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Budgeting For Life

Our fifth America Saves Week spotlight is Paula Sintes Darragh, a successful professional raised in a family of bankers. Paula adopted budgeting from an early age, so she saved enough and was able to buy a home before any of her peers started to even consider home ownership. She continued to imbed the budgeting thread through every stage of her life. Today, she is a successful director at one of the leading executive search firms.

Banking on allowances

Paula Sintes Darragh comes from a family with deep ties to the banking industry. Her father spent his career in financial services, and many other members of the family had similar paths. As a result, managing money was always part of the foundation that her parents tried to teach their children early on.

“When [we] were pretty small, my parents gave us an allowance on Sunday nights,” she recalls. “This was money we could save or use for anything we wanted. Sometimes we’d have something big we would diligently save for, and other times, we’d quickly spend it on silly things.”

Savings and budgets

She and her siblings also had savings accounts that they felt ownership for. “I had my own bank card with my name on it, not just some account that my parents managed behind the scenes,” she shared. “I still remember the sense of pride I felt making my first deposit. It was likely under $15, and I think I was about 7 years old.”

As they grew into teenagers, the same practice remained. Their allowance became their budget for weekend activities like movie tickets and eating out. “I knew that if I spent it all on Friday, I would have to cut back the rest of the weekend,” she shared. “This budgeting approach became my way of operating – even in college and beyond.”

To Paula, it seemed like a basic practice that she didn’t always appreciate when she was younger. However, it was hugely impactful. “It taught me the value of money and the importance of saving. It also showed me the various choices we face every day in terms of howwe want to invest or spend our money.”

She explains, “Today, I can say that I am infinitely grateful for this and many other ways my parents tried to constantly teach us about the value of money.”

The college deal

In college, Paula had a number of jobs to help support herself. “My dad and I struck a deal – they would pay for my tuition and housing, and I had to cover the rest,” she shared. ” It was extremely fair. I knew going to college in the US was a luxury compared to Bogota, Colombia where I am from, and I didn’t take it for granted. I felt I could contribute my piece as well.”

“My parents had given me an emergency credit card that could help me ‘if I was hit by a bus.’ Fortunately, I never used it, but it was a security blanket,” she recalled. “After my graduation ceremony was over, my dad extended his hadn’t out and asked for the card back. It was his way of saying ‘I am confident you can do this on your own now.’ I will never forget that moment. I knew then that everything I’d learned about money would become increasingly more important. I was now completely responsible for my financial future.”

Paula still remembers her first job out of college, with bills that she needed to pay with an entry level salary. “I was an adult, and while that was terrifying, it was also liberating,” she shared. She had spreadsheets to help her outline how much she could spend and on what as she tried to save enough to have a three-month cushion in case of surprises. “It was no easy task, and I sometimes deviated. But I stuck to it as much as I could. Budgeting and keeping track of my spending was critical.”

Spending cash and building credit to build roots

Even then, Paula would go to the ATM on Fridays for her spending money. “Using cash instead of a credit card allowed me to easily see when I had spent everything,” she explained. “While I tried not to use credit cards for everyday items, I did have one. I had recurring bills and payments set up in order to build my credit.”

At the time, most of her friends were renting and the thought of home ownership to them was a distant one. But, Paula purchased her first home. “For me, buying a home gave me roots that I was longing for since my family was in Bogota, Colombia. It also giving me an opportunity to invest my money,” she shared. “It was a bit of a risk, though. I put most of my savings into a foreclosed property that had the right bones but needed a little work.”

“I have always loved interior design and knew that with additional budgeting and time, I could make it exactly what I wanted…and so I did.  That moment was critical for me.”

Training kids’ financial literacy muscles

Paula’s kids are two and three years old, and are still too young to really understand much about money. However, she still tries to teach them about having a budget and making choices. “If we go to a store to get a toy or something fun, I try to tell them how much they have to spend,” she shared. “If what they like is more than the budget, we don’t buy it. But, if they want it bad enough they can add it to their birthday or Christmas list. Most of the time, they end up forgetting about it.”

“While this seems like common practice or basic, they do ask me how much things are. And if I say something is more than we have, they don’t push to buy it.”

She believes it is extremely important for kids to learn about money, especially young girls. “Financial literacy is not a skill or muscle that appears overnight, but rather one that is developed over time with the right principles and guidance from parents, teachers, mentors, and even society,” she said. 

Paula doesn’t go to the ATM every Friday for weekend spending money anymore. But, budgeting and saving is still central to the way she and her husband manage their finances. 

“We have two children, so it has become even more important to ensure that while we want to enjoy some liberties as a family, we also need to protect our kids’ future.  We have a portfolio that we actively manage – it also helps that my husband is in finance!”

“Even for grown-ups, every-day choices and financial decisions need ongoing evaluation, reflection, and effort. “You have to constantly learn and seek advice – even if it means appearing like you are clueless! 

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