If you’ve read even a handful of articles on the internet about personal finance you’ve probably run into phrases like “cutting back”, “downsizing”, and other similar terms that invoke a sense of self-denial. While the idea of cutting back is a noble aspiration and has an appropriate time and place, my own personal journey into managing my finances has given me a viewpoint that differs from this popularly held one.
When I graduated from college at 22 and was thrust into the bleak world of job searching in a deflated economy (with a psychology degree no less), I was clueless about personal finance. Yes, I had no debt (which trust me, is something that I am incredibly grateful for — #blessed and all that), no solid job prospects, and very little experience with money. Suddenly, I had the responsibility of being entirely financially self-sufficient for the first time ever. I was terrified to have to navigate this newfound financial independence.
After a couple of months of desperate job searching and feeling terrible about myself because I couldn’t find a job straight away, I was able to land a part-time office gig. The part-time job, coupled with various odd-jobs and babysitting, sustained me (although barely) through the next two years. While I was lucky enough not to slip into debt, I didn’t manage to save any money either. Living on a very low income in an area where the cost of living was quite high, was challenging. I told myself each month that this would be the month I would cut back on my spending, but this goal was seldom met.
I made budgets that I didn’t stick to, I made savings goals that I never met, and asked my parents for finance advice that I didn’t follow. Every time I had money left over at the end of the month I treated myself to a shopping trip, a fancy dinner, or a concert, and I would tell myself that I deserved these things for working so hard. I thought these material possessions would make me happy, but instead, they were stressing me out when I realized where my money was going. This circular habitual pattern of spending kept me at the very edge of living within my means and never moving forward.
At last, after two long years of riding the finance struggle bus, two big life changes occurred. I landed my first full-time gig with benefits, and I figured out how to have a truly positive relationship with money. Securing a full-time job meant having enough money to truly support myself, and it allowed me to face my relationship with money head on without wanting to cry. I took a hard look at my spending for the first time (hello Excel spreadsheets!) and I realized something big — having a healthy savings account gave me an immense amount of freedom. It provided me with the freedom from the shame of having to ask my family or friends for a hand out if I had a bad month. It gave me the freedom to quit my job to find another without (too much) worry. It even gave me the freedom to pick up the bar tab for a friend without a second thought when the occasion would call for it. It also provided me with something big — the freedom from having to hold a horrible job if I didn’t want to. Saving money and building myself a safety net provided me with a strong sense of integrity.
This new positive perspective about money changed everything. I realized that by aligning my spending with my true values – freedom and financial security – rather than with my fleeting desires for material goods, meant that I was going to win in the long run.
Saving money truly became a source of joy and provided me with a feeling of personal achievement. Where I used to have a sense of dread and deficiency when it came to managing my finances, now I feel confident and happy. Although the overpriced craft cocktails at the bar are still nice, they aren’t something I need to have to feel happy. Nowadays, I feel just as much joy in seeing the balance of my bank account rising each month as I used to feel from splurging on fancy dinners out. Suddenly, being diligent about saving doesn’t seem so hard anymore, and I know that it’s in my power to create real change in spending habits.
All it took was a simple shift in perspective. I’ve learned that saving money isn’t about depriving yourself — on the contrary, saving money feels incredibly empowering.
Emily is a writer and researcher living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her on Instagram.
Image via Pexels