1. Live Within Your Means
We are masters at austerity. There are so many jokes, memes, and tropes about our "cheapness" from reusing yogurt containers as Tupperware and grocery bags as trashcan liners to complaining about the price of everything. We have so many uses for newspapers: liners for boxes of fruit, hair-catchers when getting haircut at home, packing peanuts, compost filler, origami paper, privacy screens on windows, etc. These are life hacks, people. These are life hacks for living within your means. Companies do this... it's called cost-cutting. It's the quickest way to free up cash: spend less.
2. Avoid debt
At the root of this behavior, I believe we care about financial security and stability. We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of debt. It's a form of indentured servitude to your lender. We jump through hoops of all kinds, bending backwards to avoid being indebted. It's about being in control of your present and your future. We criticize American culture for its comfort with debt. Credit card culture makes it so easy to go into debt. Our belief is - if you are in debt, you made a gamble and took a risk. It may be a calculated risk, but it's a risk nonetheless with your future. It's especially disturbing when we learn about the interest rate on that debt, which increases your chances of remaining indebted. The reason so many Americans have debt is because Americans are collectively living a lifestyle they cannot afford.
3. Financial Freedom IS Freedom
Envision this: you are living within your means. With each passing paycheck you have more money in the bank. As the financial buffer widens, you get out of the tunnel vision created by scarcity. You get more creative. As the balance grows, so do your dreams. Now you can buy those Christmas presents for the kids. You can see the trajectory of the savings over time... and realize it means you can take a modest vacation next year if you keep this up. These small wins lead you to start to think... how can I make the savings increase faster? You start to look around for expenses that are not as exciting as the prospect of that modest vacation and you slash them. Soon you are leapfrogging your previous savings rate, dreaming bigger and bigger along the way.
We did this. This led to us cutting cable. It led to us buying a cheaper house than we might've otherwise wanted. This lowered our mortgage, freeing up the money we would've otherwise spent on a larger mortgage. It led to us doing "mealprep Sundays" (which we're not doing a great job of, but every week we do it, we are adding to our spending efficiency). Because we made these decisions, we have money freed up for the things we'd rather have: more babysitting hours, vacations with stays at nicer hotels, house cleaner once a week as opposed to once a month, fancier daycare for our kid, gardener services, and investing in an AC and new fridge.
4. It Starts in the Mind
The thing is, Americans already know how to do this. It's built into everyone to know how to be efficient. The reason more people don't do this is because they aren't being paid a livable wage, or because of some other belief about money or lifestyle. For the livable wage situation, find a mentor. If you need them to be real people in real life, develop relationships with people who are living a life you want. I read someplace that we are the average of the 5 people we spend time with the most. If everyone around you is not earning a livable wage, and you want to change this, seek out someone doing slightly better than you. It can be a former boss. It can be a person you see in your daily life who you haven't engaged. There are people who know things you do not, who can help you increase your income. If you have the means, go online. Reddit's Personal Finance subreddit is a great starting point - people anonymously helping each other out with individual financial situations. You can read their archived threads and mine them for gold. Recognize that you will need to change SOMETHING to get a different result. Someone once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." There might be a belief system holding you back from reaching out - get some humility if that's what you need. Get some curiosity if that's what you need. Get some confidence if that's what you need. Get whatever it is you need to make the change in your mindset so you can take action.
When I talk about "some other belief about money or lifestyle," I mean some kind of limiting belief like, "All rich people are evil or unethical." Based on that belief, if you want to be a good person, you're going to stay poor. Examine that belief though... is it really true? Does that belief serve you and your interests? If you believe that, is it a shield, letting you stay poor and not have to change or improve your situation, so it makes you remain comfortable in your current lifestyle? I understand that fear... the fear of your own personal power for change. Part of stepping into that power is mustering up the courage to face the idea that you could've changed this all along... and didn't for whatever reason. Facing that means grieving all that time "wasted" in that place of inaction. I had a colleague who blamed his parents for never teaching him about money. He was in deep, ballooning credit card debt by his early twenties. They paid off the debt and allowed him to pay them back at his leisure. He was in his 40s, still paying off the debt and still blaming his parents for his ignorance in his 20s. To own the idea that he could have, at any point since they bailed him out, gone and Googled "get better at personal finance" and been out of debt years ago... is to face his own part in his suffering since his 20s. At any point along the way he could have stopped and learned from all this and "grown up." Like, ok, your parents didn't teach you... who else could have taught you? Could you have gone out and learned the thing you know you need to learn, Rich Dad, Poor Dad style? He could have gotten serious about paying down the debt. He could have given himself hope for his own life and future.
5. Follow the Money
I had the privilege of having a parentally funded college degree, and of living in California where it's much more liberal and accepting of someone with my background. I happened to major in biology and was living in a biotech hub. With these stars aligned, I was able to earn $22,000/year in my first job in 2005. I had a father who believed in empowering me as a daughter, and he gave me the very handy rule of thumb: your rent or mortgage should not be higher than 1/3 of your take-home income. That's a max of $550/month for rent. This meant I needed to live with roomies - I wouldn't be able to live independently on my income. I knew, once I set myself up with roomies and that job, that my live could only get better from there. If I didn't want to have to rely on roomies, I had to find a way to earn more. I learned that going into biotech was the way to do it, not working in a non-profit R&D. I eventually followed the money out of biotech and into cybersecurity.
My parents would tell us that the United States is the land of opportunity. There are pathways to setting your own path here, and they would remind us that English isn't our second language, that we know how to code switch between cultures as needed, and that we have been gifted every advantage from their background and knowledge to the one we got through our American educations.
Where your talents and particular skills align with your interests, there is a place with a financial current. Get in that stream, and you'll be set. My mom once heard a phrase: "There's no such thing as a starving artist." That's because if you're a really great artist, your work is reaching its audience... and they will pay you in all kinds of ways for it. You don't necessarily have to sell a piece... you could be selling how to paint or do art in your particular style. Or teaching or speaking about your process. You could be putting on workshops. You could be collaborating with other artists and on all kinds of platforms. Your work has value and meaning for people... those people are your tribe. And that tribe is easier to find with social media connecting the world. Create the possibility for getting paid for what you're doing. In the time of COVID, it's more important to broadcast than ever before, in order to be known and be seen, to stay connected to each other and to create those relationships that lead to more people working together.