Michael on March 19th, 2008
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Financially speaking, we’re a country of idiots. Despite spending billions educating our children, we fail to provide some of the most important and basic of life’s lessons. For me, money, nutrition, and relationships are the most critical but neglected topics. Unfortunately, I have no credibility to write about the last two—my love affair with homemade chocolate chip cookies notwithstanding.

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Your problem isn’t Starbucks.

Many financial experts feel that the problems of the world (and especially of young people) would instantly disappear if we could only get rid of our coffee shops.

Look, if you’re going to Starbucks five times a day, spending $100+ a week there, you’ve got problems. But your money problem isn’t the first one to address. Of course, most people don’t use Starbucks that way, and so what the financial talking heads miss is that nobody—not even the most coffee-addicted person you know—is going to find ten grand a year by pinching pennies at Starbucks.

Instead, you’ve got to put major focus on major expenses, like your housing and car choices. The typical underpaid twenty-something simply can’t live on the same block as the manager two levels up from her or drive the car her boss drives. Not yet. When you commit to high housing or car expenses, you pay them for a long time. Therefore, that’s where you want to put most of your financial energy and discipline. Remember: just because someone will sell you something doesn’t mean you can afford it.

Still, day-to-day spending can make a difference, so it’s important to stay emotionally connected to your money. Most people have no idea how much cash they have in their wallets until they find themselves at a place that has the audacity not to accept credit cards. This disconnection matters because when you’re emotionally separated from your money, you spend more. Spending cash hurts—right away. Using credit cards is painless—until you get the bill.

Leave your credit cards at home for a few days, use cash, and see how your spending habits change. They will. When you see two options for something you need, one at $55 which is “good enough” and another at $89 that is “better,” spending cash means you’ll likely take the one for $55. Handing over three twenties to the cashier feels a lot better than saying goodbye to five of them.

By prioritizing what really matters to you, constant budgeting isn’t required. The beauty of following the saving strategies is that you save so much you don’t need to micromanage your finances. Budgeting can limit your desire for spontaneity, making it hard to keep at it. But you can get away without budgeting entirely if you simply commit to saving. After all, if you’re putting away 15 percent of your income, what’s the difference how you spend the other 85 percent?

Most of all, relax.

Don’t worry about retirement. Yes, I said that. You’ve got all the time in the world. It’s only if you haven’t done anything about your retirement and are now a fortysomething that you should begin to be worried.

The key for twentysomethings is to just start. By saving for retirement while in your twenties, you eliminate the key source of worry later on: the cost of procrastinating throughout your youth. Thanks to the miracle of compounding interest (your money earning money), the amount you have to save when you are young is quite minimal compared to what you’d have to save if you wait just a few years.

Don’t worry about it, just do it.

The key is not to begin cutting all of your discretionary spending. Instead, you need to find a way to spend on the items you value the most. If it’s coffee, pull up a chair and enjoy. But if it’s not, simply keep walking.

Personal finance isn’t that hard. Your day job is much more complicated. But you were taught how to do your day job. Managing money only takes a little effort, some patience, and an occasional bit of willpower. Today, you can choose to make a big difference in your financial future. Why wait?

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6 Comments to “Your problem isn’t Starbucks”

  1. Earl says:

    I enjoyed your article. I agree with you that the problem isn’t starbucks, it’s everyone’s inability to even get started.

  2. Dan says:

    I disagree about cash vs. card. As someone who has had an ATM card for as long as I’ve had a significant amount of my own money, the card is Serious Money, and cash is discretionary. Bills get paid out of my account from checks (online payments now), and all the small purchases that have the potential to eat up my savings bit by bit happen with cash. If I don’t have cash, I treat all purchases as the serious decisions they are.

    My point is not that your cash-not-credit advice is wrong, but that the way you spend money isn’t necessarily tied to the means of payment. It’s the act of considering the importance of the purchase that makes a difference.

  3. Michael says:

    Earl – thanks for the comment.

    Dan – You’re last sentence succinctly summarizes how I would have responded to the rest of you post. For most people, the means of payment does have an impact on how they spend. It appears that it does for you too, just in the opposite way from most other people. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Joe says:

    As a 30-something who now makes OK money after years of grinding away, I work with a 20-something (low 20’s) who makes more then I did 3 years ago, owns all the best toys, and complains all day how he isn’t getting paid enough. He had the balls to make fun of my car one day…. I can’t wait till they reposes his.

  5. AndyS says:

    My sentiments exactly! Focus on the stuff that really matter and the rest will take care of itself.

  6. Bret says:

    This is a great article and a motto I live by.

    It’s OK to enjoy some of your money, as long as you are saving.

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