FLETCHER WHITE, my great-grandfather, was one of the young American doughboys drafted to fight in World War I. He also helped set the financial direction for our family for generations to come.
Fletcher may have lacked military acumen, but he compensated with ingenuity and resilience learned growing up in rural Appalachia. In fall 1918, he and a million fellow American soldiers pulled off in a few months what the French had been unable to accomplish in four years. At a cost of more than 26,000 U.S. lives, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive dislodged the German soldiers from their trenches, helping to bring an end to a terrible war.
I’ll let Fletcher tell you about it in his own words. They’re preserved in a book, Around Home in Unicoi County by William W. Helton, that chronicles the history of our Tennessee town: “On the morning of November 11, 1918, a bunch of us soldiers had taken a load of ammunition to the front, and when we got there it was just before 11:00, and in a few minutes, it suddenly got quiet, and the word spread fast that it was all over. What a change—the thunder of war one minute, then quiet as a tomb the next. It was like that until that night, when you could hear firing here and there in celebration. We slept on the ground that night, and although everything was quiet for the first time in four years, they set a guard. But we slept well that night, and were thankful—even the ground felt good.”
A decade after making it back to Erwin, in the Appalachian Mountains of northeast Tennessee, Fletcher found himself married and, with his wife Lottie, raising their three kids during the Great Depression. My dad smiles as he recalls listening to his Gramps spin yarns on the front porch: “Whenever he talked about the Depression, he would always say, ‘We got along just fine. We always had a roof over our heads and food on the table’.”
In 1924, Congress passed a bill to compensate World War I veterans for the income they lost while serving. The only problem was, the first payment wasn’t slated to happen until 1945—21 years later. In 1932, thousands of frustrated veterans and their families converged on Washington, D.C., in peaceful protest, urging lawmakers to deliver the aid right away. Eventually, in 1936, they succeeded in getting the stipends paid in full, and the momentum they created led to legislation that would become known as the G.I. Bill.
My great-grandfather received $800, which he used to buy several acres. The land meant opportunities to improve his family’s life. He grew fruits and vegetables, raised livestock, built a barn and cellar, and rented his cane mill for neighbors to make their sorghum molasses. Years later, my grandparents built their house on the land, which is where my dad and his sister grew up. Later, my parents built their house there, too. That’s where my brother and I grew up. My grandparents and parents still live in those same homes today.
Fletcher didn’t just set a path for our family with his land purchase. He also had a 38-year career as a carman with the Clinchfield Railroad, which had brought its headquarters to Erwin at the start of the 20th century. His son—my grandfather—studied accounting at Steed College in nearby Johnson City and then made it his career, also working for the Clinchfield Railroad. In fact, all of my great-grandfathers and grandfathers worked for the Clinchfield. Only my maternal grandfather—Pap—didn’t retire from there. Instead, he left the railroad to serve with the Air Force in Korea. Upon his return, he attended college thanks to the G.I. Bill, and then went on to a career as a teacher, principal and superintendent with Unicoi County Schools. My mom and dad followed in his footsteps, my mom primarily as an eighth-grade science teacher and my dad as an elementary school principal.
My parents worked their entire careers for the same employer, one that had a strong defined benefit retirement plan. They had watched their parents show similar loyalty and be rewarded with a financially comfortable retirement. When your pension is overseen by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board or the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, you don’t have to worry much about retirement. That’s probably why my family didn’t talk much about investing or the financial markets.
Tennessee Orange. As a kid, I didn’t think about money much, either. All I wanted to do was play sports—basketball and baseball, to be specific. I was a child of the 1990s, so I wanted to be like Michael Jordan or Ken Griffey, Jr. I believed with everything in me that I could do something great in sports.
I performed well enough in high school basketball and baseball to earn some local recognition, but I received zero college offers. My pride was wounded. Watching my dream die, I felt acute pain. Had I failed? In 2004, going into my senior year, I accepted that this would be it—my last year playing sports. Resolutely putting that dream behind me was like dowsing my face with ice-cold water. It was the first time I ever gave much serious thought to what I wanted to do with my life after high school. Until then, I had only entertained thoughts of continuing my athletic career for as long as possible.
I needed a new vision for my life. A few years earlier, I had decided to follow Jesus, and I remember thinking hard then about what that really meant. I intended to pay attention to what Jesus said. I read in the Bible where he said, “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” I also read, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I filed these ideas away.
I visited a few colleges that would’ve gladly charged me a fortune, but I decided they weren’t for me. Instead, I opted to attend the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville—a place where I felt at home, could cheer on my beloved Vols and would have no shortage of opportunities to explore.
The summer before college, I read a biography of Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. That sparked my interest in business and finance. Then I picked up business book No. 2 of my life, Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson. I figured there was no better place for a complete novice to start. I skimmed through several chapters, was intrigued and decided I wanted to learn more. At college orientation, I found out that I could start school as a business major with an undecided concentration. I thought that would be perfect.
Preparing to move to campus, I thought about how I could meet new people at UT. I wanted to find others who also sought to follow Jesus, so I looked into various campus Christian groups. I noticed that the Baptist Collegiate Ministry had some fun welcome week activities, so I decided to participate. My future wife Sarah did, too. Neither one of us even went to a Baptist church at the time. By December, we knew we wanted to marry.
As Sarah and I became close, she told me how her life had been shaped by losing her dad suddenly when she was age 12. He’d had a brain aneurysm while on a business trip. I got to know Sarah’s mom—a first-grade teacher. She easily connected with my parents, and it felt like we had always known each other. I also got to know her older brother, and I began to see how admirably he stepped into managing the family’s financial responsibilities. I was only 18 years old, but I had already found the woman I would spend my life with. We had dreams of raising a family together. As clearly as I could see that vivid shade of orange all over the UT campus, I could see that my actions every day—even at age 18—would directly impact the future of my family.
In my sophomore year, I decided to study accounting and finance. I was excited about the opportunity to increase my personal finance knowledge. I was no doubt influenced by the legacy of my accountant grandfather, as well as stories of Sarah’s dad, who had been the director of audit for the University of Tennessee.
I remember sitting in one of the old brick buildings up on the Hill at UT for my first day of finance 101. I couldn’t tell the teacher from the students. He was a young guy, casually dressed. He began the first lecture by telling his story. In the late 1990s, he had been part of a fast-rising Silicon Valley technology startup. Many of his friends had cashed out their stock options at the right time and were now multi-millionaires. He held on too long. The company went bust—along with his stock options—and that led him to return to school to pursue a doctorate in finance.
As I processed his story, I thought to myself, “How could he have seen that coming? I doubt that his tech friends were that much more financially savvy than him. It seems like there was a lot of luck involved. There has to be a better way.”
Later that semester, I studied how a mutual fund provides diversification, and I was introduced to the concepts of asset allocation and correlation. In my next finance class, I gawked at the professor’s illustrations of compounding returns. I began to realize that I could build financial success on a foundation of discipline—a firmer foundation than either luck or purported skill.
Falling into place. On June 20, 2009, Sarah and I were married in the church sanctuary that her dad had been instrumental in building as a leader in the church. We both began master’s degree programs at UT—Sarah in nutrition science and me in accounting with a tax concentration. During the recruiting season that fall, I secured a job with a boutique Knoxville CPA firm called Burkhart & Co. that provided tax compliance, financial planning and consulting services. I would start the fall after I graduated.
In one of my tax courses, we delved into the mechanics of IRA taxation, including the difference between traditional and Roth accounts. Our professor illustrated how compounding returns look even better when they’re tax-free. I took notice. I opened a Roth IRA at the Edward Jones office of a family friend. The active funds he suggested were the first investments I’d ever bought. Sarah already had a Roth IRA there, and she added to hers. We began investing regularly at clearance prices—this was right after the stock market bottomed in 2009.
Sarah and I both left school with a master’s degree and no debt. Over school breaks, I had already knocked out two sections of the CPA exam. Before I started my job, I passed the third and fourth parts.
Not long after the real estate bubble burst, we bought our first house in Knoxville, using some funds that Sarah had received from her dad’s estate as our down payment. Our realtor told us it was the best deal he had ever seen. With our two incomes, the payment was manageable. A few years later, we jumped at the chance to refinance to a 15-year mortgage at 3% interest. We realized that we were benefiting from good circumstances and timing, but we didn’t chalk it up to luck. Instead, we were thankful to God. We believed what David said in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.” We knew we were reaping what had been sown by several generations of our families—working hard, fighting to keep their marriages strong, and investing in a better life for their kids.
Not everybody had the kind of opportunities we had and we wanted to do something about it, so we chose to sponsor a seven-year-old boy in Tanzania through Compassion International, a charity that connects donors with children in poverty. We started giving $38 every month to help finance his local Compassion program, which functioned through a church that was already serving the community. We wanted to help Stanley have the same things we cherished in our own upbringing—a close-knit support system focused on his spiritual formation, character development and education.
Meanwhile, at church, we took counseling classes for a year and then started serving in the peer counseling ministry, which allowed us to help others in the local community. The director of counseling became a trusted friend. Before switching careers, he had also been a CPA. He and his wife had two boys—one with special needs. He implored us to save as much as possible during our two-income-no-kids years. We listened.
At work, Burkhart & Co.’s founder and president, Renda Burkhart, quickly became a mentor to me. I remember sitting in her office as she explained how index funds work. She enthusiastically recommended Jack Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing. I devoured it. Sarah and I built a sturdy financial foundation with a Roth IRA for each of us, a qualified retirement savings plan through each of our employers, a health savings account and a taxable brokerage account. We consolidated our accounts at Vanguard Group, where we favored index funds and put an emphasis on low fees for the active portion of our portfolio.
Not like we planned. When the time came to have kids, we assumed there would be no issues. It wasn’t long before we discovered how naive we were. We tried to conceive for more than a year but couldn’t, so we were overjoyed when we found out early in 2013 that Sarah was pregnant. A few weeks later—when I was buried with work during the spring tax season—I got a call from Sarah in the middle of the workday. I ducked into the library to take it. I can still recall the wall of books I stared at, while she told me through tears that we’d lost our baby. Only our parents had known that we were pregnant—or even trying—so we told very few people about our loss. For the next three months, I was consumed by the demands of tax season. That, in part, meant Sarah and I didn’t really have the chance to grieve together.
Around that same time, I started leading client relationships at the firm. I wanted a more thorough and confident knowledge of estate planning and investing, so I enrolled in the University of Georgia’s executive education program to prepare for the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) exam.
After the miscarriage, we were unable to conceive for another year. Then, in spring 2014, we found out that we had another baby on the way. Learning of this pregnancy was again a joy, but it was far from a relief. Instead, it was the start of a long season of agonizing anxiety for Sarah. At work, my responsibilities continued to grow. The fall tax season arrived and again brought long hours for months on end. On top of that, I had a November CFP exam date looming.
It all became too much for me. I suffered from my own intense anxiety and fear. I felt like I was letting everyone down. I didn’t have enough to give to satisfy the demands of work. I was falling behind in my CFP exam preparation. But more than anything, I was fiercely determined to support Sarah with more of my time and presence. I was angry and bitter that work had prevented me from being more supportive after Sarah’s miscarriage. I stumbled along but ended up passing the CFP exam in November. Our daughter Lydia arrived five days later.
It took some time, but I eventually swallowed my pride and asked for help. I learned to accept that I didn’t have what it takes to carry all these burdens on my own. I stopped doing peer counseling for a season and, instead, learned how to be on the receiving end. A lot of people showed me a lot of grace in those days.
Hunting for treasure. At Burkhart & Co., we all benefited from Renda’s stellar reputation in the Knoxville community, which attracted an impressive clientele. I developed a specialty working with high-net-worth families, including helping with their trusts and estates. Working with these families was a fascinating opportunity to study people who—by all objective measures—had made it. It didn’t take me long to understand that “making it” didn’t stop people from having to wrestle with money and other issues. Several of my clients were living my childhood dream as professional athletes or as Division I college coaches. Those with first-generation wealth struggled to discern who their real friends were, when to share their newfound financial surplus and when to put up healthy boundaries. As the generational wealth passed further down the family tree, kids had trouble with entitlement and finding value in work. With possessions came worries and burdens. Relationship strife usually followed close behind.
At the dawn of another spring tax season, Sarah and I got the good news that we were expecting for the third time. Soon after, we suffered our second miscarriage. We were heartbroken, but I had learned from my past mistakes. Even though it was the busiest time of the year, I canceled all my client meetings and worked from home for a week, so I could grieve with Sarah and Lydia. We received an outpouring of love and support from friends and family. We were both weary, but we still longed to add to our family. This time, we didn’t have to wait another year. Within a few months, we celebrated the news of our fourth child. Eliza arrived the next February.
Each time we lost a baby or celebrated a birth, we sponsored another child through Compassion International in honor of the miracle of their life. We now have eight children, from all over the world, in our extended family. We’ve exchanged hundreds of letters where we share our lives and learn about each other’s cultures. We send birthday and Christmas gifts every year. We pray for them and they pray for us. We love involving our two girls in all of this. Our Compassion friends have money concerns of their own. The kids’ parents often can’t find consistent work, and their families do without much of what we consider to be basic necessities. The kids usually spend their birthday money on shoes for themselves or on rice and beans for their family. Rarely, if ever, do they get to buy a toy.
As I’ve gotten to know both many high-net-worth families and those who are used to doing without, I have observed something that surprised me: We are all more alike than I ever would’ve thought. We all have to make the same fundamental decision. Sure, we come at it from different perspectives and different parts of the wealth spectrum. But we all have to decide: What do we ultimately treasure? What we treasure will, in time, determine who we become.
The view from here. This morning, as I write this, I sit on the front porch of my parents’ house, taking in the view of the mountains and the fields below, where my grandparents’ house sits. I worry about my 93-year-old Paw’s failing health and mind. I worry about Grandmaw and Dad as they take care of him. I am thankful for the visit we had this weekend—four generations enjoying this moment together.
As I reflect on my money journey thus far, I notice that two contrasting mindsets have regularly guided my decisions. Sometimes, a long-term view has led me to make current sacrifices for a future payoff. Other times, I have chosen slower progress toward a long-term goal in favor of the moment. The hard part has been knowing when to take which approach. There’s usually no fanfare alerting me that it’s time to perk up and focus on this important choice.
I constantly have to remind myself that it’s the mundane days that really are the substance of my life. And it’s for those days that I’m especially in need of some wise and practical advice. I find it in the words of longtime University of Southern California philosophy professor, Dallas Willard. He wrote in Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation that, “At the beginning of my day, I commit my day to the Lord’s care…. Then I meet everything that happens as sent, or at least permitted, by God. I meet it resting in the hand of his care. I no longer have to manage the weather, airplanes, and people.” To that list, I might add the financial markets and the status of my retirement nest egg.
When I start my day with Willard’s exercise, I find I’m more likely to live that day as though I treasure what I say I do. I treasure Jesus. My apprenticeship to him leads me to value people—my family, my neighbors—over possessions and accomplishments. Sarah and I have been in agreement for some time about what we treasure, but that hasn’t confined our money journey to a predictable path—far from it. For a season, we pursued our financial goals at a rapid pace. As circumstances changed, we chose to let go of some promising financial opportunities to free up space for other priorities.
That led to a career change for us both. I left the public accounting profession to put better boundaries on my career’s demands. Now I get to put my expertise to good use at one of Knoxville’s largest employers—and have the freedom to do freelance writing, too. Meanwhile, Sarah took a part-time teacher’s assistant position that gives her the ideal schedule and invaluable connectedness at Lydia’s school. We prefer a lifestyle of measured frugality. It affords us the ability to continue progressing toward tomorrow’s financial goals—albeit at a slower pace—while still enjoying today’s profound gift of unhurried presence.
This year, Lydia played in a basketball league for the first time, and I got to coach the team. Being in the gym again had me reminiscing about my glory days. I have to admit: I’m a little embarrassed about how one-track minded I used to be about playing sports, without ever thinking seriously about whether it was worth it. I wonder, where did I think “doing something great in sports” was going to get me? Back then, I failed to recognize that no matter how far I went, eventually it would end—and life would go on.
“Making it” is an illusion. I have already accomplished some meaningful financial goals and some are within reach, but I still have a long way to go to reach many others. When I achieve them, life will go on. I’ll make new goals then. But whether it’s then or now, I want my life to emanate the same qualities: thankfulness, contentment, discipline, diligence and charity.
This article originally appeared on HumbleDollar.com for a limited time. It will be included as a chapter in the forthcoming book My Money Journey, which is now taking pre-orders and will be available everywhere on April 25, 2023.