Despite having parents and grandparents who are great with their money, somehow I never managed to fully learn the skills that provided them their stability — not to mention the ability to continually bail me out of trouble in my 20s.
Up until I was 32 (I’m 35 now), I was still living paycheck to paycheck and not saving a dime. I’d put savings away but clean it out when times were tough (read: beer at Union Pool). But why were times always tough? And why was I always trying to make a few dollars stretch for three days while I waited on my next check? Part of it was just my personality and zeal for experiences and travel, but the other part was that I just wasn’t paying enough attention.
Finally, I managed to get a hold of my finances. It was a combination of two things:
1. Paying attention to my money every single day
I used to hate logging into my mint.com account. Everything was hovering at $0 or, worse, negative. It was painful and discouraging. At some point in late 2013, I started logging on to Mint every single day. Then it was several times a day. My balances weren’t changing between logins, but I wanted to see where my money was going and make sure my transactions were categorized. I also started contributing a portion of every paycheck to an investment account. It was exciting to see that number go up with each check.
In a way, paying attention to your money is sort of like paying attention to your health. If you’re weighing yourself every day and you’re getting in a little exercise, chances are you’re in tune with your health and you’ll know when things start to slip. Checking in on my accounts every day and seeing where the money was going was a real turning point for me. Seeing the monthly totals for booze and taxis was eye opening.
2. Making more money
“I can make $80 work for the next two weeks,” I would think. “I’ll walk instead of taking the subway and only eat Oasis falafel sandwiches.” It never worked out that way. I would inevitably end up in some awkward situation where I needed to borrow money. The credit card was maxed out and the checking account overdrawn. The solution, for me, was never to budget better or leave Brooklyn for a cheaper city. My solution was to make more money.
Of course, this isn’t a simple solution for everyone or one that can happen overnight. Instead of sticking out situations in hopes of a raise, it could mean doing shorter stints at a few different jobs — something that might not be easy or always realistic for some and can require several attempts. But it’s possible.
I started programming (in Perl!) in 1997 for about $8 an hour. Over the years, I worked at various software companies in various capacities, earning anywhere between $35,000 and $155,000 a year. I had jobs that paid $0, cubicle jobs, jobs with terrible bosses, and even a couple of fun jobs. All the experience, success and defeat led me to various fortuitous moments which, each time, would alter my financial situation for the better.
I’m not saying that making a budget and living a cheaper lifestyle isn’t a good approach — it is. But there were also certain things I didn’t want to sacrifice, like staying in New York, so I needed to figure out a way to make it work.
As I began to get a hold on my finances and reflect on what I considered success in that endeavor, I continued to see numerous articles about the lack of financial knowledge in the U.S. Here are just a few:
- The Long Shadow of Bad Credit in a Job Search
- Financial Literacy, Beyond the Classroom
- No Accounting Skills? No Moral Reckoning
- Back to Classroom for Skills Not Taught in High School
- Finance Class on the Web, for Students of All Ages
The articles made me wonder: Why do we have apps like DuoLingo for language, Codecademy for programming and Elevate for brain training, but nothing for finance?! We’re not talking about how to say “baño” on your trip to Mexico City or “voiture” on your trip to Paris, we’re talking about how to avoid a mistake that could be detrimental to your credit and prevent you from getting a house or car.
So, I started digging in. I reread those NY Times articles over and over. I started sending out surveys to everyone I knew. I interviewed college students, recent grads, retirees, and peers to learn about their financial situations. I was getting more and more intensely interested in how to close a knowledge gap that no one wants to talk about. How can we articulate the atrocities of payday loans? How can we explain alternatives to them? Do people know that a credit report is really a responsibility report that potential employers check? Do recent grads understand that giving to their 401(k) is a no brainer? Those were the questions I wanted to answer.
That’s how Lemon was born — from a hippie, do-good, fix-the-world idea that we could really make a difference by helping a few people make informed financial decisions that may affect the rest of their lives.
Most aspects of banks and money are boring — particularly the messaging. “Financial literacy” is such a stale phrase, as are the words “budget,” “credit score,” “savings,” and “retirement.” “Financial literacy” should be renamed “How to make smart decisions with money, avoid catastrophic decisions, and not get !@#$% over by banks.” “Credit score” should be “responsibility report,” because that’s how employers and banks see it — it’s not just a number, it’s a level of trust.
But financial literacy on its own isn’t enough. Advice and information are everywhere. Making things even more overwhelming are the mass of people with opinions on what you should do with your money. Many of them stand to benefit when you take their advice.
My vision for Lemon is to provide unbiased, actionable advice. That sounds jargon-y, so let me explain. By unbiased, I mean we’re not influenced by banks, credit cards, advertisers, etc. Our goal is not to shuffle you from product to product or peddle things you don’t need. By actionable, I mean to quite literally press a button and take an action when a suggestion is offered. My hope is that Lemon helps you “weigh yourself” daily and take action on all those boring and opaque things you know (or didn’t know) you need to deal with.
Lastly, for those of you wondering how I came up with “Lemon,” I smashed “Learn” and “Money” together. And that is why we are Learn Money, Inc. aka Lemon.
Send us your story if you’ve been duped, conquered your finances, or want to give feedback. Send it to email@example.com.