Friday, November 28, 2014 · 9:22 a.m.

Getting real about money in your 20s

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It seems so obvious that it's a cliché that it's really hard to deal with money in your 20s. For one thing, you don't have a lot of it. Second of all, there are a lot of things you need to buy. And third of all, you generally have no idea what you're doing. I feel like this year is the first time I really started practicing financial responsibility since college. It was a long journey, one filled with a compulsive shopping problem, a sizable chunk of credit card debt I have yet to pay off and fights with various romantic partners. 

Still, I firmly believe that if I can kick my bad habits, anyone can. After all, you have a lot going on in your 20s. It's not as simple as just writing down a monthly budget or signing up for Mint.com when you basically have to get your whole life set up, have some fun, and are probably dealing with bouts of anxiety, depression, self-doubt, competitive feelings, or jealousy for lovers' exes and TV show characters who live in vast Manhattan apartments and dress in designer duds on a waitress' wages.

Stage one: Being an adult means eating Lucky Charms whenever you want
My first year out of college, it was hard adjusting to the idea that making more money did not equal more fun. It actually meant finding cheaper hobbies because there are so many other expenses to deal with first. I was baffled how one person could spend $200 a month on groceries. I didn't even buy organic! I spent a lot on yoga workshops that were great for my mental health and terrible for my wallet. I ordered things online that I never even used or wore. I once dropped more than $70 on a present for a guy who had recently dumped me. I just had no idea what I was doing. I had adult expenses and was still living like my paycheck was an allowance.

Stage two: Please, please let me get what I want
My second year out of college started with me working in retail but dating a very adult guy who seemed to have it together. He ultimately contributed to me being incredibly insecure about everything, especially when it came to how I dressed and where I lived and how much my life compared to either an Anthropologie catalog or his ex-wife's. A long, awful breakup; work stress; and the new apartment all combined into a perfect storm of compulsive shopping and going out all the time. 

Anytime I felt insecure or depressed, whether because of the breakup or a bad day at work or some other reason, I'd go online and buy a dress or a sweater or some shoes. I felt I could shop my way to being the kind of together, responsible adult woman I was mostly convinced I could never really be. Meanwhile, I was making just enough money to get myself into trouble. I could pay my bills, go out, shop and do the latter two just enough to justify putting a little bit more fun on my MasterCard. I liked going out with friends. It gave me an excuse to wear all the clothes I bought online, and it gave me an escape from feeling bad for a few hours. It made me feel glittering and popular and like I really had something going on. It was better than sitting around at home in my pajamas.

Stage three: The come-to-Jesus meeting
Few things make you reassess your life, your priorities and your budget like being unemployed. When I was fired, all bets were off. Even if I really wanted an adorable skirt to make me feel better about not knowing how I'd pay rent, there was that whole, you know, not knowing how I'd pay rent thing. I had to turn down friends for drinks or let them treat me. My boyfriend and I got into some arguments about my frivolous tendencies even when he was helping me out because I had almost no income. It was the best thing that could have happened in terms of correcting the mess that was my relationship with money. I basically had to start from scratch and in such a way that I had no option but to put rent, utilities and groceries first. With my credit cards filled up, there was nothing to do but be responsible. It was time to get real.

So I did. When I got a full-time job again, I started an ambitious savings plan. I reconfigured my Mint.com account, even though it's never worked for me before. I figure if all the financial advice columns recommend it, it might be worth something. I set limits on how much money I can spend a month on fun, even if it means turning down friends. I canceled my email subscriptions to updates from online stores I love. If a sale happens, I might never know. Many of my friends are still in stage two and still want to go out all the time. It's hard for me to say no and stay in so I can put that bar tab into savings. I have a long way to go. 

I'm still terrible at budgeting and that whole discipline thing. But this is the first time I'm really trying in earnest and putting financial well-being over all the other priorities I could have, like going out or treating myself or putting a glamorous sheen on the parts of my life that are a bit of a mess. It's funny. All that time I was shopping so I could look and feel like an adult, I didn't realize that being good with money was the only thing that would make me really, truly feel like I've got it together.

Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at emmieodea@gmail.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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