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."

Do you have a financial question or success story? Email me at laura.rowley@teamaol.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @MoneyHappiness.

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November 28 2013 at 1:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chernifamily

Sof, the family is very proud of you! Molodets :) -Irene

September 08 2011 at 2:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kolyxix

This not true, because not everyone gets the same result. America is not meant for everyone, plain and simple.

September 05 2011 at 8:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kolyxix's comment
jrgcool35

No it isn't for everyone. The incompetent will fail.

September 06 2011 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michelebachmann8

IM STILL MAD AT CHRIS WALLACE OVER THERE AT FOX NEWS, HE CALLED ME A FLAKE! I GUESS US TEA PARTY FOLKS ARE A BUNCH OF FROSTED FLAKES..........HAPPY BIRTHDAY ELVIS!!!!!!!!!!

September 04 2011 at 12:33 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to michelebachmann8's comment
savemycountry911

He meant YOU evan are a flake.

September 04 2011 at 9:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
daballofire

You have to ask yourself why is it that lefties will not and do not support the law of the land when it comes to legal immigration but are all for illegal immigration. Once you know the answer to that you will see the evil that lies deep down in their anti American pro anyone foreign souls. They really do hate America for some reason.

It is really sad and sickening for an American to feel as they do but there isn't much else you can say about them that is good anyway. If you can't say something good about someone it is best to watch them very, very closely indeed.. Oh well.

September 04 2011 at 12:01 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to daballofire's comment
savemycountry911

Libs hate you for that. They also hate the truth.

September 04 2011 at 9:51 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
circustwo

A friend contacts a friend in his home country and tells him to come to America, he will help him find a job. He tells his friend that what his wages are for a week can be made in one day. All he has to do is tell the builder boss, yes I will work for $8 an hour. Who is at fault here, not the illlegal, but only the BOSS that wants more money, more money ,
OR the American worker that DEMANDS high wages. SOME Americans know people that are skilled workers and have years of expirence with a nice home, 1 or 2 new cars. These observers with no skills want the same thing NOW !
This might be some of the problem. What do you think.

September 03 2011 at 10:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sue

She worked for it and did it legally.Has nothing in common with those that sneak across our borders illegallaly that are handed a booklet on how to get free services.

September 03 2011 at 1:22 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
bob

The dream isn't dead. Too many "Americans" have gotten lazy, and want everything they see on the boob tube instantly. And they won't spend the time or money to obtain the job skills to get a job earning a good living. Good for those who do !

September 02 2011 at 4:42 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
hudanlan

This story is proof that coming to the US legally as an immigrant, with the knowledge that hard work & personal sacrifices will probably be required in order to obtain the American Dream, is still possible.

Nothing grates my cheese worse than the word immigrant being used in discussions/articles concerning the millions who are in this nation illegally. It is an insult to all those who followed the laws & arrived with the intention of being Americans, worked to assmilate, can't hop back across the border on weekends to visit relatives, etc.

There is a huge difference between an immigrant and a crimmigrant. Would also bet the Cherni family thinks of themselves as Americans of Ukrainian heritage, not as Ukrainian-Americans.

September 02 2011 at 2:58 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to hudanlan's comment
dabrownman

There are many good personal characteristics that are required for success in all things like hard work, personal sacrifice, determination, empathy, generosity, fairness, decency, honesty etc. There are hundreds of them. All skills naturally flow from having these attributes no the other way around. So everyone not just legal aliens need to develop their good character attributes in order to be successful and keep very far away from the only 3 that cause failure, Fear, pride and ego.

I ask you, does Obama have fear, pride and ego? Nuff said,

September 04 2011 at 3:30 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Daniel Jones

The United States doesn't need anymore immigrants. We have children and grandchildren that these immigrants have taken away jobs from. Immigrants should not be able to get the same government benefits as people that have lived here there entire life. This country is only so big and we don't want them here, go home. I am a Son of the American Revolution so I feel that I can say these things. If they are so good at what they do then go help your own country we don't want them here. We speak ENGLISH here so if you aren't visiting, speak our language or go home.

September 02 2011 at 1:08 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Daniel Jones's comment
lwhjamestown

This country is a country made up of immigrants. Your relatives were immigrants.

September 03 2011 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sofiyac

You may have lived here your entire life but probably not the older generations....US isn't that old...all Americans come from elsewhere as lwhjamestown already mentioned! Don't complain and make the best of what you have! :) The Cherni Family speaks English very well :)

September 03 2011 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply