046: Star in Your Own Financial Success Story with Sarah Li Cain

Sarah Li CainSarah Li Cain is a financial storyteller who weaves practical tips and strategies into her work so that those trying to change their money mindset can see themselves in the starring role.

So let’s dig in. Let’s meet today’s Master of Money….

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Never Apologize for Your Decisions

Sarah feels strongly that you should never apologize for your decisions. A rebel from birth, Sarah grew up in a very traditional Asian home which simply means that your parents have your path decided for you and you are supposed to follow it without asking questions.

Sarah decided to do things a little differently, not out of spite, but because she wanted to be able to live the life she wanted. Her entire extended family is in finance so she laughs when she sees that now her path has veered in that direction, but she didn’t intend it that way.

Sarah believes that pleasing others is what makes most of our decisions for us. We hate to disappoint our parents or our family so we do what they expect of us. Breaking out of that mindset is a difficult thing to do but for Sarah, it has worked wonderfully.

Travel has been one area where she has broken out of the mold that others wanted to put her in. From paying for last minute flights to staying at 5-star hotels and fancy resorts, Sarah has no regrets about doing the things that gave her the most joy.

When Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

After living in Australia for a year, Sarah made the difficult decision to leave a serious relationship and move back to Canada. She planned to buy a house, get a new job, and she fully expected the person she was dating to follow her to Canada and to get a fresh start for the relationship.

There was only one problem: he didn’t follow her. Sarah found herself homeless, jobless, and having to move back in with her parents. She was also $9K in credit card debt. This was a terrifying moment for her, as she realized she had no idea what she was doing. She knew she was a smart person and she could figure this out.

“Yes, I need to better my money. But what got me into this situation and how can I never ever be in it again?” ~Sarah Li Cain

The reason Sarah was so devastated by her situation is that she grew up seeing her family members struggling with huge debt. At a young age, she had decided that she wasn’t going to live that kind of life. She was going to move out of her parents’ home, get a great job, and be in charge of her money.

To find herself in this amount of debt was the exact opposite of what she had planned for her life.

A Game Plan to Crush Debt and Move Forward

This debt meant that Sarah couldn’t travel as much as she wanted to. It also robbed her of her self-esteem because living with her parents as a 24-year-old made her feel like a child again.

The very first thing Sarah did, which she still does to this day whenever she feels overwhelmed, is to figure out what the very first step is. At that point, it was needing a job. She went to a restaurant that she had worked at previously and got a serving position. She then went to a store that she had worked at and also got a position there.

Her passion for traveling hadn’t gone away though. She had a friend in South Korea who told her that they were hiring for teaching positions. Sarah applied and received an offer. Three weeks later, she bought a plane ticket and flew to South Korea.

While there, she was able to pay off $15K in debt which included the remainder of her student loans. Her living expenses were so low and her salary so good that she had no trouble paying things off. The school also covered her housing so she didn’t have a huge rent bill each month.

Getting Started in Freelance Writing

Sarah was able to leave South Korea due to the large amount of cash she had saved while living there. She then moved to China for 8 years. She met her husband while living there and his discipline around money helped her to become even more devoted to saving and not spending on frivolous things.

Their combined income in China was between $90-100K and because the cost of living was so low and the income was tax-free, they were able to set aside 60% of it into savings. They still did a ton of traveling through trading jobs with friends; Sarah did a lot of tutoring children in English for vacations in return.

A short stint in the United States while Sarah was applying for a green card got her started in freelance writing. She couldn’t get a job because she had no green card or social security number. When they went back to China, she was enjoying the freelancing so much that she decided to continue doing that while also teaching.

The birth of their first child brought some major changes to their lives due to the fact that Sarah wanted to be at home with her child and her husband told her that he wanted to raise their child in North America. She made arrangements to quit her teaching job and at that point, she knew she had to scale her freelance business in order to make everything work.

Preparing to Leave Full-time Employment

When Sarah and her husband knew that she would be leaving her teaching position, they got serious about cutting expenses. They looked at every bill they had and made hard decisions about what to cut. They cut vacations out of the country; only traveling across the border to Hong Kong where they could vacation cheaply.

Sarah made it a personal goal to pitch as many clients as possible. She had no income goal set for herself but she knew that if she pitched enough and got those clients, she would get the return that they needed for their income. The pitching she did got her several retainer clients which resulted in referrals.

Budgeting Stress

In 2012, Sarah got her green card and she and her husband moved to the United States where he still teaches full-time and she is freelancing full-time. There is one thing that living overseas for 11 years has made difficult for them and that is budgeting.

Living for so long where the cost of living was so low makes figuring out a budget quite challenging for Sarah. She finds herself underestimating the costs of things here in the states which makes the budget seem too restrictive. Six months in and she calls the process so far “disastrous”.

More expenses, higher cost of living, not managing the budgeting app well, and Christmas have all been huge challenges to getting a budget set up. And remember the fact that in China they were saving 60% of their income so they don’t have a whole lot of experience with budgeting.

Sarah fully admits that her perfectionistic personality is the biggest problem when it comes to the budget. In the beginning, she figured that 6 months in she would have the perfect system set up and everything would just be rolling along perfectly.

Moving internationally has been a huge eye-opener when it comes to money for Sarah and her husband. She gave an example of her food spending in China – their family of 3 could eat out regularly in China at nice restaurants and that, combined with groceries, only required about $300 per month.

Flexibility and Future Goals

Sarah and her family currently live in North Carolina in a rental. Because their ultimate goal is to move more north to be closer to family, they aren’t interested in purchasing a house just yet. They want the flexibility to be able to move if they get the opportunity.

They also have a goal to be able to retire in 10 years. Sarah is currently 34 and 100% of her freelance income is being invested while they live on her husband’s income. This has given her a challenge to make as much as she can so she can see that grow.

Her being able to throw as much as possible at the retirement is a goal but not working is not. Her husband plans to continue teaching as long as possible and she plans to keep writing. She just wants to know that if something happened and they needed to stop working, they could.

When looking back on some of the financial mistakes she has made, Sarah sticks to her own motto…no apologies. If she hadn’t had to sit on her teenaged bed at age 24 and figure out what to do next, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Show Notes

  • 00:00Intro
  • 01:10 Never apologize for your decisions
  • 04:15 Sometimes life doesn’t go the way you thought it would
  • 06:20 Sarah’s game plan to crush the debt and move forward
  • 12:35 Making the decision to leave secure employment for freelancing
  • 18:40 Scaling her freelance business to make the leap to full-time
  • 23:30 Budgeting and why it causes Sarah stress
  • 26:20 Flexibility and future goals

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This show is part of the FinCon Podcast Network and was produced by Steve Stewart.

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