The True meaning of financial freedom

I first met Nick True at a conference in San Diego put on by Pat Flynn. While I was working the ConvertKit booth, Nick walked up and introduced himself as a happy ConvertKit customer, and I knew within the first minute I wanted to interview him for a story.

It wasn’t just that he liked us enough to want to say hello during a conference or that he was good at both YouTube and email (42K+ YouTube subscribers and 9K+ email subscribers), or that he was living out of an RV with his wife and cats and dogs.

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It was his kindness.

He was unassuming. Genuine. So not about himself: the kind of person who never talks at you, devoid of that anxious undercurrent a lot of men in finance I’d personally encountered had, constantly waiting for you to finish talking so they can get back to talking about how successful they are or how much money they make.

Nick was different, and I wanted to know more.

So a few months later, in early 2020, I met up with him and his wife Hanna via Zoom.

Before we start the interview they give me a virtual tour of the RV where they live. It’s tiny and cozy, the main area made up mostly of two desks side by side, with sunlight pouring in from large windows, and a small floral rug on the ground.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-and-pets-in-airstreamIt’s crowded, but not in a bad way: Scout, half-poodle-half-border-collie, is hanging out on the bed in the back. Margo the French Bulldog/Boston Terrier mix scutters around following Hanna. The brown, fuzzy cat – Walter Cronkat – is sleeping on one of the desks. And the other cat O’Malley is hiding somewhere.

The tour is over in minutes; if Nick was logging his steps that day our tour would have likely only added four. But neither he nor Hanna seem cramped or harried. They’re delighted to welcome me into their home, and soon we sit down to talk about how they got here.

“It was about not getting stuck.”

For Nick, it started with a “budgeting for kids” class at his church when he was in middle school. Money was fun to him, like a kind of game, where the winner had more choices, more freedom. And when his parents started giving him money based on chores he would do, he started playing that game.

It wasn’t about money for money’s sake. It wasn’t, “Oh, I want money so I could buy a car or buy this or that.” What attracted me to it was this idea of, “Oh, I could save a little bit, and then I’d be able to do all these other things.”

Even as a young kid, I saved a ton of money because I desired future flexibility. I liked seeing the number grow in the account and dream of what I could do down the road.

He saved up three years of birthday, Christmas, and chore money to buy his first laptop at 11 years old (he also sold homemade bread to his neighbors).

In high school, he bought a mountain bike with the savings from his summer construction job.

“It wasn’t about money for money’s sake.”

That kind of saving is also what made it possible for him and Hanna to be able to afford to get married when they were still in college.

And for Nick, that’s what “winning” the game of life was all about for him – ensuring, as much as possible, that money wasn’t something that would ever hold them back from doing what they most valued in life. And Nick and Hanna were very clear on what that was:

For me, that was:

1. Family
2. Work that I feel is important and makes an impact.
3.Time to explore my hobbies and interests.

I really wanted to avoid what I saw around me: a lot of guys who were stuck in a high-demand, high-travel job and never saw their family.

What I desired was to manage my money well so I had the flexibility to always choose my values over needing to make money.

It was about not getting stuck in a career that I couldn’t maneuver out of.

And for Nick, the biggest pain point was the idea of a job keeping him from family. He saw how money could take over your life and stand in the way of what you valued most, and he never wanted that to happen.iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-and-dogs-in-front-of-airstream

His goal after high school was to get a good job that would allow him to save money; so, college seemed like the best next step at the time:

You have to go to school and get a degree that gives you a good job. That’s the thing that you have to do. That’s what I was sort of raised to do, taught to do, socially expected to do.

He went to college and majored in engineering. Everything was going well…until he felt what he’d always tried to avoid: stuck.

“It felt like I just failed to change directions.”

When I ask Nick what led to engineering and if he liked it, he answers quickly: “No.”

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is I tend to get tunnel vision. In high school and in college, especially, if I made a decision, then I would sort of put blinders on and follow that path.

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Nick on the left, Nathan on the right.

In high school, the original path he chose was music, hoping to work in recording studios. But when he saw his best friend Nathan’s music career and passion progress, he realized he needed to change his path:

He was a year ahead of me. So I was able to watch him go down this career path, and I realized through him that I was not cut out for that. Music was a hobby to me, and it was not what I wanted to eat, live, and breathe 24/7.

By then it was his senior year and he had to think of something fast, and since he was really good at math, engineering seemed like “the natural next step.”

So that’s why I just was like, “Well, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll go to school for engineering.” And from there, looking back, it felt like I just failed to change directions.

Or rather, I failed to see that there were other directions available. The idea of choosing a career where the path wasn’t clearly defined for me never occurred to me until after graduation.

So for a while, he kept going on the path he knew, the path he was raised on, taking the natural next step each time; after college he got a full-time engineering job and enrolled in an MBA program.

But a few weeks before he was supposed to start, something broke his tunnel vision.

“That sounded crazy to me.”

It happened at a wedding. Nick still played music for fun and was working a gig with his best friend in music, Nathan. During one of the breaks, Nathan turned to Nick and said:

“Hey, have you ever heard of these bloggers that make money?”

“No. What are you talking about?” Nick replied.

“Yeah. There’s this blog called Pinch of Yum that my wife found. They’re food bloggers. They made like $20,000 last month on their blog.”iaac-nick-true-typing-laptop

Nick remembers:

I just couldn’t believe it. That sounded crazy to me. I remember going home that night and googling “make money blogging”, and Pat Flynn’s Podcast came up.

He went to the apartment gym, hopped on the treadmill, and started one of the podcast episodes. Ninety minutes and four and a half miles later, he knew:

I don’t think I’m going to get an MBA. I’m going to start a blog.

After only two months working full-time at the engineering firm, he also knew: “Nope, I can’t do this.” He and Hanna had already made a plan to work towards saving enough money for Nick to leave engineering in his late 30’s and become a math teacher (he loved teaching).

But, after learning about blogging, he couldn’t help but wonder, what if he didn’t have to wait until his late 30’s?

People were always asking Nick questions about finance since he’d been consuming everything he could on the topic for years. He loved answering those questions.

What if he could make money teaching online now?

He was going to start a blog and find out.

But next, he needed to tell Hanna he wasn’t going to pursue his MBA.

“It was a big change of direction.”

Hanna was in graduate school for physical therapy at the time, so they relied heavily on Nick’s income. She was surprised by the news, he remembers:

It was a big change of direction versus everything we talked about before we got married. But she came around pretty quickly, honestly.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-sitting-outside-airstreamI think it was ultimately because she trusted me enough to know that I was ambitious. I was a hard worker. No matter what I did or put my mind to, she felt confident I’d figure something out, even if she didn’t fully understand the whole blogging thing at first.

She even picked out the name for the first blog, inspired by their couponing obsession at the time and their last name: True Tightwad.

Nick wanted to show people that being a “tightwad” didn’t have to mean being uptight, rigid, or stingy – he wanted to show others the fun and gaming element he saw, and that “winning” the game didn’t have to be about anxiety but could be about dreams and adventures and freedom and, most importantly, living life aligned with what you truly value, especially when it differs from what the world says should matter.

He launched the blog in 2015, “but I didn’t believe that I could build a blog and make full-time money from it fast enough to leave my engineering job as quickly as I wanted to”, so he also started freelancing finance articles and helping a popular finance conference with their digital marketing, with hopes that he could quit his job even sooner, but also as a way to almost create his own kind of MBA, but for his new goals:

The most important reason I wanted to freelance was to learn digital marketing and content creation.

I figured if I could get paid (even if it was small) to work with someone more experienced, I could learn what I needed to eventually strike out on my own.

iaac-nick-true-using-convertkit-at-desk
For two years Nick essentially worked three jobs.

I ask him how he found the energy:

The word “passion” gets thrown around a lot, and I think it can almost lose its meaning. But if you’re working a full-time job, especially if you’re working overtime or your job is stressful, finding the energy can be really hard.

The only reason I think I was able to stick with it is because I just loved finance so much and was really excited to create content about it.

I had friends who were trying to leave their job the same exact time I was, but they were pursuing ideas they weren’t necessarily passionate about but thought would make money. Some of those friends are still working those jobs, and I think it’s in part because they just weren’t as excited to put in the hours.

iaac-nick-true-typing-on-laptop
After two years of working as an engineer, a freelancer, and blogger, Nick was able to leave his engineering job in 2017.

I think it’s important for people to know I think I made $10,000 or $12,000 over those two years before I left my job.

It wasn’t enough to live on. But it was enough for him to think that there was something here.

There was potential.

He was able to leave his job when he did because Hanna finished graduate school and got a full-time job in physical therapy.

So we sort of view it like we high-fived as far as income for the household.

iaac-nick-true-airstream-parked

Their early dedication to personal finance meant they’d built a foundation for flexibility and could survive on one income.

Hanna’s full-time job was as a traveling physical therapist, so they packed up their tiny Tennessee apartment, moved into an RV, and set off.

Nick was now able to dedicate his full-time hours to the blog and freelancing, and within nine months, he was making a full-time income.

But then, his friend Nathan gave him some feedback he didn’t see coming.

“Your blog is still not really doing anything.”

At that time, Nick was making the majority of his income from freelancing for other companies, but what he really longed to do was make money from his blog: his own content and platform. But no matter how much he wrote, he wasn’t making much progress aside from a few affiliate checks once in a while from finance software companies.

One day, his friend Nathan spoke up again:

Hey, dude. You’ve been blogging for a few years, and it hasn’t really done that much for you. It’s helped you get freelance work, but your blog is still not really doing anything.

I’m not sure if writing is your biggest strength. Have you considered doing a podcast? Changing the medium?

Nick had never considered that: “I hadn’t really given it a ton of thought because I liked reading blogs, so that was kind of the path I was going.”

Tunnel vision again. But Nathan helped him consider another option, saying: “Why don’t you just at least try YouTube or commit to something and make a couple of videos, see how it works?”

It almost sounded like another game to play. Nick wanted to try.

iaac-nick-true-recording-youtube-video-course

The first YouTube video I did didn’t do amazing, but it did get more views than like any of my blog posts. So I was like, “Okay. My strengths are not writing. They’re elsewhere.”

And a year earlier, thanks to more feedback from a few trusted friends, Nick also realized trying to change people’s definitions of a “tightwad” was actually holding him back. When people met him, they were often surprised by his calm, fun, adventurous demeanor – his blog and brand name didn’t seem to fit him or what he was about.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-backpacking-mountainsThe feedback was a blow at first, but since it came from people he trusted, he sat with it for a while and eventually realized they were right. Knowing Hanna was great with words, he told her about the rebrand and she came up with “Mapped Out Money”, a nod to their love of travel.

By 2018, Nick was making $75,000 a year.

At that same time, Hanna was starting to question her own career direction. She’d decided to be a physical therapist in 7th grade and never looked back, but during her first year on the job, she thought: “I don’t think this is really for me.”

“Because she’s so hardworking and studious,” Nick explains, “she never pulled her head up out of the work to say, ‘What do I really like doing?’”

As Nick’s business grew, he realized he needed help, and wondered if Hanna might want to quit her job and work with him: “You really don’t like your job,” he told her, “What if we went in on this full-time?”

But she wasn’t so sure: “I don’t know. What would I do? What would my role be?”

Nick needed help doing almost everything: design, administrative work, editing, emails, landing pages, and Hanna decided to take the leap. She quit her job in April 2018 and started doing #allthethings for Mapped Out Money.

A few months later, she and Nick attended our Craft + Commerce conference, and the mainstage talk on design and growth by our then-designer now Creative Director, Charli Prangley, inspired Hanna immensely.

iaac-nick-true-hannah-recording-podcast-and-typing-on-laptop-in-airstream

After the conference, she bought an iPad and Apple pencil and started learning and implementing design into Nick’s content, eventually creating their graphics, editing videos, creating thumbnails, and producing their podcast.

With Hanna’s help, they were slowly but surely able to phase out all freelance work and make a full-time income for the both of them from their blog, YouTube, courses, and podcast.

It was less than he made freelancing, but it gave him the freedom he craved and the flexibility he wanted:

We really were making a few thousand dollars a month; not everybody could live off that. But we don’t have kids, and we lived in an RV, so a few thousand a month would support us.

Soon, that “few thousand a month” would grow to more.

“YouTube can take that away in a heartbeat.”

When Nick first started his blog he collected email addresses – something he learned from Bryan Harris and Pat Flynn’s podcast – but it was slow going. After years of focused effort, he was discouraged that he had only a couple hundred subscribers.

His opt-in was a free email course in the sidebar of his blog: “It was okay. I mean, it was fine. It got people to sign up. But looking back now, gosh, the positioning of that was so bad. But you’re learning.”

Their email list really grew when Hanna got involved. Using her ever-growing design skills coupled with Nick’s love of teaching, they created opt-ins specific to certain YouTube videos.

I would come up with a content lead magnet idea that would be very congruent to a video we were doing, and then she would make a really nice looking lead magnet. That’s when we actually started saying, “Oh, this is moving our business forward.”

iaac-nick-true-screenshot-email-opt-in
And when the pandemic hit, having a list of email subscribers who already knew and trusted them was helpful in keeping their business alive, especially because they only pitch their paid courses and products to their email subscribers.

Email is one of the best things you can do because you now have a list of people who have opted in and said, “I want to hear from you. I want to hear about your products. I want to hear about your resources. Please let me know what’s going on.”

YouTube can take that away in a heartbeat.

So when you flip to a business mindset, you realize you have to move your audience off of YouTube onto something you can control, because when the algorithm changes, your business is now in the hands of somebody else.

Email subscribers are more than just numbers to Nick and Hanna, though. They love the people in their audience, especially the ones they never thought they’d reach, like those who are budgeting for the first time after retirement.

It’s really rewarding as a younger person to be able to help people I wouldn’t necessarily ever think I could impact.

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“Not having to wear a polo shirt I hate.”

But when I ask about his biggest dream come true, he says:

As cheesy as it sounds, just literally being able to wake up and not have to commute to a job I dislike, and not have to wear a polo shirt I hate; as stupid as that sounds.

I’m getting to live a life that is aligned with my values – and the fact that I get to do that while not being told by someone else where to be, when to be there, and what to wear when I show up, is a dream come true.

Then the fact that we get to live in an RV and travel. It’s truly wild.

iaac-nick-true-with-hannah-in-front-of-airstreamAnd yet “wild” for Nick doesn’t always mean what you might think. Unlike Instagram RV’ers parking in beautiful and exotic (and often expensive) campgrounds, Nick and Hanna let go of many of their original travel plans and parked in “the middle of nowhere Alabama” when they found out Hanna’s grandma Aileen (aka MeeMaw) was sick.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-working-in-airstream

Hanna alternated with her two aunts to provide her MeeMaw’s full-time care; there was nowhere else they’d rather have been.

Hanna shares:

Being able to be there for family for us has been a dream come true.

During our tour earlier I asked to see the photos hanging on their walls, and that’s when Hanna happily grabbed the camera to give me a closer look, lingering on her favorite: a photo of her MeeMaw riding a bull, inside a frame that says “Grab life by the horns and hang on for the ride.”iaac-nick-true-inside-airstream

The tunnel vision they both dealt with early in their careers has faded. They seem to have found something that eludes most: contentment in the unknown.

For now we’re traveling and living in a camper. But that may change, and then we’ll be able to be flexible and go wherever that new direction is.

“There’s still a lot of places we want to see.”

Almost a year later, I catch up with Nick and Hanna again via Zoom, at the end of 2020, to watch them move their RV from its current parking place to the next one: their new house.

The house we bought, like most things we do, is a project, a fixer upper.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-new-home-front-door

It’s their first house together, something they were able to buy after the pandemic shut down their travel plans. But the decision to buy the house and the specific house they chose, wasn’t about the pandemic, but about their values.

When we started looking for a home we had a few pieces of criteria:

1. No debt outside of the mortgage. (We had paid our Airstream off ($34,000 in 3 years) and we wanted to keep the Airstream and not sell it, and not use personal loans for the renovation.)

2. Location was most important. We bought the house for $297,000 and we could have used that same money and bought a brand new home just two miles away. But instead, we wanted to be near the water and near downtown. So we opted to pay a lot more for the location and then fix the house up over time.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-in-front-of-new-homeAnd now it’s time for them to move their RV to this new location. They pull their truck into a lot dotted with a few RV’s and old trucks. Nick and Hanna get out and begin to prep the Airstream for its move, barely talking to each other, each knowing exactly what to do, exactly what part they play.

Within 20 minutes, they are ready to move their former home to their new one. (When the pandemic ends they hope to still take months-long trips once or twice a year. “There’s still a lot of places we want to see,” Hanna shares.)

iaac-nick-true-screenshot-mapped-out-money-podcastAnd while their business “fell off a cliff” during the pandemic, it built back up again once it was clear the pandemic wasn’t ending anytime soon and people felt a greater urgency than ever to learn how to manage their money.

They launched the Mapped Out Money podcast and talked a lot about managing money in a crisis. People loved it, especially with Hanna stepping out from behind the creative scenes and allowing people to get to know her.

Thanks to their savings and following their own advice, they were able to buy their dream home this year. After they finish hooking the RV to the truck, they drive it the 20 minutes to their new home and show me around.

“For a while it’s going to look like a dump,” Nick explains, but they walk around it as if it’s a paradise. I can tell they can see what it will be, and they’re excited to be the ones to do the work. The currently tan house, Hanna explains, will be painted green and white. They plan to lay a gravel bed outside, and add a bonfire pit surrounded by chairs.

When they bring the phone through the door to show me inside, it’s mostly bare, boxes strewn in every corner, a folding card table, a small Christmas tree, and a tiny TV perched on the box their toilet came in.

There aren’t any appliances in the kitchen (“everything is on backorder because of the pandemic”) and their bedroom is currently a mattress on the floor where they sleep, surrounded by dog and cat beds for their pets.

They’re beaming and beatific as they point out each of these details – each pile, each dream – their contentment so clearly not because of what money can buy, but what it can’t.

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-podcast

iaac-nick-true-and-hannah-outside-near-airstreamYou can connect with Nick and Hanna on YouTube, subscribe to their email list, or learn more at mappedoutmoney.com.

The post The True meaning of financial freedom appeared first on ConvertKit.

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