Lessons Learned About Financial Success

September 16, 2020
By Mennal Zafar

During my first year at Penn, I decided to plan a trip to Europe with my best friend (without knowing the pandemic would ruin those plans). This was challenging for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I’m a low-income student who typically doesn’t have money for recreational travel. The other hurdle was my lack of understanding (and misconceptions) about personal finance. I thought budgeting meant I had to be on alert constantly, without any leeway in my spending habits. I never thought I could take ownership of my personal finances as a student. I assumed that ownership would only come years down the line, when I was a more settled adult with my own stream of income. This approach drove me to believe that I couldn’t and more importantly, shouldn’t treat myself on certain occasions. It would almost be naive of me to buy things I wanted.

However, I soon realized that the way you handle your personal finances is unique to YOU. Your background does not and should not stop you from spending on what you value and what makes you happy. Now, of course there are circumstances where exceptions need to be made and you may need more structure. I’m not saying that spending should happen irrationally and without planning. Instead, I’m suggesting that a restrictive budget shouldn’t be the end-all be-all of your personal finances, as that’s not as sustainable for your financial success and mental well-being as you’d imagine it to be. My mentality shifted from, “I’ll eventually be able to treat myself 10 years later and then I’ll REALLY be happy” to “I can give myself the room to make this a reality NOW.”

I reflected a lot on what mattered to me and how I wanted that to have a space in my budget. Traveling is, and always has been, a top priority of mine. Especially when it’s completely covered and planned by me. When I knew in December of 2019 that I wanted this trip to become a reality, I planned what the months ahead would look like. Here are the steps I took to make room for this trip in my budget:

  • I took up a job through the student employment office.
  • I cut back on traveling to New York (my home state!) bi-monthly.
  • I told my friends that our hangouts would have to look different in terms of cost because saving for this trip meant a lot to me.
  • I saved the student account refund I received instead of spending it all on ordering out (which is what happened first semester).
  • I tried to get into cooking, tried to switch up the dining halls I was eating at, and grocery shopped for frozen foods as they were in bulk, affordable, and very easy to whip up with my busy schedule.

All this to say that I was able to make cuts that didn’t necessarily diminish my quality of life to make room for a large, valuable expense! This is also not to say that these changes were easy. It took a lot of mental work to restrain myself while also reminding myself that patience was key to getting to my end goal! There were definitely moments where I felt like there was no way to pull it off. Especially when searching for housing in the cities I was planning on going to. But with extensive research on deals, as well as keeping up with my budget cuts, I was able to make it work.

Unfortunately, my Europe trip ended up falling through because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned in the planning process. I experienced a profound change in perspective about personal finances and I learned the importance of planning in advance and budgeting accordingly for months prior to a significant financial purchase. I found that I didn’t need to second-guess my day-to-day purchases or shame myself if I spent more money than I would have liked in a month. Instead, I decided to invest in what makes me happy. I didn’t want to live with regret anymore regarding my financial situation or choices. I hated feeling like I didn’t deserve nice things simply because my situation didn’t allow them at face value.

My advice to you: Treat yourself occasionally! If there’s one thing I’ve learned about finances, it’s that your budget, values, and expenses will look VERY different from the next person, and that’s okay. You don’t need to implement restrictive strategies to reach financial success. Do what’s right for you and you’ll reach financial success. You deserve it. If I could make it happen for me, you can do it too.