The hardest thing about breaking a pattern is recognizing that you’re still repeating it, though it may look a little different.

Growing up, we’re raised with certain expectations: cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, don’t accept candy from strangers, it’s good to save money for a rainy day. Much of what we learn is practical advice for how to grow safely into a considerate adult, but when it comes to finances, there is an ongoing challenge to help prepare young people to become financially literate as they emerge into adulthood.

Have you heard the term “emerging adulthood,” yet? The term has begun showing up over the past few years, referring to the period in one’s twenties (and sometimes, thirties) where one learns how to figuratively stand on their own two feet. This is a period that begins with the first tastes of independence – living on one’s own, earning one’s first paycheck, and figuring out how to balance all the things one wants to buy with all the things one need to pay for. During this time, some people go to college or trade schools, some travel or start their families. It’s a period of exploration, and in my unofficial evaluation of both my experiences and the stories I’ve heard, it’s often punctuated with profound confusion as to how to live within one’s means.

My parents tried to teach my brother and I the importance of saving money, giving us a modest allowance in exchange for weekly chores that I always attempted to put off (if my parents are reading this, I’m sorry about all the moaning and groaning about the dishes and litter box; I spent more time dreading the chore than I spent completing it). My brother was good at saving money, but I would gleefully take my allowance and head to the neighborhood store to buy candy with my best friend. We’d dawdle on the short walk back home, and inevitably, all evidence of my allowance-worthy efforts for the week would be consumed within the hour. I had no concept of budgeting (though I’m great with sharing!).

The hardest thing about breaking a pattern is recognizing that you’re still repeating it, though it may look a little different. Instead of candy, my spending as an adult has been on regular coffee drinks and meals out – and I wouldn’t have any money left over for some of the things that really matter to me. After this comparison hit me, I began cutting back on my expensive behaviors and squirreling away a little money each month. As that’s become a habit, I’ve also begun developing a budget that works for my needs, and have become more vigilant about my spending choices. It allows me to choose an occasional coffee treat, or dinner out with friends – but more importantly it allows me to set aside money for the expenses that I know are coming, and to save for the things I want in my life. It takes more self-discipline than I had a decade ago (or even a year ago), but the decreasing level in financial stress is providing immediate benefit.

There are many tools out there that can help you track expenses and simplify the budgeting process. I geek out over spreadsheets, so I was using those to get my debt under control, and for planning how to parcel out my paycheck into designated savings accounts – but I found that it wasn’t the best tool (for me) to create a budget that I could evaluate regularly to see my progress. I’ve been turning more and more to Mint.com, as a great (free!) resource that makes budgeting pretty easy (and visual). It’s taken ten years and numerous attempts, but I’m finally beginning to see myself as financially literate – though there’s always room for growth. It seems to me that no matter what you do, as long as you’ve got a system in place that works well for you to live within your means and use credit responsibly, you’ll be benefitting your future self.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. What has worked well as you learned to budget? What challenges do you still face? I’d love to hear about it!

Sasha Kemble

Sasha may be the shyest social person you’ll ever meet. She joined Verity in 2009, with a couple years in the Credit Union Movement already tucked under her belt (amidst coffee-making and bagel-slinging, running a non-profit, and trying her hand at farming). 

An eternal optimist (except, you know, when she’s not), she enjoys exploring her surroundings and having adventures with friends; yoga, running, reading, writing, and good food. Though not a remarkable cook, she is nonetheless a sincere one and admits she’d be better if there were three more hours in every day. When not doing one of the many activities mentioned in the previous two sentences, she counts herself lucky to be peacefully at home, cuddling with her partner and their cat.

2 Responses

  1. SJA says:

    YES! This is one of the hardest steps in financial maturity. The here-and-now choices have such BIG longer term consequences.

    One way that has worked for me is to carry only a small amount of cash and leave the credit cards at home. If whatever tempts me is THAT GREAT I can make a more rational decision about returning to buy it once the first impulse has been ignored.

    When I keep my long term goals in mind I can rejoice at resisting the impulse, and that success becomes easier every time. Never PERFECTLY easy, but definitely easier.

  2. Sasha says:

    Thank you, SJA! That is a great point that if something is worth the spend, it will still be there.

    In terms of regrets, there are very few things I regret NOT buying, compared to the numerous times I’ve looked at an item and wondered, “Why did I think I needed to buy that?”

    It’s dreadful to think about how much more money I would have saved if I hadn’t bought some impulse purchases. Instead, I focus forward, and find it easier to identify wants over needs.

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