This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.
Looking around her one-bedroom apartment, Andrea Contreras gazes from the guitar collection on the wall to the Gucci-inspired sweatshirt her Yorkie mix, Kuzco, wears. She can't believe it's all hers.
"Five years ago, I had nothing," the 31-year-old remembers. Years of partying in her early 20s landed Contreras in a dark place: She had no money, no support system and no goals for her future.
But today, things look vastly different. Contreras has family and friends to turn to in hard times and a career she enjoys. Plus, her apartment is full of furniture and keepsakes that she bought herself. "It's such a blessing to see everything in here, when I had literally nothing," she says.
As a social media advisor at GoDaddy, Contreras sells social media assistance programs to small business clients across the U.S. She earns a base salary of just $20,000, but with commissions from her sales, she pulled in around $145,000 before taxes last year. She not only lives well in Austin, Texas, and supports herself financially, but she's comfortable with the direction her life is going.
"If I want to go on vacation, I can take a vacation. If I want to help someone out, I can help someone out," she says.
Getting out of a dark place
Growing up in Austin, Contreras knew the city's reputation as a party town. "It is easy to get wrapped up in the nightlife here in Austin," she says. And for a few years, she did. She went to college at Texas State in nearby San Marcos and found herself frequently partying, drinking too much and spending recklessly. Things got so intense that in 2011, she took a year off from school. "I couldn't afford it, and I kept getting into trouble," she says.
Contreras graduated from college in 2012, but continued to go out four or five times a week. "When I first started making money, I wasn't sober yet. I would be spending hundreds of dollars out all the time," she remembers.
Partying ruled her life, leaving her feeling unhappy and alone. But she fought to change things for herself. In 2015, she started attending a local church. "I found faith in God and that changed my life," she says. "It's changed my perspective and the way I look at things."
Contreras also reconnected with her family, who she didn't speak to during her darkest times. "A big change was spending time with them — leaning on my mom, my dad, my siblings," she says.
Building a solid support system is what helped her turn her life around, she says. "I met a lot of other people who were just like me, who got caught up in some bad decisions and wanted to change," she says. "I think having a big support system like that is key, whether it's family or the people that you meet at your local church or recovery programs."
Contreras also adopted Kuzco during this time, and the dog has been with her through it all. Having Kuzco by her side provides a source of comfort and hope for her, and she calls him her best friend. "He's added a lot of happiness at times when I was very sad or alone," she says.
As she got sober, a friend connected Contreras to the online marketing and advertising company Yodle, where she landed her first sales job in 2015. She used the new job as motivation to finally get her finances in order. "The first day I started at Yodle, I took a screenshot of my accounts and my savings, and they were all negative," she recalls. "I was like, Man, I'm going to change this."
Building her career
During her first year at Yodle, Contreras made around $50,000, but her salary has steadily increased every year since as she's improved at sales and earned larger and larger commissions.
She moved over to GoDaddy in February 2018, and last year she earned around $145,000 including commissions. And she's been on a hot streak in 2020: In January, Contreras broke a GoDaddy record with $25,173 in commissions. In February, she became the first sales rep to make $20,000 in back-to-back months.
"So far this year, my average has almost doubled from what I was making last year," she says.
The best part of her job is the people she works with, Contreras says: "It's a really positive, uplifting environment. They're really encouraging." She's grateful for everyone who has helped her and guided her along the way.
Working in sales has been tough in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with small businesses across the country struggling. "My job is a lot more emotionally draining now because of it," she says. "I feel for those business owners. Some have even cried on the phone with me, and I've cried with them."
Thankfully, her income is safe right now. Contreras is able to work from home and is guaranteed to earn the average amount of the past 90 days in sales. "For me, that's around $7,000 every two weeks," she says.
While Contreras has been lucky, both her mom and stepdad are out of work. "It was super hard seeing them go through that. They don't make much normally, so it was sad to see how stressed they were," she says. To help, Contreras gave her mom enough to cover three months' worth of mortgage payments.
"Money all comes and goes anyway," she says. "So many people helped me in my life when I had nothing, so it's humbling to know I can help others now."
How she budgets
Today, Contreras is on much sturdier financial footing than she was at the start of her career. Getting sober helped her make better money decisions, in part because she wasn't regularly spending recklessly on nights out. And as her salary grew, she also began to research personal finance terms she wasn't familiar with, such as 401(k)s and compound interest.
Contreras also credits her family's work ethic for inspiring her to take better care of her finances. Although she didn't learn about Roth IRAs or brokerage accounts growing up, "my parents always worked really hard," she says. "My dad always made sure that we would work really hard."
Here's a look at her typical monthly budget as of January 2020:
- Savings: $2,846 (includes contributions to her emergency fund and 401(k) — she contributes 7% of her income to her 401(k), which varies depending on her monthly commissions, and GoDaddy matches 3%)
- Rent and utilities: $1,765 (Contreras lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment)
- Transportation: $570 (includes car payment, gas and Lyft rides)
- Streaming services, beauty services, clothes and entertainment: $403
- Food: $300
- Giving: $250
- Insurance: $233 (includes medical, dental, vision, car, renters and pet)
- Student loans: $230
- Pet expenses: $100
- Phone bill: $80
Contreras is able to put at least $1,000 per paycheck into savings but often contributes more. The total amount she keeps in the bank varies, but she never lets her emergency fund drop below $15,000. Her 401(k) had about $30,000 in it as of January 2020.
She also regularly gives generously to her family and plans to send $125 per month to her sister when she starts missionary work in Thailand once it's safe to travel abroad. Contreras also made a $1,000 donation to her sister's initial fundraising push for the trip.
At the beginning of the year, Contreras purchased her first home, a three-bed, two-and-a-half-bath new construction on Austin's south side. It will cost $350,000 in total, including $20,000 worth of upgrades. Although Contreras put a few thousand down as an act of good faith, she doesn't owe anything until the house is completed. When construction is finished in September, she'll hand over her $20,000 down payment.
Contreras doesn't expect to live there long-term though. "I'm hoping to lease it out in two to three years and from that, buy another investment property or a duplex," she says.
Looking back, Contreras can't believe how far she's come. The tough journey "made me realize what I'm capable of," she says.
"I can do anything that I want to do. You hear people tell you that all the time, and it's hard to believe. But I can do what I want to do if I really focus and really work hard."
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