When I was 17, I had a unique opportunity to take on some adult responsibilities. As a business owner and single mother of three, my mom needed some help, and I was eager to get some real world experience under my belt before college. So together we agreed that I would take over various business and household tasks for the summer, which included one especially important duty: paying the bills.

I want to be clear: at first, I didn’t know much at all about money management. In fact, I hadn’t yet held a job more official than babysitting. Though I had my own checking account, I never had a steady income, let alone any regular expenses to plan for. Because of this, my learning curve felt pretty steep. My mom gave me her account information, walked me through the first round of bills, and just like that I suddenly had a brand new perspective when it comes to money. Not to mention a whole new appreciation for how complex it can be to juggle finances to keep a family of four afloat.

Expenses Add Up

Most of our bills were paid online, and I remember thinking to myself how fast it just “disappeared.” One click. Boom. There went $215 for one month’s use of our cell phones. $215? Suddenly all that texting and downloading became real. Physically writing a check didn’t feel any better. Writing out the words was sobering: one thousand one hundred dollars and eighty-three cents, all to live in a house I had taken for granted for over eleven years. It was shocking. Are we really paying that much just to live here?

I found myself feeling guilty as I quickly realized how much it all cost. Our phones, electricity, heat, car payments, mortgage, credit cards – all of it added up so fast, but I hadn’t thought about it until I was the one filling out the checks and clicking the “submit payment” button.

My new appreciation for everyday expenses and how hard my mom worked to cover them triggered in me a desire to adjust my own lifestyle to help keep costs down.  I started using the Pandora app for free music, packing sack lunches, and hand-washing the dishes – all thrifty alternatives to just a few of our daily expenditures.  I had been contributing to my family’s collective bills for a long time; it just took this experience to help me understand I could positively impact our finances as well. That realization was actually kind of empowering!

Another added bonus to my experience? By learning to effectively manage my family’s finances at 17, I was also preparing myself for managing my own money when I left for college a short year later. Here are four key lessons that I was fortunate to take with me onto campus:

  1. The importance of small spending choices. It’s easy to pass up Starbucks every day when you realize that the tradeoff is keeping your lights on, or being able to turn on your oven. Missing one bill could mean a mess, so the money has to be there when the bill is due – period. Small choices really do add up and can make all the difference.
  2. The importance of saving. Especially for an emergency fund. One example: our family’s water heater broke, but instead of dipping into our vacation money we were able to pay for it with our emergency fund. Though our vacation fund didn’t grow as fast while we worked to replenish our emergency fund, what was the alternative without those emergency dollars? Take freezing cold showers for months so we could go on a one week vacation? Yeah, we chose the hot showers.
  3. The responsibility of living on your own. Before my summer stint, I couldn’t have imagined the amount of time and organization needed to stay on top of the finances. What worked best for me was to retrieve and sort the mail immediately, so nothing was misplaced or overlooked. I created a list of all the bills expected each month and organized it chronologically by due date. By the time I made it to college, I already had a working system so that was part of my normal routine. Some of my new college friends weren’t quite so lucky, and their disorganization meant they had to eat a few late fees early on that hindered some of their weekend fun.
  4. I became much more aware…of how long my showers were, of how often we left lights on in unoccupied rooms, and how quickly all this waste could easily outpace our living expenses. Again, it all adds up. It’s actually not that difficult to save money by being mindful of daily routines. Just a few little tweaks can quickly improve our bottom line. I hadn’t thought about any of those tricks until I saw money leaving the bank account; now, I can’t stop looking for ways to save money around the house.

The lessons I learned from that one summer of bill paying has served me well in so many ways, and not just when it comes to money (although that’s a big part of it). I’d also like to think that being knowledgeable about finances has allowed me to take advantage of opportunities that I otherwise may not have been able to, like becoming the treasurer for my sorority, or my position as the financial education intern for Inceptia, where my money savvy helped me stand out during the interview process.

With each of these opportunities, I gain more experience and make more professional connections, both of which are key to my future success after college. When I reflect on how just one summer has affected my journey already, and how it will continue to provide me with the savvy to handle financial challenges in the future…all I can say is, thank you mom. It was you who did me the favor.