Oct 21, 2009

Lessons Learned about Saving

I knew, a few years back, that I wanted to take a year off of full-time work to finish up my last degree. I also knew that I needed to be able to save up a substantial amount of money in a very short period of time to make this wish a reality. Before I set my mind on this goal, I had never been much good at saving money. At all. And yet in six months, with a little effort and a few lifestyle changes, I was able to slash my expenses and create a savings account with twelve months worth of living expenses. I adjusted so well to my frugal lifestyle that I didn't even spend all I had saved last year and still have six months' living expenses in a nice CD earning some interest. I'm not writing this to brag about my ability to save money, but I did want to reflect on my accomplishment to say that if I can do it, anyone can. I will admit that there were certain circumstances in my life that made the accomplishment of my goal easier than the challenges that a lot of people face. Aside from some astronomical student loans, I didn't have any other debt at the time. I was also living rent-free. Yet I had been living this way for two years already and hadn't managed to save the money. So what changed in my life that helped me go from being a consumer with no savings to a frugal spender with a substantial amount of savings? I can point to two things that jump out at me the most:

1. If you have a tangible financial goal to work towards, it makes saving money a lot easier. Pick your goal, whatever it may be. My only suggestion is that it is somehow tied to your own happiness and freedom. If you cannot make the connection between your financial goals and your personal happiness, I think it's a lot harder to have the discipline to save and cut in the ways you need to. For me, the dream of being an almost-full-time student for one last year of my life was all the incentive I needed to buckle down, cut my expenses, and save away.
2. Write down every penny you spend. Writing down every penny you spend can be an eye-opening experience in and of itself. And if you are able to connect your expenditures to your values and goals, or lack-thereof, I think you can learn even more about yourself and why you are in whatever financial situation you are in. There is so much that is out of our control when it comes to financial circumstances, but there is also so much we CAN do to control where we spend our money. I truly believe that how and where we spend our money speaks volumes about what we value and what type of world we want to leave to future generations. A few changes I made right away were that I cut out daily trips to Starbucks (now an expensive cup of coffee feels like a luxurious treat instead of a daily habit) and stopped going shopping. I wasn't a big shopper anyway, but I found that anytime I walked into Target, the lure of persuasive advertising and the feel that there was something that I just needed to have would get the best of me. So I stopped. I can honestly say that my life was only enriched as a result. I found that instead of feeling deprived, I became empowered by taking control of my finances and understanding where my money was going and why.

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