And it motivated him to save his money and gain financial independence.

While attending middle school, Cal from FI Me Outta Here worked for his lunch. His parents made just over the limit to qualify them for the free lunch program.

“I’m talking like $50 or some ridiculous amount,” says Cal. “We immigrated from Asia, and my parents didn’t realize how the system worked.”

So, he became a “cafeteria helper” during summer school. And he took the job seriously.

“One of the lunch ladies took notice and ‘promoted’ me to work in the kitchen to help package and carry cartons of milk to serve,” Cal recalls. “I did a good job again and took advantage of all the leftovers I could eat and take home.”

He believed the free food was “a blessing because I felt like I would never go hungry regardless of what was happening at home.” He received the lunches from 4th grade until 10th grade.

It was his “first real world experience of working a job,” Cal says. “The lunch ladies gave us a very small stipend. The money helped me partially pay for a trip when I was in band and orchestra. The rest came from the generosity of other parents.”

A sense of community

During Cal’s sophomore year, his parents divorced. He ended up sharing a 200-square-foot studio apartment with his mom. He told me it was better than sleeping in the car. But it certainly wasn’t like home.

“There was almost no privacy,” Cal says. “The bathroom was separated by a curtain, while the main room only consisted of two twin beds and a small table — the kitchen was communal, which meant it was being used all the time.”

But his friends and their families came through for Cal. They invited him over for “sleepovers” and also fed him. “Their support helped me tremendously and built my sense of community of helping out others in need,” Cal says.

Not having things didn’t seem like a hardship for Cal. Sure, he felt frustrated at times, but he believes those feelings give you a sense of pride in accomplishing things that are earned, not given. For example, he earned his first car.

“One of my first cars was a crappy black Toyota coupe,” Cal says. “The windows didn’t roll down properly, and it didn’t have A/C but it was paid for. My family’s mantra is never owe anyone anything — favors or money.”

Perseverance and resiliency

Cal grinded his way through college. He worked throughout and only recently earned his bachelor’s degree.

“The method I paid for college was by working two jobs at a time and at one point three jobs,”  Cal says.

Throughout his working years, he met many supportive managers which allowed him to pursue his education. Cal believes, “I received more education in my jobs and from people that I have worked with, than I did at school.”

But one job tested his will. He was working 12-hour days and sometimes weekends and didn’t get compensated for his time because he was on salary. But it helped him financially in another way.

“It pushed me to really cut down on all my spending, not that I had the time to spend the money, and save like crazy in case I was ever laid off,” Cal says. “This has stuck with me ever since.”

This job, along with his childhood memories, taught him perseverance and resiliency.

Financial independence

Cal now works in logistics, purchasing, and international trade — and saves almost 65 percent of his paycheck.

“I max out 401(k) contributions and max out my IRA,” Cal says. “I split the excess between investment accounts with Betterment and Vanguard.”

And he dabbles in the stock market. He also lives a minimalist lifestyle.

“The place where I live is small and not inviting to guests,” Cal says. “I don’t even have a couch — which office chair that I got from my work’s dumpster would you like? — but to me it’s just a place to sleep.”

He saves and lives like this because his goal is financial independence (FI).

For Cal, FI means “having true freedom of expression. We are often are afraid of who we offend or how other people would feel, especially in a work setting. We must keep quiet in order to maintain the paycheck, even though we would otherwise adamantly disagree. It gives you the power to say no and to do the right thing when you are conflicted.”
Cal gave us this advice so we, too, could reach FI:
  • Save as early as you can. The compound interest can work a lot harder than you can during old age.
  • Always try to build up more than one source stream of income and diversify your skill set.
  • Don’t overcomplicate things. For example, with budgeting, in the words of Leslie Tayne, “Budgeting has only one rule: Do not go over budget.”

I’ll end with the same Brigham Young quote that Cal used to end our interview: “True independence and freedom can only exist in doing what’s right.”

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Brian Bienkowski

Brian Bienkowski


Bienkowski is a contributing writer and is the face of's 'By the Numbers' videos.

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Article last modified on October 11, 2018 Published by, LLC . Mobile users may also access the AMP Version: Cal's Childhood Taught Him That Having "Things" Meant Nothing - AMP.