[Hey guys! Please welcome Ava to the blog today – a newer blogger on the scene with an INCREDIBLE backstory. She blogs over at Millennial Money Challenge 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 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 Millennial Money Challenge. 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.