This story is part of CNBC Make It’s Millennial Silver series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
In early 2021, Kim Liao paid off her mother’s mortgage.
The 27-year-old saved the needed $28,000 in nine months during the Covid-19 pandemic, after her mother, Carrie Cheng, lost her job and feared paying for housing each month.
Liao and her current husband, Greggory Bollweg, have virtually cut out non-essential expenses to save money, which she says has been made easier by pandemic stay-at-home orders. (Bollweg supported Liao’s goal, but aside from sharing living expenses and food, he did not contribute any part of his personal income to the cause). She started signing up credit cards and bank accounts for new account bonuses and selling items around her house.
She also started walking her dog to supplement the $100,000 annual salary she earns in her day job as a senior financial analyst at a medical device company in Orange County, California.
Liao considers it the least she can do to ensure her mother’s financial security.
“It was the best money I’ve ever spent because it made my mom so happy,” says Liao, whose mother now owns her two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. “There is no other fulfilling feeling for me than seeing my mother happy.”
Liao’s goal has always been to get a stable job to help her mother manage her finances. Born in Shenzhen, China, Liao moved to the United States with her mother after her parents separated when she was 12.
The couple were living in what Liao describes as a shed on a relative’s property in Los Angeles when they first arrived, wearing clothes donated by their church. Neither spoke English, but Disney Channel became Liao’s language tutor over the next few years.
After two years of living in the shed, they rented rooms from other people until her mother, who was a college professor in China but sold sunglasses at a mall kiosk in the United States. United could rent an apartment for just the two of them in San Diego.
All the while, Liao excelled in school despite the language barrier, especially in math. She attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was almost entirely paid for with the financial aid she received through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). She also qualified for the work-study program, which allowed her to graduate in 2016 without taking out a loan.
Her early years in the United States, particularly living in the shed, were the foundation of Liao’s financial relationship, instilling in her a fierce independence, she says. Now she’s making six figures in a field she chose not only because of her aptitude for numbers, but also because of the security it could bring her and her mother.
“I realized that I never wanted to depend on anyone else,” she says. “I still want to have a sense of independence because I have the money to be myself and do what I want with my life.”
Here’s how Liao spent his money in August 2021.
- Investments: $2,680 ($1,221 in employee stock purchase plan; $733 in 401(k); $500 in Roth IRA; $226 in HSA)
- Housing and utilities: $1,475 ($1,375 for his share of the $3,600 mortgage, plus $100 for utilities)
- Cash savings: $1,000
- Discretionary: $350 ($170 for home improvement; $60 for gifts, $50 for entertainment; $50 for travel; $20 for dog food)
- Food: $224 (his share for restaurant meals and groceries, shared equally with his partner)
- Transport: $119 ($101.50 for gas and $17.50 for Ubers, shared with partner)
- Assurance: $80 ($66 for health; $14 for dental and vision)
- Call: $40
- Subscriptions: $35 (Amazon Prime, credit card fees, and Spotify)
Currently, Liao is focusing on building up her savings and investments. In addition to funding her own retirement, she also plans to continue to help his mother. At the time of filming, she had approximately $23,000 in savings and $85,000 in investments.
Although buying her house is the only “non-negotiable” in her budget, she is able to save and invest so much because she is quite frugal. Virtually everything in Liao’s home was bought second-hand from sites like Facebook Marketplace, or made by hand.
She invests $1,375 a month in the $3,600 mortgage for the four-bedroom house she owns with her husband, who also pays $1,375 (a roommate contributes the remaining $850). The duo bought the house for around $800,000 in 2020 through a combination of $115,000 in personal savings and a $30,000 gift from Liao’s father, who still lives in China. He plans to live in the house with the couple when he retires. Bollweg’s mother was their real estate agent and gave them her commission, which also helped them reach their 20% deposit.
Liao is aware of how lucky she is to have had the help of her father. “Growing up, he wasn’t really supporting us in day-to-day things,” she says. Big gifts are his way of showing off for her now.
Liao and Bollweg, who earn an income similar to that of an engineer, split most expenses equally and keep their finances separate.
“I always want to feel equal,” she says of the decision not to combine finances. “We believe our money is our own achievement, so we like to be independent and keep the money we earn for ourselves.”
At the end of the summer, Liao and Bollweg married in the backyard of their Orange County home. It was an intimate 40-person ceremony and, true to her frugal nature, the bride handmade most of the decorations and bought her dress for $350. She even made some of the edits herself.
“It actually took a long time, way longer than I thought it would, to hem the dress,” she says. “But I did. I saved $150, so that’s all that matters.”
The largest expenses included engagement and wedding photos, which cost $1,400, and food, which was prepared by a local restaurant for around $700. In total, however, they spent less than $6,000, split evenly.
Now that the marriage is over, Liao is focusing on saving to buy a rental property and help her mother save for her retirement. She has about $23,000 in cash savings and her goal is to reach $27,000 by the end of the year. Retiring early is also a priority; she tries to contribute as much as she can to her 401(k) and Roth IRA each year.
As for her career, Liao plans to stay in accounting because of the stability and opportunities for advancement. She also plans to start teaching other people her age about personal finance. She has scheduled sessions with a few clients so far – friends of friends – but has yet to make any money from it.
Outside of work, Liao describes music as her “source of happiness in life.” She grew up playing the piano in churches and her elementary school. As an adult, she printed the keys on pieces of paper and pretended to play before she could afford to buy a real piano. (She eventually found a used one for $600 on Craigslist.) Recently, she also learned the double bass.
When she thinks about her future, she envisions a future free from the kind of day-to-day stress of managing money that she grew up with. Instead, she imagines her and her mother living carefree, no longer subject to anyone else’s rules.
“Maybe I could be a musician,” she says. “If I have money, I can do whatever I want.”