Surviving the Crash: One Woman’s Unexpected Path to Financial Security

We surveyed Wealthfront clients about their experience surviving the financial crisis of 2008 — how it shaped their professional and personal paths in life, their relationship with money, and their definition of success. For Joyce Lee, adaptability, hard work, and thoughtful financial planning have allowed her to succeed in an unexpected career, buy a home, and begin planning for her future family. Read the full survey results here.

Joyce Lee was on a path that she believed was “as stable as it gets.” Her plan: to graduate from The College of New Jersey with minimal student loans and a degree in English elementary education. By the time she graduated in May 2009, everything had changed.

“Our generation had the safety net cut out from under us — we were promised a lot, and when it came down to it, a lot of those promises were empty,” Joyce says, thinking back. “That said, we learned to adapt — and we learned to put in the work to get through it.”

Ten years later, Joyce is a prime example of this philosophy. In addition to finding professional success in the IT world, Joyce owns a home with her husband of four years, has traveled extensively, has accumulated an eight-month emergency fund, and is planning on starting a family in the next year. Adaptability, and thoughtful financial planning, have played a major part in her life since the recession.

“Living through the financial crisis, I realized it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

A change in plans

Joyce was still in school in New Jersey when the economy crashed in 2008. While she wasn’t worried about her employment prospects, her family’s financial situation changed almost immediately.

“My father was laid off. He’s a jeweler, so a high-skilled blue collar worker, but blue collar nonetheless.” Thankfully, her parents had paid off their mortgage and wouldn’t lose their home. But with her father unemployed and her mother a stay-at-home mom, Joyce and her brother realized they needed to get jobs to get through college.

“Our parents had always told us that we wouldn’t have to worry about finances during school. That quickly changed. I got a job, looked for scholarship opportunities, and found employment on campus that guaranteed my housing.”

After graduating, Joyce moved home with her parents, where she’d remain for five years. Her “safe” job in education suddenly was up in the air — a new policy in New Jersey caused fewer teachers to retire, making openings for full-time teaching positions extremely limited.

Joyce spent a year substitute teaching, working with special needs students. But she was aging off of her parents insurance, and needed a full-time job with benefits as soon as possible. A fellow teacher referred her to a call center in New York. In the course of her interview, she made sure to mention that she had a strong interest in computers in technology.

“They sent my resume on to an application-based technical support group — it ended up being the launching pad for the rest of my career.”

Joyce is currently managing a team in the pharmaceutical compliance industry. The combination of her interest in technology, and the communication skills she developed studying English and education, put her on a fast track into the tech world.

“Because I was able to work hard and adapt, I could refine my technical skills as I went,” she says. “This isn’t the career I’d planned for, but I’m proud of the fact that I’m good at my job.

Joyce Lee

Pictured above: Joyce Lee and her husband in Alaska.

A balanced financial plan

Her marathon-versus-sprint approach has allowed her to create a greater sense of financial security for herself, and the family that she and her husband are creating. The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who spoke limited English, Joyce had helped her parents pay their bills and navigate their finances over the years. She also learned things she didn’t want to do in the future.

“My parents were always very conservative with their money. They never took a vacation; they also never took any financial risks,” she says. “Their retirement accounts barely exist because they never really let their money work for them. I’ve actively chosen not to follow that path.”

She remains careful with her finances, and has been since she graduated — in the five years spent living at home, she spent the first three paying off her student loans, and the final two saving enough to be fiscally independent when she moved out. She took her time, in part, because she saw how the “get rich quick” mindset of the early aughts had gone terribly awry in 2008.

“There’s no such thing as fast money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

These days, Joyce and her husband have struck a balance between lavish living and frugality, a plan that’s allowed them to purchase a home after just three and a half years. They have an emergency savings fund, which could fully support them for eight months if both of them simultaneously lost their jobs. They have investments, retirement accounts, and actively budget on a month-by-month basis, with bigger picture reevaluations every six months to a year.

Now, those plans include extensive travels — in the past four years, they’ve traveled to Japan, Taiwan, England, Peru (where they hiked the Inca trail), Mexico, and Aruba. They’re planning on a trip to Belgium in October, along with a “last hurrah” trip to Italy before they have a baby.

“I’m not naive to say that money buys happiness, but money buys choice.” 

“A part of taking care of my family is to have the fiscal ability to take care of them by the standards that I hold,” she says. “When rent or the mortgage payment is at risk, that’s too much instability.”

Joyce notes that she is concerned about another financial recession in the next few years. But through careful planning, she feels prepared, not least because of her learnings from 2008.

Still, while financial security is a must, it’s not Joyce’s definition of success.

“Integrity has been strongly instilled in me,” she says. “If I lost all of my money… that would really suck. And sure, I’d have to change some things. But if I could make those changes without compromising a core part of myself, or changing who I am, I could look back with pride.”

Featured image: Joyce Lee and her husband in Machu Picchu, hiking the Inca Trail. 


Read more Wealthfront client stories on Surviving the Crash:

  • The financial crisis taught Anna Krishtal how to be flexible with personal goals and expectations, and how to prioritize happiness over wealth. Read Anna’s story here.
  • The recession opened the door to a more sustainable career path for Kelly Sherman, and taught him the value of taking initiative when pursuing his goals. Read Kelly’s story here.

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