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As a student, I loved discussing and thinking about big ideas: how large corporations should be held accountable for environmental externalities, whether foreign aid has a positive impact on developing countries, and how agricultural subsidies influence the American diet—ideas of  importance, but largely disconnected from my immediate existence.  In retrospect, I realize I learned the most powerful and practical lessons from Women and Financial Independence (WFI), a program designed to provide women with skills and knowledge to address financial issues.

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In one regard, attending WFI events caused me to feel a measure of anxiety.  I learned about credit card debt, the necessity of an IRA, the importance of a strong credit score, and why an emergency fund is so vital.  Before this point, I’d never given any thought to financial planning; I assumed that I would do everything I could to scrape money together for my student loan payments and then do my best to put whatever was leftover into a bank account.  But after my first WFI event, my eyes were opened to a whole new host of financial realities to fret over.

Despite some trepidation on my part, I continued going to these talks.  Though I was initially overwhelmed, a larger part of me was fascinated by this new world of money and financial planning.  While many of the discussions sponsored by WFI left a deep impression on me,  it was a talk by Janet Clarke McKinley, an accomplished woman with 25 years of investment management experience, that had the most lasting impact.  I was fascinated by her experience and background, but what struck me most was her insistence: ‘you’re not too poor to save, you’re too poor not to save.’

Hearing these words made me realize, for the first time, how much autonomy I had over my financial situation.  Instead of viewing investment, savings, and smart planning as privileges relegated to the very wealthy, I began to see how these tools were just as important, if not more so, for someone without a huge sum of money in the bank.  Rather than just feeling anxious about anything related to money, I began to understand how judicious financial planning could assist me in building the life I wanted.

This knowledge hasn’t automatically made me into the poster child for financial health and smart planning; there are still plenty of times when I feel sorry for myself and bemoan my entry-level salary and $20,000 in student loans.  During these low moments, this saying has stuck with me as a reminder that I am in control of my financial well-being, not a passive bystander.  Everyone’s financial journey is different and heavily influenced by a number of individual factors.  Here are a few habits I’ve developed that help me continue building wealth, albeit on a small scale.

1)  Set up an Acorns account

This is by far my favorite financial app.  After connecting your cards and accounts to your profile, all your purchases are rounded up to the nearest dollar, and the rounded up amount is invested in one of Acorn’s 5 portfolios of your choosing.  I’ve always been a bit intimidated by investing, and this is an incredibly approachable and user-friendly way to begin.

2)  Take advantage of rewards programs

Whenever possible, I use my Citibank Credit Card to make purchases.  I earn points for every dollar spent and then redeem those points for a student loan rebate.  When I use the rebate, I still make my scheduled monthly payment, so in effect, I am doubling up on my payments to further reduce the overall balance.

3)  Talk about it

Money can be a tricky subject to broach, but some of the best advice I’ve received has resulted from discussing finances with friends and family members.  By talking about salary negotiations, investments, and learning from others’ experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about benefits and investment opportunities that would otherwise never have occurred to me.  

4)  Regularly evaluate your spending

Every month I take a critical look at the reoccurring payments linked to my credit card.  I recently cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription, and am constantly reassessing whether or not I use the services I pay for such as Netflix, Spotify Premium, and Nytimes.com often enough to justify the monthly payment.  

Instead of viewing investments, savings, and smart planning as privileges relegated to the very wealthy, I began to see how these tools were just as important, if not more so, for someone without a huge sum of money in the bank.

5)  Get a side job

Regardless of my employment situation, I’ve always had a side job, which provides additional funds to contribute to my IRA, increase my student loan payments, or soften the blow of an unexpected expense.  Furthermore, my side job gives me a sense of security; if something were to happen at my current job, I would have a little something while I searched for another full-time position.

6)  Celebrate the milestones, big and small

While I always have larger financial goals in the back of my mind, focusing too much on huge milestones (paying off all my student loans, getting my retirement account to 5 figures, and building a healthy investment portfolio) can feel daunting.  I make a point to celebrate and remember even relatively small victories, like getting my emergency account up to 4 digits or paying off one of my student loans.  Celebrating and acknowledging small milestones keeps me motivated and excited to continue working toward my larger goals.


Just as everyone’s idea of financial success is different, so is everyone’s financial journey.  There is so much you can’t control about your finances, but at the same time, there are so many things you can.  Learn all you can, and know that financial well-being is in your reach.

 

Astrid is a young professional living and working in Shanghai.  She is passionate about financial literacy, prison reform, and brie cheese.

 

  

 

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