The 6 Biggest Money Lessons I Learned in 2017 (Along With the Mistakes)

Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler poses in her St. Petersburg, Fla., home.
Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler poses in her St. Petersburg, Fla., home. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
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I’m 25.

I’m young, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. (At least that’s what everyone tells me.)

Even so, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in 2017 — especially when it comes to my finances.

For one, it was my first full year out of grad school, armed with a full-time job and benefits.

Additionally, I’d been living at home to save a few bucks. But in an attempt to reclaim my own space (both physically and mentally), I finally moved out again.

And now, somehow, it’s December again.

Looking back, I’d say I’ve learned a lot so far. Yeah, yeah. I’ve still got a lot to learn. I get it; I get it. But I wanted to share with you a few ways I’m walking into 2018 more financially confident. These are the money lessons I learned this year.

Warning: Cringe-worthy mistakes have not been edited out.

1. Set Your Savings to Autopilot

What you don’t see, you don’t miss.

While I was living at home, I faced no monthly bills. My parents didn’t ask for rent — only that I helped with dishes, bought some groceries and kept my room tidy. The only recurring payment tied to my bank account was from my trusty pal Netflix.

Back in April, when I was soliciting advice for a piece I wrote about common mistakes grown children make when living at home, one of my Facebook friends told me this: “Pretend that you’re paying rent, and put that money in a savings account. When you’re ready to live on your own, you’ll have a great downpayment for a house!”

Or at least some rent money.

Admittedly, I struggled to practice this. Instead, I used living at home as an excuse to travel. Because I’m young and wild and free — and why not?

You guessed it: This non-strategy wasn’t working. Come May, I opened a high-yield savings account. In it, I stashed away the little bit of money I’d managed to save. It became off-limits.

Then, because I had some flexibility, I made 10% of my bi-weekly paycheck automatically siphon into that account. The rest fell into my Aspiration Summit checking account, where it earns me a dab of interest.

Strategically, I didn’t download the savings account app to my phone. I only check the balance when I receive my monthly statements via email — mostly to make sure nothing drastically horrible has occurred. Then, I ignore that money and pretend it’s not there.

Unless I’m feeling panicked about my finances. Then, I’ll remind myself of my little nest egg, only available in case of emergency.

Ah ah ah — hands off.

2. Be Realistic With Your Budget

Throughout my life, I’ve set high expectations for myself. In grade school, my parents never told me to get good grades. I told myself that.

And so I did — even if it resulted in a tear-stained homework sheet featuring long division.

These standards helped me excel through college, graduate school and now in a professional context. But sometimes, high expectations only lead to failure — or the feeling of failure — which then dredges up feelings of hopelessness.

Dark, right?

I’ve found these feelings especially prevalent when it comes to budgeting.

Name a popular budgeting app, and I’ve probably tried it this past year. This is usually how that worked: I’d download the app, connect my bank accounts after resetting approximately 100 passwords (because I can never remember passwords), set up some tight categorical budgets, then immediately break the budgets.

The standards I’d set for my spending weren’t realistic. I began to fail at budgeting all too often. Which, in the end, made me frustrated and resulted in me throwing the budget idea out the window.

My solution? To be honest, I don’t really have one yet. I know my first step is becoming more realistic — to not set myself up for failure. I plan to analyze my spending the next few months, then map out my next moves from there.

(If y’all have any tips for me, let me know. I’m all ears.)

3. Saying ‘No’ is Financially Healthy

Here’s one lesson I’ve learned the hard way this year: You can say no.

In fact, you should say no. If you want to.

Saying ‘yes’ this past year has cost me a lot of money.

Happy hour. Concerts. Weekend trips. Week-long trips. Weddings. Bachelorette parties.

Because I didn’t know how to say no — and felt as though I needed an excuse — I ended up spending more money than I’d budgeted.

Then I talked to one wise soul, and she told me no one will hate me for saying no. That if I get that tug in my stomach, it’s OK to just say no. Really, I just need to be more selfish.

In chatting with my mom one evening, I told her about this revelation. She didn’t look surprised. But she did say it took her a long, long time — well into her 30s — to figure this one out.

4. Not Everyone is Nice

In fact, hardly anyone is nice.

OK, that’s just the cynic in me. But more and more, we’re starting to see huge data breaches.

Exhibit A: Equifax.

This, in turn, can lead to identity theft and your finances and credit getting screwed over.

Last year, I started by taking the easiest, most free step in protecting my finances: regularly checking in on my credit score. I’ve also automated this, so when I signed up with Credit Sesame, I opted in for email updates to notify me when my score changes.

Then, this year, I learned about credit freezes.

A credit freeze, according to Credit Sesame, is “a process, which locks down your credit file and prevents identity thieves and cyber criminals from opening credit in your name.”

I chatted with Steven Weisman, a Bentley University professor and the author of fraud and identity theft blog Scamicide, to find out more. He’s a strong proponent of the freeze. He deems it “the single best thing someone can do to protect themselves from being a victim of identity theft.”

Even if someone gets their hands on your Social Security number, you’d still be protected.

So… yeah. I’ve basically learned to be a pessimist.

6. Never Pay Full Price

You might be thinking: She’s just now figuring this out?

Yeah, well, I’m not exactly the most patient consumer, meaning I hate waiting on sales, and the idea of clipping coupons sends a disturbing shiver down my spine.

But this past year, I decided to start using cash-back apps to help maximize my savings.

I dragged my feet for a long time, thinking it would be too complicated. Yeah, I’m already at the point in my life where I don’t want to learn or accept any new technology. But these aren’t bad.

Here’s what I use and how much I’ve made back:

  • Ibotta: This is my favorite way to earn cash back on my purchases. I started using the app back in May, and as of December 2017, I’ve banked $108.03. I primarily use it toward groceries, but I’ve also used it for Amazon purchases, hotels and flights.
  • Dosh: I’m also a big fan of this app, because it’s totally passive. It combs through my purchases and finds when I’ve bought something from a Dosh-affiliated retailer. If I have, I earn cash back. These offers are both online and in-store (or restaurant or bar). I downloaded it and earned $5 by connecting my credit card. Since the beginning of November, I’ve earned $6.27. So it’s not so much, but I haven’t had to think about it.
  • Shopkick: The reason I like this one? I don’t even have to buy anything to earn cash back. Shopkick rewards me in “kicks,” which translate to gift cards. I can earn kicks by walking into a number of stores, including Target, Walmart and T.J. Maxx. I can also earn kicks by scanning the barcodes of items — even if I don’t purchase them. But I earn the most points when I buy certain products or shop online at affiliated retailers. I only downloaded this one a few weeks ago, but in one outing, I gathered 549 kicks, which I can exchange for a $2 Target gift card.

Overall, I would call 2017 a success. Even if I did make some mistakes — and even though I still have a lot to learn — I’m walking into 2018 a little more confident.

My next goal? Strike up a side gig.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She might be as bold as to say 2017 was her best year yet.