Ask Paco (Because Finance Can Be Fun)

Once a month, finance expert Paco de Leon will be tackling our pressing questions about all things money (with a good dose of wit and wisdom). Here are today’s three topics…

Q. I am bad at saving money. I’ve made a budget and do my best to stick to it, but life is expensive and too often it feels like all the money disappears as soon as it hits my bank account. Do you have any real-life tricks for saving? — Isabel

A. The human brain is a funny thing. Even I — who tell people about finance for a living — have struggled with setting money aside. You know how people say that work will take up as much time as you allow it? Well, bullsh*t spending will take up as much money as you allow it. Here are some things you can do:

1. Protect yourself from yourself.
If you don’t see it, you won’t spend it. So, if you work at a job with an HR department, ask if you can set up a direct deposit where some percentage of your paycheck goes directly into savings. You can also set up an automatic transfer that happens on your payday. For freelancers, designate a regular day where you sit down, look at all your receivables and expenses, and set money aside.

2. Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
To help cut back on spending, unsubscribe from any email lists you get from stores and brands, and delete any shopping apps, if you have them. I actually gave up social media — I haven’t been on Instagram in a year. I know it’s a huge thing to ask, but I do think social media has a lot to do with driving consumption, so at least try to limit it. Capitalism wants to make you buy stuff, with all the emails and ads and constant pinging that makes you feel unsteady. Take deep breaths. Remember: You are enough already.

3. Embrace breakfast.
If you have to take a meeting out, make it a breakfast or a coffee, which will be cheaper than meeting for lunch, dinner or drinks.

4. Give yourself an allowance.
Have one bank account that’s for your expenses — rent or mortgage, groceries, student loans, car payments, insurance, etc. Then set up another account for everything else — all the pizza and all the shoes. This is your allowance. This is THE ONLY PLACE you’re allowed to draw money from for all the extra stuff. Otherwise, it’s so easy to look at your one account that has everything in it and be like, ‘I should go to Disneyland!’ Limit yourself. Humans can’t be trusted.

5. Make it a game.
I like to make up challenges for myself, so I can feel good when I overcome them. For a whole year, I bought only used things. (Yes, that’s extreme, but I’m kind of an extreme person.) I’ll invite people over, and we’ll cook and spend hours talking or playing music, which doesn’t cost a lot. Or I’ll go for long walks in the park, which is free. Make a game for yourself where you don’t buy takeout coffee for one week or where you try to save up a certain amount. Once you’ve hit your first milestone, it’s kind of like a ball going through a hoop, where you want to make it happen again and again. Remember, you have to take action to see change.

Q. I’m getting married next month. My partner earns more than I do, while I am still paying off $60,000 in student loan debt. What are some ways other couples combine finances, divide expenses, etc? I have some friends who contribute on a percentage basis, and others who combine everything into joint accounts. What are my options? — Katie

A. Personally, I’m in favor of having a joint account for household expenses, bills, things like wedding and baby gifts which come from both of you, and joint goals, like saving for trips or to bring a baby into the world. In a situation where both partners have an income, contributing to your joint account on a percentage basis can be great.

Each person can still keep a separate allowance account, which allows for some autonomy. This way, you don’t have to have a conversation every time you want to do something. If one person wants to hoard their allowance to buy a vintage guitar — which is what I would do — it’s okay, as opposed to one day taking that money from a joint account and having it not be met with delight.

Some couples find it works to combine everything into joint accounts. However, if you combine everything, the person who makes more money needs to have the mental fortitude not to feel resentful. This works just fine for some people, but I’ve also seen situations where the person who makes less has a spending problem, and it can get tricky.

I’ve also met lots of couples that have been married for years, and keeping everything separate works best for them.

In some ways, this is actually a relationship question. The important thing is to get on a level of communication and trust where you feel secure enough sharing with each other. The situation that works best for you is the one that both of you are comfortable with. I recommend that all couples have regular conversations about finance. Put it on the calendar. Money can be triggering for people. When you’ve had a crappy day and you don’t feel like dealing with something and then your partner comes at you like, ‘Finance finance whatever,’ that’s a recipe for disaster. But with regularly scheduled space reserved for those talks, it can make it easier to have these conversations and less likely to have conflict in the future.

Q. How big should an emergency savings fund be? I’ve heard people say everything from two months to nine months. Also, in an ideal world, how much of my income should I be saving? — Monica

A. So, here’s a truth: All of this finance stuff is something that some people just made up one day. The textbook answer is that an emergency fund should have three to six months of your fixed expenses. I went to a class once that said entrepreneurs should have 12 months saved up. I was like, ‘Has the person who wrote this ever met an entrepreneur?’

These prescriptive answers work for large swaths of society, but might not work for everyone. I’d say the real answer is you need to save whatever amount allows you to sleep at night. If you don’t have more than one month saved, chances are you’re probably waking up and worrying about money.

Wisdom says that 10% to 20% of your income should be put into savings. But that is assuming you want to have the kind of life the people who prescribed that had, which is to work for a long time and then retire. There are people in Internet chat forums that save like 80% of their income so they can retire by age 30. You have to do what works for you.

At a minimum, though, you should aim to save 10% each month. If you can’t afford to put that money aside, examine your life. It’s like what Jay-Z says: ‘Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.’ Where are you living? How much more time will you let yourself stay at this job? You have to save, even though you don’t feel like it. Nobody ever feels like saving. Professional athletes don’t always feel like training. But you have to say, ‘Feelings, sit down. I’m trying to do things with my life.’

Paco de Leon is a musician who happens to be killer at finance. Her experience includes business consulting, business management, financial planning, wealth management and even some time at a giant bank. Her experiences led her to found The Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm focused on inspiring creatives to be engaged with their finances and giving them the tools and support to stop freaking out about it.

Thank you so much, Paco! Do you have a money question? Let us know in the comments below…

P.S. A trick for saving money, and do you talk about money with friends?

(Photo courtesy of Paco; illustrated background by Alessandra Olanow.)