J.D. Roth's superlative Get Rich Slowly has pondered this question in the past. Take a look -- here's the original post, plus the followup. (Don't miss the comments -- they're especially helpful.)
What made me start taking my finances seriously? Three events stand out clearly.
*I started an after-school job at Rogers Hardware. ($1.50 an hour -- riches!) College was a dream; my parents were farmers and not well-off. I knew I had to Do Something. Half the money I made during the three-plus years I worked at Rogers went into a savings account for college. I ended up with enough to pay for the first year plus much of the second, thanks to grants and scholarships. All because I started putting away money for college at 15.
*Husband was a well-paid mechanical engineer. I had a fascinating job as an editor for a quilting magazine. Our girls were about 7 and 9. Life was great!
Then Husband had a nervous breakdown. In the next month or so, he stayed home from work and did strange things, like obsessively washing the same sinkful of dishes for four or five hours. At night he said he couldn't sleep, couldn't breathe...and wanted to walk. We'd go outside and pace up and down the street for a few hours. (I didn't dare go past eyesight of the house -- our children were asleep in there.) We'd go to bed about 3 a.m...then I would get up at 6 to go to work, while Husband slept the morning away.
This went on week after week, until I felt ready to have a nervous breakdown myself. No income coming in. No time to think for myself. Fortunately, Husband began to recover and went back to work. (He found out, after his return, that his bosses at Martin Marietta didn't think a thing about it -- lots of engineers there had nervous breakdowns. Goes to show you the stress and worry they went through there.)
We had enough, thanks to an emergency fund, to get us through that time. But it made me determined to never feel quite as desperate again. I took extra care with groceries, shopped primarily at thrift shops, had a large garden. Husband switched jobs -- then two years later, quit that one, saying he felt that if he didn't, he would have another nervous breakdown.
By then, I was working for myself, and income was really spotty. But our emergency fund was larger, thank God, and it kept us going for three months. After that, Husband began a new job -- as a school bus driver.
Needless to say, a bus driver's income is substantially less than an engineer's -- about 75% less. We lived on that income -- and mine, growing, thankfully, because of Brickworks -- until the girls both graduated from high school.
Finances are better today; Husband is a trainer, which pays better, and my business has grown considerably. But I have never forgotten the lessons I learned from that first desperate period.
* The Millionaire Next Door. This book helped me realize that it's not the big prizes or jumps in salary -- it's the slow, day-by-day accumulation of just a bit that makes you rich in the end.
You can get this book for just a penny on Amazon -- and it will be one of the best purchases you ever made. Thomas Stanley has a new book I can't wait to read: Stop Living Rich...and Start Living Like A Millionaire.