Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

This is the first in an occasional series called Growth, in which we follow a woman who is trying to improve herself over time. How are you trying to grow? Tell us by filling out this form.

I’ve cried about money roughly once a month since I was 22. I’m a frustration-crier. Anxiety manifests as fat tears sliding down my cheeks, and thinking about money makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a peach pit whole. Money makes me feel lost, like I’m drowning and frankly, stupid. I’ve felt “broke” for as long as I can remember. I have virtually no savings, and I’m only now climbing out of about $5,000 worth of credit card debt — in addition to paying off nearly $30,000 in student loans. I’ve come to associate viewing my checking account balance with emotional terror.

So, how exactly did I get here?

Growing up, my family was solidly middle class. My dad worked at a car production plant, grease embedded in his fingerprints, until he took ownership of a laundromat when I was in middle school. From selling home goods to real estate, my mom always did a bit of everything. Neither of my parents has a college degree.

The spirit of hustle throbs through my parents’ veins, and they wanted me to work, too. At 14, I got an after school job at a restaurant inside a retirement community. I’m now 29, which means I’ve been employed for more than half my life. Take a look:

Some amounts are estimates.
Some amounts are estimates.

Certain years have been comfortable – like when I made $50,000 a year and paid $450 in rent – but years of paychecks later, I still don’t feel financially sound.

Since those initial paychecks and my first credit card – my mom encouraged me to get one to “build credit” – I’ve never really saved. “Saving” was always something I knew I was supposed to do but never really understood how to do. No one taught me in high school. Then again, I never really tried to learn when I became an adult.

Instead, I’ve whined and felt sorry for myself. But why? My “struggle” was always my fault. After all, I’ve always been extraordinarily privileged to be employed and have health insurance. Over the years, I’ve had no one to provide for but myself, and I’ve had access to the resources I’ve needed, like places to stay during unpaid internships. My parents have loaned me money.

Still, I’ve nurtured a state of being, a personality, of being “broke” for much of my adult life. “I’m just not good with money,” I’ve said, as if that’s a chronic ailment.

A few months ago, I stood in front of my boyfriend in our apartment, crying after I checked my bank account balance.

“I just don’t know where all my money goes,” I said.

I defensively listed the reasons I shouldn’t be hurting for money, hinging on the fact that I didn’t live an “expensive” life: My phone is a used Android. I rarely go shopping and don’t buy designer labels. (H&M and Target are cheap!) I don’t get routine salon treatments, and I barely get haircuts. (Nevermind the fact that drinking two cocktails while out with friends likely equals what I would spend on a blowout.) I don’t take vacations to luxurious destinations. (Even though I take Megabus or Amtrak trips to New York or Philly to visit friends.) I don’t even have a car. (Instead, I pay for Car2Go, a car share.) How can I be so broke?

Truthfully, my life was and is still full of expenses.

“Have you ever made a budget?” my boyfriend once asked me.

I had, kind of. I’ve written down how much money I make and how much money I pay for bills and essentials and then… done absolutely nothing with that information. We both agreed that I had to fix my relationship with money. I live with my boyfriend, and he doesn’t want to see me frazzled by figures every month. More importantly, he wants us both to be financially okay. For the most part, we keep our money separate, but we’re in a committed partnership. What if something happens? We both need savings and stability. I know he’s right. I’ve known I’ve needed to change for a long, long time.

So, I set a goal for myself: Stop ignoring my finances, set a budget and stick to it.

Time and time again, I’ve made the choice to be bad with money. Over the course of three months this year, I decided to make a change, one step at a time, and document it by keeping a journal of sorts. It wasn’t always smooth sailing – I definitely failed some weeks – but it wasn’t all bad. I grew a little, and so did my savings.

March

Objective: Make a spreadsheet and keep track of everything I spend money on.

Why? This will help me create a reasonable budget.

Was I successful? Yes.

My boyfriend helped me make a Google Sheet for my finances. He typed three headers:

“Just input what you spend every single day,” he said.

The spreadsheet was utilitarian, minimalist. It wasn’t like those gimmicky money-tracking apps – none of which had ever worked for me. With my new spreadsheet, I felt committed to tracking my finances. The point of the exercise wasn’t to save money per se (or at least, not yet). Instead, I wanted to get a real sense of what leaves my bank account when I’m not thinking about saving.

Over the course of the first week or so, I added expenses to my spreadsheet every couple days by logging on to my bank app and putting each listed transaction on my spreadsheet. But sometimes, the transactions wouldn’t post until days later, and I wasted a lot of time going back and forth between various apps and my spreadsheet.

Very quickly, I realized that in order to truly keep track of what I was spending, I needed to input my purchases almost immediately.

Throughout the month, I became more comfortable with daily use. I became less anxious about checking my bank balance because I felt confident that I’d been spending less, that the money left in my “net” column would indicate I wasn’t being reckless.

The only problem? I still went over my monthly budget by $400.

I half expected this. I had booked two travel weekends (for a family event and a wedding), and I knew I was spending too much on food, drinks and other outings. Along with transportation, those are the areas where I spend wildly beyond my means.

I spent more than $600 (almost $20 a day) on groceries and – when I didn’t actually use the groceries for meal prep – lunches at salad places or the Panera near work. Then there was the six times I went out with friends. Each outing cost around $50. (D.C. isn’t cheap.)

Clearly, I spend a ton of money on food. I buy fresh produce, meat and seafood, and snacks like pricey nut mixes or bars made of dates and coconut. At Whole Foods, those purchases come at a ludicrous premium, but I shopped there because it was across the street from work. Convenience over everything: That’s where my money goes.

I also spent about $180 on Car2Go. In March, I had a very long train commute in the morning, and I don’t have a car.

When I discovered Car2Go, I became addicted to the convenience. For $8.80 – including tax – I could drive to work in the morning, cutting my commute time in half. Still, a Car2Go trip is double the cost of riding the metro.

I heard myself making excuses: I don’t have a car at home or a grocery store within walking distance, so I often sacrificed my financial well-being for convenience.

But something else happened this month: I got a new job. I used to make just over $47,000 a year, and my new salary is almost 30 percent higher. My train commute will be cut in half, and there’s a Trader Joe’s, where I intend to buy my groceries, just outside my office building.

Regardless, I can now see where I spend too much no matter how much money I make. Even if my salary circumstances change, I have to change my behavior and how I think about money and purchasing.

April

Objective: Eliminate the “stupid” expenses from March and try to have $200 left over at the end of the month.

Why? This will help me in my attempt to stay under budget.

Was I successful? No.

This month, the very worst of how I think about (or, don’t think about) money was evident. I switched jobs, and I gave myself a week off in between. In the interim, it’s as if my brain fell out of my head.

I went over budget by more than $1,000.

About halfway through the month, I stopped looking at my spreadsheet. If I don’t look at it, it’s as if money doesn’t exist. I completely collapsed in my efforts and reverted back to old ways. The “bad with money woman” in my brain said everything was an exception to the “don’t spend too much” rule, as if money cares what it’s being spent on and gives me a break because it’s “a celebration.”

Before starting my higher-paying job, I bought shoes, clothes, a haircut and a manicure, skin care products, celebratory drinks and meals out. When I am in “celebration mode,” I am a helplessly foolish person. I cannot be trusted. Below is a sample of my spending. At my last job, I could dress like a camp counselor every day, so I just had to upgrade my wardrobe a little bit for my new gig – or get haircuts, manicures and makeup.

Now that I’ve looked at the numbers, I’m reckoning with how mortifying — if not absolutely crucial for myself and anyone else who struggles with financial literacy like I do — it will be to display evidence of just how reckless I am with money when left to my same old devices of managing it. I do, however, have a plan.

I have to operate only in cash whenever possible until I understand the abstract of money on a card. I have to see the money leaving my hands. I will take $250 in cash out each week to spend. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

There will be some things I can’t pay for in cash. I have two weddings coming up, and I’ll have to pay for transportation and gifts. In these instances, I’ll make adjustments by taking less cash out and spending less in subsequent weeks.

If I don’t end up spending the $250, then that money goes into my savings. I picked $250 because that’s far below the weekly breakdown of how much “free money” I have per month, which is around $1,700.

I realize money, right now, means nothing to me when I can’t see it. I am living the definition of insanity — doing the same thing but expecting different results. The budget spreadsheet was a new tool, but I stopped using it because nothing was tethering me to it. Cash may be the answer until I develop better habits. I need to feel the urgency of money leaving my wallet to know how much of it I’m spending.

I feel like a child, learning with little blocks. Or someone at rock bottom.

May

Objective: Take out $250 in cash every Monday. Spend $250 or less every week in May.

Why? This will help me see and physically feel money leaving my hands. I’ll know just by looking in my wallet how much money I have remaining for the week.

Was I successful? Yes.

Something clicked in May. I did not go over budget, and I saved $250 this month. I also paid off an extra $500 worth of debt (to a credit card and money I owed my mother). I have not adjusted my weekly budget to account for the extra money I’m making. The money I’m earning beyond what I made at my old job is going toward my debt, and I’m on track to be free of credit card debt by November. My credit score is up 18 points since March.

I believe I needed two months, including one that was particularly shocking to my system, to really see how I spend. I needed to feel the discomfort — the gnawing in my brain — of knowing that every day I ignored my spreadsheet, I sunk further into the hole of financial ignorance.

On the first Monday in May, I took $250 out of the ATM. That week, and every week after, $80-$100 of that went toward groceries. (I’m still reeling from realizing I spent more than $600 on groceries in March). Having that much cash on me felt startling. I rarely carry cash. I kept grabbing my bag, afraid I’d lost the money. I was constantly counting and touching it, like Scrooge. Having bills in my possession made me think about money multiple times a day. I became protective of it: Any $12 cocktail meant forking over a $20 and only being able to put a few bills back in my wallet. I didn’t like that. The bills suddenly felt precious.

Using primarily cash to make purchases has been the most effective step toward managing my money in my adult life.

Some weeks, I had to go beyond the $250 in cash, like when my whole family came to visit for Mother’s Day and we took Lyft rides everywhere, which I paid for to treat my mom. The following week, I became stingy, something I truly never had been before. I adjusted for the spending by taking less cash out the following week. I turned down a couple happy hours. Over Memorial Day weekend, we had friends over rather than planning a weekend away. Two girlfriends and I hung by a pool one Sunday, and when they proceeded to get food and drinks, I went home. I still had a social experience. I didn’t turn into a hermit. I just had to say no to what I knew would be a $30-plus outing.

I feel silly, honestly. I feel silly that these steps feel like monumental victories. The simple act of saying no to a litany of opportunities to consume and carouse must be so obvious to other people. It’s a straightforward way to save. But if I’m being honest with myself, I’m doing something I never did. I’m thinking about money all the time, and I’m not afraid of it. I check my account balance without feeling like I need to do calming breathing exercises first.

My money experience in May recalls how I’ve often thought about food. Countless times in my life of disordered eating, I’ve felt like if I wasn’t eating perfectly “clean” at all times, I’d messed up. I’d have a cookie, feel like my whole dietary house of cards was crumbling — and then binge on foods that made me feel physically devastated. Screw it, I thought. I’ve been less than “perfect,” so I’ll punish myself.

It’s the same with money: I was binging on money in April. In May, though, I felt I had some true control. Money became less emotional. So what if I had to write a friend a $100 check for a wedding gift? Okay, next week I won’t spend money on anything except groceries. Tonight, we’ll go to the free jazz in the park event instead of out to dinner. It just felt easy all of the sudden. My daily reflection became:

What have I been doing this whole time?

I wonder now how I’ll maintain. I wonder about the moment I could fall off the wagon yet again. I have no recourse but to think about the other areas of my life in which I have experienced personal growth before: There have been screw-ups, missteps and failures when I was working to get in shape; when I was working on publishing pieces of writing; when I was working on confronting and dealing with my anxiety. I’ve bounced back, relied on the better habits I’ve formed. Financial competency is habitual, too. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and remember the most critical thing I’ve learned from this experience: I’m not a person who is bad with money. I’m a person who is working on getting better with money. I’m a person who is simply trying.