Illustration by Lucia S.

I’ve been a shopaholic for as long as I can reasonably recall. It started when I was about twelve or so, when I got my first iTunes account and suddenly had access to all these different albums and movies and audiobooks, all available at the tap of a finger. Before then I’d always had to ask my parents for permission for all my purchases, but with iTunes gift cards and internet access, suddenly the entire store was within reach—and that’s when the madness began. All of a sudden if I got money for my birthday or Christmas, it seemed to fall through my fingers as I spent it almost immediately on digital downloads. Then I got my first credit card, and after I loaded it into my account things temporarily got even more out of control—I was buying stuff left and right, pretty much every day. It was just so easy—an album might cost me $9.99, or a song might make me $0.99 poorer, but the amount were so small that sometimes I couldn’t keep track of how much I was actually handing over. It came to a head when my dad saw my bill one day near the end of the year and noticed the annual total: over two thousand dollars spent almost entirely on iTunes, all on credit. (That is INSANE, and my dad was rightfully alarmed and pissed.)

Only after that debacle did I start to realize—actually internalize—what a huge problem I’d developed. I’m not sure how best to really hammer this home to you, but I literally could not stop spending. I had to hand over all my access to money to my parents for a while for fear that I would relapse, and I locked myself out of my own iTunes account to remove any temptation. The issue wasn’t merely that I was a frivolous spender—it was that I had a really inaccurate concept of the ownership of money and the responsibilities that came with it. Sure, I was making payments on the bills I racked up, but I’d fallen into the trap of only making the minimum payments each month, while the interest piled on. We’ll get more to the interest stuff shortly, but one thing I hadn’t taken into account—naïvely—was that at some point I would have to pay the full amount off, and it would be coming out of my savings.

I eventually recovered from that, and by thinking back to that awful, awful moment when my dad saw that annual total I learned to curb my spend-without-thinking mindset, but it’s not as if I magically became a money-handling pro—I still tended to prioritize buying unnecessary stuff like clothes and going to the movies over, say, food. It’s not as bad now, but when money was really tight, maybe because an unexpected expense, event, or birthday had come up, I would look into my wallet some days and find that I didn’t have enough cash to eat during long days at school. And it seemed like a never-ending cycle: I never seemed to have enough money even when I cut back, because then all of a sudden there would be a new obligation I’d have to pay for. Example: When I stopped buying clothes and other extras altogether, I started having to pay for car-related expenses like gas and insurance, and my personal financial situation became even more strained than before. The chain reaction of my never having enough cash meant I then started owing friends money for covering lunch for me at school, and that exacerbated my debt and accentuated to me how I never, ever felt like I had enough money. I always had to scrutinize every single purchase—right down to whether or not I wanted to order a $2 juice at lunch or stick with water because it’s free. Pile on top of that my new student loans, the fact that the cost of textbooks and tuition ate up most of those student loans, and the anxiety of what other things I’d have to pay for in the months and years ahead and it’s pretty easy to see why my mind was always on my money (or lack thereof). To an extent, it still is.

All of this is a combination of my tendency to behave like a real spendthrift—someone who, too often, spends money carelessly and wastefully—but even as I’ve grown and moved away from that kind of behavior, the natural monetary responsibilities that come with increasing independence have also added to my stress. It’s tough to explain to people why I always seem to have no money when I’m working and getting student loans, and it makes me feel horribly guilty and super irresponsible to admit that I’m short on cash because in the past, I just didn’t save enough for my current sitch. I know how it feels to be stuck in that crappy spiral of debt, but just because you might have taken on some debt doesn’t mean you’re a bad, awful person who should never have access to money again. Debt is a big deal, but with determination, the right knowledge, and dedication, you can move to toward squashing it entirely and foster healthy money habits at the same time.

First: Common non-cash “money.”

You probably already have a pretty good grasp of how to handle cash—it’s right in front of you, and it’s easy to see how much you have. But I’m putting this other kind of money in quotation marks because in reality, these things aren’t your money to keep—they have to be paid back. Credit cards are fast, convenient ways to access money without carrying wads of cash around at the mall. But because you’re just handing over a piece of plastic to pay for stuff and never exactly see how much you’re spending like you would if you used cash, it’s extra important to always be checking how much you’re putting on your card. Think of credit cards as loans from the credit card company: eventually, you’ll be held liable for paying back every cent of what you borrowed from Visa, MasterCard, or whatever credit card company you’ve chosen. You need to pay these credit card bills on time because if you don’t, your credit rating will be affected—meaning you won’t be labelled as responsible as a loaner and spender than if you had paid those bills promptly. A damaged credit rating can have serious effects on your future, so it’s pertinent that you pay your bills right away.

The danger of credit cards is that they allow you to possibly spend more money than you actually have, which is why it’s so, so important to keep track. I might sound like a broken record here, but please: try as hard as you can not to spend more on your credit card than you actually have in your bank account. And make sure you aren’t just looking at this thing called the “Minimum Payment” on your bill, paying that, and thinking, “Great, I’m done for the month!”

Why? Because of interest. Paying only the minimum payment—a small portion of the total balance on your monthly bill—lets you stay in decent standing with your credit card company, sure, but there are consequences to leaving the rest of your bill unpaid. If you aren’t able to pay off the full balance owing each month for your credit card, you’ll be charged interest on the remaining amount that you’re weren’t able to pay. That means that next month, you’ll have to pay the remaining amount you weren’t able to pay, plus the interest you were charged on it, plus the balance you’ve incurred in that month. Say at the end of September you had a bill for $10, but only paid back $9. If the interest rate is 15% (15% of however much you haven’t paid), then that means at the end of October, you’ll have to pay $1.15. Then let’s say in October you spent $15—that means you’ll have a balance of $16.15 on your bill at the end of that month, when if you had paid the full amount in September it would have been $15. Credit card interest rates are variable from company to company, but they’re high—you don’t want to be paying more than you’re spending if you can avoid it. It seems OK when the bill is under twenty bucks, but consider if that 15% had been charged on $100, $1000, or $10,000, and interest charges can wreak total havoc someone’s financial situation.

Another word of caution: If you don’t pay your interest off, then the next month you’ll be charged interest againon the balance that includes the interest you incurred the month before! It can quickly turn into an endless, vicious cycle if you don’t keep it under control. Credit card debt is easy to gain and can be extremely difficult to stamp out, so if you can, avoid it entirely—and if you do incur it, make sure you have a secure payment plan in place you can 100% stick to in order to ensure that you don’t fall into the interest-upon-interest-upon-interest and minimum payment trap.

Every credit card company and bank has different terms and policies for their cardholders. Some prefer that you pay bills online, while others require you to come into a bank location. The above guidelines are some policies that carry over different companies, but in terms of the age at which you can get a personal credit card, the interest rates, your card limit, and the other fine print that comes with a credit card, make sure you speak with the individual who assists you in applying for and setting up your card for the full terms and conditions. Make sure you’re completely clear on what rules you need to follow, what days you need to pay your bills, and how to read your statement before you ever use a credit card.

Student loans are another part of the money management maze. I recently applied for and received my first student loan, and it was great to see that money come into my bank account. But too many people I know have been in the same situation and found themselves inadvertently in trouble, because they’ve seen the loan come in and treated that influx of money like it’s a free grant they never have to pay back. Don’t do that. Remember that student loans—and all other kinds of loans—do need to be repaid eventually, and if you spend it all on stuff you don’t actually need, you’ll be stuck paying it all back for a long period of time.

What I’ve done personally to lessen the length of time it’ll take me to pay back my student loans at the end of my time at university is pretty simple—I’m spending as tiny of an amount of my total loan as I can. I got some grants and scholarships for my schooling, and I used that up before I started in on my loans; that’ll mean I keep more of my loan in the bank and won’t have to work as hard (hopefully!) to pay it all back to the government in the end. But I never know if an unexpected expense will come up, so I’m also working on pre-emptively saving up for paying back my loans now, before the actual day comes when I have to start paying it back—that way, even if I end up using every dollar of my loan, I’ll be prepared to start repaying it. If you, too, want to go the way of student loans, make sure you apply early to make sure you get the money before an emergency hits and you absolutely need it and spend those funds carefully.

So, in summary, for those considering credit cards:

  • Make sure you understand the terms!
  • Try to pay off as much of your monthly bill as you can.
  • Pay your bills on time.

And some tips for those considering taking out student loans:

  • Apply early.
  • Spend your funds wisely!
  • Remember: it’s a loan, not a freebie.

And always, always keep track of how much you’ve spent over the course of the month. I keep repeating this because it’s so incredibly crucial. If you take nothing else from this article, remember this piece of advice.

Second: Money and the people around you.

OK, so you’ve got a solid understanding of your monetary assets and how to keep debt under control. Awesome! But there are outside factors that can also put a drain on your finances, like the attitudes of those around you.

Here’s something not everyone considers: remember those car-related expenses I mentioned earlier? Ever since I started driving frequently, I’ve gotten requests from people I know for free rides to various destinations—people who, in return, will not drive me anywhere, either because they legally cannot or because they don’t want to. I drive a gas-guzzling hand-me-down SUV, and gas is very expensive for me—upwards of $85 a tank, which generally lasts me about one week—and because of that, driving other people and picking them up can quite literally cost me a lot of money. Now, I’m not opposed at all to doing a few favors for good friends, but when it becomes a recurring expectation that I’ll immediately drive anyone who asks, it becomes a problem. Since my finances are so strained (I’m workin’ on it, like I said, but it’s still not an easy road), I often feel pressured to accept these requests even when it would be better for my wallet and my financially anxious brain if I politely turned them down. But it’s not so easy to say no, because on some level I understand where these requests are coming from: I have a car, it seems like it would be no trouble for me to drive five, ten, fifteen minutes to drop off someone who’s on my side of town. I get it—but the fact remains that it drains my gas, my money, and my peace of mind.

When I expressed my woes to my parents, they suggested I start asking those who asked me for rides to pitch in a little small change for gas money. But when I approached the individuals asking for rides with that proposition, I was met with a variety of reactions: confusion, shock; some people were even offended that I would dare to ask for a contribution at all, even if they were already aware of my financial issues. It made me feel like a jerk to have to say I couldn’t drive these people if they weren’t willing to pitch in, and sometimes I would cave anyway out of guilt because, aside from this issue, they were otherwise good friends. It didn’t help that I’d get comments like, “It’s just a short ride!” and “Oh, come on, it’s not a big deal!” and “You’ve done it before!” that made me feel even more like an uptight money freak. I thought I was being nice, but I wasn’t really doing myself any favors by continuing to take rides when it wasn’t feasible for me.

Now, except for special circumstances, I make sure to clearly explain my situation to anyone who asks for a ride—and if they won’t contribute a couple bucks, I just let them find their own way as long as it’s not a dire situation. To be honest, I still feel a little guilty, but I have to remember that healing my own financial security is key to preventing the snowballing of my debt into the future. It’s just one way that the interaction between my own money and people in my life can have an effect on my finances; you may face similar personal situations, and I encourage you to find a solution to these quandaries that enables you to balance both your money and the people around you in healthy ways, as I’ve tried to do above. This might mean saying no to an invitation to go out when you know you can’t afford it or suggesting that instead of going to the movies, you and your friends have a screening of your fave flick at someone’s home. Whatever you choose, don’t be ashamed—you’re just doing what’s best for you, and the people around you have to respect that.

Finally, remember is that you’re not alone. Although you may not know it, even some of the people very close to you may be fighting the same money struggle you are, and it’s important to be sensitive to that. It may not seem like they’re struggling, but if they do not want you to know, you may never find out. So if anyone you know declines an invitation or refuses to participate in an activity on the basis of financial stability, extend to them the same respect you’d appreciate if you were the one in their shoes—regardless of whether or not you’re facing the same money-related hurdles. This mutual respect, empathy, and support is another huge part of being unafraid to tackle debt.

So, Rooks, I hope this helped give you some insight into the world of spending, saving, and managing your money responsibly. This isn’t the full picture; the financial world is very complicated, and things like mortgages and bank loans and stocks and bonds are whole other animals that I haven’t even touched on. They’re important, too. But the info provided here can offer you a starting point for healthy, sensible money handling for the present that can set you up for even greater success in the future. ♦