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Financial Literacy - Emergency fund
Jean Chatzky
Take baby steps to build a sizable emergency fund, says this personal finance expert.
Creating an emergency fund

Interview: Jean Chatzky

What has your own life taught you about overcoming debt and what did you take away from your experience?

Make financial goals tangible

When I graduated college, I was earning all of $11,000 a year at my first job and trying to live in New York City at the same time. Thankfully, starting salaries have gone up, but I was working at Working Woman Magazine full time and making $11,000 a year. I very quickly racked up about a half a year's salary in credit card debt and ignored the bills for a while. I didn't pay them and felt very guilty about them. I went through the whole process of feeling ashamed of the fact that I wasn't able to live on what I made. Eventually I sat down and I figured there are two sides to this equation of getting out of debt -- there's the earning side and there's the spending side. When I looked at my budget, and when I tried to barebones it as much as possible, I really couldn't live on much less than $11,000 a year in New York; it just wasn't possible. I had a roommate already, and I was not going to an expensive gym, getting manicures or eating out. It was just subway tickets and living in New York. So, I figured I needed to work on the earning angle of the equation. I found a second job at night tutoring for the SATs, and also started doing some freelancing. It took a good year, possibly a year and a half, and I finally dug myself out of that hole. I have been one of those people who really pays off her credit card every month since.

There's the earning side and the spending side.

What can people take away from your experience?

You know, I wish it was easy to share in words the uncomfortable feeling of having that kind of debt. I know it doesn't sound like a huge number, but as a percentage of my earnings at the time, it was pretty huge. I just hated it. I hated knowing I owed people money and worrying when the other shoe was going to drop. It kept me up some nights. I wish I could share that. Instead, I think what people could take away is the fact that we really do have an underearning problem in this country. Sometimes what's necessary to get ourselves out of these holes that we dig ourselves into is not just cutting out the little things, but making a bigger change. That for me meant working more. For other people it may mean living somewhere else, getting rid of a car or public school vs. private school. They need to look at how they're living and whether they can afford it. If you can't afford it, you have to change one side of the equation. That means you have to earn more in a big way or you have to spend less in a big way.

-- Posted: July 23, 2007
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