Trading card style image with a headshot of Callie Cox, senior investment strategist at Ally Invest. She’s from Charlotte, NC and her money mantra is Save like a pessimist, invest like an optimist. She has a low risk tolerance, and her guilty pleasure spend is on good food and wine, while her savings goal is new furniture.

What are some money lessons you learned growing up?

I didn’t have any formal “money” training growing up, but I had experiences.

I’m one of six kids in my family, and we grew up lower middle class (with some tight times). We rarely had money for anything beyond the essentials, and I still remember being the kid without the nice stuff. That upbringing turned into money insecurity as an adult. I’m always worried about losing it all, and I will likely never shake that feeling.

We never talked about investing in my household, although I was always curious about how the stock market worked. But I really didn’t learn the basics of investing and saving until I started working.

Did you pursue higher education? How’d you pay for it?

I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated with a journalism degree. Go Heels! I grew up in North Carolina, so I was lucky to get in-state tuition rates to a good public school. I also received a few scholarships, but I still had to take out loans for the majority of the costs. And eight years later, I’m still paying them back.

I’m so glad I went to college. It made sense for me, but I understand how it doesn’t make sense for everyone. You have to consider the debt aspect, too, especially at higher-priced schools. And many of us are only 18 or so when we make this big financial choice. It’s crazy to think about in retrospect.

Tell us about when you started making money.

Technically, my first job was babysitting as a teenager. My first “real” job was as a scooper at a local ice cream shop in high school. And my first professional job was reporting at Bloomberg. I made my fair share of “money mistakes” right out of college, but I was really just trying to get by on my own in New York City. I carried credit card debt every once in a while, and I took out more than one cash advance to move apartments (one on a late-night dash to a Chinatown ATM).

I definitely didn’t save much, either. And the rich irony was that I wrote about money and markets at Bloomberg (side note: money experts have their struggles, too!). That’s when I started to understand how important personal finance and investing was.

I moved to North Carolina a few years later and really buckled down on my finances. To be fair, it was much easier with a lower cost of living. I balance transferred my credit card debt to a zero-rate offer and started saving up an emergency fund. Then, when I was 26, I started investing, and I’ve never looked back.

And your money plan is…?

For a few years, my partner Matt and I were sticking most of our money in a savings account so we could buy a house. Good news: We bought a house in March! Bring on the homeowner bills, right?

Now that we have a house, we’ll divert more of those “savings” beyond our six-month emergency fund into our taxable brokerage accounts (or spend it on a dining room table, let’s be real). But we’ll still keep that emergency fund in a savings account and build on it if we need it. Pro tip: You don’t always need a goal to save for, just make sure you save!

We both max out our 401(k)s, and I contribute to a health savings account to take advantage of our pre-tax opportunities. I’ll probably open up an IRA just to boost our retirement savings a little, although I go back and forth between focusing too much on retirement instead of goals closer on our timeline.

We also contribute a set amount of money to a broad-market fund in those taxable accounts each month, no matter if the market is up or down. We think of it as a nest egg in taxable investment accounts that we can tap for whatever big dreams we have in the next 15 to 20 years.

Outside of those, I also have a “play” account of sorts, where I put money into sectors and stocks I believe in. By the way, I don’t actively trade. I’m holding all my market positions for years.

We’ve worked hard to get to this place, and we’ve been both incredibly privileged and fortunate to be able to focus so much on building our savings. We’re in the prime of our financial lives: both employed, living comfortably, no dependents (well, except our dog). In these conditions, we find it easy to save money, especially because Matt and I are so risk-averse (for me, mostly because of my childhood).

But we know it may not always be this easy, so we’re constantly thinking about the future.

What about your future money goals?

Our house was our biggest money goal. Ironically, we checked that box, but we still have a long list of expenses to cover (like furnishing the house … eek!).

We’d also love to pay off our debt (student loans) in the next two to three years. And I joke with Matt about buying a beach house one day (but between you and me, that’s not actually a joke). Maybe we’ll get there!

Above all, we just want our (future) family to feel secure.

Let’s talk about money struggles. Everyone has them — what are some of yours?

Our biggest struggle has been knowing how to prepare for the future. Now that we have a mortgage and we’re thinking about kids down the road, it’s tough to balance what to spend on now versus what to spend on later. We’ve got the basic financial foundation (emergency fund, retirement, taxable investments), but now we’re thinking about how to level up without getting too risky.

We’re both still paying off student loans, too. I’m almost done, but Matt went to law school and that’s not cheap. Sometimes, the dollar amount is intimidating, but I constantly have to remind myself that we have a plan that will get us there.

It’s hard to know how to be prepared for later in life. We’ll (presumably) have kids, careers and unexpected emergencies in the decades of life ahead of us. How do you set yourself up for all of that now? Will we be able to sustain this lifestyle later on? What will costs look like down the road? What will the world look like in 10, 20, 30 years?

When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. But life is what happens when you’re making plans. That’s really tough to accept when you’re a planner (like I am).

Also, as a 20-something (soon to be 30-something, wow!), I’m told to do a bunch of things now to achieve financial freedom later on. It’s best to start early and get a plan in place, everyone says. How do I prioritize all of this? Obviously, I can’t save all my money, invest all my money and pay the bills at the same time.

Do you have a money mantra?

I love the “save like a pessimist, invest like an optimist” mantra. We prioritize savings over everything in our household. I sleep better at night when I know we have cash in the bank. That’s a personal preference, and it’s OK if you feel that way too! Different strokes for different folks.

We’re also diligent about consistently putting money into our brokerage account. This is where my optimistic side comes out. I like to think of the overall market as a bet on society. If you believe society will rebuild and innovation will continue after crises, then you have a good argument for stocks over the long-term.

Give us a 10-second money pep talk.

Hey you. I bet you feel like you’re not doing enough. Trust me, we all feel that way from time to time, and none of us have it all together. But you’re actively thinking about how to improve your financial journey, and that’s more than most of us are doing. Figure out your goals, get a budget together, and honor your money insecurities. You’ve got this.

Thank you for sharing your money story with us, Callie!

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Headshot of Callie CoxAs senior investment strategist for Ally Invest, Callie Cox helps educate Ally Invest customers about the financial markets through engaging content and strategic initiatives. Callie has worked in financial research for her entire career, with stints at LPL Research, TABB Group and Bloomberg. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg, the Financial Times, Yahoo Finance and Barron’s (among other publications). You can also find her on Twitter at @callieabost.