This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which details how people around the world earn, spend and save their money.
It's not every recent grad's dream to live with their parents and younger sister, but Kristina Truong considers it a blessing.
Saddled with nearly $25,000 in student loan debt, the 24-year-old moved back home to Fairfax, Virginia, after she graduated from James Madison University in 2018 so she could pay off her loans more quickly. She secured a job working as a project manager at a digital consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area, earning $100,000 a year, and by the end of 2019, was debt-free, had saved over $50,000 and was preparing to move out on her own.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and like so many others around the world, Truong reconsidered her plans. Before the pandemic, she thought hitting a certain salary would make her feel fulfilled; now she views security differently.
"I put a lot of emphasis on money because I was raised not having a lot, so I thought it was the end all be all," Truong tells CNBC Make It. "Now, a goal of mine isn't how much more I want to earn, but it's the comfort that I feel not having to worry about living paycheck-to-paycheck or how we're going to pay the mortgage or the rent."
That last point is especially important to Truong. When she was 8, her parents moved the family from Virginia to Phoenix, Arizona, where her father bought a home he thought would be a good investment. Her mother opened a nail salon, and her parents made it work for a few years.
Then the housing market crashed in 2008. Each day fewer and fewer clients came to the salon, and her parents made the decision to pack up their lives, selling the salon and their home at a loss, and moving back to Virginia to live with family. Truong remembers the daily stress of not knowing how the family would pay their bills or where they would live.
"I felt guilty because I was so young and I couldn't really do anything, and I wished that I could," she says. "Seeing my family go through that was tough, not being in control of it."
Though she was still in elementary school at the time, the experience had a profound effect on Truong's relationship with money. "The most important lesson that I've learned about money is to always have an emergency fund," she says. She worked throughout college so she could start repaying her loans before she graduated (a cousin also paid for half of Truong's tuition) and attended as many events as she could to score free meals.
Aside from paying for the necessities, Truong tries to save as much of her paychecks as possible so that she — and her family — will never again be without a financial cushion.
"Being so young and seeing my parents struggle with their finances gave me the mindset of not wanting the same for myself," she says. "Saving up and being frugal with my expenses has really stuck with me from a young age."
Paying it forward
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Truong contributed $400 toward her parents' $2,100 mortgage each month, as well as paid for the household's utilities and phone bills and set aside a few hundred dollars each month to help pay for her younger sister's college education. When her mother lost her job as a nail technician in March, Truong started filling in the gaps in the household's budget by paying for groceries and other necessities.
She considers it the least she can do for her family. Truong's parents immigrated separately to the U.S. from Vietnam and met in an English language class in the early 1990s. Both parents lived with multiple siblings before they got married, often working 12 hours a day at restaurants, convenience stores or nail salons. Truong, the first in her family to go to college, says she's the beneficiary of all of their sacrifice.
Her parents have inspired her to work hard and be frugal with her money, she says. The rest of her financial acumen comes from YouTube tutorials about taxes, investing and other complex topics. She's using her knowledge and sizable salary to pay it forward.
"I've been privileged with growing up in America and having all these opportunities," she says. "It makes me want to work that much harder to be able to provide for my parents the way that they provided for me."
How she budgets her money
Here's a look at how Truong spends her money as of August 2020.
- Savings: $2,000 (in a high-yield savings account)
- Investments: $1,366 (split between her 401(k) ($732), Roth IRA ($500) and brokerage account ($134))
- Donations: $670 (to charitable organizations, including the Roever Foundation, which aids wounded veterans and builds schools in developing countries)
- Housing: $400 (toward her parents' $2,100 mortgage)
- Food: $200 (for groceries; her parents also pay for some of the family's food)
- Business: $200 (for social media campaigns and supplies for District Cupcakes, a cupcake catering business she operates with her sister and mother)
- Phone: $160 (for the family's four phone lines)
- Transportation: $149 (for her car payment, gas, insurance and Uber rides)
- Utilities: $135 (for cable, electric, heat, water and Wi-Fi)
- Misc.: $103 (for entertainment and shopping)
As a devout Christian, Truong donates around 10% of her salary each month.
"Since I've come to know the word of God, I've been really involved in my church community," she says, adding that she attends virtual mass every weekend. "It's great to have that community of believers that I can depend on and call my friends."
Outside of work and her faith, Truong operates District Cupcakes, a cupcake catering business, with her sister and mother. She spends a few hundred dollars each month on social media campaigns and supplies.
At the beginning of 2020, the company filled 20 bulk orders a month for weddings and corporate events. But business has slowed since the pandemic hit and now they mostly make individual orders for birthdays or other small occasions. Her mother and sister handle the baking while Truong finds clients and packs and delivers the treats. Currently, all of their profit is reinvested in growing the company.
"I always ask to help out, but my mom and my sister told me to stay as far away from the kitchen as possible," she says.
Though she loves living and working with her family, Truong's also looking forward to buying her own home nearby one day. In August, she had around $55,000 saved, most of which will go toward her sister Jessica's tuition starting in fall 2021, and the rest toward a down payment on a home. Truong plans to keep saving throughout Jessica's time at school to pay off any loans she has to take out.
By the time she moves out, she also hopes to have helped her parents reach a more stable financial position.
To "not have [my parents] worry about how they're going to pay off their mortgage or how they're going to pay for my sister's tuition is a really great feeling for me," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm working toward something more than just myself."
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