Financial Black Belt Interview – Financial Freedom Crew

financial freedom crew

Being a black belt in finance means to have a net worth of a million dollars.

Just like a martial arts dojo, Your Money Geek is a place where we can learn about personal finance and eventually become financial black belts ourselves. In this series, we get to hear the stories of actual millionaires and see what it took for them to get to that level.

Today’s guest is Stephanie Gatewood. Stephanie is 49, and lives in Virginia with her husband and two kids. She blogs at financialfreedomcrew.com so be sure to go check out her site when you’re done reading the interview!

Now for the interview:

What degree black belt are you? (e.g. one million = first degree, two million = second degree). 

Second Degree (two million).

Give us the break down on your current net worth. What is it invested in and do you have any debt? 

We have zero debt (we paid off the mortgage a few years ago). Most of our assets are at Vanguard.

We're primarily in index funds and a target retirement fund (I like simple and hands-off). Our portfolio has a 77%/23% stock/bond mix.

Your story

How was your childhood? Was your family wealthy, middle class or low-income? 

Growing up, we were solidly middle class. My parents didn't discuss money that much with me. But we grew up in a quiet suburban neighborhood in a 3-bedroom house.

My dad worked for himself in sales and my mom mostly stayed at home. Neither of them had college degrees.

Did you go to college? 

Yes. I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and my MBA from the University of Richmond. (I got my MBA at no cost thanks to my employer.)

What is your fighting style? (Career path from first dollar ever made to present). 

After college, I dabbled for a while, trying to discover what I wanted to do. I've waited tables, worked for a non-profit where I got to walk through swamps and taught goal setting and self-improvement at an in-patient mental health facility. Then I switched gears and entered the business field. I held a couple of corporate marketing jobs at the now-defunct Circuit City. 

From there, I entered the finance industry for a while. And now I co-own a small business and manage the finances. Our company designs commercial kitchens for schools, universities, hospitals, corporations, and the military. In 2018, I completed a financial coaching course and started the Financial Freedom Crew where I blog about creating financial freedom for families.

Would you recommend people to pursue the same career path? Would you choose a different job if you could go back? 

My career path was, um, odd. But I've ended up where I've always wanted to be: making a good living working from home with my own business(es) and enjoying an extremely flexible schedule. 

My three jobs are finance/business manager for the design firm, bookkeeper for my husband's editing company, and blogger/financial coach.

Have you had any side hustles? 

Yes! I made amazing money as a pet sitter in my neighborhood. I live in a nice, large neighborhood where people adore their pets. I'm a dog owner and know how stressful it is to leave my pet under someone else's care.

 I worked hard to put my clients' minds at ease by sending lots of updates and photos, so I was able to build up a loyal client base quickly.

If you have a spouse, how have they contributed to your net worth? 

My husband is naturally frugal. I attribute much of our success to him. I used to struggle with money, but I realized early on that I had to fix my money issues if I wanted our relationship to last. We kept our finances separate for a while and I was in charge of paying the bills and he was the saver and investor. 

This worked for us because it was a sort of forced frugality for me: I tried not to ask him for money for bills and spending often. Over the years, we've combined our finances and I've become the money manager and investor for our family.

How old were you when you became a financial black belt? 

I don't know exactly. I opened a Personal Capital account just a year or so ago. When I linked our accounts, I discovered just how well we'd done. If I had to guess, I'd say we were in our early to mid 40s when we became a black belt. 

We weren't intentional when it came to our money or setting goals. I know we would be much further ahead had we decided what we wanted, made a plan, and gone for it. But our path is proof that you can make mistakes and still end up in a great place.

At what age did you start seriously saving money? 

I tried to start saving and investing when I was 23, but I was living paycheck to paycheck and wasn't very successful. I got serious when I got married at age 29. At that point, I was making decent money and had a 401(k) with a company match.

What has been your investment strategy? 

Buy and hold low-fee index funds. I discovered VTSAX before FIRE came along. When FIRE heated up (ha, ha), I nearly broke my arm patting myself on the back at how well I'd done choosing our investments.

Who was your financial sensei? (Most influential person/source of information in your financial life). 

I can't pick just one! I've been reading business and finance books since the 90s and I've probably been influenced by many different people. But the one book I recommend over and over is JL Collins “Simple Path to Wealth.” 

And for someone who is just getting started with money management, Jesse Mecham's book “You Need a Budget” is fantastic.

Are you pursuing FIRE (financial independence/retire early)? If so, how much money do you plan to retire on and are you going to quit working for money altogether? 

According to the numbers, we could do lean FIRE now. But there are two reasons we don't stop working. 1) We want to travel, and I enjoy luxury travel more than budget travel. And 2) I feel like we have a fantastic work situation. We both work from home and for ourselves and like what we do. And our jobs are location independent. So I don't see any reason to quit.

Mind over matter

Do you think psychology plays a more important role than math with finances? 

Absolutely. Mindset is the first step to financial freedom and independence. I'd say 90% of money management is psychology and the other 10% is personal finance knowledge.

What was your toughest mental opponent on the path to your black belt? 

I have two opposing voices in my head about money. One urges me to take care of myself and others and to spend freely. The other tells me to not be dumb and don't make money mistakes. 

So I feel like I'm constantly trying to reign in the overspender while trying to get the perfectionist to shut up. Budgeting and tracking spending has helped keep the overspender under control. And looking at our progress and how far we've come helps quiet the perfectionist.

There are a lot more financial white belts than black belts out there. How do you think differently than the average person when it comes to money? 

I'm careful with my words…how I think and talk about money. I'm nurturing a belief that there's plenty of money for me and everyone else, and I feel empowered, that I have control over both my money and my life. 

If there's something I want to change, I do the work to change it. Yeah, I may complain about it some, but I'm not going to just complain. I'm also going to do the work to get what I want.

What does wealth mean to you? Should everyone pursue it? 

Wealth for me means I don't stress or worry about money, and I don't even think about it much. So for me, wealth equals freedom.

 I think everyone deserves to live a life that is free of money worries. And if that's what someone wants, they should pursue it.

Should people follow their passions or just do something practical? 

I picture a Venn diagram. Most people have more than one interest or passion. So I would suggest finding the intersection of interests and profit. Sometimes trying to make money from our passion takes the joy out of it. 

So, I'd be careful about taking the one true thing you love and turning it into a job. But I also don't think someone should stay in a job they hate just because it pays well. I've done that and I was miserable.

Bonus round

What is your weapon of choice? (favorite money tool/app) 

YNAB (You Need a Budget) hands down. It's helped me see both the big picture and detailed view of our expenses.

What has been your favorite way to earn money? 

My favorite way to make money is through my blog. I love creating courses and workbooks that help people take back power over their money. 

And I love connecting with people and digging into their finances and behaviors so they can stop worrying about money.

What’s your favorite way to use money? 

I most love spending money on experiences with my family, whether it's an escape room adventure or a Disney vacation.

What’s your one piece of money advice to us financial underbelts? 

Dream. Figure out what you want your life to be like. Find people who have done what you want to do or who have what you want to have and learn from them. 

Don't let your current (or past) circumstances dictate your future. Stop complaining and start making changes.

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