How I Learned to Put Myself First in Line, Not Last

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I had heard the advice for years, “Pay yourself first” as a savings mechanism. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

“If I don’t have enough money to pay all the bills, how on earth can I pay myself first?” I wondered. “Paying myself first seems greedy.” I declared.

I kept on this way until I finally, at last, changed course. I spent so many years scrambling to save, trying dozens of different ways to get ahead, with none of them working, until I finally did it — I paid myself first. And, you guessed it, it worked.

I know, I know, you are saying what I said, that it can’t be done. That there is simply not enough wiggle room. But there is.

Here’s how I started:

Every time I used my debit card to pay for groceries (or whatever), I took $5 cash out at the register.

It was that simple.

That $5 went into a jar that I considered truly, honestly, immovably untouchable. Seriously. I put it in this half-sized mason jar in my closet and acted like I was a huge failure if I even considered dipping into it for anything. I figured hey, you know what? I sometimes spend $5 on a fancy coffee at Starbucks, so how could I possibly not be able to spend an additional $5 on groceries or $5 at the pharmacy? Realistically, I knew I could take that $5 and not really notice it. I mean, sure, if I thought about it, I would. But I chose not to think about it by tucking it in that jar.

Now there are naysayers who will point out that my jar doesn’t pay interest. That in a house fire, my jar would offer no protection. That a jar is a silly place to trust with my savings, since a home break-in could wipe it out. My answer to this is simple: it worked. I committed to the jar, I contributed to the jar. I hadn’t been able to maintain a steady flow of savings anywhere else because that money was visible, accessible, and therefore spendable.

The funny thing is, I don’t have trouble committing to things. I am great with exercise and diet, I’m focused on work projects, I hit deadlines. But with money, it seemed that “necessary” expenditures crept in all the time. One of the kids needed new shoes, or light bulbs needed replacing. It was time for an oil change, or ballet tuition was due. It was just too easy to overlook paying myself first.

Until I just knuckled down and did it.

I put money in that jar $5 at a time, and then sometimes I put $10 or $20 in because I began to realize that if I wouldn’t miss $5, I might not miss $10, and I was right. After all, if I am shopping for groceries for a family of 4, and the grocery tab on a Saturday is $220, it might as well be $230. That extra $10 does not break the bank, but it sure does feel great to open up the jar and realize that I have socked away $600, which is exactly what happened when I finally took off the lid.

On lid-opening day, there was actually $625 in my little jar. $625 that I would not have saved otherwise, which felt great. I immediately deposited $600 into an Acorns investment account, and left $25 in the jar as though it were seed money to remind me to keep putting in cash.

Believe it or not, just having an online investment account like Acorns then prompted me to tuck in $10 or $20 now and then for the sheer pleasure of watching it grow. I continued to put $5, $10, and sometimes $20 into my jar diligently. I made something of a game of it, never counting the money until the jar neared full. At the same time, I’d click on my Acorns account and toss $5 or $10 in there whenever I could. Knowing that I had an investment account became an empowering thing in and of itself.

Paying myself began to be a normal thing, an important thing, and I started to find ways to do it more, prioritize it more, and it became a habit. They were always small amounts, and they are still small amounts, but the more I saw my money grow, the more important it became to see it grow more.

Two summers ago, I took more than $1,000 from my investment to put toward a trip to Europe with my son. There was still a substantial amount in the account. That’s something I doubt I could have done had I not learned to pay myself first. I would have had to put that trip on a high-interest credit card rather than tapping in to money that was already mine.

Every time my jar gets full, I deposit the money not just in a savings account, but in my online investing instrument. I get to watch my money work for me, and it’s fun. It’s not difficult or time consuming, it doesn’t feel any more challenging than just asking for $5 or $10 in cash back at the register, but I know that I have developed at least a small way to make money work for me each and every time.

The simplest advice I ever got took a long time for me to put into action, but it continues to ring true. I learned to pay myself first, and I’ll never pay myself last again. I might have only paid myself in small increments, but the end result is huge. The more confidence I build, the bigger steps I’ll take. The important part is, I took the first step and stopped paying myself last. I’m on the way to true financial independence with that single shift in mindset.

If you’re hoping to change your financial habits, start with one small move. It might just be the key to your success, too.

Susan is a runner, a mom of 3 grown children, and an avid traveler. She writes about humans, and wrote a book about false accusations of sexual assault.

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