Money Stories: Step by Step from Saskatoon to Laguna Beach
Often a money story is a single incident that has imprinted itself on our brain. Other times, it is a series of stories that ultimately create a mosaic of a financial blueprint. In our continuing series on Money Stories, we profile mechanical engineer Michael, age 55, who lives in Laguna Beach and is a VP at a major Fortune 500 company. His money story is one of resiliency and breaking down financial goals step by step. As told to Megan Gorman.
Tell us about your earliest money story?
Money definitely had a profound impact on me from a young age. I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the youngest, by 6 years, in a family of five kids. My dad left before I was 5 years old.
My first memory was moving out of our beautiful home, when I was in 3rd grade, to a side of the city called East View. We went into subsidized housing, for $15 a month (I remember that because it was ridiculously cheap, even back then.) A brand new duplex, it had 4 bedrooms, 1 ½ baths, two stories plus a basement. The rent would increase as my mother’s income went up. There was no child support so my mother was left to raise five kids on her own. She got a job at the potash mines and managed to get us into this subsidized housing.
Was there anything about this time period that really struck you about money?
We brought our groceries home on a wagon or sled, depending on the time of year. Winter was the most challenging because we couldn’t buy produce. It was so cold in Saskatoon that produce would be frozen by the time we got home and bananas would turn black. Apples could generally make it but most other produce was out of the question.
One day, my brother and I were in the living room watching our black and white television, when my mother came home from work and said, “Alright boys, I can either buy a color television or a car – what do you want?”
It was the late 60s, when a color television was an amazing thing to have - a status symbol. Without missing a beat, my brother and I said, “We need a car,” because that meant we could buy fresh produce in winter. My mother bought the car and soon afterward we were able to get the color tv as well.
I gained a sense for the value of money while growing up through the sacrifices we all made. We never went hungry, but food was pretty basic in our house.
That’s a very profound story. Did that drive your relationship with money going forward?
Definitely. My mother was a very strong woman and I recognized how much she improved our lives by working hard and taking care of the family. I got my first job at 12, making potash clock molds. My brother was out of the house by then, and my mom had gotten a better job in HR.
My mom and I decided to buy a house and, over time, we saved money through careful budgeting. Eventually we had saved enough to purchase a $33,000 house. It was a big decision and we spent a lot of time debating it. The house was on a fresh lot, with no landscaping, no yard - nothing. My mother was very clear that it would be a lot of work for both of us, but we both knew we wanted to do it.
We planted grass, leveled the yard, and built concrete sidewalk molds. We built the deck, the fence, painted everything and ultimately finished the basement. It wasn’t easy. I was going to high school, while also working a number of jobs, including drug store stock boy and lumber store.
Money to me was all about helping out around the house. My mother’s take-home pay continued to increase, and as her jobs improved, we kind of grew together.
Owning and maintaining a house was a pretty big responsibility for a teenager. Did money always seem so serious to you?
Actually, it was great. I have always worked for what I have. And I also worked in order to have some fun as a teenager. At 16, I saved for months to pay for a 3-week trip to Hawaii with my mother. The following year, I paid for a trip to visit my cousin in Mallorca. I was only 17, leaving Saskatoon and traveling by myself all the way to London and on to Mallorca.
Ultimately, I put myself through college. Through a lawsuit, I got $5,000 from my dad, but otherwise, I paid for it myself, with some help from my mom.
Do you feel that your money story is really a series of intertwined stories? Do you see your story as a positive one?
Absolutely. I’ve never really wanted for money. I’ve always been able to get it, but it’s always been on me – I was never given anything. We were poor, but my mother brought up five very strong kids – all of whom are independent.
I didn’t always get what I wanted, but money to me was about the working toward a goal.
What is your proudest financial achievement as an adult?
Living in the house of my dreams in Laguna Beach. My husband and I bought the house during the 2008 housing crisis. It needed a tremendous amount of work, but we did it in stages - five renovations over seven years. It’s an amazing house on the beach. That’s my way - find something I want and work hard to achieve it.
In my high school yearbook, it said, “Mike will migrate to where it is warm year-round.” I’ve come a long way from Saskatoon. Seeing Hawaii had a profound impact on me. Now I live in paradise.
Dedicated to the memory of Evelyn Gracia Gudmundson