I’ll never forget the first time I broke four digits in my savings account. It was a few months after college, I was still working at a restaurant, and I had just paid off my car. My backbreaking $250/month payments on top of almost equal car insurance (my introduction into the world of driving was a little rocky) were enough to keep me living paycheck to paycheck all through school. Add to that my need to save money for books and you can see why I couldn’t even afford to move out and get an apartment of my own.
Eventually I was able to finally pay off my car, and after a few months I had $1,000 in my savings account. On that day something amazing happened: I realized that saving could be fun! Before, I had so little extra money that it was easy to spend the leftovers. What was the difference anyway? But when I realized how it could feel to actually have money saved, I didn’t want to spend my money nearly as much. I wanted to watch that number grow!
The thing is, living paycheck to paycheck or living with debt can easily become a way of life. Once that happens it’s hard to motivate yourself to save because you feel like it’s never going to happen anyway. So how can you break out of that cycle? Here are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way.
1. It’s not always the way it is – or the way it has to be.
I grew up with parents who worked around the clock to put me through good schools. Every month seemed like a struggle. Then I got to college and I struggled. Paying for a car while going to school was tough, but I had to do it because living in the dorms would have cost so much more. Anyway, I was used to it – it was the things always were. But I graduated and things changed. I realized my parents struggled so that I would have a better life – and better finances. I didn’t have to repeat what they dealt with, because I had an education. My degree was meant to open doors and although dream jobs don’t happen overnight, my odds were much better thanks to my education. Once I realized this – and saw the results – I became determined to never struggle again. It doesn’t have to be that way.
2. Allow yourself to imagine a future.
When you have to pay the electric bill, rent, gas, car payments, student loans, and etc, life becomes a series of two week increments. You live from this paycheck to that or swipe the credit card to make things easier. Before you know it, you’re either deep in credit card debt or you realize that years have passed and you have no savings. If all you can save is $25 or so a month, there’s no point, right? Wrong. As tough as life may be right now, you’ll never get anywhere until you can imagine a future for yourself. Who cares if that’s all you can save right now? Slowly that money will grow and will either be a slush fund in case of emergency (so you don’t have to swipe that credit card) or a true savings account. So then maybe you get a raise or you pay something off, you’re now in the practice of saving and you save even more. You realize that watching that money grow is more gratifying than any purchase. But not just that, you realize something more important – that you’re worth it, that your future is worth it. Just because you live in a series of two week increments now doesn’t mean it will be that way forever. The minute you realize that, it will be easier to believe in your future and to plan for it.
3. Keep track.
You have the best of intentions – we all do. I know exactly how much extra I have that I can save every month. But if I don’t keep track and write my budget down, it’s not going to happen. I’ll end up buying something on a whim, taking the cab instead of the subway, or ordering Thai food for dinner when I had perfectly good food in the fridge. ‘It’s just an extra few dollars right? It won’t hurt my monthly budget.’ Well, do that three or four times in a month and bam, budget ruined. ‘Oh well, next month will be better.’ But then I don’t keep track next month, so it happens again. Then maybe I have an emergency and want to dip into my savings. Oops, why isn’t it as high as it could have been? And how do I still have more debt than savings? I could have sworn that I made a plan to pay that off months ago. You see, imagining a future is important, but if you don’t keep track, you won’t get that future. If I write down my expenses and what I’m spending daily, I know exactly where I stand in my budget. I’m holding myself accountable. That’s the only way to make sure your intentions and goals meet.
Today’s world isn’t easy for anyone, but the thing to remember is we are all accountable for our own futures. No matter how hard things are now, if we remember that this isn’t the way it will always be and we keep track of what we’re doing now, then there is light on the horizon. Debt isn’t just a struggle with finances, it forces us into mental chains. We get angry with ourselves or our situations, maybe even embarrassed, and we feel hopeless about ever getting out. But when you break those mental chains, the real financial strain of debt will lessen too.
You can do it and you are worth it.