I was born in a working-class family; both my parents worked full-time to provide for my younger sister and me. We were never wealthy, but we had everything we needed. My parents had a mortgage on the family condo, but no other debt. They believed in sticking to a budget, and every month they were able to put money aside for retirement, and our annual family trip.
When I was accepted to college, my parents wanted to support me financially, but none of us realized how expensive a four-year college could be. As it turned out, they could only afford the first two years of tuition. I was grateful to them, but I was worried. How was I going to afford the rest —plus books, room and board? I immediately applied for a scholarship and student loan, but that still wouldn't be enough. I got a summer job at a restaurant but it didn't pay a lot. That's when I remembered what my parents were able to achieve by having a budget, so I resolved to make one and stick to it. I identified my essential expenses and cut down on my nonessential ones. I even clipped coupons. When I needed something, I bought the store brand. I had never realized how changing my spending habits could make such a difference. Writing down a budget and following it helped me achieve my savings goal.
Once college started, I was excited to have extra money in my savings account…but that didn't last long. I wanted to be one of the cool kids, and found myself eating out almost every night with friends. For weeks, I totally ignored budgeting and saving. As winter break approached, I had to decide between going on a trip with my friends or getting a seasonal job. As an 18-year-old, it was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. I started working at a bookstore days after my final exam and worked there until school started again.
Days before the second semester started, I decided that budgeting and saving would be my two top priorities from now on. I told my friends I couldn't afford to eat out every day; my budget was too important to me, especially since I wanted to save enough money for spring break. Most of them immediately understood, and some even started to cut their spending, too. We went grocery shopping together. One of our friends lived in an apartment, and sometimes we would cook and stay in for the weekend. By sticking to the fiscal rules I'd set for myself, I eventually saved enough to go on spring break with my friends. We all realized you could have a budget and still have fun.
When young people come to me for advice about their finances, I'm excited to tell them what they can achieve with a budget. I explain that it's not always easy, but budgeting is a skill everyone can learn and use in their lives. Now that I have a young son, I try to teach him about budgeting as well. It's not easy to explain to a 5-year-old why a new toy doesn't make his life better, or why we use plastic cards to pay for things. He's learning to count, so I give him five one-dollar bills every time we go into the store, and tell him, “You can buy anything you want with the money. But if you don't have enough, you have to save up for it." So far he's learning. I hope one day, like his mom, he'll pass along the valuable skill of budgeting to his friends and family.