Swimming in Student Debt & Saving Money

I have no idea where my money goes. I don’t mean, Ha ha I sometimes spend slightly too much on frivolous things! I mean I’ve gone months—maybe even an entire year—without logging into my online bank account thanks to a paralyzing cocktail of anxiety and magical thinking. It’s easier to delude yourself about being broke if you never confront exactly how much money you don’t have. It wasn’t until recently, when I started paying off my credit card in earnest, that I faced my fears and started monitoring how much money I had left over for things apart from rent and food and the occasional sweet release of alcohol.

According to people more grown-up than I am, keeping track of your finances and saving money is more than just a pragmatic way to make sure you don’t spend the end of every pay period eating peanut butter in the dark, it’s the path to self-actualization. At least that’s what I was told by Ryan Howell, a professor at San Francisco State University who has studied the relationship between money and life satisfaction for the better part of ten years.

“Basically, what we find is that the more credit card debt you have, the less you enjoy your discretionary spending,” he said. “So to be really happy, you need to make sure you feel financially secure—and get your credit card debt under control—and then you should use your discretionary resources to bring you closer to your friends and family. That is the simplest path from money to happiness.”

That said, I figured it made sense to finally delve into what I was wasting money on, ask experts how to stop doing that, and then come up with an ultimate goal to aspire to savings-wise.

Related: Which Grad School Degrees Aren’t a Complete Waste of Money?

Why Young People Don’t Save

I’m swimming in student loan debt, which eliminates almost all of my financial breathing room. The money I would ostensibly be skimming off my paycheck and tucking away has to be dedicated toward keeping my head above water every month. I want to save, but I have no idea where the money will come from. I’m not alone in that struggle: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported a few years ago that the average millennial starts off in post-grad life $25,000 in the hole.

Of course, debt isn’t the only thing stopping young people from saving. For instance, Howell said that even though studies have shown that life experiences are what generally make people happy, twentysomethings tend to blow all of their money on consumables or objects in attempts to look cool.

“Unfortunately, people in their 20s try to present who they are through their material items—a certain brand of clothes, for example,” he told me. “In San Francisco, I don’t think there’s anyone under the age of 30 who has a PC rather than a Mac.”

“Young people can’t think of a time when they’ll be too old to work, or not want to work, or will need money for buying a house. The pace of their lives is so fast, and savings are slow.” —Dr. April Benson

And then there are the people who scoff at saving because if you don’t drop money on extravagant nights out and late-Roman-empire-style excess, you’ll have missed out on the joyful hedonism of youth. Once you inevitably rise to the top of your chosen field, you’ll have more than enough money for savings. Or as a head-scratcher of a recent Elite Daily piece put it, “When you care about your 401k, your life is just ‘k.'”

As many people on the internet pointed out, this is very, very bad advice that could only come from someone who has enough of a safety net not to worry about having to deal with sudden, unforeseen expenses like medical bills. When you can’t afford to replace your stolen phone, you’re probably going to wish you didn’t listen to the human greeting card who wrote, “When you live your life by numbers, you strip yourself of poetry.”

Dr. April Benson says… 

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