I was terrible at money until I became a personal finance writer (and I’m still pretty terrible, but now I know better)

Recently, I’ve been noodling about the times in my life I’ve been the most miserable. (This is a super helpful, non-therapist-approved exercise to convince myself Life Is Great/We’re Going to Make It Through This Year If It Kills Us; much like how my mother read the Gulag Archipelago while giving birth to my big-headed brothers and me.)

Here’s what I’ve landed on:

  1. First major breakup (I am dramatic, this was just primed for me to be deliciously morose).
  2. Two weeks at sleepaway camp every summer from ages 8 to 13. My parents were convinced I loved camp, but I white-knuckled my way through it every year, taking approximately one and a half poops and making very few friends the entire time. [I was prickly and sullen and did things like accusing my bunkmate of stealing my Gatorade (she didn’t, I probably just drank it and forgot).]
  3. Third grade, when my mom had cancer. Probably? I don’t actually remember being particularly unhappy, it was just a long slog and I got very tired of the chicken and brownies everyone brought over. If you’re making food for a Family of Cancer, DON’T BRING OVER CHICKEN AND BROWNIES, it will be the fifth time they’ve eaten that this week and it will put them off brownies for life.
  4. Nov. 9 through current, natch.
  5. Age 22, just out of college, broke beyond my own comprehension.

Point No. 5 led me to write a Forbes article about being broke and dumb with money in your 20s, which published today. You can check it out here. Please enjoy my admission to shoplifting a toilet plunger from a Taco Bell within the first paragraph. Form an orderly queue, ladies.

It has some good tips from people better at money than myself, as well as a few that I have picked up through osmosis after years of editing articles about personal finance.

I wanted to give a little more background in a non-nationally syndicated news outlet to the many stupid financial decisions I made in my early-to-mid 20s here.

But first, two speedy disclaimers:

  1. Per the lede to this article: I’m a generally happy person. My outlook is best captured by Andy Bernard on The Office, when he complains about the Dunder Mifflin weight loss challenge. So, don’t worry, Mom, Dad, my tens of readers. Onward.

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    Same.
  2. I hesitate to use the word “broke” because, of course, that’s not really true. I had several safety nets. My parents subsidized my housing and food plans throughout college and lent me money several times thereafter. I was never going to be homeless. I was “broke” in the way a 22-year old white woman can be, which is to say it was a simulated, low-risk poverty. I could have moved back to the East Coast and lived at home, I could have found a job less attached to my field of interest but which paid more, I could have maybe not spent the money I did have on alcohol and food and DVDs of Cheers (which now likely retail for $1.99). I need to acknowledge my middle class white privilege here and in perpetuity, because what I’m documenting below are hijinks compared to what many people actually live through at or below the poverty line. (Also, and not to belabor the point, but I was never unbanked; not having a financial institution is a huge, almost insurmountable barrier to building any sort of wealth, and unbanked people often have to use less accredited, more historically predatory systems, like payday loans or prepaid cards with deleterious fees.) OK, </disclaimer>.

The Most Embarrassing Things I Did While Broke

OK, so. I’m 22. Comically broke. How broke was I? From the article:

  • One time I stole a toilet plunger from a Taco Bell because I didn’t have enough cash to buy one.

  • The McDonald’s down the street had to put up a sign on its door expressly forbidding people from bringing in old cups to fill up at the soda fountain. I am positive this was a direct response to my daily habit of doing this. The sign might as well have said “Cups are for single-use only, ma’am.”

  • For lack of a plate, I regularly ate food off a frisbee. Sometimes that food was beans, which are cheap and filling, and this lead to my invention of a meal staple, Frisbeans (patent pending).

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I did this years before Andy Dwyer, fyi.

Budgets 4 Babies

I was living in a studio in Koreatown, which was a bit of a landing pad for my friends (and their cats) as they prepared to move out of L.A. after college. At one point I had two people sleeping on my floor and two feral cats in my bathroom (and a third, non-feral one sleeping on my face). My landlord stopped by unexpectedly once and I had to shove four mammals into my (surprisingly roomy) closet, like I was in a “Three’s Company” episode.

I had scored a part-time job writing and editing music reviews for Metromix, which is a now-defunct subsidiary of Tronc (neé Tribune Media). I worked out of the LA Times’ old obituary office, which was almost completely empty except for my boss and occasionally one other coworker. Every couple days, a janitor would come in, look very surprised to see us there, and maybe take our plant.

SIDE BAR: It was, incidentally, one of the most fun jobs I’ve had to date, even though I was admittedly unqualified to review music. If the archives were still online, I’d like to see how often I wrote “their sophomore effort was underwhelming.” More than three times, I bet.)

Anyway, it all seemed so glamorous to an erstwhile toilet plunger thief: I got to go to concerts with a VIP sticker on my ticket. Coldplay once sent me a limited edition Mylo Xyloto 3-D print as a thank you for a positive review. I left it in the office, and here’s hoping that some obituary writers are still enjoying it.

So for about three days of work a week, I was paid $1200 a month — which isn’t bad for part-time work, but is pretty hard to live on. My rent was $875, leaving me $325 for everything else.

There are ways to get by in this financial situation. I didn’t use them.

But, of course, it wasn’t actually $325, because the first thing I did once I got paid every month was to clear out hundreds of dollars in overdrafts from my checking account, which I treated like a line of credit.

This was very stupid. First things first, kids, get yourself a fee-free checking account. I use Capital One 360 (#spon — just kidding, I wish). They have a couple options for overdrafts — you can use it like a line of credit but pay interest instead of a fee (so, pennies compared to dollars), or you can have a transaction that would bring you into the red automatically declined (this is what I currently do).

Nobody Taught Me How To Use Money

Here’s what I had going for me: Very blessedly, I had no debt. No student loans, no car and thus no car payments, and no credit card, because no credit.

Here’s what I had working against me: I was a money dummy. I had a completely lack of any financial knowledge and, also, no real ambition to gain any. Financial literacy was my Crimea (deep cut 2016 Trump joke, oh, it feels good to laugh again).

This isn’t particularly uncommon; most high schools and colleges don’t require personal finance courses (and many don’t even offer them). THIS IS RIDICULOUS!

You’d think I would’ve gotten some chops from my parents, who are both fastidious savers and budgeters. My mother will not throw old food away. It is dangerous to go foraging for a snack at 2 in the morning at their house, because you may end up eating peanut butter that expired four years ago. (IT DIDN’T EVEN SMELL LIKE FOOD ANYMORE. “Why do you have this still?” I yelled. “It’s for the mousetraps,” my mother replied, placidly. But there it was, sitting with the human food, between the apple cider vinegar and the saffron.) Meanwhile, my dad’s actual occupation is economist. He’s written a book on the subject — I make a cameo in a chapter about the marginal utility of soup.

So, my parents are money wizards, and yet they never explicitly imparted any financial wisdom other than “Don’t get a credit card in college, we know your personality.” I guess they assumed that we’d absorb the their good habits amniotically, which is fair, but they were underestimating my superhuman obtuseness.

So, I went off to college, and made equally financially clueless friends. That said, even if my friends didn’t know the right things to do with their money, they still had a governor over their spending habits. On my side, when you combine financial illiteracy with a Myers-Briggs-P, “what’s the worst that could happen?” life outlook, you find yourself eating Frisbeans.

I wrote about getting my first credit card at 25 here (please ignore the typo in the first paragraph), as well as why it’s probably a good idea I didn’t have access to credit when I was 22 and cadging Diet Coke:

Have you heard about the Stanford marshmallow experiment? It was a study done in the 1970s that measured how well a bunch of kids were able to delay gratification. Young participants could either eat one marshmallow now or two in 20 minutes. Years later, they found those who were able to wait the 20 minutes for a 100 percent return on marshmallows had higher GPAs, better graduation rates — and, unsurprisingly, higher credit scores.

My natural resting state is as a one-marshmallow kid. And that’s true for a lot of people.

Overspending is classified as an impulse control disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, just like alcoholism or an eating disorder. It affects about 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men, according to a 2006 Stanford University study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

This is still something about my personality that feels ill-fated and self-defeating. People refer to those one-marshmallow kids so bleakly, almost Calvinistically. One-marshmallow kids are the kind of people who future obituaries will describe as having “a lust for life.”

But! Good news for my 22-year-old self. I eventually got a new job, which led to another job, and suddenly I found myself writing and editing articles about the one subject I was even less qualified to cover than contemporary music: personal finance.

Seriously, I fell into this job. But osmosis is real, guys, and you can’t edit dozens of articles a day about budgeting, and interview perfi experts, and have the Fed’s prime rate catalogued in the back of your head 24/7 without some of it rubbing off.

To be clear, my impulses didn’t change. But after years of reporting on personal finance, I gained enough knowledge to learn how to trick myself into good financial habits.

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In this analogy, I am Sheila and Ron is “editing too many articles about interest rates to count.”

I’m still not wonderful with my money. In fact, if you lined us all up, I’d probably still be on the “irresponsible and probably accidentally committing minor check fraud” half.

Here are some things I do to stop myself from doing what I do naturally (torpedo my savings):

  • I will intentionally leave my wallet at home/in the car when I go places so that even when I want to spend money, I can’t. This forces myself to eat the mealy salad I made instead of buying lunch, for example.
  • MINT. Mint is a v. good app. Disclaimer, I work for Intuit, which makes Mint, but there really is no competitor I could, in good faith, recommend. Most importantly, Mint reminds me when my bills are coming up, because I don’t remember anything unless it’s written down and I don’t like to write things down. It also gives you a cool snapshot of your net worth and GUESS WHOSE IS IN THE POSITIVE?

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  • My emergency savings are in a Fidelity brokerage account. I used to have them in a savings account like a Normal, but it was too easy and quick to transfer money from savings to checking; eventually it was just like having two checking accounts, one standing slightly behind the other. When I’m feeling especially self-punishing, I invest the savings in spyders (an ETF that mirrors the movement of the S&P 500. So, basically, an extremely low-yield but reliable stock.) That ties the money up even further. Now if I want to dip into the savings, I first have to sell the stocks, which takes several days to process, then transfer to checking (another day or two). I can’t move any money over weekends and if I need it ASAP I have to pay a $10 wire fee. (I mean, I still dip in, but slightly less often.)

Anyway. To wrap things up fast after an interminable intro (much like a Hitchcock film), I’ll just say that we don’t talk about money enough, with our families, with our friends, with strangers on the internet, and that leaves a lot of people feeling like they’re the only ones fucking up their finances.

Your finances aren’t uniquely fucked up. Your problems are fixable. You can ask for help. I’m guessing you never stole a toilet plunger from a fast food restaurant, so you’re already better than me. Congratulations. Excelsior.

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