A few weeks ago, I told my mom I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip. I’d like to visit Germany, I said, and Canada as well. My goal was to do so before graduating college.
My mom’s reply was blunt, somewhat jolting but not at all surprising. She said: sure — but only if you pay for the entire trip on your own. You see, my mom doesn’t want me to travel alone, and so she sees no reason to pay for a journey she doesn’t endorse.
Which makes sense. If you’ve worked hard to earn whatever money you have, you have the right to do what you want with it… because it’s yours.
It was in that moment that I decided the following: I want to be financially independent by the time I finish college. If I want to have agency over my own life experiences — in other words, if I want to live in the spaces that enrich me most, with the people who inspire me most and doing things that I love most — I need to be able to afford my lifestyle choices.
Thus, I decided that, this summer, I would begin this journey to financial independence. Whether I’ll actually reach the aforementioned goal is somewhat dubious, as my current savings don’t look too promising thanks to my money-related ignorance throughout my adolescence (which I now regret).
Several weeks into the summer, however, I thought it’d be interesting to share my progress with the wider world. It’s definitely not a get-rich-quick kinda set-up, but it’s certainly a this-is-worthwhile-so-you-might-want-to-consider-it kinda deal. Because beyond experiencing the freedom that well- (and honestly) earned money brings, becoming financially independent opens doors to many, greater journeys, like understanding a city or a place better than you would’ve otherwise, becoming more empathetic and self-aware, and understanding that once you see the human faces of ‘scary’ adult concepts like investing and saving, they don’t seem so scary after all.
I’m very lucky to say that he most rewarding part of the journey has been the work itself. Working at Tabom has exposed me not only to the sheer diversity of Korea’s non-Korean population, but also a series of faces and names — namely, those of my colleagues — that give me a sense of home. Nowadays the work feels like muscle memory, and in place of the previous stress there exists a certain rhythm that keeps me rooted despite the uncertainties of a new city.
But all work isn’t made equal. I recently started a teaching job that hasn’t been the easiest — the preparation and expectations involved have required a lot of mental and emotional energy from my part, and of course it’s very draining. It’s important, however, that I understand that the reality of money-making is that it’s hard. That’s why they call it earning money, and why each dollar spent deserves some acknowledgment of what was endured to earn it.
So here’s where the difficult part comes in. I think it’s important to be mindful of where money comes from, but there’s always a risk of being overly mindful. After the first week at Tabom, as I was getting into the groove of using my own well-earned cash, I started getting very anxious about how I spent even the smallest quantities of money. I’d pick up a Coke at a convenience store and put it down again because it’d cost me twenty minutes’ worth of work at the restaurant. When I ate out, I’d try to find cheaper locations — and never feel fully satisfied, as I always ruminated over the option of a) something cheaper or b) something more soul-filling. When friends or family suggest I do an activity of some sort, I’d always hesitate if it involved spending money.
To make a long story short, it was unpleasant. But on a minimum wage, it was inevitable — and I only got out of the anxiety once I found my second job. I’d made budget sheets and everything for my first job, and I was set to end the summer with a fair amount of savings only if I’d continued as I’d done. Which just goes to show that, again, making and handling money is difficult. Truly understanding this fact not only on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral, day-to-day level, is an important skill I think all teenagers should have.
And speaking of important skills, I think financial literacy is so, so underrated. It’s problematic that we don’t learn how to do things like save money at school, let alone learn what investments are, how to create budgets, learn about financial risks, etc.
Because the truth is, the earlier someone starts saving, the more money they’ll have after a certain period of time versus if they’d started later on in life… which means more opportunities to do the things that you love, and less stress when it comes to emergencies. I could explain this concept in more depth with information on interest rates, time value of money, etc, but all I’ll say, for now, is this: take advantage of the internet and educate yourself!
There are lots of awesome free online courses that teach you the basics of money management, and it’ll do so much good in the long-term. I started my four-week Coursera course ‘Financial Planning for Young Adults’ as someone who didn’t even know how credit cards worked. After the course, I can’t believe I didn’t learn all of it earlier — and I want, more than anything, to spread the word that these courses are available and accessible and so, so important for everyone. Besides, good courses will teach you that concepts like mutual funds and interest rate formulas are not scary, alienating topics reserved for the financial geniuses out there. They are intimidating buzz words, but beneath them all are simple human experiences — like being able to go on a vacation, or pay for college — that provide the empathy that makes this whole process worthwhile.
It’s also worthwhile to take advantage of other technological tools that make money management so much easier and less stressful. One thing I’ve been doing is using an app to track my expenses. I can use it to see how much I’m spending on certain things — like eating out, transportation, leisure — per week or per month, which can then help me prioritize how I want to spend my money. Tracking things on an app is much easier as it’s visually and systematically easier to navigate. I’m currently using an app called Dollarbird, but there are tons of other free options online that you can peruse.
(Wow, this post is sounding almost ad-like, which feels a bit strange. But it’s for the greater good!)
I may sound confident and knowledgable about this whole money-management affair, but the truth is quite different. To this day, there are still many financial concepts that I have yet to understand, and there are times when I’m still anxious about doing things well. Am I saving enough? Am I using the tools that I can take advantage of? And so on and so forth, the anxiety continues — and it doesn’t really help with the other stresses going on in my life (like sometimes working two jobs a day).
But at the end of the day, it’s important for me to take a step back and have patience for myself. The journey to financial independence is a steep and difficult one, and I deserve self-appreciation and respect for even taking the first step. This applies to most other personal projects, and it is necessary that I commend myself for even the smallest things. This is the first time that I’ve ever prioritized making and saving money for myself. This is the longest length time I’ve lived my life without much financial support from my parents. And I’m doing it all in a country I’ve never lived in before as an adult.
Choosing not to be anxious about certain things is also important. If my primary goal was to save as much money as possible by the end of the summer, I’d probably tell myself that it was necessary to undergo this level of overthinking. But with my primary goal being to do the best that I can whilst taking care of myself, I’ve made the conscious decision that I’ll allow myself certain joys without worrying — like eating out at places I really want to try, with people who mean a lot to me. (Of course this comes with a level of privilege, which I wholly acknowledge and am grateful for.)
And again, as stated before, this whole money management thing is a very human affair. It’s not all figures and diagrams and fancy words. It’s about the freedom with which one lives their life, and I find that incredibly uplifting.
On that note, I hope this post inspired at least one person to embark on a similar adventure, because it is so very worth it. If you decide to do so, then I’d love to hear about it. 🙂