There’s a lot of things people worry about saying to me because I write about money. They don’t want to tell me how much they spend at Lululemon (I don’t care) or how much they spend on their pets (dude, same here) or how much they spend at restaurants. But those things are so beyond fine by me. Spend on things you love! That’s all cool! There’s only one thing that someone has actually said to me that makes me cringe:
“I’ll when I make more money.”
Sometimes that blank is “save,” sometimes it’s “budget,” but whatever it is, just writing it makes me cringe.
I was not remotely close to perfect with money when I started my career (and let’s just lol at how much worse I was at managing my income as a student). I didn’t even know how to get renter’s insurance for…ever. At that point in my career, I couldn’t even conceive that someone in my field could make enough money to do most of the stuff I wanted to do, like have a dog or buy a house. I was the prime candidate for a person who would do things “when they made more money.”
But I did manage to do two things that, looking back on it, were absolutely key to do before my income blew past what I thought was a hard ceiling on what I’d ever earn (which I had pegged at about $5,000 more than I was making then).
1. Set goals (even if you don’t know how you’ll meet them)
When I sat down to start my taxes this year and added up my income sources for last year, I realized that I had hit some pretty major goals I remember writing down (like actually writing, on a piece of paper, and putting on the wall by my teeny $40 Ikea desk) when I started my career. One of them was how much I’d earn by the time I was 30, and one of them was how much I’d earn from side projects.
This is how much I knew about how I was going to hit those goals at the time:
- I thought I’d have to go back to school for a degree in finance to earn that much money.
- My best idea for a side hustle was teaching yoga.
And there’s nothing wrong with those things! But I haven’t done either of them. If I had never written down those goals, I’d also have breezed through this tax season without ever stopping to celebrate or acknowledge just how far I’ve come in the past five years. (And when I went out to buy myself a treat for hitting those goals, I found a pair of Hunter boots, in the color I wanted, for half price, and the only pair they had left was in my size. If that’s not a sign I don’t know what is.)
So even if you have no idea how it’ll happen, or when it’ll happen, set goals about what your ideal career and salary are before you’re earning more money. It’ll help you recognize the achievements when you eventually get there, and even if not directly, it might help you convince yourself that it’s even possible. Because trust me when I say that what I thought was my income ceiling was very, very much not my income ceiling. And I set goals that seemed ridiculous at the time.
2. Save money (even if it feels like basically nothing)
The other thing that you absolutely, positively have to do before you start to earn more money is to start saving. Every time I write about saving for retirement, especially for millennials, I always like to point out that yes, saving $20 a month counts. If you’ve ever read that and thought I was joking, let me be very clear that I am not.
When you’re used to saving money and making it a priority in your budget, that habit doesn’t go away when you get a raise (*insert praise-hands-emoji here*). When I was just getting started in my career, my savings contributions felt like nothing. I probably saved in two years what I save in two months now. But when my income went up, the savings habit stuck. If I hadn’t figured out how to manage my money first, I’m sure that it would have been a lot harder to manage the wants that felt possible with my new income.
As it is, my lifestyle inflated a lot. Over a few years, I got a dog and a house and a car! Sure, I don’t rock Louboutins or whatever, but those are not minor lifestyle additions. As I added them to my life, though, I also added savings goals and increased my retirement contributions, because I was used to thinking of money as not just for spending. If you build your money habits early, you can trust they’ll be there for you when you want to enjoy some of your new income. Spending is not the enemy, pals — you just need to balance it with saving. It’s a lot easier to do when you already know how, thanks to those actually-very-important $20 savings contributions you’ve been making.
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