Interview Your Banks and Avoid Lifestyle Creep - Priya Rathore*
This week we have Priya Rathore* shares how conducting “mini-interviews” of banking services allowed her to set up the best financial system for herself. She also touches on avoiding lifestyle creep and how being in debt is not something to be afraid of.
Occupation: Machine Learning Engineer at Startup
Salary Range: >$100,000
Location: San Francisco
Student Loans/Debt: ~$15,000 (personal debt), prev had ~$30,000 (student loans) she paid off,
Monthly Expenses: ~$2,500 - Rent, Transportation (pre-covid), Food, Gym, Beauty, and Shopping
Kavya: Tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to college and when did you graduate?
Priya: I'm from the Midwest and I'm a 2017 graduate from Cornell University.
Kavya: What has life been like you post-college?
Priya: Post-college, my first job was at a large financial firm in NYC. I was there for a year and then I took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do. I took part in a coding boot camp in SF and then I ended up joining an AI startup. So now, I'm a machine learning engineer.
Kavya: When was the first time that you thought about personal finances for yourself?
Priya: It's always been in the back of my mind. The first time I seriously thought about it was when I got my first job in high school. I was working two jobs during my senior year of high school to save up money for college.
In college, I thought about saving money more in the context of having a little bit of room to treat myself.
After graduating, it was more of how do I not only save but also make sure I'm living the life that I want to live and invest for the future.
Kavya: What systems did you have in place in college?
Priya: In college, it was a lot more about the necessities so I was not in the place to need a budget. I always made sure I had the money for rent and that was priority #1. I put that money away separate from my other savings.
After my internship on Wall Street before my senior year, I was thinking more about the long term. "Is this piece (clothing item) that I'm getting, an investment piece? How long is it going to last for me?" Was this something that brought me a ton of happiness and was worth it?
In college, I was spending for a range that was not longer than a year, but post-grad I started thinking about terms longer than 1-2 years.
Kavya: What were some of the steps that you took when you wanted to dive deeper into your finances?
Priya: I'm someone that learns a lot by reading. So one of the first books I read was I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. It's a great book and I also read a lot of blogs. It's easier to commit yourself to read a few posts than reading a whole book, so that's a good starting point.
I was starting to consider credit cards and opening up new checking and savings accounts. Most people just go with the first one they find based on brand recognition, but I actually set up calls with every single one I could find just because I was curious about what they would say to me and how the conversation would go.
Those conversations gave me a lot of exposure to the type of financial products that exist.
Kavya: What were some of the things that you remember learning or found surprising from those calls?
Priya: Different credit cards have different point/reward systems so how do you decide what's the best system for you? How do you know how much money you're going to spend on dining vs. travel year over year? I hadn't thought about that before so it was interesting to try to answer those questions.
I actually didn't know credit cards had fees before that. So I was very surprised that I had to pay to spend money, and I had to wrap my head around interest rates and annual fees.
At first, I wanted a credit card without an annual fee, but then I started to understand the perks of cards that you pay an annual fee for. I personally wanted protections on things I bought.
From a checking account standpoint, I realized I needed to consider debit cards and ATMs. I had my checking account from a bank that had ATMs in New York City but they didn't have an ATM in Ithaca where I actually went to school.
Kavya: How many places did you call and when did you make these calls?
Priya: I called the top 5 recommendations listed on NerdWallet's website for credit cards, checking accounts, and savings accounts.
I did this a couple of times in my life now. Initially, I did this in high school, but I ultimately went with what my parents had since it was the easiest. I did it again in my sophomore year after my first internship and then again my senior year.
I ultimately realized that a lot of accounts had minimum balances you needed so it didn't make sense to change over until my senior year when I was able to take it up a level because of the money I had made.
Kavya: What was the outcome of your research? What system did it result in during your senior year of college and post-grad?
Priya: I still have a checking account back home, it's a local bank and there aren't many fees.
I also opened up a Chase checking and savings account when I was in New York.
When I worked at a financial firm, I wanted to invest and trade from my earnings but there are a lot of restrictions while you're working in the industry. But after my internship, I opened up a Robinhood account.
After college, I added a few things to my ecosystem. I opened up an Acorns account which rounded up to the dollar of my purchases and invested that automatically for me. It made a lot of sense to me because if I buy something, I can afford it which means I could easily invest a percentage of it.
While I was at the financial firm, I opened up a 401K through them but when I left the company I left it with them. All of my 401K is invested through MerrillLynch in my firm’s lifepath funds (target-date funds). I also opened up a Stash while I was there to invest in partials of stocks. I thought that was cool because buying a share of Google or Amazon is a lot of money.
I also used an app called Capital that allowed me to save for different goals. I was able to siphon out money for different goals. (Essentially mini-savings accounts.) Since it was separate from everything else, I kind of forgot about it so it was a secret emergency fund I had.
After I left my job in finance, I opened up a Roth IRA with Wealthfront because I wanted to continue investing for retirement even while I was unemployed.
Kavya: How do you manage all of these accounts?
Priya: I’ve been using this spreadsheet to track everything since late 2018. I list out fixed costs, reimbursement, gift cards/returns. Each week, my transactions get transported from Mint, and then I account for each one in this spreadsheet.
Kavya: What is the motivation behind keeping track of everything each month?
I'm really cognizant about lifestyle creep. It happens really often post-grad when you start making money for the first time. You continue to spend more money and upgrade as you're making more money. It can get out of hand quickly.
Keeping track of my expenses through this spreadsheet clearly shows me how much I have spent each month and it's easy for me to track if my expenses are going up. I don't really budget but I try to keep the total expenses number around the same amount each month.
Tracking expenses each month taught me a lot about myself and it helped me cut back on things like eating out as I realized that wasn't that important to me. Now it's turned into more of a check-in to make sure things are still on track.
Kavya: How did you tackle your student loans?
Priya: I wish I knew about my loans and investing earlier. It's not just about having enough money for your day to day expenses and saving money for an emergency. I wish I was taught about this stuff when I got my first job.
I knew my student loans were coming but I never really thought about it. My parents took out my loans for me but I was responsible for them after college. It can be rough in college, not everyone has loans to pay off and in my friend group I was the only one paying them.
Different people have different amounts of loans so it's very hard to give advice about this.
I was able to and wanted to pay off my student loans in one year so that's important to keep in mind. Because of that, I did not invest my first year, and I put all of my money into paying off debt. It made sense for me because I was able to take this weight off my shoulders.
I am not debt-free because I took on some loans again when I did the coding boot camp. So one thing I learned was that debt comes and goals, you're going to buy a house at some point, so you're going to have debt at different points in your life.
"Big successful companies take out debt to be able to grow." This is essentially the reason a lot of people take on debt so it's not something to be afraid of. Some people say I'm never going to take on debt and that's okay but you could be missing out on education opportunities and other things.
Kavya: Did you refinance your loans?
Priya: I had government-subsidized loans already, so I never had to refinance them since the interest rates were pretty low, to begin with. For the six months after I graduated, I did not have to pay interest on my loans but I started paying them as soon as I started my job. I also paid more than the minimum payment each month so more of my payment went towards my principal instead of the built-up interest.
Kavya: How did you come up with the plan to pay them off in a year? Did you have to make any lifestyle changes to make this happen?
Priya: I decided to pay them off in a year because I knew after a year, I wanted to leave my job in finance and figure out what I wanted to do afterward. Part of that meant, not having the stress of loans.
So I made that my number one goal, so I didn't invest or save a ton otherwise. I thought a lot about what value and happiness I got from each dollar I spent. I love clothes and I wanted to dress like a fashionable New Yorker so that's where I invested my money.
But, I don't get a lot of happiness from eating out. I love home-cooked meals to be completely honest. So that was an easy way for me to save money but it was also a trade-off I made. Instead of seeing my friends by eating out, I would ask them to get coffee, etc.
Kavya: What are some mistakes that you might have made with managing your money and what would you suggest people avoid doing?
Priya: If it's a non-essential expense, don't go over your credit card limit. Try not to build up credit card debt, the interest rate is really high and it's not worth it. It also hurts your credit score.
If I’m stressed about work, then sometimes, I put off dealing with my finances. For example, a return I have to make, I procrastinate, and then the return window is over. It might be a small thing but the time-value of money is not just important in the investing sense but also translates over to your day-to-day.
Kavya: What financial decisions are you considering for the future?
Priya: Up until now, I've had debts so I've never had a huge emergency fund. With COVID-19, it's something I'm thinking about more.
Do I want to go to grad school and how am I going to budget and pay for that?
I want to eventually buy a house so I'm thinking about where I want to possibly settle down and all.
Kavya: What is a piece of actionable advice you would give your former college self?
Priya: Read a lot about the topic as early as you can. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions and have conversations about money.
This is especially helpful if you're a first-generation college student in the United States and money is different for everyone. So it's important to have those different perspectives.
Which credit cards do you have and why do you own that one?
Chase Sapphire Preferred - travel points as travel is a large expense for me as I go home to Nebraska every year
** Fun Fact - you can call them and get your fee reduced or waived!
Chase Debit Card
Midwest Bank Debit Card
What are your current savings goals?
I'm currently saving up 3-6 months of salary for my emergency fund and outside of that, I'm saving up to pay off my debts first and then my investments (Roth IRA, Robinhood).
*name changed for privacy
Most personal finance blogs only share stories of the people who have it all under control, save 50% of their income, and retire early. While that is impressive, some of us want a career and some of us just need our almond matcha latte every morning. However, we all still face the same woes when it comes to managing our personal finances. MoneyStories is a series of interviews with young professionals and recent graduates sharing their stories on how they have and are navigating their personal finances.
Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee, not the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee, or any other group or individual.