After Hurricane Katrina brought devastation to New Orleans in 2005, Sylvia Hall threw out everything except her books, family photos and clothes and packed it up in her Honda Civic along with her dog. 

She couldn’t afford her apartment because she no longer had a job to go to, and she was forced to get rid of nearly all of her belongings. “I was lucky enough to still have things from the hurricane but still had to get rid of them,” she said. “I felt a vulnerability I never felt before.” 

Seattle attorney Sylvia Hall worked off six figures in student debt on her path to financial independence. Now, she plans to use real estate to pay almost no taxes in her early retirement.

This experience was the beginning of a journey to financial freedom. She remembered when she got her things — such as her exercise equipment or her furniture — as she was picking it all up to throw out. 

“It made me think of the things I bought,” she said. 

Hall had just passed the bar exam in Louisiana and was six figures in debt from law school. She was only a week into her new legal job when the hurricane hit and the student loan grace period was coming to an end. 

But since then, she has reinvented herself. She moved to Seattle in 2008, amassed 25 times her annual expenses and a real estate portfolio and plans to retire sometime next year (she originally intended to retire at the end of this year, but may postpone her date to finish court cases). 

Hall started by paying down her debts and building an emergency fund. She worked her legal job during the day and then took on a side job working nights and weekends at Domino’s to increase her income. 

“It kept me grounded, I was so happy to work it,” she said. “I was enthusiastic. Others thought [of the job] as a last resort.” 

Hitting a $0 net worth was a moment of pride for her, because it meant she was no longer in debt. 

Hall approached financial independence in steps — first having one month of savings set aside, then two months, then a year, then two years. She always thought of her savings as a way to protect herself if something happened, like a lost job. 

“Now I have the ability to be OK indefinitely,” she said. 

Hall’s perspective applies to what she buys as well. So much of consumables are disposable, and after experiencing such a loss after Hurricane Katrina, she’s more mindful of her purchases. Hall now spends more on experiences and trips than she does on material things. She was also aware of how much more loss was surrounding her — people who had lost their homes and everything in them, as well as loved ones, to the natural disaster. 

“I wasn’t materialistic to begin with, but when you recall buying or accumulating something it makes you realize this stuff is just stuff,” she said. “It can be gone in a blink of an eye.”

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