What to do When You Don’t Know How To Live Your Life: Five Areas That Need Our Attention, Your Budget

I have been thinking about mending things with my caregivers recently. And in an attempt to understand the scope of what was troubling me with our relationship, while I was growing up and beyond, I went over the areas in my life that I feel have been neglected. First by my caregivers and then by me. It was the realization that I had been carrying the legacy of neglect, that brought me to the point of wanting to reconcile. I was floored with the list I came up with. I’ll be going over my budget in this post and will hit the other areas of my neglected life in the posts to come.

A Fresh Start

The amount of neglect I endured is somewhat staggering. But as I organize the areas of my life that were either neglected by me or my caregivers, or I just didn’t know needed my attention, I felt a sense of taking charge of my life. There are many places that need tending to in my life to be sure. But organizing these areas feels somehow like a foothold in what feels like an insurmountable pile of, for lack of a better term, a life unlived. And what makes me most optimistic is, that I’ve already begun the work. A lot of which has been written in the pages of this blog.

In the next few posts, I’ll be going over the areas of focus I’ve been attending to in my life. I’m doing this as a way of reparenting myself around what was never taught to me. Or what I was too angry or disconnected to want to learn. The areas I’ll be covering will be; budget and finance, nutrition and health/exercise, school and career focus, healthy relationships, romantic and friendships, and self-care. I’ll be covering each topic in a separate post or posts and how they are integral to helping us move past the wrongs done to us in our pasts. By being better versions of ourselves, we can learn to forgive and heal so we can move on with our lives. So let’s jump in with budget and personal finance.

Budget & Personal Finance: Debt

I’ve been following Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Steps” to get out of debt and reign in my budget. I’ve spoke about him before on this blog. He’s a financier who made a lot of money buying property on borrowed money. Then he went bankrupt when the housing market crashed in the late 2000’s. Now, he helps people get out of debt. Something I had a lot of. I had about 5 credit cards in my early twenties, mostly just to have credit cards. I didn’t have a plan for the money I was borrowing, so I just kept on borrowing until I maxed out all my cards. It was not a sustainable life style.

It took me the better part of a decade to pay back the debt I racked up. I don’t even like to think about the amount of interest I paid. But what is most concerning about what I was doing is, I was borrowing money because it’s what I saw. I watched my caregivers shop endlessly for things they didn’t need. So I did what they did. What I hadn’t realized was, that they were paying of their balance each month. But I didn’t know because they never taught me how to handle my finances or make a budget and follow it.

And to top it off, I took out student loans at the height of the student loan lending frenzy. Much like with my credit cards, I had no idea what I was going to do with my degree once I got it. I was getting one because it’s what I thought I needed to do. So by the time I was in my early thirties, I was 130k in debt with a degree I wasn’t sure what to do with. This was sobering.

Digging Myself Out of Debt, AKA Creating a Budget

Here was the point where I made the decision to dig myself out of the hole I had dug. It was not easy. This also was the time I found Dave Ramsey and began my debt free journey.

I began with a written budget. This was a shock to me. Mostly because I had no idea where my money was going and was surprised when I found out. I think the biggest one was finding out that I was regularly spending upwards to six hundred dollars a month on food! And that was just for me! Things definitely needed to change and they needed changing fast.

I started by sorting the different categories of my spending into a budget. Categories such as rent, food and phone were no brainers. But other areas such as, self care, gifts and donations, food and friends, weren’t as obvious. I was finally shedding some light on the places that so needed some of my love and attention. This is how I discovered what I was spending and where. I needed to set more structured boundaries around my financial life.

Budget & Emotional Connections

While I was teaching myself how to budget, I remembered that I had watched one of my caregivers faithfully going over the spending for the household while sitting at the kitchen table. This was a ritual they did often. Though one they never passed on to me. These were some of the missed teachable moments that I never received. The lessons that my caregivers should have been pulling me aside to teach me, while they were writing their weekly budget. And I realized this is how we pass on our knowledge. The things we know to those who are in our care.

This new knowledge made me sad. I had spent so much of my time seeking approval from them by doing whatever I thought would get their attention, usually by doing something irresponsible, that I didn’t realize what I was missing out on. The basic skills I would need to run my life. I was missing the most fundamental experiences of being part of a loving and functional family.

So it wasn’t only the life skill of making a budget I was missing out on, but also what it means to be a family. What it means to take care of one another. The difference between caretaking and caregiving. Doing for someone instead of showing someone how to do for themselves. I would later find out that none of my caregivers had racked up debt in the same way I had. They were very disciplined in regards to their spending habits.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

This made the missteps of my journey sting a bit. Had I known what my caregivers knew, had they shown me, I would be in a far better financial situation. But lessons learned the hard way tend to stick better. I’ve learned how to manage and pay down large debt. How to build an emergency fund for unforeseen circumstances. But also, and most importantly, how to be consistent in my spending and saving habits. By keeping track of what I spend and making a budget each month. This allows me to set financial goals. Goals such as paying off my credit card debt or setting up an emergency fund.

There were some setbacks for me along the way, but I was still able to achieve my goal in the time I planned. This gave me a feeling of agency over my financial situation. Knowing I could make a plan and follow through felt strange but satisfying. Strange in that it was something that was foreign to me.

I was left to my own devices at the age of nine. Direction, goal setting and being shown how to be persistent were not values and skills I was taught how to achieve. But by using my terrible circumstances, I learned to set these goals for myself. I also learned how to pay down large debt and follow a plan through to completion. And all this on my own made it so much more gratifying. It feels as though I really earned what I achieved. Lending even more to my sense of accomplishment.

Following a Plan & Achieving Goals

The way I got there was fairly straightforward. As I said above, I followed Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps which showed me how to pay off my debt. I’m currently still paying off student loans, but am on track to finish with my loans just inside of two years. For a link to Dave Ramsey’s site, head on over to my Community Page.

My plan was to pay off my credit cards first. One at a time starting with the card that had the lowest balance. Then working my way up to the card with the largest balance. That way I could take the minimum payment from the card I had just finished paying off, add it to the next one on my list, along with everything else I could throw at it. This is called the snowball effect. It was satisfying to not only watch my debt reduce, but at the same time, watch the amount of money I was freeing up to pay off my debt, increase dramatically.

By the time I paid of my credit cards and was on to my student loans, I was putting a sizeable amount of cash towards it each pay period. And this was heartening. Because this is the amount of money that I will be saving and putting towards other financial goals once I’m done with debt. Instead of paying off creditors that have already leveraged an unreasonable amount of interest from my financial unknowing, I’ll be banking that cash.

Savings & Emergency Funds

After my debt is paid down, the next step is to create an emergency fund of at least six month’s expenses. Dave suggests between three to six months expenses. But I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck for too long. There were many times where I was uncertain if I was going to make rent for the month. I’ve been very lucky considering how I’ve handled my money in the past. I don’t want to tempt fate by being unprepared. I even have a friend who is saving a full year’s worth of expenses.

Your emergency fund will look a little different from everybody else’s. For me it’s six months, for my friend twelve. The most important aspect of setting an emergency fund is how comfortable are you with the number you’ve decided on. Don’t do it just because someone else told you you should. Do it because it makes you feel comfortable with your financial situation.

And if you’re planning with a partner, try to hash out a number, making sure you both agree and feel comfortable with what you come up with. Which number feels right for the both of you? This is how you stay open in communication, while feeling more connected with one another. From my experience, this is precisely where a younger me would have wanted to be invited into the conversation. About finding the place that makes me feel safest in my financial future. To know how to best care for and attune to my financial needs.

Communication & Money, Savings & Retirement

While I was married, we communicated seldom. Especially when it came to money. To be fair, we were both coming from places of being inexperienced. I came from a place where no one talked about money, ever. This was unhealthy. And the main reason I had no idea what to do when it came time for me to take the reigns of my own financial life. My ex was in the same boat as I was. Only I’m not really sure because we never talked about her experience. Something I regret now. This should have been a warning sign. But I was numb and had muted emotions. I was trying to survive from day to day. Any thoughts of planning for the future seemed so far off, it may well have been in another life’s time. But the lesson I learned from this situation was, talk early and talk often.

Once you’re finished setting up your emergency fund, it’s time to start saving for your future. This comes in the form of some type of retirement fund. Conventional wisdom suggests to open a Roth IRA. This is an individual retirement account, where the money you put in gets taxed when you put it into the account. So when you are ready to make withdrawals, the money you take out is tax free. There is a cap you can put into a Roth IRA, and that’s 6,000$ a year and up to 7,000$ a year after you’re 50th birthday.

Of course, each individual’s situation is going to be different. So it’s best to find an advisor that can guide you through the process of planning for your retirement. This is definitely not the time and place to wing it! This brings up another lesson that was not taught to me when I was younger. Something that has gotten me in trouble time and time again. If you don’t know something, ask someone who does.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask

This seems like such a no brainer. But the amount of time I’ve spent making poor decisions because I thought I’d look either weak, or stupid if I asked for help, makes me a little uneasy. So incase you haven’t been told, it’s okay not to know. Find the people who do and make them a part of your support network. Your team. And don’t be afraid to ask around either.

I have a friend who works in the financial industry. They were able to steer me in the direction of someone who could explain to me what it would look like to take hold of my financial future and make it stable. If it wasn’t for them, I’m sure I would have found someone. But I feel more connected and sure about my choice speaking to a mutual friend, knowing that I’ve been aided in my search by a trusted friend.

After you hammer out all the basics of how you are going to pay the bills with your new budget, pay off your debt, build an emergency fund and save for retirement, then you can actually enjoy your money in the here and now. It’s sometimes strange for me to think about. A time after my debt. Because I’ve been in debt for so long and so focused on paying it off. But the entire reason I’m working to pay off my debt and plan for my future is because I want a future worth planning for.

Lifestyle Sacrifices

For me, I’ve been living as barebones as possible while I’m paying off my debt. I don’t buy too many things for myself unless I need them. For example, I think the things I’ve bought for myself most recently have been iced teas in the mornings where I need an extra boost of energy and a pair of running shoes I desperately needed. Asides from those things, I’ve been funneling all available funds to my debt.

I’ve been living like this for so long that it seems just the norm. To not splurge on anything other than a coffee here and there, or a new pair of shoes. And this can get a little depressing. I won’t lie to you, it ain’t easy. But I’ve started a list of things I want to buy when I no longer have debt. This list, in and of itself, is a motivator for me. Looking at all the things I’ll be able to indulge in when I’m financially stable enough not to worry, is something I’m looking forward to.

The Silver Lining, Enjoying Your Money

For example, on my list are a variety of teas I enjoy from a seller who has exceptional variety and quality. Knowing I’ll be looking forward to my morning cup of jasmine green will be so much sweeter when it’s brewed from tea I love.

I also plan on buying spices from an organic spice company I’ve used in the past and whose product I love. Their quality is excellent and knowing that I’ll have a freshly rotated stock of all the spices I love, brings me a sense of joy. Knowing my meals will be that much more flavorful is another motivator to help me achieve my financial goals.

I’m also planning a trip to celebrate my debt free journey. To take some much needed rest after my marathon race to achieve my debt free goal. And I will feel so much more at ease knowing I’m not living on borrowed money. Knowing I’m taking care of my financial needs. All while being able to enjoy the benefits that come with a well planned for financial future.

Take Control

So if you’ve left the financial sector of your life neglected for far too long, maybe it’s time to take another look at your situation and where you’re headed. Creating some much needed boundaries around spending can be an eye opening and fruitful experience. If this is your first foray into the subject, I definitely suggest talking with a professional who can guide you on a path towards a successful financial future.

And if you, like me, have found yourself in the depths of what seems like an unfathomable amount of debt, it is never too late to start digging yourself out. Head over to my Community Page and take a look at the work Dave Ramsey is doing in helping to get people out of debt. Also Mint, another site on the Community Page, is a powerful tool in helping to get control over your spending and finances. Check out community sites such as Reddit, personal finance. There are loads of people with questions that are crowdsourcing answers from people who have been there before.

And remember, you’re not alone. It is difficult and scary at times, looking at the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. But it is totally possible and doable to get ourselves out. Good luck, peace and thanks for reading : )

Image credits: “I’m So Confused!” by Ian Sane is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Updated: 10/14/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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