{the lessons} Our Bank Accounts, Ourselves

by Rachel on June 27, 2012

For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been putting a lot more effort into money management. While my bank account is by no means where I want it to be, and my habits are far from perfect, I feel like I’ve finally gotten to a place wherein I believe that I’ll be able to achieve my financial goals. And from that place, I’ve begun to see that getting out of debt and spending wisely isn’t so different than ending emotional eating (or emotional not eating) habits and getting to a healthy weight. Just like my relationship with food and with my body helps form my body image, I’m realizing that my relationship with money and my bank account has helped form a financial self-image.

I always say that you have to work on your head before you can work on your ass, and now I’m starting to feel that similarly, you have to work on your head before you can work on your bottom line. Women tend to focus on body image and check in regularly to see how theirs is doing. Do I feel confident in my looks? Am I doing right by my body? How do I feel about myself? But it took a while for me to approach my financial situation the same way. Am I confident in my financial choices and future? Am I doing right by my talents? How do I feel about myself?

Figuring out that I have a financial self-image was a really critical “getting it” moment for me. Once I started asking myself those questions, I realized that I really didn’t have a good financial self-image. I was past getting discouraged when I saw a thinner woman, but I still got discouraged when I looked at women who were earning more money, spending wisely, and who had positive attitudes about their financial futures. I wanted their confidence but I didn’t think I could get it until a miracle happened and I had tons of money to solve all my problems. Right. Just like I used to think that losing weight would give me confidence. But that’s not how it works; the confidence and self-love has to come first.

After I realized that, I was able to take the many lessons I’d learned about my health, fitness, and body image and start the process of repairing it. Here is what worked for me.

I had to believe that I wasn’t a lost cause. I can’t tell you the number of times when I was 75 pounds heavier that I told people, “I’m just not naturally thin” and “I’m never going to be a runner” and used that to excuse the fact that I was eating like shit and not exercising. Similarly, I felt like my financial situation was just the hand I’d been dealt and I was incapable of changing it. I accepted that I had a lot of student loan debt and was going to be dealing with it for years to come. I accepted that I was always going to be a “starving artist” who had to bust her ass for years before making a decent living. I accepted that I was materialistic and doomed to spend the rest of my life chasing impulses rather than spending responsibly. Basically, I gave up on myself before I’d even tried. It took me a long time to truly believe it was even possible for me to manage my money better. Getting in financial shape was just as intimidating as getting in physical shape, and in both cases, I really needed to believe I could do it.

Learning more helped me build confidence. I was so overwhelmed and intimidated by everything I didn’t know about money that I just tuned it out. But if I wanted to feel confident, I had to force myself to learn more. I didn’t make myself start putting it into practice right away, but I at least wanted to know the right thing to do. It’s similar to how I’ve felt with diet and exercise in the past. I don’t think anyone should expect herself to know exactly what to do and be motivated to do it from the start; I think it’s OK to take your time and let yourself collect a little information first. The less financially illiterate I felt, the more confident I felt.

I had to find real motivation. For me, spending less money now so I can afford to buy more stupid shit later on is as futile as crash dieting for a week so I can look good for an event. Focusing on a quick fix without changing your habits isn’t a good approach to dieting, and, turns out, it’s not a good approach to money management. But for a long time, that was all I wanted to do. Real motivation came for me when I started looking at what my friends were earning and accomplishing. Every time a friend talked about planning a trip or taking money from her savings account to buy something she wanted or needed, I’d wonder, Why can’t I have that too? Eventually, I was faced with an inevitable conclusion: I could. And slowly, I began to want to. And what I wanted at that point was sort of like the difference between wanting to be skinny so you can wear a cute dress like your friend, and wanting to be healthy so you can be fit and active like your friend. I wasn’t motivated because I wanted to buy nice stuff, but because I wanted to have less financial stress and a solid future.

I seriously had to believe that I wasn’t a lost cause. For a long time, I felt like I was doomed by my background and chosen career path to be broke forever. When you grow up without a lot of money, it’s hard to envision not being worried about money. And it’s really easy to just accept that creative work is low-paying work, especially when you’re starting out, so a lot of creatives don’t measure their success in terms of dollars. And while that’s all well and good — money definitely isn’t everything! — it makes it very easy to start seeing yourself as someone who will never have a savings account or a 401(k). But looking at my well-paid, equally talented, and rather creative friends and colleagues who were using similar skills in way more lucrative ways, I realized I was selling myself really short. Look, being able to do what I love whenever I feel like it is great. Getting paid to do what I love? IS AWESOME. But getting paid a decent living to do what I love so that I can live the life I want to live? That should have been the real goal, and once I realized it — and realized that I could absolutely have it, and have it soon, without fame, without going viral, without a book deal — I could not get it out of my head.

I had to stop feeling so guilty. Our culture treats both weight and money as issues of self-control, problems that could be solved if people simply tried a little harder. Advice is given with a tone of superiority, judgment, and “concern” that just comes across as condescending. I’ve felt strongly for a long time that that’s both incorrect and really harmful when it comes to weight — like, if you could shame people into losing weight, I’m pretty sure no one would be fat — but I still judged myself really harshly when it came to my lack of self-control over my spending and saving. But slowly, I started to ease up on myself. I began to realize that the embarrassment was holding me back and I knew I needed to just own up to it if I wanted to do something about it. With “sorry I’m not sorry” as my motto, I stopped apologizing for my shitty finances. It wasn’t that I wasn’t sorry about the situation, because I definitely have my regrets…I just stopped being so ashamed of it.

At this point, I approach the actual process of earning, spending, saving, and being smart with money very similarly to the way I approached losing weight and getting healthy. I don’t expect myself to do it overnight. I don’t expect to be perfect. I seek out advice and information. I make goals, take baby steps, and celebrate small victories. I stick to the plan and think hard before I splurge. And I recognize the role my financial self-image plays in everything. While I’m definitely not 100 percent confident yet, I hope that eventually, just like I can step on a scale without the number ruining my whole day, I’ll be able to look at my credit score and not head straight for the bottle of tequila.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Manon June 27, 2012 at 10:01 am

Awesome post. I’ve been working on trying to ditch the whole “Life is short, and what are the chances I’ll not die in a tragic accident before I’m old enough to need that 401k anyway” mentality as an excuse to blow money like it grows on trees. I never thought of treating it as getting healthy, starting with small changes, etc–but I do now after reading this!

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2 jenna June 27, 2012 at 10:15 am

This post came at a really good time for me. I switched from night shift to day shift and took a pretty significant hit in my salary within the last year. Couple that with buying my first place, my bank account is struggling lately. I have been getting really discouraged with myself and questioning my condo purchase, when really I know I need to have a reality check with my extra spending. I started using mint.com so I can get a better look at how my money is spent and actually set a budget.

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3 Breck June 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

Thank you for this! I have been ashamed of carrying some credit card debt for the last 6 months (had to put some of my car down payment on the plastic) and hearing about someone else who wasn’t financially perfect and was able to improve and grow gives me hope for myself. Could you recommend some reading material (book, blogs, etc) that you used to educate yourself?

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4 Rachel June 27, 2012 at 10:36 am

Yes, of course!

GoGirl Finance
DailyWorth
The Grindstone (This really has helped inspire me in terms of career/salary)
Real Simple magazine always has great articles on money (+ there is a section of their website devoted to it)

And I haven’t read any of Suze Orman’s books, but a lot of people have recommended them!

(PS — If anyone else has recommendations, please share!)

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5 Katie June 27, 2012 at 10:41 am

Great post and I love the way you are thinking about it. Another site that has inspired me and helped me get organized is LearnVest. It is geared toward women and has many stories, helpful budgeting tips, spreadsheets, etc. I signed up for daily emails and it’s one of the few I can stand. Pretty much a daily reminder of my financial goals by reading tips or success stories.

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6 Katie June 27, 2012 at 10:42 am

That sounded like an ad… I swear, it’s not!

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7 Anna June 27, 2012 at 10:21 am

Nice post. It can suck to be in debt–when we graduated my husband had racked up something like $10,000 in credit card debt, but I was able to devote a lot of my extra money to paying it off. Do I wish I’d put it toward student loans? Yeah, but it had to be done.

I think it’s important to find a balance between paying off debt, saving, and doing what you want to do. Are there some expensive things we probably could live without that I’ve bought this month? Definitely. But I don’t think people are lost causes. I want to save for the future as well as enjoying right now and making steps toward that is all you can do! It does take time. We’re totally not perfect. But when I wake up I’m happy, so I figure we’re on the right track.

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8 Mel June 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

Sigh this is great. I think you’re spot on with this analogy.

The part about being a starving artist constantly struggling = YES. I’ve been underpaid for my 2 years in the workforce and I’m afraid I’ll never make up the difference. I look at my high paid friends doing sales or engineering or accounting and accept that my salary will always be lower. I don’t have a spending problem but I’m definitely unsure of my self-worth. It’s hard to know what you ARE worth if someone doesn’t offer it. Is that something you just demand?

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9 Rachel June 27, 2012 at 10:43 am

Yes, I really think it is. I’ve been really taking to heart all the people saying “Women don’t ask for enough.” I read a great article in “Self” a few months ago that talked about how women (especially creatives) are just so thrilled that someone wants them to do something, that they don’t demand what they are worth. It really hit home for me and changed my perspective. Since then, I’ve been asking for more, from my job to my freelance work to the blog ads I’m willing to do. Sometimes I get shot down, sometimes I don’t. But here’s what I’m learning: the people who lowball themselves and accept crap pay aren’t doing themselves any favors and they screw the rest of us over. If people are willing to take less than industry standard, then it’s easy for people to think that they don’t have to pay you what you deserve. I’ve heard time and again that salary.com is a great place to get an idea of what you’re worth, and I also talk to my friends about it a lot. I just read a really great post on this topic yesterday: Why Women Should Talk About Their Salaries. So yeah…figuring out what you’re worth takes time, but I think it’s just a really important and necessary part of having a job/career.

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10 emily June 27, 2012 at 11:17 am

I just looked at salary.com and HOLY SHIT I AM UNDERPAID!!! I work for a state university, so I knew I was somewhat underpaid. I accepted that in return for great benies and killer time off and free tuition for grad school. BUT HO-LEEEEE SHIT I had no idea how underpaid I *really* am.

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11 Suzanne June 27, 2012 at 10:43 am

Thanks, Rachel- this is a really great post. I definitely know where you’re coming from. I’m really not on top of my finances. I used to be able to live paycheck to paycheck and work it out alright, but now that I’m getting older and realizing that there are things I want to save up for, I’ve realized that I need to change my habits. I’ve never thought of comparing it to weight loss before, but that’s a really good analogy. Just like I didn’t adopt a bunch of healthy habits over night, I’m not going to become a totally responsible spender in a week. That always made me discouraged before. I takes time, and you need a plan.

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12 emily June 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

I love the analogy to health and weight loss. Much like expected to one day wake up magically skinny, I also expected to wake up magically financially secure one day. Like… one day, right around now, as I am about to turn 27.

I started coming to terms with this a few months ago. I finally made a budget. I made plans. I whined about being a grown-up. This month, I made a big mistake–paid one of my credit cards twice. There goes all my cash! And in response, I basically binged all month. Went out to dinner as many times as I wanted, disregarded the budget entirely… *just* like a binge! Today, I bit the bullet, opened that budget spreadsheet, and started planning for July. June is f’d but I guess that’s ok. It’s a learning process.

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13 Rain June 27, 2012 at 11:36 am

Ahhh….credit reports…SCARY!
I am trying to be more pro-active also. I do really think it comes down to not splurging though…and being aware of all the little things that add up. (eating out, not sticking to the list at the grocery store, the cost of entertainment, etc….)

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14 Kavi June 27, 2012 at 11:44 am

Great post. I especially liked how you related it to weight and body issues because I’ve often felt that the two are similar (i.e., you can easily be in denial about what you eat and also in denial about how much much you spend). A resource that I found helpful is the book “I will teach you to be be rich” by Ramit Sethi. It’s directed towards young people who want to save money long term and focus on the big picture, and discounts the idea that the only way to save money is to count pennies and skip your daily latte!

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15 Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie June 27, 2012 at 11:54 am

This is such a great post! SUCH an important topic for women in their 20’s & 30’s. In a day in age when we’re getting married later in life and women are a major force in the working world, it’s important for us to be congnizant of our financial choices & future. It’s easy to live in the moment and just buy those Louboutins, but what we need to be doing is contributing to a 401k, saving, investing in indices & mutual funds, and thinking about real estate as an investment & collateral.

Working in the financial world as I do I get to see a wide array of options and ideas on a daily basis for how money can be invested, as well as spent. Applying the lessons that I’ve learned from work to my personal finances has been quite a journey, and I’m very proud of how far I’ve come. I’ve saved all my bonuses, maxed out my 401K contribution every year, and I’ve saved enough for a downpayment on a house. I feel very confident and accomplished on this front for 29. :)

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16 Rachel June 27, 2012 at 12:09 pm

And you are exactly the kind of woman I am talking about in the article when I talked about getting inspired by others who were doing it! Seriously, reading comments on my previous post about money and relationships, with SO many women talking about being the breadwinner and making smart choices, was a HUGE source of motivation for me. I get super inspired by stories like yours. :)

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17 Dallas June 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I realized a few days ago that I think about money and food EXACTLY the same way. I binge on food, I binge on shopping.

I’m going cash only using a little file folder to track my cash and my receipts. I’m hoping it’ll really help me minimize extraneous spending! Fingers crossed.

I CAN take control – I CAN pay off my car, I CAN pay off my student loans, I CAN buy a condo. I CAN.

I just have to remember I can and do the damn thing.

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18 Aj June 27, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Such a great post (again) Rachel! Financially I do feel confident and secure. I have no student loans – thanks in part to my parents helping me in undergrad and in part to managing to live on a very very very small grad student stipend (and supplementing that with working extra jobs, doing paid research studies, etc.) I also have no credit card debt – again thanks to living very frugally for a very long time. Now that I am in a real job with a real salary, I think the good habits I developed over my lifetime (and I do think it is a priviledge to be raised without having to worry about money for food or rent, although my parents were by no means well-off) continue to serve me. I would rather have the great vacation than tons of designer clothes. Budgeting does come as a second nature, but I think it is something that can be developed.

I am hopeful that this analogy goes both ways – the body image confidence, wise eating (and drinking) habits, and regular exercise routine is still something I struggle with…hearing a lot of your struggles with something I take for granted and the process by which you are changing, gives me hope I’m not a lost cause!

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19 Lori June 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Aj! I miss your blog! Hope all is well in your world.

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20 Aj June 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Thanks! All is well!

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21 Rachel June 27, 2012 at 2:18 pm

You are SO not a lost cause! And I’m glad you were able to see the reverse in this, because that was definitely my intention with this post.

And I think we’re both going to pull this off. :)

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22 Lori June 27, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I know you didn’t mean for this to be weight loss centric, but a friend of mine and I are avid readers of your blog, both of us struggling with weight, and this totally slapped us in the face.

“I had to believe that I wasn’t a lost cause. I can’t tell you the number of times when I was 75 pounds heavier that I told people, “I’m just not naturally thin” and “I’m never going to be a runner” and used that to excuse the fact that I was eating like shit and not exercising.”

Thanks for continuing your frankness in all shades of life. Good luck with finances!

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23 Aj June 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm

^ this is what I meant to say but much more succinctly!

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24 Rachel June 27, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Ah, it first I read that as a slap in the face as though I had hurt your feelings…but I think you mean it was a good thing? (I hope?!) Anyhow, don’t apologize for talking about weight-loss here…I think the two are incredibly similar (perhaps even related — I notice that I spent more when I was being very restrictive with food because I just want to feed something) and I think that looking at them as similar can really help those of us who struggle with either (or both!).

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25 Lori July 3, 2012 at 12:26 am

It was a great slap in the face! No hurt feelings at all. Just a reality check.

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26 Ericka @ The Sweet Life June 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Wow…I had NEVER made this connection before you are so right. I have said things (regarding money management) like “that’s just how I am” or “I am so disorganized,” etc. and it really is just an excuse. Putting in these terms makes it so much more clear. I take care of my body, spend time, money and effort into keeping it healthy and strong. If I did the same for my finances, I can’t imagine how much better off I’d be. Thanks for your perspective.

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27 Tom June 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

More great, insightful thoughts, Rachel. Thanks for sharing!

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28 Rachel @ Healthy Chicks June 27, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Wow, this really hit home with me today Rachel. I feel like a “starving artist” at times, and most of that feeling comes from the fact that I’m taking the path less traveled. I didn’t major in business or jump into a fulltime successful job like many of my friends did. Nor did I have it easy, or graduate at a good time (especially for a journalism & communication grad)

That being said, I have always followed my passion and my heart, especially recently, and have lived on my own for years “getting by”. Successful financially? Not yet. But I do feel like I’m getting there and sometimes getting by is enough for me.

I would like to talk with you further on how you transpired over the years. I definitely suffer from the guilt & the “lost cause” thing from time to time.

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29 Kia June 28, 2012 at 9:00 am

Fantastic post! The framing of finances as being similar to weightloss helped me look at my finances differently. I have been handling my finances very similar to my weightloss, trying the quick fixes and not accepting responsibility for how my choices impact the bigger picture.

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30 Dori June 28, 2012 at 10:46 am

This is really timely and helpful for me because I’m starting to think about saving to buy a home as well. I need to work on changing my spending habits to “healthy” ones, to fit with the analogy. I changed my entire lifestyle, became someone who cared nothing about exercising to someone who is so in love with it I have a blog all about it. So why can’t I do the same with my spending? Thank you for this post!

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31 nic June 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Great post. I started out in a similar field to the one you you entered after college and it was really easy to fall into the “But I’m doing what I love!” and “I’m not in it for the money!” mentality. Granted, I did love what I did and I wasn’t in it for the money. But… I also took my first two jobs out of college without negotiating an inch on the salary. “Oh, you want to hire me? Pay me whatever the hell you want!” Guess what? Cost of living raises (if you’re lucky enough to get them) don’t translate to much when you’re making a nickel an hour. Also, I made dumb decisions like putting a $1,200 plane ticket to the Middle East on my credit card and/or picking up the tab at dinner to treat friends, etc., etc. I’m now in a much better position in my career (negotiated the hell out of my starting salary at my current job), credit card debt free and have a healthy savings account. There’s no magic solution except spend less, earn more and live below your means. The advice you hear all the time about eliminating a latte habit is definitely good to get rid of mindless spending, but to really save money you have to trim the big expenses. For my husband and me, this has meant setting a strict rent budget when we were apartment hunting, even though we could have afforded a lot more per month. While our friends in similar jobs have way nicer places, we are hoarding cash like mofos.

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32 Alana July 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for this post. I struggle with money issues big time, and sometimes I just need to remind myself that I’m not a lost cause. This inspires me to get my act together.

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