What's the best lesson you've learned about money? 29 life lessons about money from a 10-year personal finance blogger.
I was once asked, “what's the best lesson you've learned about money?”
Well…I couldn't give just one.
After that question, I was inspired to travel through the wormhole of my 20s for an hour or two. And it was pretty enlightening.
It turns out that many of the things that I know to be true and practice in my finances today have their roots in very specific lessons I had to go through during that critical (and mostly fun) decade.
Having firmly established my foothold as a 30-something (edging closer to the 40-something category everyday), I can confidently comb through that decade and give it the kind of recap that it deserves.
What's the Best Lesson You've Learned about Money?
There's absolutely no way I can choose just one. Just look at the money life lessons below, and you'll see what I mean. All 29 are important!
Life Lessons about Money #1: ‘Start Where You Are' Really Was a Fine (and Lucrative) Piece of Advice
You know when someone tells you to ‘start where you are' with your retirement savings or your debt payoff, and you feel completely overwhelmed + you kind of want to throw a tantrum at them because you'll never be able to get to where you want to go with your current paycheck?
I used to feel like a failure before I even started with retirement savings. I would think, “but I don't know if I can max out this year, so what's the point?” Well, the point is that because I did start with where I was, with what I had, our money has grown big time for us. And the money that money created through interest/dividends has grown big time for it. In fact, there's an entire account full of money babies that never would have happened had I not started where I was that day back in the fall of 2005 when I doubted whether or not I wanted to commit so much of my paycheck towards retirement savings.
It's practically a money-ponzi scheme I'm running here, with me at the top!
Life Lessons about Money #2: You Better Figure in the Maintenance and Upkeep…Which Can Cost More than the Product Itself
I don't really remember the time period when I started thinking that a purchase was a one-and-done thing. But I definitely remember the day when the fact that it typically isn't smacked me in the face.
Hello Brita Water Filter and the Swiffer Mop!
I thought once I had purchased these sleek new appliances (hey, remember I was in my early 20s just out of college, so they seemed like shiny appliances to me), that my investment was done. But anyone with a Brita or a Swiffer knows that the refills can be an endless money suck. It really rubbed me the wrong way every few months when I had to dedicate more of my paycheck to disposable items just to be able to use my original purchase.
And then one day it dawned on me: after a year or so of buying these refills, I had paid MORE in refills than I did for the dang product! Light bulb moment right there (reminiscent of those BMG Music Club days of my teens).
Life Lessons about Money #3: Just Like Your 30s Will Happen to You, so Will Lifestyle Inflation
Picture me in my early 20s, the ink barely dry on my new Bachelor's degree. I'm sharing an apartment in my college town with a senior. Each month I'm spending just $325 on rent plus utilities after convincing my roommate's posh parents that their daughter is an electricity vampire whereas I'm practically Amish (true story — it's like I came home to a staged Cirque du Soleil lighting show each day, complete with energy-guzzling pool filters just for the heck of it), $200/month on food. And my commute to work? Just two short blocks away.
This college-living (plus a few upgrades from dorm days, like that $99 full-sized, down-alternative comforter I bought myself as a scored-my-first-job gift) lasted a whole year for me. It was the reason why I was able to save up a sizable emergency fund, pay off thousands extra towards my student loan debt, and start saving for retirement.
I always smugly thought that I could never want or need more in my life than I had right then. I mean, what was this lifestyle inflation, anyway? It wasn't going to get me.
What I can tell myself then is that yes, it will happen, but at a slow pace (if you're smart). Then one day you'll wake up and realize that your life is completely different from the one you lived a decade ago…in a good way. So it's not scary. Just a fact of life that you and your needs/wants will change beyond what you can possibly see for yourself today.
Life Lessons about Money #4: Cost of Living Makes a Big Difference
Now that you know my first year out of college finance-wise, you can imagine my guttural reaction to being laid off, then moving to sleek and sophisticated Palm Beach Gardens, Florida for my next job.
I did not for a second take into consideration the cost of living change between Chestertown, roommate-living, and exotic Florida. It was probably because I was too freaked out trying to find another job when I was still considered entry-level (the first one only lasted for one year) and so took the first one that was offered to me.
My rent ballooned to $975/month. Plus I had to pay utilities on top of that. Gas costs doubled, but that wasn't difficult given how little I used my car in the college town (and honestly, I still managed to live just four blocks from work in Florida. The reason for it doubling was because I had to really take-in and enjoy all the exoticness of this new landscape by driving all over for hikes, beaches, etc. I wouldn't trade that time for the world!).
I also had a new expense because of the move: airfare to see my family and friends every so often. Luckily, I scored some great ticket prices because it was a cheap airfare route from Ft. Lauderdale to Philadelphia.
After two years of living in Florida — having been laid off for my second time — I had treaded water financially. My savings did not grow at all. I had managed to set aside some retirement money, but was not able to max out my Roth IRA each of the years while there. That's when this lesson really sunk in for me.
Life Lessons about Money #5: Turning Off Automatic Savings Withdrawals is a Lot Easier than Turning it Back On
Cash flow issues, coupled with lifestyle inflation, coupled with getting used to that money in your checking account, can lead to finger twitching. You just can't decide whether to turn that automatic savings schedule back on.
I've been there after each of my layoffs, after our wedding, and after our home purchase.
Finger over the button, finger away from the button, finger on the button, finger away from the button…it can downright hurt sometimes to commit money now to an unknown future! I learned from these experiences and doubtless hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost savings that it's best to just keep automatic withdrawals to your savings turned on and merely change the amount when new situations call for it (though yes, it is also difficult to ramp the amount back up once your situation changes for the positive again).
Life Lessons about Money #6: An Emergency Fund is Your Ticket Away from Your Mother's Couch
You can be be-boppin' along in your job, thinking everything is going great, and then BAM you get laid off. Okay, maybe you should not have been so oblivious when you knew your salary was paid on a one-year USDA grant and the start-up didn't appear to be doing too well in the meetings…but hindsight is 20/20, right?
What saved me is that I've always been a saver at heart. Couple that with extremely low cost of living for that first year out of college, and my emergency fund was firmly established by day 365 when I was pulled into the office and given my first layoff.
You probably know a few boomerang people. You know, the kind that launch from the nest, then end up back there, then launch from the nest…then end up back there. Heck, you might even be one of them! While it's awesome to have that kind of support and love should you need it — because we all might need it at some point — diligently working on an emergency fund from paycheck one of your new gig will greatly decrease your chances of needing to take your mother up on her couch offer. I know it did for me!
Life Lessons about Money #7: “Money Can't Buy Happiness”…is Not the Whole Truth
Money CAN buy happiness, but not in the way you might think.
Instead of buying things with money and expecting it to buy happiness, you need to buy either experiences or spend your money to benefit others in order to reap happiness. This is according to a study titled “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending it Right”, and a study by Ryan Howell, from San Francisco State University.
What else do I want to add to that short list where spending money can buy happiness? Control.
Money can buy a certain amount of control in our lives over the circumstances in which we live — which is much of the idea of financial freedom. Money can also buy time. We can't use money to create more than 24 hours, but we can use money to pay for services and products that increase our own personal time (by freeing it up).
Control and extra time are big wins in the happiness book.
Life Lessons About Money #8: Life is Short
Life is short.
It's long enough that we have to care about our finances and we have to care about prioritizing where our money goes…and it's short enough that we need to get out there and do what we want to do and live our lives and make the time to plan and make the time to set aside the money in as small increments as necessary so that we can live out our big dreams.
Otherwise, what was it all for?
Life Lessons About Money #9: Make Financial Decisions that are Nice to Your Future Self
Do you want to be nice to your future self, or do you want to frustrate the heck out of future you?
This is the question you need to ask yourself when making any financial decision today.
Because the decisions you make today are going to impact the tomorrow you.
In fact, are you frustrated right now with where you are financially? Look back over the money decisions that led you up to this point. Where you “nice” to your future self, or did you sacrifice your future self's needs for what was then the instant gratification?
Life Lessons About Money #10: Aim for Financial Synergy
You can grow your money MUCH faster if you increase the financial synergy in your life. Let me explain.
You know that feeling of experiencing something that is greater than yourself? Something that cannot be created just so again, because each of the components involved need to be present and the mood needs to be the same, and it's likely never to occur a second time? Something that you can't create on your own without the addition of other things + other people + other systems?
Synergy is an exciting thing. It's a magical outcome that comes about when the interaction of more than one thing creates something wholly different that's more than the sum of the parts.
Probably the greatest example of this is marriage.
In the months leading up to our marriage, Paul and I wondered aloud — part philosophically, part from nerves — what would change once we got married. We knew that something happens, because married couples are just different from non-married couples — even ones who had moved in together like we had. Sure enough, there was this beautiful shift after giving vows and making that commitment to one another. Two people, one love, and something bigger and much more profound than before that still surprises us (mostly in a good way) almost five years later.
In order to elevate your paycheck, your money, and your life through synergy, you just need the right components.
You'll find those components here:
- A Partner in Finances: Being in a relationship with someone who respects money and works together with you on the finances can immeasurably change the course of both of your lives. Two people working towards a goal — financial or otherwise — creates more than just 2X the momentum. Partners in finance can support one another throughout their lives, enabling each other to pull off life-changing things such as finishing degrees, raising children, making career moves, etc. that would be a heck of a lot harder alone.
- Money Systems: Our financial life became monumentally easier when I set up several money systems. We now use Mint.com for our personal finances, GoDaddy Bookkeeping for my business finances, and Personal Capital for our investments. These are aggregate finance sites that house information from all of our accounts under one roof, allowing us to easily see things that might slip through the cracks otherwise (like how much we are paying in portfolio fees each year, or bank fees, or how much we spent on gas between the two of us this month versus last month).
- 401(k) Matching Program: While 401(k) matching programs are not offered as often as they used to be, if you've got one, you've got to take advantage of it. It's such a surefire way to grow your money! You contribute money towards your retirement via a 401(k) retirement account at work, and your employer matches your contribution to a certain percentage. Talk about synergy that will help you get more of a retirement than you could afford on your own!
- Pooling Money Together in a Group: It can be really great to pool your money together with a group of people to be able to afford something far greater than you could as individuals. This could be around the holidays when siblings pool their money to get a much bigger gift for their parents, or the way we've done it in our family, where each couple contributes several hundred dollars towards a beautiful beach house weekend in Galveston. The home we're able to afford and the beach or bay location is much more than what we could do on our own, of course with the added benefit of a cozy weekend among people we love.
Adding these components to yourself + your money will elevate your finances beyond what you could do on your own. And that's how you can get synergy to work in your life–it's a beautiful thing!
Life Lessons about Money #11: Figure Out if You Want Annuals or Perennials
So many times we make choices based on the present, without giving much thought to the future.
It is oftentimes that because of this, we find ourselves back in the same financial conundrums of yesteryear.
With a little bit of perennial thinking, perhaps we can pull ahead, get on top of our bills, sock away reserves, and find the finances to do the things we have always wanted to do.
I liken purchasing annuals to making impulsive fast food purchases on the way home instead of waiting to cook the homemade meal, or making that impulsive purchase at the cash register while waiting in line.
The flowers are there, the promise of brilliance has been fulfilled, and they are cheap.
Next to their perennial counterparts — a bit less brilliant and probably still green as they continue to harness their energy internally for a brilliant showing later in the season — annuals are the low-hanging fruit.
- Annuals come out strong and dry up fast, exhausting resources quickly.
- Perennials, on the other hand, take more patience, use up more energy, but last much longer.
In the world of personal finance, perennials are retirement accounts with delayed and compounded gratification, and annuals are gift cards, which add to your enjoyment today.
Spring just would not be spring if it wasn’t filled with the vibrant colors found on most annual plants, but annuals do not have tenacity or endurance to last more than a fleeting, albeit beautiful, moment. True endurance — incubating in the ground, flowering, spreading seeds, hibernating when the blistering cold winter rolls in again, and then coming back to life year after year — is left to the perennials.
Life Lessons about Money #12: Sometimes, You Have Two Sucky Options to Choose From
There isn't always a clear winner from the options life throws at you. In fact, sometimes when making money decisions, you have two really sucky options to choose between.
For example, do you choose:
- The higher deductible/cheaper premiums health plan OR the lower deductible/higher premiums health plan (when they both pan out to be about the same costs to you — which happens to be more than you were paying before)?
So, how do you choose between two sucky financial options (or any options, for that matter)?
Mostly, you do damage control.
- Which option is going to leave you with the least amount of damage in the future?
- Which option will cost you the least amount moving forward?
- Which option can you recover from the quickest?
It's frustrating, for sure, to deal with options that stink. But in the end, you can still be thankful that you have options at all. Right?
Life Lessons about Money #13: Losing Income Hurts in Proportion to Your Lifestyle Inflation
Remember we talked about how lifestyle inflation is mostly inevitable? Well, it turns out that it's still a worthy cause to try and tame your lifestyle inflation.
And that's mainly because if and when you lose a job (we've been laid off 4 times between the two of us in just one decade), the amount of financial hurt we feel is in proportion to the amount of lifestyle inflation we've allowed to creep in.
Trust me when I say that unemployment compensation is pretty low. So, if you're sitting pretty on a car payment, on a mortgage that takes just about an entire paycheck to pay each month, etc., then it's going to hurt more when you lose income than if you own a paid-off car and have your debts paid off.
In fact, I wrote before about how our debt repayments would have sunk us in unemployment (which is why it was awesome we had them paid off before losing jobs for the second time).
Fortunately for us, we don't have huge lifestyle inflation (but we certainly have some! I don't know if my 25-year-old self would recognize my 36-year-old life).
Can you reasonably sustain your current amount of lifestyle inflation through 4-6 months of unemployment?
Life Lessons about Money #14: Not Every Deal is Worth It
My friend received a very humorous communication from AT&T back a few years ago, and shared it with me.
AT&T owed her $0.02, and decided that it was best to draw up a check for this amount and send it to her. While I think it is commendable that the company refunded a trivial amount of money, it left me baffled.
Why the company did not credit the money back to her account (which is still standing with them), and why such a negligible amount was refunded in the first place we have no idea.
Aside from that, what struck me was the silliness of this entire transaction. AT&T had to pay someone hourly or salary to draw up this check, paid for a piece of paper (the heavy, check kind), ink, an envelope, and a $0.42 stamp in order to send it.
Even on the stamp alone it cost AT&T $0.42 to send a $0.02 refund. The entire transaction was just not worth it — that’s my two cents!
After a good chuckle, I started to wonder about the parallel of this in my own frugal life. Are there efforts on my part to save money that are completely not worth it, or worse, not saving me money at all? I decided to assess my frugal activities and see for myself if there were ones that were just silly.
Discounted Products = Higher Consumption
One that immediately came to mind is purchasing extra 12-pack refrigerator cokes on sale for Paul. When they are not on sale, they could cost up to $4.00 per box. So when the price is right at $3.00 per pack or less ($2.50 is the lowest I have ever paid, and that was around July 4th), I stock up with four packs. That would lead to a $4.00 or more savings on a product Paul uses a lot of, so over a year it could really pay us back, right? Except that I have found Paul drinks more coke when I buy more packs. It completely washes my efforts, and honestly, could be costing us more due to higher consumption than if I were to purchase one refrigerator pack at full price every other week.
Selling My Time for Too Little
In an article I wrote in 2009 titled I Will No Longer Sell Myself for $4.86, I detailed how much I was being paid through SendEarnings between August 2008 and July 2009 to read emails. Turns out that to reach the $30 payout level, I had put in a total of 5.555 hours (and was making $0.02 per email), meaning my hourly pay was just $4.86. McDonald’s was paying $7.25 per hour that year. Not to mention I found a product through one of these emails that I had been very curious about, so I purchased it. Though I cannot remember the exact price, this probably made me break even.
DIY Project Where Materials Cost Just As Much as Store Product
After seeing the prices of bookshelves, I decided a few years ago to build my own for the living room of my apartment in Florida. My hands were aching for a DIY project, and I figured I could do it all myself for much cheaper than in the stores. Unfortunately, I ended up spending $70 on the supplies! While this is not a terrible amount of money for a bookshelf, and it was a great learning experience dealing with wood, I learned that I also could have purchased a finished (and much better looking) bookshelf for the same amount of money. We still have the shelf (now in my home office) after Paul reinforced it with a few nails to make sure it doesn’t fall over on itself.
Buying Lower Quality
We love bird feeders and seeing the customers who come to eat! I didn’t want to splurge on the glass kind (more expensive), and so I decided to go with plastic ones that were just as pretty. Unfortunately, the squirrels and mourning doves ate through the plastic rather quickly, causing most of the seed to fall to the ground. Oddly enough, I decided to give the plastic ones a second go. Ofcourse, the same thing happened. The third time around I purchased the more expensive glass ones…of which I could have purchased with the money we wasted on the first two rounds of bird feeders.
Free Restaurant Gift Certificate with Purchase of Entertainment Book
The Entertainment Book is absolutely fantastic—it is stocked full of useful coupons for your local area, or for an area you will be vacationing in. But to purchase the Entertainment Book (which can be up to $35) just to get the restaurant gift certificate does not make financial sense. Why? Well, the restaurant gift certificate is from restaurant.com, and you can easily buy your own $25 restaurant gift certificate through this site for $2, $4, etc. when there are different sales. In fact, until midnight tonight (December 3, 2009), use code LIST at checkout to receive 60% off of gift certificates.
Here’s another hint: If you wait until part of the year is over to purchase the 2010 Entertainment Book, like maybe around March 2010, then you can find deals to get it for $15, or even free!
Gift to Open Up Bank Account
I have found that most of the time when there is a non-monetary gift to open up a free checking account, such as a tee-shirt, tote bag, etc., then the account has monthly fees on it. Before you sign up for this account to score the freebie, make sure there are no fees, as that Frisbee or tee-shirt could easily cost you over $216 if the account has a $6 monthly service fee, and you keep it open for 3 years. (Check out Get Rich Slowly’s Tale of the $1500 Frisbee).
Also, I would argue that you should open up a bank account at places that will offer you cash instead of a small gift. Wouldn’t you rather have $50-$150 in your pocket than a tote bag? Once again, make sure there are no monthly service fees involved, or know the rules so that you can keep yourself from paying out more than the gift is worth.
Life Lessons about Money #15: There is No “Saver's Remorse”
There is no Saver’s Remorse.
Saving money will never produce remorse, only spending it could.
However, there are key experiences in life that you can never get back. So sometimes you should spend the money.
For example, you'll never be on your deathbed lamenting having spent the extra $500 to fly home for Christmas that one year; rather you might be upset about not having done it.
Life Lessons about Money #16: Income is Not Wealth, and Wealth is Not Income
It seems like the two are completely one and the same, especially to me in my early 20s. But I truly learned over the years that these two are completely different from one another.
I can be wealthy and make just $40,000/year. In fact, I can be wealthier than someone who makes $150,000/year, so long as I save more money and invest more money than they do.
It's all about asset creation, and you can choose to use part of your income for that or to not use it for that. But spending all of your income on your current lifestyle — whether you're in a mansion or not — will never make you wealthy.
Life Lessons about Money #17: Money is a Tool, Not a Piece of Art
I tried to make money a piece of art in my life for much of my 20s — meaning collect it, hoard what I could, and just stare at my account balances.
But it's actually a tool. Use it to get the things that you want (including keeping enough of it in savings and retirement so that the “thing” you can get is financial security and independence).
Life Lessons about Money #18: Other People Don't Always Know What's Best for Your Finances
This includes me! I don't always know what's best for YOUR finances – I can guide and show you things you can do, as well as give you examples of how it's worked in my life and other's. But ultimately, you have to make the financial decisions.
In my 20s, I was given several tidbits of advice from intelligent people whom I think very highly of. After wrestling with it, I decided to go with my gut instead, and in both cases, that was the right move.
Life Lessons about Money #19: It’s Not What You Earn that Matters, it’s What You Keep
You can make $150,000—a very high salary—but if you spend $150,001, then you are poor.
Life Lessons about Money #20: Life Costs Money
This was my father’s advice to me after practically breaking down crying to him on the phone over the $7800 A/C unit we had to replace.
And you know what? It's a lesson I have to learn over and over again. It sounds silly — but life would be a lot less stressful for me if I just realized it's going to cost a good bit of money to get through.
Life Lessons about Money #21: If People Do Something Well, You Should Pay them for It
Otherwise…they might stop doing it for the world, and you'd be sad.
Life Lessons about Money #22: Cost and Value are Two Very Different Things
Something can cost very little, and hold huge value to you (priceless, even). Other things can cost a fortune, but it turns out they have very little value to give you.
Life Lessons about Money #23: You Should get it in Writing
Anytime there's the possibility that something someone offers could cause you financial upheaval if they un-offer it, then get their offer in writing.
I learned this from the time I was sent to a debt collections agency from an apartment complex I had moved out of. I spoke with the lease manager on the phone and he said that they had found a renter to assume the rest of my contract (six months remaining), and that I was good to go.
Ask me how many years I kept getting phone calls about the $3,000+ I owed the debt collection agency for the remainder of that lease contract…
Life Lessons about Money #24: Opportunities Come More Often to those Who Say Yes
It's true! Say “yes” more than you say “no” in life. At least until you get things figured out. You will learn SO much about yourself, about others, about industries, about how the world works…if you just say “yes”.
Life Lessons about Money #25: Celebrate Everything Else that is Working
Life is such a delicate balance of many parts and even one of these parts swaying out of control can cause everything to lose that balance.
In other words, things working so seamlessly most of the time is more extraordinary than I ever thought before.
Celebrate what IS working — the true miracle — rather than always fixating on the problems at the time.
Life Lessons about Money #26: Negative Circumstances are Catalysts for Positive Changes
There are always things in life that take a back seat, even though they are no less important than your current task.
Pay attention and make some necessary changes instead of letting the “important” get lost in your life's torrent of work and mindless errands.
For example, after I had been sick three cycles in a row several years ago (within a few months), we started taking food-based vitamins (the first time in our adult lives!), eradicated mold issues in our home (i.e. the shower curtain), drank more water, and looked into having our duct work cleaned and treated.
Those are all important, but if I hadn't have gotten sick, I probably wouldn't have given them the attention they deserved.
Life Lessons about Money #27: Avoid Over-Generalizing
It is so easy to over-generalize and sweep an entire year into a “bad year” category in your head.
The truth is, life has ups and downs. And oftentimes? They intermingle. Even during the dips, there are nuggets of pure beauty and joy that you might not have known or appreciated if not for all the bad stuff.
For example, that sick cycle I just talked about? It afforded me time to follow the saucy Nigella Lawson on her food shows — I’m a fan for life! We were blessed that visiting family staying in our home was either before or after each bout of sickness, so I was still able to fully enjoy their company. The weather was mild and gorgeous, affording us lots of hours out in our backyard (heck, even the mosquitoes that year seemed to have held off a few extra weeks).
Plus, I was able to finished scrapbooking our pre-wedding/wedding/honeymoon era! That brought me much joy.
Life Lesson about Money #28: ‘Why Me’ Thinking is Toxic
To sit and think negatively about your situation for a prolonged period of time will impair action, blow re-actions out of proportion, and make you ill.
It is completely natural to become discouraged, to have negative thoughts, and to entertain a few moments of playing the victim — and trust me, we’ve all been a victim at one time or another. But planting a negative seed and fostering its growth through continual negativity can suck the life out of you.
I am sure you can’t think yourself completely better, but I am equally sure that attitude plays a big role in the duration of illness or of any other situation in life.
Life Lessons about Money #29: True Acceptance of Your Finances Gives You Peace
Whether you are scraping by, not scraping by, comfortable in your life or keeping up with the Jones’s—accepting where you are in life is sometimes the most difficult thing to do.
I have been in debt, I have been out of debt.
I’ve had times when there was $2,300 in my account after four years of scrimping and saving. I’ve had times when there has been much more in my account. I’ve lived in foreign countries on shoe string budgets.
But if you and I can do it, if we can just accept where we are financially in life and learn how to manage your money from there, we might just have a chuckle before being able to calmly and rationally move onto our next step.
Whatever that next step may be.
Well, you've been through my 20s wormhole and out again. I'd love to hear some of your own money lessons from your 20s (even if you're still learning them!).
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