How a Technical Writer Who Didn’t Think of Herself as a “Money Person” Does Money

Photo credit: Jasen Miller, CC BY 2.0.

Claudia (not her real name) is a 47-year-old technical writer in Colorado.

So, Claudia, how much are you making?

About $65,000 if you include the annual stock bonus. My husband makes about $105,000.

Got it. So around $170K total.

We are a joint financial entity, so yeah.

How does that money compare to your expenses?

It definitely covers them…

We both contribute the max to our 401(k)s and have $1,000 pulled out monthly to our savings, so the $8,500 that’s left is plenty to pay the bills.

We could be better about saving more money. That’s the constant drum beat in my head these days. I’d say I’m having an existential debate between the grasshopper and ant mentalities in my head, which gets translated into a kind of sine wave when it comes to being frugal and saving for a rainy day, retirement, investments, vs. spending money now. I want to eat, drink, and be merry because we could all die tomorrow.

LOL, but seriously. I’ve been thinking of how to encapsulate my $$$ philosophy, and that’s it.

You do sound like you’re saving a lot: $12,000 annually plus a double 401(k) max. Do you feel like that’s not enough? Have you done the math on how much money you might need in the future?

No, we need to do that. My husband’s been saving in his 401(k) since we got engaged in ‘95, but he’s also moved jobs a few times and now has 401(k)s hanging around in different accounts that need to be consolidated. I’ve been nagging him about the need to do this for years. He’s otherwise very responsible but he’s been dragging his feet on this because it’s so not what a person wants to do…

I’ve just really started saving since 2009, but the good news is that I missed that ‘08 crash and I know exactly what I have in my two accounts.

We’ve made it a goal for this fall to consolidate his stuff and talk to a CFP. His dad just died in May so he gets a pass for a while and then we’ll get serious.

Wait, that sounded harsh. His words, he gets a pass for a while because his dad just died and he’s now managing his dad’s estate.

No, I get it. That’s both emotionally consuming and time consuming.

But back to that question of whether you think you’re saving enough. What would “enough” feel like to you?

That’s a good question. I guess enough would be about what we’re making annually now, minus the mortgage for the house that would be paid off by then. I would like to be able to travel too.

Or still. We travel now.

So $170,000 in liquid cash savings, plus you’d continue to max your 401(k)s, plus you’d be debt free and have a travel fund?

Yeah, something like that.

How close are you to that goal?

I really don’t know. We need to corral those 401(k)s of his and talk to a CFP soon. I know we’ve got 20+ years until we’re retirement age, but that doesn’t feel like a lot of time now that we’re in our 40s and we’ve been married that long. You know? I know how 20 years can go by in a relative blink.

I feel like I’ve had a sort of late financial coming of age. And I’m overcoming some irrational thinking and blind spots (thanks to The Billfold in no small part) that I really wish I’d overcome sooner, like 30 years ago.

I’d have started saving, for instance, to have an “oh shit” fund or a “f off” fund, much earlier.

How has your approach to personal finance changed since you had this coming of age? Besides saving more. 😀

Reading articles on The Billfold, especially the Doing Money series, has expanded an epiphany that I’ve been having in slow motion for the last couple of years… that — again, this is me overcoming some stupid, irrational thinking — one isn’t born either a “money person” or “not.”

In the past, I would see my friends who are “money people” managing their money, budgeting, investing, being really frugal in some areas so that they had a savings to fall back on, and for some dumb reason that I can kind of blame on how I was raised but also take full responsibility for, I thought I am not that kind of person. I’m not smart enough to do that, or I don’t want to worry that much… or something. It wasn’t so much conscious as it was an avoidance based on this belief I had from childhood that any kind of worrying about money was to be avoided at all costs… and that being well off meant not having to worry about money.

Now what do you think being “well-off” means?

Well-off to me now means living within your means and having six months’ worth (or more) of income in easily accessible cash, plus being on your way to being able to retire to a lifestyle that you look forward to.

I think when I was younger and dumber, I thought being well-off or “rich” meant having a mansion, luxury cars, being able to pay people to clean, do yardwork etc.

When I was a kid, growing up blue collar in Idaho, I thought our neighbors who had AC in their house were rich. So, I’ve come a long way.

Where do you want to be financially in five years? In terms of both actual money in the bank and mental attitudes about money?

Right now, we’re building our savings back up to the point of having that six months of income in ready cash. We had that, and used four months’ worth of it five years back to buy the house that we plan to live in until we’re wheeled out of it in one way or another. Our savings have fluctuated, as we’ve helped out my mom who’s been living on her SSI shoestring budget since my dad died shortly after we bought our house.

I hope in five years we have six months to a year’s worth of income saved, an investment property, and a good relationship with a CFP who can tell us exactly how much money we need to retire and be able to travel like we’d like.

We live in Colorado, the “Napa of Beer,” and because we have a great community of friends here who are involved in the craft beer, and craft distillery worlds, and because we both love to go out to eat, and to drink, that’s our financial Achilles heel. We’ve gotten over the need to buy stuff to keep up with the Joneses — we both drive old Subarus and work in tech where the dress code is “Colorado Casual” — but it’s really hard to tell ourselves no when someone invites us out to have dinner or drinks.

So, my goal is to get better at saying no and to have a more clear idea of what we’re saving for when say no. In the past, I think I avoided talking to a CFP because I didn’t want someone telling me to stop having fun, and I didn’t want to worry about money, but now I think I’m at the juncture where talking to a professional might help me worry less and budget better so that I can balance the ant and grasshopper impulses.

I hope you find a great person to talk to!

Last question: what advice do you have for Billfold readers!

I know that people have to learn from their own painful mistakes, but if you could learn from others, that would be cheaper! Don’t waste money and lose years of compound interest because you think you’re not a “money person.” It’s not a genetically inherited trait. You can learn how to manage money and even to make a game of it. And even if you come from a family where, in your childhood, “money” was a fighting word, you can get past that.

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