This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

At eighteen, I wanted a pair of hundred dollar Doc Martens. Not only could I not afford them, I couldn’t even afford to look at them. Dr. Marten should not have even been in my broke, teenage vocabulary.

That spring, I got my very first credit card offer. I also got my very first pair of $100 Doc Martens. Of course, my parents had no idea. That’s the disadvantage of raising a self-sufficient teenager — they’re resourceful. (But they’re good at making mistakes, too.)

“I’ll pay this off later,” I told myself. Even then, I knew it was wrong. I became personally aware of a few larger issues that I’d never really thought about: instant gratification, impulsive spending and debt.

That realization could have been a turning point. But a couple of years later, $100 turned into $1,900. I remember that number, specifically, because I always thought, “Well, at least it’s not $2,000.”

In my early twenties, I’d graduated from college, found a decent job, and lived on my own. Independence felt great. But I knew it’d feel better if I didn’t have debt to contend with. My dad gave me a copy of Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover around this time. Like a lot of people, I found it so accessible and common sense that it became a turning point for me. I wanted to reduce my debt and start thinking about saving. I was officially in the first stage of personal finance. I paid off what I could. But I still felt like there was only so much I could do, so I only did so much.

A year later, I got a higher-paying job. This made me think that maybe there were more possibilities out there for me. I considered the possibility of being debt-free and, dare I dream, wealthy. This was my get-out-debt turning point. I worked harder, paid everything off as quickly as possible, and, finally, I was debt free. Frugality also started to interest me; I actually enjoyed learning to live for less. I started an emergency fund, took advantage of my employer’s 401(k), and began saving for a goal. I was officially in the second stage of personal finance.

In my late twenties, I’d made a huge career change and began earning significantly less. But I was okay with that; I guess I felt I had to pay my dues. But then, after making a series of money mistakes as a freelancer, I depleted my emergency fund and became depressed. I was stuck in the second stage of personal finance — I thought I had financial freedom, but soon realized I was mistaken. Losing that money was a huge turning point that made me want to understand what it takes to truly be financially independent. I started to educate myself more about personal finance, and I rebuilt my emergency fund.

Thankfully, I soon started earning significantly more money. The timing was great! While the old Kristin might have mismanaged those earnings, the new, financially literate Kristin understood the importance of saving and preparing for all that can go wrong. I turned my financial situation around, and, eventually, began to ask myself, “What am I saving for? What’s the point?” I felt exactly how J.D. described the third stage of personal finance, although, it might have been premature. Recently, I lost that large, steady stream of income, and I now feel like I’m stuck somewhere between the second and third stage.

But what amazes me is that, despite not having a large, steady stream of income, I’m still doing okay financially, thanks to what I’ve learned about personal finance. I haven’t had to dip into my emergency fund, and, somehow, I’m even still able to save a little every month.

Turning points

Anyone who has gotten out of debt and found financial independence will probably recount a turning point during their journey. I’ve had a few: impulsively buying shoes I couldn’t afford, reading my first personal finance book, coming into a lot of money, coming out of a lot of money…

Maybe there are different turning points for each stage we experience. A lot of seeds were planted throughout my adult life that eventually led to my declaring, “I’ve had enough. I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck. I want to be free!”

My money foibles started at a really young age. But, thankfully, I recognized them and eventually found my way out of them. That’s the advantage of raising a self-sufficient teenager — they usually learn quite well from their own mistakes.

In honor of learning from our mistakes, this is the question I’d like to ask this week: What was your financial turning point? When did you realize it was time to take control of your finances?

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