My Financial Transformation Started on a Napkin

When a good friend and a prolific writer (read: articles in the NYT and previous internships at major newspapers like it’s no big deal) offered to write a guest post for the blog, I was thrilled. Reading the post below did not disappoint. Robbie shares his philosophy on money and goal-making, distilling the details down to essential important concepts that are as easy to digest as they are fun to read. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

One year ago, multiple hours in to a multiple-hour drive, my now-fiancée and I decided to think up some New Year’s resolutions. I set some running goals, some personal goals, some unattainable goals, while she wrote them all down on a napkin—the typical January 1 routine.

Written somewhere on that napkin was one goal I’d never before attempted: the ever-nebulous “Be more financially responsible.” The difficulty of defining and maintaining that goal—it’s one of the most commonly failed resolutions—did not stop me from joining the throngs of Americans who start the New Year (2019 not excluded) with lofty financial aspirations.

Toward the end of the previous year, one of my first out of college and therefore one of my first with a full-time job, I realized several years too late that managing money matters. I had gone through college and a very early career change with an inaccurate mindset that my finances would somehow all work themselves out and that money was just something that my dad worried about. I wasn’t reckless in my spending, but I wasn’t careful with it either, and I wasn’t making enough money to make that financial indifference meaningless. I was, I now realize, bad at offense and defense—far from a Money and Megabytes acolyte.

That changed when I settled in to a new career and came to a startlingly simple realization: Saving money felt good. And maybe more important, it was possible. Even as a teacher—a profession, by most accounts, that is grossly underpaid—with student-loan debt and other monthly payments (rent, car, car insurance, etc.), I realized I could save a decent amount every month. And as my savings account began to swell (swell, of course, an extremely relative word here), I wanted to keep it going.

So I rolled in to 2018 with a fresh, positive perspective on personal finance and thus verbalized it as a resolution. Since then, I’ve had a much more clear-eyed, healthy mindset about money.

And here are few things this personal financial transformation has taught me:

  1. No matter your current financial state, you should start caring about it sooner rather than later. As the great marathoner Eliud Kipchoge said, “The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.”  I wish I had heard those words when I used to be scared of looking at my checking account, or charged another unnecessary item to my credit card, naively hoping that one day it would all work out.
  2. “Being financial responsible” is not as complex as I once thought it was. Sure, you can take it to the next level using the posts and suggestions outlined on this website, but if you are worried that getting your finances in order is too complicated, fear not. It’s simply about making wise decisions with your money.
  3. Defense matters. I am a teacher, and I tutor on the side, which is to say that I’m not raking in six figures. But by being conscious of (and recently, tracking) how much money I spend, I can comfortably save at least a third of my income every month.
  4. If you learn about nothing else involving personal finance, learn about savings rate.
  5. There is no formula or step-by-step instructions about how to become financially responsible. If there were, so many people wouldn’t fail at maintaining their New Year’s resolutions. Instead, it’s better to focus on small lifestyle changes that maximize your income and minimize your spending.
  6. I am by no means a perfect financial model. I still have a long way to go.
  7. Like everything else in life, balance is important. I don’t think it’s beneficial to lead an austere, zero-spending lifestyle that limits your happiness (although, of course, more spending doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness). I’ve still gotten to travel, eat great food, and hang out with friends and family—all things I value. Nor is it beneficial to throw around money for things you don’t need. It’s important to find what’s important to you.
  8. Writing down your goals on a napkin is a great way to start.

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