A Portrait of Childfree Persistence

Sep 20 / Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP®

34, Female, Single, Colorado
Grad Student in Conservation Biology

This portrait is one of 26 real life stories presented in the book, Portraits of Childfree Wealth. You can download a free copy here.

Heather is working hard on her Master’s degree in Conservation Biology, and her focus is on protecting birds. She has no debt and is paying her way through her degree (with the hope of no student loans). Heather has done some amazing things, starting with serving in the Peace Corps, and has been able to both enjoy life and give back. Her portrait isn’t one of money but of persistence. Heather explains:
“I don’t think enough people understand that financially, it’s also hard out there for people who don’t have kids. This isn’t the suffering Olympics… Lots of Childfree people did the math and realized that a kid would take them from just floating to drowning.”
Heather didn’t decide to be Childfree:
"I don’t know that it was a decision. I’ve never really wanted kids.”
It wasn’t until later in her life that she even learned the term Childfree:
“The first time I heard the phrase Childfree I was like, oh, there is a word for it. It was never a conscious decision. I just found out that there was suddenly a term for it that I had never been using.”
Time is the most significant benefit of being Childfree for Heather:
“Your time is your own. You’re not tied down by any one thing, which has enormous benefits. Especially if you’re still single… You have so much more free time. More opportunities come along that you can take advantage of. Maybe there is a job or something in a different state across the country or whatever, and you want to do it. But if you had kids or something like that, you definitely wouldn’t. That’s important with what I do in biology. There are a lot of good opportunities that pop up that are on the other side of the country. It may be short-term, like a six-month gig, but it’s a good networking opportunity and chance to connect with really good people. If I’d had kids, I would not [take the opportunity]. I don’t think I would still have a career [in biology] if I had kids. Honestly, all the women that I went to school with, if they had kids, they’re not doing this anymore.”
Heather has worked hard to get to where she is now. She currently works during summer or school breaks while finishing her Master’s degree. She isn’t living a life of luxury, but being debt-free and cutting corners does mean that she can make progress:
“I live with friends, and that’s how I’m able to continue to afford to go to school. I am incredibly fortunate not to have any debt. I think I’m probably one of the few people I know that has zero debt. Everything’s all paid off. I, fortunately, did not have to take out any loans when I got my undergrad. For the last few years, I was just squirreling away money like crazy to pay for grad school. I haven’t had to take out any loans so far… I’m living off savings because I’m a student right now until summer when I can go get another job and kind of hoard money and squirrel it away and then live off of that again in the winter. So, it’s feast or famine, but because I don’t have any debt, I can make it work. If I had debt that was eating into that more, it would be a very different story. So, I don’t think the whole feast and famine thing works. It’s not sustainable long‑term, and I definitely know that, but it works for now. I have a place to stay. I’m going through school, and fortunately, I’m not paying an extra thousand dollars a month or whatever for loans.”
I asked Heather whether she intentionally stayed out of debt or if it was just something that happened. She responded that it was a combination of luck and being careful about what she spent her money on:
“I did get lucky when I did my undergrad. It was like right before I think the student debt crisis really hit. And I was fortunate enough that my grandparents had put aside some money for a college savings account. So I did have that as well to dip into. I was incredibly lucky that I just squeaked through and didn’t have to take out any loans. My siblings did have to [take out loans], but they also went to a more expensive school. So that is also a little part of it. And I’ve always been incredibly careful about what I spend money on. My car is an old junker, but it’s all paid off. I don’t have any crazy expensive hobbies. I don’t have any crippling addiction to high‑end fashion. I don’t even know what I would spend money on if it wasn’t just, like, food and bills and my dog.” [Heather’s dog is a tiny village dog she brought back from her time in the Peace Corps.]
I asked Heather if she thought she should do anything differently with her life:
“I mean, there’s probably all kinds of things that I should do differently, but I don’t know that it is all feasible. I mean, I probably should have a 401(k). I probably should have, like, a plan for five to 10 years… I’m a student. When you’re only employed for a few months out of the year, before you go back to school, you’re just like, what bill do I have to pay today? What grocery bill do I have to pay today? You can’t afford to think about five to 10 years. I think five to 10-year planning is more career-oriented. What would you ideally like to be doing in five to 10 years? Because five to 10 years financially doesn’t make any sense when you’re just trying to make ends meet. When any dollar that comes in is already earmarked for, you know, paying tuition or paying your bills or paying groceries.”
Heather is right on. Heather is 34 and is focusing on school just like she should be. She is working hard to make ends meet and stay out of debt. It can be common to get stuck in comparing our finances to someone else’s or expected “norms.” People read articles that say by X age you should have done Y. Maybe it is that you should have a certain amount in a 401(k) or, some other measure. All those measures don’t matter. The only person we should measure against is ourselves. Heather understands that and deserves credit for having her priorities straight.

Heather has cut back on work to focus on school but plans to return to work in the summer. Finding temporary work to pay for school can be challenging:
“One of the problems with doing a lot of temporary work like that is hiring usually doesn’t start until January and February when more jobs get posted. So, I’m hoping stuff will start popping up in the next couple of months that I can apply for. But it is very kind of last-minute sort of stuff. I’ve had jobs come through in the past. So, within like a week, I’ll get a notice, talk to someone and then they’re like, yeah, come on up. And it happens very quickly. So, planning five to 10 years for anything is very odd when I don’t know if I will have a job in June or not.”
Heather’s goal is to find a permanent job in her field, which is challenging:
“When you’re living six months to six months, goals feel very nebulous right now. I just want to finish my degree and find a job somewhere. I don’t have anything really beyond that. I don’t know that I can really say, my goal in 10 years is to have a down payment on a house. That feels astronomical, like wherever the James Webb telescope is, it’s past that. That’s how far out that feels. I’d like to have a job, and that’s kind of it.”
Heather is following her passions. Once she gets that job in conservation, she plans on doing it as long as possible. Retirement isn’t a goal or thought now. Then again, part of the reason Heather has trouble getting a permanent job is that those in the positions aren’t retiring.

Childfree Wealth to Heather reflects benefits that are a combination of time and money:
“I think time is probably more important [than money], but I don’t want to say money isn’t as important. You can make less go further when you don’t have kids. I have taken jobs that are pretty crappy-paying because I don’t have student loans. Maybe if I was childfree but did have loans, I might not have been able to do that. I think I’m in a unique boat, and I acknowledge that. I have been able to take jobs that pay kind of crappy because it would be good work experience or with people that I want to work for.”
Heather doesn’t want anything fancy, just to live her own, authentic life:
“I just wanted enough to kind of take care of my needs. It would be nice if I could have some kind of a savings account or retirement plan, but that’s hard when all you’re doing is making ends meet. That’s kind of what it comes down to right now… If you can get yourself sheltered, fed, and clothed, and have a running car, you’re probably doing pretty damn good. That’s kind of what I would just like life to continue being. Ideally, I’d be able to live on my own, but I can’t afford that. So, I live with friends, but otherwise, it’s pretty good.”
Heather is following her own path. Living with friends may not be ideal, but it is realistic. Her parents grew up in a different financial world, yet they still encourage Heather to get a “good job” and a house:
“It absolutely doesn’t work like that anymore. I’m living with friends in my thirties. And we’re all still just hanging on, doing our own thing. They [her parents and others] think living with friends at this age is extremely strange. I’ve seen articles in the last few months talking about buying homes with friends. You’ve got groups of friends living together because that’s all anyone can afford. They [her parents] are shocked and horrified that this is what things are like. And it’s like, no one can afford anything else. This is what we can afford. So that’s how we live. That’s what we do. And the advice that is being given by them is completely irrelevant. It does not apply to anyone’s situation anymore because a house, where we [her family] bought a house 15 years ago, would have been, you know, mid-300 [$350K] and, or upper 300 [$399K+] probably. And now it’s closer to a million. That’s insane. No one can afford that kind of down payment. Ridiculous.”
Even given the hard work she has put in (or maybe because of it), Heather doesn’t have regrets about her Childfree life:
“If I had kids, I would not be able to still be working in my field like this. I would have had to have given up a long time ago and just taken anything to have a regular paycheck. So I’m fine grinding it out. I’m 34, so I’ve done close to 10 years of seasonal fieldwork. I’m trying to network and talk to people and gain experience while going back to grad school. So I’m fine with that because it’s interesting. And I still enjoy it.”

About the Author - Jay Zigmont, PhD, CFP® is the Founder of Childfree Wealth, a life and financial planning firm dedicated to helping Childfree and Permanently Childless people. Dr Jay is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, Childfree Wealth Specialist, and author of the book “Portraits of Childfree Wealth.” His Ph.D. is in Adult Learning from the University of Connecticut.