OFB Interviews: Bankruptcy & Tiny Houses

OFB Interviews: Courtney

We are once again very excited for this next installment in our series of interviews with readers who have a financial story to share. Today we’re talking with Courtney from Dos Pinos.

Tell us your story.

When I was in college, majoring in performing arts, I got my first credit card… and went a little crazy. I financed a new computer, a car, and then got another credit card. And before I graduated (with a degree that would get me nowhere) I was up to my eyeballs in debt. I was so embarrassed and knew my measly college job couldn’t keep me afloat.

I quit school and filed bankruptcy, which was a two-year ordeal that left me exhausted of creditors and money in general. I decided I wanted out and stayed under the radar for over 7 years, enough time for my poor credit to disassociate itself from my name. I didn’t have a bank account and paid cash for everything. I didn’t even drive a car because I couldn’t afford it! I got a free bike, moved to a tiny apartment within 5 miles of everything I needed and pedaled to commute! During these years (my best years!) I started working in agriculture and met my husband. We just got our first credit card, the first step in actualizing our 1–2 year plan of building good credit and saving for a down payment on land of our own.

What advice do you have for young folks looking to get their first credit card?

Based on my experience, I would avoid credit cards unless I absolutely knew what I was building credit for. It recently occurred to me that credit cards are primarily a tool to establish reputable credit history for something bigger that one cannot readily afford, like a mortgage. It is so easy to approach credit cards with a nonchalant attitude, thinking you can live outside your means and just pay it back later. That is how you end up swimming in credit card debt and then end up with a poor credit history to clean up when it comes time to make more responsible choices. The decision to have a credit card is a huge step into adulthood. It should be made with a specific purpose in mind, and it should be taken super seriously.

Once we had our credit card in hand, my husband and I decided to only use it for one thing: a necessity that’s already included in our budget and that we pay for on a very regular basis — gas! We know we will have the money to pay the bill in full every month because we don’t spend that allocated gas money on anything else. We’ll never pay interest on credit card debt, and our credit score will increase because of our promptness.

You mentioned that after you filed for bankruptcy, you paid cash for everything. What did you learn from your years sans plastic?

It took awhile to get over the fact that I went bankrupt at such a young age, but looking back I am glad it happened sooner rather than later. I felt liberated from my debt but at the same time ashamed that I couldn’t pay it off. I wanted to use the time right after to discover how I got myself into that situation and how I could avoid it in the future. I needed a break!

For the first time in my life, I was able to save money. I didn’t do the best job in the beginning, but having all my cash right in front of me certainly helped. When it was gone, it was gone, and I had to constantly make sure that didn’t happen. I would work hard for periods of time so I could support myself while I was learning agriculture.

Another wonderful thing to come out of my poor cash years was biking. I really enjoyed not being reliant on fossil fuels, having a way to exercise daily, and being free of insurance, maintenance, and registration payments!

The biggest lesson I learned was to avoid being indebted to any company or person and to satisfy those debts as quickly as possible. You have more control over your life when you don’t owe anyone anything.

What are you doing now to keep your finances in check?

My husband and I use the budgeting app Mint. We try to approach our budget with a positive attitude. For instance we try to think, “We are giving ourselves $50 to spend on eating at cafés or restaurants.” (which rolls over monthly) vs. “We can only spend $50 on eating at cafés or restaurants?!” This train of thought really helps us to feel like we are earning our indulgences instead of restricting them.

We don’t go to every function anymore and don’t have FOMO moments because we know how our money could be better spent. We will enjoy our land so much more than drinks at the bar one night. It’s all about the positives!

We love that you’re saving for a farm. So what sort of money and training/experience do you need to become a Farmer Courtney?

I am so excited to answer this because I LOVE to talk about what I do. I love food and I love when other people love food, too!

Not much experience is required to be a farmer, but a certain willingness for hard work and getting dirty are definitely needed. I never thought, when I was trying to make my Barbie doll’s hair perfect for her special date with Ken in my super pink bedroom, that I would end up splashing fish emulsion all over myself or sticking my hands under a chicken’s butt on a daily basis!

A positive attitude is also a plus since nature loves to let you know you’re not in control and devastations do happen. Contrary to what many think, it’s not that difficult to raise plants. I used to be the kind of person that thought plants died in my presence. Now, my husband does the veggies and I do the cut flowers, and we are trying to figure out what kind of farming future we want to fit into by experiencing all the different facets of agriculture. Do we want to go to markets only, have a CSA, or both? Do we want to raise animals, and if so which ones and what breeds?

When we discovered we liked playing in the dirt, we went to apprentice on 4 different farms — some separate, some together. But the real experience came when we got to run a farm on our own, which is where we are now in our second season. Managing a farm on our own before owning one was the best step we’ve taken. We were lucky to have the non-profit we work for put up our starting costs at the beginning of the season, yet with most decision-making about the farm’s direction belonging to us.

In agriculture you spend most of your money during late winter and early spring before earning a dime, which happens at the start of summer. The startup costs can be astronomical (upwards of $150,000)! So much infrastructure is needed: a greenhouse or hoop houses, fencing for animals, a wash station, heat, and irrigation. And that’s just the beginning. For this reason, we decided to build a tiny house so we have a bulky down payment for our own land and can pay the mortgage off within 10 years. An established farm with a barn and a greenhouse would be a plus, but we want to be prepared for the alternative. Once our farm is established and most of the land is paid off, we will build a bigger house. We are also trying to devise creative ways of farming for less, like not relying on a tractor and the fuel that goes with it.

In the future, we hope to navigate using our farm business for all of our living expenses, including saving for retirement and children’s college expenses. But for now my husband has an off-farm job as a nurse until we get established.

Thanks for sharing your story, Courtney! It’s great to hear from someone who has bounced back so completely from bad financial habits. What an inspiring and fascinating story… and now I want to be a farmer.

We’ll be sharing more stories soon! In the meantime, if you have any questions or thoughts for Courtney, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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  • Reply Ali @ Anything You Want June 3, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Mint is the best!

    I love that you re-frame negatives into positives. Its all about perspective!

  • Reply Dane Hinson June 3, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Hey Joanna and Johnny,

    Just came across your blog and it’s great. I’m a young parent of two boys and this was a refreshing finance blog combined with family. This world of blogging is all new to me. I’ve always wanted another outlet outside of my 9-5. I started a blog two days ago and it has been so great to get my thoughts out there. If you have any advice for me I would greatly appreciate it. There seems to be so many aspects of setting up a site, collaborating with others, developing content, etc. that it’s a bit overwhelming. But I’m looking forward to embarking on this blogging journey.

    Best regards,

    • Reply Joanna June 6, 2015 at 1:27 am

      Good for you setting up a site! More than anything else, I think as long as you’re passionate and genuine about what you’re writing about, you’ll be able to both be motivated to blog and others will naturally be drawn to your content. Best of luck!

  • Reply Meghan June 4, 2015 at 12:52 am

    Great story! I’ve been hating the office life and this is something to think about. I’ve been frugal since I started repaying my student loans and still have high expenses but a new fire has been lit under me. I want to have the ability to do whatever makes me happy – whether it’s owning a small consignment store or a farm – or whatever! I’m dedicated to saving as much as humanly possible. 🙂

    • Reply Courtney June 4, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Hey Meghan!

      Now’s the time to get into agriculture! Not only do we need more farmers offering better food alternatives but the National Young Farmers Coalition has been lobbying hard in Washington to add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. The Young Farmer Success Act of 2015 (H.R. 2590) has just been introduced in the House by Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT) and they need all the help they can get which is as simple as a letter to your local representative which NYFC has already drafted. All they need is your zip code to determine your representative. Check it out http://www.youngfarmers.org/studentloans. #farmingispublicservice

      Good Luck!

    • Reply Joanna June 6, 2015 at 1:28 am

      Way to go, Meghan! And we wholeheartedly agree. It’s crazy the possibilities that open up when we build up our savings. Keep on keepin’ on!

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