NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - A quote from Vincent Van Gogh on the home page of Pierce College asks, "What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?"
For Laura Karpinski-Sarman, one of the Los Angeles school's former students, the question is particularly apt.
The 32-year-old married woman with two kids lives in a 3,600 square foot house in Stevenson Ranch, an upscale L.A. suburb. She drives a Mercedes, and books a six-figure income. But life was not always this good.
Laura grew up under difficult circumstances in the San Fernando Valley, where she battled family problems from an early age. At 13 years old, she began abusing drugs. By 15, she had attended rehab three times, gotten arrested, and survived an overdose. After that, her doctors wouldn't permit her to return home; instead she wound up in foster care.
She doesn't shy from discussing her dark past. "Everyone who knows me knows what I've been through," she says.
On her own at sixteen
Adversity steeled her character. After leaving foster care she immediately set out on her own, renting an apartment and going to beauty school. She ran her own manicuring business for five years, including time she spent attending Pierce College in nearby Woodland Hills.
After a few semesters, Laura left school for a career in sales, first selling sofas, then cars. She met her husband, Erk Sarman, at the car dealership. They worked together for four years before she finally agreed to date him.
Married in 2000, they have a two-year-old daughter named Kristal and a two-month-old son named Ali. Erk has another son, a 16-year-old also named Erk.
When Laura was 23 she used a $25,000 inheritance as a down payment on her first house. She paid $136,000 and resold six years later for $225,000, stimulating her interest in real estate. She obtained her realtor's license in 1999 and now sells single-family homes in the booming southern California housing market.
The business has been good to Laura, even working part time. "Out here," she says, "you only need one or two transactions a month to make $100,000 a year."
Her own new home has been a bonanza. The couple paid $481,000 for the five-bedroom, four-bath house north of the Valley. Just three years later Laura estimates its value at $750,000.
Their equity now amounts to about $300,000 and they own a condo with $110,000 in equity. They have IRAs worth about $17,000 and about $72,000 in savings and money-market accounts.
Through July of this year the couple had a combined income of more than $130,000. In spite of those hefty earnings, Laura prides herself on her world-class shopping ability. "I'm really cheap!" she says. "Sometimes my husband is dying for a soda but if it's not on sale I figure he doesn't need it."
She does the lion's share of her non-grocery purchasing on the Internet, where she thinks she saves an average of 40 percent. In 2000, she shopped online for her entire wedding -- she still spent $50,000 -- and more recently bought a $500 ceiling fan for $260, including tax, on the Web.
Her saving strategies include clipping coupons and then waiting for sales and double-coupon promotions. Sometimes supermarkets end up paying her for items. She explains, "If something usually costs $2.50 and it's on sale for $1.75 and I have a $1 coupon that they're giving double for, the store is actually paying me to buy the item."
For clothes, she haunts the clearance racks. "I never pay full price," she claims.
The couple doesn't dine out much, but do like to travel. "We skimp a lot so we can get out of town," says Laura. Recent vacations took the family to Cancun and Turkey, where Erk's mother lives.
While the couple tries to find bargain-basement prices on all they buy, they don't stint on quality, but they delay major purchases until they can pay for them. "We have nice things," says Laura. "But we've been doing our backyard for three years."
Cash is king for Laura. "We try to pay cash for everything big that we buy," she says. "We take advantage of no-interest payment deals and pay whatever monthly amount we need to pay through to the time limit." That way, they incur no finance charges.
The Sarmans do shoulder some credit-card debt, but have managed to slash the interest rate to 3.9 percent. This year, they paid down their balance from $50,000 to $20,000 with an eye toward obtaining financing to make some real-estate acquisitions. Laura hopes to buy an apartment building soon.
Amassing a million dollars matters to Laura for a couple of reasons. First, she'll derive a sense of achievement by hitting that benchmark. The second is that she's simply tired of being so frugal.
When asked why she wanted to share her story, Laura pointed to its rags-to-riches nature. "You can come from nothing and still succeed," she says, a notion she wants others to embrace.
Laura's journey has been arduous, but her resilience is great. "I hit rock bottom," she says. "Now, we're on track to where we want to be."