As a “millennial,” so much of the current rhetoric about how we live our lives centers around what we aren’t doing, and how we’re failing. We’re not moving out of our parent’s houses. We’re not building emergency savings, we’re not appreciating the opportunity to do the work of entry-level jobs under the guise of “internship experience,” we’re not getting married, we’re not investing in our own homes, and we’re generally undoing all the things the generations before us did to ensure their own financial security. What never gets mentioned in the conversation, however, is that so few of us were ever really taught proper financial literacy. Most of us are figuring out how to make adult decisions about the money we earn on the fly, and it often leads to choices that have far-reaching consequences on our future financial health.
If you were lucky, you had parents who were able to stringently pass on strong financial values. But if you weren’t, you likely to had to figure out how to manage money when you got your first official paycheck. Generational poverty is real, but so is generational money mismanagement. If you never had a proper model for how to be responsible with money, it makes it doubly hard to develop those habits on your own. Part of the problem, too, is that we’ve been taught as a society that talking about money is impolite and gauche, and for women especially, this has silenced discussions of how money functions in our lives, and how we handle our expenses. This inevitably means that mistakes get made that set us back significantly.
At 25, and four years post-university, I’ve finally figured out that the best approach to money is to set specific financial goals, stick to them, and celebrate the accomplishment. There are so many ways to accidentally to screw up your finances that I think it’s worth taking the time to celebrate small financial victories. Consequently, a huge part of making my peace with money matters has been to forgive myself for the regretful choices I’ve made in the past, and commit to learning from them.
I graduated from university in 2012 with a degree in Photojournalism and a hard choice to make: try to hoof it in New York, where I’d been dreaming of moving since freshman year, or move back home to Trinidad, where I had a safety net. My entire senior year was spent being warned away from journalism by my professors and worrying that my international status would mean I’d never find work in the US. Turns out, I was right. Being an international student meant that I was legally barred from working off campus, and on-campus jobs were filled by work-study students. It also meant that I was unable to take any of the internships that are so critical to getting hired out of college. I had no money and no prospects. So I moved back home.
Coming home felt like a huge professional setback. Within 18 months, I was hired and fired from an ad agency and a newspaper. By then, I’d realized that my heart was in writing, and there weren’t many outlets available for the kind of writing I wanted to do in Trinidad. So I maintained my blog as an outlet for my creativity and started freelancing intermittently with a local lifestyle magazine. While it was fun and enjoyable, it didn’t pay much and definitely didn’t cover the bills. I was 23, living at home, constantly clashing with my mother over money, and feeling like a failure. In my mind, all my friends had figured their lives out, and I was the sole person struggling to get by. At my mother’s suggestion, I applied and was accepted into a Master’s program to study Mass Communication. I was tired of sitting at home doing nothing and feeling useless, and I figured another degree in a field that interested me would make me more marketable. Trinidad and Tobago has a tuition subsidy program called GATE (Government Assisted Tertiary Education) that pays 50% of tuition costs at the Master’s level, and my mother helped with the rest.
Fast-forward to last April, and I was offered a position as the Marketing Manager at a legacy Tobagoian hotel. It meant moving islands, and living on my own for the first time. With my mother’s help, I packed up everything I had and moved into a tiny studio apartment 10 minutes from my office. She helped me furnish it, and fronted me the first month’s rent.
The first thing I did when I started my current position was to build a budget I could work with, minus a chunk of my actual salary, so that I could make sure I was always living within my means and wouldn’t overspend. I started using a budgeting app that makes it easy to see how much money I have at any given time, and allows me to allocate money to things like rent, groceries, gas, savings, and even a little cash to treat myself to a movie every couple weeks. I’ve managed to build a sustainable money routine that works for me and lets me get the things I want as well as pay for the things I need. My financial goals are tiny, but to me, they signify personal growth and discipline. The biggest ones are:
- I’ve never been late on my rent: Full-disclosure, I rent from family — a distant cousin to be exact. In some ways it makes things more complicated, but in most ways, it makes things a lot simpler. My rent is affordable, and I don’t pay utilities, though I’m considering installing a separate internet line. But having never lived away from home, I was worried about managing rent payments. I’d heard so many horror stories about sky-high rent prices that I was worried I would be living hand to mouth trying not to get thrown out on the street. Instead, my rent is the first bill I pay each month, and I’ve disciplined myself to get it out of the way so that I’m not tempted to use the money on anything else.
- I pay all my own bills: Because I don’t pay utilities, I don’t have too many bills, but I do have a fair few. Besides rent, I have to pay my phone bill, budget for groceries and put gas in my car. And while my mother is helping me with tuition for grad school, I still have to pay for bi-weekly plane tickets back and forth from Tobago to get to class.
- I bought Christmas presents for my family: This seems like a tiny thing, but for me it was a huge deal. I’ve never been able to do it before, and by massaging my budget a bit, I was able to get gifts for all my close family members last year, including having my mom’s portrait painted and subsidizing my brother’s first tattoo. And while I’m glad I got gifts that my family loved, I’m more proud that I was able to treat them without breaking the bank. I can’t really explain why, but it felt like a firm step into adulthood in a way that paying bills never did. I started planning my Christmas list as early as September, and I felt accomplished for setting that as a goal and achieving it.
- I’ve built up a savings cushion: This is a big one for me. The last time I had any significant savings, I got fired and had to spend them. Now, for the first time in nearly three years, I have money in the bank just for emergencies. Back in January, I had some unexpected car expenses and ended up with far less cash than I usually did. And while I could easily have dipped into my savings to make up the difference, I chose not to, and ended the month with a good chunk of change that I knew was there when I really needed it.
- I don’t have to ask my parents for money: As I mentioned before, my mother still pays my tuition for grad school, but absent that, I haven’t had to ask for financial help in any way in nearly a year. I even paid my mom back for the money she spent helping me get set up in my new place. It feels like the true test of my ability to support myself. I’m currently starting the process of buying some health insurance, which is something that was impossible for me last April. I’m slowly learning to support myself through trial and error, so that I always have money for the eventualities you can’t plan ahead for.
I fully acknowledge that these are minor accomplishments. Most people my age in the US have been paying rent and buying groceries for a couple years now, but in Trinidad and Tobago, people usually live at home until they get married, and then move out with their spouse. I’m the only one of my friends with her own place. And while that means I don’t usually have the cash for weekly dinners or shopping trips, it does mean that I have my own space, however small, that I can make my sanctuary.
I’ve always been bad with managing money and disciplining my spending, but over the last year, I’ve gotten on track, and put things in place to make sure I can live the life I want. This year, my goal is to save enough to take a fully self-funded vacation. It’s slow going, especially with the TTD to USD exchange rate, (about 6.5) but it’s also motivating me focus on a side hustle so that I can eventually reward myself. Framing money as a series of “small, achievable goals” has helped me to set money goals for myself and reach them, while also forgiving myself for missteps and allowing me to pick up and continue without shame. I’ve made small-but-significant steps towards being financially secure, and I’m proud of them, because they’re still building blocks for bigger goals, and they help me foster the discipline to make them.
Catherine Young is a freelance writer living in Tobago. She believes cake is better than pie, leggings are pants, and Magic Mike XXL is a slept-on classic. If she ever writes her memoirs, they will be called “Sometimes I Sleep On The Floor.” Read more of her writing on her blog, or say hello on Twitter.
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