Danny Kofke, author of “How to Survive (and perhaps thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary
If there’s one thing that Danny Kofke knows it’s that there’s more to life than earning a big paycheck. When he thinks back to his childhood, what he remembers most was feeling happy. “Growing up my younger brother and I and my family lived in a two bedroom one bathroom house. We had one car sometimes. Mom stayed home with us until I was in sixth grade. Even though my friends had bigger houses than I did or fancier cars, I never felt like I needed more. We did a lot of family things, we were happy.”
When it came time to plan his own family, Danny looked back on his memories and realized that he wanted to raise his kids the exact same way. He wanted to collect memories, not things. “In having kids I thought about what my kids will think back and remember? The only Christmas present I really remember is this bike I got one year. I know that I got presents every year but that’s the only one I remember! So, will Ava and Ella remember all the gifts we give them? Probably not. But, will they remember Tracy was home with them all the time? Yes.” With that philosophy in mind, Danny and his wife set forth to create a life of frugality AND fun. Although their first child wasn’t born until 2004, the groundwork for the family’s financial freedom was laid long before that.
Danny was lucky enough to realize what he wanted to do when he was in the ninth grade. Mr. Stutzky was such an awesome teacher! Danny wanted to be just like him. Because he was a baseball player, he thought the ideal career combination would be to work as a teacher and a high school baseball coach. Moving forward, he committed himself to doing just that. At the time he didn’t really think about what that choice would mean financially; he just knew it was what he wanted to do. After bouncing around a bit, Danny worked at a preschool during college. Those little ones were so much fun! Revamping his teaching idea, he decided to get a degree in elementary education instead of a single subject teaching degree in history.
A lot changed for Danny his last year in school, particularly his status as a single guy. He met his wife, Tracy, while student teaching during his final semester. She was a first grade teacher at the school where he worked and the two hit it off pretty much immediately. Meeting in August, they were engaged in December (around the time of his graduation) and married in June. During their whirlwind romance they made a plan to teach abroad for a little while. Danny was only 24 and didn’t know much about the world. He was up for an adventure. So, in August 2000 the newlyweds moved to Krakow, Poland to work at an international school.
“The only Christmas present I really remember is this bike I got one year. I know that I got presents every year but that’s the only one I remember!”
It was while living in Krakow that Danny learned a thing or two about living high on the hog. “The cost of living (in Poland) is so cheap! We still made what a teacher in the States would make and the apartment was paid for, so we were able to have fun, enjoy a great honeymoon, travel around Europe, AND save up. But we also saw a different style of life. As Americans we always think ‘bigger is better.’ But, in our apartment complex there were families with three or four kids in the same size apartment we had and they seemed really happy! Our eyes were opened to how Americans work so hard but don’t really seem to enjoy the little things in life.”
Danny and Tracy enjoyed walking to and from school. They liked watching the smiling people around them who enjoyed life no matter how little money they had. The two began to see that they didn’t necessarily need huge, expensive things to make them happy. Knowing that they would eventually move back to the States, the couple planned financially and looked ahead to the future, putting money aside every month.
In June 2002, after two years in Poland, Danny and Tracy moved to Vero Beach, Florida, where both their families lived. Knowing they wanted to have children in the near future and also knowing they wanted Tracy to be able to stay at home with the kids for as long as possible, they sat down and started making important financial decisions. “We figured maybe after two years back in the States we’d have a child. It would give us two years of both working full time before we had a kid. We wanted to make sure we didn’t have a lot of debt, a decent savings account, all that. So we planned accordingly. We had one car for three years. We worked at different schools, so sometimes I rode my bike to school or hitched a ride from friends. People made fun of us, but we knew we didn’t want to have that extra car payment. With the car that we bought we doubled up on payments and paid it off in two years. The house we bought was smaller and a little cheaper than we could afford because we knew we could make the mortgage payments off of one salary.”
Tracy and Danny had their first child, a daughter named Ava, in May 2004. They had enough money saved up for Tracy to stay home for the entire year. However, Danny learned about the family medical leave act that allows a person to stay home for three months without having their health insurance taken away. Instead of Tracy staying home when the school year rolled around in August, Danny was the caretaker for baby Ava. He stayed at home with her until October and then headed back to teach. Tracy taught until October and then came home for good, taking the rest of the year off as leave.
That fall the family weathered not just one but two hurricanes. The severe storms took a toll both emotionally and financially, leaving Danny and Tracy wondering if moving back to Florida just to be near their families was what they really wanted. The costs seemed awfully high for two people who planned their finances down to the penny. What if another hurricane came and wiped out their home? It wouldn’t matter that they had made the frugal decision to buy cheap if they had to spend all their savings on hurricane fixes.
In June 2005, Tracy and Danny visited Georgia on a family vacation and fell in love with the state. The weather was comparable to Florida but the cost of living was much less. It got them thinking… might another move be in order? That same year, Danny made the first decision of his life based entirely on “getting ahead” financially instead of enjoying his life while maintaining financial freedom. A good friend of his worked at a flooring company and they were badly in need of sales help after the hurricanes. Danny had the chance to double or triple his teacher’s salary by working for him. So he did. “I wanted Tracy to have the opportunity to stay home with Ava for as long as she wanted. But, soon, we both started seeing that the spark was disappearing from my eye. I just wasn’t happy.” Not wanting to flake out on a commitment he’d made to his friend, Danny kept his job. But, he no longer sprang out of bed each morning excited for what the day would bring.
In the meantime, another hurricane had come and gone. This was the last straw for the Kofke family; it was time to move! Danny figured he’d stick out the flooring gig until the big move. At the same time, Tracy had gone back to work three days a week in a shared-teaching position with the idea that they could save up even more money before they moved out of Florida and had another child. In November, Danny learned that a special needs teacher at his wife’s school had cancer and had been given just a few short months to live. “It hit me hard. If a doctor told me I had a month, six months to live, would I be happy doing what I was doing? No. I was not a flooring guy. I was a teacher. I started letting my friend know that I might be headed back to teaching. He asked me to give him a little more time, so I did. But, I had planted the seed.”
“If a doctor told me I had a month, six months to live, would I be happy doing what I was doing? No. I was not a flooring guy. I was a teacher.”
After the holidays, Tracy and Danny’s mom and grandmother all took a trip to Georgia to scope it out. After hearing about Tracy and Danny’s plan to move out of Florida, both his parents and grandparents had decided to come along, too! Meeting with a realtor, the ladies drove around and found a little county they very much liked. Danny and Tracy put their house on the market and sold it in one day. It happened so fast that they had made a healthy profit before they’d even gotten used to the fact that they were moving! Committed to Florida until the end of the school year because of Tracy’s job, they moved in with Danny’s parents for a few months before heading off to Georgia.
During this same time period, Danny was asked to take over as a long-term substitute for the terminally ill special education teacher at Tracy’s school. Regretfully, Danny had declined due to his obligation at the flooring company. Miserable but committed to his responsibility, he took it one day at a time. That is, until one morning when his friend pulled him aside at work. “I walked in and my friend said, look, ‘I know you aren’t happy. If you want to go back to teaching it’s ok.’ I called Tracy and she said the job was still open. I started teaching the following week. The class was all autistic students. I LOVED it. I had so much fun. It felt like it was really what I was supposed to do!”
Over spring break Danny and Tracy traveled to Georgia and bought a house. Returning for a long weekend to unpack some of their belongings after the house closed, they heard there was an opening for a special needs teacher at a local school. Danny stopped in and gave the principal his resume. The very next evening she called and offered him the job. It was a huge stress relief; they were moving and now they had both a house and a job. Since they’d done so well on the sale of their home in Florida, Tracy could stay at home once more for as long as she’d like. The family welcomed their second child, Ella, in May 2007. While Danny stayed home for a few months as he had with the birth of Ava, he soon returned to his teaching job. Although the special needs class had been sort of a shock when he first began, Danny had grown to love it. “My autistic kids in Florida were potty trained. They were not high functioning, but they could do some work. The class I have here is labeled ‘severe profound.’ A lot of my kids need to be tube fed, some are in wheelchairs, and it’s way more intense. They need much more one-on-one support. After day one, I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t done things like stick a tube in for feeding before. I was so nervous! Going from energetic kids to kids that are harder to get to pay attention to you - that was really different. Now, it’s like second nature. It’s been four years and I absolutely love it.”
Over the course of his career, Danny has come to know two things: 1. the most important thing is to choose a life you love and, 2. even if you make a million dollars a year, if you aren’t happy doing what you’re doing than you aren’t wealthy. Thanks to the frugal decisions they’ve made, the Kofke family is debt free except for their mortgage and Tracy is a stay-at-home mom with no intention of returning back to work any time soon. Continuing to live by the financial principles they developed a long time ago, the family enjoys a financially low-key but fun-filled life. The rewards are far beyond what money could ever buy.
“When Tracy was working full-time we had friends who went out for dinner almost every night and we didn’t. They sort of looked at us funny, but now they’re the ones coming to us for advice! When you have financial freedom, it’s sort of comforting. Some people that work just to have all their things aren’t really free. They are almost slaves to their jobs in a way, because they need those nicer things to make them happy. If you don’t need those nicer things than you aren’t a slave. It brings it back to what’s important. Twenty years down the road if we want a Lexus and a bigger house, ok. But, Ava is five and Ella is two and we’ll never get this time back. That’s what’s most important to us. We get to be a family. And, we don’t feel like we want for anything.”
Danny Kofke is author of “How to Survive (and perhaps thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary.” As a teacher for almost 10 years he is proud to say that passion for the craft keeps him in the classroom but smart savings and basic understanding of financial principles have kept his wife (willingly!) at home with their children. He hopes to help people choose a life they love by learning to live well on any salary. (http://www.dannykofke.blogspot.com/)
Thank you Danny, for sharing your Story with us.
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