My Life in Financial Advice
Age 5: Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.
Don’t think you’re hungry? Eat a candy bar just in case.
Age 7: Tally up your grocery bill as you go.
My parents were always on a strict budget, because my mom was in college and then grad school most of my childhood. She always shopped with a grocery list and a pen, and drew lines to represent the price of each item. (A $3.00 bag of fruit was three full lines, a $1.50 box of cereal was one-and-a-half lines, and so on.) She always rounded up, so there weren’t any surprises at the register.
Age 9: Personalized checks and credit cards make you spend more money.
I thought my mom should order the adorable checks with kittens. My dad said associating money with cute, fluffy animals was a sure road to overdraft fees. So I suggested checks with skulls and crossbones. It didn’t work.
Age 11: Don’t break a bigger bill.
The easiest way to blow my entire allowance was to immediately break the $20 bill I received. After that, it was over. I’d start buying stupid things just because I could. I’d splurge on a three-pack of gum and be peer-pressured into sharing it with classmates. Then I’d buy four bags of nacho cheese Doritos, eat them during a single school lunch, and have no gum left over to save my social life.
Age 12: I don’t need a dishwasher. I have two.
My dad refused to replace the broken dishwasher when he had two able-bodied kids who could wash and dry dishes by hand. He also never once went to a mechanic, called a plumber, or hired workers for a home improvement project. In hindsight, I’m shocked he didn’t cut his own hair with a Flowbee. Why pay someone—or in this case, something—to do a job you can do well enough yourself? Saving money isn’t convenient in the short-term. If it were, people would be better at it.
Age 18: Credits cards are for emergencies. If you can eat it, drink it, or wear it, it’s not an emergency!
Did your parents say this, too? I thought it was something mine made up, but apparently it’s a personal finance cliche.
Age 19: Actually, credit cards are for using and paying off each month.
My parents changed their story on credit cards once I didn’t go into a crazy amount of debt during my first year away from home. They still assured me that it was far superior to pay for things with real money. And I’d better get used to saving if I was going to get an English degree, a degree I wanted even though I already spoke perfect English.
Age 20: Freeze your credit card if you’re afraid of impulse purchases.
I read this in some personal finance blog and have been dying to try it. I’m not that impulsive—I just think it would look cool.
Age 21: You’re a pretty girl. You should never have to buy yourself a drink.
I heard this one from a guy who bought me a drink. There’s no such thing as a free lunch … or drink.
Age 22: Tell an apartment broker/landlord you’re a teacher.
I moved from Austin to NYC to teach, and shit was expensive. My dad advised me to tell anyone and everyone that I was a teacher, so 1) people would know I’m poor, and 2) people would know I’m a good person. I used it when I fought a rent increase, broke my lease early, and negotiated a lower broker fee on a new apartment. It works.
Age 23: Pay your bills as you get them.
If there’s one thing my parents taught me, it’s that, “If you can choose one, it’s better to be broke than in debt.”
Age 24: It’s easier to save money if you stay put.
All of my most solvent friends have one thing in common: They automatically renew their leases each year. Not moving means not paying broker fees, not hiring movers, and not having to buy new stuff for your apartment. Elderly people aren’t the only ones with rent-stabilized NYC apartments. I have one, because I’m too cheap to move.
Age 25: Don’t buy the least expensive option. Buy the second-least expensive option.
A friend told me this about ordering wine at a restaurant or buying a memory foam mattress, whichever comes first. You don’t want the lowest-end version of anything, especially when the slight upgrade isn’t that much more.
Age 26: You’ll respect your money more if you have a nice wallet.
The friend who told me this had a nice wallet, as well as a sizable inheritance. I used it to justify a nice wallet, anyway.
Age 27: Brunch is for suckers.
You can make eggs. You can cook bacon. You can mix drinks. Why spend part of your weekend on a wait list at an overpriced, crowded restaurant?
Age 28: Always take the hotel shampoo and use it on your next trip.
The free miniature shampoos you get at a hotel are often better—and at least just as good—as the travel-size ones you buy at a pharmacy.
Age 29: Ask and ye shall receive.
There’s a lot more room for negotiation in personal finance than you think. Even if you’re not hardcore enough to barter for health care services, at the very least you can ask to have a late fee waived (be apologetic and say it’ll never happen again, and then make sure it never happens again) or your Internet bill discounted in the case of an outage, etc. Most people wrongly assume the answer’s no. It definitely is, if you don’t ask.
Amanda Green is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She’s written for Mental Floss, Popular Mechanics, The Hairpin, and various other print and web publications.