I'm not an expert on finances. I don't aim to be one and it's not a career I'm looking to pursue. In the grand scheme of things, I haven't been a working professional for that long (less than a decade) so I probably have a lot more to learn.

This post also isn't a "how to get rich" post. I personally haven't figured that out yet. This post merely tries to talk about how to be responsible with what we already have.

PR pro Arik Hanson wrote a fantastic post about how PR pros in their 20s could retire by age 55. He's been around longer than I have and his advice was solid - so you should check it out. It inspired me to jot down a few things that I've learned in my short time out in the real world. A lot of these principles helped me stay afloat making a very small entry level salary working in a not-so-cheap city like Chicago when I first started out. I actually took a pay cut going from my  job waiting tables at Navy Pier to my first "gainfully employed" position - but it was the right move.

Track every dollar spent

This is hands-down the easiest way to save a few bucks. It's hard to save and know where to cut back until you look at where your money is going. My friends in college and I used to joke about how easy it was to lose tabs on a debit card or credit card since there wasn't that separation feeling you get from using cash: "you hand them a card, you get that thing you wanted...and then they just give the card right back to you. It's like magic."

It's magic until you run a card with insufficient funds while out to dinner. That's awkward (and has happened to me).

However, when you track where it's going in detail, it's easier to quantify areas that you could be overspending without realizing it. Sure that cup of coffee may only be $4, but compound that for every work day in a month and you have an $80 a month bill....which could round close to $1k over a year. A small habit change (like only one coffee shop run a week) could save a lot in the long haul.

How do you track? Personally, I use Mint to track everything. It does take some getting used to but it's helped me become aware of red flags in my spending habits much quicker than I could do on my own. It's an easy first step, especially if you use electronic payments as much as I do.

Mint.com, how I track expenses
Mint.com, how I track expenses

Attempt saving 10% of your income

10% may sound like a lot (it kind of is) but it's a figure you can start with and work backwards from. There are times when 10% may literally be unattainable - and that's okay! Figure out what your percentage is per month that you pay yourself first. Just start the habit early and stick with it. I've learned the hard way that if you only put into savings what's left over at the end of the month, there ends up being little to no money left to save.

The discipline of intentionally paying your savings account like you would a utility bill can pay off big time. Setting aside emergency money for when crap happens helps you sleep better at night. It's not a matter of "if" emergencies will happen, it's a matter of when. I know deep down I save hoping I get to spend that money on something fun instead of a medical bill, car repair, vet trip etc etc but I'm always glad I can cover minor emergencies when they arise. We never know what tomorrow will bring us.

Prepare food at home

This doesn't just include dinners. Lunches out in the name of convenience can add up quickly. Preparing food that morning or the night before to bring into work can help cut a lot of costs. Making coffee at home instead of a Starbucks run can save a few bucks. Preparing dinners at home saves from having to do takeout all the time.

Sure, time can be a huge factor. When I was in Chicago, I had a one hour commute each way but also spent a lot of time training with the Fleet Feet Racing Team up there for the marathon. After taking the train from work, to the track and then back to Wrigleyville, I'd be exhausted from the run and the clock would read 8 or 9pm. I was rarely in the mood or had the energy to cook. That's where the crock pot saved my life. I'd blend some huge pot roast meals in the crock pot and let it simmer on low all day. When I got home, I not only had a delicious meal to help me recover from my workout but also made enough to last me a couple of other lunches or dinners. Investing in a crock pot saved me both time and money.

This can even apply to weekends. In Chicago, a lot of friends of mine and I would go out to eat on Saturday nights...but a lot of times we would cook in ourselves (which eventually became known as "Family Dinner"). We'd all bring a potluck-style dish, our favorite blend of Two Buck Chuck and have just as fun of a night as we would if we'd gone out. I love eating out but it's something I learned to be more intentional about. And probably saved me a lot.

Max out your company 401k match

If you are gainfully employed and your employer matches a certain amount of your 401k - max it out. It's FREE money. In my first job, hitting the company 401k max put a bigger dent in my take home pay than I really liked. I had to cut back in a lot of other areas (aka I ate a lot of PB&J for a year). However, it was something I still don't regret and I believe future Drew will thank me.

Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world - and with good reason. The earlier you start retirement savings, the more fruitful it can become later in life. A little bit now can be a lot later on.

Budget month-to-month

One of the biggest budgeting mistakes I used to make up until about a year or two ago was creating a "one size fits all" budget in Mint. I tried to predict what I would spend in each category and make a flat rate for each month. The thing is, we don't pay life a monthly retainer. Expenses month to month can look incredibly different depending on the season we're in. Starting each month re-calculating how much I would need in each category for the next 30 days (with a miscellaneous/didn't-see-that-coming bucket built in) has made tracking expenses a lot easier in Mint.

Find one splurge every month

It's not all spartan-like discipline. You've worked hard for your paycheck and you should reward yourself for your efforts. Find that one thing you like to splurge on month-to-month and stick to it. It may be trying new restaurants, traveling, or trying a new experience. It's your splurge fund, have fun with it.

Live a half-step below your means

Congrats, you've gotten a promotion or a new job that was accompanied by a pay bump! Time to make it rain!

Not so fast.

The best way to make the most of your new circumstance is to almost pretend it didn't happen. An upgrade in pay doesn't always have to equal and equal (or sometimes greater) upgrade in lifestyle. Take advantage of the extra few bucks by building up an emergency fund, paying off a debt, investing in an IRA or saving up for a big ticket item (car, house down payment, vacation etc).

My wife and I both got new jobs around the same time a couple of years ago. Instead of upgrading our standard of living, we kept the same monthly budget we had and put the rest away. Sure, we may have been able to eat out more or get some cooler things for our apartment. However, keeping our standard of living scaled back helped us save up for a house down payment - which was considerably more gratifying than anything else we could've done.

It's also worth noting that while a big lifestyle upgrade is exciting at first, it is also very easy to get used to (aka tired of). You'll always need a bigger salary and won't find much job (or life) satisfaction if money is the only goal you're forced to chase.

Be a cheerful giver

Things can get tight. Sometimes it may not feel like we ever have enough. No matter how strapped we may feel at any given moment (even rightfully so) there is always someone out there that has it worse than us. Your worst day could be someone else's dream day. I truly believe using the resources we've been gifted with to help make the world around us better is one of the most responsible things we can do. Whether it's giving to a charity or cause you believe in, your local church or helping buy a meal for the next homeless person you encounter on the street, having a non-selfish (but discerning) mindset with our finances makes us less attached to our money - which makes us more content with what we do have.

If charity for the sake of charity doesn't speak to you, at least save your receipt donate money for the tax deduction. If you really do love charity, still save your receipts.

Why write this?

It seems like in the past month or so, I've talked to several new grads (in person or online) looking for advice on how to best use their first real paychecks. I had a lot of good advice when I got started and thought this could be a good resource for someone else.

I'm sure the middle-aged version of myself may look back at some of this and want to make some edits. A few of the folks reading this may have a few cents to add as well. If you do, feel free to drop some in the comments!