As a 20-something handling your finances alone for the first time, you can set yourself up for either success or struggles. As for me, stupid is as stupid does. Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I made my fair share of financial mistakes. Following are a few of the lessons I learned the hard way:
More money in your paycheck does not equal more money in savings
It took me years to understand that it didn’t matter how much money I made, it was how much I spent that determined what I had left at the end of the month. In my 20s, I expected my next pay raise, tax refund, or other financial windfall would somehow fix all of my financial issues. My pay increased periodically, but my savings account didn’t.
If you think that making more money means having more money, think again. I found that the best way to spend less was to develop a spending plan. I hate using the word “budget” because it sounds a lot like the word “diet,” and you know as well as I do that people find it hard to stick to those.
So how did I turn my struggles into success? The first step was I wrote down how much I made. The next step was I determined how much I wanted to pay myself—in other words: How much did I want to save? I set a goal of saving at least 10 percent of my income. The goal was to save something before I spent my money on anything else.
What about the rest of my money? I learned that the most important part of a spending plan is how much you put away in savings to pay for emergencies and to build wealth to fund retirement. I allocated the rest of my money toward food, housing, and transportation. (But I also didn’t forget to set aside a little money for fun stuff, too.)
More money does not mean more happiness
Understanding in your 20s that more money won’t buy you long-term happiness will set you up for a happier and more fulfilling life in your 30s and beyond. A great example is taking a higher-paying job without factoring in how happy you will be working at that job. You will spend more time at work than anywhere else, so even if you are making a ton of money, if you don’t also enjoy your job, you will still be miserable. I am not saying work has to be fun; it is called work, after all. But eventually, you should start weighing your quality of life against how much money you are making.
More credit card debt means paying more in interest
You don’t need a finance degree to understand this equation. However, many people—and not just those in their 20s—forget that buying things on credit, carrying a balance, and making only the minimum payment will cost them more in the long run. In my 20s, as soon as my credit limit increased, I used my credit cards more and ran higher balances. When I was fortunate enough to get a raise, it was usually spent to cover the increasing minimum payments.
There is nothing wrong with wanting things, as long as you don’t rely solely on credit to buy them. Once I got older and a little wiser, I opened savings accounts for things I wanted. For example, I opened a vacation savings account and put money into it each month. When vacation time came around, I was able to spend without having to rely only credit cards. You can use the same strategy for buying a car, furniture, or any other big ticket item.
I had to learn the hard way because of the many financial mistakes I made in my 20s. If I had to do it all over again, I would: spend less money than I earned; pay myself before I paid anybody else; would not rely on money to make me happy; and would have strived to earn interest rather than pay interest to someone else.
Steve Repak is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, CFP® Board Ambassador, and financial literacy speaker. He is also an Army veteran and the author of Dollars & Uncommon Sense: Basic Training For Your Money. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveRepak
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