Let’s Talk About Money: My Journey Toward Financial Freedom

Money: a one dollar bill on top of a twenty dollar bill on top of a credit card

The topic of money management came up in a conversation with some friends recently, and I later realized that it was not a subject I’d ever previously discussed with my friends. Sure, we occasionally bemoan how expensive something is or lament our monthly student loan payments, but we never really talk about saving, planning, or investing. Money is one of those subjects that is seen as taboo, especially among women. We fear being perceived as greedy, and we don’t want to invite comparisons of salaries and financial well-being. But money really is power, and we need to be able to confront the topic without fear or intimidation. Good financial management brings freedom. Let’s break the silence.

Some people are lucky enough to be taught good financial practices at a young age. I was not one of those people. My parents were somewhat reluctant to discuss money. They hadn’t been taught certain important lessons either, and I adopted some of their bad habits.

I started working at age fourteen and had my first monthly bill, a modest car payment, by around age seventeen. I always kept enough in my checking account to pay that bill, and I was sure to pay it on time, having heard that late payments could hurt my credit score. I wasn’t very deliberate when it came to my leftover funds, though. I bought clothes and movie tickets and birthday gifts for friends and family. I maintained a small amount of savings, but I had no clear financial goals.

My parents hadn’t saved for me to attend college, and neither had I. Fortunately, I was awarded some scholarships that made my education much less expensive than it might have been, but I paid the remainder of my tuition, room, and board with student loans. My parents helped by borrowing some money as well. I used my work-study earnings to cover my books, supplies, car payment, and discretionary expenses. I was never very concerned about paying off the loans — I’d assumed I’d figure that out later.

I got engaged while in college, and the summer before my senior year, my then-fiancée bought us a house. I was enrolled in a summer program in another state at the time and was not involved in the process. When I graduated from college, I moved into the house, and we got married that summer. He handled the finances. He made twice as much money as I did. I commuted an hour to a low-paying job that probably would not have been sufficient to pay my bills had I not been married.

Then I decided to attend law school, a decision he encouraged. I took out more student loans. Again, a scholarship substantially reduced the amount of tuition I had to pay, but I borrowed extra for living expenses. I don’t think I ever looked at the interest rates or calculated my future loan payments. I had some income from summer jobs and part-time work during my second year. We didn’t adjust our spending habits like we should have. We didn’t live extravagantly, but we continued to go out to eat and buy things we didn’t really need.

A month before my law school graduation, we separated. I was lost financially, as I hadn’t paid my own bills in several years and had never really managed my finances as an adult. I didn’t know how much money I needed. I had no income at the time, but my then-husband gave me enough of a monthly stipend to cover the rent and utilities for a small apartment. Most of my expenses went on a credit card. I’d opened one with a zero percent introductory interest rate. I would be taking the bar exam in late July and could not start my post-law school job until September.  In those five months, I racked up a significant balance, telling myself I’d pay it off later, when I started getting paychecks.

My new high salary didn’t seem so large, though, when I accounted for the bills. A big portion of my monthly income went to debt repayment: student loans, car payment, credit card. Add in rent, utilities, groceries, legal bills from my divorce, and the expenses of being a new professional — suits, dry cleaning, lunches out, happy hours, pressure to support various causes — and I was living paycheck to paycheck, continuing to charge things to my credit card without giving it much thought. I managed to set aside some savings for specific large expenses, like buying furniture and paying movers, but that money never stayed around for long.

I did gradually put things in order, though. It was a long process. I traded in the too-expensive hybrid SUV I’d bought with my ex-husband for a slightly less expensive Mini Cooper that I thought had more personality. In retrospect, I should have gone with something more economical, but the trade-in did reduce my car payment and gas expenses. I leased a townhouse on my own and negotiated a rent that was $100 per month less than the listed price.

The big change in mindset happened when I took a voluntary pay cut to start a new job in a new place. The salary reduction forced me to budget. I took a long, hard look at things and knew I had to do better. I prioritized paying off my credit card balance. I used Mint to calculate my net worth (which was very much in the negative) and determined how much I needed to pay on my credit card each month to eliminate the balance in a little over a year. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I paid it off several years ago and haven’t carried a balance since then.

I paid off my car, too. Rather than trading it in for a new one, I’m planning to drive it as long as I can. The money that used to go to my monthly car payment now goes into a savings account to pay for car repairs and a new car at some point in the future, so those expenses won’t catch me off guard.

I set up a number of automatic savings plans through Capital One 360 (formerly ING Direct), all nicknamed for different expenses. I have accounts for gas, groceries, vacation and travel, discretionary funds, unexpected necessities, clothing, gifts, and more. As soon as my paycheck is direct-deposited into my checking account, budgeted amounts are automatically withdrawn and deposited into these funds, which I use to pay my expenses as they arise. This system makes me pay more attention to the kinds of things I’m buying and how much I’m spending.

I remarried in 2015 and bought a house with my husband. This time, I was very involved in both the house-hunting and the mortgage application process. We decided to go with a fifteen-year mortgage to secure a lower interest rate and build equity faster. These higher mortgage payments stretch our budget a bit, but we can afford them and we know the small lifestyle sacrifice now will be worthwhile in the long run. (We also know we could refinance to a 30-year mortgage should a change in circumstances necessitate that.)

Changing jobs several times has impacted my retirement savings, but I’ve always participated in my employers’ 401(k) plans as soon as I could, contributing enough to entitle me to any matching funds. There were lengthy periods of time after starting new jobs when I was not yet permitted to participate in these plans (some of my employers didn’t allow new employees to participate until they had been with the organization for a full calendar year, resulting in sixteen-month gaps in contributions). I also took a temporary job for a year that did not allow me to participate in an employer-sponsored plan. When I left several of my jobs, I forfeited portions of my employers’ retirement plan contributions that had not yet vested. All of this put me somewhat behind on saving for my retirement, which is something I’ve gotten more serious about lately. Fortunately, I’m still fairly young and can make up for lost time. I also had the foresight to open a Roth IRA during one of those periods when I wasn’t able to participate in my employer’s plan. I haven’t maximized my Roth contributions to the IRS limit — getting to that point is one of my future goals — but at least I set aside something for retirement and began earning some interest.

Investing has become a new focus for me. It’s easier than I thought it would be. While my savings accounts have pretty good interest rates for what they are, I now understand that it isn’t a great idea to keep most of my resources in savings accounts. I’ve opened some CDs with higher rates and a couple of investment accounts. The investment accounts are passive, meaning I just contribute money to them regularly and don’t think much about where it’s invested (which is good, because I’m not a financial analyst and I really don’t want to spend my time researching and trading stocks). I was previously reluctant to open a CD because I erroneously thought that they were too illiquid and I wouldn’t have access to the money if I needed it. That isn’t true. While my bank assesses a small penalty for early withdrawal, it really is quite small — if I cash in a CD before it’s fully mature, I forfeit a few months of interest. That’s a low risk, and one I’m willing to take in exchange for the higher interest rate.

I’ve worked with financial advisors in the past but found their fees to be off-putting and not justified for my relatively simple current financial situation. I’ve started using robo-advisors instead. I like Ellevest, which is intuitive, goal-oriented, and gives more conservative projections than other sites. My husband likes Betterment and is also intrigued by WealthFront. (We keep our finances separate and divide our expenses, which works well for us. Given that money is often a source of marital strife, I think some level of financial separation is a good idea for most couples.) You can use these sites to create a plan for free, and should you choose to invest through them, Ellevest and Betterment both offer no-minimum-balance investment accounts, meaning you can start as small as you like.

I want to stress that I am not a CFP, CPA, or otherwise credentialed financial professional qualified to give you financial advice. I’m telling you what I have done because I think it works pretty well for me. What works for me might not be best for you. You should do your own research, create your own plan, and perhaps consult an advisor for assistance. Also, in addition to my standard disclaimer (in menu bar), please note that nothing in this post should be construed as an offer to buy or sell securities.

Taking control of my finances has made me feel more empowered to live the life I want to live. It’s allowed me to think about future goals and options in a way that once did not seem possible. I’m still learning and I make mistakes, but I have a much better handle on my finances now than I did in the past.  I have more control over my life, and I’m no longer intimidated by financial matters.

Being deliberate with your money does not necessarily mean being frugal to the point of depriving yourself. With careful planning, you can spend your money on the things that matter to you and that will bring you happiness while also avoiding unpleasant financial stress. If you don’t have a financial plan, I encourage you to make one. Come up with a strategy to get out of debt and start saving and investing for the life you want. Like me, you might find that it’s easier than you expect. Your future self will thank you.

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