are going to be a huge challenge. There will might be a little bit of a challenge, but there’s also upside that you’ll never see coming. There were so many benefits just having another adult in the home was so great like there were so many bonuses to that.

A person that I mentor started Airbnb-ing a room in her house. She has a little kid and so she has all these concerns, but she said, the thing I never expected that’s been so great other than all of this income and all these other benefits are now I’m able to introduce my to all these different people that we never would have had contact in. We’re able to welcome in all of these different nationalities and races and people different socioeconomic status that don’t live in our neighborhood. She’s like it’s been such a blessing, but I never anticipated that is being it upside. I think that’s true in almost every situation.

Mindy: That’s awesome. Okay, so now you’re living in the DC area in a very expensive cost of living and you’re using 80% of his salary and saving your salary. What are you doing for work in DC?

Jillian: I did a couple things. I worked for Starbucks for a while and eventually I got promoted to be a manager there which I really like. I was a youth pastor for a while which was kind of fun. Then I did commission sales. I finished out that portion of my career doing commission sales.

Mindy: What were you selling?

Jillian: At one place I sold mattresses and office chairs. For the DC folks who wanted a $2,000 office chair, I was their girl. Then when we moved back to Montana I went to commission sales again in this trade commission which was it’s a little stressful, but I sold furniture. Super glamorous, like these are glamorous furnitures for sure.

Mindy: I used to lie in my bed as a child and think, “Oh, I hope that someday I could sell furniture.”

Jillian: Yes!

Mindy: I mean I’m assuming you made good money.

Jillian: No, no.

Mindy: Okay.

Jillian: For me I thought it was amazing. What most people thought like I cash like good money, it was not. Probably not the same definition. I probably heard someone at 30, 35 maybe my best year 40.

Mindy: You’re saving that, right? You’re still living off of just his salary.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: That’s a nice chunk of change to save and this was a few years ago when… What were you doing with the money that you were saving?

Jillian: When we lived in DC I really, really want to buy a house. We’ve we ended up renting for ten years, so that didn’t exactly work out. We were saving really aggressively to buy our first house. Then that we got the opportunity to move to Europe and I always wanted to travel in Europe. Like ever since I was ten, 11 I started buying she’s used travel books and highlighting them and like planning these trips in my head. It just seemed it didn’t seem possible at the time, but yes we moved to Europe and then I was like, “Shoo!” We had saved, by the time was 24, we’d saved about $125,000.

Mindy: Oh my goodness!

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Holy Cow!

Scott: You paid off $55,000 of debt, so then you’d saved $125,000 on top of that?

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: Basically you create $180,000 in net worth.

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: Okay.

Mindy: Okay and how many children did you have at this time?

Jillian: Two.

Mindy: Two children, okay, and you move to what part of Europe?

Jillian: We moved to Germany into Heidelberg.

Mindy: Okay.

Jillian: We had all this money, most of it was in cash. Some of it was in Roth IRA. It took me a long time to start investing. I was also terrified of that, but when we decide we’re going to move to Europe for four years I was like, “Oh, shoo! We’ve couldn’t keep it in cash in four years. This was right at the very bottom of the market. I mean panic, panic everywhere. My boss had just started investing. Then in a few months he had lost a third of his money and he sold it all because he’s like this isn’t for me. We put about a hundred; you know 80 or $100,000 into a Vanguard Stock Account right at the bottom before we move to Germany.

Mindy: I bet that did well.

Jillian: It did. Four years later we got home. It had pretty much doubled. We had about 250.

Mindy: Wow! Yes, that was… what like 2,000- eight, nine, ten?

Jillian: We came back six years ago, 2012. We moved there like 2008.

Mindy: Okay, yes. That was, boy, it hit hard. I want to talk a little bit about childcare because you’ve got Washington DC, you’re both working, so what did you do for childcare in DC? When you move to Europe did you work?

Jillian: No.

Mindy: Okay, so then you did childcare then. How did you take care of your kids in DC?

Jillian: Our oldest we’ve been adopted and he was in the sixth grade when we adopted him, so that actually worked out great. Foster care, there’s two kinds of groups of kids that are in foster care, older kids and sibling groups. That are really, really hard to adopt. Nobody wants older kids, nobody wants more than one, so we had adopted this kiddo who the social worker was just like, “Honestly, on their birth they going to find a family,” so you can either adopt him.” I’ve asked everyone. “You can adopt him or I’m just going to put him in a group home till he ages out.”

I wouldn’t say I felt really prepared to be a mom of a teenager, but I thought that’s better than nothing. We took on this junior-high kid, but the great thing there you know hidden benefit was that he was at school all day. Then after school he would just go to the library for an hour until we got home and working in Starbucks that could be kind of flexible with my hours especially being as I was manager and warp the schedule. It worked out great.

Scott: What about your other child?

Jillian: We’ve moved to Germany when he was six months old. I did go back to work because they offered me a raise if I came back. I said, “Oooh! That’s too good to pass up,” and I did it for about four, five months. A lady across the street that we’d become friends with was our nanny and would come over every day and take care of them and it was awesome. I felt like I paid her way too little, she felt like I paid her way too much. It was kind of the perfect arrangement.

Mindy: That is a
 perfect arrangement.

Jillian: I think she really wanted to do it for free and I was like, “I can’t. I can’t let you watch my kid for free,” so I paid her a very modest amount and she was thrilled.

Mindy: Nice, okay, so fast forwarding a little bit. Now you’re in Germany and you’re not working. Did you work at all while you were in Germany?

Jillian: No.

Mindy: Did you have any more children while you were in Germany?

Jillian: No.

Mindy: Okay, oh so you moved back with just two kids.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Okay. For people who are listening and may not be familiar with Jillian she has six kids, right?

Jillian: Yes, I didn’t know if that was a question or a statement.

Scott: Yes.

Mindy: Kind of both. Jillian has six kids, so I’m wondering where all these kids came from. 2012, well, I’m not wondering I already know, but I want to ask so that you… You come back in 2012, back to America?

Jillian: Yes, and 2012 was a hard year.

Mindy: You were living where?

Jillian: After my husband was retired from the Army, the Army says, “Okay, just tell us where to drop off your stuff, anywhere in the world and will ship it there.” We really got to pick wherever we wanted to live. We had traveled all over the US. We traveled all over Europe, but growing up I had spent some time in Glacier National Park. My grandpa had had a cabin there, so I’ve always spend like a week in the summer.

I think I just had really high anxiety as a kid, but being in Glacier I just felt the most like myself. I just felt the most relaxed and the most at peace. I was like I want to live there. If I got to pick anywhere, I want to live there. We moved back here and I started a job and we bought a house which was kind of an ordeal. We’ve had, so we’d saved all of that money to be able to pay cash for a house. Like that was my goal. We had 250 which was enough to pay cash for a house in a regular market here, but especially at that time we could have bought a nice house for 150 in our area. Instead, it’s like we bought a $50,000 house that needed to be completely gutted top and bottom redone.

Because we had rented for ten years we had zero experience. We had never… I had painted. That was the level of my experience. I had painted walls poorly. We just watched a bunch of YouTube videos. I was like, “Who wants to hear it out! They’ll be great!” My husband was not convinced at all. It just was not like HDTV. There was no Property Brothers, there was no Chip and Joanna like holding her hand and saying, “We’ll make it beautiful, trust us.” It was just me you had no experience saying, “I think we can do it. We’ll try.”

About a week into that renovation, my husband he came to pick me up from work and he showed up early like an hour early and he seemed very distress and said, “You need to leave.” I talk to my boss and my boss is like, “Okay.” I guess. I wouldn’t clocked-out and I saw this look on my boss’s face and I couldn’t quite peg what it was, but as soon as we got in my car Adam said, “Mike has passed away,” our oldest son. I don’t remember much about that week. We drove to Lincoln, Nebraska where he is just living. He was getting ready to go to college, he’s 20 years old, but we buried our son and came home to a house that was half gutted. I was in a brand-new job. Of course we just had to live through the renovation because we thought that was a good idea. We had an air mattress and a fridge in the middle of our living room. We just figured it out, kind of. It was a hard year.

Mindy: Yes, that’s a hard year. I lived in my flips too and at the beginning is kind of a disaster. Okay, well, my next question was where were you living during the renovation, right in the middle of everything?

Scott: It is just devastating you know what I mean, by have that personal loss and then come home and have just this empty workspace almost, I mean. It’s unbelievable.

Jillian: Well, we had just moved here like two months before. I left all of my friends, all of my connections, all of my community in Germany. I was brand new. I was like, “Hey! Will you rent with me! I’m really in hot mess right now, but I promise I’m awesome normally.” It was just like the worst way to meet people because I was a disaster and it was… thankfully there were a couple of really great people that were like, “Yes, you’re kind of a mess right now, but we’ll hang out with you anyways.

Scott: What happens next then? Do you kind of pick up and keep going with the project and with the work and all that?

Jillian: Yes, so we finished half of the house and we lived in the top half. Which our house is about 1,700 square feet. We’re in like 750 which for the three of us was fine. I kept working and my husband and didn’t find work. Because that’s like at the tail end of the recession at this point, but we had saved all this money to buy cash for a house. I said, well we should just buy another house. Like that makes sense.

Except all of my co-workers, you know it’s easy in hindsight to be like, “Oh, that was such a smart decision.” All of my coworker thought that was a horrible decision. They all thought this was a huge mistake. Just seems like an enormous risk. At the time and even more true today I said, “If I could buy ten of these houses, I would.” Like that’s how confident I am, that this is a good decision.

We referred to it as yellow house, we bought yellow house. I hated that word and it was also the house that like everyone had passed on because there was just too much wrong. There’s 27 breaks in the water lines. The furnace wasn’t working. Furnace was broken. The water heater was broken. It has flat rooms that were leaking all over the house. It was outdated and ugly and just a disaster. See a lot of people looked at that house, just funny because now we’re in kind of a small community. When people find out we own that, they go, “Oh, yes we looked at that house! We passed.”

We’re the suckers who bought it!

Mindy: How long did it take to renovate the first house that you were living in? Did you just renovate the top half and then move on to yellow house?


Jillian: Yes.


Mindy: Okay, what did you pay for yellow house?


Jillian: Yellow house, it could set on the market at 130 for a while. They dropped it to 100 still can’t find a sucker and then in kind of a last-ditch attempt. Because at this point you have to understand all the investors were tapped-out of the market. They had spent all of their money on the good deals a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. There just wasn’t a lot of people who had the cash left. I think he asked 80 and we offered 73 1/2, and God, we kind of had this idea we did it with all of our houses like make it minimally viable.


We fixed all the things that had to be fixed. We put in a new furnace and a new water heater and it was great. Actually all of the things in that house, sometimes people are scared to take on houses that they have issues, that they don’t know how to fix, but the flip side to that is you don’t have to fix it. You just hire someone to fix it. We did not install a furnace ourselves. We did not fix all the water leaks ourselves, like we found someone. They have it done in about two weeks. To us is minimally viable. The kitchen was still like straight from the early 60s. None of the flooring matched, but it was good enough for someone to live there. We got someone in there probably two or three weeks.

Scott: How much did you rent for?

Jillian: Initially, it was really cheap. Because we just wanted to find someone who would be good. I think we rented it for like six or $700 a month, but we paid half cash for that. Our mortgage on that place is 189. Today it rents for 1,250.

Scott: That’s awesome.

Mindy: Have you done anything else to it?

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Since then does the flooring match?

Jillian: Yes! Over the years we have project-by-project. Like we swapped out the kitchen, we swapped out the flooring, we repainted it all, we put a new trim. Just as we’ve had the cash, we’ve slowly improved all of our properties.

Mindy: Okay, so now we have two houses now and one child.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Then when did you get more children? Because you have more than just one.

Jillian: I do, so I’d really wanted to adopt again. Because we really had a heart for especially the kids who like such a hard time being adopted that they might not be adopted. In about each year there’s about a hundred thousand kids just waiting for an adult to show up. Just anyone who is brave or crazy enough to take on the challenge. I just I really had a heart for those kids.

We did adopt a teenager, so I said okay, we’ll do a sibling group or a teenager either way we felt we’ll be good about it. Within our son passed away and in the rules and regulations you’re not allowed to become foster parents or adoptive parents within a year losing your child’s. Because it’s hard losing a child and it’s hard being a foster parent and they say, “You can’t do two hard things in one year.”

We waited for that first year and then yes, our first kiddo got dropped-off. Our boy came first. They were like one and a half, two and five at the time. We were their fifth to seventh placement. No one else had been able to keep them together. No one else had been able to handle their behaviors and with that sometimes unqualified confidence I said, “Don’t worry we’ve got this. We’ve got this.”

The next year would prove that a total lie, like I did not got this at all. It was so hard, but they were a sweet-pack. They were all half-siblings and so went from one to four within two years. Then I found that I was pregnant. Within two years we went from one to five which is a crazy transition. I think there’s a reason they come one at a time, like it’s helpful when they come one at a time. Instead of big groups of them.

Scott: You have these two properties. I assume that a big chunk of that cash you did invested is still sitting in the market at some point. You were working, over this period was your husband able to find work as well?

Jillian: Yes. He started working and we bought another house. Kind of gluttons for punishment. We found another house that had some serious issues and no one else wanted. That made our three houses.

Scott: To recap here, you move back in 2012 and within two years you have personal tragedy. You go from one to five children and you go from one to three houses.

Jillian: Yes, it was a little bit three years. We’re both working full-time. It was, yes, there were busy years.

Scott: Wow!

Mindy: They were busy years. I’ve lived that year without five children and busy is an understatement.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: You bought your third house, was
 this also a fixer-upper?

Jillian: Yes. It was.

Mindy: Of course. We don’t buy anything, but fixers. What did you pay for this house?

Jillian: This one I believe was selling for 110. We ended up taking out about a $100,000 mortgage on that one.

Mindy: Okay, and what was wrong with it?

Jillian: This would had probably the most difficult problem to solve. Who’s encountered this knows to like to run the other way, but it had a basement that leaked because of a high water table. Which is an ongoing and difficult problem. It has three sub-pumps, but would it happened that while it was in foreclosure as they turned off the power, ergo they turned off the sub-pumps and the whole thing filled with water, like lake! A lake in the basement.

Mindy: My neighbor has this house.

Jillian: It was difficult. It’s still difficult like we have to be a little proactive about funneling the water away from the home.

Mindy: Yes.

Jillian: This one was built in like 1980 and they had changed nothing. From 1980, then nothing had changed. Every door, every piece of trim, every paint like nothing had, the kitchen, even perhaps the shingles on the roof were the originals. It needed a lot of love.

Scott: How do you solve the water problem, I mean you just keep the pumps working at all times and make sure it’s insulated and the water tight?

Jillian: Yes, it isn’t the whole neighborhood. For the whole neighborhood it’s a difficult problem. What’s really helped is making sure we channel the water away from the house as far as possible, like drain like got our extenders and the whole front yard becomes a lake. We have to use like a front yard water pump to pump it into like the storm drain. Between those two things there’s still some water occasionally. If all the houses floods, theirs it’s going to flood too, a little bit.

Mindy: The basements not finished then?

Jillian: It is finished, but with concrete floors. We’ve kind of made it to where you know if there’s like one cup of water that comes in it’s okay. Yes. Probably every two years there’s one or two cups of water that travel in.

Mindy: Okay, well, that’s not so bad.

Jillian: What’s the like, I mean it sounds like this is when you begin really accelerating from a financial perspective. Is this period of time where you bought three properties and it sounds like we’re hitting about 14-ish right now. Is there a property was coming in just 14,000, 15?

Jillian: Where around there. Yes.

Scott: What happened in the years since and at what point did you kind of think, “Hey, we’re approaching financial independence, financial freedom?” 

Jillian: I’d set our financial independence goal initially at 60 and then 55.

Scott: 60, 60 what?

Jillian: 60 years old.

Scott: I see, yes!

Jillian: Then like 55. Then I said, “Ooh, maybe 50,” like that sounds awesome. Like I was going to do everything right. I was going to do every single thing in my power, but I didn’t have high expectations. I never would have thought like, “Yes, by like 32,” that’s totally unreasonable that seems ridiculous.

I knew that like we were growing our financial independence. My husband got a military pension which was like 1,450 a month. It’s not a huge amount of money, but a good chunk and we had health insurance. Then we’re pay cash with the house and like well that really helps lower our expenses. Then we had one rental property and then get another and I’m like, “Now things are looking good.” Our investments were growing, but I wouldn’t say that we felt ready. Which is now kind of on the other side I think a lot of people feel that way. They feel like we’re in a good spot, but we’re not ready.

The week the state officially asked us to adopt our kids, we went away for the weekend and just did like our cleaning. We kind of have these little married staycation-life planning retreats and went through all of this. Where we can’t even like in like five or eight years. Like we’ll really be set in like five or eight years. I came home when I thought I was pregnant and honestly I was kind of drowning with the four kids. There were so many appointments, they had so many needs it was so difficult. I found that I was pregnant and had a little bit of a mommy meltdown, like just crying and the doctors obviously I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I don’t have room in my house. I don’t have room in my van. I don’t have room in my schedule like I can’t do a baby.

I sat down with my husband; I’m like, “Plan B! We need a plan B. It is time for Plan B.” I’m like, you’re quitting. That’s the plan. Welcome to early retirement. We had initially planned like I really ran the numbers like maybe we can make it work. I felt really confident we can make it work for a year. That was our plan will take a year off. We had done for many retirements up into this point sporadically and it was like we’ll just do a longer one, we’ll do a whole year and we’ll see how it goes. We’ll go from there.

He asked to go part-time, like six months before this happened. They said, “No, no, that’s not happening.” This was our next plan. You know in the process of taking a year off our expenses lowered even more. I felt more confident in our numbers. I was like, “Oh, this kind of works actually. This is pretty good.” Now we’re two and a half years in and I’m like, “Oh, easy peasy, lemon squeezy,” like we got this.

Mindy: You’re two and a half years into your one-year retirement?

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Okay, okay. Do you have any plans to go back to formal, I’m talking about formal work?

Jillian: Yes. I think my husband might in like 20 years, but I suspect he’ll change his mind in 20 years. Honestly at this point we really liked working. We weren’t like we hated working so we quit, but our goal is more to just find the work that we’re really good at. The work that we really love and it kind of fits our lifestyle.

We just got back from a 10-week trip, so it should accommodate 10-week trips. Yes, we do some stuff, but it would be pretty tough for me to do 40 hours with an employer. I find at this point in my life I’m less interested in being a cog and less interested in working with people who are cogs. I like things for people just bring their best talents and their best passions and their best skill sets and we collaborate and we make things that are interesting and fun and helpful. That sounds really interesting, kind of fulfilling a task for another person less so.

Mindy: How are you funding your retirement? You’ve got income from your rentals?

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: You’ve got your military pension?

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: You have…

Scott: Stocks, I assume that still in the market.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Okay.

Jillian: Our expenses, I call it like our monthly nut, so if you tally up all of our bills like our car insurance and our dental insurance, our life insurance and our property tax and co-landers insurance, internet, gym, utilities like all of the things that we have to pay every month is about six to $700.

Mindy: Oh!

Jillian: Yes! That helps.

Scott: That’s because you have a paid off house?

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: Then for health insurance you’re getting that through the military, is that right?

Jillian: Yes, so I pay out for my dental insurance, but we don’t have like a monthly payment for a healthcare. There’s little cost we pay looks like 80/20, so we still fork out some money, but not like a monthly payment. Then for food we spend about six or $700. That puts us about 12. We do like fund money. We split we get 75 bucks each. That’s like for like eating-out and coffee and clothes and whatever fun stuff. After that we just don’t spend that much money. I might, I don’t know.

Scott: Well
 it seems like the reason why you’re able to do all this is because you have very low housing and transportation expense. You have paid-off car, paid-off house. No monthly outlays for those, so all this other stuff really isn’t what is most Americans are spending money on.

Jillian: Yes, yes.

Scott: It’s really those areas that you’ve totally eliminated from your budget through kind of smart planning and hard sometimes really overwhelming work with your house, but you’ve gotten there I mean and now you don’t need that much income to support what sounds like a really awesome lifestyle.

Jillian: I’m meeting with Flathead Valley and have had some other writers and readers come to visit me this summer. It’s like, I don’t have the time. Even now that we don’t work I don’t have the time to do all of the amazing fun, free stuff that’s here. I think the area just offers so much stuff. I don’t have the time to do it. I can’t pack any more fun into my life, we’ve already kind of maxed out on the funded entertainment.

Normally our spending comes to under 2,000 a month. Not that we like particularly careful, or frugal I would say. We have the awesome life and I don’t feel the need to spend more to prove that.

Mindy: That sounded good.

Scott: After food and expenses of life, housing, health insurance, transportation; I’m mean $1,000 a month, $1,200 a month is a lot of fun you know. It’s a lot of entertainment expenses, expenditure, so I mean like that lifestyle that you just described for $2,000 a month 1,500 to $2,000 a month.

You know in Denver if you have a housing payment and a car payment and you’re paying $600 in health insurance, that’s a $45,000 a year lifestyle, right. That’s I guess the big secret that you’ve got is that through smart choices, hard work, sacrifice, service to the country you’ve gotten these ability to cover these major expenses.

Jillian: Yes, so our income is 1,450 from the pension and about 1,200 from our rentals; so that puts us at 26 which is a lot of buffer. We’re like a thousand bucks a month over our expenses. We have a little bit over 200,000 in investments we could pull from. We just haven’t had to. We keep 50,000 in cash just a buffer you know, kind of because it feels good. I like having it full.

Mindy: Yes, that’s a nice one. Are you currently investing in anything? Are you looking at more houses?

Jillian: Maybe, like in the next five years. Right now our youngest is two and a half and I just don’t feel like I have the bandwidth to do a huge renovation or build something. In the next five years we might add one more property, maybe. We’re kind of enjoying the travel and relaxingness of sitting in our garden in the morning and drinking tea and reading and letting the kids eat raspberries from our raspberry bushes and jump on the trampoline. That’s probably two or three hours of our day each day.

Scott: That’s awesome. Now that you’ve gotten it, you’ve had a couple years into this fine lifestyle you’re saying that your day is spent watching it. What is a typical day in the life and what are these travels that you’re going on?

Jillian: I’m really trying to construct kind of in my ideal is to create a life it’s such a perfect fit that I would never want to retire from it. Like this is what I’ll do every day until I die because it’s such an amazing fit for me. I love it if I have two or three hours that feel really productive. That I‘m either talking to people, or I’m helping people, or I’m writing, or I’m creating or just something it’s not like managing the chaos of kids. Two or three hours is about my happy amount.

Even my husband’s like if I haven’t done anything for a couple days he’s like, “Maybe you should go to the coffee shop. I think that would probably be a good choice.” We try to exercise every day. We try to spend time outside every day. Traveling like I said we just took a 10-week trip in our copper camper and we did 10 national parks and it was amazing.

Scott: Does the camper sleep seven?

Jillian: It does.

Scott: Oh wow!

Jillian: It does. I know. All seven of us which is a great experience in separating your wants from your needs. Because apparently we need that which is like apparently we need at least 150, 200 square feet. The 1,700 square foot house that we’ve live in, apparently 1,500 of that is just want. It’s just luxury.

Scott: Oh man.

Mindy: Unnecessary. Wow!

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: Wow, so one week in every national park?

Jillian: We divided it up a little bit different like when we did arches
 and Canyonlands like we did like four days between both of those. Some places we stayed a little bit longer. We also did Disney like three days. We went down to San Diego Zoo did that for four days.

Mindy: Wow.

Jillian: Meets our friends and family and we have one of the best I think the two best values in travel are the National Park Pass and there’s a Science Museum Pass. If you have kids it is like a killer deal. We pay I think 70 or 80 bucks a year and we get into like 300 different Science Museums for free.

Mindy: This is something I just heard about.

Jillian: It’s so awesome. Nobody knows! I tell everybody. Because I’m like when we travel, when we do big trips we just say, “Okay, what Science Museums were in that, that city in Salt Lake?” We did like three or four different ones. For a big family, you’re taking an experience that would be 80 or $90 per trip and we’re doing it for free. We hit all the Science Museums. Between those two things National Parks and Science Museums that’s 99% of our entertainment.

Mindy: Okay, we are going to have a link to this Science Museum Pass that you’re talking about. You’re the second person that I’ve heard discuss this. First one was a couple that my husband met at Chautauqua a hundred years ago.

Jillian: Here’s the trick though, you can’t buy it like online by itself. You buy through a museum. Now you can buy it online through the museum’s, but you have to pick one. Here’s the funny thing, all the museums have a different price for the pass. Because you’re basically buying an annual pass to their museum and it just includes all of the others for free. If you have one in your town, that’s kind of my deal because you get to visit that a lot more often. If not, you know maybe pick one close to you, or if there’s nothing anywhere near you pick the cheapest one.

Mindy: Yes, okay. Yes, that Science Museum Pass is really awesome!

Scott: I have two quick questions before we move on to the famous four here. First, was there a year in this entire period where you or your husband as individuals earned more than $50,000 from wage income? What do you think the height, like the peak of that would be from an individual earning simply.

Jillian: Man, if you look at our social security records they are embarrassingly low so, but it’s a little hard to figure because he didn’t have healthcare which was paid for which is a great benefit. Housing was paid for. None of that shows up on your social security income. Then we started having rental income as well. I think well, you can look at his pay chart, I mean that’s pretty darn easy. He finished as an E4, it’s like 10 years of service. I think that monthly payout is like 2,000 a month. I think my highest earning year was probably in 35 maybe. It’s like pretty normal. We just earned normal amounts of money.

Scott: What I want to point out though is that a lot of people that listen to this have a household where at least one person is earning more than that maybe 50,000, 60,000 mark and yes there were some benefits like health insurance and housing stipend. What I want to point out is that if you guys can do this then a lot of other folks can kind of learn from your story and repeat it as well, because I think there’s a lot of folks that have more resources than what you had during this entire period to play with. 

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: That can learn some things to deploy them more efficiently the way that you guys have.

Jillian: Yes. I really encourage people. Once you get a lot of clarity about what you want, once you can get a lot of clarity and really write down like this is important to me, this is will what my lifestyle will look like and this is what I really value. That’s an amazing filter for how you spend your time and your money and what things make sense and what don’t. It enables you to have gratitude and motivation to do hard things or to do things that are just hard because they’re different because nobody else is doing them. 

Actually this makes sense for me, for where I want to go this is the right choice and we really need that confidence to look for it in those things that like none of our friends are doing or other people actively think is crazy. When a relative walk through our house, our $50,000 house before we bought it, which was a mistake. I should never have let any of my family see the house. She was like, “Oh, sweetheart, you’re not going to live here are you? No, no, I mean you can’t make my grandson live here. Like this isn’t. This isn’t, okay,” and I was like, “No it’ll be fine. I swear.” Totally not believing at myself, but just like I feel like, “I have no choice. I swear.” 

Scott: I think that’s a great point just having clarity on your goals and knowing what matters and being able to block-out the noise. One way to help that is with the books that you’ve probably been reading. Where, hey, all of a sudden; hey, everyone around me you could think that this is crazy; but the people I associate with, the people that I’m reading, voices in my head, the book author, these podcasts, these types of things they make it seem more achievable and more normal. Because it is something a lot of people are doing even if they’re not right there in your neighborhood.

Mindy: Yes. That’s one of the things that I have discovered that I like the most about the finance community. The personal finance community is just everybody is in their own little bubble there like a frugal weirdo. Once they reach out and there’s meetup groups and there’s Facebook groups and there’s ways to connect with people that aren’t even close to you and you discover, “I do have a lot in common with somebody. I’m not so weird. There’s a lot of other people that are doing this too.” You just kind of tune-out the noise where people are talking about things that don’t matter.

It almost makes having regular conversations with like neighbors kind of difficult once you discover. There are other people that are like me, it’s kind of cool. I don’t really want to talk to these people that look at my latest phone or my latest thing or check out my brand new car and they’re like, “You could have saved so much more money if you just drove your crappy old car for another five years. You could have retired five years earlier,” or you know whatever.

Jillian: I still have my Honda Civic that’s 18 years old that we bought when we live in DC. It was like a few years old then and I still drive it and looks bad now. Not like I’m not going to lie. It is a hoop D as the day is long. I went to have the tires changed, like snow tires to regular summer tires. You slide with Montana when you use snow tires. Then this poor guy he’s like this 24-year old guy comes out, he has to get in my car to bring it to change the tires and he has this look on his face like, “Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to drive this car. You look like a nice person who needs a nice car.” I didn’t know what to say because it was really awkward, but in my head I’m thinking dude, “It’s okay. I’m rich. That’s okay.” I don’t feel bad about this at all.

Mindy: That’s the best thing when people pity you because they think you don’t have any money.

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: I remember biking to work one day and I am going down a hill and this is one stretch of road, I can’t take the trail. This guy had a big pickup truck pulls it next to me. Apparently he didn’t like the fact that I was biking and not impacting his day at all, but he shouts and how it goes, “Sucks to be poor!” I was like, “Oh, no.” I didn’t know what to say or what to think. I was like, man like that pickup truck probably has a huge look, I don’t know, there’s… Yes, I get the feeling.

Jillian: That’s the hardest, honestly the hardest part about me building well was getting over the neurotic insecurity about looking poor. Because growing up poor there’s so much shame and so much embarrassment about being poor. I hate it, like it was an easy like soft spot on me looking poor, but it was like I just had to make a choice. I can either continue to look poor and try to build more financial freedom, or I can spend all of my money trying to not look poor, but I’m probably not going to be able to do both.

Scott: Yes.

Mindy: Yes, you’re not. Although you can shop at thrift stores especially if you live near a rich area.

Jillian: You know, but even then I have to go into a thrift store which even now like it’s like the smell of my childhood and it kind of like brings back that, “Oh, this is horrible,” feeling and my gut just a little bit I have to like push through like, “No, I don’t have to be there, I’m choosing to be here,” like this is a choice that aligns with my goals. Yes, it’s such a struggle for people who’ve grown-up in poverty.

You’ll notice often times when I see people spent an exorbitant amount on their kid’s clothes, I’m like, “Oh, they grew-up poor.” That’s what that is right there. Because all of their insecurities, all of their bad experiences they put right on their kids and say, “I don’t ever want my kids to feel that way.” I don’t ever want them to feel like they don’t fit in or they’re being made fun of so I’ll spend hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars to ensure that they don’t.

Mindy: That’s a good point. I just shop at thrift stores because I’m cheap. I grew-up, go to garage sales. I thought everybody shuns the garage sales, apparently that was just me.

Scott: What do your kids think about your situation? You acutely were aware of growing-up in poverty, do your kids feel the same way or do they understand what it is that you’ve done and like, “Hey, we’re actually pretty well-off, we just choose not to,” you know spend lavishly on all these different things.

Jillian: Yes, so our kids we really try to involve them in the process. Explaining how our choices have given us more options and more freedom. That both parents can go to a parent-teacher conference and we can take off for ten weeks and travel a country. Maybe they don’t assume that that’s normal. Because it’s not, it’s not normal that we have this kind of flexible lifestyle.

We really try to involve our kids in the rentals. We kind of have kind of a system, zero to five in our house is learning how to work. Then five to ten it’s learning how to spend and manage money. Then ten up is learning how to invest and grow your skill set. Our oldest, just turns tens I’m like, okay, now you know they’ve already been helping us the rentals and learning what that’s about.

Now we’re going to start investing and growing your skill set, so you get to try more things. You get to try to make graphics and camp it for me and we going to try to like flooring and our rental. We’ll pay you and you get to invest in a Roth IRA. Because now you’re ten and that’s what 10 year olds get to do.

Mindy: I love it! I love it! It’s time for our famous four questions. These are the same four questions that we ask of all of our guests. There’s actually five, but we still call it the famous four because we’re clever like that. The first one, what is your favorite finance book? You could have more than one. You’re a big reader.

Jillian: I am a big reader and I have different ones for different people. I love making book recommendations for people. It’s like my favorite. I really, for comprehensive kind of financial education, I kind of still go back to the David Bach’s Smart Couple Finish Rich. I think it’s really well-rounded. I just finished Cait Flanders book The Year of Less which isn’t exactly about personal finance, but it’s very refreshing. That was a good read.

Scott: Awesome!

Mindy: The Year of Less.

Scott: I don’t know we’ve had either of those books recommended in the past.

Mindy: No, I know… David Bach books, but I think it was like Smart Women Finish Rich.

Scott: All right. What was your biggest money mistake in this period?

Jillian: Man! All of my mistakes probably stemmed from the same two things, fear and shame. Any time I made a choice it was based on a fear or shame. It just never ended well. There were big ones, like I can start investing so probably too late, later that I could have because I was scared. I didn’t understand it.

Every time I’ve spent money because of shame, like “I’m not good enough. I need a new outfit. Like maybe if I just had a different lipstick. Like maybe if I had a different couch, or a better yard, or just something to feel better about myself and my situation.” I’ve always regretted those. Because if you don’t feel enough just by yourself, more stuff generally does not fix that.

Mindy: That’s so good.

Scott: Yes, it’s great advice.

Jillian: I think that honestly in the generation coming up that travel can even qualify that. People see everyone else’s vacation photos and their trips and they think, “My life’s not good enough. I’m not good enough. If I just had that, then I would be happy and I’d be healthy and whole,” and so they put vacations on credit cards and then you just come home and you and credit card debt.

Mindy: Yes, that’s not going to help anything.

Jillian: Yes.

Mindy: What is your best piece of advice for people who are just starting out on their own journey to financial independence?

Jillian: I think we cover this a little bit, but know your goals. Because once you know your goals you can filter a lot and there’s something I work with all the people in it, but I work with our mentor. Is that there’s helpful ideas and there’s unhelpful to your goals? Sometimes general advice or things that’s just helpful for one person isn’t helpful for you and where you want to go. The only way you can filter that is knowing where you want to go. It’s the only way you can decide how you should work your schedule and your time and your money is knowing where you want to go.

Honestly, the helpful and unhelpful it can be tricky to figure out. What mindsets are really helpful for me moving forward and which ones are holding me back. Especially if it’s been a mindset that’s been passed down to us by people that we respected and that mindset worked really well for them, but it doesn’t work for where we’re trying to go.

Scott: Yes, I think that’s really good advice because I think there’s a lot of… I’ll use the word “zealotry.” Sometimes in the personal finance community about the right way to do very specific things and that does not apply. If you just kind of listen without having your goals kind of in your head, you might end up working towards someone else’s goal instead of your own goal. Which sounds like you have avoided successfully. 

You’re like, “I know exactly what I want. I don’t need to get to this 25 times my annual expenditures. I need to get to this goal for my lifestyle for these needs now and I build a system that is very sustainable for that,” and the rest of the advice in the financial dependence community, all these rules that they have simply don’t apply because I’m very clear on that.

Jillian: Yes. There were a number of people when we jumped-off they we’re like, “Oh sweetie, you’re not ready. Those numbers, I wouldn’t do those numbers. Like you should just keep working with few more years.” It’s been amazing. It’s not amazing like I would never trade it in these last couple of years for two more years of salary.

Scott: You have two years with expenses in cash you mentioned.

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: Like, ready to go. Like, who’s at risk in the situation?

Jillian: Yes.

Scott: I think you have I know that’s a great advice and I am a big goal setter, I have a sheet of paper with my goals every single day of my career. There are things that you don’t do towards the goals and needs to filter out. I’m very organized about that so I love that advice.

All right, last and most difficult question of the famous four, what is your favorite joke to tell at parties?

Jillian: I am not funny at all. Am I so not funny. I don’t even try jokes. 

Mindy: I wish you worked here instead of Scott. Scott just plays jokes and tells jokes all the time.

Jillian: I am not a joke teller, but I do keep bear spray in my house and when people want to talk about Montana I usually talk about bear spray because they find it amusing. That there is pepper spray that stops grizzly bears or it just stops grizzly bears which is hard. They’re hard to deter. NonMontana people find that amusing and that’s like my only amusing tidbit.

Scott: Well, I’ll brag about one I had the other day with Josh… here. Josh is on a trip to Alaska and he takes a picture of some bears that he sees across a river. He’s, Oh look, it’s unbearable out here. How beautiful it is or something and I’m like, “Pfff!” That’s terrible I said that never toured back with us. That looks like a true “Kodiak” moments. 

Mindy: Oh my goodness!

Jillian: I’m not funny either. I can’t do palms. I can’t do jokes. Know your strengths. That’s not mine.

Scott: Well, fair enough.

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

Jillian: The best way to get a hold of me or to just keep in touch with what I’m doing is my email list. It’s kind of like my secret blog to my readers. Because I feel like those are really my peeps, so I write all of the stuff that I would never publish on the internet. I just email to people. Because I just pretend that I’m writing an email to a friend and so I just tell them whatever I tell my best friend.

Mindy: Okay.

Jillian: I love it. You can always hit reply and I answer every single one of those emails. Rant other random emails, I’m like 70% other even more random emails I delete, but if you’re a subscriber I feel like you were already friends, so of course I’m going to respond to your email. I emailed you as a friend, you’re emailing me back as a friend. Yes, like all my stuff goes through there.

Mindy: Okay and how did somebody get on that list?

Jillian: If you hit my website.

Mindy: Which is?

Jillian: We kind to make it pretty easy. Montana Money Adventures. 

Mindy: Okay and like I said before we will have links to all of these things on our show notes. Jillian, thank you so much for your time today and we’ll talk to you soon!

Jillian: Bye.

Mindy: Bye.

Scott: A
ll right, that was Jillian Johnsrud from Montana Money Adventures. What do you think Mindy?

Mindy: Oh my goodness! I love talking to Jillian. She is such a genuinely warm person.

Scott: Yes, she really is. You can tell like she has embraced a lot of challenges that some people wouldn’t take on, right. I mean she adopted a whole group of siblings there.

Mindy: Oh God!

Scott: That really made the whole group, what do you mean?

Mindy: No, I’m just, I’m laughing at the way you said that, but yes adopting one child can be difficult especially when you’re not getting them as a baby. I don’t actually know if that’s the right way to say that, getting them if you are…

Scott: Adopting.

Mindy: That’s what I say. My sister was
 adopted and I say we got her when she was eight months old. I don’t know if that’s appropriate or not, if that’s… I’m not being rude. I’m just saying you know. When you adopt as an infant, the infant hasn’t had a chance to make a lot of connections. When you adopt as a young child they have these experiences that have shaped them already, so adopting one as a child is going to be a challenge. Can be a challenge. It doesn’t always have to be a challenge, but adopting three, I mean that’s a really amazing thing that she was able to do for these children.

Scott: Yes and going from one to five children in two years is a heck of a lot to handle and moving towards five during the whole time. It’s a very impressive emotional and logistical challenge.

Mindy: Challenge is a good word. When I hear logistical, I always think it’s a logistical nightmare! This is a logistical challenge.

Scott: Yes.

Mindy: You know what I love what she said, I’m trying to create a life that is such a perfect fit that I never want to retire from it. I really can’t top that.

Scott: Awesome.

Mindy: O
kay, Scott, shall we get out of here?

Scott: Let’s get out of here.

Mindy: Okay. From Episode 36 of the BiggerPockets Money podcast, this is Mindy Jensen and Scott Trench, over and out. 




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In This Episode We Cover:

  • The backstory behind Jillion moving out on her own at a young age
  • How she found out she had huge debt
  • What motivated her to learn more about financial freedom
  • The advantages of having a roommate to pay half of the rent
  • How she saved $125k from doing regular jobs and simple side jobs
  • How she took of their children while working full-time
  • Why she bought a $50k house instead of a more expensive, nicer one
  • Their six children (including those they adopted)
  • The challenges they encountered with the fixer-upper properties they bought
  • How they’re taking a mini-retirement
  • Life changes they made and why they travel often
  • Thoughts on “looking poor”
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Books Mentioned in this Show

Tweetable Topics:

  • “Money equals choices.” (Tweet This!)
  • “There are helpful ideas and unhelpful ideas to your goals.” (Tweet This!)

Connect with Jillian

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.