An Open Letter to High School Students


Hi, friends! Today’s post is going to be different from what I usually publish and for a very special reason. A couple weeks ago, Mike – a high school teacher in Steinbach, Manitoba – tweeted that he was going to be sharing my blog and budgeting strategies with his students. Mike teaches a financial literacy class (which is something I wish I could’ve taken in school!) and I’m so honoured that my blog was even mentioned in it.

During that class, Mike encouraged his students to email me and ask for any specific advice I have for high school students. I struggled to write a response, at first, and eventually realized it was because there is just so much to say!  In honour of Financial Literacy Month, I decided to write an entire post for Mike’s students – and high school students everywhere. Please feel free to pass this along to any of the teenagers in your life. :)

Dear Student,

When I was in high school, I hated talking about money. I loved earning it and spending it, but I hated talking about it – especially with my parents.

I got my first job when I was 15, and every time I got a paycheque, my dad would say, “you should save some of that”. All I heard was, “do what I tell you,” and because I felt independent and was slightly rebellious, I didn’t listen. When I turned 18, he showed me examples of how investing money every month for 12-15 years could allow me to retire young and with lots of money. All I heard was, “do what I tell you,” so I didn’t listen. When I turned 19 and got my first credit card, my dad reminded me to, “use it wisely and pay it off every month”. Again, I didn’t listen.

After ignoring my dad’s advice for 10 years, I found myself maxed out with nearly $30,000 of debt and almost no savings, at the age of 25. I’m 30 now, have paid it all off and am doing ok for myself, but I seriously regret spending so many years thinking I was too cool to listen to him. My dad wasn’t trying to tell me what to do; he was trying to help me create a great life for myself – a life where I’d have less financial stress and more choices. If you’re still reading this, I hope you’ll let me pass on some of the things I’ve learned to you, so you can create your own great life. 

Let’s start with the topic of making money…

If you don’t already have one, I would suggest trying to work part-time during your last two years of high school (and full-time during the summers, if you can get the extra hours!). I know it eats into the time you can spend with friends, but working comes with some bonuses.

First, you’ll gain work experience, which isn’t just a graduation requirement in some places (like here in BC); it actually helps you figure out what you do/don’t like to do! For example, you may not like flipping burgers every day, but maybe working in customer service would make you realize that you like helping people. You’ll take little pieces from every job you have and eventually build a career from it, so don’t panic if you don’t know what you want to do yet! Your jobs and interests will help you figure it out.

The second bonus: you’ll get paid to work! Whether you work in retail or fast food or customer service, you’ll always earn at least minimum wage. But if you’re a hard worker, you’ll probably be offered more shifts, more responsibilities and, eventually, more money. Being a hard worker doesn’t just mean showing up on time every day and doing what you’re told; it means taking initiative when you see things that need to get done, offering to help more and always doing your best. If you become a hard worker when you’re young, you can set yourself for a very successful career.

(The final bonus is that you sometimes get to work with great people who become lifelong friends, which makes going to work a lot more fun!)

Now, when it comes to budgeting, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is this:

Now, I know you don’t earn a salary yet (like when a full-time job offers you $40,000/year)… but you’re going to one day! While you’re still in high school, however, let’s just consider any of the money you earn at your part-time job(s) to be your “salary”. Here’s what I mean when I say that it’s not your budget.

As soon as I got my first part-time job, I multiplied my hourly wage ($7.60) by the number of hours I would work each week (10-12) and figured out how much money I would earn every two weeks ($152-$182.40). I couldn’t wait to get my first paycheque! There were so many things I wanted to buy, like new clothes, CDs, DVDs and books. And I’d finally have money to get lunch or coffee with friends. The night before my first payday, I took a piece of scrap paper, wrote down how much money I was going to get, then subtracted the costs of everything I wanted to buy and found I had a few dollars left.

“YES!” I thought. “I can have it all!”

But… I couldn’t have it all. I mean, I did buy all the things I wanted, but most of it was stuff I didn’t actually need (and eventually got rid of), and I wasn’t saving a penny of what I was earning! Before every payday, for many years after that, I did the same thing: wrote down how much money I was going to get, subtracted the costs of everything I had to pay for (like rent and bills) and then what I wanted to buy… and I usually found myself with $0 leftover. I basically looked at each of my paycheques like this amount of money that I could do whatever I wanted with! That’s how I ended up with $30,000 of debt and almost no savings.

Rather than looking at money like something that could be spent, I wish I’d looked at it as something that could be saved – because, as we’re going to get into next, having savings gives you so much freedom! To be able to save a lot of money, though, you really need to understand exactly how much money you need to live off of each month. So, let’s say you need $200 for gas (if you have a car), takeout food and some shopping money. Tell yourself you can only spend $200 each month (kind of like an allowance you give yourself), then put everything else you earn into a savings account. If you make $400 one month, that means you’d save 50% of it – a huge accomplishment for someone at any age!

Since we’re on the topic of saving money…

I promise you, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Remember, I used to spend every penny I earned and bought all the things I wanted, which eventually left me with a lot of debt (and a lot of stuff I didn’t actually use/love)… so clearly, I either thought saving money was boring or just didn’t understand why it was important! I could throw a bunch of numbers at you right now, explain how compound interest works and tell you why you should start saving while you’re young (and you should!). But I’d rather tell you about some of the great things that have happened to me since I finally started saving money.

First, I sleep better at night. Do you know the feeling you get the night before you have a big test or exam that you know you didn’t study for? That’s sort of what it feels like to be in debt and owe people money. You know you’ve screwed up and there’s nothing you can do but face the music, but the stress and anxiety still keeps you tossing and turning all night. Yep, that can happen every single day when you are in debt – but it doesn’t happen when you have money in the bank. Now, I don’t have to worry about how my rent and bills will get paid, because I always have a backup of extra money. And if I didn’t get paid one month (or even a few months), for some reason, I’d still be ok – because there’s always some money available, if I need it.

Second, I get to do whatever I want! Ok, maybe not at the exact moment that I want to do it, haha… but anything I want to do or buy, I just save for and then do it! For example, I’ve finally started saving up and travelling a lot more! In the past year, alone, I’ve been to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Charlotte, New Orleans, Denver, Portland, Toronto… and I was even in Winnipeg a couple weeks ago! (It’s too bad I couldn’t have come to your class, to talk about this stuff!) On top of that, I save for the big important goals too (like retirement). Your goals could be different, when you graduate and start working more. Maybe you’ll want to buy a car or a house! Just know that it’s within your power to save and do that.

And finally, saving money has given me the freedom to design the life I want. When I was still in debt, I needed every single paycheque I got from my job. If I’d missed even one, for some reason, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my rent, bills or debts. It also made me feel like I couldn’t leave my job for a new one that could’ve been more exciting or challenging, because I couldn’t risk having the new job not work out. I needed the money I was earning – so I was stuck. Since being debt-free and building up some savings, I’ve been able to take on new jobs and even move across the country for one! And I recently quit and became my own boss, which comes with all kinds of risks… and could come with a lot of stress… but I know I have money in the bank, to help if things get tough.

So, there’s my advice about saving money: do it because it will allow you to do more of what you want, give you the freedom to choose what you want your life to look like and stop you from losing any sleep over useless financial stress. And, to bring numbers into it, I hate when people say “save 10%”; that limits you to thinking that 10% is enough, when you could probably save a lot more! Go back to my budgeting advice: live on as little as possible each month and save everything else! The minute I started doing this, I went from saving 5-10% of my money to saving 25-30%.

When you do decide to spend money…

…and you’re totally allowed to do that! But can I give you just one piece of advice? Don’t buy something just because you think you should have it; that means certain brand names, trendy items or anything else your friends all seem to have. Buy things because you truly need/want them. It’s ok to want new clothes, from time-to-time – but buy stuff you actually feel good wearing, not just stuff that all your friends have. It’s also ok to want some new books or games or music or whatever other hobbies you have – just make sure it’s within your budget (remember the example of giving yourself just a little bit of spending money each month) and that it’s something you’re actually going to use.

I can’t count the number of items I got (or dollars I spent) buying things I thought I should have or would maybe use one day. Some of them were things I thought would make me look cool, get people’s attention or just make me seem more interesting. It took years and years of spending all my money for me to finally realize that I didn’t like most of the things I’d bought! And that it was ok to just be my dorky, not-always-trendy self. I don’t want to go too heavy with this topic, but I seriously worry about how much money teenagers are spending on things and thinking their self-worth comes from that stuff. It doesn’t, and it can’t. You are great exactly as you are.

(Also, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on your friends/boyfriends/girlfriends. Be thoughtful and give something you either know they will love or that you can do together.)

Finally, because I know some of you are already worried about debt…

…the best thing you can do right now is take some of my advice, some of your family’s advice and some of your teacher’s advice, and focus on creating good money management skills. If you know how much money you need to live off of each month, save every extra penny you can and don’t waste it on stuff you don’t need, I guarantee you will also make some smart decisions when it comes time to borrow money! Seriously. I trust you will make smart decisions and only borrow what you need, because you’re going to know how good it feels to be in control of your money and want to pay off any debt you have as quickly as possible.

Debt is something you will probably have to deal with at least a few times in your life, whether it’s from borrowing money from the government to go to college/university (student loans) or borrowing money from a bank to buy a house (a mortgage). You will also have to learn how to use your credit cards properly, so you don’t ever end up in credit card debt (which is the worst debt of all). But borrowing money isn’t the end of the world, as long as you borrow as little as possible and have a plan to pay it off. If you’ve gotten into the habit of saving money and only buying what you need, I know you’ll be smart about how much to borrow and why you’re borrowing it.

(And promise me you won’t use your student loans to go on trips around the world. You’ll regret it when the bills start coming.)

I think I’ve said all I can for now, without getting too technical or boring, but I want to leave you with one final thought:

I used to hate talking about money, because I didn’t know anything about it and didn’t want anyone to think I was stupid for asking “dumb” questions – but there are no dumb questions. Money is something we all deal with every day, and will use for the rest of our lives! Like any other subject you’re learning in school, we all have to start with basic principles of how to manage our money. So, don’t be scared to ask questions! Talk about it more – talk about it with anyone who will listen – and just try to learn as much as you can. I’m constantly learning new things and changing my strategies, so I can try to live the best life I can with the money I have; that’s all my dad wanted for me – and that’s all I want for you. :)

To my regular readers, is there anything you’d like to add? Students, check out the comments below. There could be some more great advice for you there. :)

  • This is such a smart post, and something I SO MUCH wish I had had the chance to read when I was in high school. I agree with literally everything here. Especially the part about sleepless nights. I’d consider bookmarking this page, or emailing it to yourself, so you can read it again in the future if you want. :)

    One more thought that I will add from my own experience is: If you’re someone who is already earning and spending money, it might be a worthwhile experiment to open up an Excel spreadsheet and enter in everything that you buy, for a full month — like literally everything: takeout, books, gas, candy bars, etc. — along with how much it cost. I didn’t do this until I was 33 (I’m 34 now), and man, was it eye-opening! I had thought I had a rough idea of how much money I was spending, but in actuality I was spending much, much more (and I’ve heard the same thing from other people who have done this too). I’ve made a lot of changes since then, which is great…but if I had started tracking my spending earlier, I’m certain that I would have been able to avoid most or all of the debt that I’m in. Just being aware of your spending habits can make a huge difference.

    • Yes yes yes! Tracking your spending is a must! It’s good to know how much you’re actually spending, but then it’s even better to analyze it and see if you actually *want* to be spending money on all those things… or if you’d rather save it for later or for a specific goal. Thanks for adding this, Sarah. :)

  • Great post Cait, I have some younger brothers that I will be sending this too for them to read as they go into High school. I wish someone had said these things to me then, I was never one to spend to much but I thought that if I just put some money aside I could work till 65 and retire comfortable, life however is not as fun as that, and who wants to work for 50 years (I started at 15) before being able to enjoy life. I even had one person tell me “keep saving money every week in your 401k scrape by and retire with millions at 65”. Seemed like such good advice at the time not so much anymore. I hope the students enjoy this article as much as I do.

    • I’m with you, Tyler! Hearing the whole “you could retire with $1 million” went so far over my head, when I was in high school… it just wasn’t tangible, because I’d never even had more than $1,000! What’s $1 million? That’s not real life. As we get older, of course, the numbers become more real and we can finally see/understand how if you save consistently for many years you could eventually get to $1 million – or at least hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I think that’s the wrong advice to throw at teenagers. It’s so random! Let’s talk about the benefits of saving, instead, and go from there. :)

  • Spot on advice. I don’t know what the right advice is around credit cards (don’t get one for as long as you can? get one but avoid using it?), given that they generate your credit score in large part, which is a good thing, but they are sure what first got me in trouble. Worse than thinking my income was my budget, I thought my credit limit was my budget! If I could go back in time, I’d knock that clipboard out of my hand that let me sign up for my first credit card the first week of college. As for working in high school, my parents didn’t let me do it during the school year — and I’m glad. I got to do a ton of activities which played a big role in earning my college scholarship, so for me it was a good trade-off both in terms of time and I definitely came out ahead financially, too! But I think your point is well taken that doing a number of jobs really helps you learn about yourself, learn a work ethic, and learn to deal with money — all super important things. And that 10-12 year rule your dad taught you still applies — to you! Maybe retiring at 30 isn’t an option, but retiring at 40 still could be! Though it sounds like you’re continuing to craft a life you’ll never need to retire from, which is the best option of all. :-)

    • “I thought my credit limit was my budget!” <- you and me both, friend! I wasn't sure how deep to dive into credit cards, because everyone uses them so differently... I guess my advice would be: only get one if you have a job (so not if you're just a full-time student). It's good to start using one and paying it off each month, so you can build up your credit. But if you're not working, you'll be paying it off with your student loans... which is just another form of debt. So, don't get a credit card until you have a job - and only use it to make a few regular purchases each month, like groceries or gas (things you know you can pay off). There, I think we did well with that. :)

  • Wow, this is amazing! And something I wish I had read when I was still in high school (or university, for that matter!).
    The only thing I can think to add is to actually move the money you are saving to a separate account from your daily banking. I made the mistake of only having ONE bank account, which included both my spending money and over $10,000 in savings. Not only was I earning only 8 cents a month in interest on this account (when I could have been making A LOT more), but having that money accessible 24/7 meant it was ridiculously easy to spend on impulse purchases that I now, of course, regret.

    • That’s a great point, Amanda! Sometimes I forget about the little things that are so common sense to me now… but yes yes yes, if you’re saving money, it should absolutely be in a separate account – not in the chequing account you do your everyday regular spending with.

  • Great advice Cait I will certainly show my son and daughter. I would add to the earlier comment about tracking your expenses for a month that it’s often the small regular expenses that add up – the takeaway coffee or the bought sandwich at lunchtime can eat into your pay without you noticing. It seems like an effort to make a packed lunch or take a flask, or maybe you worry that it isn’t cool, but it will be when you’ve saved enough at the end of the month for that concert ticket or to put another lump sum into your savings for your gap year. Best wishes, Sarah

    • That’s a great point to add, Sarah! Especially when you mentioned that they could save money for other things they really want, like going to a concert or taking a gap year (which I love the idea of and wish I’d done). That’s a lesson we all need to remember: we can’t have it all! At least, not right away. ;) So it’s important to pick what matters now, not waste money on the little things we don’t really care about and make our money do what WE want it to do. :)

  • Great point on the “Save 10%” guideline we always hear. I’m fortunate to be socking away approx. 35%, and at first, I worried that I was saving ‘too much’. What a notion! Through my journey, I’ve learned where to eliminate (shopping, ‘New’ vehicles, cable) and where to adjust spending without removing it form my life (time with friends, travel). I carved out a healthy portion for savings (and planned spending) and learned to live a fulfilled life. Knowing that my future is a little more secure feels far better than a new purchase. I believe we should save as much as possible, without restricting happiness in our present life. To the students, you don’t need the newest iPhone, or the popular brands of clothing to be wonderful. In fact, those who think that way are phony. (I sure hope they’re still teaching Catcher in the Rye!) Be responsible with your money (don’t be phony), invest in your relationships, and work for the life you want. If you can harness that, the world is your oyster.

    • I can’t think of anything more to add to that, Keith. THANK YOU for sharing your advice with any of the students who are reading :)

  • TRUTHED! Thank you for this dose of absolute wisdom this morning. And I agree we need to talk about it more. No one is going to learn unless we have more open, honest discussions about what works, what doesn’t, what helps you sleep better at night and what stresses you out. It’s horrible how so many adults still don’t get it.

    • I’m glad you added that, and hope some students read it, Maggie <- that adults still struggle with this. It's a terrible position to be in, no matter what age you are... so if you can build up good habits now, and especially start with saving young, there's a chance you could never find yourself in that situation. :)

  • I really like this advice. I can offer an example of how good money management can get you debt free very quickly. I saved most of my money from my part time job in high school, and decided not to use it on my education so I would have some savings after I graduated. I took out student loans to pay for my education, but every time I got a lump sum I would subtract what I needed for tuition and living expenses and put the rest in a savings account. At graduation, I had 10,000 saved up from these habits, and by keeping my costs low and working part time I didn’t use all the money my parents had saved for my education, so that was another 10,000. I was able to reduce my 33,000 in student loans to 13,000 off the bat. Over the past year of working, I’ve put every extra dollar, including my tax return, to my debt, and managed to pay it off, in less than 1 year from when the first payment came due. I put 38% of my net pay towards my loan, and in the end I only paid 1,350 in interest, saving me at least 8,000 over the traditional ten year repayment period. I admit I was lucky to have savings from my parents for school and to have found a job right after graduation, but I have many friends with the same benefits who are barely paying the minimum and will be in debt until their thirties. Being debt-free is the best feeling ever and with some planning and discipline, anyone can do it. I even profited from taking out loans, since the government gave me 46,000 and only 33,000 was repayable. That’s a pretty decent return.

    • The smile on my face got bigger and bigger, as I was reading your story, Giovina! May I ask how old you are!? You have some FANTASTIC money management skills… my gosh. I want to hear more more more! What’s next for you!? Tell us everything. :)

      • Hi Cait, glad you liked my story. I’m 24, and that last payment was made on Friday, so now I am starting from scratch with only a couple hundred in the bank and a small retirement fund. I’m going to try to save at least 35% of my net income, and I’m still not sure what I’ll do with that. I’m considering early retirement, extended travels and investing in rental property, but it will take a few years before I can act on those goals. In the meantime I’m trying to de-clutter and live more simply, so I can live with less and have more flexibility. I really like reading your blog, it’s one of my inspirations :)

        • WOW! You’re just at the beginning of life after debt, and already have so many wonderful ideas of what you want your future to look like (and how your finances can help get you there). I am SO excited for you! :D

    • HS students need to read THIS! Giovina, this is amazing. Seriously. this is a model that students would buy into.

  • Hey Cait,
    I love your blog :)
    I just turned fifteen yesterday and wanted to say that this is really valuable to me. Not because of the exact things you wrote, but the message at the beginning: Your parents don’t say “do this because I like bossing you around” but “I have lived for a long time, learned a lot of lessons and with this experience, want to help you lead a happy life because I love you”. I think I needed a little reminding.
    I won’t be working that much because I have to do so much schoolwork and want to continue my favourite hobbies like making music. I think my 60 year old self will benefit from that :) but I will start budgeting my pocket money and birthday money in the ways you suggested.
    Have a wonderful day, Cait.

    • Hi Carry! And happy belated birthday! I believe you are the youngest person who has ever commented on my blog. :)
      I’m so glad that the intro of this post reminded you that your parents only want to share what they’ve learned, in hopes it’ll help set you up to be successful. It’s hard to put ourselves in our parents shoes, but they truly do love you and just want the best for you. Money is so personal that we don’t want anyone to decide how we spend/save it. They just want you to have a great life, and good financial habits are part of that!
      I completely understand why you won’t work much in school; just keep the advice for when you do get a job. And it’s ok to enjoy a little bit of that birthday money. :)

  • Excellent post! I wish I had learned some of this when I was younger. Like you, I was told but didn’t listen. It gets harder and harder to turn back.. it’s like a hole you dig yourself in.. gets deeper and deeper. So, the earlier to recognize and STOP digging, the easier it is for you to get out of the hole. You are wise to recognize and did something about it at a young age. I recognized at a young age too, but didn’t take it seriously enough to stick to my plan to get myself out of it. I improved a whole lot.. but not where I want to be YET. I still struggle now to spend less than I make. I need to make sacrifices. That’s the key that I think many people don’t recognize or cannot do (yet). Anyway, the point is!… Your post is excellent and I hope young people do take your advice. :-)

    • Unless we’re in the early retirement game, I think most of us never really get to where we want to be YET… but every step forward is in the right direction. :)

  • Love this post. I wish I had this advice as a teenager. I’m currently a graduate student with support from my parents but I’m looking for a part-time job to start saving. Better late than never I hope :)

  • When I was in high school I worked every summer I could. My parents were kind enough to pay for my gas (otherwise I would basically have been working to pay to drive myself to and from work, not ideal). I put every single paycheck in my savings except for my first one (which I used as my spending money for the summer) and part of the last (which was my spending money through Christmas). Meanwhile my co-workers were buying new clothes, the new iPhone, and constant meals out.

    Not once did I regret saving it all. I still went to coffee with friends (but maybe that day I would just hang out and not buy anything) and I still had a great time. But by the time I went to college I had a savings account bigger than any of my friends, and and it gave me a feeling of freedom. When I graduated college I used that money to buy myself a car. Every time I drive it I’m reminded how much saving can really pay off.

    • Mandy, you are an excellent example of what we can all accomplish in our high school years – if we prioritize saving money! I was like your co-workers and just constantly bought new stuff… now, I couldn’t even tell you what it was. You have a car as proof of what you bought. Well done! :)

  • Cait, such a fantastic letter! I am so happy to hear your words will be stretching to high school classrooms – you are definitely the perfect candidate for this. :) You hit it right on that saving money allows you to design the type of life you want. I will always be fully captivated by the idea that money can lead you to financial freedom when used responsibly. One of the biggest lessons to learn, is what does financial freedom mean in your terms? No need to keep up with the Jones’, or fall into the comparison effect – determine what your financial freedom is and be confident in the ways you are going to get there!

    One of the worst habits I had in high school and college was what I like to refer to as the “$0 balance comfort” – yikes! I was SO used to hovering around the double and single digit range in my checking account that I was actually comfortable with it! That’s because I felt safe since I would receive a new paycheck to replenish my account in just two weeks time from my jobs. This is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking to fall into, and if you can master not having this happen in your high school years you will be far better offer when you enter the “real world.” :)

    • AMAZING point, Alyssa, and one I didn’t even think to consider. High school students: your definition of financial freedom won’t be the same as everyone else’s – and it shouldn’t be! Forget about what everyone else is spending money on. Do what’s best for you, and what will lead you in the direction you want your financial life to go. Yes yes yes. Thanks, Alyssa! :)

  • THIS! Loved this post! Maybe it could have come useful for me 10 years ago. I really should have saved more throughout my teenage years. I have held a job since I was 14 and started out well. I saved money, Mum had an extra account and was in charge of it, when I needed some of the saved money I had to tell her and she would give it to me. Of course I never wanted to tell her what I needed the money for, so I avoided having to take money out of the savings account like the plague loool
    Things though were going downhill when I was around 18 or 19. I was still going to high school, had two student jobs and was friends with a group of grown women who all loved to go to concerts of ours favorite bands. All of my money was spent on going to concerts. I wasn’t necessarily trying to compete with my friends who had a full paying job (!) and went to 50-60 concerts a year because I knew I couldn’t but I sure as hell did try to keep up! Don’t get me wrong it was a lot of fun and we made some great memories and mostly I just went to the concerts to see my friends but in between the tickets, gas and all the extras those were very extremly costly meet ups. In retrospective I should have said “no” more often and saved the money instead. Living from paycheck to paycheck and often so close to a negative balance often gave me anxiety. From my personal experience peer pressure is the biggest hurdle during teenage years. This whole age is so hard and confusing, I am glad, I left that behind me. Really don’t want to go back again looool But for all you teenagers reading this, my pieces of advice: try a written budget, just for a few months, stick to it and see how it goes. Write down everything you buy. To the very last penny. Learn to decide between wants and needs. Yeah, I know it’s cute but do you really need it? Think about how long you have to work for this to be able to buy it. Oh and don’t buy stuff on “buy now, pay later”. I had a friend who owned H&M 600€ for freakin’ clothes. Please don’t be that kind of stupid ;)

    • Sie sind auch aus Deutschland! Faszinierend, was man im Internet doch für Leute trifft :)
      Dass zwei Deutsche auf einer kanadischen Seite landen und den gleichen Beitrag kommentieren…
      Ich glaube auch, dass die Balance am wichtigsten ist. Für Spaß mit Freunden kann man immer mal wieder etwas ausgeben, wenn auch nicht jede Woche. Aber Kleider muss man nur ersetzen, wenn sie nicht mehr gut sind. Immer nach der neuesten Mode zu gehen, ist nicht gut für einen schmalen Geldbeutel.

    • That’s another good reminder, Jenny. Peer pressure is something we struggle with in high school, yes, but it’s also something we can experience throughout our entire lives. It’s not easy living a “counter-cultural” life and doing what other people don’t… but if it’ll help you reach financial freedom sooner, it’s worth it! Stick it out. :)

  • This is great! In high school my dad would make me put half of every check into savings. I hated it but was quickly grateful in college!

  • Wonderful resource. This is something I will be sharing with my college students in my personal finance class. I like that you share the idea that your paycheck is not your budget. Spending everything you have on both wants and needs is a problem. Saving can be boring but it helps create wealth. It gives us options. Plus we work so hard to earn this money so we do want to have something to show for it.

    I like to share the example of compounding interest and how that can accumulate and grow toward the goal of retirement. The numbers are important but the behavior of saving and the options it gives you is much more important. The ability to save and still have fun on a budget is all possible. Intentionally giving your dollars a purpose so you have peace of mind and don’t have to rely on a paycheck to pay basic bills like rent each month. Having it in savings gives you pad between you and life.

    • Oh, I think compound interest is a lesson we should ALL learn… I just thought I’d take the human approach, for this first letter. You, as the teacher, can help with the rest. :) (And thank you for teaching that class, Joe!)

  • I love this post, especially because you wrote it for high school students but it is helpful also for adult that understand that needs to have finances under control to achieve financial goals. Honestly I’ve started to work during weekend int he cafe when I was 16 and I still remember that first paycheck is been spent on clothes, then I continued to work and study at the same time ignoring what budget and savings were. When I turned 27 I started to think about future and understood that was arrived time to became adult and taking my responsibilities, well I still have an hate-love relation with budget but luckily now I’m debt free!!!

    • That’s amazing, Giulia! How wonderful for you. Debt-free is the beginning of the next journey – and it’s a great one. :)

  • My husband and I were married at nineteen. We thought our credit cards were our budget. Three years later he had to take a nearly 50% pay cut and our infant daughter outgrew everything every three months. That’s not the best time or way to learn about budgeting. We did eventually get out of debt and saved enough money to be able to retire comfortably. But I will never forget the very lean years of living on little to pay for when we had lived large.

  • This is a wonderful, thoughtful and useful letter. It should be mandatory reading for all high schoolers/you should be invited to guest lecture at schools across the world, haha. (But seriously…) Everything you said is so spot on, especially the stress and worry. For most high schoolers, money is a foreign concept—especially large amounts. You broke it down in such a wonderful and accessible way.

    • I’m glad you think so, Taylor! I really wanted to make sure it was easy to read and would hopefully keep some students interested. :)

  • Always carry cash to pay for the things you have budgeted such as food, gas, clothes, entertainment. When you swipe you aced you don’t see the money leaving your account but when you hand over cash, you see it and feel it.

    Also, when you get your first job, start planning for your own retirement through your company or self funded. Social security is not a good retirement plan. Self-funding your retirement and taking advantage of employer programs is the best option.

    • Excellent points, Krystal. Retirement is probably a huge topic on its own – but we definitely need to take control of it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Awesome post, Cait!

    But I think your story underscores an important point about personal finance education: how personality and motivation plays a crucial role. Some teens will follow the good advice their parents and teachers give them while others will rebel. Personal finance education isn’t as easy as an authority figure sitting people down and explaining the principles.

    I think people really relate to those who have made mistakes and bounced back. It’s like saying “this is what future-you wants present-you to know right now.”

    kudos :)

    • Yep, you could be right about that, Elizabeth! I’ve also read that we, as humans, don’t pick up financial concepts until they are relevant to us and our situations… but I don’t know if I buy that. I learned all kinds of math concepts in high school that I don’t remember now and will never use again. How is money any different? Anyway, good topic of convo, for sure! :)

  • Great post, and what a great opportunity to share what you’ve learned with those students. I couldn’t agree with what you said more, and I’d add that it’s a good idea to keep a college-student budget until you pay off your loans. No new cars, homes, furniture, or fancy clothes until you pay off those loans! This went a long way for us in paying ours off early and getting a good start in other areas.

  • Excellent advice Cait! For so long I fell into the same trap you were in, thinking that my entire paycheck was my budget! It took me way too many years to banish that thinking, but now that I have, life is great! We have money in the bank and just feel happier and more secure knowing that we can take some risks (like my hubby starting a new job in the spring), because we can afford to. We sleep much better now!!

  • Why aren’t more schools systems more like the ones in Steinbach, Manitoba??? This is an awesome thing to get involved in for sure! Great advice! Personally for me, I think the strongest advice is to select a college major or career path that will at least earn you a paycheck. Whether that is accounting, plumbing, programming, nursing, etc., but basically something that is in need. Once you have that your life becomes so much easier, and you’re able to do those things that might not actually pay money in your free time. This might be a little too one sided to share in a class like that but I really think this is important.

  • You pretty much covered this, but 1) save early, often, and generously (be good to older self!), and 2) calculate the REAL cost of buying something with a credit card @19% APR and paying it off over one year. It’s shocking!

  • Here in the US, when I was in high school, my father showed me that I could put money into a traditional IRA to avoid paying taxes at the end of the year. In high school I was just trying to keep my money mine. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started paying attention that I realized how awesome compound interest was, and what a gift my father had given me. I believe in Canada the equivalent to a traditional IRA is the RRSP maybe? Since then, I’ve found I prefer the Roth IRA (TFSA) but when I was in high school I never would have touched the Roth IRA. (also it didn’t exist yet)

  • This is great. I definitely thought of money during and after college, but I also definitely had to learn some very expensive mistakes. It wasn’t so much that I had to learn to be aware, but more so had to learn about how to be disciplined with it. I hope the lessons I’ve learned from those mistakes will eventually pay off! Good write up!


  • Great post Cait! I think my parents really tried to instill some financial wisdom in me when I was young, but I definitely didn’t want to listen… luckily I still managed to save for things and stay out of debt during university (thanks in no small part to my parents again for the education fund they had set aside for me). I wish I had read something like this growing up though, it would have helped me be more aware of my finances and helped me get ahead, instead of trying to sort things out now that I’m in my 30’s. I think I will direct some of the teens that I know to this post…

  • Such a great post. It’s so important to to be talking with high school students about money! I’m working with my local school district to educate our students. My advice for students is learn as much as you can now, learn from others mistakes. Personal Finance is mostly common sense, but you need to have a plan for your money. Check out the rule of 72 or compound interest. If you start saving at 16, 17 or 18 you can really have much better control over the life you want. You will deal with money the rest of your life why not take a little time to better prepare yourself for it.

  • Hi Cait, in the section called (Let’s start with the topic of making money…).I think you’re right. I believe that is very important to get experience in work and if you are student at the high school. In addition, it is very good one is able to get a wage to appreciate the struggle the you need to get it.

  • This was very concise advice and I really liked how you went about explaining savings benefits.

    You must have covered everything because I can’t think of Anything else to add. Just reemphasize don’t use student loan money for other stuff. Like cars, trips or anything not school related.

  • I’m a high school teacher in Ontario, and I think it’s fantastic that you’re involved in financial literacy in high schools! There seems to be no such thing happening in the schools in my board. I’m going to let my principal know about this. Hopefully, there will be a bandwagon effect. Great letter! I wish you had written it when I was in high school! (But you weren’t even born : )

  • this letter have really changed my life. l had always thought that getting what I want and not what I need can make me the person I wanted to be but not. this post have addressed it. I am 20year old

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