I grew up in a decidedly middle-class family living a decidedly middle-class lifestyle for an American. This means a lot of good things and a lot of bad things for my experiences with relationships, finance, and making intelligent life decisions.
Some good things that came of my upbringing are that I lived in a safe neighborhood in a safe city (Fort Collins, CO). I had a moderately good education, at least by the standards of the United States. I never went hungry. I was taught from a young age that I could be whoever I wanted to be, which, I feel, is the specific hopeful attitude that is one of the largest determining factors in whether you are poor or middle class in the US. I have two little sisters who I love and have always had a pretty positive relationship with. I never got into drugs or smoking, which has doubtlessly saved me a lot of health and a lot of money.
Some things didn't go so well, yet I've found a way to make the most of them. My parents got a divorce after I left the house, having been in a fairly broken relationship for years. This meant that I never got a great example at home of how to show a girl you love her, but it taught me a whole bunch of things not to do, and has made me appreciate my fiancée more than I likely would have otherwise. The relationship was mostly broken due to my mother's bitterness and my father's alcoholism, so I have made the positive life choices of speaking to people respectfully the best I can (even when I disagree with them) and never drinking alcohol (I suspect my liver and my wallet both appreciate it).
But one of the hardest things to overcome has been my parents' mismanagement of our personal finances. Before the divorce, about the only good thing that could be said about our family's situation was that we had a mortgage on a nice house. We were the type of family that had over six figures of income to work with, yet were mired in credit card debt and personal loans. My mom's car was on a lease for years, and my dad lost his job right around the time of the Recession.
So when it came time for me to go to college, I was used to eating out on a regular basis, buying whatever I felt like buying when I felt like it, and, of course, taking out loans for things I don't have money for. Now, between my fiancée and I (she had a similar upbringing), we have about $100,000 of student loan debt. I have a car loan of about $17,000 remaining. Fortunately, we are free of credit card debt and have never had a personal loan.
I say all this in part to vent, but also with the hope of giving some advice to anyone who reads this. With personal finance, it's very important to look yourself in the mirror and be honest about both your problems and your realities, a bit like when you have a weight problem. Dave Ramsey's advice here is sound: you need to recognize you have a problem in order to solve it. I'm not 100% onboard with everything Dave says, because I think he's too quick to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution to personal finance, but he's mostly on the right track. Don't spend money you don't have, and you should absolutely not get in debt unless you're getting a house (in which case he recommends a 15-year fixed mortgage to minimize the interest you pay).
I named this post "Episode I" as a Star Wars reference, but also to point at the time when I started taking some of my financial problems more seriously. I've tried to pay down debts faster by making more money (a good first step; my fiancée and I have gone from about $40,000 to $71,000/year of gross income in three years). I've tried debt snowballing, but my debts are so large and daunting that it's hard to keep at it.
So mostly what I've woken up to is what Mr. Money Mustache recommends about food spending, because that's the big area where I still am not where I need to be financially. I've improved greatly since leaving my parents' place, eating in more and making fewer trips to get soda and candy at the grocery store, but am nowhere near MMM's "$75/week for food for three people" mastery (if you're wondering, he's from Colorado just like I am, so his numbers should be achievable for me). We still eat out pretty often, even though we're liking the same-old handful of restaurants less by the day, and we could still doubtlessly cut down our grocery store costs.
Our next big financial goal is getting my car paid off, and the first step to doing that is freeing up a ton of our income to throw at it. I'd recommend checking out MMM's blog post I linked to earlier, and his blog in general, to find ways to severely cut down your food expenses if you're in a situation like mine (or just want to save some extra cash).
I'll keep this blog updated with how things go!
Post number 53.