Managing my money before it was too late

When my dad first brought up finance management to me, I was still in elementary school and laughed at the idea. He was working to become a salesman at his company back then and pored over books on money management and investment every day. He suggested I read some, so I flipped through a few pages. The words were dry, bland, and very hard to understand. I called my dad a bookworm and told him I would never be interested in these things. 

He continued to bring budgeting up in middle and high school. But deep down in my mind, finance management felt so far away from me. I always thought, I don’t even make money—and I will never make so much money that I will need to “manage” it. 

After experiencing my first ever financial crisis, I wish I hadn’t thought that way. I found that money management is for everyone. Budgeting, credit score management, and investment basics are not things students are taught in school. But these are things college students should still be proactive about, because it matters for our future. It’s an important skill no matter how much you make and no matter where in life you are.

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Before coming to college, I was never able to work due to the labor laws in China that prohibit anyone under 18 from working. Plus, I never had to worry about saving money, because my parents were able to take care of everything—groceries, clothes, vacations, and my education. As a privileged middle-class family, we rarely stressed about money. When I went out with friends, my parents would give me some pocket money to spend, and I felt free to get what I wanted as long as it wasn’t well out of my limit.

I am well aware of my privileges. I could never relate to my peers who needed to work several jobs or collect food stamps to stay in school. However, I also know I am not the only college student who was brought up in an environment like that, not having to worry about money and budgeting. But my comfortable situation growing up shouldn’t have been an excuse for the financial situation that I put myself in over the past few months.

This summer, I was lucky enough to stay in Boston by myself and work as an internal communication intern at Natixis Investment Managers, a global asset management firm. The company paid me well to write about important projects and the people involved with them. After some calculations, I was confident I wouldn’t need money from my parents, as my paycheck should have been able to cover my rent, groceries, and transportation costs. I found that if I planned really well, I could even go out to eat once or twice per week and occasionally go shopping.

However, after checking my account at the end of June, I realized I was spending so much more money than I thought, and I had to start using the money my parents had sent to my savings account for tuition. I was astonished to find out how poor my money management skills were. 

I had to tell my parents when the due date for tuition approached because I needed them to send me more money. The scariest part was not having to tell my parents about the news. It was that, even though I had the spending record detailed on my bank’s website, I still couldn’t figure out how I blew through that much. I vaguely knew how much I would spend per month this summer but I never kept a written record of my spending or set a goal for my monthly savings. 

Looking back, my spending habits had a lot to do with how I grew up. When I applied for a student visa before coming to Emerson, the U.S. embassy asked for proof of my financial stability. That was the first time I figured out how much my family makes every year and what my parents’ monthly salaries were. 

After reflecting on my mistakes to my parents over the phone, I decided to better my habits for the remaining two months of my summer. I simply couldn’t afford to make this kind of mistake again.

After June, I downloaded a Chinese app called “Shark” that helped me to track my everyday spending. It showed me graphs on how much I spent on different categories and how much I spend on average per month, as well as how much I can save. It’s a small step, but the first one I took towards becoming a responsible adult in the real world. 

Interning at a finance management company also helped change my mind on budgeting. I talked to many masterminds behind investment products and interviewed people who advise clients on the benefits of different types of funds. I learned about different investment plans, not just for big companies and rich people, but also for ordinary people like me. I didn’t expect to become a successful investor, but I realized I should at least know how to  treat my earnings responsively. The information was sometimes overwhelming, but it also opened my eyes up to a whole different world. 

Finance management isn’t something that’s far away from students’ life. Honestly, my own journey to a well-managed bank account should have begun a long time ago. When you start earning money and paying for college using student loans, it’s already part of your world. You will always have money to manage no matter how much you earn. It’s complicated and difficult to understand, but you shouldn’t wait to start dealing with it when it’s already too late. 

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