Over the summer of 2014, I stopped living paycheck to paycheck. It sounds like I won the lottery or something. Rather, I won the job lottery. Well, I worked hard through college and graduate school, applied for a well-paying summer job, and got it. I didn’t have any previous connections to the organization that hired me. I just applied, interviewed, and got the job.
This outdoor education position allowed me to work as a residential instructor. I was living and eating three meals per day on an absolutely gorgeous campsite, teaching kids about environmental science and leadership, and finally making enough money to start to build up my sad little savings account. When my first paycheck came in, I was so excited. I got a huge rush of energy followed quickly by a burst of bewilderment.
“Now what?” I thought. That night, I spoke to another staff member about budgeting, savings, and personal finance. It’s the first intentional money conversation I remember having, ever. She recommended I start categorizing my budget. Believe it or not, this was a novel concept to me. I had given almost no thought to my personal finances other than that I needed to save money and I needed to stay out of debt. But I didn’t have any specific means of doing so. That night, I opened my journal and started a new entry called “Yay, Budget!”
At the time, I was working in another residential position during the academic year, meaning that my food, housing, and utilities were covered year-round. So, I landed on six very bizarre budget categories. I laughed out loud when I went back to this journal entry to read how I organized my spending:
- Cell phone
- Downtown Fun
- Miscellaneous Fun
I mean, how cute is that? Apparently my 2014 priorities were incredible simple and mostly related to partying. Even though this budget technique seems elementary, I was able to use those six categories as a guideline for how to spend my money and how much of it I should spend. I ultimately quadrupled my savings account in one year. That’s right: quadrupled.
Since then, my budget has become increasingly more advanced, specific, and realistic. I have opened more accounts, contributed more to retirement, and critically analyzed my spending habits. I have also watched my savings account go up and down depending on my life situation. For example, when I had to move off campus, pay for a semester of graduate school, then move across the country all within the same year, my savings account was dangerously low. More recently, I “paid myself back” for graduate school (after dipping into my savings to cover a year of grad school expenses) and I’m starting to see numbers that make me feel a lot more financially healthy.
I can’t believe it’s only been four years since I started to take control of my personal finances. I’ve learned so much along the way, some from my own slip-up’s and some from online resources. If you’re looking to gain a little more control of your personal finances, maybe some of my experiences and advice would be useful to you. Here’s what I’ve learned in terms of goals, budget tracking, savings tools, and money rules.
One of the worst goals I ever set was to save $22,000. You might wonder what’s wrong with that goal. I mean, who doesn’t want $22,000? The problem is that I was planning to save money for no reason at all. So when I finally hit that goal, I had no idea what to do with that money.
Advice I would give younger Jane: Set reasonable, tangible, exciting, specific, and intentional goals.
My savings goal was super vague. I didn’t have anything specific to save for. I was in graduate school, my housing and food were covered, and I wasn’t moving anytime soon. Looking back at that time, I could have and should have put a large amount of that money into a retirement account or a high interest savings account. Since I can’t change what’s already done, I will move forward with more specific savings goals. For example, here’s one I’m working on right now: Automatically contribute $75 per month (plus a portion of any residual at the end of the month) to my travel fund until I reach $2000 so I can book a really exciting trip!
Accounts, Cards, and Investments, Oh My!
Once I started paying closer attention to my finances, I began to question some of the resources I was using to manage my money. I had been using the same bank since my parents helped me deposit my Bat-Mitzvah money into a savings account (for those who lack context: since I was 13). The Bank I Shall Not Name was charging me for all sorts of bonkers services that I wasn’t using. I ran out of patience for those charges after someone cashed a check before I expected them to and the Bank charged me an overdraft fee, then an overdraft fee for the overdraft fee, and so on. Essentially, I was being charged for an additional overdraft each time the bank withdrew money to pay itself for an overdraft. Confused? So was I.
I patiently allowed the kind customer service representative to dig the Bank out of a weird hole and then I asked her what I needed to do to close all my accounts and move my money. When the Bank didn’t offer any new services that would entice me to stay, I went to a branch to have them cut me a check for all my money and I walked it over to a branch of the small credit union that I’m still using today. Best banking decision I’ve ever made.
I’ve also done my fair share of credit card research over the years. My main goals with credit cards are to: avoid opening too many, not be fooled by all the fancy offers, and focus on the cards that offer the benefits that genuinely apply to my lifestyle. I currently use a Capital One Quicksilver card and a Chase Freedom card and I’m incredibly satisfied with both.
My credit card decisions also led me to finally creating savings accounts linked to specific savings goals. Capital One offers an amazing free savings account: the Capital One 360 Savings. I’m sticking with three of these accounts for now and maybe I’ll open some different accounts or add more 360 Savings accounts in the future. I’m using these accounts to save up for three big goals: paying down my student loans, travel, and travel that’s specific to other people’s weddings. I know, that last one is a little weird. But also completely necessary. Carrie S. Nicholson from Careful Cents was the first person to tip me off to this really great strategy and I highly recommend it as a tool for saving for multiple goals at once.
In my next post, I’ll discuss what I do to track my spending and how I recommend setting rules for personal finance.
Need some support? Comment below or reach out to me! I’d love to brainstorm or direct you to some of the resources I’ve used.
Disclaimer: I am not a credentialed financial expert. I’m just a young adult with a passion for personal finance and with some experiences to share.