Note: This is a post from Adam Baker, founder of Man Vs. Debt.
“What the hell are you doing, son?”
The words sounded muffled in my head. I sat frozen – gripping the steering wheel on the side of the dark, empty interstate.
“Shut your engine off, get your license, and put your hands back where I can see them.”
I did as I was told, silently.
Upon glancing at my license, the office immediately glanced up and locked eyes with me.
Starting at the beginning, I told him everything…
Story #1: The $10,000 Wake Up Call…
I was addicted to gambling.
Now, this was before getting back together with Courtney (before we were married) and far before Milligan was even a thought. We have to go back to the period between me failing out of college – and getting my life back on track.
At this time in my life, you’d be hard-pressed to find me awake and not sitting around a card table or in a poker room.
We lived and breathed it. We played most of the day – and when we weren’t playing, we were organizing tournaments and cash games (or dealing them for addicts).
During one six-month period, I worked one day each week (a 20-hour shift) dealing one of the largest cash games in Indianapolis. I made around $60/hour in tips and would take home anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 in one sitting.
I did this every Monday night – and spent the other 6 days playing video games and online poker with my two roommates (neither of whom had their own job).
This was the most “stable” I had been in years.
A few months later, I found myself pulled over on the side of the interstate – convinced I was about to be violently arrested.
I had just passed a police car going 130 m.p.h. at 3 a.m.
You see, I had just worked the entire day, taken my overpaid cash wages, and sat down at the poker table. A couple hundred dollars quickly became a thousand, then $3,000, then $10,000.
At 21 years old, I wasn’t content with $10,000 for two hours of work. It wasn’t real money to me. I wasn’t content unless I had every chip at the table. I wasn’t content until I sent every degenerate at the table home to their mortgages they could no longer pay.
Over the next 90 minutes, I lost the $10,000 as quickly as I had amassed it.
I don’t remember leaving the poker room or getting in my car.
“What the hell are you doing, son?” The officer’s words echoed in my head.
Upon glancing at my license, the officer immediately glanced back up and locked eyes with me.
“Adam *Baker*… you wouldn’t happen to be ______’s son, would you?”
I swallowed. “Yes sir, ______ is my father.”
“Adam, what the hell are you thinking?”
He listened to all of it, before giving me a breathalyzer (I hadn’t been drinking).
The next thing surprised me the most… He let me go.
No arrest, no ticket, not even an official warning (although he had plenty of words for me).
At one of my darkest and most irresponsible times, I was pulled over by the only state police officer in Indiana that had grown up with my father.
Coincidence? I’ll let you decide what to call it.
On the rest of the drive home – moving a good 15 m.p.h. under the speed limit – I fought back tears as I vowed to finally change the direction of my life.
Story #2: Trapped in the Most Beautiful Place on Earth…
Flash forward five years.
“Get Milli and crawl slowly out of the car…”
I should’ve been scared, but for some reason I wasn’t. Even so, I wasn’t about to move.
Through the passenger door, I saw the waterfalls that were streaming down the mountain side and I took in the bluest sky I had ever seen.
As I turned to my left, gravity pulled my head toward a mangled mess of tree branches.
I squinted to make out what was beyond the branches.
… nothing …
Only a few trees stood between me and two hundred feet down the side of the mountain.
As I snapped back to reality, Courtney was twisting her body to unstrap a dazed Milligan from her car seat. She was fighting gravity to try and lift the rear passenger door and climb out.
I didn’t dare move.
We had come to New Zealand 8 months earlier on a last-second decision from Brisbane, Australia. We had spent the last few months living in Auckland as Courtney taught a few semesters at a local elementary school.
It was one of the most freeing times of our life.
We had spent the last two years transforming our financial life. We had paid off $18,000 in consumer debt, sold all of our possessions, and set off to backpack Australia.
Somehow our journey had now brought us to the side of this mountain outside of Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand.
I didn’t dare move…
After what seemed like the longest minutes of my life, I let out a sigh of relief as I saw Courtney and Milli climb out of sight to where we had slid off the road.
“I guess it’s my turn,” I thought.
I moved as slow as I could given the awkward angle. The car was nearly on its side.
As I stretched to try and force the passenger door open, I thought for sure the trees would snap under my shifting weight.
Luckily, they didn’t budge. Not a single inch.
As weak as they looked, the trees grouped together to form a safety net that had kept us from sliding down the mountainside.
Up on the road, we pulled out our cell phones and confirmed our suspicions – absolutely zero bars. We were 90 minutes from the nearest town on a road that is sparingly traveled that early in the morning.
We had no choice but to sit on the side of the road and wait.
Irony hit us hard as we soaked in the visualization of being trapped in the most beautiful place on earth.
48 hours later, I found myself talking to an old man that owned the closest tow-truck company.
An Israeli family had found us stranded on the road – and had taken us to the only lodge within two hours of the sound. I rode in the back with their groceries. Milli rode on Courtney’s lap.
The lodge was booked solid for months, so after 18 hours of discussion (to make a long story short) we finally shared a single bunk bed with the employees of the lodge for a few hours of sleep.
I had spent hours on the phone over the last two days, trying to coordinate police, rental companies, and tow-truck drivers from a city 90 minutes away from the accident site.
“Well, this isn’t going to be pretty…”
The seasoned tow-truck driver almost felt sorry for me through the dollar signs in his eyes.
He poetically laid out all the expenses he had incurred in retrieving the car.
Earlier it had been carefully explained to me that since I took responsibility for the accident that we’d have to cover the tow-truck charges ourselves (though the rental company would cover the damage to the vehicle).
“Yeah, I was there”… I mumbled back to the tow truck driver.
I remembered waiting several hours for the driver to wind his way through the mountains.
I remembered the driver and I blocking the road for 45 minutes as we tried to figure out a way to rip the car out of the trees it had nestled in.
I remembered the gas, the after-hours calls, the size of the truck that was needed to do the job.
I knew all along the price tag of this operation would sting.
We ended up negotiating it to around $800 New Zealand, which was around $600 in U.S. dollars.
Keep in mind we were camping in a broken tent to save money at this point in our road tour. An $800 tow charge at this time was extremely demoralizing after all our frugal hard work.
But here’s the difference between the two stories…
We paid the tow-truck driver in cash.
There was no negative thought, no added stress, and not an ounce of worry.
As shitty as that 48-hour moment in time was… I was proud.
It was the first time in our life we had a fully-funded $5,000 emergency fund, and the first time we had to use it.
In the first story, money controlled me. It controlled my actions, my emotions and my relationships.
In the second story, we controlled our money. It didn’t dictate our actions in this emergency. It didn’t change much of our emotions at all.
As I handed the old man $800 in cash… I was proud.
How much worse would this situation had been without an emergency fund?
How much extra stress, arguing, and worry would have come with it?
I lived my life for years like that, and I don’t even want to think about it.
So we did the only thing there was left to do.
We buckled back into our mangled rental car (with deep gashes running down the left side and no front bumper) and finished our driving tour of the South Island of New Zealand.
We weren’t going to let sliding down the mountain keep us from finishing what we started.
Taking back control of your financial life doesn’t prevent this kind of stuff from happening.
It doesn’t keep you from getting into situations where you are trapped.
But when shit does hit the fan, having a flexible financial life makes all the difference in the world.
Trust us, we know.
The goal isn’t to make it through life without any scars…
The goal is to empower yourself to break free, heal, and bounce back quickly.
The goal is flexibility.
The goal is freedom.
Note: Up until now, I’ve only shared these two stories with our You Vs. Debt students. Several of those students pushed me to share them publicly… thanks to them for the nudge.