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People tell me that I’m good with money, and will sometimes ask me what my secret to saving is, as if I hold some sort of classified document that explains how to put away a little bit of money in the bank every month.
They witness my self-control and find it amazing that I can go into a store and walk out without buying anything, or limit myself to one drink at a happy hour get-together.
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But, no, the real reason I hold onto my dollars is because I grew up with with very little of it.
When you are six years old and you are living in a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood with your family of five, you pay attention when your folks scrape together the money to get your family out of a bad situation and into a four-bedroom house in a nice suburb where it’s okay if you’re outside playing after the sun has set.
You thank your lucky stars when you go from sharing a bedroom with your entire family to sharing a bedroom with just one of your siblings, and you then thank your parents for telling you that luck and stars had nothing to do with it—that the money they saved had everything to do with the fact that you no longer live in that neighborhood where an intruder once bashed open the back door of your apartment in the middle of the night only to learn that there was nothing worth stealing from the terrified couple shielding their three children in a corner.
You learn that saving money doesn’t just mean getting to buy all of the Apple products, or vacationing in Florence, or buying that thing because you are in one of your moods and you know that thing will make you happy for a moment. You learn that saving is your secret power to getting yourself unstuck.
You can quit that job that is killing your soul, leave that unhealthy relationship and start over again, and support those you love without worrying about how you’re going to support yourself. This is my “secret” to saving, but my secret might not work for you.
I can’t tell you to go back in time and live in a bad neighborhood so you can watch your family save enough money to get unstuck.
And I won’t tell you something like, “Give up your daily latte habit,” because that might not work for you seeing that a latte might be the one thing that helps you get through a soul-crushing day. I won’t tell you, “Well, try bringing your lunch to work,” because you might try and give up due to the fact that the only thing you hate more than grocery shopping is making groceries into lunches that you have to remember to pack with you every day.
But I do have a bit of advice I’ve gleaned from years of saving, and watching other people save. Here are a few things:
1. It Is Totally Okay to Cheat Every Once in Awhile
You know how dieters need a cheat day to give themselves something to look forward to? How a cheat day can keep them sane? Well, it’s okay to cheat every now and then when you’re saving, too. Some people call this a reward system, or learning how to experience delayed gratification. You’ve been good, here’s a little something to keep you motivated to stay good. Obviously, a cheat day doesn’t mean blowing all your money on nice things once a week. Take yourself out to dinner, or go to the movies—things you can do for $20 or less.
When I worked at the sort of office where everyone went out to really nice places for lunch every day, I brought my lunch—except on Fridays, when I would go out and join in on the camaraderie. Friday was my cheat day, and I never felt bad about going out to lunch because I had been good all the other days of the week.
2. Don’t Do the Things You Hate
If you hate making coffee, don’t attempt to drop your daily coffee shop habit. Don’t cancel cable if you love your TV shows so darn much. You’ll just give up and blame these attempts at saving for making you miserable. Do the things that you know won’t make you miserable. Eat leftovers for lunch. Limit yourself to two drinks if you’re going out with friends. Stop taking cabs everywhere and take the subway (sometimes this is actually so much faster!). Sneak candy into the movie theater instead of visiting the concessions stand. You know what your limits are, so learn to work around them.
3. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
There are people in your life who appear to always have everything you want—that new gadget, or that amazing vacation, or that apartment in that nice neighborhood where nothing is broken. Don’t compare yourself to these people because it will drive you insane. You need to live your life and not theirs. It may be that they have a secret trust fund or inheritance that makes their lives seem so bright and shiny, or they might be charging thousands of dollars to a credit card, and that debt will catch up to them in a few years. Do what makes sense for you, focus on your own goals, and things will work out.
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