John of Financial Freedom Countdown: I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream
An Interview With Vicky Colas
Immigrants have an inherent advantage of living below their means. Most immigrants come to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. Living standards in their home countries often are lower than in the U.S.A. Living below your means enables you to save for an uncertain future and use the additional funds to help family and friends back home.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing John from Financial Freedom Countdown.
John came from a third-world country to the U.S. with only $1,000, not knowing anyone, guided by an immigrant dream. It was challenging to survive and thrive in one of the most expensive parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 12 years, he accumulated a net worth of $2.3M to retire early. He started Financial Freedom Countdown to encourage and guide others to be financially independent at an early age.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Mumbai, India. The city should be familiar to anyone who watched the movie, Slumdog Millionaire. We did not have a lot of money growing up. Although we never went to bed hungry, we could not afford utilities considered essential in the developed world, such as a telephone. We had a black and white television because it was cheaper than buying a colored T.V. Buying clothes was a once-a-year event only reserved for birthdays. Since I had an older brother, he would get new clothes once a year, and I often got hand-me-down clothes. Although life does sound harsh, I am grateful to my parents for ensuring we had a safe and secure childhood. My parents instilled in us the importance of education. I remember spending all my summer vacations studying for the next grade.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
Growing up as a gay kid in India, I always dreamed of living in the United States. Although my parents were accepting, I knew that India’s society would not be welcoming to LGBT individuals. My only exposure to the U.S. was watching a few episodes of sitcoms like FRIENDS. The only problem was that no one in my family had ever ventured abroad.
I was fortunate that my parents made it clear that education was my only ticket abroad. I graduated with a Computer Science degree and started working in Mumbai. I realized I need to be more aggressive in developing my career and switched jobs to work for a company with clients in U.S.A. I was offered a short-term opportunity to work for a few months in Connecticut. Without knowing anyone or anything about the United States, I jumped up at the chance and decided I would figure things along as I went.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Coming to the U.S.A. was scary and exciting at the same time. In hindsight, there were a million ways it could have gone wrong. I went to the U.S. all by myself with only $1000 and a dream. The scary part was that I knew that my $1,000 cash would last me a month at the most. Just enough for a flight back home.
I boarded a plane and landed in Connecticut in the middle of winter. When I landed here, I did not know anyone or anything about the system. Growing up in a cash-based society, I had no idea of credit history or its importance.
I didn’t have a credit score which left me unable to approach traditional housing opportunities. I found a mom-and-pop landlord and had to pay $900 in cash, or three months’ rent, upfront to have a place to stay while I waited for my first paycheck.
The hardest part was the first month I was trying to get set up with a bank account, cell phone, and an apartment (after my 10-day initial motel stay) in a foreign land with zero credit history. It did not help that I also had to be productive daily to make sure I was at my best.
I could not afford a car, and I didn’t know how to drive, which meant I had to rely on walking everywhere.
These were only a few of the challenges which made me almost want to give up. The positive aspect of my journey is that you push yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally because failure is not an option once you are in such a precarious position.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
It would be hard to mention one specific individual since all of the individuals I met in my early days played their part in helping me settle down — the landlord gave me a place to stay without a credit score. Or my manager trusted me with tasks or my coworkers who would drive me to the SSN office or buy a cellphone, etc.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention my parents. It must have been hard for them to see me leave, but they always encouraged me to follow my dreams. Their trust in me made me more confident that I could tackle any challenges I would face. And they continued to provide moral support from far.
So how are things going today?
Fortunately, life is great today. Looking back to those early days in the U.S. my journey looks almost like a dream. I leveraged my human capital to improve my career opportunities, learned how to manage and invest my money, had a few lucky breaks, and reached financial independence in my early 40s.
I was also able to sponsor my parents for their green card. I am not sure if they would ultimately live in the U.S., but they can visit me for more extended periods.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Starting my website was inspired by a distinct memory in my working career. My V.P., who is in her 70s, mentioned that her sister was not keeping well. I naturally assumed she would visit and asked about her travel plans. However, she did not want to take time off, given that we had a massive product launch coming up.
Two weeks later, when we were in a meeting, she received a phone call. Her sister had passed away.
The fact that although she was a V.P., earning at least 3X more than me; and yet was a “wage slave” hit me like a tidal wave. It was the inspiration for me to start my website about Financial Freedom.
Even with high incomes, I noticed many of my coworkers and friends stressed out about work, finances, and emergencies. Earning money is one aspect, but effectively investing capital, so it works for you, is the trickier part. Knowing how to define “enough” and pull back is the most brutal struggle.
My goal starting Financial Freedom Countdown is to provide the tools for individuals to determine their priorities consciously. And be mindful of the trade-offs in making financial choices.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
- Separate the changes for legal skills-based immigration from asylum immigration. The needs of the skills-based and asylum-based immigrants are very different and need targeted solutions. The current U.S. immigration system is mired in controversy due to all categories of immigrants being lumped together. Ideally, it would help carve out skills-based immigration and provide a clear path towards citizenship around it. I am confident that most Americans would appreciate a merit-based immigration system that encourages individuals to move to this country and add value.
- Eliminate country quotas or establish country quotas based on population percentage. The current immigration system has country quotas that are the same for every country irrespective of each country’s population. Hence, India gets the same number of green cards as the Maldives. Obliviously this puts citizens born in more populous countries like India and China at a significant disadvantage compared to others. The problem is further compounded because most of the skilled technology workers are from India and China. Currently, anyone born in India has to wait more than 15 years to get a green card. Without a green card, individuals on H1B visas face an uncertain future. They cannot plan to buy a house or invest or accumulate assets as they need to leave the country in 15 days with employment termination. I never contributed to my 401(k) in the early years since I was unsure how to access the funds if I was no longer in the U.S. at retirement age.
- Merit-based visas should be tagged to individuals and not companies. In countries like Canada or Australia, the government validates individuals’ skills on a points system and provides visas to skilled workers. The individuals then have the freedom to apply for jobs and change jobs as needed. The current U.S. system provides visas to employers and not employees. Hence, any individual needing to change employers needs to have the new employer again apply for a visa. So, you can’t switch jobs easily since every new employer needs to file papers with USCIS to get another working visa for you. Anyone who has dealt with any government agency knows how long that takes! As a result, many firms would not be willing to wait. You can’t work for exciting startups or smaller firms since the firm needs to post the job you are applying for in newspapers, bulletin boards, etc., for others to also get a chance at applying. Detailed records on the method of job postings, other potential candidate evaluations, filing papers, etc., need to be maintained by an immigration attorney on the H.R. staff. All this process adds cost and burden to the companies. It hampers individuals from changing jobs and closes the door on skilled individuals working for smaller firms.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Leverage your Human Capital. As a first-generation immigrant, I only had my skills and knowledge when I came to the U.S. Many of us are in a similar situation where we have no assets or network and need to rely only on providing value using our skills. As long as you give value to the world, you are rewarded with money. You can use the money to buy assets which ultimately can provide passive income to you in the future.
- Network with others. No person is an island. Human beings are social creatures. While we cannot choose our family or our circumstances, we can certainly choose our friends. I am a firm believer in the Jim Rohn quote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” We are greatly influenced by our environment — whether we like it or not. It affects our thinking, our decisions, and our support structure. While ideally, it would be great to be supported by all positive reinforcement. It is also essential to be around people who are not afraid to provide constructive criticism and push us to our limits to grow. Develop a close circle of friends who complement your skills, and you can have your mastermind group.
- Live below your means. Immigrants have an inherent advantage of living below their means. Most immigrants come to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. Living standards in their home countries often are lower than in the U.S.A. Living below your means enables you to save for an uncertain future and use the additional funds to help family and friends back home.
- Learn the financial system. As an immigrant, the financial system would be new and overwhelming. Take your time to learn the quirks. Read a lot and ask questions. When in doubt, seek second opinions. No one in my family had ever invested in stocks or even knew what the stock market is. Today, I am comfortable investing in everything from moonshot companies to cryptocurrencies to real estate syndications.
- Have fun! Part of the American dream is living a rich life and pursuing your dreams. Define what is a priority for you and go for it. And have fun along the way. I do love travel and lifting weights. For over a decade, I have managed to go on at least two international vacations every year. And I block time on my calendar to work out at least six times a day. Pursuing your hobbies does not need to be expensive. When I did not have a large nest egg to spend on hobbies, I used credit card rewards to fund my travel and the local park for my fitness endeavors. If you enjoy something, allocate time on your schedule and money in your budget. Life is too short for regrets.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- Merit-based system. The U.S. is still a merit-based system. The fact that immigrants overwhelmingly prefer coming to the U.S. is a testament to the fact that you can succeed here even if you do not know anyone or anything.
- Leader in Innovation. The U.S. has always managed to inspire countless entrepreneurs to innovate and rewarded them handsomely. Although innovation is now more distributed worldwide, we still have the leadership in innovation and expect it to continue for the next few decades.
- Democracy. The news media often paints a bleak picture, but the U.S. constitution has the necessary checks and balances to ensure democracy will survive and thrive. A rugged sense of individualism coupled with the required social support provides an excellent environment for individuals to thrive.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
David Sinclair. His work on longevity is fascinating. I would love to talk to him about his current research and any new insights he might have gleaned.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
I write at Financial Freedom Countdown mainly on career development, saving, investing, and living my best life. Feel free to stop by and subscribe to my newsletter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!