Growing up with a parent who’s an accountant, my siblings and I were no strangers to money talk. It sometimes felt as if we were being inundated with financial jargon and economic advice as children. I mean, how many kids spent the first Friday of each month before school awaiting the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job report? We sure did!
Around the dinner table, on the way to soccer practice, as I started working summer jobs and saving money — it was hard to escape my mom’s reminders about earnings, spending, savings, credit scores and, yes, even Roth IRAs. What I sometimes received with groans of “Mommm, please, you tell us this all the time,” have become ingrained in my mind.
Surprisingly, the advice she shared with me when I was a 12-year old tracking my babysitting income on sticky notes has stood the test of time. These days, I have a much greater appreciation for being raised in a home that valued financial literacy. I cannot help but hear my mom’s voice in my head today when it comes to the more complex financial decisions I make as a young adult. Instead of rolling my eyes, I smile in gratitude for her wisdom that I find myself relying on more and more as I strive to make sound and healthy financial choices.
Here are four favorite expressions from my mom from which I continue to glean new insight with each passing year.
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
This phrase might deserve a little asterisk next to it because it did not originate with my mom, but she often repeats this quip attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Not only does she quote it, she lives by it and she taught us to prioritize saving, too.
On birthdays or graduations, when we received money, we automatically put half into savings. Learning how to deposit checks by hand at the local bank is a lost art today with mobile deposits, but it was important to see first-hand where our money was going and to record it in our checkbooks.
As I began earning more money in high school and college, the importance of cutting a certain percentage of my paycheck for savings remained. Now, I have monthly automatic withdrawals from my checking account into my savings accounts — especially my retirement account because, like my mom taught me, there are no loans for retirement. Thinking about those tucked-away savings as earnings is motivating for me, so much so that I periodically challenge myself to increase my automatic savings deposits.
“Attack debt, and then avoid it.”
Debt is suffocating — it is pervasive, clingy, and insidious. At times in our lives (hello student loans!), it may be unavoidable. Still, my mom advises to attack personal debt with a vengeance in your 20s. Ideally, the only debt to your name would be your home’s mortgage.
I know that it is tempting to accept loan payments as fixed monthly costs that come with the territory of being a millennial. Fight that temptation! If you do not intentionally double-down in your attack on your debt, it becomes like that old junk drawer that never disappears. It requires hard work to sacrifice the concerts and dinners-out now, but it will be worth it in five years when you want to purchase your first home or propose to your girlfriend, or in 10 years when you want to start your own business, or in 20 years when your children’s college payments loom on the horizon.
The earlier we start attacking it, the better. Then, after having finally cleaned out the junk drawer, we should do everything in our power to avoid taking on more debt. Taking on more debt, which is like shooting ourselves in the foot, equates to signing up for unnecessarily spending more of our hard-earned money (in the form of interest).
For the sake of my future credit score, medical health (debt = stress), and marriage, I am committed to paying off my credit card bill in full each month, minimizing the number of credit cards I own (more cards = more likely I am to charge expenses), avoiding taking out a car loan, and creating an emergency fund for unforeseen expenses.
“Live below your means.”
This may be my favorite piece of advice from my mom. Just because my paycheck says that I can afford a bigger house or a fancier car or a Hawaiian vacation, do I really need to indulge?
There is a beautiful humility (not to mention sustainability!) in electing to buy used, to borrow a dress instead of purchasing a new one, or to enjoy a vacation adventure close to home. Every choice to live below our means is an affirmation of the truth that our value as human persons does not come from what we own, and that our joy is rooted in what money cannot buy.
“It’s not rocket science — spend less than you earn.”
My mom has a tendency to conclude her impromptu financial spiels full of acronyms that we haven’t heard of and obscure tax code references by saying, “Really, it’s not rocket science.” We can only laugh, as we try to process half of what she shared, but I think she is right.
The principles are very simple: spend less than you earn. It can be easy to be intimidated by the sheer volume of information out there about investment options and interest rates. If you find that exciting, then go right ahead and dive into it. For me, and everyone else who wants to make it as straightforward as possible, let’s keep it simple. Know how much you earn, know your fixed monthly costs, track all other expenses to determine your variable monthly costs, and then evaluate those numbers and reassess your habits to ensure that you are spending less than you earn.
Is it time to find a cheaper rental? Maybe you can forgo buying a meal each day by packing your own lunch. Could taking that bartending job on the weekends help with the surprise car expenses or go towards that winter ski vacation you’re planning? Get creative in making sure that you are spending less than you are earning!
These guiding principles have allowed my parents to spend money on the things that reflect their values. For them, it has never been brand-name clothes or fancy vacations, but rather travel to weddings and funerals, a faith-based education for their children, support for their parish, and assistance to loved ones who are between jobs or facing mounting medical bills. My mom taught me that being fiscally responsible is not materialistic or greedy. In truth, fiscal responsibility — at all income brackets and in all life stages — is an ethical and moral responsibility that proves to be good for our communities and our relationships.
Implementing these four lessons as a young adult has freed me to book a trip to see my newborn nephew, to donate to a friend’s fundraising efforts, and to go on that retreat that I have been eyeing. With a little discipline, intentionality, and patience (it’s all about playing the long game!), we all can be on our way to fiscal responsibility that frees us not only to establish a healthy relationship with money, but also to forget about money and focus our time and energy on the people and experiences that matter most.