New Year, New Me: Finances

I’ve always considered myself pretty “on top” of my money. As you’ll read below, I’ve meticulously tracked my income and expenses ever since I got my first job 9 years ago, and have never let more than a week or two pass without auditing my money.

Very thankfully!, quarantine has given me some breathing room within my budget. Because of this, I’ve started to ask myself some more questions about what I want to do with my money in the long term. Though I’ve been great with my money in the moment, I’ve never been quite as good at planning for the future. Read ahead for some of my current money management practices, as well as goals that I have for the future!

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(And before you read on, I just wanna stress again: I’m in a good financial place right now! In keeping with the theme of this series, I am very fortunate to be able to make more lofty goals with my money in the coming year, and I’d like to share them. I totally acknowledge that other people are in the total opposite situation, and I know that talking about my own relatively secure situation comes off as tone-deaf. But it is also becoming more important to me about being open about my own financial goals and habits – so I’m doing this anyway! Let’s go!)

Budgeting and Monitoring Cash Flow

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I’ve been using Mint since I got my first job nearly 9 years ago. While I was understandably weary about giving a lot of my sensitive information to one company, automating my budgets has been an invaluable tool to understanding my cash flow in a sustainable way, and I can’t recommend Mint enough.

Because I’ve been using Mint ever since I’ve had a regular cash flow, I actually can’t imagine not having one place to monitor all of my income and expenses and not checking these things on a regular basis. Especially at the beginning, I literally couldn’t afford to not track every single one of my purchases! It’s so much easier for me to catch an unexpected double charge, an upcharge, or make sure that I’m paid back by others in a timely manner when all of that information is plainly laid out in an easily digestible list.

I also use Mint’s budgeting feature, though admittedly more as a rough guideline than a strict structure. Even having a “loose” budget makes it a lot easier to (1) track where my money is going over time and (2) make informed spending decisions, especially as the month goes on. In the “before times,” I definitely turned down a shopping trip or eating out based on how my budgets were looking – though not as often as I probably should have been! Though I concede that I should be more strict about following my budgets, of course, the alternative is not having a budget at all, which I think would put me in an even worse spot.

For example, the budget feature within Mint helped me re-adjust my budgets during quarantine. I did this by categorizing my spending for each month of lockdown specifically and re-allocating my money based on what I realistically spent while staying home all day – for example, my grocery and restaurant budgets went way up, and I compensated for this by moving my Uber/Lyft budget to zero. I’ve also been using similar tactics to make room in my budget for more charity spending and squirreling away in my emergency fund, or even accounting for bigger purchases (like my new laptop or my new pair of glasses).

Finally, Mint has been very helpful for tracking my loan payments and net worth. For a long time, I spent a lot of time making the minimum payments on my student loans, focusing on just making those minimums without really making an aggressive plan to finish paying them off, and it would have been very easy to just stay that course if I didn’t have the total number shoved in my face whenever I log in.

As I’ve worked to become more aware of my finances, having all of my student loans, as well as investments (more on those below), tallied up in one place has been invaluable. It would have been much harder to get a sense of my net worth manually!

(Not sponsored, but man, I wish I were!)

Investing, or, A Love Letter to Ellevest

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I had hesitated to start investing for a long time, but circumstances just lined up perfectly this past year to start. I finally had enough cushion in my emergency fund and was also paid back on a large loan I had given a few years earlier (very long story!!! ask me about it privately!!!) and therefore, very thankfully, had a little more money to play around with.

Before starting myself, my main experience with investing, outside of my employee-sponsored 401(K), was watching my friends buy and sell individual stocks. From observing their actions, I became very weary of that system. While it was interesting to listen to them follow the markets and map out their own strategies, I just wasn’t sure that I had the time or energy to build up enough knowledge to even “feel ready” to start investing, whatever that means. Additionally, I didn’t think I had the stomach/risk tolerance to invest in individual stocks – I still don’t!

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After doing some research, I decided to open an account with Ellevest, a robo-investing platform. There were many factors that led me to Ellevest, but the main one was definitely social impact – the company is owned by a woman, they offer “impact” investment portfolios that prioritize companies that have women in leadership positions and engage in sustainable practices and community development, and they offer ongoing education about finance, like newsletters and webinars, that are specifically geared toward women.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big believer of putting my money where my mouth is, so the “impact” portfolio and the opportunity to support a female-led business felt like a no-brainer to me – especially because the fees were comparable to similar offerings at other companies. (Did I just fall victim to marketing? Maybe! Probably! If the fees are comparable, who cares?)

I had to put some of my deposits on hold earlier this year to pay for vacation (priorities! but actually), but in quarantine, I’ve taken advantage of my relative financial stability (again, very thankful for that!!!) and deferral of public student loan payments (extra thankful for this!!!) to focus more on my investments. And as I look to the future (see below), I’m hoping to use these investments make even more focused long-term decisions with my money.

Long-Term Goals

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I’ll be honest – at this point, I don’t have many great, long-term goals with my money past, well, “surviving.” Would I love to finish paying off my student loans? Of course! Someday! However, past that, things get a little fuzzy.

Earlier this year, spurred by guidance from Ellevest (see, it’s paying for itself already), I sat down and mapped out several vague goals that I may want to pursue someday, then put actual dollar values to them. For example, I looked up general wedding planning costs for the area where my boyfriend and I currently live. I also looked up average costs to buy a home/condo in areas where we’re interested in moving someday, including corresponding average down payments at different mortgage rates. Having these dollar values did wonders for making the goals feel more concrete, and it was really the first step to actually achieving them. Before this, I was really just putting them off indefinitely to “someday, when I have the money, maybe.”

(As an aside, I never really though I wanted to own property until this year! I had actually resigned myself to renting for the rest of my life. However, as part of the many lessons I’ve learned about how race and economic disparities are so closely aligned in American history, I learned the importance of property in building generational wealth, which made me re-consider my own goals. Developing a growth mindset is important!!!)

The next step to this is, of course, actively putting money toward these goals. This is going to require some collaboration with my boyfriend (who is definitely part of these plans, if it’s not obvious from dropping the “w-word” above) as well as leveraging my existing savings and budgets. I already expect these plans to have a lot of moving parts and a lot of variability, so I’m not expecting these discussions will be done in a day – but because I’ve already gotten the ball rolling, I want to make sure that I can continue riding that momentum into the “new year”!

Having actual plans is infinitely better for my mental health than having all of my finances be a big ol’ mess! However, as interesting as it can be to plan for the future, the road to figuring out these goals and working toward them is bound to be stressful. Even the thought of needing an emergency fund is stressful! For me, having my money and my goals organized is a form of self-care, and allows me to prepare for future headaches, if need be.

On that note, my next “New Year, New Me” post is going to be about my own mental health goals for the next year – because money is just one of many, many sources of stress πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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