I recently appeared on the College Life Podcast where I share this story. If you are more of a listener than a reader, you can check out the Episode Here
I hated high school and ended up dropping out my sophomore year. I would have been shocked if you told me then that I would later graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. I was arrested several times for drug-related issues in my late teens. I would have been shocked if you told me then that I would later testify in federal and state courts as an expert witness on accounting and finance-related issues. In my 20s I worked all sorts of blue-collar jobs, from mowing lawns to installing linoleum. I would have been shocked if you told me then that I would work as an accountant for 25 years and ultimately become an accounting teacher. I didn’t have a dime to my name when I turned 30. I would have been shocked if you told me then I would retire from consulting a millionaire.
I am continuously told I can’t write. My teenage kids ridicule me for my improper use of grammar in text messages, and I often have to ask my students how to spell certain words during lectures. If you were to ask me over the years if I was planning to write a book, I and everyone else I know would have been shocked.
I have walked the long path from high school dropout to reasonable financial success. I have learned a lot through my own experiences along that road. Looking back, I am certain that community college had the most influence on me in my transition. I received a formal education in business from the greatest public university in the world. I am recognized as a financial expert by the Federal Government, the State of California, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. For the past 25 years, I have provided financial advice to clients. And finally, I have been teaching Personal Financial Planning and several related accounting courses at the College of San Mateo since 2015.
I have had countless conversations with my students about the costs and benefits of particular colleges, and I am constantly asked my thoughts on cryptocurrency and meme stocks. I have often found it frustrating that so many of my students make significant uninformed and poor financial decisions before they graduate that tend to lock them into a path far below their true potential. There are no personal financial planning textbooks targeted at low-income community college students that address these issues from their perspective. So, when the country went on lockdown to combat COVID-19, I began writing this book to address those issues. Along the way, I chose to turn down invitations to have this book published. I did so because I feel that if there is going to be a personal financial planning textbook directed at low-income college students, it should also be accessible to those students. And you don’t get any more accessible than FREE. Let’s be clear, the electronic version is free.
I’m a firm believer in “you get what you pay for,” so I can’t help but wonder what you must be thinking of my free book. You are probably thinking it can’t be worth much. Well, maybe you should think of it this way instead: It could literally cost you a fortune to NOT read this book. And because of that, this book could be invaluable to you.
A. High School
I attended a small private elementary school through the 8th grade and found the transition to a large high school totally overwhelming. To make matters worse, from the onset I was constantly harassed by a group of football players. They would relentlessly pick on me during lunch and after school on the way to the bus stop. To avoid the constant ridicule, I started hanging out with the “stoners,” as most of them were juniors and seniors and looked rather intimidating to most people.
The harassment stopped but was replaced with a bigger set of problems. You don’t hang out with the delinquents of the school without developing bad habits and attracting unneeded attention along the way. I got suspended for dealing drugs in the men’s bathroom my freshman year, and by the time I was a sophomore, I was cutting classes by the day. I missed more than 160 classes my sophomore year and was therefore placed into continuation school. One day after school, I got into a huge fight that involved eight or nine students at the local liquor store. That fight pretty much ended my high school experience. In addition to getting suspended, I broke my nose and the bone over my right eye. I had teachers who said they drove past that fight after school and were too afraid to get out of their cars to stop it. By the time my so-called junior year rolled around, I had officially dropped out and was living in a two-bedroom apartment on the east side of San Jose with three other high school dropouts. I had absolutely no idea where I was headed or what I was doing. And most importantly, I was too young to listen to any sensible advice.
One of the other dropouts I was living with became the neighborhood drug dealer, and you don’t live with the neighborhood drug dealer without developing more bad habits. Unfortunately, I developed a serious meth habit. To say I was heading in the wrong direction would be an understatement. I was arrested again when I was 18 and was charged with possession, under the influence, and intent to sell methamphetamines. Faced with the possibility of serious jail time, I quit the habit, separated myself from most of my friends, moved near a beach in Santa Cruz, and obtained a decent attorney. By the grace of god, all the charges were ultimately dismissed and I was officially given a second chance. For the next several years, I meandered from place to place, worked several odd jobs, and even spent some time living in Australia. I worked at a fast food restaurant and gas station, washed big rig trucks, installed carpet and linoleum, mowed lawns and pulled weeds. Still, I had absolutely no idea what direction to head.
When I returned from Australia, out of convenience, I went to work for a landscaper. He wanted me to take a horticulture class so I could become more familiar with what we were doing in the field. I had no interest in the job or taking the class but I still had no real direction, so I went along with the idea. The landscaper asked me to register for the course at Foothill College. I vividly remember walking around the Foothill campus intimidated by the students and faculty I would cross paths with on my way to the admissions office. By the time I got to the admissions office, I was too intimidated to go in, so I just left. I gave some lame excuse the following day to my boss as to why it was too late to register for courses, so he sent me to De Anza College with the same goal a few days later. I went to that campus and was equally intimidated by the school, the students, and the faculty, so I left without speaking to anyone. If it had not been for my boss forcing me to follow through with the idea at a THIRD community college, I never would have attended college.
I finally built up enough courage to enter the admissions office at San Jose City College (SJCC) a few weeks later. And a few months after that, at the age of 23, I was sitting in my first night of classes at community college. That first semester, I was placed into the lowest level general education courses SJCC had to offer. If there were classes that fell below the arithmetic and fundamental composition courses I was placed in, I guarantee I would have taken those instead. In fact, the classes I took that first semester were so rudimentary, they are not even offered at community colleges anymore. I started at the lowest possible educational level in the college because, as I previously mentioned, I had no high school diploma and had basically failed SJCC’s placement exam a few weeks earlier.
I was scared to death heading into that first semester but a little excited about doing something to better myself. I took those first classes week by week and began to build a little confidence as the semester progressed. At some point during that first semester, I came to the realization that I was attending college to work towards a specific career. I also realized that landscaping and most other blue-collar jobs were not the set of careers I wanted to work towards. I decided that if I was going to go back to school, I should work toward something that sounded interesting and could lead to a more satisfying career than construction or landscaping. I was liking my math class at the time, so I decided that I would take an accounting course the following semester instead of that horticulture course. Unfortunately, since I started out in remedial math, I had to take a second math course before SJCC would allow me to take my first accounting course. So my second semester I took another math course and another English course. I earned an A in my math class and a C in my English class. I eventually got into the accounting class and did moderately well. I earned a B and, maybe more importantly, I was feeling like I was working toward a goal rather than just meandering.
My fourth semester I decided to take another accounting course, still at night. A conversation I had after class in that second accounting course changed the trajectory of my life. I could never have imagined what would happen after that.
After class one night, my professor asked me about my educational plans. I had not really thought it out, so I had no real good response. During that conversation, my professor encouraged me to consider transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. I laughed, and everyone I spoke to about that conversation also laughed. Cal was where all the smart kids went, and I really didn’t view myself that way. Nonetheless, a few nights later, my professor provided me with the name of someone in Cal’s Admissions department. He encouraged me to go to the campus to speak to that individual about transferring to Cal. I ended up visiting the Office of Admissions at Cal and they provided me with the list of courses I would need to take to be considered for admission.
With a clear plan and the motivation to work toward that plan, I started out on what would become the most transformational time in my life. I spent four life-changing years at SJCC. I built strong relationships with some of my instructors, with whom I continue to keep in touch. My biology instructor, Mark Newton, was the main architect and sounding board of my college essays. My accounting instructor, Mr. Wong, was dry as hell, but somehow inspired me to dream really freakin’ big. And Spencer Shaw, my calculus teacher, was so good at what he did that he got me to believe I was capable of great things. That class remains the absolute favorite class I have ever taken. Mr. Shaw wrote my college recommendations for me. These instructors believed in me when I didn’t even really believe in me.
I also made lifelong friends at SJCC with guys who were looking to do more than just go through the motions of community college. Jose Licea and Jeff Madrid became my partners in crime. What a great time in life that was. I worked a full-time job and took more than a full load of classes most semesters but still had time for plenty of fun. By the time I entered that final year, I was an expert student. I learned through my years there that grit and understanding the syllabus has more to do with educational success than natural ability – a lesson I have leaned on over the years.
I completed every class I needed to take and submitted my application to Cal at the end of my 1995 Fall semester. Since I was done with community college at that point I packed my bags and headed back to Australia for the Spring 1996 semester. I was living in a friend’s garage in Australia at that point and my dad called to inform me that he received a letter from Cal. He opened it while I was on the phone and his exact words were “Holy shit Stephen, you got in.” I transferred to Cal and entered their business program in the Fall of 1996. At the time, it was the number one undergraduate business program in the country.
My time at Cal wasn’t without issue. My initial thought about Cal, “that’s where all the smart people go,” was accurate. I was surrounded by so many amazingly smart students. I was average at best in the classroom compared to everyone else. But I grinded my way through it and, at the same time, there were professors at Cal who took the time to guide me through the process, Steve Etter, who we all called “Etter” was most instrumental. He took the time to pull me aside after many classes to make sure I understood the material and was engaged with the content. He allowed me to work on my own cases studies and also taught me Put Options and Call Options as it related to dating. Then there was Clancy Houghton, my favorite accounting instructor. I remember him constantly talking about how he and his wife would save and invest every dollar he made while working at his firm, while many of his colleagues would buy lavish cars and go on wild vacations. Well, he retired wealthy and was able to teach a class here and there at Cal while his counterparts worked themselves to death late into their lives. And like SJCC, I made even more lifelong friends: Dave Martin and Knut Westby, whom I still speak to regularly. Those two guys were also community college students who transferred to Cal and have their own unique stories.
I graduated from Cal with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and landed a job at Arthur Andersen, the biggest and most respected public accounting firm in the country at the time. Landing that first job was clearly the result of the opportunities presented to me at Cal. I happened to meet one of the Bay Area recruiters at an on-campus recruiting event. I attended the event for the free food with no little understanding that it would lead to an internship my Junior year summer which would then lead to a full-time offer upon graduation.
C. Accounting Career
I worked for a few years within Arthur Andersen’s tax practice in San Francisco. I worked on engagements related to Francis Ford Coppola’s winery and the Fairmont Hotel chain. In the end, tax wasn’t for me. I therefore transferred into PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Advisory Services division in Los Angeles, where I valued large hotel chains. It was at PwC where I was exposed to Litigation Consulting, a service line and career I did not know existed when I was in college. I left PwC to move back to the Bay Area and to work for a small firm that specialized in Litigation Consulting. I enjoyed a 25-year career in “accounting.” Primarily, I valued private companies and intellectual property in the context of commercial litigation, both in the United States and abroad. I have testified in federal and state courts and participated in various international arbitrations regarding accounting and valuation issues. I’m now a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Accredited in Business Valuation (ABV) and a Certified Financial Forensic Analyst (CFF).
During my career, I worked on large engagements here in the Bay Area, New York, Washington, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Brussels, and the Hague to name a few. I was asked to value the artwork associated with Snoop Dogg’s first album cover. I was asked to opine on the value of Rebelution’s trademark name in relation to the artist known as Pitbull’s use of that trademark. I participated in a multibillion-dollar valuation of EMI Music. I valued a winery business in Lithuania and a uranium mine in Mongolia. I worked on the plaintiff’s side of three litigations that each resulted in over a billion dollars in damages and royalties. One of those cases is still the single biggest jury verdict ever awarded in the state of Oregon. I also worked on international arbitration cases against the governments of Lithuania, Mongolia, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Just before I started teaching full-time at CSM, I was a director at the Berkeley Research Group in their intellectual property group.
To say that community college had a profound impact on the trajectory of my life would be an absolute understatement of the value I received from my time at community college. I enjoyed an incredible career. My wife and I were able to purchase a home on the Peninsula here in the Bay Area. We have our retirement accounts fully funded, with additional investment accounts with sizable amounts in them. And we have saved enough to send both of our kids to college. During much of this time, my wife was able to stay home with the kids for most of their formative years.
I continue to independently consult on accounting, finance, and valuation issues. I currently charge clients $450 per hour for my time. However, in 2015 I decided that I wanted to teach accounting at community college because of the profound impact community college and the professors I encountered while I was there had on my life. I was lucky to have been able to join CSM’s Accounting Department. I spend most of my time at CSM echoing the things I learned from Messieurs Wong, Shaw, Newton, Etter, and Houghton, along with all my own personal tricks.
If I were to identify the major inflection points between my teenage years and now, they would be as follows:
- I luckily avoided getting into credit card debt.
- I developed the habits of a good student when I was at community college, and willed my way to success in the classroom,
- While at community college I focused only on getting into a school that would provide big upside opportunities to me after graduation rather than worrying about what I was going to do after I graduated,
- I invested in my education, and therefore passed on the lowest cost options available, and instead chose to attend the University of California at Berkeley,
- I took full advantage of the on-campus recruiting events beginning my Junior year,
- I learned how to manage my budget rather than allowing my budget to manage me when I entered the workforce,
- I began investing my money the minute I got my small amount of credit card debt paid down and my budget squared away,
- I purchased a small condo and then sold it to move into the home I live in today, and
- I further invested in my career and earning potential by obtaining a deeper set of skills within my profession.