I've been writing this column for eight years and writing about personal finance for more than a decade.
In that time, my husband and I been through many personal financial milestones. We've had two children; bought, rented out and then sold an apartment; bought and renovated a house; switched from employment to freelance status and back; opened, closed and consolidated many financial accounts; engaged a family financial planner; and developed a loose budgeting system that works for us.
My spending has grown; so have my income and savings, thankfully.
Throughout the years, the one constant has been you, the readers. You've reached out with questions, your appreciation, to share your knowledge and to let me know when I've gotten something wrong. And I've been very grateful, each time.
In sharing this journey with you, I've developed some knowledge that I'll take with me for a lifetime as I leave the Savings Game space. Here are the financial principles I've learned that I think are going to stick, and I hope they are helpful for you as well.
Budgeting can be super simple
I've always struggled with impostor syndrome as a personal finance expert because I don't like budgeting. While over the years I have learned to love the spreadsheet, here is the version of real-talk, super simple budgeting that really works for me.
First, set up an automatic monthly transfer to savings. Destinations: a six-month emergency fund, debt repayment and retirement.
Second, arrange to have retirement savings taken out of your paycheck, if possible. If you can't do that, set up an automatic transfer into a retirement fund such as an IRA.
Third, set up your automatic monthly bill pay for the basics.
Finally, check your balances frequently. Set up a low-balance alert.
There's no need for most people to track every penny. Once you've covered these basics you will be on a path to success. If you find yourself skirting the limits month after month, try withdrawing a pre-set amount of cash to cover expenses like food and entertainment and leave your cards at home (or in the other room, if you tend to shop online).
Financial freedom isn't contained in a certain sum
Many people tie financial freedom to a six-figure salary they hope to earn one day or a number in the bank. They make it something down the road and unattainable, which often justifies putting an extra charge on the credit card today.
I, too, once dreamed of earning enough to be worry-free. But I've learned that being financially free simply means living within your means, and beneath your means, if possible. Keep your spending habits the same as your earnings (hopefully) inch upwards.
You're free if you manage the trick of having a little bit left over to face the next day.
Personal finance is personal
The decisions we make, supposedly about money, are really about our values, fears, hopes and dreams. They're about the little rewards that make us feel good and the big worries that keep us up at night.
While there are rules of thumb, there are no hard-and-fast axioms that work for everyone all the time. Where people run into trouble is when they act — or, just as often, fail to act — without examining their true motivations. And that's a problem because financial decisions are often a source of conflict between couples, and between parents and children, but we are unlikely to discuss them even with close friends.
So my parting advice is: Get yourself someone you can confide in about your money decisions, not so they can tell you what to do but so you can air out your concerns and come to a better understanding of the feelings beneath them — and hopefully make better decisions as a result.