This article is by staff writer Holly Johnson.

By the time I became interested in personal finance, I had grown tired of the most popular personal finance clichés. I was tired of Suze Orman’s incessant denials, David Bach’s Latte Factor® theory, and Dave Ramsey’s simple ideas and assertions on how everyday Americans should be living their lives.

But now that many years have passed, I realize that each popular personal finance saying holds a golden nugget of truth. The Latte Factor® theory, while cheesy, is 100 percent real and truthful in every way. Meanwhile, almost anyone would be better off if they followed Dave Ramsey’s advice, including timeless tidbits like “act your wage” and “live like no one else today, so you can live like no one else tomorrow.”

And, for heaven’s sake, when Suze Orman crushes your dreams with that triple denial, you had better not buy whatever it was you wanted. That chick knows what she’s talking about it.

Another popular meme in the world of personal finance, “pay yourself first,” is one that took a while to grow on me. But now that it has, it’s become the cornerstone of my own personal finance philosophy. Here’s why.

Our system: zero-sum budgeting

When my husband and I started budgeting many years ago, we naturally gravitated toward zero-sum budgeting — a system that forces you to estimate your expenses, live off your last month’s income, and pay your investment accounts as if they were one of your regular bills.

I eventually found that zero-sum budgeting was the perfect compliment to our fluctuating incomes. No matter what we earned one month, we would take that amount and divvy it up to pay the next month’s bills, investments, and expenses. In a sense, this forced us not only to pay ourselves first, but also to give each dollar we earned a job. Even better, spending all of our money on paper forced us to look at our extra income each month and put it to good use.

The benefits of paying yourself first

As we all know, the best use for extra money is to pay down debt, if you have debt, or to allocate it straight to your savings account, retirement account, or other investment vehicle. Do this month after month, and the dollars and cents really start to add up. Here are some other benefits that we discovered when we started using a zero-sum budget and paying ourselves first:

  • You learn to live on less. When you use a zero-sum budget and pay your savings and retirement accounts like regular bills, you have no choice but to build your lifestyle on a smaller percentage of your income. Stashing away 10, 20, or 30 percent of your income might cause you to feel the squeeze at first, but you eventually get used to it. And more importantly, you’ll be saving huge sums of money all along.

  • Your savings and investments become a priority, not an afterthought. Without a budget or any type of plan, it is easy to get into the habit of saving whatever is left over at the end of the month. However, when you pay yourself first, you are forced to put your savings goals first and foremost.

  • You are forced to spend mindfully. When you start using a zero-sum budget and begin estimating expenses like groceries, you have to find a way to live on less. While it might not be easy at first, you eventually learn to squeeze the most you can out of the spending limits you set. And when your extra dollars are heading straight into your own coffers instead of who-knows-where, it is actually quite liberating.

  • Saving becomes automatic. The best part of paying yourself first is that, eventually, it becomes automatic. Whether you are paying yourself first through automatic payroll deductions or stuffing money in your investments manually, the habit will eventually become second nature.

Common sense feelings

Even though paying yourself first seems like common sense, it can feel weird at first. With popular culture constantly telling us to spend, spend, spend in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it can feel almost selfish to stash your money away instead.

But when you think about it, isn’t that the way it should be? When you’re working 30, 40, or 50 hours per week for a better future, shouldn’t you do your best to make that money count?

When you pay yourself first, that is exactly what you are doing. Call it selfish if you want; after years in this lifestyle, I can tell you that the guilt wears off as your bank account balances grow. It is a cut-throat wold out there, and the only real way to get ahead is to put yourself first.

What I learned from paying myself first

After paying ourselves first for several years now, I have seen what a huge transformation this financial strategy can make. We used to struggle to save much of anything outside of our retirement accounts, but now we’re saving a large percentage of our income with plenty of money left over for fun and adventure.

I shudder to think where that money might have ended up if he had never started budgeting or putting our financial priorities in order. The mall, perhaps? New cars every few years? Surely excessive grocery spending and fine dining would have continued on unchecked. Who knows?

Regardless, paying ourselves first took all of the temptation away. By mindfully reducing our incomes through forced savings, we had to learn to live on what was left.

And in a way, that is probably the greatest lesson we learned during the entire process. No matter what type of lifestyle the people in our inner circles are living, we have the power to live on much less than we earn. No matter what anyone else says or does, it’s our choice. What we do — and what we don’t do — are truly the only things that matter.

Our results

But the proof is in the pudding, right? So here’s the truth: Since we started using a zero-sum budget and paying ourselves first, we have increased our savings percentage to 50 percent or more of our take-home pay, become entirely debt free aside from a small mortgage, and stashed away thousands of dollars for our children’s college educations. In the meantime, we have been living happy and healthy lives filled with fun and excitement. We’ve taken numerous family vacations (all paid in cash, of course), and we’ve done it all with two small kids in daycare.

That’s the power — and the difference — that comes from paying yourself first. When you truly want to save and get ahead, you have to find a way to make yourself the priority. But once you do, everything else tends to fall into place.

Do you believe in paying yourself first? What kind of results or benefits have you seen from handling your finances this way? Have you ever used a zero-sum budget?

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