A simple piece of advice from my mom has helped me save thousands

My dad's gift-giving tradition taught me a critical money lesson that forever changed the way I spend

The week after I graduated from college, as I was packing up to move to New York City and start a career in journalism, my mom gave me a simple piece of advice: Save part of every paycheck, even if it isn't a lot.

"Treat your savings like a bill," she said. "Even if it's only $20 a month, make it a habit to put away something every month."

"Right, of course, sure," I responded, already preoccupied with a million other questions and fears about post-grad life.

Nevertheless, her advice stuck with me.

Starting out on an intern's salary, I wasn't able to save much. But even so, I set up an automatic transfer from my checking account to my savings account for the first of every month, and I gradually increased the amount.

As my paycheck has grown, so have my savings.

The author and her mother.
Emmie Martin | CNBC

By treating my savings like a bill, I don't even consider it money I'm allowed to spend. I've put a mental block in place, so I know this money is off-limits the same way I know I can't spend the money earmarked for rent. Over the last three years, I've been able to save thousands with little to no effort, because the money disappears before I have a chance to think about it.

My mom's not the only one doling out this winning advice. Writer and self-made millionaire David Bach refers to it as "paying yourself first," and says it's a proven, easy way to get rich.

"What most people do when they earn a dollar is pay everyone else first. They pay the landlord, the credit card company, the telephone company, the government ..." Bach writes in "The Automatic Millionaire." At the end of the day, they pay themselves whatever is left over. He calls this strategy "positively financially backwards."

Bach will also be happy to know that I've made my savings automatic, which he says is another key element of building wealth.

"There's no getting around it. In order for 'Pay Yourself First' to be effective, the process has to be automatic," Bach writes. "Whatever you decide to do with the money you're paying yourself … you need to have a system that doesn't depend on your following a budget or being disciplined."

The lesson here is two-fold: Treat your savings like a bill and always, always listen to your mom.

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My dad's gift-giving tradition taught me a critical money lesson that forever changed the way I spend