People tell me that I’m good with money, and will sometimes ask me what my secret to saving is, as if I hold some sort of classified document that explains how to put away a little bit of money in the bank every month. They witness my self control, and find it amazing that I can go into a store and walk out without buying anything, or limit myself to one drink at a happy hour get-together.
But, no, the real reason I hold onto my dollars is because I grew up with with very little of it. When you are six years old and you are living in a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood with your family of five, you pay attention when your folks scrape together the money to get your family out of a bad situation and into a four-bedroom house in a nice suburb where it’s okay if you’re outside playing after the sun has set. You thank your lucky stars when you go from sharing a bedroom with your entire family to sharing a bedroom with just one of your siblings, and you then thank your parents for telling you that luck and stars had nothing to do with it — that the money they saved had everything to do with the fact that you no longer live in that neighborhood where an intruder once bashed open the back door of your apartment in the middle of the night only to learn that there was nothing worth stealing from the terrified couple shielding their three children in a corner.
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You learn that saving money doesn’t just mean getting to buy all of the Apple products, or vacationing in Florence, or buying that thing because you are in one of your moods and you know that thing will make you happy for a moment. You learn that saving is your secret power to getting yourself unstuck. You can quit that job that is killing your soul, leave that unhealthy relationship and start over again, and support those you love without worrying about how you’re going to support yourself. This is my “secret” to saving, but my secret might not work for you.
I can’t tell you to go back in time and live in a bad neighborhood so you can watch your family save enough money to get unstuck. And, I won’t tell you something like, “Give up your daily latte habit,” because that might not work for you seeing that a latte might be the one thing that helps you get through a soul-crushing day. I won’t tell you, “Well, try bringing your lunch to work,” because you might try and give up due to the fact that the only thing you hate more than grocery shopping is making groceries into lunches that you have to remember to pack with you every day. But, I do have a bit of advice I’ve gleaned from years of saving, and watching other people save. Here are a few things I've learnt.
It is totally okay to cheat every once in awhile
You know how some dieters need a cheat day to give themselves something to look forward to? How a cheat day can keep them sane? Well, it’s okay to cheat every now and then when you’re saving too. Some people call this a reward system, or learning how to experience delayed gratification. You’ve been good, here’s a little something to keep you motivated to stay good. Obviously, a cheat day doesn’t mean blowing all your money on nice things once a week. Take yourself out to dinner, or go to the movies — things you can do for $20 or less. When I worked at the sort of office where everyone went out to really nice places for lunch every day, I brought my lunch — except on Fridays, when I would go out and join in on the camaraderie. Friday was my cheat day, and I never felt bad about going out to lunch because I had been good all the other days of the week.
Don’t do the things you hate
If you hate making coffee, don’t attempt to drop your daily coffee shop habit. Don’t cancel cable if you love your TV shows so darn much. You’ll just give up and blame these attempts at saving for making you miserable. Do the things that you know won’t make you miserable. Eat leftovers for lunch (or for dinner the next night). Limit yourself to two drinks if you’re going out with friends. Stop taking cabs everywhere and take the subway (sometimes this is actually much faster!). Sneak candy into the movie theater instead of visiting the concessions stand. You know what your limits are, so learn to work around them.
There are people in your life who appear to always have everything you want — that new gadget, or that amazing vacation, or that apartment in that nice neighborhood where nothing is broken. Don’t compare yourself to these people because it will drive you insane. You need to live your life and not theirs. It may be that they have a secret trust fund or inheritance that makes their lives seem so bright and shiny, or they might be charging thousands of dollars to a credit card, and that debt will catch up to them in a few years. Do what makes sense for you, focus on your own goals, and things will work out.
Be realistic about your savings goals
If you’ve never saved $100, saving $5,000 might not be a reasonable goal for you. You’ll get frustrated with a lofty goal that’ll take you forever hit. Start small, then tack on additional savings goal as you’re progressing. It’s sort of like being in a video game where the challenges get harder as you go along, except you don’t have to eat mushrooms, call yourself Luigi, and wear a giant mustache (unless you want that — no judgment!).
Remember why you’re saving
Some people keep notes on their mirrors to remind themselves every day why they’re doing what they’re doing. Maybe it’s moving out of your parent’s place and into your own grown-up apartment, or quitting that soul-sucking job, or visiting your sister who you haven’t seen in five years because she moved to Scotland. It’s totally okay to stick these reminders in conversations:
“Let’s get another drink.”
“No, I can’t, I’m saving money so I can leave my roommate and get my own place.”
“Hey, I’m your roommate!”
“Yeah, about that…”
Don’t become a crazy recluse
Saving money doesn’t mean you have to hide at home all the time. Leave. Go for a walk in the park, or the beach, or all those free readings you keep hearing about but forget to go to. You’ll drive yourself insane if you force yourself to stay home all the time. But, if you are one of those people who does spend money if there’s money to be spent somewhere, uh, yeah, you should probably just stay home. Make friends with Netflix for a month.
Don’t go overboard
Saving too much money is actually a thing that might be bad for you. It might feel really good at first, like some sort of drug. Money is power, and you might feel drunk on it. Look at all these dollars in my bank account! I’m just going to stare at these dollars for a while! This may take a toll on you. You may experience something called “frugal fatigue,” and one day you’re going to wake up, buy everything in sight, and wonder where it all went wrong. You will realize that constantly denying yourself things has made you into a crazy person. Figure out how much you need to put away to reach your savings goals, and have fun with the rest of your money. Saving is great, but you also have to live your life in the present as much as you are for the sake of your future.
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The Billfold — which, mind you, is not another personal finance site — aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable. Instead, they've created a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. Or, why we'll buy a dozen oysters before we pay our rent.