My Life (And Finances) After Escaping a Cult

by Guest Writer -

yoga pose mountains

[Hey guys! Please welcome Ava to the blog today – a newer blogger on the scene with an INCREDIBLE backstory. She blogs over at MillennialMoneyChallenge.com and is on a mission to go from cult survivor to financial independence by 40 (!). I was blown away after stumbling across her “about” page last week, and asked if we could republish a bulk of it here which she graciously allowed. Let this help motivate you if you’re currently stuck in a rut with something. You can overcome it!!]

******

Hi, I’m Ava. I’m a US citizen, but up until 16 I had never been to the US.

I was born overseas into a fundamentalist religious cult, and spent the first 16 years of my life living in over 10 different countries, while my parents and other cult members tried to spread the group’s weird version of Christianity to the world.

The group was founded in 1976, and initially spread a message of salvation, apocalypticism, spiritual “revolution” and happiness, as well as extreme distrust of the outside world, which members called “The System”.

The group tried hard to publicly pass themselves off as an active missionary movement. During its first decade, many members left the US to establish mission posts (i.e. communes) in countries around the world. By 1977, there were almost 800 communes in 73 countries. By the end of ’77, members had distributed over 3 million pieces of cult propaganda, and recruited tens of thousands of new members.

My Childhood

My childhood and that of my 6 siblings was extremely difficult. We lived in abject poverty in communes around the world, and grew up in an extremely restrictive and abusive environment.

I mean this when I say beatings, exorcisms, starvation as punishment, and sexual abuse were everyday events for many kids in the group.

The level of abuse depended greatly on the geographical location of the commune, as well as what kind of caretaker was assigned. Those who were born and raised abroad, like me, had it far worse than a kid from one of the communes in California, for example.

I barely saw my parents, which was normal in the cult. We were separated into groups by age and placed with an assigned caretaker. Kids were often sent to live in different homes away from the parent, sometimes in different countries.

My mom was a senior leader in the group, and was too busy traveling to pay us much attention. On a good week, we saw her on Sunday for “Family Day”. Sometimes we went months without seeing or hearing from her.

She never perpetrated any abuse, but she never stepped in to stop it. She stayed with my dad for years even after realizing how horrible he was to us, and other kids. She’s still in the cult.

My first memory of my dad was pure terror. I was 3 at the time, and I was told he would be coming home later in the evening from a long trip away. I didn’t remember what he looked like or why I was afraid of him, because I hadn’t seen him in almost a year. I simply knew he was very dangerous, and I had to stay away from him.

I learned at a young age to carefully avoid any adult male in the group, because you never knew what they would try to do. I gravitated to the ‘safe’ individuals – usually women, the ones who had joined the group innocently at a young age, and were too dependent or brainwashed to leave.

Most of us had zero formal education, and limited connection to relatives or people outside the group. We were required to memorize Bible verses and read the group founders’ writings for hours and hours a day. This brainwashing took the place of formal education, and was how most of us learned to read/write.

Instead of being in school or enjoying our childhood, our days were usually spent cleaning, cooking, watching younger kids, and doing laundry and other chores for the group members. We also spent hours every day proselytizing for the group to spread the religion, as well as going door-to-door asking for donations (i.e. begging for money) from businesses or homeowners.

No one in the group worked for their money: they survived off of donations that people sent, the majority of whom falsely believed that group members were Christian missionaries doing humanitarian projects around the world.

There were harsh punishments and frequent beatings from adults if we didn’t do as we were told.

There was an unusually high occurrence of child abuse within the group. Not every adult was abusive, but many were.

The group was investigated multiple times for child abuse by Child Services in numerous countries, as well as by the FBI. We were constantly moving countries and houses to avoid the “anti-Christ authorities”.

Group members, including my parents, referred to these investigations as “religious persecution”. All of us kids were trained on how to react and what to say if anyone asked what our life inside the group was like.

Leaving The Cult

I stayed in the group up until about 14, when shortly after my birthday my brother died unexpectedly and tragically. My brother was my best friend in the world, and his death was devastating to me.

To this day his death and the truly insane circumstances leading up to it are all still very hard to talk about.

I had already privately stopped believing in God and any of the group’s teachings at about age 6. But after my brother died, I openly rebelled against the restrictive environment, oppressive group leadership, my abusive parents, and the neglect we all suffered as kids.

I was furious at the cult life and packed up my few things and moved out to live with a close friend my age, who also had a rebellious, independent streak.

I lived with my friend for almost 2 years.

I didn’t attend school, of course, but worked several jobs to pay for living expenses as well as to raise enough money for a one-way plane ticket back to the US.

Even at that age, I knew I wouldn’t get far without an education. I wanted to save enough money to move to the US and go to school.

Looking back, I get goosebumps thinking of myself as a naïve 14 year old girl, on my own for 2 years in a 3rd world country, without any adult guidance or supervision.

From the places I traveled to the ‘friends’ I hung out with – hardly any of it was appropriate or safe for a child. I’m extraordinarily lucky I didn’t end up with a similar fate as my brother.

I didn’t have much contact with the group or my parents for those 2 years. Leaving the group meant I was a “spiritual outsider”, and I was viewed with a mix of distrust and disdain.

Life After The Cult

I have an older sister who by all accounts saved my life. She is the reason why I’m a well-adjusted (sorta!), and successful adult after everything I went through as a kid.

She had left the group several years before, moved back to the US, and was working 2 jobs to make ends meet while trying to get her GED.

It was because of her that when I moved to the US at 16, I had a safe place to live while I went to high school.

She also motivated me to apply for and go to college, no matter what the cost. She was the reason I was able to get an education and drastically improve my quality of life.

Moving to the US on my own was a very isolating and scary experience on the one hand, but on the other, I was SOOOO elated to be free of the cult!

I imagined myself in 10 – 15 years as a successful and happy adult. I could not wait to get to that point in my life, no matter how difficult.

Getting Through High School

I knew nothing about personal finance when I left the group at 14. By the time I moved to the US at 16, however, I was used to working, paying for all of my living expenses, budgeting, and living frugally.

Right away after moving to the US, I got two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. I somehow also managed to enroll in high school even though I had no proof of having ever gone to school.

High school was hard at first. I tested into Honors English, but I had to start over in every other subject. Eventually, I excelled in school, made friends, and joined lots of clubs.

I blended in fairly well in high school, aside from the fact that my friends and teachers thought it was pretty odd that I had lived abroad all my life, that my family lived in a country halfway across the world, that I lived with my sister who was still a teenager herself, and that I worked SO much outside of school.

I tried to be a normal teenager, and didn’t tell anyone about my background.

When people asked, I had a carefully worded story that focused on only the positive aspects of my life: I traveled the world as a kid, spoke several languages, and had “an amazing, big family that I missed terribly”.

I worked around the clock in high school to pay for basic living expenses, health and dental insurance, a cell phone, and phone cards to call my siblings. I was also trying to save up money to learn how to drive, buy my first car, and for college applications.

I worked as hard as I could academically to cram many years of missed education into 2 years of school. Somehow I graduated almost at the top of my class, with Honors.

Attending University: Hello Student Loans!

My sister encouraged me to apply for college. Neither of us were sure how I was going to pay for it since I would be the first one in my family to attend.

It was important for me to not attend community college. I was under the impression that my education would be worthless if I did. Looking back, I can appreciate what a big mistake that was.

For someone like myself with ZERO money or parental support, community college would have been the smart choice financially. I could have transferred after 2 years into a great 4 year school with my grades.

I applied to expensive private universities because I mistakenly though the education would be superior and would translate into a high paying salary.

The school I chose to attend had an annual cost between $25-$30k, and offered little financial aid.

I chose to live on campus for all 4 years. I couldn’t live with my sister anymore, and I wanted to make friends since I had no other support system.

To this day, I could just kick myself looking back on the financial impact of the choices. I really had no idea what I was getting into!

Since my parents did not pay taxes while living abroad, I had no proof of our low income. Since I was still technically a dependent at 18, I almost exclusively qualified for high interest private loans.

I got two jobs to cover living expenses and books, but even while working 30+ hour weeks in school, I graduated with $75k in student loan debt. The fact that my private student loans were all unsubsidized certainly didn’t help.

Grad School: Even More Debt!

I graduated in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis.

Jobs were scarce, and I was also convinced that my long term career prospects were grim with just an undergraduate degree. I was sure that the entry level salary I commanded at $35k would never be enough for me to live on, and to pay off my hefty student loans.

Of course, my solution for this was to go back to school and rack up even more student loan debt!

I went on to get an MBA in Finance, also at an expensive private university. While in school, I made another big mistake of deferring the interest payments. Because my loans were unsubsidized and private, I continued to rack up staggering amounts of accrued interest.

Even though I worked almost full time in college and through grad school, by the time I finished school I had $140k in student loans.

On the one hand, I was extraordinarily proud of myself for graduating with both my undergrad and masters, coming from a background with almost no education.

On the other hand, I was terrified that I would never pay off this crushing debt.

But wait, there’s more!

All through school, I drove beat-up cars. No joke, I once bought a car for $250 bucks off Craigslist. It amazingly lasted for over a year, but I did keep AAA on speed dial. The stupid thing was always breaking down on my way to class or work.

I decided after graduation that no one would take me seriously unless I drove a newer vehicle. I went out and financed a brand new $20k car. At the time, I was pretty pleased with myself, thinking I had made a wise investment.

So at 25, I had managed to rack up $160k in debt. My heart still stops a beat just thinking about it.

Living With 6 Figure Debt

Fast forward about 5 years later, and I’m now a successful consultant. The car is paid off, however, I still have $111k worth of high interest student loans.

My goal is to pay off ALL of my debt by the end of 2018.

Living with a mortgage sized amount of student loan debt has been an overwhelming experience.

At times, it’s been an emotional nightmare that I would never wish on my worst enemy. I’m determined to get rid of this debt once and for all, and to do it in 18 months or less.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve read every personal finance book, article and blog I can get my hands on. My relationship with money has changed. I am far wiser now when it comes to living frugally, avoiding debt, saving and investing.

Looking back, there are many things that I could have done to avoid getting into this kind of debt. Some of the obvious ones are:

  • I could have gone to community college for 2 years
  • I could have applied to much less expensive schools, and not lived on campus
  • I could have made it a priority to look for schools that offered more scholarships and student aid
  • I could have worked full time, and attended school at nights part-time
  • I could have paid interest accrued on the loans while in school
  • In hindsight, I could have legally emancipated myself at 16 from my parents. I would have then been considered an independent, and qualified for tons more aid options
  • I could have made it an absolute priority to learn as much about personal finance as I could

Even with all the mistakes I’ve made, I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve achieved financially so far:

  • I got the education I wanted!
  • I have my own dream house, which will be paid off in 14 years
  • I earn a decent six figure salary
  • I’m slated to pay off all my student loans in 18 months
  • Most importantly, I’m able to help my siblings out financially while they transition from the cult, or while they cannot help themselves

My dream is for all of my brothers & sisters to finish college, be 100% free of the cult, and live independent, happy, successful lives.

My short term goals for the next 18 months include:

  • Paying off ALL of my student loan debt
  • Increasing my emergency fund from 6 months of expenses to 8
  • Maxing out my 401k for 2017 and 2018
  • Continuing to pay down the mortgage at a 15 year payment rate

My goals for the next 14 years include:

  • Saving between 60-70% of income after tax
  • Reach a net worth of $500k by 35 (in 4 years). This is total investments and cash plus equity minus the mortgage
  • Reach a net worth of $1.8 million by 40
  • Reach a net worth of $4 million (including the value of the paid off house) by 45

My long term (after age 45) goals include:

  • Retire and live on 3% of the passive income which my portfolio generates each year
  • Start a foundation to help kids who are transitioning on their own from a cult, or an extremely restrictive religious environment. My goal is to provide a support system and financial help until they can get on their feet.
  • Travel the world!
  • Never worry about money again ;o)

Although I grew up under very grim circumstances and suffered quite a bit as a kid, I was able to achieve my dream of getting an education and forging a successful career for myself. I’m also able to take care of the people I love most.

The next step is to pay off the debt as fast as possible, and start saving for an even better future!

*******
Ava is a cult survivor and personal finance/lifestyle blogger over at MillennialMoneyChallenge.com. She’s on a mission to pay off $111k of debt in 18 months, hit financial independence by 40, and officially retire early at 45. You can also find her on Twitter @Ava_Millennial.

Thank you for reading Budgets Arrghh Sexy! If you'd like to submit one of your own juicy ideas, we'll gladly review: budgetsaresexy.com/contact.

{ 79 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anita August 11, 2017 at 7:07 am

That’s one of the reasons I’m a strict opponent of homeschooling. It’s far more difficult to abuse children this way when police comes and ask why they aren’t in school. In school they see other kids and other ways of life.

Reply

2 Ava August 11, 2017 at 4:13 pm

I used to feel the same way about homeschooling. Of course, my background biased that view heavily ;o)

I think that it can be beneficial if done right in a well-supervised environment where the parents follow an accredited curriculum, and sometimes it really is the best option for the kid for their particular circumstance.

That said, will I ever homeschool my kid (if I ever have one)? Hell to the noooo :o)

Reply

3 Leslie Bogaerts August 11, 2017 at 5:11 pm

I’m sorry, but abuse and homeschooling have nothing to do with eachother. Okay, there are cases where abusers are using their “homeschool privileges” to hide the abuse, but that is definitely NOT the norm. We love our children, we would do anything to give them the best and in some cases that is through homeschooling them.

Reply

4 Ava August 11, 2017 at 7:54 pm

Hey,

Hopefully it didn’t come off anywhere that I thought homeschooling = abuse. I certainly don’t think that.

I did have a very negative impression of it from growing up, just because my parents and the cult hid behind their right to homeschool as the premise for keeping us kids from getting an education.

We also weren’t homeschooled in the literal sense. None of what we experienced could be categorized as receiving a decent education.

Obviously, I realize now as an adult that my situation was very unique, and had nothing to do with the larger reasons why people homeschool.

That said, I think people that homeschool are very brave, and I would never ever do it!

I can’t even imagine the time commitment required from the parent, when it’s done right. I would be absolutely terrified to tackle that with my kid (sorry future kid!)

Reply

5 Mr. Freaky Frugal August 11, 2017 at 8:17 am

Your life in the cult sounds horrible! I’m really impressed that you got out and managed to get educated, get a job, pay down debts, etc. I don’t think I could have recovered like you did, so just WOW.

Best of luck!

Reply

6 Ava August 11, 2017 at 4:05 pm

Thank you so much!!

Agreed – cult life was pretty dismal.

On the bright side, I don’t ever have to try too hard to be grateful – I know full well that my life right now is pretty amazing, considering ;o)

Congrats on reaching FIRE by the way! I added you to the blogs I need to follow, and want to read through your story, and how you retired early.

Thanks again!

Reply

7 Lisa Van Gemert August 11, 2017 at 8:30 am

This is a very interesting and inspiring story, and I appreciated reading it. As an educator, there are a few things I’d like to point out that may help others.

– She actually was not a dependent at 18. In order to be a dependent you must have over 50% of your support provided by the person claiming you. She could have, as a teen, emancipated herself. Once she was 18, she could have claimed herself and filed her own taxes. Her parents were not entitled to claim her, even if they did file taxes.

– She was also eligible for medicaid health insurance as a minor living on her own in most states, along with many other forms of assistance.

Any teen in this situation (or similar) should run, not walk, to their school’s guidance counselor who will lead them to appropriate support opportunities.

I’m guessing this was awhile ago, as nowhere could you graduate in two years from high school with no grades from the first two years now. You have to have the credits, as well as the testing, so she was very, very lucky there.

As far as the person who uses a cult experience to argue against homeschooling, that’s simply ignorance. Kids in public school hide abuse very well. I’ve made CPS reports, but that doesn’t mean they go anywhere. Most homeschoolers are involved in lots of co-ops and activities that promote social interaction, but I would argue that school does not provide great social interaction anyway. If you can get along with your family, you can get along with anyone. There is absolutely no evidence or research that homeschooled children are socially maladjusted. How about we stop judging what we don’t know and stick to the point here, which is that even if you come from very difficult circumstances, you can, through hard work and determination, create an amazing life for yourself, even if you make a few mistakes along the way.

Well done!

Reply

8 Financial Samurai August 11, 2017 at 9:56 am

Hi Lisa,

What would you say are the main benefits of homeschooling, and the main drawbacks?

I was thinking it might be a good idea, but then I though… perhaps it’s better to have the experts in teaching and various subject matters I no longer remember, teach. But then I was thinking, maybe teachers can teach anything, they just need the teacher’s guide with all the answers, and to get 1:1 teaching on your own time sounds good, if the social part can be managed.

Thx,

Sam

Reply

9 Hannah August 11, 2017 at 11:25 am

Hey Sam,

I would direct you to Penelope Trunk’s blog for more info than you ever cared to know about homeschooling.

These are some of the pros:
http://education.penelopetrunk.com/2012/04/27/top-universities-want-you-to-homeschool/
http://education.penelopetrunk.com/2012/04/02/why-i-homeschool/

These are some of the cons:
http://education.penelopetrunk.com/2013/01/24/the-real-reason-parents-dont-homeschool/

Also, since you extend sort of offbeat financial advice, I would also recommend her posts on debt and finances. She’s a total mess with her finances, and she doesn’t even care.

Reply

10 Financial Samurai August 27, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Thanks for the heads up! Ohhh this is gonna be JUICY READING!!!

Both my wife and I work from home/retired, so we have a lot of time. I think it would be fun to relearn everything again we forgot. But maybe not so much after several years!

Sa,

Reply

11 Ava August 11, 2017 at 3:14 pm

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your comments! Very informative to hear your feedback, given your experience as an educator.

I wish I had you as my Financial Aid officer ;o)

Unfortunately, the FINAID department of the school I attended didn’t see it your way re: the dependent vs. independent status of a student.

I thought this article was informative in summarizing the criteria for being declared an independent student at 18: https://www.fastweb.com/financial-aid/articles/federal-financial-aid-and-the-independent-student

You’re spot on that I could have legally emancipated myself as a teenager! Unfortunately, I had no idea this was an option at the time.

I actually went through the Dependency Review process outlined in the Fastweb article. I got turned down because I couldn’t prove that I wasn’t receiving financial support from my parents.

You’re absolutely right that I would have qualified for Medicaid health insurance and various other forms of support, as a minor. Neither my sister nor I knew this at the time, however.

I also chose not to tell any guidance counselor or teacher about my childhood and current situation.

You have to understand that kids in a situation similar to mine often don’t trust adults, and are terrified of being put in an even more vulnerable position than they already are.

The risks of opening up to that degree to an adult far outweighed the benefits in my opinion (in hindsight, a terribly inaccurate one).

Funny you mentioned about how it would be near impossible to graduate from highschool nowadays in 2 years with no prior grades.

My sister actually forged my educational transcripts from a school I taught at while living abroad.

Both her and my other older sister WERE denied entrance to a highschool at their grade level, because they had no proof of an education.

They were given the option of starting at the freshman year level, even though they tried to enroll in their Senior year. They both opted to go for their GED’s instead, because it was too humiliating and daunting to have to start highschool as a Freshman, while technically Seniors.

As a result of this experience, my sister knew that to get me into Highschool, she would have to forge my transcripts from a ‘real’ school.

We’re not exactly proud of it, but it worked. I’m sure the process is far more stringent nowadays, even for an overseas transfer student.

Thanks again for your comments!

Reply

12 Mr. FWP August 15, 2017 at 6:40 pm

Great comment, Lisa. Dead on. And an even more amazing story, Ava!!!

Reply

13 Budget on a Stick August 11, 2017 at 8:35 am

What an amazing story! I’m so glad you had your sister to help you out and that you are passing on to your other siblings.

We all have financial mistakes and I sometimes thing I never would have learned about FIRE had we not had all our debt.
Sounds like you have some solid goals and I can’t wait to hear more updates.

Reply

14 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Thank you so much!

Agreed – I’m incredibly fortunate to have had a sister that stuck her neck out for me time and again.

I couldn’t agree more about financial mistakes sometimes paving the way to financial security. Dealing with the stress of debt is absolutely what got me interested in financial independence and retiring early. I guess it’s the silver lining in all of this ;o)

Reply

15 Daisy August 11, 2017 at 8:36 am

Incredible story. It’s motivating to see how you turned your life a round and have such a positive outlook despite a huge debt. And I have no doubt you will achieve your goals.

I hope you will inspire other people in similar situations to do the same.

Good luck!

Reply

16 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:41 pm

Thank you so much!! Appreciate the comment, and I’m glad you found the post motivating :o)

Reply

17 Brian August 11, 2017 at 8:43 am

What an amazing story of perseverances. Glad to know your sister saw through all the madness of the cult. Love the details in your goals and plans for your future. Good luck!!!

Reply

18 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Thanks so much, Brian!

My sister is truly a hero in every way. Hopefully one day I can pay her back in some way considering how much she influenced and helped me.

Reply

19 Gwen @ Fiery Millennials August 11, 2017 at 8:52 am

Wow that is amazing dedication and an inspirational story. I have no doubt you’ll be able to accomplish all your goals, dreams and more!

Reply

20 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:16 pm

Thank you so much! Glad you found the post inspirational :o)

Reply

21 Ms. Frugal Asian Finance August 11, 2017 at 8:59 am

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Ava! I’m so glad you escaped the cult. It was difficult for me to take in all the abuse you and other kids in the cult had to go through while no one stepped in to offer protection and fight for justice.

I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and hope that other members in the cult will follow your footsteps! :)

Reply

22 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:15 pm

Thank you so much for your comment and kind words!

I apologize if it was difficult to read through re: some of the details about the abuse. I considered removing them entirely and just summarizing that the cult environment wasn’t conducive to raising kids. That probably would have made for a more wholesome, feel-good post :o)

Reply

23 Financial Samurai August 11, 2017 at 9:58 am

Thanks for sharing your story. Man, that really stinks to be BORN into a cult. If that’s all you know as a child, how can you ever know what else is out there with all the propaganda. As an adult, it must be crazy to look back at all the stuff that went on.

I have a question though:

If this is a religious cult that is supposed to spread good and do good, WHY was there abuse towards children, the most innocent of people? How could cult leaders look away from this? Isn’t abusing children exactly the opposite of good? Help me understand!

Thanks,

Sam

Reply

24 Ava August 11, 2017 at 1:53 pm

I agree, it’s a whole different ballgame being born into a cult vs. joining one and leaving!

I do think adults that join can be victims themselves in many cases, but no child ever chooses to be born into a group which segregates itself completely from the outside world.

Those born into similar groups have an extremely difficult time surviving in the ‘real’ world.

It is soooo difficult for a child to transition from a restrictive and isolated community into the larger society, where people have zero context on their background and challenges faced.

Many are left to fend for themselves, with no family support, and then are shunned by former peers and friends as “outsiders”.

It’s a horrible burden for a kid to bear, to have your whole family and support system turn on you, and to feel like there is no one else in the larger society that can understand or support you.

That’s why I think it’s so important for those of us who did transition okay, to do what we can to help others who are struggling.

Reply

25 Ava August 11, 2017 at 1:55 pm

Also, to answer your question on how a religious cult preaching ‘Christian’ values could routinely violate the basic human rights of children – I honestly don’t know!

Humans are capable of doing atrocious, horrible things to each other. I think people that call themselves religious probably do bad things for the exact same reasons as non-religious people.

I think in the case of the cult I grew up in, religion was mainly used as a tool of manipulation by those in power to establish their exploitive positions, and to keep vulnerable people in a state of constant submission.

If you look at some of the teachings of the cult I grew up in, it’s even more difficult to understand how any sane adult could justify the beliefs and actions of the group.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a site that gives a lot of background on the cult: https://xfamily.org/index.php/Main_Page

Reply

26 J. Money August 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm

wowww….. that part on sexuality is harsh… I can’t believe this stuff goes on :(

Reply

27 Ava August 13, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Agreed. A lot of these people truly belong behind bars.

Reply

28 Dads Dollars Debts August 11, 2017 at 10:09 am

Thanks for the share. I am always amazed and impressed as to how many roads in life there are. It seems that those who have not gone down Ava’s road are fortunate but that Ava is also fortunate as it made her who she is today.

Great goals and I suspect you will achieve it with that kind of enthusiasm.

Reply

29 Ava August 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Thanks for the comment!

That’s interesting what you said about being fortunate because of my experiences. 17 years ago, I would have strongly disagreed that I should be grateful for my childhood.

I used to really envy people who grew up in wonderful families, who had parents and extended family that doted on them, supported them and protected them.

Now, though, I can honestly say I consider myself extremely lucky. For better or worse, the bad experiences shaped me into who I am today. It also made me realize how much I value family and real friends.

I’m not haunted by my past or held back by it. I’ve moved on, and feel like I have a pretty amazing life. More importantly, because of my experiences, I’m in a unique position to support my family, and also help others transitioning from a similar environment. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me and makes me feel happy.

Reply

30 Miss Mazuma August 11, 2017 at 10:39 am

Ava – you are a beacon of hope for many, including your brothers and sisters. To know that children everywhere are being subjected to this lifestyle is heartbreaking. The amount of strength you had to get yourself out of that situation is astounding, especially being how young you were. Grown adults can’t even change relationships or jobs due to the fear of the unknown but you managed to change your entire life including leaving your family and moving to a different country. With that amount of grit you can and will accomplish anything. Your goal to pay it forward by starting a foundation to help children in similar situations is inspiring and one that I would love to support. :)

Reply

31 Ava August 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm

Thank you so much for your comment and kind words!! So appreciate it :o)

Honestly, I was incredibly lucky that my older sister agreed (and had the means) to take me in at 16. If she hadn’t done that, I know my life would have ended up very differently.

It’s a huge life dream to be able to help other teenagers in the same spot that I was 17 years ago.

I mentor several kids who are transitioning from the group, and try to give the best advice and support that I can from my own experience. But having the means to help financially on a wide scale, would be incredible!

Reply

32 Joe August 11, 2017 at 10:59 am

Lots of respect to you for all your accomplishment. You’ve got a ton of resiliency and you’ll be successful in life no matter where you go from here. Great job so far.
It’s too bad you didn’t have good guidance, but you’re in a really good place now. Keep at it.

Reply

33 Ava August 11, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Thank you!! Much appreciated :o)

Love your website by the way! Lots of fantastic advice for early retirement.

Reply

34 Cory @ Growing Dollars from Cents.com August 11, 2017 at 11:33 am

Amazing story Ava!

Despite living life in a cult while you were so young to then leaving and improving your quality of life is great.

It’s good to see that you have financial targets that you are working towards as well. I hope you achieve them in the near future.

Reply

35 Ava August 11, 2017 at 12:13 pm

Thank you so much for the kind words! I really appreciate it :o)

Reply

36 Renae August 11, 2017 at 12:37 pm

This is just amazing. For Ava to be able to accomplish what she has, in spite of her upbringing, is so inspiring. I have relatives who had childhoods that were idyllic in comparison, yet suffer from low self esteem, and use out-of-control spending to make themselves feel better. I am so glad Ava has overcome, and can help guide her younger siblings to a better life. I would like to support her foundation as well.

Reply

37 Ava August 11, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Thank you so much, Renae!!

Reply

38 Ember @ An Intentional Lifestyle August 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm

Wow Ava, that is an incredible story. It’s awesome to see how far you have come and what you are using your knowledge to do. I’ve heard over and over that we have to pay for our education, one way or another. So, on top of your actual school education, you learned huge lessons on real world finances and money management. That will take you so far, and you now have the experience to teach so many others. Thanks for sharing your story!

Reply

39 Ava August 11, 2017 at 7:39 pm

Thank you so much, Ember!!

I couldn’t agree more about the comment that we all have to pay for our education one way or another.

I might have paid for that knowledge the hard way, but what I did learn on personal finance and managing money will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Reply

40 Lily @ The Frugal Gene August 11, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Wow Ava I had no idea! I think I might know the cult you’re talking about, or at least a very similar one…I know you probably didn’t specify the name on purpose so I won’t ask.

I’m so impressed on level headed you are! Great work – it should feel amazing to know you came so far. Ever think of writing a book after FI?

Reply

41 Ava August 11, 2017 at 7:41 pm

Thanks for the comment, Lily!!

Yeah, I intentionally left out the cult name at first. I realized that was pointless and silly because I included enough detail that anyone familiar with the group can easily pinpoint which one it is.

The cult was called the Children of God, back in the 70’s and 80’s.

They changed their name to the Family and then the Family International.

They still try hard to pass themselves as a Christian missionary organization, which they are definitely not.

I’m laughing about the book comment! I think if anyone should write a book it should be my older sister.

Maybe once I retire, I can spend my days nagging her to write it ;o)

Reply

42 J. Money August 11, 2017 at 5:51 pm

I second the book idea!!! And will forward it to anyone who bitches about their privileged lives!;)

Reply

43 Ava August 11, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Hahaha I love that idea!

Reply

44 Mr. FWP August 15, 2017 at 6:45 pm

I also think that’s an incredible idea. (And I’ll do the same, J$ – love that!)

In fact, the book could end with a plug for your newly-founded foundation to help victims/survivors. You have a wonderful and rewarding life/purpose just waiting for you to jump in, Ava! You’re going to love it!

Reply

45 The 76K Project August 12, 2017 at 11:17 am

Thank you for sharing your story. Your resilience is incredible, and the fact that you made the decision to leave at such a young age is a testament to your strength. Really impressive.

I have worked in higher education for my entire adult life. Although I generally enjoy it, I can tell you that colleges work very, very hard to maintain the illusion that a four-year, on-campus experience is The Best Way to get a college degree. It’s a myth that the entire school system is happy to perpetuate, so it’s no wonder that so many students take that path. As a result, many of us have piles and piles of student debt. You are not alone! It’s amazing that you will be able to pay it off by the end of next year. What an accomplishment!

I wish you continued success and happiness.

Reply

46 Ava August 13, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Thank you so much!! And I couldn’t agree more with your comment on colleges working hard to maintain the illusion that a 4 year, on campus experience is the best way to get a college degree. I believed this at the time, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There are so many other paths to getting a decent education and decent paying career, that don’t involve incurring massive debt.

Your blog and story are really interesting, btw! Happy for you guys that you moved to a location that you love, and that you’re making it work financially while paying off debt. Will follow your blog to hear more! :o)

Reply

47 Leo T. Ly August 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm

I am quite speechless after reading your story Ava. You are the pure definition of resilient and strong will. Being able to break away from the cult is one thing, being further denied of any aid made the struggle even worst.

I feel very fortunate and privileged to have grown up living a somewhat normal life. I would love to refer to your story whenever I hear people complaining about how difficult there lives had been.

I look forward to following your story further.

Reply

48 Passive Income M.D. August 12, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Wow, powerful triumphant story. Thanks for sharing. As a father of two young kids, stories of tough childhoods impact me greatly. To see someone rise out of a situation like that is amazing, and you’ll get nothing but respect from me. Looking forward to reading more about your life journey!

Reply

49 Ava August 14, 2017 at 11:56 am

Thank you so much!! Much appreciated :o)

Reply

50 Steven August 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Ava,

I am super impressed with your resiliency, and the aggressive goals that you have set for yourself! I’m sure that you feel like you have a long way to go, but what a great story of triumph (At least that is the way that I see it!).The best part to me is that it seems you have a goal bigger than yourself to retire to, establishing a foundation to assist those that are transitioning from life in a cult to the real world.

When are you planning to start the foundation? Do you see it as a passion project you begin after retirement, or something you want to begin before your ride off into the sunset?

Reply

51 J. Money August 14, 2017 at 12:39 pm

I’ll help start it off with $100, Ava!

Reply

52 Ava August 14, 2017 at 12:45 pm

You rock!!!!!!!!!!!!! :o)

Reply

53 Ava August 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Hi Steven,

Thank you for your comments!!

I actually found out over the weekend that there is already a foundation created to help kids transitioning from the same group that I grew up in. One of my friends knows the 3 founders, and the foundation is 100% credible.

Posting the foundation name here. If anyone is interested in contributing, that would be amazing: https://safepassagefoundation.org/

This is VERY similar to what I was hoping to start one day.

I don’t think the Safe Passage Foundation has been able to raise that much money yet, though. I think the total amount raised was around 15-20k.

Because of this, I think the foundation has struggled with only being able to contribute a couple hundred dollars of support to select individuals (i.e. several dollars of tuition assistance to scholarship winners, etc).

My friend said that they also don’t seem to yet have a long term strategy set up to help kids succeed in the ‘real’ world.

What I think will make the most difference to a kid, teenager or young adult leaving the cult (or any cult) is:

a) basic financial support for a period of 12-18 months (including a safe place to live and basic expenses covered);

b) helping them get an entry level job within the first 1-2 months of leaving; helping them create a resume, teaching them to interview, and mentoring them on career building strategies;

c) connecting them with a network of individuals who left the cult and transitioned successfully (maybe assigning 3 mentors per person so there is an actual team of people that can help);

d) mapping out a long term plan for success – goals and action steps that the individual can take to improve their lives;

e) connecting them with local, state and federal resources and programs which are designed to help those in an extremely vulnerable position. Personally, I had no idea many of these existed after I left the group.

I love the premise of the Safe Passage Foundation, and hopefully it expands to include the above support one day!

Reply

54 Mr. FWP August 15, 2017 at 6:47 pm

Ava,

I have experience in some of these types of things (not cults, thankfully) – shoot me an email/connect as I have some ideas that may be of value for you. There are already folks/groups doing these types of things exceptionally well in other contexts that you may want to connect with.

Reply

55 Ava August 13, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Thank you so much, Leo!! Congrats on paying off your own student loans and reaching the net worth million dollar mark, btw. Truly an amazing accomplishment!

Reply

56 Summer August 13, 2017 at 7:50 pm

Hi Ava. I grew up in the COG as well. I’m curious how you’re doing so well. It took me almost a decade to be able to sleep through the night on my own. I still have panic attacks and anxiety. I also get depressed all the time. I don’t have a degree and I work at a fast food joint because no one else will hire me. Only one of my 10 brothers and sisters finished school. I can’t have kids either because of what happened to me when I was little. How come it worked out so well for you if you had no support?

Reply

57 Ava August 14, 2017 at 11:27 am

Hi Summer,

I’m incredibly sorry to hear about what happened to you, and how rough it’s been for you and your family :o(

I honestly don’t have a good response to your question. It’s very possible that I had it nowhere near as bad as you. The support we received after leaving might have been very different too.

If you grew up in the cult when it was called the Children of God, what you probably experienced would have been infinitely worse than what I did. I was born in the late 80’s, so I missed some of the really horrific stuff that happened.

Some of the stuff that my older sisters lived through at a young age (they were born in the 70’s and early 80’s), I honestly think would have permanently destroyed me.

I went through my share of really awful, unfortunate experiences, but not to a level of abuse that they did (my oldest sister spent months in both the Macau and Japan Victor Camps – I’m sure you understand what that entailed for a kid).

Do you have someone that you trust that you can to talk to about your experiences? That helped my sisters and I tremendously after leaving.

Again, I’m extremely sorry to hear about what you experienced, and that things are still not going well!

Just know that you’re extraordinarily strong. What you experienced would have devastated anyone, and the vast majority of people would NOT have recovered to the extent that you appear to have (I know I wouldn’t have).

I really wish we grew up under different circumstances, and that none of this happened to any of us :o(

Reply

58 Mr. FWP August 15, 2017 at 6:52 pm

Hi Summer. You experienced an incredible tragedy – you can certainly live a fulfilling life afterwards, though, as you well know, it may take a lot of help/support/counseling to get where you want to be. Ava was incredibly blessed and I love her response to you as well. That type of stuff can be incredibly traumatic and if you are living and working independently (as you mention) then you are already doing incredibly well on your journey.

As Ava mentioned, you may benefit from someone you can really trust who can talk to you about things (even better if it’s a professional or someone with experience with these types of things).

I’m sorry to hear how hard it is, but impressed with how well you’re dealing with such an incredible obstacle as far as your past. I’m hopeful you will continue on to a bright future! Hopefully you can connect with Ava – there’s also a huge benefit in connecting with fellow survivors.

Reply

59 Summer August 16, 2017 at 1:48 am

Thank you. I won’t do therapy but thanks for the concern

Reply

60 Ava August 16, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Love your comment – thank you @Mr FWP!

Couldn’t agree more :o)

Reply

61 Ava August 14, 2017 at 7:10 pm

Hi Summer,

I was boarding a flight this morning so was a bit rushed in responding.

I forgot to add that if you contact me through my blog, I can put you in touch with some resources which help people dealing with traumatic childhoods, like ours. I’d also like to help in other ways, if possible!

~Ava

Reply

62 Summer August 16, 2017 at 1:37 am

Ava I didn’t mean to come off as if I was angry at how things turned out for you. I was just curious on how it happened its been different for me and many people I know that left. I’ll contact you through your blog. You remind me a little of my older brother with your optimistic attitude. He finished highs school and college in computer science and is the only one in my family that did. He’s always trying to get me to sign up for a class but its tough because I also have a learning disability. I’m trying very hard to improve my life its just not easy and takes time thanks

Reply

63 Summer August 16, 2017 at 1:43 am

Also if the resources you have are therapy I would prefer not to do that. I tried it once and I’ll never go again. It did more harm then good and I doubt they believed me. It’s nice of you to offer to help anyhow and I’ll contact you

Reply

64 Ava August 16, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Hi Summer,

LOL – trust me, I totally get it about the therapy. My sister dragged me to that when I was 16, and I’m pretty sure the poor therapist needed therapy after our first few sessions ;o)

It got better though and actually helped tremendously in the long run.

I think resources that can help you improve your financial/economic situation are even more impactful if you’re struggling day to day. Send me an email at millennialmoneychallenge@gmail.com and I’ll send you what I have.

Talk to you soon!
~Ava

Reply

65 Fruclassity (Ruth) August 15, 2017 at 11:20 am

I’m a bit stunned after reading your story. So much outrage, so much sorrow, yet even more hope and triumph. Amazing! I’m a believer in the God that the cult you were raised in so wrongly defined. So terribly twisted! What an inspiration you are now – even to a stranger like Summer. Please don’t take it as insensitivity when I say that I wish God’s blessings on your mission to become completely free and to serve as a beacon of hope for others who are escaping the kinds of persecution that devastate through cults. Your story is extraordinary, and it is one of victory.

Reply

66 Ava August 16, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Hi Ruth,

Thanks for the comment and kinds words! And I didn’t find your comment insensitive at all. I’m an atheist myself, but everyone has their own perspective.

I’ll have to check out your blog and story in detail – it looks very interesting :o)

~Ava

Reply

67 Prudence Debtfree August 16, 2017 at 3:30 pm

Thanks Ava. Yes, I’m glad to live in a country where people have the freedom to have and practice their different beliefs. (And I actually forgot to change my “name” when I left a comment. Two of us just sold Fruclassity, and are writing at our own sites.)

Reply

68 Ava August 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm

Thanks for the link to your new blog. Your post on Malala visiting your school is so cool!

Reply

69 Primal Prosperity August 15, 2017 at 1:53 pm

Holy cow, AVA…. you are amazing. These adults in this cult are truly sick individuals. I can’t believe how strong you are. You mentioned starting your own non-profit, but you also might want to check out the JAYC foundation for transitioning families, which was started by Jaycee Dugard (not to be confused with the Duggars!) You should seriously reach out to her and tell her your story. You can probably help a lot of people. Also, she wrote two books and you might be able to find who helped her write and publish. Your story should be heard.

Reply

70 Ava August 16, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Thanks for your comment!!

Agreed – there were (and still are) some pretty sick people in the group.

WOW, I had just read the story about Jaycee Dugard – that’s devastating! I can’t even wrap my mind around how she would recover from that.

It grosses me out that the rapist’s wife was complicit in the kidnapping and raping of an 11 year old child! That’s beyond terrifying :o(

Truly amazing that she was able to recover in the way that she did, and then turn around and help other families and survivors.

Reply

71 Mr. FWP August 15, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Ava, I’m both devastated and amazed by your story!!! Nobody should have to experience that; it’s just awful. I can only imagine the trouble you would have trusting adults or confronting religious beliefs again. I’m incredibly encouraged by how far you have come, though, and that you’re already aiming to pour back into others who’ve come out of that or are still in it!

It devastates me, too, that these people were using God and the Bible – that’s even more heinous. There are so many good folks actually standing up for the things that Jesus taught about children, and I’ve been honored to know some who are literally devoting their lives to fight child abuse for that reason.

You’re an inspiration to many. If anything, I encourage you with these two things: it’s incredible how much you’ve done! We can all look back and imagine mistakes, but it’s unbelievable how far you’ve come given the background you had – and it’s all the more impressive what you’re going to end up doing, too. If you’ve done that already, I can only imagine what your future is like. We’ll probably all be watching you on TV someday talking about how we all need to end cults and abuse.

Second, I encourage you to strongly consider jumping into your passion now – helping survivors – rather than waiting until FI. You have a passion for it, and it’s part of your story (and sounds like it may be who you are); it’s a way to pay things forward now. It sounds like you’re already on that path – you’re helping Summer, thinking about a book now, and learning about foundations. Don’t be surprised if that hobby turns into a full-time opportunity to change the world in the way you feel called to. I know that we would all benefit from seeing you do that, and the victims would benefit even more. Just look how many people you’ve been able to inspire right here to support your foundation! And it’s not even running yet!

Also, please reach out to me if I’m able to be of any help in any way – I know some people and resources that I may be able to connect you to if you want to explore that direction further. There are others already out there doing incredible work. I would love to assist however I can in helping you move forward.

-Mr. FWP

Reply

72 Ava August 16, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Hi,

Thank you so much for your comments and feedback!!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I can get jumpstart helping those transitioning from cults and provide support in a more viable way.

My older sister and I both mentor several teenagers who are in the process of leaving or who have recently left the cult (and we also provide monetary support), but I think we could both do MUCH more.

Here’s my concern:

#1 – The reason why I figured I would wait till retirement to start a foundation is because I want to help out financially in a substantial way. I think small donations would help on an adhoc basis, but I think there is a need for much more comprehensive financial support to those leaving any cult.

I believe the first 12-18 months are the most critical for those transitioning from a restrictive, isolated religious environment.

I’m not in a position right now to help financially on a wide scale in any substantial way – that’s why I wanted to wait until my own financial position was established before I got started.

In retrospect, I think there are a lot of actions that I could now to assist, regardless.

#2 – Any help I provide now would need to be done 100% anonymously. Starting a foundation might require revealing my identity, and I cannot do that right now. Writing a book and using the proceeds to help would be fantastic, however, I imagine it would also entail revealing my identity.

Revealing my identity could absolutely jeopardize mine and my sister’s efforts to get our 2 younger brothers out of the cult.

It could also damage my oldest sister, who would not understand why we went public with very intimate details about our childhood.

It took me 12 years to get my younger sister out of the group, after I left. She didn’t speak to me for almost 7 years (!), because my mom (and the cult) had drilled into her head that the “devil was working through me”, and that I was a strong opponent to their religion and a threat to the cult (guilty as charged on that one).

I’ve only recently been able to get close again to my younger brothers. They trust me, but don’t acknowledge the group was involved in any widescale abuse. They defend my mom loyally, and think my sisters and I are confused and bitter “backsliders”.

I need to continue to build trust with them, and do whatever I can to help them leave the group. Revealing my identify would easily set me back YEARS in trying to get them out of the cult.

That said, I’ll have to think about how I can help while staying anonymous. I’m sure there are quite a few options to consider!

Thank you so much for your comment and support!!

Reply

73 Kim | Thinking of Someday August 16, 2017 at 11:09 pm

Hi Ava. Your story is amazing and thank you for sharing. When I came across the title alone I knew I had to read it. I’m sorry that you experienced what you did with being born into a cult. And I’m happy you were able to make it out, go to school, and are at a better place in your life now. I hope that you’re able to help your other siblings that are still there. Thanks again for sharing.

Reply

74 Ava August 17, 2017 at 4:24 pm

Hi Kim,

Thank you so much for your comment!

Your blog is really lovely, by the way :o)

~Ava

Reply

75 Millennial Boss August 17, 2017 at 1:22 am

First off, you are truly an inspiration. Congratulations on your accomplishments. Second, I feel embarrassed and horrible because one of the more popular posts on my site likens the FIRE community to a secret cult in jest. It’s not funny and I’m so sorry. I’m an idiot. While I’m sure you haven’t read it because I’m a random small blogger, I just want to deeply apologize from the bottom of my heart.

Reply

76 Ava August 17, 2017 at 4:29 pm

Thanks for your comment, and OMG please don’t feel bad about the cult reference! It’s obvious that was an innocent joke, and I guarantee no one would take offense at that. In fact, I really liked the post and your blog, in general! #bloggoals right there :o)

Reply

77 Mrs. Enchumbao August 19, 2017 at 11:46 am

This is physically a tough post to comment on because of the variety of emotions going through me.

First, thank you for sharing your intimate and painful past. The awareness you raise is so important.

Second, kudos to you, your sister, and those who helped you through the transition.

Third, congratulations on achieving what you have against all odds! Don’t feel bad about your un-savvy financial ways in the past. Think of it as really crucial life lessons for $160k per seminar. There are so many people who pay for that “seminar”, but walk away without learning the lessons.

Finally, I love that your FIRE plan involves saving enough money to both provide for you and to help kids in need. We can’t change the world, but if we focus on a few individuals, we can change their lives for the better. I can’t wait until we retire in a few years, so I can have more time to help people in my community. Some people provide money, but time is also an incredible resource, one which the FIRE community will have more of than average. Imagine what we could achieve if we put our free time to help others. Utopian thoughts on steroids running through my head. :)

Stay fabulous!

Reply

78 Ava August 21, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Thank you so much!

Yes, my sister is a pretty amazing person. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to pay her back for all she did!

I wish the $160 was more like $16, but so true about learning the hard way. If I do retire early, one thing’s for sure – I’ll be able to point back to the decision to take on all that debt as the main reason why. Dealing with the uncertainty around how I would pay it all off was what got me so interested in becoming financially independent.

That’s awesome that you’re thinking about how you’ll have more time to help others when you retire. Couldn’t agree more that time is an incredible resource to offer someone else! Most of the time, I think it makes a much bigger difference than just throwing money at a problem, although money is important too.

Congrats on being able to retire in just a few years – so exciting! :o)

Reply

79 ZJ Thorne August 30, 2017 at 11:56 pm

Solidarity! The fundamentalist church I was raised in had many similarities to your cult. I had night-terrors every night until I was 21. I’ve only recently begun to feel safe in limited scenarios. I’m ever-vigilant. But, like you, I was able to access education and get myself 1000s of miles away from my abusers. I’m glad you had a sister who could help you. I’m glad you got out and are looking for ways to help others behind you.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: