Answering Your Burning Questions: Personal Finance Q & A

Photo by Hayden Scott via Unplash.com

Q: I need to get my financial life together. Where do I start?

I’m going to be short with this and not beat you over the head with it, but you need to make a budget. It’s difficult and it takes time, but it is worth it. Set aside a time, maybe a 2-hour block on your calendar, and start making one. You can make a spreadsheet if you’re more of a DIY-person, or you can use an app/website like EveryDollar to make it much more simple.

It won’t be perfect at first– it will take a few months to figure out what you actually spend on certain things– but you just need to start. This is the most important step. 

Q: Is there an online bank you’ve experimented with like Chime or Ally?

I have never used a fully-online bank, but there’s nothing wrong with them! Just make sure you cross-check the interest rates and fees with other banks– this can make a huge difference! It only makes sense if it makes sense. 

Q: What are some basic investing tips?

There’s a pretty clear hierarchy when when it comes to investing. The best place to invest is with your employer-sponsored plan *IF* it has a contribution match. This is basically free money, so always take advantage of it if you are lucky enough to have this access. If not, the best place to invest is in a Roth IRA. Anything that says “Roth” in front of it means that you pay taxes on your contributions but not on the growth, so mathematically you end up with a lot more money. Then, the next best place if your employer-sponsored retirement accounts. For example, I don’t get an employer match, so I invest first in a Roth IRA (which is capped at $6,000/year). When that fills up for the year, I’ll start investing in my employer sponsored plan.

Now, there is a psychological exception. If you find yourself not contributing your goal amounts to your Roth IRA (maybe it’s difficult for you to stick to your budget and you always end up pulling money from what’s meant to be your Roth contributions), then I recommend using your employer-sponsored plan for one reason: since it comes directly out of your paycheck, you hide the money from yourself entirely, and you have no option to spend it at all. The best place to invest is where you’ll ACTUALLY invest. It takes a solid understanding of yourself to figure this out. There’s NO shame in this whatsoever, even though it doesn’t make perfect mathematical sense. We all know money is not about math as much as it is about human behavior, so know thyself and invest accordingly.

Q: How would you describe your $ philosophy in a nutshell?

It’s always evolving. When I started this blog, I was all about frugality, self-discipline, and cutting costs in favor of building security. I wanted financial freedom, too, but feeling secure was the driving factor. This comes from a background of financial insecurity, which I know so many people can relate to. The “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative appealed to me, because that is exactly what I had to do at first. But as memes on Twitter have taught me, that idea has serious limitations.

As I’m building wealth and continuing to learn about personal finance, I’m noticing that my goal with money is shifting: I’m more interested in giving myself options, freedom, and comfort.

I also no longer believe that cutting costs is the absolute best way to manage your finances– it’s certainly important and also a fantastic place to start, but when you value time over money, you learn that spending more on comfort or convenience doesn’t always mean you’re a complete schmuck (a judgement I would often wrongfully put on myself and others). You’ll never be free of your financial anxiety if you’re always pinching pennies and going to great lengths to save money and be frugal– what this actually shows is that money rules your life, and you value it over your time and comfort (the caveat to this, of course, is that when you’re poor, you have no choice but to live this way). 

Start by cutting costs, and certainly always take time to scrutinize your spending. All of your spending should reflect intentionality, but focus on balance and ask yourself what your spending reveals about your values. And remember the other end of personal finance, opposite to spending less: see how you can earn more. This is often neglected by those who focus on frugality and scrutinizing how much others spend on lattes. That’s the #tea.

Q: When/if you don’t have a lot of money, how do you prevent anxiety when making purchases even if they are small and/or necessary?

This is such a good question! I’ve struggled with this problem my whole life, throughout multiple income levels. There are a few possible answers, but it all comes back to mindset. Here’s what I mean:

When I was in college, I didn’t budget. I tried a few times, but working with ever-changing incomes from being full-time in the the summer and having two part-time jobs during the school year, it all felt so complicated to me. I wasn’t good at it, so I avoided it. Because I felt out of control of my finances, I eased my mind by working as much as I could. My line of thinking was: I’m doing as much as I can, and that’s all I can do. This was enough to put my mind at rest to make these purchases (and even some unnecessary ones), but it was not a foolproof method, because I would feel guilty about turning down babysitting gigs or extra hours at work. 

When I started working, I was able to make a fairly consistent budget for the month. This was a much much better way of easing the guilt. I had the money set aside to make necessary purchases, in addition to things like eating out or buying books, for example. Because I had decided at the beginning of the month to assign this money, it actually gave me permission to spend on these things. The guilt only comes when I overspend in a certain category. 

Obviously, neither of these methods are perfect. Especially when, like you said, you just don’t have a lot of money. My point is that, going from a poor childhood to a broke college life to a (in my world) high starting salary, the guilt has always been there as a feature of my financial life. The factors you can control more simply, like working more hours or creating a budget, only treat the symptoms of the core issue, which is our mindset. As you can read through the anxiety that sometimes seeps through many of the words in my blog, I haven’t found a way to heal this entirely. But controlling the controllables, in addition to acknowledging the problem of feeling guilt over what isn’t in your control, has helped me immensely.

Remember that you’re not alone, and that you have nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of whether purchases are “necessary” by certain standards. This Twitter thread by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hits on the same idea, especially when she calls out the Chase bank image. We’re given this narrative that when we don’t make a lot of money, we can’t spend anything, or else being broke or poor is our fault and we should feel guilty. This is an ugly lie that we all have to unlearn. I wish I could say exactly how to do this, but I’m still unlearning it, too.

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I hope you all got value from this Q & A! If you have questions you’d like answered in a future Q & A, please comment, email me, or tweet me! If you follow me on Instagram, I’ll be posting another question prompt in about a month– so think of a question you have about money 🙂  

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