Woman walking in East River, New York City
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Certain things stick with you from your childhood.

One of the things I remember is running with my neighborhood friends to the Catholic school nearby and grabbing our free lunch trays from the line.

For my sister and I, it was a time to spend with friends; for my parents, it was a bit of a relief for their wallets; for some of my friends, it was their only true meal for the day.

Growing up, my parents were working class poor — my dad, a welder, my mom, a part-time employee working to get her associate nursing degree, both with two young kids to take care of. As my dad continued to work and my mom received her degree and became a nurse, we took our first step into the world of the lower middle class. We had credit cards. We had big holidays. We were keeping up with the Joneses.

One thing I never had growing up, however, was the mindset and vocabulary of wealth.

Making ends meet

When I moved to New York City after college I quickly learned that budgeting my income was going to be difficult.

My entry-level salary was barely livable in the city which meant having to carefully parse out how much I had to pay for everything I owed including rent, utilities, student loan payments, laundry, groceries and the subway. When I didn’t have enough cash, I used my credit card to cover the overdraft (even though my bank charged me every time I did it.)

Terms like high-yield, IRAs and money markets were completely foreign to me. I found financial jargon people regularly used overwhelming and felt like I missed out on some new sort of adult English class.

My job offered a 401K, but I didn’t contribute a cent more than what was required because I had no idea what I was doing — plus, I barely had anything to live on. I couldn’t even imagine sacrificing anything more than I absolutely had to from my biweekly paycheck.

While I constantly worried about running out of rent money or making the minimal groceries I had last until my next check came in, many of my peers in the magazine industry enjoyed shopping trips and nights out with the security of trusts and bank accounts their parents deposited money into to fall back on.

All of this led me to believe that I would never have access to money or wealth.

America has a financial literacy problem

I hit rock bottom a couple of years into my twenties. Relatively young, but still late enough to make an impact — I had very little savings. I had student loan debt and credit card debt that kept climbing higher no matter how much money I seemed to pay on it. I hadn’t even started thinking about long-term savings or retirement.

My financial struggles, however, were not unique in the slightest.

Student loans are delaying financial security and major life milestones for millions, 3 in ten Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings and most people in the U.S. can’t even cover a $1,000 emergency with savings.

Furthermore, most states don’t require high schoolers take any personal finance or financial literacy classes, which means it’s completely up to individuals and their families to get educated.

Without any prior knowledge of professional personal finance advice, I decided to start from scratch and read everything I could about personal finance online. Dave Ramsey became my go-to, Mint became my best friend — and I started budgeting out every single dollar I earned.

Since the average side hustler earns over $8K annually, I started freelancing to make more money. I used the money I earned to tackle my student loans and join my friends or coworkers at social events without having to worry about my budget.

What I’ve learned about money

I’m still grappling with learning how to build wealth.

I didn’t know how to budget or to live within my means when I was a kid — and that put me at a disadvantage when I set out on my own.

I’ve learned a lot since then, however, and my finances have significantly improved. I started to educate myself about money by reading everything available to me on saving, budgeting and investing. I’ve opened up to financial advisors about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to money matters, and they’ve helped me make better financial decisions like opening a high-yield savings account and creating a second income flow from my side hustle to help me pay off my student loan debt. And that’s just the beginning for me.

Continuing to learn how to build wealth is still my biggest test — but I’ve come to understand that what my money can do for me and the ones I love is paramount in my life.  And that, for me, is the most important change to make when I think about money.

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