For over 30-years, Judy and Skip Tiamkegg worked as public-school teachers in King County. Year after year, they devoted their time to the students they saw every day, but committed their bank accounts to the future they always wanted. At age 60, after carefully spending and faithfully saving, they were able to retire and now live happily with comfort and confidence in the future. Their story, one of thrift and enthusiasm, is a true testament to the value of disciplined saving.
How did you two meet and start dating?
Skip: We both worked at Beacon Hill Elementary. Judy was the librarian, and I was the kindergarten teacher. As teachers, we had to go out and knock on doors and make phone calls for the levy each year. Everyone had to find a partner to work with. During the meeting, I was wearing a headband and my hair and beard were down to here. Well, no one wanted to pick me. But Judy did!
Judy: I said, “We have to go knocking on the doors. I’ll do the knocking, you do the talking.”
How long have you been married?
Judy and Skip: Too long! Thirty-five years.
Skip: When we got married, her last name was Tiam and mine was Kegg, so we put them together as Tiamkegg, no hyphen. I went to find out how to do it legally, and they wanted $75 to change it. I said, “I’m not going to pay that.” So, I just started changing stuff myself. It worked. Our passports are that way. Everything is that way. All I paid for was the postage to mail notarized documents proving who we are.
You two are somewhat renowned for your thriftiness. Where does that come from?
Judy: I grew up in the Philippines. It was a childhood dream of mine to come to the United States, to hop into one of those airplanes that I used to see zooming by when I was 11 years old. But I was the oldest of eight. I had to take care of the younger children. I gave up a lot of dreams for myself. Being the oldest, I just didn’t have a choice of what I wanted to be.
One day when I was in my 20s, I told my mom that I was going to apply for immigration. My dad didn’t want me to go, but my mom knew it had been my dream as a girl. She herself had helped her parents support a large family. She was the oldest girl, the third of 14. At age 16, she started teaching and helped support the family. When I said I wanted to go to the States, my mom talked to my dad and convinced him to allow me to go.
I applied for immigration in 1967. I got my paperwork before Christmas, but Dad wanted me to have Christmas with the family. I’m glad I did because that’s the last time I saw him. He passed away two and a half years later.
I immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 25. I arrived on January 29, 1969. Once I got here, I thought, “This is freedom.”
Eventually, I travelled back to the Philippines and convinced my mom at age 60 to come to the States. I sponsored her because through her, I could bring my brothers and sisters over. And all but one brother is here in state of Washington. He stayed because he was a priest and wanted to be with his parish.
What was it like when you finally got on that plane after dreaming of it for so long?
Judy: Oh, I wish I’d kept what I wrote down. I described everything. The clouds, the plane. I hung on to the salt-and-pepper shakers, the napkin; anything they gave us. One of my aunts said, “When you get to the States, why don’t you taste snow and write to me about it.” So I did. I said, “It’s just like tasting crushed ice.”
I was able to buy one thing I’d always wanted once I moved here. My parents had challenged me that if I graduated from high school at the top of my class, which I did, they were going to buy me a piano. They never did. When I came to the States, I started putting aside money to get one.
I saved up $400 and bought a piano at an auction. That was my first investment. The last bid on the piano was $188 and I thought, I don’t want to use all $400, so I wrote down $208. The next day I got a phone call saying, “You got the piano.” I still love to play it.
What was your childhood like, Skip?
Skip: We didn’t have money. I went to three high schools and about eight grade schools because Dad was always traveling around looking for work. There was a time when he had two or three jobs at once. My dad came from a family of 14. He was number 13. His father left them when he was young, so he had to work hard all his life.
In my family, it was my parents, my brother and me. We scrimped and saved. Growing up we didn’t think we were poor because we always had food.
My mother’s father had a farm, and I would go work there every summer. I’d get up at 4:00 a.m., get a big slice of pie Grandma had made, and take that out with me in the fields as I brought the cows up. I would get a dollar a day plus my meals.
I would come home after a couple months, and I’d have a hundred bucks. Mom would take that and buy my clothing for school. I’d get a coat, some pants and shirts, and one pair of shoes. The rest went into savings.
That’s where I learned it doesn’t matter how much you make per month. If you take a small percentage of that piece, you’ll have something to put aside.
Judy and I didn’t make much as teachers. I would take $167 a month from both our checks and invest in the stock market. There was a radio show I listened to and this guy was always talking about how to invest. His philosophy was “pay yourself first.” I always made sure I made that check out to the investment company. That was “paying us first.”
Tell me about some of the things you’ve “collected” over the last 35 years.
Skip: Well, there are the Cutco Knives. One of the guys at the shop where I worked summers sold Cutco, which are not cheap. I found out if I went to the seminar to become a sales rep for them, I could get a set at cost. And so, I did that. I didn’t want to sell them. I just sat through the seminar and bought my set. I’ll never forget this guy. He said, “I don’t think Skip’s going to sell too many of these things.”
I’ve had them since the early 70s. What’s really nice is when they get dull, you pack them up, send them to New York, and they sharpen them for you. Last time I sent some for sharpening, about five of them came back brand new. They just replaced them.
Judy: I did the same thing. I sold Presto Pride cookware. That’s how I got our set of Presto Pride. I still have the complete set. But I did sell five deluxe sets.
Sounds like you two were a match from the start.
Skip: There is book called “The Millionaire Next Door.” There is a chapter about how both of you have to save together, and most divorces are over money. We’ve never had that problem.
How do you maintain that discipline for a lifetime?
Judy: If you look around, he saves practically everything. He finds a use for everything. We have been recycling before recycling became popular.
Skip: I always look at something and say, “You know, I might need this someday, and I’m going to hang onto this.” Plus, we’re not extravagant. We don’t buy fancy clothes. We don’t drive fancy cars. This isn’t the fanciest house in the world, and we’re happy. We don’t need a lot.
What are some of your cost-saving strategies?
Skip: I got the cheapest cell phone you can buy. I use it only in an emergency. I don’t have to buy minutes unless I want to. It costs only $6.66 a month. And we have two phones. A hundred minutes will last me a couple years. Judy has an iPad. I’m not used to that stuff. I do better with a piece of paper and a clipboard.
We had skylights and solar tubes installed to save electricity because it was so dark in here. The lights in the hallway are natural lighting. On a clear night with the moon out, it lights everything up. We don’t have to turn on the lights. When I first got the solar lights, I kept thinking that I had to turn out the lights and I realized they weren’t on. There’s a store down the street where I got them. In fact, there’s a sale on now! Buy two, get one free.
Do you have cable TV?
Skip: I do pay for cable, unfortunately. I’ve been with Comcast since 1991. I called them up and said, “I can’t afford this, what can you do?” They gave me a great deal because I said I was ready to go to Dish, although I don’t think I can get Dish.
But guess what was on my doorknob today? A flyer that said FiOS is coming. I was so ticked off at FiOS. All around us they have FiOS, except on our block. I was after them for over two years.
Now they’re coming, and I’m thinking, “Perfect.” I told Judy, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have Comcast for a year, then we’ll go to FiOS because they’ll give me the best deal. Then I’ll have them for a year, maybe two. And then I’ll go back to Comcast. And I’ll just go back and forth.” Finally, I got some competition going.
There is a story about you and REI’s lifetime guarantee?
Skip: I had two REI bags. I got them in the ’70s. The zipper blew out on both of them. I took them back to the store and just asked if they could put new zippers in. And they said, “Go pick out new ones.”
You know they recently changed their lifetime return policy. Think you might have had something to do with that?
Skip: Yeah, I heard on the radio they changed their policy. I only needed new zippers!
Judy: He used to buy the 1000-mile socks.
Skip: Those were from Early Winters. The socks were guaranteed to go 1000 miles. I come down hard on my heels, so I blow holes in my socks all the time. When I got a couple of holes in them, I’d take them back and get a new pair.
Now the socks I’m wearing are Wigwam socks. They’re guaranteed for two years, but they don’t last me for two years so I’m taking them back.
Your strategy has paid off. You both were able to retire at your targeted age of 60.
Skip: I retired at 60. And she retired at 56. We’re enjoying retirement. I highly recommend it. But make sure you have enough money because it’s not cheap. Personally, I have more money than I need. I’m not worried about running out of money. I’m giving it to my daughter, and we give to charities.
Judy: My brothers, sisters and our families started the GIFT Foundation. It’s to help the people in my hometown in the Philippines. We had created a foundation there in memory of our parents. They were very giving people. We were able to inherit seven acres from them and some rice fields. We used our inheritance there to start a foundation in their names.
So far, we have sent seven students to college. We have giveaways once or twice a year to families who are needy. I make quilted and embroidered items to raise funds at auctions.
You’re both very active, as well, and like to travel.
Skip: We do travel. Last year we went to Peru for three weeks.
Judy: He loves jogging and hiking. I do Zumba, Pilates and yoga, and I swim four days a week. I didn’t learn to swim until I was in my early 60s, so I am making up for lost time.
What inspired you to learn to swim in your 60s?
Judy: I almost drowned in the Sea of Hamilton in Australia. Skip was my hero. He and our daughter Vida wanted to go kayaking. I didn’t want to go because I couldn’t swim.
Skip: The wind flipped us. The boat was upside down. I got out, but Judy was still under. She just froze. I pulled her out. When we got home, I told her she had to take swimming lessons.
Judy: So, I did. Skip saw an ad about joining the Harbor Square Health Club for a discount, so I became a member. I figured out I was paying only $3 a day because I was going every day.
Skip: But now that she’s turned 65 it’s free. Not actually. Our health insurance, Group Health, covers the cost.
Is there anything you splurge on?
Skip: Food. I don’t care what it costs. But I don’t care for expensive food. I like to drink whiskey now and then, but I buy that out of California. I looked at the store here, and they want $28 for a 1.5-liter of Canadian whiskey. My brother’s daughter lives in California so when he goes down there, he gets me a case. It’s only $15 a bottle.
Judy: I will spend money on my haircuts. Although, I do cut his hair.
Skip: (Laughing) I should be able to cut your hair, too.
Judy: No. That is one luxury I want.
Any closing thoughts on the secret to your happiness?
Judy: We laugh a lot. We enjoy laughing together. That’s important.
Skip: I look back on my life and I’ve just been pretty lucky. I don’t know how that happened.
Judy: I think you worked hard. It’s not all luck. Life is how you make it.
Skip: You don’t spend more than you have, and you do without.
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Article by Stacey Sanner, photographer and writer. She published her first book of interviews and photographs, "Keeping a Blue Light On: a Citizen's Tribute to the Seattle Police Department," in 2010. You can learn more at www.keepingabluelighton.com.
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