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How ‘pay yourself first’ helped me get my first apartment

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  • When I graduated from college, I moved home to get my bearings. To get a place of my own, I knew I needed to save money for a deposit and moving expenses. 
  • I made a point to save as much as I could while working part-time at a coffee shop and interning at a local paper. When I landed my first “real job,” earning $15 an hour, I boosted my savings rate.
  • Over four months, I was able to save $4,000 to move out of my mom’s house. 
  • My parents led by example and used the “pay yourself first” savings strategy to work toward their financial goals. 
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When I was in my 20s, I moved out of my mom’s house into a studio apartment in West Los Angeles. It was the first time I had ever really been on my own and was entirely responsible for covering my living expenses. 

I knew I needed a substantial amount of money to get that apartment, so before I started looking at listings, I squirreled away as much cash as possible from my two jobs. Within four months of landing a full-time job, I had saved $4,000 and could afford a security deposit and rent on an apartment.

Without realizing it, I was using the classic “pay yourself first” savings strategy to put away that cash, making sure money went into my savings account from every paycheck. 

Here’s how my savings strategy helped me move into my first apartment after college — fast.

Learning by example 

Growing up, both my parents were resourceful and frugal. In their own ways, they demonstrated how you should make adjustments to your spending to reach a goal.

My mom was a single parent and took care of two kids by herself. When she wanted to buy a house, she scrimped and saved enough for a down payment. We often bought dry goods at Big Lots, wore hand-me-downs from relatives, and rarely ate out. 

My dad, too, was cautious with his money. I remember my father telling me that when he was a student in university, he would toss some white rice, along with some veggies and meat, in a rice cooker. A pot would be enough to feed him for a week. Besides being a broke college student, he did this because he wanted to send a couple hundred dollars each month to his family in Vietnam.

From both of them, I learned how to make cuts to my spending when necessary.

I had a clear goal in mind

After graduating from college, I knew that I would need more real-world experience under my belt before I could land a “real job.” I moved back home to intern at a local alternative weekly magazine and work part-time at a coffee shop. 

Moving back into my childhood bedroom was depressing, to say the least. I felt like I had taken a few steps backward, and I wanted nothing more than to move out on my own — a clear financial goal that motivated me. 

I saved regularly for my goal 

Because I wanted to get out of my rut and get a taste of self-sufficiency, I made saving for a “move out” fund a top priority. While I was able to save a little bit each month from my wages and tips working at the coffee shop, it wasn’t until I landed a full-time job editing horoscopes that I was able to save more aggressively. 

After I got the job at the astrological publisher, which paid $15 an hour, I squirreled away quite a bit each month. Within four months, I had saved $4,000 toward my goal. I landed that job in August, and when December rolled around, I had enough to put in a deposit and first and last month’s rent. 

Putting the big rocks first 

At the time, I’m not sure I was aware of the “pay yourself strategy.” I just knew that if you wanted something to happen, you had to pour your focus into it. You can think of it as “putting the big rocks” in the bucket first. You need to prioritize the “big rocks,” aka the things that are most important to you. 

It took a bit of discipline, but knowing what I really wanted kept me motivated. I knew that if I had squandered my earnings on clothes, eating out, and gadgets, I would never have enough to move out. While I didn’t exactly set aside the same amount from each paycheck, I tucked away money every time I got paid from the coffee shop — meaning I was “paying myself first.”

Keeping my savings separate

I also made sure to keep my savings in a different account. Keeping my money out of view helped me forget I even had that money saved up. That way, it was harder for me to touch those funds, lest I fall into temptation. I only spent cash that I kept in my checking account. 

By learning how to prioritize my money goals, I learned the popular savings strategy of paying yourself first without really even realizing it. Over the years, I’ve leaned on that classic approach to save for an emergency fund and pay off my student debt a few years early, save for a down payment on a car, and tuck away money toward a splurge fund. 

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