I thought my financial woes would go away with my first paycheck. Boy was I wrong.
If, like me, you’re fresh out of school and find yourself suddenly swamped with grown-up matters — disposable income, rental fees and striking a balance between living comfortably and sufficiently saving — you probably also thought: I need a strategy to save more money. Read on and find out how I do it!
So here’s my story: I go to college in Singapore, came to New York to intern in a start-up, while taking classes at NYU. It’s almost like an exchange semester, except that I work full time and study part time. It’s by no means a common scenario, but working for a salary gives me a taste of what the working world will be like after my graduation.
In the course of my internship, I came to realize that the challenge was not in crossing these milestones at all – moving to New York, or working full time and earning a salary. But how to manage my day-to-day life now that I am in control of everything – my time, my finances and my obligations. In my first month, I completely busted my paycheck – I spent way more than I should have, and I had to learn managing my finances the hard way.
I want to be sensible with my new paycheck, but still indulge in life’s little pleasures. I want to work hard and ace my classes, but still have fun living in New York and traveling around the states. But how do I do that? Here are my top three tips:
1. Review your Lifestyle
When I first moved to New York, it felt amazing to earn my own paycheck. I thought $1,500 was a lot of money compared to the $800 monthly allowance that I used to get in Singapore.
But I forgot that I’m now faced with expenses I did not use to have when I lived with my parents. I feel the pinch every time I realized that I have to use my hard-earned money to pay for household necessities, groceries, clothing items, and other incidentals. On top of that, I forgot that food prices in New York are more than twice it would’ve cost in Singapore. I just swiped my credit card away as if I had limitless money in my bank account.
I blew my first paycheck on shopping and restaurant lunches and racked in a whopping $1000 on my credit card bill – a lot more than what I thought I’d spent. I had to resort to using my personal savings to pay off my bills.
I reviewed my spending, which my credit card statement broke out nicely for me. I realized that I’ve been spending on average $12 for large-portioned lunch and dinner I could never finish. I started going to buffet places like Frame and Essen where I’m responsible to pay for what I eat. Since then I managed to cut my spending to $7 on average, on top of keeping my diet under control.
I’m not suggesting that you should turn into calorie-conscious, restaurant-avoiding penny pinchers to save money. It all comes down to adjusting your lifestyle expectations with how much you really draw each month from your salary.
I moderated my lifestyle and minimized my social expenses in every way possible. Instead of fancy brunches and mimosa, my friends and I had cooking parties instead. I cancelled my Classpass subscription and gym at blink instead, saving myself at least $100 monthly. This is the first step towards improving my financial well-being.
2. Setting and Sticking to a Budget
As mentioned, I was careless with my first paycheck. The novelty of earning my own keep made me feel like I deserved to treat myself, which tempted me to spend all of my hard-earned cash on myself.
This changed when I faced the avalanche of big ticket bills – housing, utilities, cable, wifi, phone, and insurance – things foreign to my past financial habits. I realized that my salary, unlike my allowance used to be, is not all disposable income – I have financial obligations that I should meet and prioritize on top of my daily necessities.
Over the past 2 months, I cultivated the habit of jotting down my expenses down to the last cent on my notes app, and at the end of the month, I’ll copy them down to an excel spreadsheet so I can review my spending. Mint automates what I’m doing manually and if you go paper-free, you can be sure that everything is accounted for.
Getting into this habit has helped me figure out how much I need to set aside for my recurring expenses, my weaknesses, and how I can cut my spending. This weekend, I discovered that I’d spent $100 on books on Amazon – that’s close to 20% of my disposable income. Upon realizing I returned those books and borrowed the e-copy from the New York Public Library. All for free. Mic drop.
3. Save Before Spending
In short, here’s what I figured worked in my favour to keep my financial heads above the water. I began budgeting my salary and putting my money where it belongs.
I basically set aside half of my salary for housing, utilities, cable, wifi, phone and the subway pass. I keep that amount in a main checking account reserved solely for these deductions as well as my paycheck direct deposit. I put a quarter of my salary to a second checking account which I use for my day-to-day expenses. The catch here, is that I don’t use my debit card to make my purchases. I use a credit card linked to this checking account by Debitize so that I can earn rewards on my credit card while treating my credit card like a debit card. The remaining quarter, I split them between a bank savings account and an investment account.
I’m also planning to go on a West Coast road trip with my friends and I’m consciously saving a $3/day using Qapital. Automating the process makes setting aside money effortless, and the small amount makes it less painful. It’s amazing how quickly the balance adds up. I stopped using cash and use credit card exclusively, to better keep track of my spending and make sure those few cents go into my savings instead of the tip box.
Budgeting and consciously saving will make your life as a fresh graduate easier. Too often we don’t keep track of where our money goes and we end up spending it all, or worse, more than we earned. When we have cash stashed up in a savings or investment account, compound interest will work in our favor the earlier we begin. And those investment portfolios will grow in value without us even realizing. Let’s face it, we’re adults now and it’s time that we learn to be financially responsible and independent.