Money

HOW TO FOCUS ON YOUR FINANCES THIS YEAR

Hello 2021! If 2020 (and frankly the start to this year) has taught us anything, it’s that there are many things out of our control. For most of my adult life – I felt that my finances fell into this category. Which often led to a feeling of general helplessness and frustration. In January of 2019, finally fed up, I made a huge personal shift in my money mindset (you can read all about that here). To put it plainly, it changed my life.

I realize that for so many, the past year of the pandemic has been crippling when it comes to finances. But if you’re in a place where – due to debt, reduced income or just general uncertainty/fear – you’re not focused on your finances at all, I’m here to try and convince you to make a change. I say this as a person who has made a lot of mistakes with her money, had years where I had practically none of it and now am finally in a place where I’m out of debt, have emergency savings and am investing in my retirement. I promise you it can be done, even with the smallest baby steps.

It sounds counterintuitive, but being strict about my finances actually provides me a huge sense of freedom. The more I understand, track and control my budget and goals – the less worry, shame and guilt I feel about my finances. Below – my best advice for finally focusing on your own finances this year.

Go It Alone

You can only change yourself. If you partner isn’t on board yet or none of your friends/roommates talk about money – don’t wait for them to start the conversation. I can’t stress enough how important it is for women especially to not rely on anyone else when it comes to their finances. A savings account can give you the freedom to walk away from a bad relationship or a toxic work environment. Plus, on top of the fact that women statistically earn less than men.. we also outlive them. So we have more years to save for with less money to do it. It’s harsh.. I know.

The great thing is, once your partner, family or friends see you getting things on track – they just might be inspired to join in.

Become Financially Literate

I was SO intimidated when I first began my financial journey. I was always good at math but I’d never taken a course in accounting or personal finances and had couldn’t have told you the difference between a Traditional or a Roth IRA. It felt like an old white man’s club that I hadn’t been invited to. So I sent myself back to “school”. I found podcasts, blogs, books, Instagram accounts and youtube videos that talked about money in relatable ways. I sought out the voices of women that came from esteemed financial backgrounds, people with careers I admired and young people with similar messy financial starts who had since gotten themselves on track. It made me feel less alone, more informed and ultimately confident that I could figure this all out.

I like the podcast HerMoney and She Makes Money Moves, the info on Ellevest and Instagram accounts @thefinancebar, @babeonabudgetblog and @thefiscalfemme for starters.

Lead With Your Values

Money is SO personal. The reasons why I want to save or what I think is worthy of spending on is likely completely different than yours. And that’s fine! I found that once I wrote out the things that felt important to me and some benchmark life goals it really helped for me to get clear on why I wanted to focus on my finances. It also makes it easier to resist the urge to ‘add to cart’ because in the back of my mind I know what the bigger picture looks like and can remind myself of the “why” behind the numbers.

Lay It All Out

Look at every cent you have coming in against all of your fixed expenses. Make savings, debt repayment and – eventually – retirement investments non negotiable. See what’s left. Is it enough to live on? If not – could you pick up a side hustle to earn extra income? Could you sell unwanted items on Facebook Marketplace? Could you give up some of those monthly subscriptions? If it it enough – could you be saving more? A good benchmark is the 50/30/20 rule. You should spend 50% of your income on fixed expenses, 30% on discretionary spending and 20% on savings. Our budget lives in a Google Sheet so it’s easy to access and edit at all times.

Make Time for Your Money

This is probably my number one tip and my real “secret” if I have one. Make it a habit like anything else. I began looking at my finances as another layer of my health. If I can make time to workout, I also have to make time to budget.

  • DAILY: I check my account balance and budget spreadsheet for about 5 minutes every morning. I promise you – your skincare routine or mindless Instagram scroll takes longer than this – your schedule will allow it. And I find that when those numbers are top of mind it stays in your subconscious throughout the day and you’re more likely to make better decisions.
  • WEEKLY: Once a week Adam and I meet for about 15 minutes to check in about our spending that week, talk about anything coming up in the next couple of weeks and look at the month as a whole.
  • MONTHLY: We check in to be sure we met all of our monthly savings goals, make transfers between accounts (like our regular checking/savings and our high interest savings account) and look at how we’re tracking towards our yearly goals.
  • YEARLY: A major review of everything. We look at how we did the year prior (did we meet our goals? If not, why?) and plan for the year ahead (will there be any big purchases like a car or big vacation we want to save extra for? Does one of us want to look for a new job?). We also check in and revise our 2-year, 5-year, 10-year and 20-year plans as needed. Life is not perfectly predictable and these aren’t set in stone – but I think it’s important to have a big picture mentality.

To recap: Commit to starting – even if you’re on your own. Even if you can only set aside $10 a month. Even if you think you’ll never see the end of your student loans. Lean on free resources to get comfortable with finances. Make a list of your values, goals and create a preliminary budget for yourself. Track your income, expenses, spending, savings and debt payments. Check in on those numbers often and remind yourself why you started. Write to me in 6 months and tell me how far you’ve come.

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ON MONEY: BUDGETING FOR ACTIVISM

Between a worldwide pandemic and a nationwide uprising, for the first time – maybe ever – a lot of us have seen just how fragile (and often downright broken) our economic ecosystem truly is. And it’s compelled a lot of people, myself included, to spend their money differently. From donating to an organization that provided meals to healthcare workers from local restaurants to placing orders with Black-owned small businesses.

And that’s great. But these efforts need to be a movement and not a moment. Money is power and if we want to see change, we have to start distributing that power in a more responsible way. For most of us though, especially in the aftermath of said pandemic, money isn’t just endlessly abundant. Which means we need to budget for activism. In my opinion this can be done in two ways.

DONATIONS: The donations that I made in the past have been in response to an immediate need. A hurricane, pandemic, social injustice, etc. The problem is that this spending has been “discretionary” when it really needs to be “fixed”. I’ll explain. Discretionary money in a budget means that you see you’ve got $50 leftover at the end of a week after paying all of your bills and buying groceries and you choose to use it towards a donation instead of a new skirt. But to make long-lasting impact in our communities, we really need to move donations to monthly reoccurring payments and consider these fixed costs in our budget. Just like our electric bill. And if you think you don’t have $20 extra a month to give – I encourage you to call your electric, cable and phone companies and negotiate your bill. I promise you between the 3 of them, they’ll offer you at least a $20 discount per month to keep you as a customer. Boom! You just saved yourself $240 a year that can go straight to an impactful non-profit organization of your choice.

SHOPPING: This category falls into discretionary spending, but even within that part of your budget we can make conscious changes. Can 50% of your discretionary spending go to small businesses this year? How much of that can go to businesses owned by people of color or the LGBTQIA+ community? I, for one, want to do much more to support the small business community, especially here in New York City. Going forward I plan to share brands I’ve shopped and love or am inspired by in this space. Be that an awesome Black-owned wine bar/bookstore in the Bronx or a vintage-inspired handbag brand owned by two sisters here in Manhattan (gingham bag shown above!). I’ll be spending my money with activism and equality in mind. And if you aren’t in a place where you can be shopping right now – don’t forget that a “follow” on Instagram is free. And engaging on social media helps to bring exposure to new brands which might mean PR opportunities in a bigger publication or better placement in google ads that will reach consumers ready to shop.

Let’s put our money where our mouths are.

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ON MONEY: FINANCIAL PLANNING DURING A PANDEMIC

Well, this is a post I never thought I’d write. But I’ve seen a lot of “quarantine shopping lists” from bloggers lately and I can’t imagine that’s the type of content that anyone really needs right now. So I wanted to contribute something to a topic that hopefully felt more relevant and helpful.

Money. It’s the thing that’s come up in every single conversation I’ve had with friends, family members and fellow New Yorkers. After a fear of the virus itself – everyone I’ve spoken with has expressed some level of concern over money. And sadly, I think we’re just scraping the surface of those concerns. I’m obviously not an expert financial planner, but I do think there a few things that all of us could be doing right now to help ease our anxiety. Since we were all in very different financial situations before this even started, I’m breaking these suggestions down into 3 different scenarios that you might be finding yourself in right now.

If You Are Experiencing Major Financial Panic Right Now:

First of all, I’m sorry. There are SO many that fall into this category. From those that own a small business to those that were just laid off. I think the hardest thing is not knowing how long you’ll be in this situation, so it’s important to plan really carefully.

To begin, I’d write out every single non negotiable expense you have (rent/mortgage, insurance, groceries), every negotiable expense (netflix, gym membership) and where you’re at with any remaining income + savings. Cut every single negotiable expense and then run the numbers on how long you can last? If it’s one month or ten – at least you’ve got a deadline. Now, look again at those “non-negotiables”. Can you ask for a delayed rent payment in the meantime? Maybe you’ve got landlords who would be willing to help. Think you need to spend $300 a week on food? Here is a grocery list for 2 people that only costs $50 a week. My point is you’re going to need to get really creative here and take your expenses as close to rock bottom as you can.

Beyond that, there are a wealth of resources being shared right now about federal and state level funding for individuals put out of work or small businesses affected. I know they can feel overwhelming to sift through, but the sooner you look at what options might be available to you, the sooner you can feel a glimmer of relief. And don’t forget to think through what side hustle skills – like babysitting – could be of real use to others right now and could generate some extra income for you.

If You Are Feeling Unsure of How to Handle Your Finances Right Now:

I think the majority of us likely fall into this category. Maybe your spouse has lost their job but you still have yours. Or you are employed now but are worried you could be laid off down the line. Regardless of the circumstances, now is the time to reassess your budget and savings.

Look carefully at your monthly spending. This is not a normal month, so you can’t go with your normal budget. Adam and I just reviewed the monthly budget we use and quickly realized how much has changed. For instance, he is working from home which means he’s spending $0 in gas and tolls. Our grocery bill skyrocketed as we planned to cook 3 meals a day at home for both of us, but our discretionary budget for things like going to the movies or grabbing a drink has flatlined. Take time to adjust your budget to your new normal. That may either be more or less expensive than what you’re used to.

If there’s anything extra, I suggest bulking up any savings you have right now. 58% of millenials have less than $5,000 in savings – and if you live in an expensive place like New York, that isn’t going to last you all that long. We’re currently in the exact scenario of why you want to have an emergency fund. Start building it up any way you can.

If You Want to Manage Your Money Wisely Right Now:

First of all count yourself lucky. If you fall in this category it means you likely have a stable job that you know can weather this storm and a comfortable amount of savings.

I’d suggest being cautious with investments and spending – but if your discretionary budget still exists then please, please, please use it for the following. Supporting small businesses or giving back to those desperately in need right now. Below, a list of suggestions. And thank you in advance.

Small Businesses:

You may not receive your order right away, but every dollar means a lot to small businesses right now, and you can always consider a gift card too. Lulu Frost (the one I work for goes without saying – we’re a team of 7 based in NYC and female owned), Brooklyn Candle Studio, NYDJ (they’re giving a portion of proceeds back to charity as well) and McNally Jackson bookstores to name just a few.

Charities:

No Kid Hungry is supporting kids who are going hungry now that they’re out of schools, Heart to Heart is helping provide medical supplies and on a local level, here is a list of funds being raised for many of New York’s beloved bars and restaurants. These are just a short list of where I’ll be contributing, but do your research and help anywhere you can.

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ON MONEY: 10 IDEAS FOR FREE SELF CARE

There’s a booming, billion dollar industry built on wellness. But it’s a sort of ‘Instagram-ready’ wellness isn’t it? The fancy face cream. The $100 workout leggings. The expensive meditation retreat. Designed to have us all living our best lives.. for a price. All of it being sold to us as “self care”. Which makes it easy to treat yourself to these things under the pretense that it’s good for you. Which can become a slippery slope when it comes to trying to stick to a financial plan.

And I’m not here to argue that the pricey workout classes won’t get you toned, which may in turn lead to higher self esteem. Or that the $40 face mask won’t visibly decrease wrinkles and give you one less thing to stress about. I’m just saying that I don’t think these things are “self care”. Because if they are… it means that only a select percentage of women get to indulge in them. That, essentially, only the wealthy deserve “self care”. And that doesn’t sit well with me.

I think that the majority of the wellness industry should be considered treats. Just like buying a new pair of shoes. No need to deprive yourself of them if they fit within your budget and it’s something you want to prioritize – but if you’re looking for “self care” there are about a million ways to do it for free. Here are my top 10 favorite ways to feel like I’m truly taking care of myself, that don’t cost a dime:

  1. Phone a friend. I’m all for a quick text, but hearing a friend or family member’s actual voice in this digital age gives me such a true boost in happiness.
  2. While we’re on the subject of money, set aside time to check in on yours. I like to reserve at least 30-45 minutes once a week to review my budget. It makes me feel like I’m sticking to my goals and I’m in control of my spending. Adam and I actually do this together each week and it feels like self care for our relationship too.
  3. Fold and put away your laundry immediately. I’ll admit that the idea of this feels like climbing a mountain after already schlepping to the laundromat, but when I do it.. I feel SO much better. While you’re at it, make the bed each morning. The feeling of looking around your home and feeling at ease as opposed to feeling like you’re looking at one giant chore list is worth the extra up front effort.
  4. Learn something new. Google a random fact about a subject you’re interested in. Watch a youtube tutorial video or pick up a book that’s been lingering on your shelf. Just expand your mind for a few minutes.
  5. Stretchhh it out. It’s kind of amazing what a good stretch will do for you. You can easily Youtube some simple variations if you don’t know where to start.
  6. Play bartender/barista at home. There’s something that feels really great to me about taking time to fix yourself a nice drink. I love a gin and tonic with a twist of fresh lime or a big mug of peppermint green tea.
  7. While this one is free – it does require a partner so I realize it won’t be an option for everyone. But for god sakes if you’re lucky enough to have someone special in your life.. hug and kiss them! Daily! Multiple times a day in fact! It’s proven to promote feelings of happiness and closeness. And I mean, it’s probably the most fun thing on the list.
  8. Get your blood pumping. Sure – a good make-out session could do that too – but I mean working out. You don’t need a gym or fancy clothes or special training or sunny weather. I’m guessing you have 3 feet of free space and know how to run in place and do jumping jacks, sit-ups and push-ups? Great. Now repeat until you’re breathless and sweating. Pinterest and Youtube all have amazing, free routines you can try. If you’re not quite up for all of that, take a long walk instead. There’s nothing better in my opinion for clearing your mind.
  9. Go to bed 30 minutes earlier. For a long time Adam and I thought we didn’t need to go to bed until 11PM. Which meant we were still up watching TV at 11PM. We didn’t factor in that it takes us another 30 minutes to fold the blankets on the couch, lock up, wash our faces, brush our teeth, etc. etc. And before we knew it, the clock was striking midnight before we were truly asleep. Now we start to wind down everything at 10:30PM and I swear it has made a world of difference.
  10. They say the cure for anything is to just add water – and I really agree. If I can go for a swim, that’s the ideal, but if not I take a long hot shower or bath. Or drink a big glass of water. Or, if it’s really drastic, I’ll cue the waterworks (I’m not a cryer so this is pretty rare – but for some of you this may be a regular exercise which I think is great!). Either way, I always feel better after I’ve added water.

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THOUGHTS ON SUBSCRIPTION SHOPPING + AN HONEST REVIEW OF NUULY

If you have been following along, you already know that last January I made a major shift in how I viewed money and shopping. I overhauled my personal finances, completed a “no shopping” January (which led to 3 other “no shop” months throughout the year) and donated or sold probably a quarter of my wardrobe.

Now, when I add a new piece to my wardrobe it’s thought out and strategic. Can I wear it multiple ways? Does it reflect who I want to be? If I waited a couple of weeks would I still want it? If it was full-priced would I still want it? It’s been a strategy serving me well this past year and it truly helped to break that unnecessary urge to always have something “new”. Not to mention it’s far more sustainable as I wasn’t constantly picking up fast fashion that I probably wouldn’t wear for more than a season or two.

But what if you could have that something new feeling without financially committing? I’ve heard plenty of people (blogger’s especially who always want to have new things to wear) rave about shopping subscriptions like Rent the Runway and I have to admit – I was curious. So when Nuuly – from the geniuses behind Anthropologie/Urban Outfitters/Free People – reached out to offer me a free 3 month subscription, I knew I wanted to give it a try. After 3 free months I paid for one additional month so far just so I’d have a true customer experience.

The Pros: You get to pick 6 items of clothing each month for $89/month. They handle all of the dry cleaning, repairs etc. so what you get looks brand new. Overall, I thought the selection was great with brands you’d find at Nordstrom and Shopbop plus new arrivals from Anthro, Urban and FP. I gravitated towards more fashion/trend pieces – a fun coat, a statement dress – that I otherwise would have been tempted by on a trip to Anthropologie, but saved myself the $200 price tag and the need to make permanent room for it in my closet. And usually at the end of the month, I was fine returning the pieces.

The Cons: I’ve mentioned before but I’m a sentimental person, especially when it comes to my wardrobe. If I have a particularly great memory while wearing something – it’s very hard for me to let it go. Which means after I wore this perfect sequin dress to a holiday concert with Adam.. I couldn’t part with it. The upside is that you can buy items at a pretty good discount and don’t have to ship them back. However, if I hadn’t been trying this service – I likely would have not been tempted to get something new for the concert. So if you’re someone who is going to be easily tempted – this could actually end up make you buying more.

Overall? I like the concept. For something like a vacation or the holiday season, I think it’s a really great way – for a relatively low cost – to have a fun assortment of pretty new things to wear. Like this cute minty fresh jacket. Or if you’re in a transitional phase like a new mom or someone who is kind of figuring out there style – I think this is such a great way to get to try things on and see what you like before committing your closet to a direction or size.

But if I were to do it every single month, I kind of feel like it would eat away at the mindset I worked so hard to achieve – which is the feeling that what I have is enough and I don’t always need more, more, more… new, new, new. And, for someone who is set on building a closet full of things I love that carry memories I want to hold on to – the fleeting nature isn’t really in line with that. I’m going to hit pause on my subscription for next month, but may use it again in March when we’ve got a warm weather trip planned!

I’m curious if any of you have tried subscription shopping and what your thoughts have been? P.S. If you’re interested in trying Nuuly they gave me an offer code to share that gets you $20 off your first month. – this post wasn’t sponsored, but as mentioned my first 3 month trial was gifted.

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The Steele Maiden © 2012

Fashion, Travel & Lifestyle. Based in NYC.