Money conversations

Letters from Mom: The one money trick I wish I had known about when I started working

Letters from Mom is an ongoing series where I share words of wisdom with my son. Read more letters from mom.

Dear J,

When I graduated from college, I was really fortunate to get a job immediately at a great company with an excellent starting salary.

I got paid monthly and took home $2,673.61 in my first full month of work. Curious to see the actual pay stub?

At the time, I knew enough to put some money aside into a savings account. I set up direct deposit to deposit $100 to my savings account per pay period and the rest to my checking account.

With each raise, the rest got bigger and bigger. The amount I was saving did not.

Guess what happened?

Lifestyle creep.

The more money I made, the more I spent. I thought I deserved to spend it — after all, I worked really hard, didn’t I?

What I should have done instead

It took me almost 15 years to figure this out, but if I had just switched that direct deposit setup, I would be in a different position today.

I could have set the fixed amount to be deposited into my checking account and let the rest go to my savings account.

Then, any time I got a raise, I wouldn’t even notice it (out of sight, out of mind), but my savings would grow rapidly over time.

How to make it work

In order for this to work, though, you have to:

  • Be making enough
  • Know what that amount is
  • Be able to live (happily) on that amount

Let’s talk about each.


Simply said, your income needs to be greater than your expenses. Think about all of your necessary expenses — housing, bills, etc. After the necessary expenses are accounted for, do you have enough for your unnecessary (but desired) expenses — entertainment, gifts, travel?

What’s enough for you will be different than what is enough for someone else. We all have different lifestyles, needs and wants. Pay attention to your specific situation as well as what you really need and want. Don’t just do what everyone else is doing. Be mindful of the decisions you make.

(If you’re not making enough, put a plan in action to see how you can make more. How can you become more valuable in your field? Do you need to change fields or learn something new? What kinds of marketable skills could you acquire to help you earn more?)

How much is it?

Take the previous step a bit further and write down some specifics. What exactly is your income? What exactly are those necessary expenses? The unnecessary (but nice to have) expenses?

You can use good, old-fashioned paper and pencil, a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel or a program specifically for tracking your finances like YNAB or Mint. Find what works for you.

Make sure you gather data over time, as any one month won’t necessarily be representative of every month. An average over a long period of time (a year or a few years) will give you the best number.

And of course, make tweaks as needed. Maybe you’ll buy a house, move or change careers. Maybe you’ll get married or have a child. All of these events might require a reevaluation of your enough.

Living on enough

Now you know what enough is for you. Get on with living your best life. I’ll be rooting for you.

All my love,

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