One Immigrant's By-the-Numbers Path to the American Dream


The death of the American Dream has been greatly exaggerated. Just ask Sofiya Cherni.

The 28-year-old emigrated with her parents and twin sister Irene from the Ukraine as a teenager in 1997. Her grandmother's brother, who owned a hotel in Rapid City, S.D., agreed to be their sponsor. With $2,000 in savings, they moved to the Black Hills town, coincidentally founded in 1876 as a springboard for pioneers headed West. The girls and their mother, who had taught piano in the Ukraine, cleaned rooms at the hotel for minimum wage. Her father, a French professor in their home country, found a job in a factory making computer parts.

As the nation celebrates the holiday that honors the labor of workers striving for a better life, Cherni's is a story of hope in an era of disappointment and frustration. Fourteen years after she arrived in the country, Cherni has earned a college degree, found a good job in her field and bought, paid off and sold her first home. "As far as the American dream goes, it's still alive for me," she says. "It's possible if you're willing to sacrifice."

Cherni, a striking brunette with wide-set green eyes, super-model cheekbones and a flawless ivory complexion, says her earliest memories of the Ukraine are waking up at the crack of dawn to stand in line to buy basics. Potatoes were a staple of the family diet. "My parents always talked about moving because they wanted a better life for us," says Cherni.
In South Dakota, Cherni and her sister won scholarships to a private high school, and her parents insisted they find a way to put themselves through college. "That taught me an extremely valuable lesson -- that money doesn't fall from the sky, and if you want to buy something you have to have the discipline to save," she says.

Cherni lived at home, worked part-time in Herberger's department store and earned a degree in mathematics from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology without taking on debt. But she couldn't find a good job in her field locally, so she worked full-time as a bank teller, then at an insurance agency, while keeping her part-time gig at the store.

Running the Numbers

Realizing she'd have to relocate to move up, Cherni took a job in Wyoming with the National Agricultural Statistical Service, producing crop and livestock forecasts. She started reading Forbes and Smart Money to get a better handle on personal finance, and found a part-time job as an online math tutor. Using her years of savings as a down payment, she bought a townhouse in April 2010, taking out a mortgage for $73,000. She got two roommates, and worked 20 hours a week tutoring students online. Eighteen months later, when she had paid off 80% of the mortgage, her parents gave her an interest-free loan of $15,000 to finish it off.

This summer, she was transferred to Washington, D.C. She sold her place in Wyoming and bought a three-bedroom townhouse in Maryland, financed with a mortgage of $125,000. Although she can afford the place on her own, Cherni took on two roommates, which should allow her to pay off the mortgage in less than five years. She took out a five-year adjustable rate mortgage with a rock-bottom interest rate of 2.375%.

"I like to run numbers because I'm a math major; my motivation was just seeing an amortization calculator," she says. "If you make that minimum payment [over 30 years] you end up paying for two houses." Over five years, she'll pay about $7,700 in interest. If she borrowed the same amount for 30 years at the prevailing rate of 4.37%, she would pay $99,550 in interest (and have a much lower monthly payment).

After a bit more probing, Cherni admits that it's not just the practical aspects of compounding mortgage interest that drive her ambitions, but a deep desire to avoid the downward mobility that has plagued so many middle-class Americans who have also struggled and sacrificed.

"Long term, I'm willing to do anything possible to stay debt-free, because you never know what's going to happen," Cherni says. "I gain peace of mind from the fact that once my home is paid off, the bank can't come back and say, 'we're going to take your house away from you today.' It belongs to you and it's yours, and that's quite motivating to me.

"You have to plan ahead, because you really never know what's going to happen," she continues. "If I lost my job I could I make it work, I would still be okay. I also want to provide a better future for my family someday. I don't want to live paycheck-to-paycheck and work forever. I want to make the best of moving here."

To that end, Cherni joined her retirement plan at work, contributing enough to get the 5% match. She takes public transportation, brown bags her lunch, and shops sales so she can funnel more money toward her mortgage. She says she still has plenty of fun with friends, recently traveling to Thailand for 10 days of kayaking, parasailing and snorkeling, staying in rustic guest houses for $15 a night.

"A lot of people say having money doesn't make you happy, but I think money is a big part of happiness: It's security, it's future planning for the family, it relieves a lot of stress," she says. "Someday I would love to help people in making sound financial decisions ... it's all just simple math."

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