Jess Irvine's first job was mowing lawns in the Canberra suburb of Flynn. She remembers making pamphlets and dropping them in letterboxes around the neighbourhood. She got a few takers; still in primary school, she'd push the mower up the street and mow lawns for a few dollars here and there.
She's happy to admit her father was her main employer. She's happy to admit too that she probably spent those few dollars pretty quickly.
Irvine, a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, hasn't always been interested in money.
But she's achieved some notoriety of late for sharing the intimate details of her private life on social media and in her newspaper columns. Her Instagram page @moneywithjess has more than 29,000 followers, her website jessicairvine.com.au is full of resources and practical tips.
If you're a fan, you know when she's ordered Uber Eats, went to Costco or went to putt putt with her young son.
If you're a fan, you know that she loves a good highlighter, is a little obsessive about what comes in and what goes out. When it comes to calories, too. She documented how she lost 20kg in her book, The Bottom Line Diet, back in 2014, using simple accounting practices.
"I've always been a numbers geek," she says.
She has a university degree in economics and philosophy, it's her job to regularly pass judgment on how the nation's treasurer is managing the country's budget (she's covered 18 annual budgets so far), she's interviewed prime ministers and lunched with Reserve Bank governors.
But when it came to her own budget, she knew things were lacking.
"I'm the classic example of someone who knows a lot about something in theory, but was pretty crap at applying it in practice," she says.
But after her divorce, she realised she was close to 40 and didn't own her own house, nor did she have any idea if she was on course for a comfortable retirement.
She knew something had to change. Just like she tracked her calories, she began tracking dollars in and dollars out. It's as simple as that.
"Overwhelmingly, I see people stuck in a pattern of thinking money is just too complex to understand," she says.
"It's also common to believe that money is boring - this one hurts my soul! - or that it's just the case that some people suck at money.
"The good news is that if you're one of those people who believe these things, honey, you're wrong. Don't feel too bad about it.
"An entire financial system exists that profits from your overwhelm. To fight it, you need to learn to manage your thoughts and emotions about money.
"Ultimately, money is just a medium for exchange. You give up your time and skills to your employer and, in exchange, they give you money. You then take this money and exchange it for all the goods and services you need and want to live a happy life.
"There it is: money explained in just a few easy sentences."
When she started tracking her spending it made her think about what it was she needed to have a happy life. One thing she won't give up is her gym membership.
"When I post my spending on Instagram I get a bit of feedback about the gym membership.
"It's about $380 a month but it's a good example of spending money on things that align with your values or enhance your life. I did give it up for a little while, and that was a good experiment. I realised how important it was for me."
She says the pandemic has forced us all to think about what is essential.
"Before the pandemic things were getting quite frenzied, people were working long hours, doing long commutes, lockdown gave us a chance to spend a bit more time at home and examine what was essential.
"When we weren't allowed to go out for non-essentials, people were asking themselves do I need to eat out so much, do I need to go to the hairdresser so regularly, do I need weekends away?
"Certainly for me it was a catalyst to look at my lifestyle again and think about what was really essential and it's probably a lot less than people think."
Does she have any advice for people who'd like to think about this process?
"Just start writing everything down for a month or so, in a non-judgmental kind of way.
"I like doing it with pen and paper [her website has links to all kinds of worksheets] because I associate my phone with work and it can stress me out.
"Being in the moment, being observant, while I'm doing it, and I sit down at the end of every week, is really important to me. You can reflect on whether you got true enjoyment out of spending that money."
She says the current debate about the rising cost of living has people thinking about the topic again.
"When I started writing the book a year ago, I didn't know we would be heading into 2022 with a cost of living crisis, with inflation the highest it's been in two decades, with petrol prices above $2 per litre.
"Most people are facing rising costs in the household budget, and people are worried about that. Just get your figures down on paper and you'll know what trade-offs you can make to afford those higher repayments."
In the end, she says it's all about how in control you feel about the money you have.
"People on a high income, spending money like there's no tomorrow, could be experiencing a higher level of stress and anxiety than someone on a modest income who knows how to save money, who knows they don't have to be keeping up with the Joneses."
Does she have a guilty indulgence?
"Books. I buy a book a month. I love reading. And don't let me near Officeworks. If there's a danger in my system it's encouraging people to buy highlighters. I love a fresh notebook."
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