Money is a complicated thing for anyone. But it’s especially complicated for the passionate souls who pour from school hallways every year after college graduation. These newly initiated adults are armed with optimism and maybe even some bravado. Very rarely, however, are they armed with financial literacy.
I should know. I was once one of them.
Though I’d been rallied to change the world upon graduation, I had little understanding of how to check my credit score or repay my student loans. Not that it mattered to me at the time; I had bigger and better things to do. At least, that was my attitude then.
But here I am – older and years wiser – to admit that it was only when I began caring about personal finance that I was able to get closer to fulfilling my most aspirational goals.
I know I’m not the only one who’s ever stood in the face of finance and scoffed or run far, far away. That’s why I wanted to share how it came to be that I, a creative writing student, embraced personal finance as a stepping stone to get closer to where I wanted to be. Consider this my hindsight, a note to past self. “Dear me, you were slightly wrong about money. That’s OK, but here’s what you should know.”
Setting the Scene
You see, despite my interest in personal finance now, money wasn’t always something I found to be interesting. Quite the opposite, in fact. Money was downright intimidating to me straight out of college.
Here’s just a small sampling of what I felt when I thought about finance in my early twenties:
- Embarrassment because I had no idea about things like basic budgeting, repaying student loans, and 401ks.
- Fear every time I received a student loan statement in the mail (which often meant I didn’t look at it).
- Shame when I thought about “wealth.” I’d always assumed showing interest in money was a sign of greediness.
- Apathy about anything other than my month-to-month balance.
- All the above when I overdrew my account. Which I most certainly did with regularity.
It was a pretty terrible chorus of emotions, don’t you think? No wonder I wasn’t interested in thinking about money. I was almost always miserable when I did! The mere mention of finance had all sorts of negative emotions bubbling up in me.
So, of course, I did what any average student of life would do in my situation. I ostrich-ed the issue. I dug my head into the sand and tried to ignore the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t – to say the least – a very productive approach for a graduate with nearly $26,000 in student loan debt to pay off.
The ostrich-ing, of course, led to many missteps and hard lessons. I paid minimum payments on my student loans for nearly a year before I realized I was only paying the interest and not the principal balance. A year of work had done nothing to whittle down my debt. After that blow, I thought I was doomed to scrape by. I even went even so far to say “I’m just not good with money.”
Paying my bills felt like a Sisyphean task each month. “This was the life I chose when I studied creative writing,” I started to tell to myself, having heard the same sentiment voiced by so many other people. “It’s either financial stability or creative fulfillment.”
This is where I’d like to wave a huge red flag and screech the story to a halt. Because I suspect this is where many people get stuck. They resign themselves to a life of financial struggle in order to pursue their passions. So listen here, all of you passionate souls – it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the merging of financial stability with my creative interests is what brought me where I am today.
You see, something truly special happened over the years that helped me to shape a much more successful creative path. I learned a different set of financial emotions. Instead of seeing money as something taboo or disheartening, I felt:
- Empowerment when I realized I could make my money work for me.
- Curious about what changes I could make in my life if I used a financial platform as my springboard.
- Eager to learn more.
I know that must seem a very far and mighty jump, especially after my rather distraught intro. So how exactly did I get from point A (a chorus of negative emotions) to point B (a choir of positivity)? What was the magic trick that helped me take charge of my financial future?
Turns out it was a powerfully simple habit that turned everything on its head. I learned how to say, “I don’t know.” That’s where I’d like to focus attention now, rather than repeating the story about financial struggle we all know so well. Because it was in saying “I don’t know” that I broke free from the plot and started to write my own.
The Power of Not Knowing
I’m not sure about you, but somewhere during my “growing up” years, I picked up this silly idea that I should know things I’d never learned. I assumed that a deep understanding of things like credit scores and interest rates would come to me in the night (like an adult tooth or something). I seriously believed this.
When I graduated, I thought I’d just “get” finance. When it didn’t happen immediately, I became disheartened and gave into the narrative that I just wasn’t financially-minded. This was, in a single but honest word, ridiculous.
I liken it to traveling to a new country and expecting to speak the language immediately upon arrival. Not only is it an unrealistic expectation, it totally ignores the hard work and practice required to learn a new language.
But make no mistake about it, learning the language of finance is no different from any other language. It takes work and it takes effort. I wasn’t bad with money because I had a creative degree and us creative folk aren't money-inclined. I was stumbling because I was just starting to learn a new language. The mistakes of learning were normal, but they seemed to have such high stakes. They made me feel incapable of managing basic logistics, a feeling which rippled to other parts of my life.
And that, friends, is exactly why the simple act of admitting that I didn’t know launched me so far. The assumption that financial literacy is something that comes in the night was one of my earliest and proudest financial excuses. Particularly when paired with the (rightful) declaration that they should just teach you all that stuff in school. These excuses made it all so much easier to pretend like it wasn’t my responsibility.
But you see with my first “I don’t know,” I finally acknowledged that I was a beginner. That meant I finally gave myself permission to act like one.
“I don’t know!” I proclaimed loudly as I talked with my bank about whether or not I wanted to open up a new account. “I don’t know!” I answered when an advisor asked me if I knew the difference between stocks and bonds.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know!”
It was uncomfortable at first. Of course. But that discomfort was a life-changer, as discomfort often is. Scary as it might seem, do you know what all those “I don’t knows” got me? Answers. Knowledge.
When I stitched them all together, those “I don’t knows!” were the bricks that built my financial literacy. If you take nothing else away from this article, please, please remember this: There is no shame in not knowing. Not knowing is a crucial and essential first step in learning. Humility turned into the most valuable tools I could add to my financial tool belt.
Choosing curiosity over fear was a huge turning point for me. Money wasn’t intimidating or shameful anymore; it was just another thing to learn. It was an attitude that translated powerfully into the rest of my life. When we stop fearing the things we don’t know, we start exploring whole new worlds of possibilities.
The Power of Learning
There were so many positive outcomes that came about from learning the basic financial language. When I learned how to maintain a balance, I didn’t have to scramble so much each month. I became more confident as a result. When I understood how to set my freelance rates (without feeling guilty), I could do more high-value work in less time. This helped me later down the road. When I felt I deserved a certain salary, I would ask for it instead of shying away.
Financial knowledge meant the difference between suffering each month and feeling empowered to make career moves that take me closer to where I want to be. Each decision brought me closer to where I wanted to be.
This financial confidence turned into the fuel on the trip towards my passions. Just like you’d fuel a car to take you further faster, I was using financial stability to help me propel my journey forward. This is important to understand: personal finance is a powerful enabler in achieving your passions.
This is something we don’t always like to acknowledge. Especially the eager, creative minds in the bunch. But consider this — once I felt I had a grasp of my finances, it felt as if I’d taken hold of a joystick. I knew I could direct it in the direction I wanted to go, rather than get swept along for the ride.
That certainly didn’t mean I didn’t face challenges and lose many games. I had many wrongs turns. That’s to be expected anytime you’re learning something new. But I know now that I have options. No longer do I feel like I’m racing for a salary. I feel like I’m charging towards choice. I know that if I save now, I could very well add the option to quit my job and work on my personal projects in the future.
It’s a powerful place to be. Especially for a creative writing graduate who’s been asked more than she cares to remember, “What exactly are you going to do with that degree?”
If I could go back and answer any of those folks, I’d now tell them: “Outline a financial goal that will support me on my path towards my goals, then work incrementally to achieve it. Use my hard-earned skills in communication and writing to make things of meaning and earn a paycheck while doing it. Once I reach my financial goal, choose whether I work for myself or someone else. Oh, and I’ll write a book if I feel like it.”
That’s a heck of a lot better than shrugging, burning with shame, and jokingly replying, “We’ll see.”
So what’s next in my financial journey? At the risk of sounding predictable, more of the same. I’m now learning about things like investing. As an even more effective way to make your money work for you; like a hyper-boost. And guess what? The first thing I’ll do when I sit down in front of the computer to research is type in “I don’t know how to invest.”