Annie is a young woman who seems to be making all of the right moves. She has an emergency fund, she’s saving for retirement, she’s living frugally, and she’s paying off her debt. But she’s beginning to find the lifestyle overwhelming. She wants to know when the payoff comes. (And what should she do in the meantime?)

I’m 28, I make $43k per year, and I’ve been putting 9% away in a 401(k) since age 22. Right now there’s roughly $30k in the retirement fund (yay), and (oof) $900 in my checking account. I have $350 in a newly-opened HSBC direct account, and I plan to add $300 to it each month after I rebuild my emergency fund. I have a $300 balance on my credit card, which I’m paying next week, and about $9000 left on my student loans (originally $21k). My car, a 10-year-old Honda Civic, is $1200 and five months away from being paid off.

The thing is, I can’t seem to get ahead. At 22, I decided to start paying down my student loans, and they’ll be paid off within three years. My 401(k), as I mentioned, has 30k. I usually have a $3000 emergency fund. FICO: 763. I live pretty frugally; after paying rent, car/insurance, utilities and student loans, I have roughly $700 each month to live on/save.

I look around and see people my age buying expensive condos, carrying expensive handbags, taking trips to Iceland and Mexico and Spain. I know that some of them have accounts at the Bank of Mom and Dad, and others are paying for everything on credit, but sometimes I wonder what I’m doing wrong. I went to college, I make… not a ton, but not peanuts, I try to live within my means, and yet I feel poorer the older I get. Yeah, I’ve got a great FICO score, but what good is that when I can’t afford to buy a home — or even merely move to New York, where there are more jobs in my field?

In short, I’ve been questioning my financial decisions lately.  I have become quite depressed because I feel I am falling behind my peers. Should I be putting less in my retirement fund so I have more cash now? Adjust my student-loan payments (right now I pay $270 a month, but I could trim it to $150 a month [but, of course, pay more in interest in the long run])? Am I being naive — do most people have help from their parents? I guess I feel frustrated, disheartened and snookered because I made all the “right” financial decisions and although I’ll be totally debt-free in three years, I am getting tired of this eggs-for-dinner crap. It’s like wearing sunblock (which I also do religiously): All of this effort had better pay off, or I am going to seriously be one angry (and pale) woman.

Annie should remember not to confuse frugality with depriving herself. She should indulge herself from time-to-time. Other than that, she just seems to be experiencing low cash flow. She’s bringing in enough to meet her needs (and then some — she’s doing great at setting money aside), but not enough to meet her wants. She could improve her situation by finding additional sources of income. It also wouldn’t hurt to reduce her loan payments for a few months until her car is paid off. Even just $50 or $100 of extra cash each month could make a huge difference in her perspective.

I know that she’s struggling now, but as Dave Ramsey says: “If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” If you are willing to make sacrifices today, you will reap the rewards in the future. (The Living Like No One Else forums are an excellent resource for people subscribing to this philosophy.)

One final point: I’ve found that it’s dangerous to compare my situation with that of my friends. Yes, some of them do have access to the Bank of Mom and Dad. It’s easy to get jealous when I see a friend buying a house with money from her parents, or another who doesn’t have to work because of money from a rich aunt. But these things don’t matter. They’re rarities. What’s important is your financial situation and how you handle it.

I’m impressed that Annie’s making all of these smart financial choices. She and I are in nearly identical financial situations, but she’s ten years younger than I am!

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