By Anum Yoon
People who have known me for a long time think it’s hilarious that I run a successful personal finance blog. It’s not even funny how many people don’t take my claims seriously until they actually visit my site. I guess I have no one to blame but myself to warrant that kind of reaction since I used to be notoriously bad at managing money. In fact, as a freshman in college, I ended up blowing through the $10,000 my parents gave me, which was meant to last me the entire year, within a mere few weeks.
I grew up in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s largest financial hubs, and lived there until I was done with middle school. My interests at the time obviously had nothing to do with personal finance or even budgeting of any kind. I just squandered my allowance on hanging out with my friends at the mall, eating junk food and collecting furry animal keychains.
When I was 14, I was shipped off to a boarding school located in the foothills of the Himalayas. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to get away from the hectic city life of Hong Kong where there were endless distractions that kept me from studying.
My new school (and new home) was one of the oldest residential schools in Asia, and my parents really respected the history and culture it represented. The school, surrounded by breathtaking scenery, is located in the serene hill station of Mussoorie in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. As a city brat, I didn’t appreciate the clean air and beauty as much as I should have — I was more upset that I was stuck in the middle of nowhere.
That’s the first time I was faced with the task of serious budgeting. Our school had a strict policy on pocket money, and each individual student was only allotted Rs.1000 every month — which was roughly $15 at the time.
True, I lived in the mountains, so I guess you could say the cost of living was noticeably cheap. But do you know how expensive a Twix bar is for someone on that kind of budget? Or even a bottle of Coke? We had a Domino’s Pizza in the village town nearby our school (I know, the globalization of the fast food industry is very real), and just eating there once would easily drain 75 percent of my monthly budget. But I digress. I soon got used to the tiny budget because A. I couldn’t do anything about it, and B. You can’t complain when everyone else is getting the same amount.
So thanks to the strict enforcement of this budget rule, I got through high school living small.
“As a freshman in college, I ended up blowing through the $10,000 my parents gave me, which was meant to last me the entire year, within a mere few weeks.”
When it was time to start my college applications, I didn’t even need to think about which country to pick — I immediately started looking at schools throughout the U.S. I think it was a natural choice for me since I had spent all my school years in institutions that followed an American curriculum, with mostly American teachers.
When I made my decision to attend Penn State for college, personal finance and budgeting were the last things on my mind.
Once in college, I was faced with the problem of having too much freedom over my money. I soon learned the hard way that I needed to seriously learn how to save and budget. I’m not going to go into details, but the money I spent (remember the $10,000 I mentioned earlier?) did not include my tuition or room and board. I can’t even tell you what exactly I spent it on because I honestly can’t remember.
Talk about taking #TreatYoSelf to heart.
That money was supposed to last me for the entire year, and I had spent it in less than two months. I felt so irresponsible and ashamed that I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my parents I had no money left. For international students, it’s illegal to work outside of campus, so my only option was to turn to on-campus employment. Unfortunately, by then our school had a limited number of on-campus jobs available because a lot of them get filled up during the first weeks of each semester.
I think I was more disappointed in myself than anything. I vowed that I would never be reckless with money again and learned to say no to things that would lead me to spending unnecessarily. I was lucky that I had enough meal points to last me through the semester, otherwise I probably would have had to beg or borrow from my friends to eat. The following semester, I found work at an on-campus tutoring center, and I learned to enjoy side hustles.
Now that I’m out of college, I can proudly say that I graduated 100 percent debt free — no student loans, no credit card bills, nothing. I still love being busy and working side hustles to increase my income, so I take on a lot of gigs whenever I have more time. Right now I’m having fun facilitating adult English conversation classes in Seoul, South Korea.
“People think being aware of their finances will add stress to their lives, but really, it’s the fear and uncertainty that adds the stress.”
Most of my friends and acquaintances come to me for personal finance advice now, and some of my newer friends would be mind-blown if they found out about my old spending habits. I’m now THAT person who will rant about how being able to afford a car loan doesn’t mean you can afford the car (if you can’t pay for it up front in cash, it means you can’t actually afford it). I regularly nag at my friends who believe that serious saving is for “older, more mature adults.”
And then there are the actual “older, more mature adults” in my life who are still reckless with their money in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” This is why I believe personal finance classes should be included in school curriculums. People need to realize from early on that it’s not lame to spend within your means. And that it’s important to have knowledge about personal finance to not only build and plan your wealth — but to also avoid the debt trap.
Financial literacy helps you make informed decisions in your life — it’s not only relevant when you’re paying bills. Financial literacy means you are more responsible with your money on a day-to-day basis. It means you opt for the best value for your hard-earned money.
I know people who say things like, “I’m afraid to look at my bank account balance,” or, “I don’t want to know what my debt balance is right now.” People think being aware of their finances will add stress to their lives, but really, it’s the fear and uncertainty that adds the stress.
It’s so much more liberating to know your financial state because that means you can plan for it. You can manage your debt before it manages you. You can start building your savings if you don’t have any.
I think people also tend to associate budgeting with being a cheapskate. Sure, you can opt to save more by spending less, but you can also save more by making more. I didn’t want to compromise my standard of living by ramping up my savings, so instead I chose to work more.
There are so many ways to go about managing your money, and so many tools out there to help you achieve full financial awareness.
Why be uncertain about your financial affairs when it’s something you can manage?
Anum Yoon is a writer-journalist currently based in Seoul, South Korea, but she switches back and forth between Hong Kong and Philadelphia as well. She runs Current on Currency, a millennial money blog for people who want to be better with their finances.