True Story: I’m a 19-Year-Old Harvard Student And 100% Financially Independent

This is one of many True Story Interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting, amazing, challenging things.  This is the story of Sabrina and her total and complete financial independence at age 19. 
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m a 19-year-old Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator at Harvard College and I love writing, reading, traveling, acting, modeling, fashion, baking, and trying new things. I enjoy chick flicks, dancing badly, and Top 40s (cue hipsters crying). I also blog over at Living, Learning, Eating.

How did you come to be totally financially independent at such a young age?

My dad lost his job when I was in eighth grade and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a consulting company in the following years. By the time that he realized it wasn’t going to work out, the recession had hit and, despite an agricultural sciences PhD, he couldn’t find a job anymore. So for me, become financially independent at seventeen wasn’t as much a decision as it was a necessity.What skills have you learned in order to support yourself?
I’ve definitely learned pig-headedness and that creativity can be your best friend! When you’re juggling being a full-time student and supporting yourself, you don’t have time for traditional down-time. On the other hand, never relaxing is really unhealthy and can back-fire. So I found ways to get paid for my “down-time!”For example, I love writing. Though I’m not at the (super lucky) point where my books or my blog support me, I can use writing to make money – I’ve worked as a freelance writer for journals, sold articles to magazines, and won a good bit of money in writing contests!I also like going to the beach in the summer, but definitely can’t afford that – so I weekend nanny for a family who lives at the beach! They pay my transportation from the City and I get to spend the weekends playing with a pair of kids on the beach (and getting paid for it).

I also enjoy good food and people watching, so I’ve worked in a lot of food service situations, from ice cream shops to restaurants. It’s all about being resourceful.

Can you tell us – like, really break it down – how you afford rent, school, food, etc?
Fortunately, I have scholarships to cover tuition (a whopping eight – I spent 12 hours a day scholarship hunting/applying for a significant part of my senior year in high school and can’t even tell you how many I applied to, in order to scratch together the funds to afford Harvard).

Unfortunately, I’m drawn to big cities with sky-high rent. My rent in NYC this summer is $825 per month, plus about $80 of utilities, and my rent during the school year is a whopping $975, plus utilities. I clip coupons like a mad woman and keep my eyes open for sales – and if a club has an event with free food, I’m there!

I also work about 12 hours per week during the school year in the library and an additional 20 or so per week in the school year at odd jobs (babysitting, freelance writing, tutoring, etc.). During the summer, I intern 30 hours per week and work 30 hours per week. Sometimes it ends up being more – I rarely will turn down an odd job, because I need the money.

How do you parents feel about you supporting yourself?

I think they really appreciate it. As I said, it’s not something that was an option. I have to support myself and I think they’re glad that I’m not being a baby about it and being like ‘give me money, I need clothes!’ or ‘give me money, I want to come home for break!’

I’ve given them money before, at our worst times, when the phone was ringing off the hook with calls from debt collectors, our services kept getting shut off for overdue bills, and foreclosure loomed over our heads. It made them sad to have to take it from me, because they’re really awesome parents and they try their best, but I also know they appreciated it. It’s what helped keep milk in the fridge and veggies in the pot.

I also help out with my little sister’s costs (like buying her school supplies, report card rewards, etc.) whenever I can because she’s the sweetest thing ever and I love her so much. I know my mom really appreciates that!

How does your financial independence affect you on a day to day basis?
It makes me look at things differently than other people. I think a lot more before I splurge on stuff for myself and I’ve learned to be satisfied with virtual shopping sprees or window shopping sprees, where I just enjoy seeing the clothes. I don’t have to have them, I can just appreciate them. On the other hand, it’s made me look at my peers funny when they complain about their parents (who are bankrolling their college educations) or say they need to call their parents for money. Or whenever they act like they’re entitled to having their parents pay food, rent, etc.

I’m sure most of your friends receive at least partial financial support from their parents. Is it ever a struggle not to feel bitter because you know that you won’t ever have that?
I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t have moments where I get a little jealous, but life is at is and I’m enjoying mine. It may be hard, but it makes me stronger. I believe that things happen for a reason. Also, I love my family a lot and that helps with not feeling too bitter towards them. I just feel bad sometimes that I can’t help them more.

Are there any benefits to being financially independent at such a young age?
Responsibility! You sure as heck learn a thing about responsibility. I think it also makes you more appreciative, and it definitely makes you mature and grow up faster.

What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation?
Be resourceful! Figure out ways to earn money that are fun for you (like babysitting, freelance writing, or hiring yourself out as a freelance baker to parties – flyers, flyers, flyers!) If you find ways to have fun with it, making your own money can be empowering.

Also, just accept that it will be a drag sometimes and you will get down. But it will also get better – make sure you don’t stay down!

Thanks so much for sharing, Sabrina!  Were any of you financially independent at a particularly young age?

original image (without the text on top) by palander metal works, for sale here.

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  1. Shannon

    After reading this, pretty sure I'm never going to complain about being busy or overworked again! I love how positive and happy Sabrina sounds when it would be easy to succumb to negativity. Really inspiring and impressive 🙂

  2. London + Grey

    I'm still a little confused about how her NYC rent is only $975 and how she can afford that without a full-time job! Rent where I live in VA is $1,200+ and I wouldn't be able to afford even $900 rent with the full-time job I have now. I guess it just depends where you live.

    But like Shannon said, she has such a positive outlook on everything! 🙂

  3. Anh Le

    This is a really great story to learn from. Her attitude is so admirable. Hard work pays off

  4. Stefan, Sarah and Lukka

    I agree with Shannon, this is very inspiring and learning really hard lessons in life at a young age–it will help you for the rest of your life! My husband and I went through a number of extremely hard and tight years, and we are much better because of it. Our worldview was changed by it: what we buy, need vs. wants, enjoying the small (and usually free or extremely cheap!) pleasures in life, and being content. I agree with Sabrina: resourcefulness is key and she is one awesome problem solver!
    Sarah M

  5. Heather

    I love Sabrina's story. I didn't have to put myself through Harvard (I'm Canadian and tuition here is a lot less) but I did have to work two jobs to put myself through University and the only place I could afford to live was in a converted car port (like a garage basically) where my bedroom was one car space and I had to go next door to a converted barn to use the toilet. This was in Vancouver, believe it or not! But yes, I totally agree with Sabrina that it teaches you an immense level of responsibility and appreciation for things. It was hard as hell and I didn't have a loving family or a tight group of friends supporting me, which made it even more sucky. But I wouldn't change it for the world. It's the #1 thing that has turned out to be useful for me as I build a location-independent business from scratch. My money can stretch a LOOOONG way. Thanks for another great interview!

  6. Sarah Rooftops

    This was great to read. I was lucky enough to have a relative pay my rent and to live in Scotland where there are no tuition fees, and I *still* found it difficult having to work and pay for everything else. I did manage to graduate debt-free and I'm proud of that, but it would have been a real struggle without the bit of support I received. Sabrina's story is inspiring.

  7. Anonymous

    Wow, this is so incredibly inspiring! I'm 20 years old, a Civil Engineering student, and am trying desperately to become financially independent apart from my parents paying for (most of) my school costs. I have a job, and am working on building my Savings and paying my parents back for some expensive mistakes I've made (I'm not the best driver).

    I love Sabrina's idea about freelance baking! (I am always baking for my friends, or for a restaurant that feeds the homeless). I have always considered myself frugal compared to most people my age, but I still have a lot to learn before I can become anything close to how independent she is. Kudos to you Sabrina!


  8. Clare Herbert

    Fantastic story, Sabrina. You inspire us all. C

  9. Laura

    Wow. Standing ovation for this girl!!

  10. totxforservice

    I love this so much! I'm just out of college and trying to establish my own financial independence – it's tough, but stories like these are a reminder it is not impossible!

  11. CheezyK

    I agree, what an inspiration!!

  12. Raquel Moss

    Good on you Sabrina! I became financially independent as a teenager, too, so I can empathise with you. Sometimes I found it hard not to be bitter about friends whose parents would pay for everything, but ultimately I feel as though I've got a great foundation in life due to my experiences.

    While I was at university, I worked 14 hours per week, and did odd bits of freelance writing and tutoring. During semester breaks and holidays, I was lucky enough to find work, and ended up doing about 50 hours a week.

    I've finished university now, and I'm working full time though my salary is quite low. I'm glad I know how to be thrifty!

  13. Anonymous

    Harvard gives full scholarships to any family that makes less than 75000 per year, why did you have to search for scholarships during your senior year? It's a bit strange if your family was as strapped for cash as you say.

    Also, being on scholarship isn't being financially independent, unless it is 100% merit based (which I am doubtful about because like you said, your family had financial issues). Being on scholarships is just like relying on charity.

    I don't mean to be argumentative but I am a current college student and my parents worked hard and made sacrifices to make sure that we didn't have to rely on anyone but ourselves for me to get an education.

  14. Sarah Von Bargen


    I think it is worth noting that by your own admission it was your *parents* who "worked hard and made sacrifices" so *you* could get an education. Meanwhile, in this case it was Sabrina herself making the sacrifices and doing the hard work. Worth considering, no?

  15. Anonymous

    But she still relies on scholarships so she isn't financially independent, that's my point. The way this interview is set up is very misleading.

    She isn't the only student ever who has to pay for their costs outside of tuition. Her peers probably don't sound as spoiled as she implies.

  16. Bennett LaFond

    I was pretty lucky when it came to school. I got lucky and didn't have to pay much for my own school despite growing up the child of a single mother and a secretary.

    Impressive story, to all the doubters out there, those scholarships are money hard-earned, not everyone can get them and not everyone can keep them up, and that along with helping out her family is really impressive. I think I would have chosen to drop out, or at least go to a cheaper school (which I did, I went to school in Canada instead of the US because it is tons cheaper), were I in that situation at her age.

    My one question – why in GOD'S NAME is she paying such high rent? Why doesn't she live further out in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan or Williamsburg or wherever she is? I used to pay $600 with utilities in a nice apartment in a happening artsy (but slightly dangerous) neighborhood, but there was cheaper in less accessible neighborhoods. I knew people paying $700 in Chinatown, which is on the island. To me, it says something about her tastes, standards, and what she's willing to work for, though I'm not sure how to interpret it. I suppose she works on the 'get what you pay for' adage.

  17. Anonymous

    Sabrina, are you sure that your entire story makes sense? I smell a liar. Just take a look: According to her linkedin profile, she went to phillips exeter academy, which has a minimum tuition of $35,000.

    If she received a full scholarship there (if she got in and her family makes <75k) then she would have gotten a full ride to harvard, because they also give full scholarships to families making less than 75k if you get in. So she wouldn't have needed to have "spent 12 hours a day scholarship hunting."

    I'm really disappointed to have come across this blatant inconsistency on a yes and yes article. Sarah, I really expected better of you. Like maybe actually checking if the "true stories" you post are, you know, TRUE?

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