I Wasn’t a Born Saver, Here’s How I Learned

How I Started Saving

When I was in my early 20s, I thought I was invincible.

Twice my peers tried to scare me into getting a 401k or a Roth IRA. “Don’t you want to not work when you’re old?” But they were promptly ignored.

“Getting old doesn’t happen to people like me, therefore, I do not have to save.” What a little punk, right?

From the time I was 14 until I was 20, I worked at least a summer each year. Guess how much of that money I saved?

Exactly $0.

At the time, my main interests were shopping at the mall and going to parties. All my needs were being met, so I spent all my money on forgettable wants. Result: six years of work and nothing to show for it.

Post-college was even worse. Ever since I was little, I valued my independence more than anything. But I confused independence with being rebellious for no reason. So while my peers focused on sensible things like getting salaried jobs, I avoided it, because I didn’t want to grow up. My warped brain told me that doing adult things like having a salary meant being tied down. The opposite of independence. So I hurt myself by floating around with random temp jobs with no benefits, resulting in $24,000 in debt, including school loans.

Fast forward to a decade later.

While I had nothing to show for earnings from the early years, now I have plenty. I have a healthy six-figure net worth, live below my means like it’s going out of style, and I’ve also been able to cover hefty one-time costs, like:

  • $7000 for my wedding
  • $5000 to get adult braces
  • $2000 to cover medical costs when I broke my finger
  • Taking an unpaid internship in fashion (This is priceless)

Besides expenses, I can buy almost anything I truly want. And it’s all because I saved.

I may not have been a natural saver, but I made myself into one. And I’m never going back.

Maybe like me, you thought you’d never get old. Or life is too short to not live it up while you’re young.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t change.

So today I’m sharing my story of how I started saving. Not just the mechanics, but the reasoning behind it. Some people make it seem like saving is so obvious.

“Just spend less than you earn,” they say.
Or, “Get a budget.”

But choosing to save money is more complicated than just willpower. Taking a trip down memory lane, I’ll show you what worked for me and one simple change I made to kickstart my savings habit.

Four Ways to Kickstart Saving

What makes people want to save?

Especially if they they aren’t born with Frugal DNA?

Because let’s face it, sometimes it seems like it’s easier for others to save money. I’m always interested in how non-savers changed their ways. Take for example, this scenario:

Once my friend got a bill from the IRS for $25,000. I’ve never seen someone bust a move so fast to fix his money. He got on the computer to inspect his credit card statements line by line, looking for things to cut:

  • The $160 per month cleaning lady was let go.
  • Underutilized subscriptions were cancelled.
  • He swapped his two $80 gyms (yes, two) with one $10 per month one.

Prior to receiving the bill, he never thought twice about his finances and living with credit card debt was a lifestyle he’d accepted. I’ll just figure it out later, he always told himself. He spent what he did because that’s what he thought was “necessary to live.” Funny enough, the $25,000 bill ended up being a clerical error, but my friend’s reaction will be forever burned into my mind.

Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to actually make a change.

From where I see it, there are four ways to kickstart saving:

  1. You can be naturally frugal, like those people who’ve been ironing dollar bills since they were a kid.
  2. You can wait to hit rock bottom, like my friend.
  3. You can come up with discrete goals, like weddings, kids, house, retirement, etc.
  4. Or you can be proactive and find a reason to save, anyway.

I chose the the third option to start, but now I’m on option four.

The First Time I Ever Saved

The first time I consciously started saving was when I wanted to backpack with my best friend after graduating college. Backpacking was the first thing I wanted that cost more money than I had. Look at the things that I did:

  • I spent hours researching plane tickets, trip itineraries and looking for summer jobs that paid well.
  • I came up with a set goal and timeline for how much money I needed.
  • I found a job listing that would pay us a whopping $8.50 an hour and told my friend we had to apply. I didn’t like how long it was taking my friend to complete the application, so I took it away from her and filled it out for her. We needed to get this job! Together!
  • I also found us a summer sublet where we could share a room, cutting my rent share in half.
  • While I hated the job (painting dorm rooms and fixing furniture), I showed up at 8am every day until I had made enough money.

In both examples, these are the things you do when you really want something.

I never saved before because I didn’t have a reason to. I had no motivation because I had no goals, and I didn’t understand what I’d get by saving besides depriving Young Me of doing fun stuff.

But once I set my mind on backpacking, it became a goal. And that goal became a beacon, a guiding light. Once I had a goal that motivated me, I’d do anything to get it.

I started to see saving money not as a boring thing that adults do, but a way for me to get the things that I want.

The Real Reasons I Want to Save Money

I’ve written about why I save before, which is mostly because I don’t have the kind of financial safety net that others do. Saving was easy when I had a discrete goal. But how do I motivate myself to save when I don’t have a specific goal?

I still need to be inspired.

Not Wanting to Waste My Potential

Have you ever thought about how much money you’ve made in your lifetime? I bet for some of you it’s over half a million dollars. Now think about how much money you’ve saved. If I only had $10,000 in savings and have earned over half a million dollars, well, to me, that would be incredibly wasteful. I’m somebody who has had no major setbacks and I’m lucky to have skills that companies pay for. There are people in the world that can’t save because of income problems, disabilities, mental health issues, etc. If I don’t save it feels like I’m not living up to my potential. And I don’t want to be 60 years old, look back, and wonder what I spent all my money on.

Not Wanting to Be Just Average

One day I came across this article from Financial Samurai about the net worth of above average people. Man, did that light a fire under me. He uses the phrase “above average person” in the title, which is clickbait-y, but you know what? It totally worked on me. I read it and immediately thought about how I could be one of those above-average people in the charts. The only way for me to do that was to speed up my net worth by saving as much as I can. I don’t want to be average with money; I want to be great with money.

I Value My Independence

I’ve quit jobs twice with nothing lined up.

Both times I quit I didn’t have enough money saved to actually do anything fun with my time off, like travel or invest in my education. I’m happy at my job now, but it’s a young industry. People start looking “old” when they’re in their 40s. Thinking I’m going to be working until I’m 65 is naive. Hell, finding a job when I’m in my 50s will probably be hard enough. The reality is, there is no such thing as job security. By saving money I’m protecting Future Me from stress and anxiety. I like knowing I could lose my job with nothing lined up and have enough money to cover expenses for years.

How I Actually Started Saving Money

Once I was motivated to save I needed to make saving easy for myself. How I used to think saving happened:

  1. First I paid my bills.
  2. Then I bought necessities like food.
  3. Then I spent on fun things like clothes, makeup, restaurants and going out.
  4. Whatever happened to be left over in my checking account was “savings.”

Here’s why this is an ineffective way to save: People tend to spend all the money that’s available to them. Sometimes I’d have money left over, but the amounts were random, and I was too lazy to transfer the money to my savings.

When it comes to money consistency is a super power.

When I made the choice to actively save, I sent money to my savings account FIRST instead of last. This is called “Paying yourself first.” Here was the new order of how I managed my money:

  1. First I paid myself (transferred money into my savings account).
  2. Then I paid my bills.
  3. Then I bought necessities like food.
  4. Whatever happened to be left over in my checking account I spent on fun things like clothes, makeup, restaurants and going out.

I intentionally set up an online savings account that WASN’T connected to my checking account. This would make it harder to dip into savings when I wanted to raid the stash.

Then I set up a small automated transfer ($25) to be moved to the savings account a few days after I got paid.

I know what you’re thinking; $50 per month, big whoop. But the most important part to me was to just start. The amount itself didn’t matter. I didn’t care that $25 was almost nothing; I could tweak it later. I had to get myself into the habit of saving money.

I couldn’t figure out how much more I could save unless I learned more about myself. But once I started tweaking the automated amount, my savings started to skyrocket.

Reframing What Independence Means

When I was in my early 20s, I thought saving was for boring people. I wasn’t a person who always followed the rules, so why start now? Saving meant taking away part of my identity.

For someone who valued her independence so much, I sure had it all wrong.

Real independence means having the ability to do things on your own terms. And that costs money. Saving money doesn’t mean I’m depriving myself; it means I’m going to get something even better in return. The freedom to do what I want is worth so much more than spending money on a forgettable brunch.

Summary

To start saving scare tactics about being old wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to find reasons that resonated with me. Then instead of getting stuck on perfection, I focused on creating a savings habit by paying myself first.

And in a world where consumerism is a way of life, saving money is the ultimate way to achieve true independence.

Those who save, what motivated you to start? Those who don’t, what’s stopping you? What does saving money mean to you?

Image: Unsplash

 

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  • For me, having a laser focus on the tiny house goal has been key. Without it, I probably wouldn’t see the point of saving. Of course, when I was a starving student, saving was not really an option (and my compulsive shopping habit didn’t help). But now, when I see how my parents have handled their money (i.e. badly), it gets me in high gear, because I know that’s not the path I want to go down.

    • When I was in school I had up to three jobs at a time. Still don’t know where that money went…But yeah, I didn’t see the point of doing it. The only thing that got me to do it was when the reward of saving actually interested me. Because previously, the tactics to get me to “think about when I’m old” was not something I wanted to think about, at all.

      I’m sad that your parents financial habits have spurred you to bust a move, but at the same time glad you have a real-life example to motivate you.

  • This resonated with me, Luxe. I too was a scary spender with almost nothing to show for the years of work I did. But a shakeup in my personal life recently led me to see having money saved up = freedom to change a lot of my situation when I wanted to. Acting instead of reacting, so to speak. You’re right, having the right reason is often the only thing needed to make changes.

    (And thanks for reminding me to automate transfers. I always forget to check with my bank lol.)

    • Hi Daisy,

      Glad it resonated with you. I think sometimes it feel like everyone else is naturally frugal, and so savings is just easier for them. But what about the rest of us? Thankfully, every day we get a chance to figure things out and turn it around. While I may have made some mistakes I certainly am not mad at myself about them. But I AM happy I figured it out when I have money and don’t really need it. The best time to save is when you actually have extra money.

      And automate those savings!!!

  • Star

    I’m stunned that a broken finger costs $2000. It’s a good reminder to not take universal healthcare for granted.

    • I have a high-deductible insurance. I got it because I never went to the doctor much before. Of course what happened once I changed my insurance? I hurt myself playing catch in the park. This tiny little finger fracture cost me soooo much money, but I’m glad I could just pay it without breaking a sweat.

  • Dave @ Married with Money

    Nice, I like this. Like you, I didn’t save as much as I should have when I was younger because I didn’t really have anything I was saving for. I didn’t dislike my job, so I didn’t really care about retirement – I figured I’d be mildly content for the next 40-45 years and then be out.

    But now I still don’t dislike my job…I just know that I prefer having more options and more flexibility. I want to be able to say yes to an opportunity regardless of what it pays (or if it pays anything at all) and I can’t do that without saving and budgeting to get to that point. 🙂

    • Yeah, right? Who’s going to be portioning out savings when there’s nothing to save for? Goody two shoes! JK, sort of. I’m with you, though, I’m not a job hater either, but I know that saving will give me more options down the road, just in case anything happens.

      Thanks for stopping by, Dave!

  • Done by Forty

    Love this post! It really does take a significant moment (hitting rock bottom, finding the right reason to change, meeting the right person or people) before we make the shift from endless consumption (which seems to be the default setting…it was for me) to someone who saves and invests for a purpose. Inspiration seems like a fantastic reason to make a change.

    For me, it was meeting Mrs. Done by Forty (post here, if you wanted to read: http://www.donebyforty.com/2014/02/there-aint-no-rest-for-wicked.html )

    Again, great post!

    • OK, I just read your post and I loved it! I could specifically relate to the part where you were trying to impress your wife at the beginning by spending a lot of money on dates and stuff. The same thing happened with me and my husband. But unlike your wife, because my husband was so generous at first, I didn’t realize there were a ton of money inefficiencies that needed to be improved. Thankfully, he saw the error in his ways and is now on Team Frugal.

  • I was a saver off-and-on while growing up. I’d pick up a dress to a school dance for $10 at the thrift store and then blow $700 on my prom dress. I had the impulse to save, but I just needed to refine it more. I started actually saving once I realized our finances were FUBAR and we weren’t able to buy a house with our spending rate. It really helped for me to gamify the savings process, which made it addictive.

    • Was the saving something your parents taught you? Or you just kind of had the naturally knack for? I watched my mom set aside money every paycheck, and she also told me to save, but I ignored her every time 🙂 So, for you it sounds like finding a reason (like, the house), really compelled you to kick it up a notch. And I love to gamify my savings, too. Every day it’s like, how much did my money growwwww?

      • You know, I think I had the opposite experience. I think I was naturally born frugal, but my parents spent a lot of their money, so that’s the example I had.

  • I agree with you Luxe, once you have a goal in mind (short or long term) it is so much easier to save!

    https://kerielaine.com
    Keri Elaine

    • Right? The only time I could see someone saving just because is if they are extremely risk-averse. But for the rest of us, we gotta find something to kick us in the pants.

  • Your blog is actually has been the biggest motivator to save for me lately. Whenever I thought about caving (make stupid lavish purchases), I always have a read to remind me to not be foolish. I have made countless budgets in the past but haven’t found the perfect system. So I followed your idea to first jot on every money spend for a few months. Maybe I just need to start fresh like I have never budgeted before haha.

    • Ada

      I feel the same way! I keep coming back to this blog for inspiration.

    • Hey! It makes me happy to know that my blog helps you stay accountable! And don’t be so down on the budgets. Most people’s first budgets will fail, and the second one, too. It takes some time to refine. I’ve found a good first step is like you said, just being mindful of your purchases. Because if someone has trouble with a lot of impulsive purchases, a budget isn’t necessarily going to work.

      Anyway, I hope that my content continues to motivate you!

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about the old non-saver me too recently. I have a post scheduled tomorrow for how I moved to NY with hardly any money. There’s nothing like a bad financial situation that takes month if not years of correcting to make you a saver (or makes those compelling goals to save form out of nowhere very quickly) 😛

    The thing I can’t quite figure out is the fact that I would still call myself a natural saver, but the term seems more and more meaningless these days. I think there are very few people who are natural savers, even those who never messed up badly with their finances…I mean, we all learn our desire to save from somewhere, right? Many natural savers probably had really thrifty parents (due to parents upbringing or financial situation).

    I love how you emphasized just starting, really that’s what it takes 🙂

    • Oooh, I’m really excited to read that post! I did have some money to move to NYC because of savings. Thankfully, I didn’t have a bad situation to get me hip to saving, but just seeing how other people do things helped me a lot.

      In terms of “natural savers,” I see what you’re saying. When I say natural saver, I mean people who have been saving since they were kids/teens. I’ve read people’s blogs where they talk about making money decisions when they were really young, ironing dollar bills, and starting a money club in high school. But yeah, maybe natural isn’t the right word. But at the same time, I think some people are naturally very risk-averse, and don’t have interests that don’t really cost much money. So, if you’re in your basement all day playing video games, and your life doesn’t cost that much, then yeah, it will be easier for you to save.

      I also think a lot of it is just based off of personality. I think the parental influence can be a bit overblown. In my specific example, I watched my mom set aside money after every paycheck and I still didn’t save. My sister and I also have very different ways of managing money. Our personalities and motivations could not be more different. I was always extremely picky and took my time making decisions, thoughtful, etc. She always had a more impulsive personality. You know how I do my money, but my sister never seems to reduce her credit card debt, spends hundreds of dollars at Whole Foods without any thought, thinks she needs a luxury SUV. So, how does that happen?

  • I think your either a natural saver from the very beginning and continue to be like that or you experience a financial disaster that causes you to start saving and you find out that it’s a great way to view your money.
    It’s better to be either one than to consume endlessly without watching your wealth.

    • Not sure I agree that those are the two states. In my case I needed the result of saving to be compelling, and I didn’t need a rockbottom situation to fix that. Just a change in perspective is all.

      But yes, I do agree that consuming endlessly is the highway to Brokesville.

  • dori

    While being a student, I didn’t have to much to spend, but after starting my first job, I spent money on my basics, so I just started saving what was left at the end of the month.
    I wanted to know exactly where my money was going, so I started keeping my bills on a notebook(still keeping them that way).
    I still don’t have budgets on any category of spending and with a toddler the savings are much lower, but we bought our second hand car up front and started building our house with our own money (not in US).Also, if we receive money as gifts or inheritance…we invest it, make sure we don’t spend it on the newest TV or phone.
    My parents lived a frugal life, but still am not sure where their money went 🙂

    • If you don’t have any budget, it sounds like you’re a lucky duck who’s naturally frugal! It’s so smart to use any windfall money to invest. The first time I got a bonus I used it to go to Berlin and Paris. Don’t regret it at all, but I could have used it to pad my savings. I’ve wised up since then!

  • I’m pretty fru- well that’s not the right word, I’m stockpile-y. I like to collect things, lots of things so at 18 I had $5000 saved from summer internships. I don’t recall what I thought of the money. It was just there and it was probably chump change to everyone else so best to not bring it up… Then after college I stockpiled some more and one time my friend saw my bank account she went wide eyed. So did the people in the bank. They asked me if I wanted to talk to one of their staff. I just backed out slowly… It was $20k people… What is wrong with you all….

    I think you ARE very frugal and very smart with your money. You need to give yourself more credit!

    • Hmm, could HOARDING be a personality trait for natural savers? Maybeeeee. Oh wow at how much money you had at 18! I didn’t have an internship until I was 19, and they definitely didn’t pay me, so I had to work other jobs, too. I think you’re a rare bird, though. I mean, not very many people in their 20s would have amassed what you have!

      I’m frugal and smart now, but I wasn’t always. I don’t get mad at Past Me much, though, because you can always make a change!

  • I definitely understand where you’re coming from when it comes to working for years and having nothing to show for it. I’ve had jobs on and off since I was 17 and I blew all of my money on eating out and shopping (my obsession at the time was Bebe…I know, lame). I hit “rock bottom” several years ago, but for some reason still didn’t do a lot of saving once I got back on my feet. I’ve just begun saving over the past couple years and working to get my husband into the same habit. I like your idea of putting something away first, paying bills, necessities, and then using what’s left over to treat yourself. I’ve gone to the other extreme where I was so focused on saving that I felt guilty for using any extra money for myself. I’m still working on getting a balance, but I’m sure I’ll get there soon.

    • Ha, my sister used to love Bebe, too! No shame. I feel like paying myself first consistently has done wonders for my savings. I’m also lucky that I’ve never had major issues with money (like, being afraid of it, etc.) so that gives me a huge leg up in what I’ve been able to achieve. You sound pretty aware of things, so I’m sure you’ll find balance soon as well!

  • GYM

    Great post as always Luxe! I spent a lot of my 20’s blowing $5000 to $10,000 a year on vacations, but I wouldn’t give those memories up and I think it was worth it (I would be a lot closer to my retirement goal now if I lived more frugally). I got to ride a camel in the Sahara desert, see the Iguazu Falls, see Mt Everest. I was more wasteful with my money when I was a teenager (definitely not a saver then). I think what helps is calculating your net worth updates, I started doing it when I was in college and it has helped me be more cognizant of what was going in and what was going out.

    • Thanks, GYM! I would say there’s value in getting some stuff out of the way when you’re young and have relatively few responsibilities. I did some travel as well, and I wouldn’t have really changed a thing, either. It’s not like I’m going to stay in European hostels when I’m in my 30s, you know?

      I’ve never thought of calculating net worth updates as a motivator, although I guess I do it already, because I check my Mint all the time!

  • Dang, I guess my post’s title was click baity before I realized what click baity was! I thought it was an appropriate description of what the article was about. Glad it helped with the motivation. I’m always looking for motivation myself. Easy to get complacent in America.

    What motivated me to save aggressively was my first month on the job out of college. Getting in a 5:30am and working past 7:30pm was too terrible not to save.

    • Hahah, it’s click baity in a good way! It’s like, ‘Ooooohhh, am I above average? Let me check.’ CLICK. I love hearing how you’re always looking for motivation, even after you’ve “made it.” One of the reasons why I love to read your blog!

  • wanting to get braces again is one of my savings goals. not wearing my retainers when i was young is gonna cost me 5k lol

    • Oh yeah, that happened to my friend. She didn’t wear her retainer when she was a teenager and then her teeth got crooked again… Now I feel like if I ever have kids I’m letting them have jacked-up teeth so I don’t waste my money! I had to pay 5k for both upper and bottoms in NYC, so it might be less for you.

  • Manu Dumi

    I am still finding my way through all the posts, but I was wandering if you have any advice on paying debt (credit card) whilst not making enough money to do so in a short amount of time? Saving is impossible for me at the minute until I pay off all my debt… I feel I’m in a vicious circle: pay bills, pay credit card, pay loan, then not having enough money to pay for the rest of the monthly expenses and having to use the credit card again, which just keeps the ball rolling… 🙁

    • Hi! I wrote you an email before I saw this. I don’t have specific posts that address this subject, but if you aren’t making enough money to pay everything off, you’ll have to prioritize the order you pay off debts.

      Two methods are the Debt Snowball or Debt Avalanche. You can read about them here:
      https://www.moneyunder30.com/snowball-vs-avalanche-which-debt-payoff-method-is-best

      Depending on the situation, I generally would pay off the credit cards first because they have the highest interest rates.

      I’d also recommend you look at current expenses and see if there’s anything you can cut. It’s hard to manage you’re money if you don’t know where it’s going. If you need to get out of debt quickly, things like shopping should be cut immediately.

      If you’ve cut every expense you can, you can look into some sort of side job to increase your income. Are there things around the house you can try to sell?

      However, I’d recommend having some savings set aside. Should something happen and you don’t have money to pay for it, it could set you off down the debt path again.

      Hope that helps!