The Little House That Could: A Lesson in Saving

This is a story about saving money, but it’s also a story of other things, as well. It’s not meant to brag but rather to help others learn from my mistakes.

I was twenty-eight-years-old when I was hired as a full-time teacher, marking the first time in my life that I got what some would view as a “real job.” All jobs are real, I know, but this one was more formal, more legit, and the title of “teacher” carried a little more weight than any other job I had had up to that point, and believe me, I had a lot of them. Prior to landing the teaching gig, I had accumulated a broad range of experience from a slew of jobs I had over the course of about sixteen-years. I hated most of them, too, but I was young and fairly dumb and always needed the money to party and also to keep the party going, so wherever I could make a quick buck, I was there. I was a nomad for the dollar and a hunter and gatherer of good times.  Most of my friends were, too. That’s how it was!

I got into child labor at twelve. On weekends, I would ride my BMX to the Starlite Swap Meet to set up shop and sell counterfeit Timex and Rolex watches for my boss, a Korean man, who took  visible pride in the quality of his counterfeit goods. I earned about sixty-five bucks for the weekend, after putting in about twenty-four hours of work in two days, but it didn’t matter to me. On Sundays, just as the swapmeet was about to shut down, I’d hustle over to the bike parts guy and spend most of my money there, buying counterfeit BMX parts for my own counterfeit bike. I had the baddest imitation bike in the neighborhood. 

After that stint in jewelry, I got an actual W-2, job, at K-Mart, right as I turned fifteen and half. I was hired as a checkout cashier, but the cashier part of the job didn’t last very long, as I was quickly exposed for not being able to count money very well or work the credit card slider. I know for certain that I gave away a ton of merchandise in the process. It’s no wonder my lines were so long. I was demoted to stock boy but soon after left for greener pastures. 

After giving stuff away at K-Mart, I got a job as a trap and skeet puller at a firing range in South El Monte. All day long I was surrounded by old white guys with fancy, thousand dollar shotguns. It was scary stuff that fortunately didn’t last too long, either. After leaving the range, I got hired to drive a forklift in a Robinson’s/May warehouse. I lied on the application and checked “Yes” where it asked “Experience driving a forklift?” I wasn’t needed to operate the machine during the first two days on the job, but on the third, my boss yelled my name and commanded me to move some pallets. I climbed up the forklift like Spiderman and took a seat at the control center, and as fast as I could, I fiddled with every lever to see what it controlled. My boss yelled, “Let’s go!” and I was off. I ended up being a natural at it, and just like that, I now had experience operating a forklift. My next job was as a maintenance man for Macy’s. After this, I was a janitor for a few months, cleaning industrial park offices. I later took my talents to Toys “R” Us for the holiday season. After that, I landed at UPS where I unloaded 45’, bi-level semi-trucks. It was during the Christmas season and it was excruciating work. We were supposed to unload at least two-tucks during our four-hour shift. After just one day on the job, I could barely get out of bed the next morning. Our breaks were ridiculously short. The first break, our snack break, was four-minutes long. Our second break, lunch, was seven-minutes long. One day, I quit during the four-minute break. I was soaked in sweat when I told my boss I had enough. They actually cut me a check right then and there.

After that, I did a little roofing, some ceramic tile, and other low-level construction work, here and there.  I even got into bartending. My Uncle Pablo was the main bartender at Paco’s in East Los Angeles, one of the most famous streets in California: Whittier Blvd. I loved bartending. I earned tips and got to talk to some pretty cool characters. The ladies, especially, were pretty interesting, flirty, too. They wore a lot of makeup and smoked all day long. My signature drink was the Greyhound. They regular ladies taught me how to mix it.  I made them extra strong, too. More tips!

One of the more prestigious jobs I had through the years was working on the Mediterranean Fruit Fly Project for the California Department of Agriculture. I was given a tan Dept. of Ag. shirt, a state car, a state gas card, and a partner. Amelia and I drove all around Whittier, walking into people’s backyards searching for fruit trees that contained medfly larvae. It felt like important work. Amalia was beautiful and I looked forward to seeing her every day. We took a lot of detours, and one day, she took me to meet her parents. It was the first time I had eaten a whole tomato by itself. We had a great time, until Amelia moved away to Costa Rica and broke my heart. We wrote letters to each other, but that soon stopped when she met some dude out there. 

The jobs continued after that. I worked in various parks and recreation programs (where I got my start in coaching at the age of twenty-one). I was a security guard in Temecula, where I guarded wood for twelve-hours a day, starting at 6 p.m. Yes! I bravely and dutifully watched over two-by-fours and plywood.

At some point, in between all the odd jobs, I managed to earn Bachelor’s Degree. This was a big deal for me. I never thought I’d be a college graduate.

The last job I held just before becoming a teacher was as the lone Graduate Assistant for the English Department at California State Los Angeles. It was my duty to assist the English professors with whatever they needed, whether it was ordering books for them, fetching mail, or covering their classes. To earn a little extra, I supplemented my income by doing weekend work for them. I painted their houses, cleaned their yards, pruned their trees, and organized their bookshelves. I even did mechanical work on Dr. Liu’s car. My dad had taught me to do all that stuff. I was pretty much booked every weekend. At night, I took classes to earn my M.A. in English. The best part of this job is that I met my wife there. I was sorting mail for the professors, and Jennifer was in the mailroom prepping for a class. She was a teacher, and I was a student. We have now been married for close to fifteen-years and have two fantastic kids.

Despite having all these jobs and making a substantial amount of money in the process, my bank account was always at zero or close to it. I was living check to check, and I didn’t give a shit. Like I said, the party needed to keep going, and it did, and I was happy. 

On the last work day of September, 1998, after my first full month as a teacher, the secretary at Norwalk High School waived an envelope at me as I was exiting the main office. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s your check!” she said. “Oh, thank you!” I humbly accepted it and took off for the parking lot. It was September so it was hot. I got in my car. Sweat was running down my face. I was feeling weird. I was nervous about the envelope. I honestly had no idea what to expect. I opened it with caution, carefully sliding the check out of its protective cover, handling it like sacred text. I let the check peek out slightly from the envelope and then opened my eyes. “Holy shit!” I pushed back on the car seat! The check read something like: $2,738. 72. I remember with great clairty, saying, “What the fuck am I going to do with all this money?” 

That night, Jennifer and I celebrated!  I had never received a check that large in my life. I never even dreamed of receiving a check for that amount. I knew it was going to be impossible for me to spend it all. Well, we must’ve celebrated for the entire month of September because by the end of the month, I had nothing in the bank. Zero! Luckily, by then, it was payday all over again, and again we celebrated. In fact, we celebrated for two-years straight, and by the beginning of my third year of teaching, I had very little to show for two-years of teaching. 

It was at the start of my third year that something within me finally clicked. I was a little tired of partying, and I was definitely tired of having no money, so I decided to take a serious look at one of my pay stubs to see what the hell was going on with me. There was a section on the stub that read: Year to Date. It showed a number below, as well. It was the amount of money I had earned so far for the calendar year. The number read something like: $38, 436.98. That was a slap in the face, and it forced me to have a little talk with myself. “You mean to tell me that you have earned $38, 436.98, and you don’t  have a dollar to your name? You’re an idiot. What the fuck are you doing, Mark?” Yes, I was an idiot. Not just for spending all my money but for other reasons, as well. I realized that I was squandering a perfect opportunity to save large amounts of money and do something with it, to improve the quality of my life. I had moved back in with my mom after living in an apartment with my cousin Ed, so I didn’t have a rent payment. I had moved in with her just as I started teaching, and in these two-years, I burned through all my cash. Also, back then, as is the case even now, I have never purchased a new car. Every car I have ever owned has been used, so I didn’t have a car payment, either. I was simply wasting every dollar I earned on material garbage.

Moving in with my mom was part of the problem. I wasn’t paying rent. Yeah, I gave my mom money and I bought her nice things, but I was too comfortable. I knew I could spend without consequence. Other than a $9000, credit card bill, I didn’t have much debt. But I didn’t have much money, either, so I decided that I was going to stop screwing around and start saving. 

In the beginning, I didn’t have a goal, something to save for, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I first committed myself to paying off my credit card debt. It took five-months to do so, but it was a heavy burden lifted. After that was done, I started putting away $1800.00 into my savings account every month. I lived frugally and only purchased what I needed, which wasn’t much. I took pride in seeing the numbers rise in my bank account. After a year of saving in this manner, I had accumulated about $18,000. This was about one school year’s worth of saving. Going into my fourth year of teaching, I kept it up. In the summer of 2004, I had gotten up to $36,000. My girlfriend, Jennifer, had been urging me for years to get an apartment, but I never complied. I looked at a few apartments, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay someone rent. I worked too hard for my money. I wasn’t going to give it to someone else.  I didn’t want to make someone else rich off my money, so I had to ignore Jennifer completely on that one. She didn’t take it too well because she wanted me to have my own place, but sometimes you have to stay true to what your goals, even if you’re in a relationship. 

After close to two-years, I had saved an admirable amount of money. I was at the point where I needed to make a move, so I thought about a few things, buying a car, investing it, or to just keep saving. Finally, I decided I would buy a house. 

Jennifer lived in Pasadena, and if you know anything about Pasadena, you know that it’s a beautiful city. It’s one of the nicest cities in Los Angeles, and it’s got a robust nighlifel. It’s home to the Rose Parade and the world famous Rose Bowl. The streets are lined with 100 year old oaks, and it’s centrally located, minutes from the San Gabriel Mountains and the beaches of Venice and Santa Monica. This is where I wanted to live, and so I began looking for houses in Pasadena. 

You should also know real estate in Pasadena is pretty pricey. It’s worse now, but it was pricey in 2004, too. I looked at several houses, all of them out of my price range. After a fairly extensive search that lasted several months, I got lucky and found one. 

It was probably the ugliest and dirtiest eighty-year-old house on Rio Grande St. It had been infiltrated by a gang of about fifteen feral cats, who spent their days loitering all across the property, including under the house. Most cats are easily scared, but not these guys. I think they even had a leader, too. He wouldn’t move from the driveway, even when cars came up it. It was actually pretty impressive. They were a scary bunch, for sure. 

The smell of cat urine permeated the air around the house and inside, as well. The backyard looked like a junkyard or dump, take your pick. Approximately eight people were living in the two-bedroom, one-bath home, so there was a ton of junk inside, too. The hardwood floors in the living room were thoroughly stained with cat piss.. The kitchen and bathroom were a smelly wreck and everything about the bedrooms needed help. One bright, however, was the backyard. Even though it was littered with every imaginable piece of junk, it had massive potential. It was huge, too, around 6000+ square feet, definitely bigger than the shack in front of it. There was a dilapidated deck overlooking the yard, and to the right, deep into the backyard, was a big barnyard garage. The roof was caving in on it, and the doors were falling off their hinges, but I liked what I saw. I had a vision. I saw greatness! To some, it probably looked like a crack house. To me, it looked like home. I called my realtor and said, “I’ll take it!’”

I had four-years of teacher retirement savings, and I took it all out to help with the purchase of the house. I took a 45% tax hit on it, but I figured the investment I was making outweighed the penalty. My Aunt Lupe also lent me money to meet the down payment. In the end, I purchased the house for about $220,000, putting about $42,000, up front as a down payment. It was now mine. 

Jennifer didn’t like the house. She took one look at it and said she could not live in it. It pissed me off a bit, but in her defense, she was right. In its current state, the house was inhabitable. It was in dire need of disaster relief cleanup, but, unfortunately, I didn’t have much money left to pay someone to do the work. I’m a handy guy. My dad taught me, well, so I tackled the renovation myself. For a month straight, I arrived at the house and 6:00 a.m., rolled up my sleeves, and went to work!

I had negotiated a $3000 fee into the contract in order to pay for the disposal of the junk in the backyard. I hired a crew and within hours, the yard was as majestic as I had imagined it to be. The interior of the house was of paramount importance. I hit the hardwood floors first. I got on my knees and I sanded and sanded and sanded, but the piss stains would not disappear. I rented an industrial sander and attacked the floors with it but still the stains were present. I spoke with a flooring guy at Home Depot and he suggested I use a product called “Wood Bleach.” Its main ingredient is oxalic acid. It was the last resort. If the acid didn’t work, nothing would. 

I poured it onto one of the stains and watched the acid immediately go to work. It was pretty amazing. I watched as the dark rings of piss and soot rose off the wood all in a matter of minutes. I did this to almost the entire floor, and after wiping off the grime, the floors were in really good shape. I proceeded to sand them and then I stained them and covered them with a couple of healthy coats of glossy finish. They looked new, again. Jennifer was there the whole time doing her part to make the house look as good as possible. She was happy with our progress and so was I.

Painting was next. We hit every wall in the house, painting most of the walls a simple white, and just to get a little crazy, I decided to paint the master bedroom a bloody red. I know, but I liked it. It was Buddah-like, I told myself. 

Finally, a thorough, top to bottom cleansing was completely necessary. We poured bleach everywhere and wiped down every inch of every counter. The tub, toilet, sinks, faucets, door knobs, and windows also got a good wipe down. After a month of hard work, in August of 2004, Jennifer and I officially lived together for the first time.  Man, did it feel good! I was a homeowner, and I was really proud of myself. I know I made my parents were proud, as well.

After about a month of living together, Jennifer got a call from Monterey Peninsula College. She had applied for a job there, and to our surprise, she got it.  “What are you going to do?” I asked, thinking that she would say “No,” since we had just moved in together. “I’m going to take it,” she said. Whoa. 

That was a tough one. We both knew it was a good opportunity, but we also knew we had just moved in together and were pretty happy about it. Monterey was about five hours from Pasadena. I had never been there. I only knew that it was where Jimi Hendrix had burned his guitar on stage. Jennifer had experience living up north. She had attended UC Santa Cruz, and she liked it up there. We were at a turning point. Either I agree, at some point, to move up with her, or I stay in Pasadena and essentially end our relationship. We were long distance for the entire school year. They say, “Amor de lejos; amor para pendejos,” but we made it work. I would go for a weekend and then she would come down for a weekend. We were together on holidays and every other chance we could.  But the clock was ticking. The school year was nearing its end. “Do I go?” “Do I stay?” We loved each other. I loved my house, too. It was a tough decision to make. In the end, I sold or gave away everything I owned, including a van. The only thing I took to Monterey was my clothes and my car. 

I made arrangements to rent my house. I had waited thirty-five years to have my own room, and within months, I had to give it up. I was sad that I only got to live in it for a year, but it was one of the greatest years of my life. It’s now 2020, and the house has been rented ever since. I’ve had that little beauty for seventeen-years.

I hated everything about Monterey. I was depressed and missed everyone. My dad had died only a few months back, and I was still reeling from the pain of his absence. I went back almost every other weekend to visit my mom and family and friends.

In Monterey, we lived in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment.  I missed my Pasadena backyard and my oversized master bedroom with its red walls. I missed the deck and the BBQ’s with friends. Jennifer and I talked about renting a house in Monterey simply to have more room. Luckily my brother had moved up to Monterey to attend Cal State University Monterey, so he moved in with us. His presence made things a lot easier. It was 2007, and I was liking Monterey a lot more, and my trips to L.A. were much less frequent. Each time I did go back, I disliked L.A. more and more. The traffic is hideous and the heat and smog are pretty gross. L.A. is in my heart, for sure, but Monterey slowly earned my love. It’s clean and there is hardly any traffic. It’s always cold, too.

Again, it was 2007. This is important to note because during this time, housing prices in the U.S. hit an all-time high! The house I had purchased in Pasadena was now valued at $640,000! That’s a massive jump in just three years! 

Jennifer was on the hunt for some house plants and we had heard about a nursery in Monterey. We drove around town looking for it. This is before the Maps App. At some point, we took a wrong turn, but, as fate would have it, it ended up being the right turn. There was a corner house for sale. It looked gorgeous! She had a big carmel stone chimney and a small but practical backyard. “Look at that house,” I said to Jennifer. She thought it was pretty, too. There was a guy walking out of the house. I guessed it was the agent selling it. I pulled up to the curb and asked, “Is this house still for sale?” He said, “Yeah, you want to take a look?” “Yes!” The second I walked into that house, I knew I wanted it! Everything about it felt right. As soon as we got back into the car, I called my agent. She lived in L.A. “Toshiko,” I said, “I want this house! Please make it happen!” 

Because the value of houses had gone up, I had major equity in the Pasadena house. I took out $140,000, cashe from the Pasadena house and used it as a down payment on the Monterey house. In october of 2007, the house was ours! I had always dreamed of living near the ocean, and I made it one of my goals when I was thirteen-years-old. I made my dream come true! I was now the owner of two houses. One was being paid for itself, and we lived in the other just blocks from the beach. 

The housing market crashed shortly after we bought it. It wasn’t a good time to be a new homeowner, but we hung in there and are now in a good spot, again. It’s safe to say that Monterey is home. 

Sadly, after nearly seventeen-years of owning the Pasadena home, I am now selling her. She has been so, so good to me. The little crack house that could gave me $140,000, to buy my dream home, and she is still going to continue to give after I sell her. She’s worth close to $700,000 right now. I owe $400,000, on her. I will be sad to see her go, and I’m sure I’ll cry at some point, but she has done her job. She has been a beautiful little house for us, and she has given me so much. I love her.

Looking back on her, I did the right thing. I aimlessly spent money on material trash, things that didn’t really do much to improve the quality of my life. I was mired in a temporary existence, accumulating and holding on to things that bring no real worth. Yes, a house can fall under this category, but a home gives us love and memories and children and warmth. This is what I desired. The decision to change the way I lived and to save money ultimately changed my life. The decision to move to Monterey and be with Jennifer was also a major decision in my life. Having children, too, was another wonderful decision. So I can say, even if I die tomorrow, that I at least made three very good decisions in my life.

Do yourselves favor and save for something good. Out of that good will come other rewards. Trust me. I know.