From Broke Phi Broke To Financially Woke – How To Fire

Today, I am excited to share with you the latest interview in the From Broke to Financially Woke series!  The purpose of this series it to give hope to those struggling to escape from the not so secret group Broke Phi Broke.  A group whose chant is, “We ain’t got it. Broke, Broke, Phi Broke! We ain’t got it. Broke, Broke, Phi Broke!”

To help me accomplish this goal, I have invited the best and brightest of the financial independence community here to share their stories.  As you read their interviews, pay close attention to the mistakes they made.  Take mental note of the success principles they used to turn things around.

When trying to apply these principles to your own life, realize that success in life is rarely linear.  You will encounter some struggles.  But stay persistent.  Keep moving forward.

Our special guest today is John from How To Fire. At 20, he and his family had $65,000 in debt between student and auto loans. Fast forward five years later, and they have reached their CoastFI number.

How did they do it? I’ll let John tell you the story…

Introduce yourself.  Where do you blog? What are some of your interests outside of financial independence?

Hey there! My name is John. My wife, Sam, and I blog at How To FIRE. We’re both 25 years old. Right now we’re DINK (Dual-Income No Kids), unless you count our three-year-old yellow lab, Simba. 

I’m a software engineer and Sam actually just quit her high-stress job as a brokerage investment professional back in July. Since then she has been building up our business consulting side hustle and working on our blog. I’m currently in a Masters program, and Sam just finished up her MBA.

We love to travel and experience new things, and it’s something we prioritize each year in our budget. This year alone we have been to Las Vegas, Dominican Republic, Toronto & Niagara Falls, the Delaware beaches, Washington D.C., and Maine all due to travel hacking. We love being outdoors as a way to destress. Additionally, in our free time we enjoy listening to podcasts and reading.


Tell us about a time where you were a member of Broke Phi Broke.  How did living paycheck to paycheck make you feel as a person? At your lowest point, how much debt did you have?
Broke Phi Broke


When we were in college, we got engaged and moved in together. Broke doesn’t begin to describe our situation, we were broken. Often times numb, in fear of not having enough to make it to the next paycheck. After a few months of living together and more PB+J & tuna fish sandwiches than we’d care to admit, we finally admitted defeat. At age 20 we had over $65,000 in debt between student and auto loans.  

We had no idea how to survive the last two years of school living the way we were. Being this deep in debt felt like being crushed by a boulder. I can remember thinking to myself, we’re failures and we’re going to have to go back home to living with our parents again because this is just too hard. Being an adult sucks

We were in the cheapest, crappiest apartment we could find that was in a safer part of town. But with two car payments, tuition dues, textbooks, gas, insurance, food, bills and everything else there just wasn’t enough dough to go around. 

Broke and desperate for a change, we started scouring the internet searching for some answers. My parents had also given us a copy of The Total Money Makeover. After reading Dave Ramsey’s book and listening to his show, as well as reading some online content, we realized we had an income problem. Dropping out of college was not an option, and selling our cars was not an option because we owed more than they were worth. 

Optimistic we could make it work, we found better paying jobs with more hours and started working like crazy. During the school year we were working about 80 hours a week, and often times over 100 hours a week on breaks. Within 8 months we had knocked our debt down to about $45,000. Bonuses and negotiated salary increases played a huge part in this feat. With a year left of school we were determined to continue down this path.

But something felt weird – the math just didn’t make sense using the debt snowball method. And like any good learner, we continued to educate ourselves on money. This lead us to Mr. Money Mustache and other blogs online that talked about FIRE. We switched to the avalanche method and began saving up for a home down payment and our wedding. By the time we graduated, we had paid off $35,000 in debt, and saved up enough to buy a house and get married. 


What are some of your biggest financial mistakes?


We’ve purchased three brand new vehicles in the past 5 years together. One was totaled in a car accident less than a year after we bought it, so we purchased another. This second one we hated, so we got our current SUV. We got an amazing deal on it, and we plan to drive it until the wheels fall off.

Another mistake that I think we made was buying a house so soon after college. We moved in about 6 weeks after we graduated, so it was in the works for months before we graduated. Our cheap, crappy apartment was having water leak issues and mold on the exterior walls of our unit and we had just had enough. 

Compared to what renting would cost in a similar home, we’re still saving $600-800/month not factoring in repairs and maintenance. Unfortunately we didn’t put down 20%, so we’re paying PMI for now, that is one mistake we won’t make ever again. 


Describe your upbringing.  Where did you grow up? What did your parents or teachers teach you about money?

We both grew up in a more rural area of Pennsylvania, about an hour away from Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the educational system didn’t really teach us much of anything about money. It’s something that I know many states are starting to implement as a requirement for graduating students, but it’s too little too late for many I fear. 

My parents have always been fairly frugal. There’s a long standing inside joke that my mom would buy things because they were on sale, or a different brand had a coupon that week so it was “cheaper that way.” Bananas that were so green they’d never ripen was how that joke got started – but it brought up a lot of great conversations. Discussions on why buying in bulk doesn’t always make sense if you’re not going to use it all. Also, don’t buy the cheapest toilet paper possible and buy quality sneakers. Little does she know, that’s something that’s stuck with me, and now I find myself doing the same things more often than I realize. 


How important is becoming financially woke to you?  What steps have you taken to increase your financial knowledge?


Back in college it was do or die – or so it seemed at the time. The importance of getting financially woke was essential to getting our lives on track and improving our joint future. 

Now that we have drastically improved our financial situation, our focus has moved to financial independence and early retirement. Our situation is what lead us to start blogging. We wanted to show others that it’s possible to get out and help them achieve it.

To us, financial independence means that you unlock the freedom to choose how you spend your time. Due to our choices and working towards becoming financially woke, we have already been able to reap some of the benefits. As I mentioned earlier, Sam was able to leave a job she hated to pursue something that makes her happy. We didn’t know that she would replace her income so quickly. That was just an added bonus!

To increase our financial knowledge, we have been consuming personal finance content in one form or another on a daily basis for about five years now. We delve into books, blogs, podcasts, Facebook groups, Twitter discussions and anything else we can get our hands on.

Finances are always changing and it’s important to keep up with the latest account limits and tax optimization strategies. We also follow the markets, mostly to understand the current trends, but we’re long-term investors and don’t move our money around much.

What are some of the key principles you have used to improve your financial life?
From Broke to CoastFI
Success Principles


These basic principles are what helped us to eliminate a substantial amount of debt and put ourselves in a better financial situation.


  1. Build up an emergency fund of 3-6 months’ worth of expenses, or more if that allows you to sleep better at night.
  2. Pay off debt according to the debt avalanche method and don’t take on any more. However, you should consider your interest rates and if it makes more sense to invest your money instead of paying off the debt. Essentially, look at your opportunity cost. Some people may just want it to be gone and that’s great too!
  3. Max as many investing accounts as possible: employer-sponsored plans, IRAs, HSAs, FSAs, 529s, etc.
  4. Don’t fall victim to lifestyle creep! This means that you won’t increase your expenses or upgrade your lifestyle just because of an increase in income. Additionally, don’t try to keep up with what the Joneses have.
  5. Take a look at ways that you can increase your income, whether that be at your 9 to 5 or through passive income ideas and side hustles.
  6. Set both short and long-term goals for yourself/your family that are measurable, actionable and realistic. Keep track of them regularly together and celebrate your milestones!


How often do you consume personal finance information?  Name 3-5 of your favorites sources (books, podcasts, blogs, etc.). 


We both enjoy listening to podcasts and books, as well as reading blogs. I would say that we easily consume financial information at least a couple of hours a day on most days. 

I admin the ChooseFI Philadelphia group and I am a member of several other social media groups that are constantly talking finances. Not to mention, we ourselves write about personal finance so it’s never ending. This may seem seem obsessive to most, but we love it and it’s our job now as bloggers to keep up! 

Our favorite podcast podcasts are: ChooseFI, What’s Up Next & Bigger Pockets Money

I’ve been a long time reader of Mr. Money Mustache and Budgets Are Sexy as well. 

Where are you on the path to financial freedom now?  

From Broke to CoastFI

Earlier this year we reached our CoastFI number, so if we don’t contribute anything else to our retirement account we will live a fat and happy normal retirement at age 65 with a few million dollars. This was a huge milestone for us and one that made it easier for us to make the decision for Sam to quit her job back in July. 

At this point, any additional contributions just means we’ll be able to retire earlier than that. That’s the ultimate goal. However, we would much rather work happily, doing something we love for 25 years than be absolutely miserable for 15.


Is there any advice/encouraging words you can give those who are struggling to escape Broke Phi Broke?

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I promise it’s not a train. You just have to figure out how to get there. For some that will take months, for others that will be years. Make sure that you stay on the same page with your significant other or have an accountability partner!

Overall, make sure that you stay focused on the goal. We found that closely tracking your progress helps you stay motivated. Seeing measurable changes weekly or monthly helped us know we were heading in the right direction. And even if you have a bad week or month, reflect on the progress you have made and don’t get discouraged. We all will experience some form of an emergency, unexpected expenses or whatever else life throws at you.

What works for others may not work for you – and that’s perfectly okay, we’re all human. Keep focused on yourself and don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.

Ask for those earned raises, prove your worth and add value to your company so you deserve the next promotion even sooner. If there aren’t opportunities at work to move up, consider changing companies or jobs. If you like where you work, consider starting a side hustle to help you increase your income outside the 9-5.

How can the readers contact you?

We are very active on social media, so reach out to us anytime! Alternatively, you can send us an email on the contact us page of our site.

About the Author

Hi, I’m John! I’m a husband, dog dad and FIRE enthusiast. My love and passion for personal finance started when I was a teenager, and my goal is to help others discover their version of FIRE. I’m an admin of the ChooseFI Philadelphia group. I have a BS in Computer Science and I am currently working towards my Masters in Software Engineering. Our blog has been included in online publications like Forbes, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money,, The Ladders and GoBankingRates. We have also been featured on podcasts such as ChooseFI, Whats Up Next and Man Overseas.

From Broke to CoastFI

Read more interviews in the From Broke to Financially Woke Series.

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Author: Jerry

Jerry is a Business Insider Contributing Writer who is obsessed with personal finance. He believes you can improve your financial situation by applying principles taught by the financial independence community to your financial life.

If you are having trouble saving, he recommends that you join the SaverLife Savings program where you can get a $60 reward after six months (no income requirement). All you have to do is put a minimum of $20 a month into a savings account. Easy, right?

For a fun read, check out his article 10 Signs You’re a Personal Finance Addict to see if you are a personal finance nerd.

Before you go, check out the new From Broke to Financially Woke Interview Series.

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