FOR AS LONG AS I CAN recall, I’ve received unsolicited advice on what I should study in school, when I should get married, when I should pop out kid No. 1—and how I should spend my money. Regarding this last item, it seems there’s a lot of financial advice out there from people who enjoy a level of financial security I’ll likely never experience, unless I strike it lucky with the Powerball.
Many advice columnists just haven’t caught up with the soaring cost of living and student debt crisis that confront young people. Result? We read articles about how much money we should have saved by age 30—and we completely freak out. If you’re tired of reading perfect money advice for an imperfect world, here’s how I learned to handle my cash:
1. Stop clubbing every weekend. As the Norwegian band A-ha sang years ago, “The sun always shines on TV.” In the movies and on television, close friends meet for lunch at charming bistros and party all night at clubs, where the cheapest martini sets them back $15.
But in real life, it often feels like the sun only occasionally breaks through the bleak clouds of “let me check my bank account before I grab a happy hour drink with co-workers, so I don’t risk an overdraft.” I spent most of my early 20s wondering if I had enough dough left at the end of each week to make it to those coveted happy hours.
Even then, I was completely blowing pretty much every paycheck. I always made sure I had enough for rent, but I wasn’t saving at all. It took a medical emergency—for which I didn’t have the money—to finally wake me up to reality: Saving is not an option, but a necessity for survival.
I was lucky. I had someone to help me out, while I got my financial act together. But I never wanted to feel that scared again. Trust me on this: If you’re spending all or most of your extra money on drinks and dinner, you’ll have a similar moment. Eating out and drinking out are incredibly expensive, no matter how good you think you are at finding deals.
Limiting myself to going out once a week was a good start, while I worked to get my bad habits under control. Using cash—instead of my debit and credit cards—was helpful, too, because I was cut off when my purse was empty. What worked best, though, was the realization that standing around on a crowded dance floor, while people spilled vodka tonics down my shirt, was overrated.
2. Dress for success—for less. Some seasoned professionals will tell you that you need to dress for the position you want, not for the one you hold currently. Buy if you’re realistic, you quickly realize that high fashion tends to pair with an entry-level wage like corn on the cob pairs with a mouth full of braces.
Still, I needed to dress far more professionally than I could afford. My solution? A lovely thrift store down the street. The value of thrift shops cannot be overstated. The clothes sometimes smell like mothballs, but we all learned how to operate the coin laundry while in undergrad, right? I’ve scored many a designer suit simply by scoping out thrift stores in wealthier areas of town.
3. Save it before you spend it. Not all financial planning advice from the pros benefits only the silver-spoon set. One gem I came across: the principle of paying yourself first.
One of the best financial choices I ever made was starting a separate savings account, where part of my paycheck automatically goes every time I’m paid. This is separate from my checking account, so most of the time I don’t even look at the money unless I truly need it. For those who hit payday and think they can buy everything they want for the next few days, it can help you avoid pulling all your money out willy-nilly using a debit card. Instead, wear your ever-growing monthly account statements like a badge of honor.
Additionally, like many in today’s gig economy, I have a number of side hustles. My advice: Open both a savings account and an IRA. You can even have the funds from one gig sent to that savings account via direct deposit. If, when tax time comes, you find you need to decrease your tax liability, you can simply contribute some of those savings to your IRA—and claim your tax deduction.
4. Figure out what your priorities are—or should be. If anything infuriates me about the financial advice I’ve seen online, it’s the whole, “Put 10% of your income into savings and spend no more than 28% on housing.” Right. Have these advice columnists paid rent in the modern world?
I could get my rent down close to 30%—if I were willing to live in a part of town where I’d need multiple deadbolts. I prefer feeling safe, so I pay more.
Pick your battles. Figure out what’s a priority for you—or, better still, what should be a priority. (Please revisit the “stop clubbing every weekend” section.) Bodily safety is a human need. Eating (reasonably) is a human need. Cut out the things that don’t fulfill those basic needs before you cut out the things that do.
Kate Harveston is the editor of a women’s health blog, So Well, So Woman, and a journalist at a variety of online publications. She writes about wellness, politics and finance, and how those elements often intersect. You can subscribe to her blog and follow her on Twitter @KateHarveston.