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Allison Woollard managed to fund two degrees, travel to Europe, buy a car, and invest in a condo before turning 24. Ms. Woollard, now a teacher in the Greater Toronto Area, says she learned most of her basic financial knowledge from reading personal finance magazines and books, and watching TV shows like Til Debt Do Us Part. She says early on she developed a strategy to prioritize, save, track her spending, and to find and make more dough.

Her top priority was to graduate debt-free, but it was also a dream to travel and spend three months in Europe prior to starting teachers college. Her dream trip became her "rather factor," and she started weighing every possible new purchase against her goals. "Would I rather have this new $200 dress, or would I rather have $200 to put towards my travel costs?" she would ask herself. This reasoning motivated her to brown bag it for lunch, borrow more of what she needed, and save more of what she was making as a server through the school year and in the summer. Ms. Woollard says she didn't make much per hour, but the tips were significant.

"I would deposit that money on the way home from work every night," she says. "My manager would make fun of me, but if I didn't have it in my hands I wouldn't spend it." She prefers using her credit card for fixed or necessary purchases so she can rack up valuable travel points.

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On top of paying for half of her annual tuition (her parents funded the other half), she saved an additional $15,000 in three years. After graduation, she put $5,000 towards travel, $6,000 towards graduate school, and the remainder toward a vehicle for commuting.

Aside from making more through a part-time job, she also searched for "hidden money" by reviewing all fixed bills or expenses for further savings.

"I'm getting better at negotiating on things like my cellphone bill," she says. "I realized I was paying $80 a month for features I didn't even use, like unlimited texting. It was a simple expense to cut once I was aware of it." Now, she's currently figuring out how she can turn her love of photography into a hobby business to generate some additional income.

"I also consistently track what I spend. I have a little document on my BlackBerry and every time I spend I do a quick subtraction," she says. "When I'm aware [of what I'm spending] I'm less likely to make the big purchases or realize that I don't really need that new purse or yoga mat."

Every month she sets aside a large chunk for savings and everything else goes towards gas, cellphone, going out, and charity. Ms. Woollard started sponsoring a child when she was 15. "I figured if I was spending $40 on a cellphone, I could spend $40 on a sponsored child," she says.

She's quick to point out that a boost to her savings comes from having her parent's support and being able to live at home rent-free – an opportunity she doesn't take for granted. She says her parents are supportive because they know she is working towards something. This fall she'll move into her own condo, with enough money to comfortably cover mortgage payments and furnish her new space.

She says she never feels left out or deprived by putting most of her earned income into savings. "I'm not sitting at home eating rice and not going out with my friends," she laughs, "but I don't ever want to feel that there is somewhere I want to go that I can't afford." And if she can't afford it, she'll research alternatives. This summer she'll join a program called Global Journeys to teach in France for the month of July. Most everything, including excursions, hotels, flights and meals, are covered. Plus, she will make a little money for her time. The opportunities are out there, according to Ms. Woollard.

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She never wants to appear to be bragging about being on a smart financial track, but she is open when colleagues or friends want to know how she does it. But really, "anyone can do it, whether it's saving $2,000 a month or saving $200," Ms. Woollard says.

"Tracking, saving, prioritizing. It's actually not that hard. It's more about being conscious of what you're making and what you're spending," she says.

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies money group. Read her weekly column on managing debt and saving money at the Globe's personal finance site.

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About the Author
Angela Self

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies, a group of five women who specialize in personal finance. They are hosts of a self-titled show on the W Network and the authors of The Smart Cookies' Guide to Making More Dough. More

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