Dear Fusion Money,
I'm a 25-year-old male working in digital media. I graduated college two years ago with a bachelor's in finance, which I hated. This current job is my first job out of college, and though it's not exactly my dream career, it's a step in the right direction and I'm happy with that.
Obviously, the money isn't as great as finance. After my last raise, I'm now making the amount I would've earned as an entry level analyst in a bank. I don't take money from my father and I pay my own rent (at an expensive city) + student loans + health insurance.
In recent months, despite my raise, I've started to get a lot anxiety about money. So much so that I've become penny-pinching. I've stopped taking tennis lessons, even though that's my favorite form of exercise. I've stopped buying coffee and just get them from the office pantry. I've put off paying for gym membership at my alma mater.
It's not that I don't have savings at all; I have about half a month's salary in my account, and $1,000 in rent deposit with my landlord. But I grew up upper middle class and my anxiety stems from the fact that I don't necessarily have enough money to maintain the lifestyle I enjoyed growing up. In response to that I've basically become a scrooge, even at the detriment of personal development. I also rarely watch movies or buy clothes anymore.
I guess my question is, how do you balance between savings and quality of life/personal development?
Dear Penny Pincher,
Congratulations on following your dreams! That said, people who hated finance in college never go on to become successful bankers. Even if you got that entry-level analyst position, which is unlikely, you wouldn’t have lasted long. So stop measuring yourself against an unobtainable counterfactual, and concentrate instead on having the best life that your real, actual self can have.
More to the point, congratulations, too, on growing up upper middle class! As I’m sure you know, the socioeconomic status of your parents is the best predictor of how well-off you’ll be yourself, over the course of your lifetime. You might not have a lot of money right now, but, statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that by the time you’re your father’s age, you’ll be just as rich as he is.
So, if you’re going to have money to spare when you’re older, why deny yourself now?
There are a couple of good reasons.
Firstly, there’s only one way to become rich, and that’s to spend less than you earn. Living within your means is a good habit to get into, no matter what your income is. You might expect a substantial inheritance at some unknown point in the future, but it’s never a good idea to essentially borrow against a future bequest of unknowable size and timing.
To put it another way, it’s only by balancing the amount you spend against the amount you earn that you learn the value of money—and if you don’t learn the value of money, you’ll never have much of it. Your parents didn’t accumulate their current wealth by starting with the tennis lessons and then wondering how they might pay for them. The success came first; spending it came later.
You understand this: it’s why you’re not taking money from your father. The urge to be able to support yourself is a healthy one—it’s even healthier than tennis lessons. What you’re learning is that budgeting is about tradeoffs. Which is one of the few lessons that is harder to learn the more privileged your upbringing.
The fact is that this money anxiety you feel, this worry that you don’t have enough money to buy everything you want, is simply background noise for 99% of the population. You’ve stepped out of your bubble of privilege, you’ve entered the real world, and it feels a bit strange. But don’t fret. Everybody has money anxiety, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it’s a sign of maturity.
If you only have half a month’s salary in liquid savings, then you’re not saving too much—if anything, you’re saving too little. Right now, your cushion—the thing you can fall back on if you find yourself temporarily unemployed, or faced with an unexpected large expense—is still the Common People fallback of “if you called your dad he could stop it all.” Get that savings account up to six months’ worth of expenditures, however, and you become much more your own man. (And, I’m sorry, but a rent deposit does not count as savings.)
Meanwhile, you’re young, and the great thing about being in a big city is that there are lots of other young people in exactly the same boat. They’re early on in their careers, they don’t have a lot of savings or disposable income, and they know full well that they can’t afford tennis lessons on their digital-media salaries. But there are lots of ways to exercise and stay fit which don’t cost money, both on a solo basis and with friends. Similarly, personal development is not a function of how many movies you watch, or how much clothing you buy, or where you source your daily coffee. It’s fine to spend money, now and again—but it’s also awesome when you can find free or very cheap ways to enjoy yourself and explore the multitude of opportunities that your city has to offer.
Finally, if you want to free up a bunch of monthly cash while also expanding your social universe, start thinking about the time-honored institution of roommates. It sounds as though you live alone. That’s an expensive proposition for anybody, and especially for someone on a starting salary in an expensive city. If you move to a bigger place with other people in a similar situation, that will help you save money while also giving you lots more opportunities for that personal development you seek. Maybe one of them will even be willing to play tennis with you, for free!
$$$ This is Fusion Money’s advice column. The question has been edited for space and clarity. Here is the prior one. If you have a question about money—making it, spending it, wasting it, investing it or giving it away—please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature it in a future column. $$$