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Financial Wellness: Make Smart Choices

Recently I’ve been talking a lot about wellness, especially personal wellness. However, something that I haven’t mentioned recently–even though I’ve been thinking about it a lot–is money and financial wellness. Without financial wellness, and especially financial stability, it is impossible to achieve overall balance and wellness in our lives. I have always been a person…

Carousel — 08.13.10

Every Friday, I post my favourite links, posts, & resources from around the Web. Expect to learn, grow, & be inspired. 1. Screw Robin Hood: New Study Claims Credit Card Rewards Take from the Poor to Give to the Rich: When I paid off my credit card debt https://livelovesimple.com/financial-freedom-fall/ earlier this year, it felt like…

My Journey to Financial Freedom | Part 2: The Climb

Emergency Fund

Three years ago, I was nearly $60,000 in debt. I had a Bachelor’s degree that didn’t appear to be worth its weight in salt and a job that couldn’t cover a fraction of my monthly bills. I was terrified.

Today, I am closer to complete financial freedom than I ever dreamed possible. Last week, I paid off my last remaining credit card balance. This two-part post is a celebration of this incredible milestone in my journey.

In part one, I explained how I got to that terrible place. In part two, I will explain how I’m getting out of it (and how you can do it, too).

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1. Change the way you think about spending money. For most of my life, I believed that money was made to be spent. I believed that I *deserved* to spend every dollar that I earned on some material thing that would “make me happy.” I coveted material possessions—clothes, jewelry, electronics, cars. What I realize now is that money is not meant to be spent. You only need to earn enough money to survive. You should have enough money to buy only what you need. There is no need for excess.

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fuc*ing khakis.” (Fight Club)

This shift in mindset is hard to adjust to at first. You may not like the reactions that you receive from people. Believe me, I’ve been called cheap a few times, but I pay no mind to it. I would choose cheap over poor any day.

2. Keep a budget. I highly recommend using Mint.com. I started using it in September and it has been one of the most transformational and useful tools throughout my journey to financial freedom. It allows you to sync up all of your accounts (loans, checking, savings, etc.) in one place. Then it keeps track of every transaction that you make and sorts/organizes all of the data for you. It allows you to track your spending over time and by category. It gives you incredible perspective and insight about where your money goes each month/year. It has been a truly eye-opening experience for me.

If you’re unwilling to try Mint, you can keep a budget on a spread sheet or even by hand. However, the important thing is to be completely conscious about where every dollar you spend is going.

3. Use a debit card. To reap the full Mint.com experience you should use a debit card for every purchase you make. Using the debit card will automatically flag each transaction you make into the appropriate category. So if you go to Shoprite, it will get marked as groceries. If you go to Home Depot it will get marked as home. If you stop at the gas station it will get marked as automobile, and so on.

I use my debit card (linked to my checking account) for almost every single transaction that I make. I also have all of my monthly bills (like my auto insurance, utilities, and gym membership) automatically debited from the same checking account each month. It makes keeping track of my spending that much easier. Plus, I do not like dealing with cash. The debit card is quick, easy, and is accepted almost everywhere now.

Whether or not you use Mint.com it is a good idea to use a debit card simply because you can review all of your purchases and purchase amounts on your monthly statement. Trying to keep track of receipts is a hassle that I don’t have time for.

4. Pay off credit cards and cut them up. Paying off my credit cards was my first priority. For awhile I tried “credit card surfing.” Let me just tell you from experience, it’s overrated and it really doesn’t work. The idea is that you surf from credit card to credit card by transferring balances. A lot of companies will give you 0% APR for 6 months if you transfer your balances over to them. After the 6 months, you “surf” to a new card with another promotional rate.

The problem with this tactic is that it gets messy quickly, it becomes difficult to keep up with, and if you lose track you will end up getting burned by high APRs, finance fees, cancellation fees, etc. Also, it probably doesn’t look great on your credit report if you’re opening up a new card every 6 months or so.

It is much safer and wiser to just stop using credit cards! My theory is simple and has taken me very far: If you can not afford to buy it, then you can not afford it. Period. It is simple logic.

5. Eat in. This is one of the easiest changes to make, but it also comes with an enormous, positive impact. When I started closely tracking my spending habits, I was shocked to see how much I was spending on eating out. A meal at a decent restaurant goes for about $25 per person. If you eat out twice a week, that is $3,120 a year. If you grab lunch out during the work week, it’s about $8 a day. That’s $2,080 a year. Put those together and you could be spending $5,200 a year or more on dining out! That is outrageous and completely unnecessary.

Since I started eating in and packing lunches, I’ve taken my monthly food spending from $500 down to $200 or less! Over time, that means enormous savings. Check out 5dollardinners.com for some awesome, inexpensive recipes. I love it! Also, investing in a crock pot was one of the wisest decisions I ever made—chili, sausage & peppers, and goulash will be your new (delicious, cheap) best friends. (Here are some more tips for eating healthy & mindfully.)

6. Direct deposit money into savings every month. This is my final—and perhaps most important—tip. When I began my journey to financial freedom, I opened a savings account with ING Direct. It is an easy-to-use online savings account and it gives you interest on the money that you save. It also allows you to set up easy direct deposits.

I started out small, depositing $50 a month into my savings. As I learned to keep my budget tighter and tighter, I increased the amount that I put into my savings each month. Currently, I am putting away $500+ per month and hope to get closer to $1,000 per month in the very near future.

When you direct deposit the funds, it comes out automatically. It is painless because you don’t have to do a thing. Because it’s automatic, after awhile you don’t even notice that it’s missing. (I remember reading that on another blog several months ago and thinking, “Are you out of your mind?! I’m not going to miss it? Yea right!”) But I can honestly say that after a few months, you adjust to the missing money. You truly do not miss it once it becomes normal for that amount to be deposited into savings automatically each month.

It has been one of the best decisions that I’ve made and because I’ve worked so hard to get to this place—I don’t touch that money! I am keeping it there for a rainy day or to pay off my student loans someday in one fell swoop.

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As I stated at the start of this post, three years ago I was almost $60,000 in debt; I was twenty-three years old; and I was scared to death. Today, I have my finances under control! I am on the road to financial freedom and you can get here, too. Truly, it is not as hard as it seems. With common sense and a bit of dedication, it will happen. Paying off my last credit card balance was like taking chains off of my wrists for the first time in seven years. The feeling was completely priceless. If I can do it, anybody can.

So, what are your financial goals? Have you ever been in financial prison? How did you free yourself? If you’re still there, what are you going to do to break free?

My Journey to Financial Freedom | Part 1: The Fall

Three years ago, I was nearly $60,000 in debt. I had a Bachelor’s degree that didn’t appear to be worth its weight in salt and a job that couldn’t cover a fraction of my monthly bills. I was terrified.

Today, I am closer to complete financial freedom than I ever dreamed possible. Last week, I paid off my last remaining credit card balance. This two-part post is a celebration of this incredible milestone in my journey.

In part one, I will explain how I got to that terrible place. In part two, I will explain how I’m getting out of it (and how you can do it, too).

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A financial prison is the worst sort of prison to be stuck in. A financial prison does not have steel bars or a prison warden. You will not get sent to financial prison for committing a crime. There is only one person that can sentence you to financial prison. That person is you.

There are two primary types of financial prisoners:

1. There are those in financial prison who got there because they truly did not know any better. This type eventually realizes the error of their ways and breaks free.

2. There are those who knowingly commit themselves to financial prison. This type is well aware of the consequences of living beyond her means; but she does it anyway.

Of course there are also those who fall somewhere in the middle, like me… (Cue dream sequence.) It all started when I was 18. The guidance counseling systems in my high school and college were either completely inadequate or I simply refused to pay attention. I can’t honestly remember which it was, though I think it was the former. Either way, I was screwed.

Before me, no one in my family had ever been to college so I didn’t receive much advice. I was thrilled to be out of high school and ready for the next step. I took my SATs one time and applied to one school. My parents, being average folks, made just enough money to prevent me from receiving financial aid; but not enough money to be able to pay my full tuition. For me, this meant loans: “lovely” student loans from “lovely” Sallie Mae.

My mother co-signed and it was a cinch from there. Each semester I filled out a relatively simple form and like magic, Sallie Mae sent me a check. In fact, Sallie Mae was so generous that they allowed me to take out as much “extra” money as I needed every semester. It was fantastic! Yes, I had money to pay for books, meals, and extra curricula. I also had money to go out and binge drink, buy clothes I didn’t need, designer purses, and more. Sallie Mae was wonderful to me. And the best part if it was that there was no need for discussion. No one guided me, no one advised me, and no one asked me any questions. I showed up at the financial aid office a couple of times each year and it was always smooth sailing.

On top of that, another great thing happened when I was 18! The credit card companies started to send me applications. And that was just as easy. I got one and then another and then another. Whatever I couldn’t cover with those pretty little checks from Sallie Mae, I could simply charge on my credit cards. College was good to me. I joined a sorority, I partied hard, I shopped until I dropped. What more could a girl ask for?

It wasn’t all fun & games though. I worked through college. I worked at a children’s camp each summer; I was a Spanish teacher for two years; and toward the end of my college career I was a bookseller at Borders bookstore. All of the money I made working was spending money for me. I had Sallie Mae and the credit cards to pay all of my “real” bills.

When I finally graduated, I was making a cool $8.25 an hour at Borders. I loved it. I was happy… until one day, out of no where, a letter came in the mail. I had a six month grace period and then I would have to start paying back those loans. My paychecks barely covered my minimum credit card payments. How was I going to make loan payments on top of that?

So I sat down and did something that I’d never done before. I wrote up a budget. It was horrifying when I realized that even if I’d had no other bills, my monthly wages from Borders wouldn’t even cover half of my monthly student loan payments. The jig was up.

All told, I came out of college with about $45,000 in student loan debt and almost $15,000 in credit card debt. I hadn’t even lived on campus; I commuted from home; my parents paid for some of my tuition; and I only went to a mediocre school. How the hell was this possible?

All of a sudden Sallie Mae and the credit card companies didn’t seem so lovely anymore. There was one thought that kept repeating over & over in my head: Why didn’t anyone warn me? I felt cheated, betrayed, angry, afraid, and helpless. I wondered what the people in the financial aid office had been doing all that time. I wondered why my high school guidance counselor didn’t press me harder about applying for scholarships or grants. I wondered a lot of things, but mostly I wondered how the hell I was going to get out of the mess.

I started sending out resumes for jobs with starting salaries that would at least cover my monthly student loan payments. I sent out resume after resume but before long, I realized another harsh reality. That Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Creative Writing Focus wasn’t so great either. Nobody was calling me back. I couldn’t even get an interview.

The clock was ticking. I was halfway through my grace period. Then one day, one of my best friends mentioned an opening in her office. I looked over the job description and realized that it had nothing to do with what I’d gone to school for. I didn’t even know what it actually was, but the starting salary was more than what I needed. The rest was history.

I’ve been at my current company for almost three years now. And yesterday I paid off my last remaining credit card balance! Additionally over these few years, I’ve cut my student loan debt almost in half and by next Winter, I will have it down to a quarter of what I started with.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where I will share how I am doing it and how you can do it, too.