My parents declared bankruptcy -- twice -- and it dramatically changed my life

Chris-muller-kidChris Muller / Money MozartThe author, before his family went through bankruptcy.

My family lived pretty well off when I was younger, growing up in a four-bedroom ranch in Southern California.

We had a lot of really nice things, too.

As an example, my dad leased most of his cars, so he typically had a new one every few years. I still remember riding in his brand new white Cadillac. This thing was fully loaded — leather seats, CD player, sunroof, and a CAR PHONE!

At different points in time he also had a new Bronco, a Dodge Ram truck that he modified to be more like a suburban, and a mid-1960s Lincoln with suicide doors that he mostly restored to it’s former glory.

In addition to those cars, we had a boat that was parked in our side yard (we had room for it), but we didn’t take it out much. I do recall my dad letting me steer it out on the water one time, which was pretty sweet.

We also owned not one, but two cabins in Big Bear — which happens to now be one of California’s more popular ski vacation towns. The first cabin was decent — I remember it being small and it had a little backyard. It was also on a crowded street. We had cool neighbours, though. We went up there on the weekends occasionally, until my parents decided to upgrade to the 2nd cabin and rent this one out.

Now the second cabin … that thing was incredible. I still remember it clearly — it was huge, brown cabin on a cul-de-sac on top of a hill with giant windows that overlooked the beautiful Big Bear landscape. The property was really nice — loaded with trees and plenty of space for our dog to play.

Our primary home had a really nice property as well. We had plenty of space in the house, but the entirely fenced-in backyard featured a few lemon trees, a multi-leveled deck, a hot tub, and an in-ground pool. You can probably imagine how many kids were at our house on a weekly basis for swimming parties.

Financially, we weren’t rich, although we seemed to live like it. My mum was the lunch lady at my elementary school and only worked a few hours a day, while my dad had a pretty good job with a Fortune 500 company. So how did we afford all of this? Simply put, we didn’t.

After 20+ years at his company, my dad was let go.

To spare my entire life story, I’ll say this — after my dad was laid off, I watched my parents go through bankruptcy not once, but twice. I saw our cars get repossessed — literally taken out of our driveway. We had homes that were foreclosed on, and I can’t even begin to tell you how many moving trucks I’ve filled up. In total we lived in five different states and eight different homes before I finished college.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, and losing everything brings you closer together.

My parents weren’t happy back then. Yeah we had money and a bunch of material possessions, but it just made things more difficult I think. My dad was miserable — he worked constantly, he was always stressed out, and he just didn’t seem like the same person he is today.

Fast-forward nearly two decades after this whole ordeal, and you’ll find that my parents are quite happy now. They live in Florida, but they both still work. Mostly because they have to, but I know they enjoy their low-stress jobs and the nice Florida weather.

It does make me think, though. Had they lived below their means early on, I wonder what their lives would be like now. Maybe they’d be fully retired, living in a home they want instead of renting a condo, or travelling.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is their mindset toward money, and I constantly wonder why.

Despite everything they went through, they still got loans and drive brand new cars, they have cable with DVR, and just recently upgraded to the brand new iPhone 6. I’ve tried to help change their mindset, but nothing seems to work.

I’ve settled on the fact that there are most likely major events in your life that determine how you think about certain topics, like money. Depending on the path you choose at that major event, it can affect your mindset for the rest of your life.

The events I experienced have dramatically changed my life.

In my first year of college, I had no clue what I wanted to do. My parents had taken out a loan for me to go to a popular state school, and I ended up partying with my friends more than thinking about my path.

Before I started my second year, I almost wasn’t able to go back. Not because of grades, but because my parents weren’t able to get any more loan money to send me.

Somehow, we found a way to get a loan about a week before the school year started and I went back for my second year.

At this point, I started to really think about money. I saw what had happened to my parents, and what seemed to still be happening, and I wanted to learn. I toyed around with a few other majors before winter break, and that’s when it really hit me.

I took a job over break at a restaurant busing tables. Believe it or not, I started making some really good money, and most of it was cash tips. This was the first time I’d actually started making decent money, so I ultimately decided to stick around my hometown, transfer to the local state university, and continue working at the restaurant.

In addition, part of me did feel bad about continuing to burden my parents with a loan for my schooling, so that was a major factor in me transferring as well — this school was much cheaper. This is when a dramatic shift in my life occurred. I started becoming obsessed with all things business and finance. I wanted to follow the stock exchange, learn how to retire early, and do everything in my power to not make the same financial mistakes my parents did.

I took on finance as a major, and it turned out I was really good at it. I barely read the books assigned in class and seemed to pick most of the material naturally. I enjoyed classes like Advanced Investments, where we’d use formulas to value a stock. During my senior year of college, I even did an internship at an equity research firm. After undergrad, I took an entry level job doing inbound sales for a bank. Meanwhile, I decided to get my MBA in finance by going to school at night. I

‘m now married, with a degree in finance, an MBA with a focus in finance, and an employment history that includes two Fortune 500 banks. I constantly wonder if it was my upbringing that created this path for me. Growing up in the fashion that I did has caused me to be very frugal, if not extreme. One of the things I’m really working on is being more balanced, which you’ll read about in my blog.

Although I wrote about some very personal and difficult life experiences in this post, I feel the need to emphasise that I truly do love my parents. I am extremely grateful that I was given an upbringing that some kids can only imagine. I was spoiled and fortunate to have a roof over my head and a family that loved me dearly. I have a great relationship with my parents today, and I think it’s ok that we don’t see eye-to-eye on money. That doesn’t mean that I won’t stop trying, though.

This post originally appeared on Money Mozart.

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