I'll be honest; the Occupy Wall Street movement caught me by surprise. I always knew that in this country, a very small amount of people made big dollars compared to most people that made significantly less. Rather than dismissing this movement as some sort of fad, I took the time to dig a little deeper -- I wanted to know what all of the hubbub was about.

What I discovered remains the subject of multi-day email debates among my closest friends about wealth inequality, a 'fair shake' and possible solutions. Needless to say, we haven't come up with anything…yet. I have spent quite a bit of my time reading about the 1% and how they got there. I tried to find some common ground between them and I. Average annual income of over $1 million? Nope. Involved as a big time financier or real estate developer? Nada. Stock ownership? Yes!!!

Some statistics show that the top 1% owns an alarming 35% of stocks in the country and the top 20% owns about 92%. To add to the madness, only about half of all Americans own any stocks at all. I have owned stocks as long as I can remember and I figured that simply by owning stock, I had more in common with the top 1% than I ever imagined.

Was I part of the problem? Was I one of those people that the 99% were rising up against in protest? I sure didn't feel that way -- my net worth was nothing worth writing home about. And I wasn't even close to earning the magic $250,000 number Obama used to speak of.

I am not turning a blind eye to the wealth inequality problems that exist in our country, but while I wait for our economy to get back into gear and listen to our elected official propose new approaches to solve this, I also want to take care of myself and my family the best I can. Owning stocks is a great way to do so -- finding the right companies can provide you with a steady stream of dividend income and appreciation. Hate the high price of your cable TV bill or electricity? Buy some shares and own a piece of the monster.

Maybe that is too difficult to do, especially if you are having trouble making ends meet. But if you're not at least thinking like the top 1% or even 20%, it's going to be hard to get there. I want to be the person in retirement receiving enough dividends to provide a decent living. I want to have a huge investment hit where I see my original investment multiplied dozens of times over -- it does happen. And for anyone that has aspirations of climbing out of the bottom 50%, if you are not thinking about owning some stock and soon, you don't stand much of a chance. I know for myself, I would not have been able to get out of some personal financial binds without the power of investing and stock ownership. So, I suppose I am part of the problem, but in my mind, it sure beats the alternative.

 

Photo by Emmanuel Huybrechts via cc. Image was cropped.

 

I recently got a letter from my loan creditors that gave me the chills. One of my private loans is out of the grace period, and paying back over $35,000 in college loan debt is daunting to say the least. Here are two methods that I am going to employ in order to start effectively demolishing my debt and moving closer to financial freedom. I think they can help you too.

The Snowball Approach
Imagine you have 3 debts of $100, $500, and $1000, each with varying interest rates. The snowball method means you start with the lowest balance, and pay it off as soon as possible. After you pay off the lowest balance, you use the money budgeted to pay the first loan and attack the next loan, then you keep going until you crush your debt.

The snowball method isn't just financial, it has psychological benefits as well. When choosing between different debt repayment strategies, psychologists have found that people generally choose the option that makes them the happiest, even when it might not be the most fiscally sound. The Debt Snowball actually creates a continuous cycle of payment that helps you commit to pay.

The Avalanche Method
While the debt snowball is focused on paying your debt down as quickly as possible, the avalanche method is focused on paying the highest interest rate first. In this scenario, you pay your minimum payments, but in addition you take all your disposable income left over, and apply it to that. This approach makes the most fiscal sense, as you will save on interest over time. The Avalanche method can be really tough, since it can be hard to stay motivated if you only see your loan moving down in small portions every month. Luckily, personal finance apps like ReadyforZero and Tuition.io can help give you a leg up when you decide to get your avalanche started.

Which one to choose?
When it comes to paying off debt, the "best" idea is the one that works for your specific situation. With the snowball method you have a psychological advantage, but you will end up paying more in interest, if some rates are higher than others. However, loans also have an emotional component, and I know when I see my loans decreasing, it gives me motivation to keep paying them off. What matters most is committing and sticking to your plan, so you can build the right momentum to achieve your goals. My finances are equally tied to my emotional and financial well being, so constructing a plan that addresses both is what will help me in the long term.

Beating debt forever
You can check out Unbury.me to see which strategy can work better for your debt. For me, the key is combining both approaches in a way that maximizes my financial goals while giving me peace of mind at the same time.

Photo by Frank Kovalchek via cc. Image was cropped.

Four years ago I found myself drowning in a sea of debt. At the age of 22, I was fairly new to the idea of budgeting money. I had no financial responsibilities as I lived rent free, paid $10 per month for my cell phone, and had no vehicle. My only responsibilities were transportation and paying for my groceries. I was as some would say, "living the life". Well all of that changed when I found out I would be expecting a child. With that in mind I realized that while I had my recurring income from my job, I didn't have a nest egg or the financial means to care for a child the way it needed to be cared for.

Time for a Plan
I knew that something had to give as I was in debt and wanted to minimize it before my due date. I tried creating a budget using Excel but kept forgetting to refer to it on a routine basis. Utilizing credit and debit cards meant that I was swiping without tracking. There had to be another way to budget and save that was easier than remembering to check a spreadsheet each week, so I did a bit of research.

The Envelope System
After a bit of research and reviewing I stumbled across the envelope system. It was a system that was used before the world became so technical and "plastic". The process seemed very simple to follow and would allow me to create a budget and track my spending at the same time. So I got to work utilizing these few steps:

  • Create a Budget -- I sat down and created a budget based on my needs. Categories included: transportation, cell phone bill, food, baby expenses, savings, and debt.
  • Budget checks -- Next I needed to calculate incoming income and allot a spending limit for each category. I allotted $10 for my cell phone bill, and I purchased a bus card for $50 each month, for groceries I allotted myself a budget of $100 per pay, as well as baby expenses.
  • Treat Yourself -- I knew I would drive myself crazy if I didn't allot for some fun, so I gave myself a budget of $75 per pay to just splurge on myself.
  • Debts/Savings -- After subtracting the allotted expenses above, my paycheck left me with about $200. I decided that I would put 60% towards debts and 40% towards saving.

Execution
Once I divvied everything up, I placed them in an envelope. Once the envelope was empty, that meant I had spent all I could for that particular category. I maintained this practice for the better part of my pregnancy and by the time my little one was born I had paid off most debts in collection and saved a total of $1,000 for an emergency cushion.

Some might call it old fashioned or time consuming, but in my opinion the envelope system saved me from being in debt when my child arrived. I continue to use this system and have been able to pay off all my debts and save three months worth of income over the course of three years.
 

Photo by Kevin Steinhardt via cc. Image was cropped.

I turned thirty while my husband and I were in Reykjavik, Iceland, the final stop of the six-month European trip I'd been planning and saving for during most of my twenties. The day after my birthday, we flew home to Seattle. It was hard to wrap my head around the scope of not only the six-month journey, but also the eight years that had passed since I had first decided, "You know, I'd like to live in Europe for a while." I knew I was thorough with my financial goals, but this still felt like a long con I'd managed to pull on myself. Not only did I have two new cities, Dublin and Berlin, that I'd called home for a short time, but I'd seen the Adriatic Sea and the Danube, the rift between the American and European tectonic plates and where the western edge of Ireland stares out into the open Atlantic. Plus, I'd had time to work on my own writing and plan what my new career as a writer and editor would look like.

I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge some of the fortune and privilege that helped make this trip possible. For example, back in the late 2000s, interest rates were friendlier to savers than today (currently, the top national result on "high-yield" accounts with $0 deposit on bankrate.com is 0.9 percent); I typically got a return of between 3.75 and 5 percent APY. If I were doing it all over again today, I'd probably instead invest in a low-cost index fund; oil prices, an important factor for travel costs like airline tickets and gas costs, have often mirrored the S&P 500, meaning that even if you don't pull out as much money as you'd hoped at the end, your costs will probably be slightly lower, too.

Other things I had going for me: I didn't suffer any major health crises, my car was paid off and reliable, I didn't have anyone else relying on my income, we were able to find subletters for our rental house, and my only debt was my credit cards (which I paid off in total regularly, but not always monthly; I'm no angel). Plus, my husband did most of the work to keep our household running while I ran myself a bit ragged for several years working full time and on the side, as well as going to school, a schedule that would not have been possible without him. And things would have been more difficult if I hadn't had employers that liked me and promoted me. I've worked hard, but I've also been very lucky.

There is no one-size-fits-all savings plan for long-term goals, beyond "save as much as you can for as long as you can." And that isn't particularly sexy. But if you can do it, just a little bit (automated transfers are your friend!), think about future-you, and that when she's standing in the crazy, desolate, weird beauty that is an Icelandic lava field, how immensely grateful she'll be to you.

Photo by Rebecca Brinson. All rights reserved by brassMAGAZINE.  

After seven years, I'd saved $13,000 to go to Europe for six months. And though I was leaving my job as the development director at a small literary arts center, I offered to continue writing grants for them over the summer. This was a win for all involved; the new development person wouldn't have to worry initially about grant applications, and I'd have additional income. I also now had a husband, which hadn't been part of the original plan for the trip that I conceived when I was 22 and single, but he was a welcome addition to the passenger manifest, especially as he could work remotely (writing math curricula and test prep), lived extremely frugally, and had savings of his own. And while London had been my original goal, my very practical husband pointed out that, with the USD to GBP exchange rate at about $1 to £0.63 at the time, our savings could go further if we chose somewhere that was on the euro, which was clocking in at about $1 to €0.73. So with these slightly altered parameters, we were off to Ireland.

We spent our first three months in Dublin volunteering for the non-profit creative writing center Fighting Words. It was lots of fun and we met lots of lovely fellow volunteers; plus, as it's a sort-of sister organization to the 826 National chapters, including 826 Seattle--where we volunteer regularly--we felt right at home.

However, Dublin was more expensive than we'd predicted (though still cheaper than London!). It was hard to find a short-term apartment and when we did, it was pricier and crappier than we had hoped for. Groceries (especially produce and dairy) were cheaper than in Seattle, but everything else cost more. We burned through more than half of our budget in our first three months, and while that was stressful, it wasn't a full loss: in addition to learning the ins and outs of Dublin, we explored much of the rest of the country and some of Northern Ireland, as well.

Ireland's pricing made Berlin, where we spent our next two months, a pleasant surprise. It was huge, cheap, covered with great public transit, and a ton of fun. We found an apartment that, while spartan, was bigger and cleaner than our place in Dublin, and we split our time between exploring the city, making weekend trips, and working, my husband on his curricula and test prep and me on grant writing, my business, and the freelance writing and editing projects I was beginning to take on.

We dedicated our final month to straight-up travel, bouncing through Croatia, Italy, and Denmark on our way to Iceland, our final stop. It was a wonderful, exhausting whirlwind of stressful airport repackings to try to meet carry-on requirements, Airbnb apartments, and pocketfuls of incompatible currencies. We were very glad that we had established home bases in Dublin and Berlin, though; six months of vacation-style travel would not have been possible (or good for our marriage!).

In my next and final part of this series, I'll reflect on what it feels like to actually do something I spent nearly a decade planning for, and consider some of the good fortune that befell me and allowed me to take this trip.

 

Photo by Rebecca Brinson. All rights reserved by brassMAGAZINE.  

As many do, I became enamored of travel when I studied abroad in college—for me, it was a month in Rome studying poetry. I knew I would want to return to Europe for an extended period of time. I had lived in the same city, Seattle, for most of my life. And I wanted to stay there; I loved it! But my time in Rome helped me realize how much, emotionally and intellectually, there is to gain from learning a new city from the ground up.

I graduated in 2005 and went into non-profit fundraising in early 2006, a field I thought could make use of my otherwise-questionable creative writing degree through grant writing and other communications. I worked in a theater's development department, and in addition to contributing to my retirement account, I set up an automatic savings plan in a high-yield online savings account vaguely labeled "Europe."

For the first couple years, I put in $100 a month. In daydreaming about this one-day journey, I settled on the idea of going to London. I had visited before and knew I loved it, plus, no there was language barrier. I didn't yet have a timeline, but that decision helped me realize that it would still be several years away until my funds were ready (London = not cheap). So as I moved up in the theater and my pay increased (by non-profit standards, anyway), I upped my contributions, eventually reaching $250 a month.

By 2009, I wanted to expand the small company I had recently co-founded, so I left the theater and took a part-time reception job at a non-profit literary arts organization; I spent the rest of my time on my business. Due to my reduced income, I stopped contributing to my savings and retirement accounts for about a year. But eventually, I was promoted to a full-time development position at the literary arts center and was able to resume saving. Again, as I got further promoted, I increased my contributions to $300 a month.

I continued to live frugally, keeping my expenses between $10,000 and $13,000 below my annual gross salary. In addition to my full-time work, continuing efforts with my small business, and some private tutoring on the side, I also earned two nine-month certificates, one in web development and one in editing. However, while I loved parts of being a fundraising professional (like the writing), I knew by then I didn't want it to be my long-term career, and needed other skills. The "Europe" idea started to mean even more to me—in addition to introducing me to new cities, it could mark a time of professional transition. With my goals coming into focus, I further trimmed expenses (fewer drinks out, clothes shopping primarily at consignment shops, etc.) and upped my monthly contribution to $500.

Periodically, I would review and update how much money I thought I'd need by tracking my typical spending, scoping out local rental prices, and watching exchange rates. Beyond helping me plan, those bouts of research served to make the trip more concrete. Yes, it was a slow process, but I could see the progress I was making. Since I'd be making automatic transfers since I'd started working, I didn't miss the money—it had become second nature. And so, after seven years of saving, I had set aside $13,000, enough for a spare but not-deprived six-month trip.

Find out in my next post if that truly was enough, and how my time abroad helped me change career paths.

Photo by Rebecca Brinson. All rights reserved by brassMAGAZINE.

Fire up a quick Google search for “save $1,000,” and everyone from Dave Ramsey to wedding planning hubs and financial coaches has advice on how to hit the savings target, ranging from eating out less to selling your blood.

With that many savings solutions, perhaps the bigger question is what to do with that chunk of change once we’ve got it. People talk a lot about investing in themselves through a nice professional wardrobe, higher education, or fancy business cards. Ever thought of pursuing entrepreneurship as a way to invest your money?

Launching a business can be a lengthy undertaking with a lot of loopholes to jump through. As I learned while founding both for- and non-profit entities, the tab for legal requirements and filing fees can also add up. Tackling the process in stages and starting now can make a lot of sense.

Not sure how to put your $1,000 to its best startup use? Consider one of these, each of which will run you about a grand:

Protect that great idea. Rapper Ludacris Tell[s] it Like it is – “start up ya own company, trademark the name / That's gon' run ya bout a grand so start savin' ya change.” In the most general sense, a trademark is a brand name, and filing a federal claim to one protects your full and exclusive right to use it. How important a trademark is depends on your industry. Processing fees are a la carte, start at approximately $350, and, as Mr. Ludacris said, quickly add up to about $1000. Once granted, trademarks are good for life with proof of use within 5-6 years and proper renewal every 10 years, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, making a trademark a good way to invest in your entrepreneurial dream today. Patents, the way to protect designs or inventions, require a slightly different process but cost about the same.

Bring your business to life. While the exact process varies, the first thing an eager business owners must do is cut checks for:

  • Officially forming your business and filing with your state. In Texas, where I launched my business, you could foot the bill for filing for formation of an LLC ($300), retail or “seller’s” permits, or an assumed name certificate ($25), but it's generally regarded as startup-friendly. Don’t forget occupational licenses, and postage, notary, or online filing fees to submit your documents. While costs vary, they can quickly total several hundred dollars.
  • Opening bank accounts for your business. My bank, for instance, requires a $500 minimum sustained balance to avoid usage fees, which means it cost me $500 to open it.
  • Launching an entry level marketing campaign. Print basics like business cards through sites like Vista Print or Zazzle to keep costs low. For websites, options such as a Wordpress-hosted site come in at approximately $150 for a custom domain; for several hundred more you can host through an external service or purchase your own building software, like Dreamweaver.
  • Classes, online forums, books, and other resources to teach you how to become a business owner in your state. Libraries are great for general research, but you’re going to want copies you can mark up.

Pay up so you can help others. Filing for non-profit status in most states is cheap; in Texas, the cost is $25. The IRS is going to charge you about $850, however, for federal filing, in addition to the paper and ink required to print the 50-100 page application several times, and the expensive postage to mail it. While this process can be completed without a lawyer, it is much smoother with one, so you may want to keep saving until you can afford legal representation.

While $1,000 is only the beginning, the road to entrepreneurship starts with tangible investment in oneself, and that sum is more than enough to get started. What are you waiting for? Good luck, business builders!

Photo by 401(k) 2012 via cc. Image was cropped. 

Whether it's a $30,000 salary or $130,000, your first "real job" is probably the biggest income change you'll experience. Sure we'll get gradual raises here and there, and maybe even a major promotion or two, but going from an income of nothing to a full time salary is quite a jump.

As a result, managing your first few paychecks can be difficult. It's easy to overestimate disposable income and end up spending money on things you really can't afford. Rent, food, loan payments, and other necessities are obvious items to add to your budget, but there are other essential expenses you might not realize.

Emergency Savings
Bad things happen to good people. That's just the way life goes, so you need to prepare for the worst. Layoffs, car accidents, unexpected illnesses; whatever the case, you should have between 3-6 months of living expenses saved to prepare for life's unexpected expenses. It may seem unattainable at first, but saving a little bit at a time will help you reach it. And, once you have 3-6 months of your living expenses safely stored in your savings account, you'll sleep a little better at night.

401K / Retirement
When you're twenty three years old it's hard to grasp the concept of retirement. Why should you save for forty years from now if you're already struggling with money today? Shouldn't you get out of debt first, and then start to save?

Although that might make sense to you, it's not making cents for you. Your early 20s are a crucial component to your retirement saving. Saving even a little now can make a big difference later. If you start saving $1,500 a year at 24 in an IRA, you'll have around $340,000 at 65. However, if you wait until you're 34 to start; you'll have about $164,000--less than half the money.

Christmas / Vacation Club Account Savings
The holiday season falls at the same time every year, yet somehow people still seem to find themselves drowning in debt by the New Year. Instead of waiting until the last minute and swiping your credit card to cover holiday costs, set aside a few dollars every payday.

$20 a month adds up to $240 by the holidays (saving for 12 months starting in January), which can make a huge difference. Some credit unions even offer a designated Christmas Club Account that earns interest. The same concept goes for a vacation, wedding, or any major purchase in your future. If you know it's coming, start saving now.

Spending Money
It takes a few months, at least, into your first job to get a true grasp of your budget. Patience is key. Don't over estimate your disposable income off the bat and start making impulsive purchases--they might come back to haunt you. Just because your checking account balance is starting to grow, it doesn't mean you need to spend it.

On the flip side, don't limit yourself entirely either. It's human nature to seek enjoyment, so you should reward yourself from time to time. Just make sure you're rewarding yourself with money you don't need elsewhere.

Making smart financial decisions in your 20s will set precedent for your future. Having patience and understanding long term goals are two skills you need to work toward, and the earlier you learn, the stronger your financial future will be.

Photo by John Lambert Pearson via cc. Image was cropped. 

When I finally got to the point where I could start saving some money, I had visions of a steady flow of income from interest payments. So I started shopping for the best rates -- boy, was I given a rude awakening. Savings accounts paying 0.5% interest ; money markets at 0.9%; and CDs not too much better at 1.1% and maybe as high as 3% if I agree to lock up my money for FIVE YEARS. I was looking down the barrel of turning that $1,000 into $1,005 through a savings account after a year -- and that was before any fees. So I started looking for something better.

I found some research suggesting over 60% of the total return in the stock market over the past 20 years has come in the form of dividends, not just the stock price going up. I had to get on this train. How did I find some good ones?

Dividend Yield
The dividend yield is dividend per share paid divided by the current share price. So, if a company pays $1.00 per share dividend per year and is worth $20, the yield would be 5%. That is TEN TIMES more than a savings account can offer -- worth the risk if you ask me.

Historical Dividend Payments
I leaned towards companies that had lengthy histories -- decades -- of paying dividends to shareholders. I even came across Dividend Aristocrats -- major companies that have increased their dividend for 25 or more consecutive years. Nice!

Low Payout Ratio
This is the dividend per share divided by the company's earnings per share. If a company earned $2 per share and had a $1 per share dividend, that is a 0.5 or 50% payout ratio -- this suggested that there was still room for the dividend to grow and had some margin for error if they had a bad year.

Heeded Too Good To Be True
A search for stocks with the highest dividends brings you some very interesting results -- companies with 10% and higher dividend yields. These can be good investments but can also be very speculative investments. I stayed away from these.

A big pharmaceutical manufacturer caught my eye. The stock was around $25 and paid $1.28 per share of dividends -- a whopping 5.1% yield. I was feeling good. But then, they cut the dividend in half and the stock price fell as low as $15 - ouch. I nearly panicked but remembered my strategy -- I wanted that safe, dividend income. So, what did I do at $15? I bought more. A 64 cent per year dividend at $15 stock was a 4.3% yield -- not bad. A few years later, the stock has doubled in price from those lows and the dividend is now $0.96 per year -- and some analysts think another dividend raise is in the works. The shares I bought at $15? Well, I am earning a 6.4% return on those shares I bought at those levels. Sure, the stock goes up and down each day, but each quarter, the checks keep rolling in. Sure beats a savings account.

There may be more opportunity with dividends than with straight interest bearing accounts, but obviously there's also more risk as well. This isn't the smart move for everyone, but it's an option that's sometimes overlooked for growing your money.
 

Photo by Simon Cunningham via cc. Image was cropped.

I remember in college hearing friends say, "I can go out tonight; my student loan refund just came through." At the time, I thought nothing of it-- I even had a boyfriend wait for his student loan money to come through to take me out on a date. To us, a $5,000 loan payment hitting your bank account was just that: $5,000. Who cares what you spend it on? Nice restaurants, new clothes- a big TV; it doesn't matter.

Except that it does. Because student debt carries substantial principal and interest payments, it should only be used for its intended purposes--books, school supplies, groceries, rent, utilities, to name a few. It isn't money that should be spent on frivolous expenses, or unrelated activities. Instead, "fun" money needs to come from a job.

For one, if students aren't careful they can wind up unable to afford an actual educational expense because they wasted their student loans on unrelated activities. Also, that new television or weekly restaurant outing with friends may seem like an easy purchase at the time, but it's going to cost you a lot more over time. Why? Interest.

Think about it like this: Let's say you use funds from your student loans to go out to eat throughout your four years of college. On average you spend $40 a month, so around $500 a year and $2,000 for your college career. Look at the difference $2,000 more can make on your monthly payment and total interest paid:

Loan Balance: $20,000
Interest Rate: 6.8%
Loan Term: 10 years
Monthly Payment: $230.16
Total Interest Paid: $7,619.31

Loan Balance: $22,000
Interest Rate: 6.8%
Loan Term: 10 years
Monthly Payment: $253.18
Total Interest: $8,381.04

In a sense, those nights out to eat with friends cost over $750 in interest. That's a lot of money, and for students spending more than $40 a month, it only gets bigger. Or, let's say you're only able to afford a monthly payment of $200. It will take you an additional 2 plus years to pay off the $22,000 than it will to pay back a $20,000 loan.

Students are notorious for taking out more loans than they truly need, and they end up paying for it-- quite literally. You should only use your student loans to fund what you need for your education; everything else should be paid for by money you make from a part time job, etc. No one is there to monitor how you spend this money, except you. So save yourself from the unnecessary debt so many college grads have to deal with, and make smart decisions with your loans.
 

Photo by Denise Carrasco via cc. Image was cropped.