I Used to Be Poor, Now I’m Not

How making more money showed me how little I knew about finances

Last week I logged onto my mobile banking app to move some money from my savings account into my checking account. An alert popped up telling me I had exceeded my monthly transfer limit.

“I didn’t know we had a limited number of transfers,” I said to my husband, who was equally surprised. It’s no wonder we had no idea. Our monthly savings balance used to sit at a nice even 0. When you have no money to transfer, you don’t have to worry about limits.

But in recent years, our financial situation has changed. My freelance career has taken off, and my husband has started a great job after years of being underemployed. This year we’re on track to make about double what we did last year, which, in turn, was nearly double than what we made the year before that.

For the first time in the eight years that we’ve been together, we are not struggling to make ends meet. Because of that, I’ve realized something completely unexpected: There’s nothing like having a bit of extra money to show you how little you know about finances.

When I was poor, I spent a lot of time making financial decisions: Will the electricity stay on if I skip this month’s payment? How little can I possibly spend on groceries? These decisions were stressful, but I had a strategy: identify the most pressing financial issue and put our money toward that. Move down the list with anything extra. (We were lucky in that we were always able to pay at least the most pressing bill.) Our mission was simply to stay afloat.

Once we had more money coming in, I didn’t have to spend as much time weighing these kinds of decisions. The mortgage payment would come due, and the funds were simply there — without me having to scramble to get them. I had spent years “floating” rent checks, mailing the payment and hoping the money would be available by the time it was cashed. So, having money available when I needed it was huge progress. My financial goal was still straightforward: pay everything on time.

Over the past few months, though, we’ve started having extra cash, and my goal has become less clear. For the first time, I’ve had options. I know paying down our debt is a priority, but as I read more about healthy financial habits, I realize that having an emergency fund is also important. I can even consider saving for retirement. I know I want to increase our long-term stability, but I’m not sure about the best way to get there.

That’s how I wound up exceeding my savings transfer. I was tucking money into our savings account, only to transfer it a few days later to pay off debt.

Growing up poor, I learned some tough lessons about money. However, I missed out on the kind of financial literacy that I need right now. What do you do in order to get ahead, rather than just play catch up? I’m trying to become more financially savvy by reading different financial experts’ opinions and learning from others in a budgeting group on Facebook. But there’s also a lot of just talking with my husband and doing what feels right for us.

With any luck — and some solid decision making — we’ll have years to learn how to make smart financial moves with our extra income. I’m thrilled that I’m now fretting about where to send our extra cash, rather than desperately wishing for more. Even so, standing on the precipice of a new financial situation is intimidating. But I think we’re ready to take on the challenge.