I Bought a House When I Was 21

When I tell people that I own my house, and that I bought it when I was 21, they always want to know: How could she afford it? I can see in their faces that they’re wondering if I’m a trust fund baby, if my rich boyfriend bought it with me, or if I secretly make money doing something tawdry. Nobody ever asks me that question, but if they did, I think they’d be disappointed in the answer. My secret: I just saved my money.

My boyfriend and I lived in a 200-square-foot room for two years before I bought my house. We shared a kitchen and bathroom with four other people. To keep our costs down, we didn’t turn on the heat, eat out, buy each other gifts, or travel. For dates, we went to the free night at the museum, the $2 night at the ice skating rink, or we just got drunk at home on the cheapest vodka we could buy.

At night, when we couldn’t handle our roommates, or were sick of constantly tripping over each other in our tiny bedroom, we would lie in bed and imagine our house: We would have chickens, that was always the starting point. From there, anything was possible—a Jacuzzi, tiled bathrooms, and the ability to actually paint or make holes in the wall. We could have a dog that we’d name Tofu. I wanted a crystal chandelier (I’m still working on that), and he wanted a brick driveway (never gonna’ happen).

Truthfully, the only thing we cared about was that our home would be ours. Only ours. All ours.

What we both had in common was that we’d never had a place that felt like home. He was an immigrant who had grown up in tiny apartments filled with furniture pulled out of dumpsters. I had moved fifteen times by the time I was twenty, and I was at the point where I couldn’t remember my zipcode without looking it up on Google Maps.

When we decided to buy a house, we knew we couldn’t afford much. We settled on a neighborhood in Portland, Ore. that was up-and-coming but had a lot of short sales and foreclosures. Our budget was $175,000 and our only criteria was that it was close to public transportation and had enough rooms that we could rent them out to cover our mortgage. To make this purchase possible, we each needed $17,500 to contribute to the down payment, plus any additional expenses like appliances and repairs.

Nobody agreed with our budget. His parents, living in Boston, didn’t know it was possible to buy a house so cheap. My parents didn’t think there was anything “livable for under $200,000.” Even our realtor seemed dubious.

But years of living in dingy, tiny spaces meant we were confident we could live in just about anything, as long as it was ours.

“I don’t need a fancy house,” I told my parents. “I don’t need a yard, or stainless steel anything. The only thing I care about is that I never go into foreclosure.”

“We’ll see about that when it’s gardening season,” my mom retorted.

Finally, we found our house. After years on the market, it was clear that nobody wanted it. Even I shrunk away when I first saw it. A tall skinny row house, it had originally been painted barn red until an unruly tenant painted the front half of it lime-green. It had a balcony in the front that looked unsafe to walk on. The same color-challenged tenant had also overflowed the bathtub upstairs and ruined the kitchen ceiling so that it hung down soggy and distorted. All the baseboards in the house were missing, and there were giant holes in the carpets.

But there were three big bedrooms, and it was a 10-minute walk from the train, and a block from the bus line. Everything else, my boyfriend assured me, was just cosmetic. For $144,000, it was ours.

Then, soon after the ink had dried on the deed to our house, my boyfriend and I ended our five-year relationship and I chose to keep the house. Years of being frugal meant that I had just enough money to buy him out of his portion.

As it turns out, it’s true what they say about planning a wedding or buying a house—it shows you everything you don’t want to see in your partner.

My home (mortgage, insurance, property taxes, garbage) costs me $942 a month. If I were renting, that would get me an average one-bedroom in an average neighborhood in Portland.

I rent out the two smaller bedrooms for $450 each, which covers nearly all my mortgage, and significantly cuts down my utility costs.

The master bedroom is mine. It has vaulted ceilings, a walk-in closet, a balcony and a private bathroom. As I promised my parents all along, I didn’t need Victorian details or a vegetable garden to be happy—every time I walk into my bedroom, I’m in heaven.

In truth, living in my own home is very similar to my previous living situation. I share a kitchen and common areas with two other adults. Roommates, no matter how wonderful, are all loud and messy and unbearable at some point or another. I have not installed a Jacuzzi, or even a chandelier. But I have painted all the walls, and I can actually make holes to hang my decorations.

The first night that I spent alone in my new home was the most exciting and fulfilling moment of my life. More than graduating college (which felt inevitable), or getting my first job (which meant actually working), falling asleep on a floor that I owned was the proudest I ever felt. All those years of living in terrible apartments with no personal space finally seemed worth it.

As I fell asleep that first night, on a mattress on the ground with all my possessions in garbage bags, I looked around my room—the carpet, the closet doors, the baseboards, the door handle, the light fixture—and thought, “I own that, I own that, I own that.”


Emma Lincoln is money obsessed and she knows it. She leads a local frugality group, helps host an early retirement retreat and loves to help individuals and couples figure out their financial quirks at emmalincoln.com

Photo: Bill Ward


103 Comments / Post A Comment

Wait, but did you fix the ruined ceiling, etc.? How much did that cost?

kellyography (#250)

@wallsdonotfall Definitely wanted to know that, myself.

Human Centipaul (#3,559)

@wallsdonotfall Someone who’s 21 and coming from sharing a 200-square-foot room might not care so much about fixing those things, at least not right away. I know I lived in some questionable digs at that age. Of course, having the mortgage payment covered by rent would also give her quite a bit of freedom to make the repairs.

@Human Centipaul Sure, but I don’t think that “I lived in a crappy apartment saving money and then I too became a slumlord, yay!” is a very satisfying narrative. I’m curious about her ongoing investment in the property, assuming she makes one.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@wallsdonotfall It ended up costing $500 in drywall repairs. We were thinking in the thousands, so it was a very lucky break.

guenna77 (#856)

what do you do when things break? is there a dishwasher? washing machine? hot water heater? air conditioner? HVAC? that, for me, is the biggest issue with owning. when your HVAC needs replacing and you have to pay a giant crapload of money, not to mention the time you have to spend to get it fixed.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@guenna77 So far, I’ve had to replace the roof, the balcony and the stove. That’s where the roommate income really comes in handy, and since I live so cheap, I save 80% of my take-home.

@EmmaP What do you *eat*, though? Or pay for transit? I just did the math on my take-home and even if I ate very frugally for one at $60/month and only took public transit with a monthly pass, I would have $220 left over for everything else like housing/utilities/cat food.

angelinha (#1,186)

@wallsdonotfall What else are you including for your costs aside from food and public transit?

@angelinha Forgot to specify that the $220 leftover would be if I were living on just 20% of my income, as would be the case if I were saving so much. So those costs don’t include anything besides food and transit.

flickafly (#4,808)

I bought a house in Hou. Tex when i was 19 years old. It was $75,000 and I was able to get one of those FHA loans where I only put like 4% down. And I managed to have that $3000 saved up even with my 28K a year job. Even with that low downpayment, my mortgage was less than $500 a month. But this was in the very late 90s and things were slightly different then. I sold the house a year later – made a tiny chunk of change, because I had no business owning a house then.

I wish I could make it happen so easily now, I desperately want to buy – but there’s no way I can come up with 20% down for let’s say a $200K house (the low side of average in my current ‘hood in the midwest). I make nearly 3 times the money I made as a 19 year old and could easily afford a mortgage, but I just can’t seem to scrape that much savings together at once.

knittinginheels (#2,950)

@flickafly I actually am a mortgage person- and you can indeed purchase a home with as little as 5% down for a conventional (meaning you only pay mortgage insurance until you have 20% equity). So if you’re looking at a 200k house, you can get a mortgage for a 10k downpayment. You will be paying mortgage insurance, and fees and whatnot, which is a larger conversation, but it is possible. (FHA Loans are still out there as well, but you will pay the mortgage insurance for the whole 30 years).

aetataureate (#1,310)

I feel bad for people who fetishize ownership and this very specific form of independence so much, it sounds really draining and stressful.

Marissa (#467)

@aetataureate Why do you feel bad? The writer seems happy.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Marissa Guess we disagree. Chanting “I own this” doesn’t sound like happiness to me, nor does trading four roommates for two, after spending years being painfully frugal in the interest of home ownership at any cost.

Mae (#1,769)

@aetataureate Yeah, the fetishization of home ownership, and the idea that one would sacrifice so much, (including other financial goals) in order to own property is pretty baffling to me.

Marissa (#467)

@aetataureate I don’t know, I’m sure it can be like that but I doubt the motivations are always materialistic. I’m in no position to own a home now nor do I really have any desire to at this point but I can see how it would be nice to be able to really personalize your space (and never have to move again).

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Marissa Just want to emphatically clarify that I don’t think this is as simple as “materialistic” and that isn’t what I ever meant to suggest.

@aetataureate No – I’m with you on this too. I don’t see it from the materialistic standpoint; to me this is an even worse situation. You’re the landlord. (among other reasons) That broken ceiling? The new roof? YOUR responsibility! No way.

Marissa (#467)

@aetataureate Then I definitely misinterpreted. I think we actually have similar feelings about home ownership. So much work, money, and responsibility! I grumble when I have to change a light bulb. I just wondered why you felt bad for the writer since for her, the concessions seem to be worth it.

@Marissa I don’t want to speak for @aetataureate, but I think home ownership at that age (well, any age, but there’s something to be said for school districts, community, etc etc when you have kids/a family) is really limiting. What are you going to do if you want to go school far away? The economy in your city crashes? There’s a great job opportunity somewhere else? You want to work abroad?

I like being secure in my home, I don’t want to pick up and move every 6 months, but there’s something for not being tied to a piece of land that’s allowed me to take advantages of other opportunities that have furthered me professionally and personally. Especially when you’re single and childless in your 20′s – you’re still discovering and exploring and are not really tied down to anyone/thing….except this $1,000/month expense.

Marissa (#467)

@polka dots vs stripes That all makes sense to me and it’s why I couldn’t see myself owning until much later in life (if at all). I think I was probably trying too hard to understand the sentiment of feeling sorry for someone who went the other way when it seems to be working out for her so far.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Marissa The simplest way to put it is that I really wonder about the judgment of someone so young who’d self-impose this ascetic lifestyle for long periods of time and then sink ALL liquid assets into a piece of property. For that to be the end-all-be-all of such early adult life — especially in context of things like buying the house with your college boyfriend! Ahhh! — I think something is out of wack behind the emotional scenes.

@Marissa I’m impressed she had the funds to do this, but all I see is a huge liability/albatross, and I feel badly for her for having that so young.

Edited to add, also totally agree with aetataureate

Marissa (#467)

@aetataureate All more than fair points.

katiekate (#1,051)

@aetataureate I think it’s pretty weird that one can’t understand the joy of owning a house at that age, to the point where they are questioning her judgement and emotion well-being. This girl is clearly far more responsible and together than any 21 year old I personally have ever met, and she’s clearly a fine writer as well. Owning her own space, a home – especially if you are the kind of person who dates and buys a house with a high school sweetheart (adorbs), you are a steady, homey kinda gal, then owning a home sounds like a pretty wonderful thing if that’s your personality. Sounds like she just has different interests than you.

Also she bought a house at 21, I’m guessing she manages her money and life well enough that if she has to move, she can handle it just fine (especially in Portland, that house would get snapped UP). (Girl what an INVESTMENT)

Peggy (#5,830)

@katiekate I know! That house has to be worth so much more now. No one I know can afford to buy a house anywhere in the city. Very jealous!

I’m also wondering where the “up and coming” neighborhood is. Maybe N. Williams?

bgprincipessa (#699)

@katiekate How is it adorbs to buy a house with your high school sweetheart and then almost immediately break up?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@katiekate I’m also fascinated that downthread you’re holding up both homeschooling and going to college at 15 as evidence of this all being a great idea — when to me (because I HAD Googled that, dumbass), both things factor into my theory.

She is financially responsible and financially together. Those are both indisputably true things. It’s great that she has exactly what she wants after working so hard.

EDaily (#4,396)

Good for you! And I think its totally smart to have that rental income to help you pay off your mortgage.

The Mole (#2,633)

So…. how did you each come up with $17,500 for a down payment?

This ignores the biggest hurdle to home ownership for young buyers. “Years of being frugal” doesn’t come close to answering how you come up with that much liquid assets.

ezb (#5,848)

@The Mole Sure it does. Stop spending money. If you save 40% of your income making even a modest salary, let’s say 30k, that’s still $12k in your first year. If it was invested in an IRA in the past year, it would have gained about 13% interest. You could have 18k in under two years easily. How is this unbelievable?

questingbeast (#2,409)

@The Mole Yes, I didn’t understand that part. You had a job at 19 that let you save 18 grand a year?* Then tell me what it was! That is important info!

*presumably, since she ended up covering both halves of the down payment

Dex (#5,847)

@The Mole:
Agreed. I’m not saying you’re saying this, but I feel like there’s all kinds of unacknowledged privilege running through this.
I come from poverty and building wealth is sort of my thing, but you don’t just wake up one day with zero help and magically have a degree from a swanky private college, apparently living on one’s own for a significant chunk of the time, and have $17,500 saved by the age of 21. Maybe it was careful savings and investments from childhood/early teens. Maybe it was a full-ride scholarship. Maybe parents footed the bill for most or all of the education. Maybe it was a very lucrative job/side business that the author managed to hold down while in school, but I find the whole “And Then A Miracle Happened” and bootstrap-y-ness a little too strong here.

eta: I mean, I suppose it’s possible that the author didn’t start college until after the house was purchased, but that’s the only way the math works here.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@ezb LOL, saving 40% of your 30k income.

Dex (#5,847)

@aetataureate Teens everywhere: smh, all I have to do is get a $30k+ job and stop spending money, then I’ll be rich. Why didn’t I think of that?

virginia apple (#3,120)

@aetataureate right?? I make 30k and I wouldn’t be able to survive on 60%. But then again I’m just a renter who would rather pay more for my own apartment with zero roommates and a landlord to fix stuff for me.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@virginia apple I make a tiny amount more than $30k, and $12k a year would be a full 55% of my takehome.

gyip (#4,192)

@aetataureate I’m not familiar with how American IRAs work, but 13% interest on a retirement account seems pretty optimistic too.

This is also again assuming you’ll have this job, or better, for years to come so you can keep up with the mortgage payments and any interest rate increases. Being able to buy a house isn’t the end of the expenses.

Of course, you can solve that with rental income!

bgprincipessa (#699)

@aetataureate Right that’s what I was thinking exactly – $30k is a reasonable entry-level full-time job… but that’s not your take-home. Huge difference.

Human Centipaul (#3,559)

@gyip The stock market as a whole flew up about 30% last year, so somebody invested in basic funds could have made (or made back) a lot of money. It also plummeted even more than that to kick off the recession, so timing is everything. Over the long term, the whole market is good for an average of 6-8% returns a year, but it can move in big swings year-to-year.

The Mole (#2,633)

@ezb That doesn’t typically work that way if you’re 19. Point is that there is a lot unsaid about the major sticking point that people have with buying a house at a young age. This site is about providing the details – where are the details?

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

@The Mole All of this dubiousness is actually making me a little angry on behalf of the original poster because I did the same thing! I bought a house in the suburbs of Boston at age 22 after graduating from an expensive private university. At the time I was making $13/hour and my student loans were (and still are) $950/month. It was an $80,000 house and I paid for 50% in cash since it required lots of renovations and wasn’t eligible for a traditional mortgage. I saved up a bunch of money for the down payment by being a very good saver since early childhood and then working multiple jobs in high school and college and saving every possible penny. I paid for the repairs using my remaining savings and by racking up another $5k on my credit card, which I paid off by renting out the spare rooms at a profit, and I furnished the house entirely from the “free” section on craigslist. My dad is handy and helped me with most of the repairs. It can be done!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Tripleoxer It’s amazing you did that and I’m happy for you, and how great that your dad is helping you, but do you not see the multiple ways privilege is involved in just the tiny story you told? Those explanatory details are important. My parents spent my “savings account” and “college money” during a lean year. In college my paycheck was for $0 because it went directly into my tuition always. And I’m still from a background of great privilege too.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Tripleoxer I’m also really curious why you wanted to own, if you wouldn’t mind sharing. That’s the most interesting point of difference here. The financial stuff is secondary to the motive, to me.

Dex (#5,847)

@Tripleoxer Sure, but you’ll note that you at least acknowledged the existence of a job, childhood savings, student loans, and your dad helping you with repairs. The original story contained none of that. Speaking as someone who actually did grow up dirt poor but who is wealthy now, I find the whole self-made story meme really tiresome. Maybe our parents provided us with a car. Maybe they helped us get a job. Maybe we were able to live at home while going to college. Maybe we were able to get scholarships. It never fails to amaze me how many people were born on second and third base and try to convince us that they hit a home run. It doesn’t cost anything to acknowledge that we’ve been lucky or had help along the way.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@The Mole See below! Thanks for reading :)

EmmaP (#5,852)

@Tripleoxer Isn’t the free section on Craigslist awesome?! Thanks for reading :)

EmmaP (#5,852)

@Dex I added some more details below. If you have more questions, let me know and I’ll gladly answer, but you’re right that luck and privilege are always factors in success, especially mine.

chic noir (#713)

@gyip Yes it does. 13%??? Isn’t Maddoff in the slammer.

xenu01 (#4,239)

@ezb Welp, when I was 21 I made about 15 K per year, which was a huge step up from before when I was only making 12.5. I think it’s important to understand that some people make >10/hr and/or have to pony up for their own healthcare (I never had dental insurance until I was 28, and I paid for cleaning out of pocket, around 300 dollars a pop).

jquick (#3,730)

@The Mole I worked during jr high and high school and saved money. Also worked 3 jobs while at uni. Paid 100% of my education from my own earnings. If you need to do it, it can be done. NO wimpy excuses.

katiekate (#1,051)

@jquick Hey guys? Stop being judgmental. A) You don’t know this girl, at all. And bootstrap/privilege generalizations like this turn an individual’s story into your own soapbox.

B) “Emma Pattee was raised in a cabin on 40 acres in Southern Oregon.

A lifelong homeschooler, Emma enrolled in University at age 15 and graduated from Emerson College in Boston with a BFA in Creative Writing.

She currently lives in Portland Oregon.”

Oh, here, I googled that for you.

katiekate (#1,051)

@katiekate So what I’m saying is, SHE’S KIND OF A GENIUS AND NOT RICH. So, you’re all wrong.

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

@aetataureate My parents were working-class and there was even one summer that we were homeless. I don’t see your point. I worked hard and was lucky in some aspects. Why does that have to detract from anything?

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Tripleoxer Did I say it detracted from anything? No, I definitely didn’t, but those details ARE important and mean the difference between this being an interesting story and a blueprint to accomplish the same thing. You worked hard, you were lucky, and you had a head start. That’s all very good.

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

@aetataureate My motivation to own was that in my area (rural south of Boston), it was/is actually cheaper per month to pay a mortgage + property taxes than rent. A one bedroom around here goes for $1300 + utilities. My 3-bedroom ranch runs me about $800 per month not including heat in the winter. Plus I can rent out spare rooms for extra income, and with my handy/helpful dad nearby, the inevitable repairs and problems are less daunting. Plus my house was cheap enough that I felt it was a decent investment.

gyip (#4,192)

I was going to post to criticize and question, but in the end, you know what … the writer said all she cared was that she owned it. I mean, she does sound very proud of the walk-in closet and balcony and ceilings, but she makes a point of saying she didn’t want anything but ownership, so there you go. She did it. She owns something with a soggy ceiling and apparently no other amenities (?) but she has the rest of her life to add on and fix it up, especially with rental income.

I got savings, but the average house in Toronto is over HALF A MILLION DOLLARS (http://www.thestar.com/business/real_estate/2014/01/06/house_prices_and_sales_keep_climbing_in_toronto.html). It’s not even the down payment that’s a hurdle for me, but the idea that I could commit myself to paying off that much money. When will I own this house? When I’m 60? Yeah. Is that when I’m going to enjoy travel?

mcf (#5,031)

As someone who’s just on the cusp of closing on a condo, I, too, feel like there are some unanswered questions here (though I enjoyed reading it).

Have you fixed up the place considerably? Just do the necessary repairs? Do you have an emergency fund for emergencies? Do you have any tips on setting aside money for those sort of things?

WHERE did that down payment come from?? (So nosy, sorry.) How did you buy out your ex’s portion?

EmmaP (#5,852)

@TaffetaDarling Please see my response below! Definitely set aside money for repairs that pop up that you never would have imagined. In the past 18 months, I’ve done about $6k-$10k of repairs, which is where the roommate income really helps.

knittinginheels (#2,950)

hey Mike Dang- do you need a “ask a mortgage person” column? I am a Loan Originatior. Are people interested in these kinds of things?

OllyOlly (#669)

@knittinginheels yes

bgprincipessa (#699)

@knittinginheels Yes!!

highjump (#39)

@knittinginheels YES

aetataureate (#1,310)

@knittinginheels I’m out of ways to make my “YES” increasingly emphatic but yes!

potatopotato (#5,255)

@knittinginheels YASSSSSSSSS. Please.

womb bat (#3,498)

@knittinginheels yes, please make this happen

TLeela (#5,849)

Just registered to say that this post is completely baffling to me, especially compared to the level of openness with which writers usually discuss their money around here.

I feel like I learned a lot about how it FELT to own a house at 21 and almost nothing about how a 21-year-old had $35,000 to put down on a house after two whole years of frugal living.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@TLeela Please see below!

EmmaP (#5,852)

Hi all – I’ve been asked to jump on here and elaborate on how I afforded the downpayment (x2 = $28,800). Great question!

I worked part time through college, saving all my money. I graduated college at 19 years old, and got a job right away, making around $30k. My expenses were $400-$500 a month, so every year I was saving about $15-$20k depending on taxes, raises, etc.
There were side jobs/additional expenses, but that covers the basic numbers.

I am leaving my ex-boyfriend’s finances out of this, out of respect for his privacy, but since we split everything 50/50, it didn’t really effect my situation.

My ability to buy a house was very much based on luck: to get a scholarship, to get a job right out of college, and to graduate 2 years early.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this!

The Mole (#2,633)

@EmmaP Useful details! Context is important.

Still crazy to comprehend only having $400-500 in expenses/month, but I suppose that’s what I get for living in NYC the last decade.

@EmmaP @The Mole I can’t comprehend that either, especially somewhere like Portland…my expenses are four times that and I live in a similar city (albeit more expensive state).


EmmaP (#5,852)

@polka dots vs stripes @The Mole
If you hold down your grocery costs, lived in shared housing with shared utilities (i.e. we lived in a bedroom), don’t drive a car, and don’t spend money on any extras, it’s actually easier than you think for a young couple to live off $1k a month. Our rent was always in the $400-$500 range, and the rest covered utilities and food.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@EmmaP Bravo! You had a plan and stuck with it.

crane your neck (#1,448)

@EmmaP Impressive! Thanks for sharing your story.

@EmmaP sometimes “extras” are, like, health care costs, though. sounds like you were also very healthy, which is also very important.

marisa (#5,850)

My friend is a lot like the author. Very frugal, financially savvy, saves money like crazy, and has a phenomenal credit history. A couple years ago, she too was a young woman (29) in Portland in the market to buy a house. She even had the same budget and spent the same amount as the author (similarities!)

However, my friend is a black woman and native Portlander. She was repeatedly rejected in favor of recent Portland transplants like the author. She couldn’t beat out the transplants (many of whom were cash bidders) in the once predominantly African American neighborhood she and her parents grew up in, so now lives in a house on the other side of town (which she loves, but still!).

I’m not asking the author to stop gentrification singlehandedly, but stuff like:
“They’re wondering if I’m a trust fund baby, if my rich boyfriend bought it with me… My secret: I just saved my money” is like…ehhh. You don’t have to be a “trust fund baby” to have privilege.


EmmaP (#5,852)

@marisa I couldn’t agree more. Portland has a huge issue with gentrification. I’m not a transplant though -I’m a fifth generation Oregonian and live 5 blocks from my childhood home.

jquick (#3,730)

@EmmaP People are still making assumptions about you.

katiekate (#1,051)

@marisa Yeah, Portland has a huge problem with race and gentrification, but it has always been a not very diverse city. The transplanting too has not helped the situation in anyway, but they are issues that existed before it became “hip,” as it were. Man I would LOVE to have a series on here about the economic histories / personalities of cities.

viewfinder (#5,201)

@jquick Assumption that I would make is that EmmaP is one disciplined young woman. From her responses to some of the posts, she’s also a thoughtful, decent person. I only hope that I can teach my own daughter a fraction of these traits…

I’ve been lucky enough to come across many young people like EmmaP. So much for the caricature of the entitled millennial.

Adam (#5,554)

I would have liked to have read more in this article about the nitty-gritty of how saving for the down-payment was accomplished.

Each partner was required to put down $17.5 K. When the relationship ended, the author, aged 21 or so, was able to pull *yet* another $17.5 K out of her savings to buy her partner out.

How on earth do you save almost $35 K by the age of 21? What job does the author have? At what age did she start saving? Assuming she started working at age 18, that would involve saving a whopping $11K per year. That’s such a lot of money!

jquick (#3,730)

@Adam READ her comment from above. She posted how she saved her money, before you wrote your comment. ugh.

gyip (#4,192)

@jquick That’s fine. Perhaps Adam was composing his comment a little after he read the story and didn’t refresh the comment page.

I’m sure he appreciates you pointing out the comment to him, and also expressing your utter disgust with his existence.

Adam (#5,554)

I’m also interested in how the author kept their living expenses so incredibly low while saving for a down payment. How much was rent? How much was health insurance? Student loans? Utility bills? Internet bills? Cell phone bill? Car payments, if any? Grocery expenses? I live in Portland and have done for eight years. Even eight years ago, the notion of only spending $500 a month on all these things is unequivocally farcical. Rent alone would eat up two thirds of that, possibly? I’m not bring mean or grouchy. I just find these figures a little… I don’t know… Whimsical!

EmmaP (#5,852)

@Adam Thanks for reading! I responded above, but here’s some additional information if it’s helpful! My portion of the rent was $200-$250 (we shared a bedroom), utilities about $50 (including internet b/c of shared housing), cell bill and health insurance isn’t included in take home income since it was offered through employer, no car for most of it, and then bought a car outright with $50 a month insurance and $35 a month gas payment. That leaves $115 for groceries, which more than covered my half of our food bill for the month! (beans and rice and cereal and pasta!) I probably wouldn’t want to live so tightly again, but for a couple years, it wasn’t so bad. Let me know if I’m forgetting anything! :)

Peggy (#5,830)

@EmmaP If it’s not too nosy I would love to know what neighborhood your house is in.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@Peggy Not at all!It’s on the border of Kenton in North Portland.

bluewindgirl (#1,036)

I bought a house when I was 22. I still have it, though it’s rented in the town where I went grad school, and I might sell it after I defend my dissertation and officially cut ties. For me the secret was not saving a lot of money, it was having a fellowship that was dispersed in two bi-annual lump sums. I’ve never made more than 30K a year (that was with the fellowship), but home ownership for the young is completely possible in the quieter, less hip parts of the country. I fully acknowledge that I could never have done this thing in New York or LA, or without a mother who has a real estate license and gives good advice (forms of privilege).

katiekate (#1,051)

@bluewindgirl Yeah I have a good amount of acquaintances in Iowa and Salt Lake City, and they ALL bought houses in their early or mid-20s. For a lot of them that was pre-2008, yes, but not all of them, by a long shot.

j a y (#3,935)

Wow I suck. Double post, then deleted both!

Anyway, kudos to EmmaP on your patience and cheerfulness – probably served you well during the leaner years. Early/continual frugality can really give a great head start.

Hey guys – This seems entirely possible, even acknowledging some basic ‘every day’ privilege in her background. Privilege as simple as the fact her parents didn’t spend her teen job income when they might have had access to it. Or that there was enough to go around in the family that a teen’s earned money was allowed to be all theirs. If one asks the shocked question, “Why wouldn’t my paycheck be all mine at 15 years old,” asking it indicates that kind of ‘every day’ privilege most people take for granted. As another poster indicated, her parents spent hers.

But even at that basic level, what the OP did seems possible. It requires incredible *incredible* dedication to the kind of thriftiness and frugality most of us would find maddeningly painful, but which people geared to achieve these kinds of things find fun. Her pride in her achievement, and explanations of the ways she and her boyfriend talked themselves through the sacrifices, all attest to gamesmanship and joy in the process. It takes that kind of mindset to do this.

And remember, she says her expenses were $400-500, split 50/50 with the boyfriend, meaning $800-1000 combined. I’ve lived on much less than $1000 a month, even less than $600 a month, for several years at a time. It’s possible. I didn’t do it out of intense frugality, but out of bare necessity. You’d be surprised the creative solutions people come up with.

The trick to pulling off something like what the OP did is to choose to operate like one is living on the slippery edge of poverty, even though one has a good income. For most of us, and definitely for me, finally making a livable income meant breathing without fear, knowing where my next meal was coming from, having a lease in my name and not in the name of a roommate who could kick me out, even being able to buy new underwear instead of sewing the holes in my old underwear.

I remember the day I realized I really could throw away a pair of ratty, gray, hole-ridden, overwashed undies because I didn’t *have* to try to save them and make them work anymore. And if you don’t believe me that one can have so little they genuinely can’t buy underwear, you don’t know what it’s like to choose between underwear and a box of eggs, underwear and a bag of rice, underwear and the three dollars of gas in your tank to get you to work the next day so you can make enough in tips to pay your roommate the $20 in back rent you still owe her. And to have that be the situation for months on end. Many days the first time I ate was when I got to work and snuck the food off people’s plates that was being thrown away. Once I was able not to *have* to live like that anymore, I stopped my creative solutions. Like eating half an eaten hamburger by cutting off the bitten parts with a clean knife. Once I was able to not have a roommate, I ended roommate situations. She chose to live in a 200 square foot room with another human being, even though she didn’t have to. Most of us can’t conceive how small that is.

I’m not saying the OP ate food off other people’s plates. I’m saying it’s possible to live on $800, $400, or less a month. Most of us simply choose not to. The kind of intense frugality she engaged in to achieve what she did is possible. When the fear and necessity driving my frugality let up, my frugality stopped. Sometimes I wish I could get the frugality back, but without the fear. And with food and underwear! She found a way by making it a game, focusing on the end prize, and engaging in the process with joyfulness. I admire that.

samburger (#5,489)

Something about achieving financial milestones early really stirs up the gentle readers of the internet…

Interesting read! I am the exact opposite re wanting a home (I want zero of the responsibility and I LOATHE SHOVELING) but I am super intrigued by having roomies pay the mortgage… brilliant!

Congrats on your home!

jquick (#3,730)

@samburger I don’t think it snows in Portland. Rain? Yes.

samburger (#5,489)

@jquick Shoveling rain sounds even harder than shoveling snow, if you ask me.

EmmaP (#5,852)

@samburger Shoveling Rain is a serious concern that all Portland homeowners face :)

Eric18 (#4,486)

Great post! I wish the Billfold did more posts like these rather than the “All is doomed in America” type posts because these are the types of stories that people need to hear. Not because of home ownership. She could have saved all that money for cat food for all I care. What impressed me was her saving regimen and ability to stay on target for a long period of time. That is something to be applauded.

Congrats again, Emma.

samburger (#5,489)

@Eric18 I agree! Unusual financial success such a neat topic, and the billfold has covered people who make beaucoup money, but not people who are super great with their money, regardless of what they make (except for this article). I know there are some hypersavers/investors creeping around here with good stories…

EmilyAnomaly (#4,238)

Thanks for sharing, Emma, and for following up with more info! I admire your dedication. The last two springs I have considered buying a house so that I can have something that is mine. It’s not necessarily a milestone or materialistic goal in mind, but a goal for stability. I just want peace and quiet and no bats or mice or horrible landlords. I saved about $8000 last year but just took a pay cut this past fall so I am not able to save now like I used to.

I would love to buy a short sale or bank owned property to save money, but I work for a bank, so I can’t by any homes that are owned or serviced by my employer under a short sale or foreclosure. This leaves almost no short sales for me to buy, and most of the traditional sales are out of my price range. I could do the roommate thing, but my desire to have my own house is so that I don’t have to live with other people.

In my entire financial blogging life I’ve never come across such a prudent and calculative move for a woman so young as Emma. I wish her best of luck and hope others get inspiration from this determined young lady who had only one ambition and that is to own a house. She did it and is surely be an inspiration for me to own my new apartment.
Fionna blogs at FinanceWand

Abefroman (#5,864)

I purchased my first home when I was 20. My best memory of that first place was At the time the drinking age was 21 in WI so I had to get all my buddies to bring the beer to the house warming party. We rocked out a ton of epic parties in that house!

marthaquest (#5,873)

I bought my home when I was 30, but it is in a small town in Marin County. I’m now nearly 60; I am still here & it’s lovely. I bought it for less than $100,000 and had saved the downpayment. I’ve never been married or gotten any financial ‘help’ from a partner; it’s all been my saving & not buying expensive toys but keeping my eyes on the prize of a comfy home & little need to work. 10 years ago I bought a tiny apartment in Paris in the same spirit. I do know what you mean, Emma, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Kudos for underlining this in our age of doom & gloom.

Dr. M (#6,116)

As someone who knows Emma I can vouch for the fact that she is, indeed, almost painfully frugal as a way of life. She is truly an amazing young woman: focused and driven. That said, there is nothing magical about what she did. She set a goal, made the necessary sacrifices to make it happen, and succeeded. She works hard and doesn’t discourage easily. Anyone who is willing to practice delayed gratification can do this. Yes, even you who consider yourselves underprivileged. Want it? Go get it. No more excuses.

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