We love talking about money with other people. We’ve learned from our money conversations that no matter how unique we are, we can always learn something new about money and about life from other people. And just listening to others tell their money stories helps to support them in reaching their goals.
We’ve gotten so much out of our money conversations that we decided to start an interview series with our personal finance community. Rather than focusing only on income and investing we’re interested in the emotional and personal side of personal finance. And we’re thrilled to share stories from some of our friends.
Everyone, meet our friend Cheryl! She’s a 57 year old woman originally from Ohio and living in the Choco-Andino Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador. Cheryl has been hosting FI Chautauqua events in Ecuador since 2013, which is how we first met her. Cheryl also runs Project One Corner as a giving tool for the people of Ecuador. We are inspired by Cheryl and we know you’ll find something encouraging in her money story…
1. What were your childhood money experiences? Did you learn useful money lessons from your family?
I received mostly good messages about money during my childhood. My parents taught me to work for what I wanted and to be responsible with money. When I was 17, my father told me I was going to buy a car which he co-signed for. That was way before online payments. I would go to the bank faithfully every month and make my payment with my waitressing tips.
There were some negative financial messages from my family though, around scarcity and fear. It probably stemmed from my father having to rebuild his business after a devastating and stressful time. He was a General Contractor and in 1981 he had several spec houses on the market when interest rates went up to 18%. I don’t know the details, but he went from a team of 30 to only 2, and after that I heard more fear talk.
2. What kinds of experiences have you had with debt?
In my early professional years, I had the normal car and house payment. I was lucky to make it out of college with no student loans. Once I had credit card debt over $10 grand, it stressed me out way too much and I swore never to do that again. Since I moved to Ecuador in 2002, I have had no debt. I paid cash for the farm. I worked extra in the States over a six- year period to build a guest house on the farm for tourists without taking out a loan. I drove my first truck in Ecuador for 17 years and then paid cash for a new truck. Besides the peace of mind of no loans, the interest rates and requirements in Ecuador are crazy.
3. What’s your investing style, and what kinds of accounts do you have?
I’m not doing traditional investing at this point, my real investing style is to invest in my home and the people in my life. I invested pretty much all of my money in my farm back when I moved my life to Ecuador. I continue to invest in the farm every year to maintain projects such as growing coffee in order to employ people on the farm and provide a home for my chosen family here. I continue to work on the farm so it will be able to sustain itself and provide for my farmhand and his family after I’m gone.
I keep some of my money in Ecuador deposited in checking and savings accounts. I also have checking and savings accounts in the USA since I typically need to return to the USA to work for income each year. Then I deposit checks from the USA into my accounts here in Ecuador to finance my living expenses and help fund the farm as well.
4. We’re excited that you’re back in event planning mode for FI Chautauqua events in Ecuador! Can you tell us about the first FI Chautauqua event?
I’m so excited to be doing the Chautauquas again after a two-year hiatus. I am grateful you attended in 2019!!!!
It all started in 2012 when I posted an ad for a retreat I was hosting in a newsletter in Ecuador. Jim Collins read that ad and sent me a note to say that if I ever wanted to add a financial component to the retreats, he would love to be a speaker. Jim was going to be in Ecuador so I invited him to the farm where we talked more. Initially I didn’t think finance would mix with the type of retreat I had planned which was more about happiness. Jim told me he could invite a few other bloggers in the world of Financial Independence to present and we could make it about Happiness and FI, so I agreed! Jim invited Mr. Money Mustache and JD Roth for our first event in 2013. We didn’t know what to expect but it sold out in 3 weeks. People loved it and some even said it was life changing. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that!
I have hosted 10 events since then and I absolutely love hosting them along with showing everyone Ecuador. I also enjoy teaching people about happiness during the week and getting them to think about their life now and after retirement. I think people on the FI path sometimes become so caught up in trying to become FI that they don’t often stop to think what their post FI life will look like. I think it is important to learn where happiness comes from, how to create more of it in your life, what brings meaning in your life, and what types of things are truly important to you. My presentation on happiness takes you through steps to dig deep and figure out what is most important to you so you can start incorporating those things today. I also talk about my own evolution of working to become happier and building a more fulfilling life. The bloggers typically feel the same and very rarely are their presentations about the nuts and bolts of how to become FI, but rather on what your why for FI is and what kind of life you want after you retire.
5. Your FI story is one of our favorites since you’ve created an amazing life in Ecuador and you’re so focused on supporting others. Tell us how you see FI relating to your personal goals.
I do love my life! Before Jim contacted me I had never even heard of Financial Independence. Had I learned about FI earlier in my life I may have taken a more direct route to FI. But by then I already had the farm, my dogs, and my life in Ecuador that I loved so much and I wasn’t willing to give any of that up for more years working in the States full-time.
I do have the FI mindset in that I don’t want to work for “the man.” I have a Work Optional mindset and I want to do things my way. Wages in Ecuador are very low so in 2004 I began working six months in the States to support myself for six months in Ecuador while implementing different projects to make a living on the farm.
I am grateful to have been able to spend a total of 10 years on the farm over the past 20 years. There is nothing better than to have the freedom to spend a Monday morning hiking to the river to swim in a waterfall. To do that, I have to be frugal, but it’s pretty easy. I can buy “x thing” or I can buy a week or a month of freedom on the farm. The farm wins every time.
6. What kind of work for pay do you do? What kinds of unpaid work do you do?
My main income still comes from my work as a physical therapist in the USA. I am so thankful that there are 13-week travel contract positions that pay a salary and a housing stipend. When I need to work I call my recruiter and we get a job lined up. I usually stay working in the USA for six months. I also make income hosting Chautauquas with a few months of planning.
There have been many attempts to implement projects on the farm to not only bring in an income but also to create something, and that has mostly turned out to be unpaid work.
I found that sitting in a hammock all day is fun at first, but after a while it doesn’t do me or the world much good. So, over the years I would come back to the farm with money to invest in something that could potentially bring in more money. Initially I had dairy cows but that didn’t even pay for my farmhand. It was a relief to let that project go because I hated selling a cow for meat when she didn’t produce enough milk. Next, we planted 6,000 fruit trees and after two years I was actually making a profit, until I lost every single tree to a plague. For the past 12 years I have grown coffee but it has never made enough to live on. I have come to realize that I really like living on a farm but not necessarily farming.
Since I was passionate about Ecuador and I felt the farm was one of the most beautiful places in the world, I decided to build a guest house to share it with others. I finished building a gorgeous five-bedroom house when the pandemic hit so we’ll see how things go with that. My goal with the house is to host smaller Chautauquas and retreats and also keep it listed as an Airbnb. My most important unpaid project is my Project One Corner which I will talk about next.
7. Tell us about Project One Corner. Where did you get the idea? What have you accomplished so far? And what are your main goals for Project One Corner in the future?
Project One Corner is my baby. It starts with a sappy story, but one that shook me into doing something about the poverty I was surrounded by. I was in Quito taking a plate of homemade cookies to a friend. I stopped at a traffic light and a little girl came up begging for money. I wondered why she wasn’t in school or at home playing. I thought, do we really live in this kind of world? I handed her the plate of cookies. She ran to the median, bit into a cookie and looked up and smiled at me. For that moment she was just a kid again and the world made a little more sense to me.
Ecuador is full of needs and it can be overwhelming. I wanted to affect real change and my original idea was to build a non-profit bringing therapy services to my area. As I wrote up a proposal for the idea I started thinking about raising money for the huge budget, and I became overwhelmed. In a conversation with a friend she wondered what the world would be like if we all chose to help one family. That’s when a light bulb went off and Project One Corner was born.
I decided to take 10% of my income and I help one person or family in Ecuador at a time. There was no huge fundraising and 100% of the money went to the person in need. I try to pick projects that improve people’s lives or that give them the opportunity to improve their own. I put my farmhand’s son through college and he is now teaching at the local school making a livable wage. We have also bought motorcycles for people to be able to get to work and make a living. With money earned from hosting Chautauquas and donations from bloggers, we have built three houses for families who were living in deplorable situations. I don’t just give people the money, I hire the contractor, buy the materials and oversee the project from start to finish. I want to give people more dignity in their lives, the dignity we all deserve. Project One Corner is my best and most full-filling work and my main purpose in life.
Note from Ali: You can donate to Project One Corner here.
8. What’s it like being a property owner in Ecuador? How many people live on your farm?
I love being a property owner in Ecuador and I still can’t believe I have the privilege of living here. First, anyone can buy property here which then allows you to get residency. I feel very lucky to have found an amazing 24 acres in the subtropics with stunning views and two houses, all for the price of an empty half acre lot in the USA. I live here with five rescue dogs, four cats, lots of chickens and myself. My farmhand, who has been with me for 19 years, lives in a house next to mine along with his wife and adult son. Samuel, Lucia, and Freddy are great company and it is because of them I can leave for six months to work in the USA. The farm is as peaceful as ever and it gives me plenty to do every day.
9. How does living in Ecuador impact your finances?
Ecuador has a lower cost of living which is what has enabled me to enjoy this lifestyle. Ecuador has a special tax program for small-businesses so I only pay $55 a month as long as I continue to make less than $60,000 a year. My property taxes are less than $20 a year (no, I am not missing a zero on that!). Basic utilities are inexpensive and good health insurance is $60 a month. Food costs are very low especially as a vegetarian. I have no mortgage and my biggest expense is paying my farmhand but worth every penny. My money goes a long way.
10. You’ve told us about arriving in Ecuador with your partner at the time, and living there as a single person as well. What have you learned about relationships and money?
That is an interesting question. I think it is true what they say that finances are one of the biggest issues in relationships and it sure caused plenty of fights in mine. I have learned that I like keeping my finances separate, especially now that I am older and I have invested in so many projects. When I am in a relationship, I believe in sharing living costs. But I am pretty used to keeping my finances separate.
11. Do you have people you can talk openly with about money (not including us)?
I really don’t have too many people I can talk to in an in-depth way about money. Thinking about it now I realize when I talk about money it is mostly in a negative way. I need to stop doing that!
12. What are your personal money goals at this point in your life?
My personal money goals are to be self-sustaining in Ecuador. I want to do work that is meaningful to me which is showing people Ecuador, hosting retreats that impact people’s lives, and continuing with Project One Corner. There is nothing better than the views from my home office with my dogs by my side.
13. How do you feel about money from an emotional perspective at this point in your life?
I go back and forth about money. Sometimes I am filled with so much gratitude for the opportunities I have had and that I have always had enough. Other times I stress about money. I don’t like always having to think about it. I have studied happiness and I know money doesn’t bring happiness, but I wonder if it can bring peace of mind. Maybe? Or if I had more money, maybe I would fear losing it or that people would take advantage. I know I need to work on my negative attitude surrounding money.
14. What kinds of activities do you love? How do your favorite activities impact your spending?
My favorite activity is to be outside in nature and hiking and that is free. I spend time with my Goddaughter playing board games, croquet, or hiking to the waterfall. I do have a slight book addiction and it is crazy that I can be in the middle of nowhere and download a book on Amazon. That is dangerous!! I would probably like to travel more, but for now being on the farm is enough for me.
15. Last question – what are you most excited about right now?
I am most excited about the possibility of being in Ecuador full-time implementing all of my projects! I forgot how much I missed bringing people to Ecuador until I started planning the 2022 Chautauqua. I am excited about hosting people at the guest house and growing that business as well. And while some parts are scary, like cooking for others at the guest house, it is a good challenge and all of it allows me to be creative and to be my own boss.
That’s it for now from Cheryl! We are missing Ecuador after working on this story with her. As you can see Cheryl is definitely not anonymous so feel free to reach out to her directly to learn more about her projects. And we are all looking forward to your comments!!
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