How to Save Money When You're Young, Dumb, and Broke
Thinking about the future is hard when your brain keeps telling you to blow your paycheck on shiny things and booze.
Illustration by Wren McDonald
I have no idea where my money goes. I don't mean, Ha ha I sometimes spend slightly too much on frivolous things! I mean I've gone months—maybe even an entire year—without logging into my online bank account thanks to a paralyzing cocktail of anxiety and magical thinking. It's easier to delude yourself about being broke if you never confront exactly how much money you don't have. It wasn't until recently, when I started paying off my credit card in earnest, that I faced my fears and started monitoring how much money I had left over for things apart from rent and food and the occasional sweet release of alcohol.
According to people more grown-up than I am, keeping track of your finances and saving money is more than just a pragmatic way to make sure you don't spend the end of every pay period eating peanut butter in the dark, it's the path to self-actualization. At least that's what I was told by Ryan Howell, a professor at San Francisco State University who has studied the relationship between money and life satisfaction for the better part of ten years.
"Basically, what we find is that the more credit card debt you have, the less you enjoy your discretionary spending," he said. "So to be really happy, you need to make sure you feel financially secure—and get your credit card debt under control—and then you should use your discretionary resources to bring you closer to your friends and family. That is the simplest path from money to happiness."
That said, I figured it made sense to finally delve into what I was wasting money on, ask experts how to stop doing that, and then come up with an ultimate goal to aspire to savings-wise.
Why Young People Don't Save
I'm swimming in student loan debt, which eliminates almost all of my financial breathing room. The money I would ostensibly be skimming off my paycheck and tucking away has to be dedicated toward keeping my head above water every month. I want to save, but I have no idea where the money will come from. I'm not alone in that struggle: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported a few years ago that the average millennial starts off in post-grad life $25,000 in the hole.
Of course, debt isn't the only thing stopping young people from saving. For instance, Howell said that even though studies have shown that life experiences are what generally make people happy, twentysomethings tend to blow all of their money on consumables or objects in attempts to look cool.
"Unfortunately, people in their 20s try to present who they are through their material items—a certain brand of clothes, for example," he told me. "In San Francisco, I don't think there's anyone under the age of 30 who has a PC rather than a Mac."
"Young people can't think of a time when they'll be too old to work, or not want to work, or will need money for buying a house. The pace of their lives is so fast, and savings are slow." —Dr. April Benson
And then there are the people who scoff at saving because if you don't drop money on extravagant nights out and late-Roman-empire-style excess, you'll have missed out on the joyful hedonism of youth. Once you inevitably rise to the top of your chosen field, you'll have more than enough money for savings. Or as a head-scratcher of a recent Elite Daily piece put it, "When you care about your 401k, your life is just 'k.'"
As many people on the internet pointed out, this is very, very bad advice that could only come from someone who has enough of a safety net not to worry about having to deal with sudden, unforeseen expenses like medical bills. When you can't afford to replace your stolen phone, you're probably going to wish you didn't listen to the human greeting card who wrote, "When you live your life by numbers, you strip yourself of poetry."
Dr. April Benson, a psychologist who runs a program for compulsive shoppers, said there's a reason young people have this mindset, even though it's obviously ridiculous on an intellectual level. Basically, it boils down to YOLO.
"They're often feeling dependent on parents to bail them out if they need it, so they think they don't need to save," she told me. "I think it's part of the impulsivity of the age. I think another thing is [feelings] of invincibility. Young people can't think of a time when they'll be too old to work, or not want to work, or will need money for buying a house. The pace of their lives is so fast, and savings are slow."
What You Should Be Cutting Out of Your Life
Knowing that I was mentally primed to give up on saving, and also realizing I didn't have any idea what my spending habits were, I downloaded an app called Digit. Every few days or so, the program looks at what's in your checking account, figures out what's likely to be in that account in the future, and determines what you can live without.
Digit takes money out of your account depending on your spending habits. That means the more I cut back on stuff, the more I would see my savings grow. Although I know the average American spends more than $1,000 a year on coffee, I stick to drinking the stuff out of my office's machine. I needed to figure out where I was wasting all my cash in order to make the necessary adjustments.
To that end, I got another app called Mint, which goes through every item you buy, puts it in a category, and tells you where you're allocating your finances.
ATM fees are now at a record high of $4.52 per transaction on average, up 20 percent from five years ago. One of the first things I noticed from using Mint is that I, like apparently most people, was spending too much money on them.
Since the end of June, I've forked over $65 in fees for withdrawing cash, which is honestly beyond infuriating, because that means I spend ~$150 a year getting access to my own money. The combination of New York businesses' stubborn insistence on forcing you to pay in cash and my bank being 20 minutes from my apartment meant I was going to random bodega cash dispensers to the tune of $2.50 a trip.
My solution was to switch banks to Charles Schwab, a company with no brick or mortar locations, which might be a problem if you needed to visit an IRL banking professional for whatever reason, something I've never had to do. The upside is that they pay your ATM fees.
Benson, the savings psychologist, also offered up eating out and transportation as things that people my age spend too much money on. I know that every time I go grab something for lunch I spend about $10 on average, or $50 a week. To remedy that, I signed up for something called Blue Apron, which costs $60 a week and delivers all of the groceries to make three meals for two average-sized people, or like nine meals for myself. I spend literally no other money on food unless I'm out late—the cost of the program covers all my lunches and replaces grocery shopping.
Another lesson is to take advantage of any program your job has that allows you to pay for things with pre-tax dollars. For instance, my job lets me put a portion of my paycheck into a transit account that I can use for the subway, and that deduction is made before taxes come out—a big deal in New York, which has an unusually high tax rate.
The Ultimate Goal: The Fuck-You Fund
My friend Michael wanted to quit his job last year because his boss was an asshole. While most of us have experienced this exact scenario and not been able to do anything about it, he was able to leave as soon as he'd reached his breaking point.
That's because my buddy had saved enough money to say "fuck you," which should be the first goal of any saver. But how much of your income should you strive to put away? How many months of income do you need to have under your belt before you can cash in on all those fantasies of walking out the door with both middle fingers extended?
"Although this figure will definitely vary somewhat, a good rule of thumb is to have approximately six months worth of living expenses in savings," Andrew Schrage, a co-founder of MoneyCrashers.com, told me. "It's very helpful to set up automatic transfers to a separate bank account in order to save."
This figure terrifies me, because I currently have $115 and some change in my Mint savings account after using it for a few weeks. Granted, this is much more than my previous record of less than a dollar, but $20,000 seems really, really far off.
At the rate I'm going using Mint, it seems like I'll never even get to $6,600 which is what I would need just to pay rent for six months. But the thing to remember is that the more money you have saved, the more interest it earns. For instance, my savings app gives you five cents for every $100 you keep in the account for three months. If I get to $6,600 goal, I'll be making $3.30 a week; if I ever made it to $20,000, the savings account would give me an extra $10 a week in income.*
Meagan Hooper, the founder of BSmartGuide.com, is the poster child for turning savings into what she calls "passive income." She babysat during her mid 20s until she became the COO of a hedge fund, and by setting aside her $20-an-hour income from her side hustle, she was able to invest an extra $1,000 a month. That money compounded on itself and is her greatest source of income today.
Not everyone has the willpower to give up their Friday and Saturday nights to babysit, so Hooper gave me another option for generating some quick cash to invest or pay off credit card debt. "I'm a big fan of selling your stuff," she says. "That will net you a few thousand dollars in a week. That way outpaces cutting out your Starbucks."
Still, that sounds like it takes a monk-like level of austerity. I like my stuff. Using apps like Mint and Digit and switching to grocery-delivering startups like Blue Apron was easy. I still barely have to look at my bank account if I don't want to. I'm not really doing anything. In contrast, what Hooper suggests seems stressful and sure to affect my quality of life. Maybe there's something to what the Elite Daily author suggested when she wrote, "When you're too worried about your bank statement, you're not making your own."
Hooper told me to keep my eyes on the prize: Pay off the last of my credit card debt, build up my financial safety net, and start investing whatever money I can by thinking about how it will just turn into more money in the future.
"Unless you have that goal of generating passive income and you see that nice passive interest compound interest later, I think it's very hard for people to stick to any goal," she says. "But think when people see the math, it's easy. You'll eat eggs every day if you see that you'll have $10 million in 20 years."
Correction 11/6: An earlier version of this story overstated the amount of money you can earn from Mint.
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