Managing Your Money is Like Riding a Bike

I was talking to someone about money recently (because let’s be real, I am everyone’s awkward money friend) and they asked me, if I had to boil what I know about money into one single piece of advice, what I would say to people?

I get the impression my answer surprised them, because I said,

“Be gentle with yourself.”

And the reason why has everything to do with riding a bike, I swear.

I was raised with this stuff

My mom taught me great money management skills.

Like, seriously, if there was a model of “how to make sure your child isn’t the worst with money” it would be her. She was always open with me about our family finances, helped me understand what different things cost, and she even paid me to read personal finance books to supplement her excellent example. (The Wealthy Barber is the only one I remember, if you were wondering.)

Even with all of this access to excellent personal finance information and examples, when I look back on it, there were only two lessons that really stuck (to be fair, they were big ones).

  1. You save 10% of your income for retirement no matter what . Like, this was a non-negotiable in my mind. Sure, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that they meant pre-tax, not after tax, but still.
  2. If you can’t pay for it, you can’t afford it. This lesson is how I escaped my pauper new-grad days without credit card debt, because I always had the mindset that you just didn’t carry a balance on a credit card. You just… didn’t do it. The end.

Those two lessons alone made sure I couldn’t go too far wrong with my money (thanks Mom!) but I was still no shining example of money management skills.

I didn’t track my spending.
I didn’t know how to choose between a TFSA and an RRSP.
I didn’t invest.
I paid bank fees.
I never compared my insurance rates.
I bought a shit ton of books from Amazon.

Even with all the access in the world to “how to be good with money” information, I still didn’t hold onto all of the lessons I read about or saw.

Managing money isn’t an innate skill

No one is born knowing how to manage their money, just like no one is born knowing how to ride a bike.

If you’re lucky, like I was, you have someone in your life who can teach you how to ride a bike at an early age, so it’s a skill you take for granted later in life – and one you can get right back into when you need to access it.

That’s what happened to me with money: my mom made sure I had the basics reinforced at every turn, so that when I got my first Real Job, my automatic reaction was “I need to save 10% of this for retirement.” It wasn’t even an option I had to consider. I just did it, in the same way that after not riding a bike for seven years, I could hop back on and start pedalling without too much angst.

Even so, both my money management knowledge and my bike skills were more “bike to the park” and less “Tour de France.”

I’m still not there, by a long shot, on either skill.

It sucks to feel like you don’t know how to do something

To keep the bike analogy going, I’d like to bring up everyone’s favourite 90s’ TV show, Friends.

Specifically, that one where Phoebe admits she never had a bike, and when Ross buys her one, she tries to tell everyone that of course she knows how to ride a bike, even though they see her walking the bike around town .

Spoiler alert: she doesn’t know how to ride a bike.

(In case you’re wondering, I 100% rewatched that episode as “research” for this article. I take money pretty seriously you guys.)

Anyways, since Phoebe had never learned how to ride a bike as a kid, she didn’t want to admit that as an adult, she felt really embarrassed – and scared – to learn how to ride a bike, or admit she couldn’t already do it.

After all, this was A Thing Adults Know How To Do, and she didn’t know it already.

Ahem, sound familiar to anyone?

Once again: managing your money is not an innate skill

If you walked into a bank, and someone asked if you had considered the tax implications of your choice to save in an RRSP versus a TFSA, how many of us would be like, “Uh, of course I’ve considered the tax implications,” while secretly breaking out into a cold sweat because omg I totally didn’t?

Yeah. That’s the Adults Should Know How To Do This talking, the same one that Phoebe felt when she was all “I can totally ride a bike.” We tend to put money management squarely into the I-should-already-know-this category, but like… why?!

No one learns how to set a budget when they need to get to the park to see their friends as a kid. We’re all in the process of learning this as adults, when we actually need it – even those of us who did learn a lot about it growing up. (I’m not even going to touch on how Ivanka Trump “learned about money” because omg no.)

Even still, it’s far too easy to feel like of course other people know how to do this, and to not want to raise your hand that you don’t know what the hell is up with RRSPs and TFSAs, and how do you even start to invest anyways?

But it’s not too late to learn

You are not behind the curve on this. And if you’re reading this, I’d argue you’re already ahead of the curve. 

To put it in biking terms (because I’m really into this analogy) you don’t have to tackle a 100KM excursion as your first bike ride, or go out and get all the latest gear to start. In fact, I’d strongly recommend against doing it that way. Instead, you should start by taking the training wheels off, and take a baby step – and the same concept applies to money.

When I look back on the past few years, switching to an online bank is what I identify as my first real money win. It made me feel like I was taking control of my money, and like a Person Who Was Good With Money – even though I was already doing some things right, and was still doing a lot of things “wrong.”

Was I investing yet? Nope.
Was I tracking my spending? Hell no.
Had I figured out whether an RRSP or TFSA was the best thing for me? Not a chance.
Was I saving a lot? Not really.

But by taking control of that $5 a month account fee – and doing the truly tiny amount of work it took to never pay it again – I got a little bit more confident that I was a Person Who Got It.

From there, I waited a few months, and then I redid my budget. After a few months, I reviewed my recurring payments and cancelled some of them. Only after I did all that did I start tracking my spending, or start investing, or achieve my goal of saving half of my income.

I started small. I took baby steps. And the entire time, I was gentle with myself.

No one is born knowing how to do this stuff. And as much as it can suck to feel like you’re not good at something, it’s the first step to getting good at that thing, whether it’s riding a bike or managing your money.

That’s why, when I’m asked what my #1 piece of money advice is, I’ll always choose “be gentle with yourself.” You’re not behind the curve. Feeling like you are sucks. But you can start small.

So do that.

Be gentle with yourself, start small, and go for it. It’s easier than you think it’s going to be. (Spoiler alert, it can even be kind of fun once you get going.)