The day I turned 14 and was of legal working age, I applied for my first official job. For me, 14 was a much more exciting birthday than 13, 16 or 21, because I could finally, finally begin working. As someone who had grown up in an unstable home and was moved into foster care, the possibility of working meant access to infinitely more opportunities. While I was in foster care, a small stipend was given to the homes I stayed in for meals, shelter, and clothing. But the money I earned went to school supplies, my future (college applications), entertainment, and savings. I “aged out” of foster care at 18 and, except for a small monthly stipend (about $300-$400) that I received until I was 22, I have been responsible for all of my expenses since. After I graduated college, I went directly to graduate school (which I was able to do by taking out loans) and am currently participating in a fellowship program.
Despite all of this, people tend to assume I have money. It is not necessarily because I’m in a highly-selective program, or because I’ve lived abroad. I think it’s more because I live within my means and I’m surrounded by so many people who don’t know how to do that. Most people I spend time around were not taught how to manage their money, nor did they have to learn to budget themselves. Of course, everyone learns the value of a dollar differently, but I learned it by bouncing between foster homes and earning and saving every penny I possibly could.
Honestly, the main reason that I have been able to live so comfortably is that I don’t like to see my money disappear. When you have to work for almost every single thing you’ve ever had — and you don’t have parents to help if you miss an important payment — you cherish every dollar you earn. I don’t ever want to be wasteful with money. Though this often means putting in some extra work (to find the best deals), it has always been worth it to stretch my money and finding smart buys has become a natural habit to me. I routinely search through sites like GiftCardGranny and Raise before buying anything and I check places like RetailMeNot and Coupons.com daily. I also still take on extra work nearly every free moment that I have. Instead of eating out every day, I go out only when I really want to, so I’m not the person who complains about the price or doesn’t tip enough. In fact, I sometimes end up being the one who covers for other people who go out eight times per week and still never tip enough. Finally, I am not one of the people who pays more rent than they can afford. I spend months scouring ads and listings until I find a place that I like and that I can afford.
While many people I know have run off on expensive and (in my opinion) inauthentic Eurotrips where they spend three days in the major cities of each country, I have found programs and scholarships throughout college where I could spend several weeks in a country for little out-of-pocket expense. This has required a lot of additional work on my part — applying for scholarships and fellowship programs, etc. — but has enabled me to visit the places I’ve always dreamed of without using too much of my own money. Rather than having a car, I use carsharing and public transportation (and am thankful every day for having no more parking tickets). In order to regularly participate in yoga, I find free and discounted ‘community classes,’ instead of paying $15-$20 per class. When I want to do something fun with friends (or on a date), I always check Groupon or LivingSocial before paying full price. I know that many people make jokes about using a Groupon for skydiving, but I have done this — and white-water rafting, canoeing, and snowboarding — and I have lived to tell the tale. The extra work that I put into planning everything that I buy and participate in allows me to enjoy activities I want to partake in without spending money that I don’t have.
Remember when you were a kid, and it was a big deal when someone gave you a few dollars? Whether it was a gift, or you had earned that dollar bill selling something on your front lawn, or helping your grandmother do yard work, you’d treasure it. I’ve learned to never let that feeling go away. I now make more than I did at my first job, but I still appreciate the value of a dollar. Living well within my means (and finding great deals for experiences and purchases) has been the way I translate my appreciation of a dollar into my daily life. Many friends (who I know have more money than I do, and come from financially-secure families) have expressed jealousy at the experiences I’ve been able to have. And for me, that just goes to show that budgeting (and hard work, diligence, and patience) can make you feel so much better off.
Mary is a teacher currently living in Europe.
Image via Pexels