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How to Climb Toward Zero (Net Worth)

Frankie Calkins devoted a year to getting his finances in order. The result: major debt reduction and a user-friendly book of layperson’s advice.

June 4, 2019

Leah Fabel

Leah Fabel

In 2017, Frankie Calkins (Bay Area ’07) had a master’s degree, a good job, and—thanks to credit cards and student loans—a net worth nearing negative $90,000. “I had a sick feeling all the time,” he says. So Calkins made a resolution to devote one year to turning his financial situation around.

By the end of 2018, after cleaning financial house, earning significant salary bumps (one by asking for a raise, one by changing jobs), and dramatically changing his spending and saving habits, he had steadily climbed toward zero (or #worthnothingday, as he calls it). Financial freedom was within sight.

As he saved, invested, and paid down debts, Calkins kept notes. He recently published them as The Money Resolution: 101 Ways to Save Money, Make Money & Get Out Of Debt in One Year.

Teacher, graphic artist, and fellow alum Levina Robin (Washington '16) designed Calkins's book cover.

Calkins is in no way a trained finance professional or money manager. That’s his shtick—if he can get better at handling money, you can too, regardless of your starting point. In his book, he shares the mistakes he made from a lack of money-management knowledge and the DIY practical lessons he worked out to optimize what he earned. It’s the book he wishes he’d had as a young teacher—and the one he hopes others can use to establish financial security and not feel forced to find a higher-paying job.

Calkins, who today works in marketing, spoke with One Day to share his self-taught tips.

What’s the first step you’d tell a friend who wants to take charge of his finances?

Know where you stand. Figure out your net worth—not just your debt, but your IRAs, your 401(k). I went into that terrified to look, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. Once you see the full picture, you can set goals.

What’s an easy step to start saving—something I could do today?

Open a Roth IRA. You can put up to $6,000 per year into it [as of 2019], and when you take it out at retirement, you don’t owe taxes on it. I wish 21-year-old me had known about it because that money would’ve doubled already.

Also, increase your 401(k) contribution. If you can, try increasing it by 1% each month. You can contribute as much as $19,000 per year [as of 2019]. The first time I learned I should be as close to that as possible, I gasped.

What steps were harder than you anticipated?

Rolling over retirement accounts, like my California teaching pension. There are a lot of forms. It’s a clunky website. You have to have a personal IRA set up to transfer the money into. You have to find a fax machine. You might have to pick up the phone and call someone. It can take months.

It’s tempting just to take the money, instead of transferring it. But there are fees and steep taxes if you dip into those funds before the retirement age. I wouldn’t recommend taking out any unless it’s a small amount and you’re okay with losing 30% of it or more. Persistence is key.

App for savings and investment that worked best for you?

Acorns saves and invests extra change by rounding up charges to credit and debit cards. It took me five minutes to set up, and by the end of the year, the account had grown to $1,500. My girlfriend and I pulled out the change we’d been stashing away and used it as our spending money on a trip to Europe.

Did writing this book lead you to any thoughts on what needs to change so that people don’t land in monstrous debt in the first place?

I kept asking myself why we don’t teach this stuff in school. It blows my mind. It’d be amazing to help kids understand savings, compound interest, loans, credit cards, what a diversified portfolio looks like, what a Roth IRA is. It all comes back to the classroom for me.

This article is provided for general information only. Nothing contained in the material represents a recommendation for financial management or purchase.

More Frankie Tips:

Have a rainy day fund and don’t be afraid to use it. “I tried to keep about $3,000 easy to access for emergencies. But then I would still charge emergencies when they came up. Don’t do that.”

Find a cheap hobby. “If you’re spending time on a hobby, you’re not spending money. If you’re super passionate about your hobby, turn it into a side hustle and make some money.”

Become the social director for your group of friends. “Let them know that you’re working on money goals. Get out ahead and organize a weekend hike before someone suggests an expensive club night.”

Frankie’s Book and Podcast Guides:  


Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and the Middle Class Do Not! by Robert T. Kiyosaki

Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames

The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich by David Bach


The Stacking Benjamins Show

The Smart Passive Income Online Business and Blogging Podcast

How to Money

The Side Hustle Show