Updated: Feb 2
For many of us, financial independence has little to do with just accumulating money, and has more to do with improving our quality of life, pursuing our passion, securing our family’s future, or creating memorable experiences with loved ones.
Maria Khouzam is an engineer who takes financial planning and financial independence seriously. From an early age, she understood the importance of saving, budgeting and living below her means. She is now reaping the benefits by being able to take two weeks of unpaid leave to pursue her passion for helping others.
She is embarking on a 3-week volunteering trip to Egypt, where she and other volunteers will provide medical education and awareness to children in remote areas.
Maria is fortunate to work for a company that provides up to one week off, paid, to participate in approved volunteer activities; however, to make the 3-week trip a reality, she will take an additional two weeks of unpaid leave, as well as cover the trip’s expenses.
This is no easy feat, considering a recent report that states “63% of American’s Don’t Have Enough Savings To Cover A $500 Emergency”; Maria is able to accomplish this because of good financial planning.
Here is Maria’s inspiring story.
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FI Woman: Tell us a little about yourself
Maria: I was born in Cairo, Egypt and attended elementary and middle school in a French Catholic School in Cairo. I moved to the US with my mother and brother when I was 13 years old, and my father joined us a year later.
When I came to the US, I felt there was some financial burden on my family and not wanting to add to their burden, I started working whenever I could so that I had some “pocket money” to buy small items. My parents reassured me that I did not need to work because they were capable of taking care of me, and though I knew that was true, I still wanted to provide for myself when possible.
I first worked at a chocolate store then at CVS Pharmacy. I also tutored in college and completed two co-ops and one internship. With each job that I had, I made sure that I saved a portion of the money I earned, and I developed a habit of saving regularly. After college, I started working at Merck and I have been there for almost 5 years.
FIW: What will you do on this trip?
Maria: I am volunteering with a non-profit organization called Coptic Orphans. They mainly serve children who have lost the sole breadwinner of the family (typically the father) and widows.
The trip is three weeks long. My group will serve in a city called Asyut (located in Upper Egypt) and we will focus on teaching children in elementary, middle and high school about nutrition, hygiene and public health. In my opinion, these are critical topics.
We will also visit a hospital (or hospitals) in the area to assess their capabilities and level of care, and complete three home visitations per day (for 4 days/week). During those visitations, we will meet families and reinforce some lessons with the mothers of the children.
I will work with other volunteers from the US and Australia, and I have been in contact with them to prepare lessons, activities, materials etc.
FIW: Financially, how did you plan for this trip?
Maria: Prior to applying, I looked into program fees and estimated how much I would need to spend to purchase my ticket to Egypt and how much I would spend during the trip itself.
I automatically knew I could afford the trip because I have a savings account that is separate from my spending accounts. Every few months, I transfer money into my savings account (the “Do Not Touch” account) to make sure that I am setting aside money for large, future expenses.
For this trip, I am using one week of volunteering hours (allowed by my company, Merck) and two weeks of unpaid time. I knew that taking 2 weeks of unpaid time would set me back financially, but since I save regularly, I knew that I could cover any necessary expenses by floating money from the “Do Not Touch” account into my spending account.
My “Do Not Touch” account keeps me from worrying about whether or not I can afford to buy or do things – within reason – that are important to me. I compare it to a cheat day when on a diet; if you stay on top of your financials throughout the year, you can afford the occasional cheat day to spend more than is typical.
FIW: How did you get started as a volunteer?
Maria: I have always loved to volunteer and I have participated in many types of volunteering events. To me, I can help people in two ways: financially or personally (by participating in activities – which most of the time has a financial aspect to it as well).
I have found that the most rewarding, eye-opening experiences have always come from personal participation. Seeing those that I help close-up, seeing the smiles on their faces, showing them that others care and seeing how grateful they are with the little that they have, are all aspects I cannot get by sending in a check.
The interaction means a lot to them and teaches me more than I can put down on paper. It allows me to get closer to God, it teaches me compassion, it teaches me about circumstances I could never have imagined; most of all, it motivates me to continue helping others and become a better person.
FIW: What would you consider a successful trip?
Maria: I would consider the trip a success if each child I serve comes out learning at least one positive habit of taking care of him or herself. Whether it is learning how to care for a wound, or the importance of brushing their teeth every day, as long as they learn something beneficial, I would consider the trip a success.
Our goal is not only to teach, but also to change their mindset around basic elements of self-care.
FIW: Do you plan to pursue more volunteer opportunities? If so, what steps are you taking to make it financially possible?
Maria: I am very excited to go on this trip and I have a strong feeling that this will not be my last trip. I always save money not knowing where or when I will need it. That way, when the time comes, I am not struggling to make ends meet.
Do you have a financial success story to share? Tell me about it!
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