Last December, my husband and I joined my parents to celebrate my dad’s birthday in Chicago. It was a wonderful weekend getaway filled with museums, shopping, tasty food, Christmas lights, and lots of walking. But the highlight of the trip for us was that we took my parents to a nice restaurant and actually succeeded in paying for their dinner.
Now this was a feat! Sure, we had paid for my parents when we had gone to coffee shops and casual restaurants, but to pay for a nice birthday dinner out was a whole new level for us. My dad is the king of sneakily paying the bill before it even comes to the table. And while I’m always grateful for my parents’ generosity, sometimes it’s nice to treat your parents.
In order to pull it off, we had to arrive 15 minutes early and let the wait staff know in no uncertain terms that we were to take care of the check. The best part was that we didn’t tell my parents we were paying until the end so they didn’t scrimp on this special meal.
Nearly a year later, this still feels like one of my greatest markers of financial independence — even more than getting my first paycheck or buying my first home. Here are a few others worth striving for:
1. Having Money for Both Needs and Wants: After scrounging to pay the bills in grad school, once I got my first job it was shocking to actually have money left over after all of my basic needs were met. That meant I didn’t have to use cash when I went out on the weekends. I could afford to buy gifts, not just hand-make them. And I could both save and give to organizations I cared about without wondering if that would get in the way of paying for next week’s groceries.
Tip: Whether you make $30,000 or $100,000 a year, you have to plan in order to have money left over. That starts with getting a clear sense of your monthly expenses and putting the things you care about most first — like saving and giving right off the top of your paycheck rather than piecing together pennies with what’s left over.
2. Buying or Leasing Your First Vehicle: This was a big — and unexpected — milestone for me. In the span of one week, my car went from being fully-functional to having three serious issues. I had to act fast to get myself a different vehicle. That meant I needed to come up with a down payment and had to add a car payment to my budget. At the time, I just felt relieved to have a functional vehicle again, but as I look back, this feels like one of the greatest strides I made into financial adulthood.
Tip: If you haven’t crossed this threshold yet, I encourage you to do your research and really consider whether leasing or buying makes more sense for you. Take into account how long you might need the vehicle, how you’ll use it, the down payment amount, any ongoing maintenance, and (of course) the monthly payment.
3. Building an Emergency Stash: That first $1,000 I saved tasted like freedom, though it took longer than I’d like to admit to get there. Between starting out with saving just $20 a month, to getting into the unfortunate habit of borrowing from my emergency fund … let’s just say the amount in my account fluctuated quite a bit during the first few years. But when I finally made it a clear and non-negotiable priority, having a short-term emergency fund has given me peace of mind I didn’t know I needed.
Tip: Check out this blog article to learn more about how much you might need in your emergency fund and how you can save toward that goal.
4. Giving a Recurring Gift: As long as I can remember, I’ve loved giving to causes I care about. Yet somehow becoming a sustaining member of Minnesota Public Radio and our favorite artistic group, The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, felt different to me. Instead of being casually acquainted with these organizations, I became a committed investor. I revel in the fact that we support them both throughout the year.
Tip: You don’t need to have a lot of money to be a recurring giver. Start small — even $5 or $10 a month can make a difference to the cause you are supporting, especially when we all join our small gifts together.
5. Repaying a Loan: I came out of graduate school with four different student loans and worked really hard to pay off the smallest one before my wedding. When that finally happened I was filled with such joy! Even though I was nowhere near done with my repayment process, this small step forward gave me hope that someday I would get to the finish line.
Tip: Need help breaking your mountain of loans into conquerable chunks? Check out this video on my Facebook page with my favorite debt repayment strategies.
6. Taking a Debt-Free Vacation: Finishing a vacation relaxed and in the black is one of the best feelings in the world. Thankfully, our trips have never landed us in debt, but we have had to borrow from savings for a few unexpected costs that came up. Paying for your fun vacay after you’ve already enjoyed it is no fun at all!
Tip: Looking to make your dream trip a reality? Be really clear about where you are going to skimp and where you’ll splurge, and build a buffer into your budget so you have some flexibility to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities (or unanticipated costs). Not ready for that dream trip yet? Check out this blog article to help you set your sights on something a little more realistic but just as fun!
7. Combining Finances With Your Spouse: No matter how you decide to do it, this can be a daunting task. My husband I certainly struggled to find a way to keep our finances together while also giving each other the independence we needed to satisfy our own money personalities. We eventually landed on a group of yours, mine, and ours funds that works for us both.
Tip: Don’t fall into the trap of believing there’s just one right way to take this step. You need to find the best combination that works for you both. Need help along the way? Take my marriage & money assessment.
8. Breathing Space in Your Budget: This might be my favorite financial achievement to date. My husband and I have successfully maintained this bubble in our bank account for a year and a half. It has reduced our financial anxiety immensely and given us freedom to try new things.
Tip: Though this one’s simpler in theory than in practice, it can be done. Start by spending less than you earn. Then, if you get a raise, keep your budget the same. Make the necessary changes to give yourself this cushion, and you won’t look back.
What’s your favorite financial milestone that you’ve met? Share below!
This Thursday, Sept. 5, at 8pm Central I’ll be live on Instagram and Facebook walking through another financial milestone: retirement. Find out some mile markers you can aim toward on the way to making this big goal a possibility. Bring your retirement saving questions — I can’t wait to hear them!