How did you develop good money sense?
May 11, 2020 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I grew up poor and with bad financial role models. Now, as an adult, I feel like I missed the equivalent of the birds and the bees talk that my responsible friends’ families instilled in them. How can I learn this and improve my financial situation (or at least my relationship with money)?

I grew up very poor and with terrible financial role models (credit card debt, gambling, stealing, etc.). I’ve been fortunate to not fall in the bad side of the law but I feel my financial sense hasn’t really changed since I was deciding what to do with my babysitting money in high school. (Which, for the record, was taken by family to keep the heat on and if anything was left over, it’d go to a new Cd or shoes or something).

I still have the idea that my income is basically disposable and have not yet gotten to a point where I can save big amounts. I was shocked today when I looked at setting up a kids savings account for my kid and realized if I can put in $75/month, they’ll have over $20,000 by the time they turn 18. Some of my bad habits are things like buying my kid a new toy/jacket/etc.—not something that’s totally unneeded (ie, they don’t already have 12 jackets) but also something they could probably do without (say they have three jackets but could use a windbreaker so I buy it on sale and it makes me happy and they use it). I tend to really belabor spending choices (will spend hours debating the $8 vs $10 pajamas, for example) and this adds to my anxiety and befuddles my relationship with money and saving even more. I also once inherited $10,000 out of the blue from a relative (the only inheritance I ever got and will ever get) and I spent it mostly on therapy. (I guess this was good but also something I still play over in my mind, wishing I had invested it or saved it).

My salary has gone down with the corona crisis and I am working reduced hours but I still have a steady job, as does my partner. But my incoming monthly is enough that I feel I need to tighten my belt more and feel a bit pressured. But the pull to buy my kid a treat and keep things normal for them is strong. We rent in an expensive area and would like to buy a house some time (maybe in the next 2-4 years) and are planning on moving out of the city where we can get more for our money.

How do you do this? How can I think better about money and make adult plans for saving and spending? Assume I already don’t do the silly things in articles (don’t buy coffee or lunch out, don’t drive a car, etc.) I am pretty solidly in the middle class (maybe lower middle class) so it’s not like I’m spending big amounts but I’m also not saving either. I have tried things like Mint but they were counterproductive as they showed my student loan debt and that just made me depressed and anxious.

How do people who are good with money get that way? How do you learn not to be penny wise and pound foolish? What tips do you have for reframing how I think about and approach money? Especially with an eye toward saving, purchasing a home, saving for my kids, etc. Thank you.
posted by robertthebruce to Work & Money (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Something I've found useful is living as though I make somewhat less than my actual income.

For example, if I was making $100 per year, I set $15 of it toward retirement, $10 of it toward shorter-term savings, and then live as though I make $75 per year. I setup my pay so that the savings and investments never even touch my everyday spending account.

This requires some discipline on big purchases (where to live, how many cars for the household, etc), because I'm always making compromises that I don't technically _have_ to make. That said, it has made the day to day much lower stress, because even if I spend every last nickel from my everyday living account on treats and nonsense, I am still setting myself up for long-term success.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 2:30 PM on May 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'm from a similar background and wasted all of my twenties and some of my thirties being totally financially incompetent because it all seemed so scary and boring and everything else in the world seemed more pressing.

What changed was I started consuming really easy, basic, even sometimes fun sources of financial advice and started making increasing my net worth into a rewarding mini-hobby. One of the nice things about the world of money, at least for regular people like us, is that financial health is pretty cut and dried - there are basic steps that never change or vary much. Financial gurus will give you essentially the same advice over and over and eventually it gets drilled into your skull.

A good blog: The Simple Dollar. Less overwhelming if you put it in a feed reader and read the articles that interest you.

A good podcast: Money Girl

A life-changing budgeting app/system/philosophy: YNAB

Extreme but awesome book: Your Money or Your Life
posted by Jess the Mess at 2:33 PM on May 11, 2020 [12 favorites]

were counterproductive as they showed my student loan debt and that just made me depressed and anxious.

I can't speak for them all, but generally instead of feeling like this when they see debt numbers, the just identify their goals and see them as speedbumps, but ultimately minor.

Also follow the links and ideas that have been posted so far, (which are more than enough to get started) and make some plans. That you feel this way tells me the therapy money was well spent, so don't beat yourself up about that.
posted by The_Vegetables at 2:35 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you want a short, simple book, look at Beth Kobliner's Get A Financial Life. I bet your library has a copy.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:41 PM on May 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you are paid via direct deposit, which you probably are because it's 2020, you should have the option through your payroll to set up multiple direct deposit accounts.

First, if you don't have this already, you will need multiple bank savings accounts. I have used both Barclays Online Savings and American Express Online Savings. They both have higher than average APYs and offer free savings accounts with no balance minimum. These are your friends. Set up at least two savings accounts.

Sit down with your expenses and figure out exactly how much it takes for you to live, as lean as possible. Making all your meals at home, no clothes shopping, no new toys, minimum payment on your debts. LEAN.

Whatever is left over, divide it into 3.

Add 1/3 to your lean budget. This is the amount you deposit into your checking account with your payroll. You have what you need to live, plus some comfort money for the little extra things that make day to day life nice.

Set up direct deposit to add 1/3 directly to a long term savings account. This money DOES NOT EXIST. It is for future-you, not for today. You can't spend it. If you get a big windfall or a bonus or something, at least half of it goes directly into this account.

Set up direct deposit to add the final 1/3 directly to a short term savings account. This money is discretionary, but should be used with a keener eye. Make a big loan payment to pay down that debt. Contribute to a college fund. Buy a nice birthday present for a family member hitting a milestone birthday. That kind of thing.

We rent in an expensive area and would like to buy a house some time (maybe in the next 2-4 years)
Four years ago I decided I wanted to buy a house, so set up a direct deposit savings account called "down payment." I am now in the final stages of buying a house. I am not some super wealthy person, I'm just an aggressive saver. And very patient. If you make more than you absolutely require to live on (a luxury, I realize), you can save money too.
posted by phunniemee at 2:45 PM on May 11, 2020 [9 favorites]

I strongly second the recommendation of Beth Kobliner's Get A Financial Life. I've gifted this book to multiple people, and they've all found it as helpful as I did.
posted by ourobouros at 2:54 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Purely from the psychological standpoint, there were 3 stages to our family finances:
- Two incomes and kids and no financial knowledge (both of our parents were basically middle or lower middle class and taught us nothing)
- Phase 2 where we had acquired debt (home, cars, credit cards...) and so Financial Planners told us to consolidate
- Phase 3 where we realized we were trying to pay off the consolidation loans, pay for kids colleges and get ready for retirement.

What helped us in phase 3 was to have money taken from our pays into "cloud" Bank accounts (because it's a bit of a pain and delay to get it back out), and Earmarking the money in our local savings and cloud banks. It's a throwback to the old "envelope" system that experts say you should never use. But we are now in semi-retirement. Earmarks are like: vacation, auto repairs, home repairs, unexpected expenses, emergency in case of unemployment, etc. You can shift the money around and even go negative in a fund as long as the account(s) don't go negative.

Our scheme is similar to some of the answers above, of course. And I guess you could track the money with an app, or in a spreadsheet, but I wrote a PHP program to do it.

This reply was only to encourage you that your feelings about money don't have to effect your management of money. They did for us during our first two phases, but then we were able to turn that around. I hope this helps.
posted by forthright at 3:12 PM on May 11, 2020

You really need a budget so you can tell, with confidence, how you are doing. A budget is not just about scrimping and saving but also feeling comfortable that you can spend money and know that you aren't jeapodizing your larger plans.

Since putting your student loan into the budget as debt is so discouraging, what about treating as a monthly expense like utilities that you will just pay every month for the foreseeable future. That way you can track its impact on its budget but not having to deal with the emotional response to the actual debt. Later, as you more confident in your budget, you can change this but this might be way to get you started without feeling so discouraged.

Also, it is important to have money in the budget for discretionary spending. So, for your son, some expenses like basic clothes, go into the base budget but then you have extra $ each month to spend on extras like a not-really necessary windbreaker or super desirable toy. As long as the total for the month is within the budget, you don't need to feel guilty about the small indulgences. (You will want similar discretionary funds for yourself and anyone else in the household. The amount depends on the total budget picture but everyone needs a little something for small spurges.)
posted by metahawk at 3:12 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

YNAB (You Need A Budget) truly was life changing for me, because it's not just a budget but a system with four "rules" to live by that change how you relate to money. However, it's gotten pretty expensive over the years so my advice is to look at their website and learn the four rules (they have tutorials and explanations accessible for free) and follow them using a spreadsheet yourself for now. They do offer a free trial month if you decide to use their app.

When I made the decision to take control of my money, I started to dip my toes in by listening to early episodes of the "Listen Money Matters" podcast, which is just two friends talking and was very accessible and un-intimidating. Just listening passively for awhile and seeing what I picked up was what got me started.

(Oh, and I do NOT include my student loan accounts in my YNAB setup, because it's way too depressing - I just list them as a monthly bill along with rent, electricity, etc, and treat them that way.) Baby steps - taking control of your finances is totally possible and extremely rewarding!
posted by carlypennylane at 3:27 PM on May 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm no financial guru, and this is just one tip that's made a difference for me: Make it easy to do the right thing, and hard to do the wrong thing. For me this means making bills and savings automatic, and when possible making the savings just a little harder to access. And not carrying a credit card.

And then I don't have to sweat my spending. I know my bills and savings are covered, so if I see a nice pair of shoes on sale, I might second-guess the fit, the color, the height, how much I would really wear them - but not whether it's okay for me to buy them.

Again, not a guru.
posted by bunderful at 4:03 PM on May 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I read Your Money Or Your Life when I was in college, and it absolutely set me on the right path. It's more about philosophy than "tips and tricks". If I read it in college it's definitely an old book *ahem* but a new edition was released recently. I'm not a big fan of Mr. Money Mustache (he did the forward to the new edition) but it's not a FIRE (financial independence/retire early) book. I think a lot of FIRE people like it, but the book respects that everyone's got different goals and helps you figure out how to handle work/finance/life to attain those goals.
posted by Gray Duck at 4:08 PM on May 11, 2020

Someone above recommended YNAB and I will second that. I was always pretty good at the big-picture stuff, usually contributed to retirement and other savings (to a degree) via paycheck deductions or automatic withdrawals. But I got myself into some credit card debt and was spending more money then I should on just everyday things like you describe – nothing crazy, usually useful, but not things I really needed. And that was impacting my longer-term goals, so I knew I needed to get that under control.

YNAB really is life changing. It gives you complete insight into your finances and therefore empowers you to set your own priorities and get there. It’s more proactive than Mint. If you didn’t like seeing the student loan debt in Mint, I would recommend not setting it up as an account/debt. Instead you can simply set a recurring monthly payment for $x. It will just look like a regular old bill, like the one to your cable company or something, as opposed to a debt repayment and a huge number you don’t want to see. That way you'll know you’ll have the money ready to pay for it every month, but you won’t get anxiety from seeing the total debt.
posted by sillysally at 4:41 PM on May 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I grew up with similarly terrible financial role models and am in a decent place now, in my late 30s. Honestly I mostly learned by screwing up a lot, with slightly less terrible consequences each time because I learned from the last time, and that got me to "no longer in terrible debt."

I was able to go from that to "not living paycheck to paycheck" by getting some time with a straightforward financial coach who focused on the basics (just budgeting, getting out of debt, and saving--no investing, because who is even ready for that at this point), met me where I was at (no value judgements, just a focus on what was important to me), and was direct and no-nonsense about what I had to do to meet my goals without being scoldy. Their main value was helping me decide what was important, understand my current habits, and put a system in place that worked for me. I've still got a ways to go but I do feel like I have a much better relationship with money now.

Quite frankly, getting a new job with a higher salary contributed a lot to the improvement, too. While it was tempting to let my not-great spending habits expand to fill the available money, what I learned from my previous mistakes and the financial coach helped me resist those urges, but having enough money makes it so much easier to make financial decisions that can take the future into account rather than focusing on the immediate desperate need or want. Obviously this isn't an option for everyone, and isn't fully in your control, especially in the current climate, but I share it to be open about what helped.
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:57 PM on May 11, 2020

"My income is basically disposable" Oh dear gawd no; absolutely not.

Dave Ramsey helped me; twenty years later he is very big on selling books tapes podcasts etc; but the basic message holds true. Avoid debt; avoid CCards (I don't, because if I get ripped off the CCard company bails me out a couple of times a year via a chargeback to the merchant - try doing that with a disputed cash payment.), and make a budget.

I do best doing my budget; via a spreadsheet; at least once a day. If I don't do it; I get loopy with my spending. This wastes money. Quickly.

Get rid of debt first - you're not going to find an investment that pays more than your debt charges in interest. Ain't gonna happen. But do keep some cash on hand for emergencies.

Myself; I am hard pressed to think of Anything I have not bought; that is not on sale. Almost all my clothes are bought online; and on sale. Same for the kid. And in the future even - i.e. next two years winter coat for 2021 winter? Yeah. I'll buy that nice $125 down parka for $40. In the middle of July or August. Same with good shoes. Know what you will need in the future; look for it every now and then; buy it and throw it under the bed. And you can time the grocery trips too. It is not being 'cheap'. It is being Smart with Your money; that You earn. For Your Family. And all of our kids will grow into next years clothes. Like Magic!

As others have written; hidden/unaccessable saving of money helps. Even the US Gov't I-bonds can help - they will always pay the inflation rate at a minimum; and they can't be accessed for six months after purchase. Yah; only like 1% now; but you have to start somewhere.

Might not be your thing (or your spouses); but a cheesy (YMMV) reserve enlistment (the Air Force i.e. is a lot like business land; but in a set of cammies) might do a little extra pay, greatly reduced health insurance, get a bundle of "Do you have a military discount" savings at many a register; and yeah. I signed my GI Bill over to my kid - didn't care for my overseas time; but it took my GI Bill to 100%. Kids college is effectively paid for. VA home loan is another cookie to consider. Yes. It can all suck in an unimaginable factor; but Kids. Yes. Screw me; for the/our Kids there so many of us go.

All the near painful go without now, and sacrifice now, and invest now; pays off in the future.
posted by Afghan Stan at 5:28 PM on May 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

I agree with Afghan Stan. We relentlessly look for good deals on things. I watch the monthly bills like a hawk - "Why is DirecTV suddenly $20 more this month?" Every penny I'm giving to Company X is a penny that's not going into retirement/savings.

But like others have said, mostly I just really screwed up for a long time. I had more debt than I had yearly income, and then I got divorced. It wasn't a happy time, and that was after about 9 years of being in a bunch of credit card debt, IRS debt, student loan debt.

After that low point in my life, I luckily met Mr. Getawaysticks who was immensely helpful for these things. We cut premium cable, we cut ALL vacations, we cut dinners out - all until the bills were paid off. We kept our rent expenses to a minimum. We always kept internet and basic cable, but anything else was off-limits. I asked for more hours at my job (I know, not really an option right now for most people).

If just opening Mint bums you out because of your student loan debt, wouldn't it be better to put every spare penny to that? Cut out the stuff you said you don't need in the OP and just funnel it to loans. Concentrate on how it would feel to have 25% of those loans paid off. Focus on the long term.

It's been 12 years now that I've been debt free and it was so worth the sacrifices we made. I sleep like a baby.

The resources posted above are so worthwhile - Ramsey, The Simple Dollar, you'll find one that works for you. Surround yourself with positive reinforcement and people that are out of debt!
posted by getawaysticks at 8:01 PM on May 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Build Your Stax is, IMHO, a really interesting and informative game about the various types of investments out there. You unlock seven kinds of investments over the course of the game and then you have the chance to try them each out.

The gameplay is over a 20-year window - the market data is randomized - and you can track all of your investments and incomes continuously. It's fun to explore different investment paths and figure out your options.

I'm almost positive I found it through a link on the blue.
posted by bendy at 12:11 AM on May 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Also, what's the cost is a great tool for calculating which bills you should pay down first.
posted by bendy at 12:13 AM on May 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Even if you don’t feel ready for a more detailed budget it is really instructive to go through your bank account and cc statements for the last 12 months and analyse what you spent your money on. Invariably there’ll be a black hole that you can’t account for. That’s what could/should have gone into your savings without cutting out anything else.

If you then decide you want a detailed budget you have a clear basis for drafting that. If not you’ll still have figured out a few places, where you could absolutely save money instead of spending it and you can start to work out what expenditure is discretionary and what isn’t - for you.

And yes, long term financial goals are generally about foregoing immediate gratification like little treats for you or the kid. All the people I know who have modest backgrounds and ended up with property and healthy retirement savings in middle and old age were extremely rigorous about eliminating all discretionary expenditure for a few years to save for deposits and emergency funds, maxed out on any tax advantaged retirement savings options as available. At some point they start to allow themselves a few more treats as they progress in their careers but not to the extent where they ever start to splurge. And they normally save all their pay rises, bonuses etc. - they do not spend more when their income goes up.

And absolutely, quality of life matters and we all value different things. For example, I pay more rent to be close to work, transport hubs etc because when not locked down I have to be able to get places easily and every extra ten minutes travel time comes out of my spare time and I do enough unpaid overtime as it is. If you have a hobby or a household item you use a lot you may want to spend more on a higher quality item because that will give you a nicer experience for a long time. But a frugal person would research the hell out of the purchase to make sure the item really meets their needs and wait for it to go on sale.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:10 AM on May 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I got "good at money" by failing first. I had credit card debt and student loans I couldn't pay despite having a full-time, middle-class job. So I wound up using Consumer Credit Counseling Service which evaluated my spending and income, provided a budget, and negotiated repayment plans on my behalf. I had to live on a cash basis for the duration and make timely payments. It worked - I was debt free after 3 and a half years and had internalized the mechanics of budgeting. It saved my financial life and my credit score, but it was also vaguely humiliating to have to have someone tell me how to do it, and to have to obtain postal money orders to make payments. You don't mention specific problems with debt/credit, but I will say that having someone else look over my financials and make concrete and humane suggestions about how to organize it differently from how I'd been doing it was immensely helpful. I needed that kick in the pants to get a financial clue!
posted by Otter_Handler at 5:20 AM on May 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

the freedom of having money you can spend rather than just shuffle around to constantly play catch up with bills and living expenses is something it can take a while to rework in your brain.

i didn't grow up poor but i was on my own from the time i was 18 after a devastating series of family losses.

i went to college later (at 25) so i could use the financial independence test to get a higher level of loans bc i would not have been able to afford it without (even though i was working full time).

my 3rd job after college was a Real Job with a Real Salary. and i distinctly remember the first time i went grocery shopping after my first paycheck and about 15 minutes in realized i didn't need to keep a running list with the calculator on the phone of what my purchases were. i could buy whatever i wanted (within reason ofc, but i could buy for a whole week without giving it any thought whatsoever).

i was around 33 then. i'm 41 now and have changed jobs and gone down in salary and come back to that amount only in the last couple years. using ynab, making a budget, fucking it up, starting over, deciding that the $10 pj pants are what i really want bc they have the pattern or fabric i want and that's ok, all of that takes time and practice.

people are giving great advice here. just wanted to let you know i understand what you mean by your income being "disposable" and that it is something you can change :-) you sound like you want to and that's the first step.

good luck!!
posted by affectionateborg at 6:20 AM on May 12, 2020

Get rid of debt first - you're not going to find an investment that pays more than your debt charges in interest. Ain't gonna happen.

This is bad advice. If you are ready for investing for your kids or retirement or a down payment, you are on a limited timescale, and since the 'compounding of interest' takes time to kick in dramatically, then waiting until you are 'out of debt' (which is a nebulous concept) is not a good idea.

Also depending on interest rates, tons of investments pay more than debt charges on interest. If you are paying that high of interest rates, you need to improve your credit score ahead of paying off the debt.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:12 AM on May 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can relate to this question. I grew up very poor and have been on my own financially since leaving for college at 17. At 50 now I'm in pretty good shape and feel like I have a handle on money. It took a long time to learn.

As you can see from the discussion in the thread so far, there is a lot of nuance and a lot of different ways to think about handling specific issues. Finding the solution that works for you about things like budgeting, paying down loans versus building up savings, etc. etc. will require knowing yourself, what bugs you the most (not having a safety net? having bills hanging over your head? not remembering when big, yearly bills come due, so that you're surprised and not ready to pay it?) The recommended books are good for learning and sorting the tit out. It will take some trial and error.

Because it can be dizzying to be caught up in the details at first, here's a resource that might be helpful, because it gives you a quick glimpse of the overall "terrain". The wiki at reddit's r/personalfinance, gives a good summary of steps toward getting one's finances in order, including a very concise and useful flow chart representation. This starts at the beginning with "get a budge together, prioritizing housing and food" and goes on from there.
posted by Sublimity at 7:49 AM on May 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not a parent so I can't speak directly to the impulse you describe to buy extras for your child, but I think it is very common and normal, not necessarily evidence in itself of bad habits or sloppy thinking about money. The parents I know, including my own, experience(d) tremendous societal pressure to give their children things and experiences which correspond to the ideal of a middle-class childhood, and feel like shit when they can't do it. So it's good that you're aware of this habit and how it conflicts with your financial goals, but please don't beat yourself up about it.

The tools and methods above are all great; YNAB is a good tool and if they supported non-US bank accounts I'd still be using them.

What I think is more difficult to get at is the tremendous psychological baggage we all carry about money and debt, which has to be dealt with for any of those things to become actually useful to you. This is triply true for those of us who grew up precarious and/or truly poor. (Hello, fellow my-babysitting-money-pays-the-light-bill-er!) Money habits start early, and how can you experience the pleasure of saving at a formative age when your family already exists in a financial black hole?

One thing that helped me pull out of the financial despair in which I spent most of my twenties was the realization that while my parents and I certainly didn't make perfect decisions all the time, capitalism and especially American capitalism is designed for people like you and me to fail. There are vast industries which make vast sums of money by exploiting poor people, and anyone who thinks that this has nothing to do with the number of poor people in the world should contact me immediately about some real estate I'm selling in Florida.

Saving and investing money requires one to live or at least believe in the future on some level; poverty and pecarity force us to think no further ahead than next week or next month. When this has been the habit of a lifetime, not immediately letting all your incoming money flow right back out again isn't just difficult or unaccustomed, it can feel frightening. Samantha Irby has written hilariously and eloquently about this in her books Meaty and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

All this to say you didn't get here all by yourself, but capitalism does leave you to extricate yourself essentially alone in the face of a financial system tilted very much not in your favor. It's normal that this feels overwhelming.

When I pass on a purchase or an outing or a new phone to replace my janky old one, I think to myself that I'm doing exactly what those fuckers don't want me to do and think I'm incapable of as a poor ignorant plebe. Maybe it will help to think of every time you forgo the cute-but-unnecessary whindcheater or a premium media subscription, as getting one over on societal forces that are trying to screw you and your family.
posted by peakes at 9:55 AM on May 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Tackle the big things first.

We rent in an expensive area and would like to buy a house some time (maybe in the next 2-4 years) and are planning on moving out of the city where we can get more for our money.

Something that I feel doesn't get nearly enough attention is the fact that our fixed expenses like housing and transportation are dramatically more important than savings tips or "being good with money." If 50% of my paycheck is already committed to housing and cars, my attempts to wisely use the rest of the paycheck aren't going to be very impactful. In my early 20s I really wasn't saving anything, so I started renting cheaper places and continued driving the same car for over a decade while many of my friends purchased upgrades. Once I was saving substantially on big things like housing and transport, being careful in other areas was a lot less important.

Now, this advice is not easy for you to take advantage of right now because you currently have a place to live and I imagine moving would be disruptive, not to mention your options for inexpensive housing may be limited based on where you live. But in the long run keeping large, fixed expenses low could be the most impactful thing you do.

A lot of financial advice is targeted at making you feel like you are doing a lot even if it's not the most impactful thing. But as people have pointed out elsewhere, there's no amount of coffee and avocado toast that you can skip to make up for large fixed expenses that are eating most of your paycheck.
posted by Tehhund at 9:40 AM on May 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

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