An Inside Look at an Educator's Financial Journey

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How is your financial journey going?

I was lucky enough to interview Rob Phelan, a math teacher with a passion for personal finance. He has accomplished so much, it blows my mind! His story is absolutely fascinating.

I would say one of the significant moments in his financial journey happened to him in high school. He relayed that he did a mini-company project and started a business!

Another significant event was when someone asked him how he wanted his life to play out. The discussion created some clarity about his future.

He started asking himself, “What is the overarching goal?” That’s when he realized that for him, it was financial independence, and started mapping out the steps to get there.

Let’s hear Rob tell us a little about his life!

The Early Years

How did Rob’s education affect his financial journey?

He talked about how he grew up in Ireland and was a student in the high school system, which is very different than ours in the United States.

After the ninth grade, he was required to take standardized tests, and then you are given the option to skip the tenth grade or continue with an optional year.

That extra year was all about self-development.

It was during this time that his business teacher ran a mini-company challenge. He encouraged the students to actually start their own business.

Rob states that it was a pivotal project, and it’s easy to see it greatly impacted his future.

His idea was to start a baking company, and a couple of classmates became his first employees.

They made cookies and brownies to sell at school--and made a profit!

The College Years

Why did Rob go back to Ireland for college?

It turns out that the government pays for the first four years of undergrad. Yes, your college tuition fees would be completely paid for!

Although the student is still responsible for room and board, they come out of college free from a huge burden of debt!

While I feel like the world's our oyster, there are others who only see the things that limit us. Rob shared a story of how he saw the possibilities and the world became his oyster!

He coincidentally met someone who worked at a private D3 college. One that usually costs approximately $40k per year. However, she was getting paid to be their part-time soccer coach and she was attending graduate school for free!

He claims it was a stroke of luck that she was planning to leave the position. He interviewed and secured the job.

He was able to earn his master's degree in STEM Education and come out 10k net positive.

I found his attitude fascinating. He believed that because he didn't pay very much for education, there must be a way to reduce how much he continued to spend while completing his graduate degree!

Rob is a great example of how modeling works. He saw his father’s example of how to haggle and get a bargain. He explained that his father saw every situation as an opportunity to make a deal.

The words he used to describe his father’s bargaining methods were, “The price is never the price.”

It taught Rob that there's a cheaper way to do everything.

The Next Step

What was it like for Rob to select benefits, save money and navigate his personal finances as an educator? How did it affect his financial journey?

When he became a teacher, he knew nothing about money.

He states that looking back, he feels like he wasn’t good with his finances. He said his habits protected him from making the common financial mistakes that a lot of people make.

He explains that he made his first attempt (ever) at saving money because his wife had savings to bring to their marriage. He didn’t want to come in on uneven financial footing. He had also turned the finances over to his wife because of her prior experience with saving money, paying taxes, and automating payments.

The interesting thing was that he said these things created an imbalance that he was determined to overcome.

That’s when he decided to learn more.

Another piece of the puzzle happened at his job orientation when the topic of 403b was introduced. Rob thought he would leave making a decision about the 403b until he was ready to start saving for retirement (decades in the future). He says he took all of his pay instead of making contributions.

Although he was still living paycheck to paycheck, he decided to buy a new car. Luckily, his built-in habits saved him from making a huge mistake. The car he bought was a lower-priced Toyota Corolla versus the higher-priced Lexus or BMW.

Then, one day, a representative brought in a free lunch with the express purpose of discussing 403b. The rep pointed out that you shouldn’t just count on your pension and social security for retirement. He signed up for a Roth annuity, but a couple of years in he realized it was a terrible decision.

This is where staying vigilant about 403b retirement plans really comes into play, but fortunately, Rob was able to take it in stride.

About two years ago, he was assigned to teach a contemporary math class that combined math concepts with personal finance. That’s when Rob had an epiphany that changed the way he thought about his financial journey.

What was his epiphany? He realized he needed to learn the concepts himself before he began attempting to teach the students. He started binge-listening to Dave Ramsey in order to educate himself.

Rob stated that for him, it was a case of preparation meeting opportunity. He decided to learn even more about personal finance and become interested in financial independence. That’s when he realized that teachers should be able to achieve financial freedom for themselves. Now he loves talking about finances and continues to educate himself and others on what’s available for teachers.

Rob stated that for teachers, it's about small gains that add up over time.

How have the opportunities you've taken advantage of shaped your financial journey as an educator? Share your experiences in the comments!

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