I always thought I’d have it together by the time I was well into my twenties: a job that paid all my bills and then some, a house, a family, a published novel — a life that was just as in order as it appeared to be.
Then, the closer I got to my 20th year, I began to believe all the beautifully designed articles I found online about how your twenties are a time to experience life and have wild adventures and make mistakes that you can learn from later. I still believe your twenties should be all those things…but that’s just not usually realistic, and if you haven’t been realistic about life up until your 20th year, then maybe you should look at that sooner rather than later.
I wish I had.
I’ve made a lot of bad decisions over the course of my life (who hasn’t?) but looking back on them now, I think the financially irresponsible ones have had the most impact. Because it’s not love that makes the world go ’round — it’s money. While I feel like I always knew that, I also grew up believing that, somehow, I would always live in bubble of financial security and stability, and everything would always be okay.
How wrong I was — and how I wish I’d had the foresight to see it from the day I started working. Maybe then I could have better prepared.
What I’ve Learned, And What I Wish I Had Done Differently
Work, work, work.
Get a part-time job in high school: fast food, retail, tutor, babysit. Learn, through experience, the value of a dollar. How many hours of work will it take you to earn back what you just spent on that pair of black leather, high-top Converse All-Stars? “I can make that money back in a day,” I said. Unless they were on sale, I don’t know where I got that information because they’re a $70 pair of shoes and I was working five hours a day for minimum wage. Guess I still had a lot to learn about basic math, too.
Save, save, SAVE!
It’s infinitely easier to lose money than it is to acquire it, and you will eventually need the money you have now. Save before you spend; think before you swipe your card. Can you truly afford this purchase, or are you holding a credit card because you don’t have enough cash or money in the bank right now? Do you need it? Will it benefit you in the long-term? Will it bring more than just the fleeting joy of getting something new? Always try to consider the long-term.
Life hack: Set — and stick to — limits by only paying with cash. It’s easier to curb spending when you can actually see the money in your wallet disappearing with each purchase.
Your first apartment is more than good enough. Want what you have.
A bigger apartment with granite countertops is not going to make you feel happier or improve your quality of life, even if you do have the means to afford the higher rent payment.
Sometimes, however, something more than your first apartment is the better choice. If you’re moving to someplace safer, it’s most likely worth spending the extra money. If you’re ditching paying rent in favor of paying a mortgage, it might be worth spending the extra money. Use discernment in your decision making.
“It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.” — Sheryl Crow, “Soak Up the Sun”
Learn as much as you can — about savings and retirement accounts, about the stock market, about how to create a financially stable future.
I couldn’t explain Roth IRA or 401K(k) accounts to you if my life depended on it — and when it comes to retirement, it’s certainly possible that my (or your) life will depend on knowing and understanding how these savings accounts work. The bills and living expenses continue to roll in, even when the paychecks have stopped, so it’s important to learn about and understand your options — the earlier, the better.
Investing in the stock market has traditionally been another way to make a profit but I think just the phrase “the stock market” feels daunting. There are two ways to start out that I’m interested in: penny stocks, which sounds like a fairly low-cost, low-risk way to get some market experience, and the Acorns app, which I understand is supposed to round your card purchases up to the nearest dollar, and invest your spare change for you. But I haven’t done the introductory research that would make me feel comfortable playing with any kind of stocks, and I haven’t worked up the nerve to take the plunge with trusting my bank account information to another app.
In either case, I think, it’s better to learn now, leap later.
Once you’re legally an adult financially supporting yourself, take your parents off your bank account.
My parents opened a bank account for me when I was little. I’m not sure of the semantics — so I guess this goes back to learning as much as I can — but I believe it’s separate from their account, but still linked so they could easily deposit money. Somehow, I think this allows them to see a few of my accounts and the what’s in them, and this does not sit well with me.
Generally, I’m not against being open with my parents, but now that I’m an adult, any information they receive about my financial situation should come directly from me and not from my bank account. Looking at finances without permission constitutes a breach of privacy and respect. Whether it comes from a place of good intentions does not matter, or make it acceptable.
What angers me the most is that more recently my parents have expressed concern about my financial situation and then used that to imply, if not explicitly state, negative viewpoints about my fiancé that I neither needed nor cared to hear. Frankly, while I still give them the benefit of the doubt, I really don’t care whether their intentions were good or not in that moment. I have been well aware of their opinions and concerns for years and I didn’t need them to be reiterated. It didn’t feel like love or concern for me; it felt manipulative and controlling, and it hurt.
Be open to being open with the people close to you if they have your best interests at heart. But keep in mind that no one needs to know everything, and especially not without your consent.
Be more open about your finances with your kids if they ask.
For me, this one ties in with the previous one. My parents have never been transparent with me about their finances — and that’s fine. It’s their money, and I don’t need to know the numbers. I respect that. However, that respect must be extended both ways. (I fully disagree with the viewpoint that a child should respect an adult just because the adult is an adult or a parent; I believe you have to give respect in order to receive it. Even between parents and children.)
On the other hand, when I read this article by Darcy Reeder, it resonated deeply with me. If I ever expressed concern about money to my parents when I was young, they always brushed me off, saying “That’s not for you to worry about,” or “That’s not something you need to know.” These statements were never reassuring. I would’ve benefited more from a teaching moment: tell me that my ballet classes cost money, but we can afford them and you’re happy to pay for them, if that’s so. Let me know that we may not have money to go out to eat every night, but once a week or sometimes even twice a week won’t put us out of house and home.
“As a young child, I worried about money after hearing random grownups worrying about it,” she writes. “So with my own child, I strive for more openness.”
It’s still okay to spend on yourself every now and then.
While I wish I’d made a lot of different financial decisions, there are a lot that I don’t regret. Currently we’re in a position where we need to save a lot of money, but I have no regrets about the money I spent on books recently while shopping with a friend. I see nothing wrong with the monthly vet plan for Penny, because she’s protected and so are we, especially as we take her in for shots next week. He needed that new desk chair, and I think I needed the massage.
Some purchases are necessities, and some are forms of taking care of yourself, and some are just for fun. Those are perfectly okay, as long as they’re not a financial drain. Again, it’s important to be discerning — but it’s also important not to beat yourself up over every little thing you buy. Guilt can be more detrimental than spending money.
And in case you’re wondering: yes. I still have that pair of Converse, they’re still in perfectly wearable condition, and I still don’t regret buying them.