A few weeks before my husband and I got married, we stood in the lobby of our bank and stared blankly at each other. Ben looked down at his worn blue checkbook, then up at me, and wordlessly handed it over.  
That moment would come to symbolize what would happen next in our marriage: As we merged our lives, we merged our finances, too — and I took them over.  
It was December, and we were in our senior year of college. We were expecting our first baby in May. That spring, I graduated, gave birth and started my first job as a nurse. Ben became a stay-at-home dad, and once the summer was over, he was back to school to finish out his mathematics education degree while I continued to work.  
While it wasn’t exactly the easiest time in my life, it taught me very early on how to manage my family’s money on a limited income. Here are the biggest money lessons I learned during that first year of supporting our family. 

Prioritize Your Emergency Savings 

Right after we got married, I set up an emergency savings fund. Thanks to the more than 500 very generous family members and friends who came to our wedding, our cash gifts covered it. I’m grateful that after 11 years of marriage, several job changes, two houses and four kids, we haven’t had to touch it. Sure, we could have used that cash for a fancy gift to ourselves. But having that fundamental stash has made us feel more secure as we weathered the ups and downs of the past decade. 

Make a Plan for Paying Off Debt 

My second priority right out of school was paying off a private student loan Ben took out during his senior year. It had a staggeringly high interest rate — around 23% — so it had to go. At that point, we had taken out several federal student loans, but because the interest rates were much lower and they weren’t due for repayment, I focused on the high-interest non-federal loan first. I picked up one extra shift a week at the hospital, put that extra money toward it and paid it off in three months.   

It’s Never Too Early to Start Saving for Retirement 

Shortly after the wedding, a co-worker recommended a financial planner. I quickly set up a meeting to discuss saving for our retirement. I remember the advisor being so patient with us, despite the fact that we could only afford to put away $50 a month, and praising us for getting started at our age. It taught me that it’s never too early to start saving for the future.  

Living on a Budget Doesn’t Have to Mean Sacrificing Goals 

Although we didn’t make a lot of money that first year, our expenses were lean, too: We had a $500 monthly rental, a cheap phone plan and rabbit ears for TV. We lived simply, but I had big plans for our future. Once I was working, I set two major savings goals: 1) to buy myself a nice camera to document our daughter’s life, and 2) to buy my husband a planer to support his dream of becoming a woodworker.  
I calculated how many shifts I needed to pay for each and had faith that saving for these goals would be worthwhile. And it totally was. That camera purchase sparked my interest in blogging and writing, leading to my current career as a writer. And today, my husband, a teacher, has a thriving woodworking business on the side.  

Not All Money-Saving Strategies Are Worth It 

I worked two jobs my first year after college: By day I was a work-from-home nonprofit coordinator, and by night I was a nurse. That whole time, I refused to hire a babysitter. I wanted to save money and didn’t want to leave my baby — ever. I now know our entire family suffered as a result of my frugal ways. I didn’t get nearly enough rest and struggled with postpartum depression. Since then, I’ve learned that some things just aren’t worth skimping on, especially if it robs you of quality time with the people you love.