I'm a senior biology major at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and despite the fact that I'm in college and only working two minimum-wage on-campus jobs (at the library and organizing art exhibits for a creative friend), I refuse to accept spending money from my parents.
For most of my life, I didn't really think about money because it was always just there. It was something I asked for in high school before I went out. During my first two years of college, when my parents were putting money into a checking account for me, money was just a debit card I swiped when I wanted to buy something.
It wasn't a tangible thing that I ever dealt with. What's more, my father minimized its importance for my entire life. He stressed that I should study hard so that I might one day earn a better income than he and my mom, both of whom are librarians for the government.
As for my mother, I would see her worry about bills, yet she continued to refill my debit card with unfailing consistency. "Your school is so expensive," she'd tell me over the phone. "I just gave you $500 last month." I'd feel a little bad for spending it all … but she always gave me more.
So when I took my second year off school and went to live with my aunt while doing research at Stanford University School of Medicine, earning $500 a week, I spent that money too. I loved going to art and fashion sales and dropping $200 on nice jewelry or dresses right from the designers — pretty, artsy things have always been my weakness.
I come from a middle-class family, but I spent like my upper-middle-class friends. My parents supported that: They were hoping that enabling me to live that kind of lifestyle would motivate me to become a doctor and eventually truly live that life.
My aha moment
One of my best friends at Brown graduated two years before me, in the class of 2012. She was a pre-med student and earned a B.S. in neuroscience. However, she never had a paying job during college, and as a result she had no savings. What my friend really wanted to do was move to Boston and get her own apartment, but instead, she was forced to move back home after graduation. Among my classmates, going back home after graduation is like having your tail between your legs. It's totally disappointing. When my friend, who I saw as an older version of myself, had a "failure to launch," I realized that it could happen to me.
In that moment, I recognized how a lack of savings could impact your life. By moving back in with her parents, it meant they controlled the flow of her life, and if I wasn't able to secure a job right after graduation, I knew I'd be in a similar situation. I wanted to become in control of my money so it could enrich my life, rather than dictate what I could and couldn't do.
Soon after that happened, I was browsing through TED talks online and stumbled across LearnVest founder Alexa von Tobel's amazing TEDx Talk. In it, she explains what young people need to know and start doing at an early age in order to have financial freedom. I watched it once, stunned, and then I watched it again and took notes. And then I started learning as much as I could about personal finance. I learned the basics by reading a lot of articles on LearnVest; I read books on budgeting and investing. Many of my friends at Brown will go into investment banking, so I started talking to them about how to invest my money.
All of this helped me come up with a plan for how to save and spend. I have student loans and financial aid, but my parents cover the rest of the costs, so I'm lucky enough that my food, rent and essential expenses are covered. I have dealt with guilt over my privilege, but although I'm not paying for everything, I decided that I could take control of my own money situation if I really wanted to — I didn't need to wait for my parents.
How I finally got a money plan
In my junior year, I picked up a couple campus jobs. I never mentioned it to my parents, who really wanted me to focus on my schoolwork and studying. But my jobs at the library and organizing campus art exhibits are actually really flexible, and leave me time for my studies. At the library, sometimes I can come in late or call out last minute and it's not a problem at all.
I'm lucky in that all of my essential living expenses — including my rent and food — are covered, so the money I earn I can either spend or save. Once I started tracking my money through the LearnVest Money Center, I realized I was spending frivolously.
Technically, I could afford my expenses — there just wasn't any money left over. I'd spend $200 to $300 a month on drinks and meals out, and when you add in art and clothes and jewelry, I could easily spend $900 a month. For the first three months, I just watched my spending hit $800, $900, $1,000 a month … and then I knew I needed to change.
So, I've budgeted and I've cut back to meet those numbers. I have $70 to spend on food, so I still join when my friends are going out, but skip the steak in favor of something less expensive. I have $120 to spend on shopping, but knowing that my money is limited, I find 70 percent of what I would have bought before unappealing.
I have $50 for personal care, including things like having my eyebrows done and my hair cut — but most months I don't need a cut and only spend $10. I swapped my fancy fitness studio for the student center, and my yoga classes for on-campus classes where I can hang out and meet new people. I know my long-term financial goals are more important and present in my everyday life — they're more real than the Starbucks Frappuccino I'm not drinking.
That's why I've set up three savings accounts: an emergency fund, which I think of as general savings, a travel savings account, and a student loans savings account. Every month, 85 percent of my income goes into those savings accounts. I put the least amount into my travel savings, because the kind of traveling college students and recent grads do doesn't cost that much. The remaining 15 percent of my income every month goes into my checking account, and I use that as spending money.
I have made a commitment to never dip into my savings, and the interesting thing is that since I've become more conscious of where my money goes, I've never had a problem paying for things using only the money that's in my checking account. In fact, I often have a cushion! My goal is to have at least $15,000 in my emergency savings by the time I graduate college in May.
Why my parents just don't get it
On the phone a few months after getting my jobs, my mom kept saying, "I put this money in your account, but nothing is happening!" so I eventually mentioned I had picked up a couple campus jobs. At first I just told her that I was budgeting better, and that I didn't really have time to shop or spend money because I was studying. I knew my decision to pay attention to my money would stress her out, because she wanted me to focus on my studies.
We've never had a formal conversation about it, which is normal for us — we've never really talked about money. I think a lot of the problems I've had spending and saving started with that poor communication.
I don't think my parents understand how much of a toll their fretting about money has on their mental health or my own — and how it is not necessary. I can chip in my part: I have the luxury of making a supplemental income while most of my expenses are taken care of. During this time I am building a solid emergency savings account and starting my nest egg.
As for my friends, they're not really clued in to how I manage my money. I just don't broadcast it. I have one friend who graduated last year, and even though she's working, she's not saving. She keeps saying, "I'll save later." But I don't really step in and say anything; I think everyone has to have their own "aha" moment when it comes to money.
How my attitude has changed
I just started my senior year, and I'm aggressively looking for a job in biotechnology, hoping to make at least $50,000. I don't know if it's reasonable in terms of what to expect, but you've got to have goals! I plan to continue saving while working for two years, and then going back to school — probably med school. By the time I graduate this May, I'll hit my savings goal of $15,000 in my emergency savings. I plan on using that money to cover rent, so I can save most of what I make in my first job.
What I've learned is that one's personal financial life is something that needs to be handled every day. It's like your kitchen sink: You need to wipe it down every day or else it becomes a mess. As a result of this, my outlook on money has shifted from a passive one to an active one.
I used to think about money as an annoyance I had to deal with — an unavoidable part of our society. Now I see it as something I can manage, control and use to advance myself. I now understand that investing energy in my personal finances improves the structure of my life.
It was hard at first to face how little I knew about my own finances, or accept that my life had been mostly reactionary to my own unconscious spending patterns. However, once I became aware of my patterns and how to either alter or eliminate the unnecessary ones, my life has become much less stressful than it ever was. I feel more in control of my life now.
I've always invested so much energy into building my career and now, by investing energy into my savings, I am also building my future.
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