By Rebecca Spiess
My very first experiences managing my own money as a teenager were surprisingly successful. I started working at 15, after my parents urged me to start a savings account.
The job was in the kitchen of a nursing home where I’d been volunteering for years. I was serving seniors with severe dementia. It was a hard job, I didn’t get paid much and the hours were grueling because we were chronically understaffed.
My paycheck was a direct deposit, and I didn’t check my balance often, so I was surprised when my savings began adding up. I eventually used my nest egg to help pay for tuition and saved myself a lot of pain during my first years of college. For a 16-year-old, I was pretty financially savvy.
Those first few years, I didn’t feel a strong urge to spend. I never wanted a car, expensive clothes or electronics. My money was always earmarked for school; My parents had been living paycheck to paycheck for so long that I always knew I couldn’t rely on them to bail me out. If they did, the whole family would suffer. So having a buffer was always a necessity, and they drilled it into me early on.
I also got lucky with my next job: the second day after I moved out of my parent’s house, I landed a position as a waitress at a very successful breakfast joint. I wasn’t used to getting tips, and walking out with almost $200 in my pocket every day felt intoxicating.
Without a car in downtown Phoenix, I had trouble depositing my money. I paid my rent in a fancy new apartment development in cash, and would eventually deposit tips in one exceedingly obnoxious ATM visit every three weeks.
One thing I learned quickly is it’s really easy to get cocky when your wages almost triple overnight. You find new ways to spend money: I began relying on Uber rather than public transportation. I would go to the fancier grocery store in a different part of town and eat out more often. I’d buy a meal for a friend and pay my own airfare to go see relatives. I bought myself skiis and a new laptop.
Then I came down with bronchitis. Most customers don’t appreciate having a waitress who is hacking up a lung, so I had to take time off and eventually go see a doctor. My parents don’t have insurance, so I don’t have insurance. I had to buy antibiotics and an inhaler. While things never got too serious, it was alarming to see how fast my balance spiraled downward without a steady stream of tips.
When I get too confident, I use this experience to remind myself that it would only take a broken ankle, a family emergency or a stolen wallet to be in some serious trouble. I use a healthy amount of caution when it comes to my finances and always keep money set aside for emergencies. I’m glad my parents insisted I learn this early.
Rebecca Spiess is a student at Arizona State University.