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Learning to budget gave me a new lease on life

Once upon a time, I was afraid to talk about money. But that changed when I started to budget.

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Growing up I shopped a lot with my mom. Whether we were buying groceries, Goodwill hand-me-downs or prom dresses, she would pay with personal checks almost every time. She would rummage in her purse (Her “pocketbook,” she called it.) for her checkbook, pulling out wads of receipts to get to the bottom of her bag. She’d quickly fill out the check and make note of her purchase as the person behind us in line grunted loudly for the second time.

“It helps me keep track of what we spend,” my mom would say when I asked her about the scribbles she made on her notepad.

Any conversations about budgeting ended there, besides a few “Don’t let that burn a hole in your pocket,” comments from my dad when I received money for my birthday. Looking back I think a large part of it was the culture. I grew up in the South. Complaining about how you didn’t have any money was more acceptable than talking the money you did make. You might tell your girlfriends about the Calvin Klein dress you got for $20 at Marshall’s but not what you make at your office job.

I think my parents also wanted to protect me. From the tower of bills stacked on the dining room table. From the stress of never knowing if the next paycheck would be enough. From everything. From life.

We struggled like most of the people in our rural community but I didn’t feel the repercussions much. Even before my dad lost his job when I was in middle school my parents were frugal. So we lived life as we always had — just making ends meet.

When I graduated from college and left for Manhattan I was excited to be on my own, but I had no clue how to budget and a few months after moving into my all-female apartment I was already sick of the cafeteria dinners. I quickly started eating out most days and making trips to the Starbucks on 8th and 35th three, four, sometimes five times a week.

The money I had saved for my move, around $8500, was quickly dwindling. While my full-time, non-paid internship gave me some much-needed experience, I was left wondering how I would manage to stay in the city. My parents and grandmother were anxious for me to come home, to return after “getting it all out of my system.” But I knew I wouldn’t go back. I couldn’t. I had a found a place where I felt like I could not only live but thrive. I just needed to find a job and start making money.

The day after my internship ended I started my first full-time job. While I had still had no budget, my limited expenses kept me afloat, and I blissfully (and ignorantly) continued to spend my $2,300 monthly paycheck without much thought as to how or where I was spending it.

A year later when I met my now boyfriend I was both impressed and a little intimidated by his directness, especially when it came to discussing money. Once outside of a hotel in Brooklyn he complimented a man’s backpack, followed by an earnest, “How much did you pay for that?” I was mortified. How could he be so direct with someone he didn’t even know? The guy, without batting an eye, told him he wasn’t sure but that he could find it online at such-and-such website.

That was it. No awkwardness. No offense taken. My mother didn’t suddenly appear out of thin air, scolding him for asking such a personal question.

It was only later I realized that my boyfriend asking a stranger how much he paid for a backpack really wasn’t that weird. It was an honest question. What was weird was my own disregard for my personal finances.

I’d like to say I was a changed woman at that point, that I had some sort of financial epiphany and the taboo of discussing money openly was suddenly lifted. It wasn’t until a year later when I met some financially successful people who helped me create a budget that I started to let my guard down.

They told me to write down the cost of everything I had paid for over a month’s time: rent, my Metrocard, water, a McChicken, a cappuccino, toothpaste, a new lipstick, face wash, shampoo, another cappuccino. I was shocked. I didn’t have many expenses but most of my paycheck was going toward little luxuries I had convinced myself I deserved.

So I opened up separate checking accounts to divide my expenses. I placed money in envelopes and carried around only what I needed so I would be less tempted to use my debit card. I started putting 10 percent of my income into savings. For the first time in my life, I applied for a credit card. Turns out that shiny piece of plastic wasn’t as scary as everyone (including my parents) made it out to be. While I hate using it, I hate not being able to prove I can make a house payment more.

It took me a few months to get used to monitoring my spending so closely but eventually it became another routine, like brushing my teeth before bed. I realized those thousands of dollars I had spent in Sephora and Starbucks I could have invested in myself. But I try not to beat myself up about it too much. Managing money is a journey, one I definitely haven’t mastered yet but one that’s given me the confidence to look forward to my financial future.

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