10 Personal Finance Tips for Young Adults

| April 9, 2012 | 47 Comments

After turning 28 last week, I’ve realized that my twenties are mostly behind me. I’m finally able to look back on adulthood with 10 years of life experiences as an adult behind me. Would I do things differently? Yes and no. If I did things differently, I wouldn’t be where I am today and I wouldn’t know what I know today. Here are my top 10 personal finance tips that I would give to other young adults who may be just graduating high school, college or just starting out on their own:

1. Don’t get too excited to build your credit

Today at work, I was surprised to find out that my co-worker, in his mid-twenties, had just got his first credit card. I got my first credit card 10 years ago, when I was 18. I was young, a recent young adult, and excited to start building credit. I’d heard all about how good credit will get you good interest rates on loans, lower insurance rates and all the usual hype. By the time I was 21, I was carrying around credit cards with limits as high as $20,000. Crazy, huh? Luckily, I never got into financial trouble. Actually, it was more a factor of being able to live off of my mom throughout college. If I didn’t have that, I might have gotten myself in some deep trouble. I remember when I was still in college, I dreamed about all the toys I could charge to my credit card. Somehow, I made it out alive without bankrupting myself. Today, my two credit cards sit in my wallet with a zero balance on them. I like it that way.

So why would I recommend against building credit right away as a young adult? I don’t believe building credit itself is bad, although I would caution against doing what I did as it can open you up to a potential problem if you are ever tempted to start spending. I could have put myself in debt $25,000 in one day of spending while I only made about $5,000 per year. Scary, huh? Looking back, I sure think it is.

2. Each expensive car you buy will set you back years

I’ve been lucky enough (if you call it that) to have owned two expensive cars in my young adulthood. The first one my mom footed almost all of the bill for. The second one, I sweated over for two and a half years to pay off (and I mean sweated). I obviously didn’t understand the value of $14,500 at 18 years old when my mom paid for most of that first car for me. But as soon as I had to pay it out of my own pocket while supporting myself, I understood. To put it nicely, an expensive car will cost you years of your life. If you don’t have the money (and most of us young adults don’t) to buy that shiny new car, then prepare to sign a chunk of your life away in the future to pay for it. Speaking from experience, it’s just not worth it. It will cost you time with your friends and family. It will cost you vacations that you’ll never be able to take because of it. It will cause stress and anxiety. It’s not worth it. Go cheap. If you want a nice car, save up and pay cash for it.

3. Track your finances

The day I started to track my finances with Mint.com was the day I started my path to financial success. I used to be broke. It wasn’t because I didn’t make any money. I certainly made enough. I’m not broke anymore because I know what I make and I know what I spend. I am shocked at how many people don’t know how much they take home each month, how much they spend and which number is higher. Are you serious? You don’t care about your future that much that you have no idea if you’re even living within your means? Wow, that’s not okay.

I can tell you to the dollar, how much I make each month, spend each month and what my net income is each month. I know my spending has been a little higher lately than I want it to be. I know it will go up this summer a little bit too because I tend to spend more in the summer than the rest of the year. I know these things because I have two years of financial tracking under my belt. I know myself well and what my spending is going to look like. Take it from me. If you know your finances up and down and you want to be financially successful, you will be able to. Get started right now with Mint.com.

4. Work where there is opportunity

A big reason why I have been able to get out of debt and save money these last few years is because I joined a company with opportunity. What does opportunity look like? Well, opportunity might not have a health insurance plan. It might not have a 401k either. It could be a small start up with 4 employees, like the company I started with 5 years ago. Opportunity may show itself in a position that your friends make fun of you for taking.

Once that company grows from 4 to 40 employees and you played a major role in that growth, your friends will stop laughing and start asking you where they can send their resume. Not every company will grow like that, allowing your role to blossom and take off, but some of them will. I also understand that not everyone is a cut out to be a business leader. Business, although not the only way to get opportunity, is a very good way to do it. In a capitalist economy like ours, opportunity in business is everywhere. If you really want to get out of debt and get ahead financially, I would suggest not looking past opportunities that, although they may not look glamorous at first, can help you do it if you work hard enough for long enough at them.

5. Stop buying stuff

The key to saving money and increasing my bank account every month for the past 2 years is that I learned to stop buying things. I bought almost everything in my apartment during the first 6 months of living here. And now, almost five years later, the place looks almost exactly as it did then. Boring, huh? Perhaps, but instead of stuff in my apartment, I have stuff in my savings account.

Do you really need that bookshelf from IKEA? Sure, it’s only $89 but think of what it will cost to fill it with junk (I mean books). As soon as you have an empty space for storing something, you’ll go out and buy something to fit on that shelf. And unless you’re shopping at a garage sale on Saturday morning, you’re going to be paying retail for it. If you aren’t tracking your spending, you’ll have no idea how much your shopping is costing you either. Let me give you a hint. It’s likely in the hundreds of dollars every month, which adds up to thousands per year. Thousands of dollars on shopping? Seriously? No wonder you owe $10,000 on your car.

6. Stop borrowing and pay off your debt, ASAP

Sorry, but I suggest you keep your current clunker car, even though it’s breaking down every month. If you have student loans that aren’t paid off, I’m going to suggest you pay them first. Yes, it will be painful. It will also be embarrassing driving that beater for another year. All I can tell you is that it’s worth pain and suffering for a year or two to get out of debt. I paid everything I had on my debt for two and a half years to clean up my mess. It was hard, long and it flat out sucked. Today, I’m debt free and loving it! I feel financial peace and freedom.

For a strategy that works here, I’d suggest Dave Ramsey’s baby steps plan, otherwise known as The Total Money Makeover.

7. Now is not the time for taking it easy

Some young adults I know are too eager to say, “you’re only young once” and “this is my last year before I have to grow up”. You know what? The quicker you grow up and become an adult, the quicker you’ll be able to be young again. The longer you put off growing up, the longer you’ll be broke. You just might look up when you’re 30 and say, “darn, I guess now I have to grow up”. If you would have been kicking it in gear for many years at this point, you may be able to say “Wow, I have all this money now. Where should I go on vacation?” You may also say, “You know what? I’m tired of working the usual 9-5. I’m going to start my own business!” When you have money in the bank, you can take risks like that. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you can only dream of doing that.

As young adults just starting out, we need to kick it in gear, not so our lives are all rosy today, but so they are rosy in our 30’s, and 40’s, and 50’s, and 60’s and for the rest of our lives. I’m really convinced that if you bust it out in your twenties, you can make your entire future better. Now is the time, people. Let’s do this.

8. Just because you’re done with school, doesn’t mean you can stop learning

Life is a never ending learning journey. You don’t stop learning just because you’re done with school. A career opportunity can teach you more in many cases than school can. You learn it hands on, instead of from a PowerPoint presentation. Obviously, not just career opportunities teach you things. You learn from relationships and family as well. I’ve done a lot of learning since my time in college. A lot of which, I had to go out and learn. It wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter. If you want to get ahead professionally or personally and if you want to save some money and not be broke, you need to learn. Learn about how people with money did it. How did successful people get that way? It’s not luck. It’s because they learned how to do it.

9. Plan ahead and set goals for your future

The reason I got out of debt is because I set a goal. With $8,000 to go, I set a goal for 6 months out to pay off my car, in which I was dedicated to spending money on nothing unnecessary during that time. I ended up missing the goal by about a month. Next, I set the goal to pay off my student loan debt. I beat that goal by one month. Once debt free, I set an outrageous goal to save 6 months of expenses for an emergency fund in less than 5 months. I hit it, right on target! These goals were pretty out there. I didn’t hit them on target every time, but I did hit them, eventually, every time. If I wouldn’t have set them, I surely wouldn’t have accomplished them.

Think of it this way: If you get in the car to drive somewhere but don’t have a goal of where you want to go, what are the chances that you’ll get there? Um, zero.

If you want to get ahead, you’ll need to plan and set goals. If you want to buy a house, plan it out. If you want to make more money, set goals and plan it out. If you want to get out of debt, track your finances, know your reality, plan it out and set a goal. You’ll be surprised at how effective you’ll be if you plan it out. Don’t leave it to chance or luck.

10. Stop thinking about interest and growth and focus on behavior and lifestyle

You get ahead because you behave in a way that gets you there. You save money because you stop spending like you are in Congress. It’s not rocket science. It takes savings to get ahead and it takes hard work to make money. Yes, compound interest is a great thing and there is money to be made out there through capital gains and market appreciation, but there is no such thing as a get rich quick strategy. Sure, some people get rich this way, but it’s not common. What has worked for me is that I stopped focusing on paying off the debt with the highest interest rate and instead just started paying the dang thing off. I have a healthy savings account not because I invested it well, but because I cut my spending drastically and transfer a massive chunk of cash over to it every single month.

Money comes from work and discipline. Success comes from a smart lifestyle and smart behavior over time. Forget about get rich quick schemes.

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Category: Getting Ahead

Comments (47)

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  1. Michelle says:

    Great tips! Now kindly go back in time and smack 18-year-old me please.

  2. Daisy says:

    All great tips! I’m still struggling with a few of them. Like buying stuff, and taking it easy – I’ve always been a hard worker, so it’s hard for me to just sit back and relax.

  3. Michelle says:

    I need to remember the tip about cars. I need to stop caring!

  4. This was a REALLY good list. I definitely have thought about most of these things but I always thought I was mature for my age and wistfully thinking about all of my friends who live by the motto YOLO – You only live once. Well, to live once, we have to think of our future and plan ahead. Thanks for this list, I’m going to reference it all the time.

    Also, I can’t speak highly enough about the one where you should work at a place that offers opportunity. My BF and I took positions at huge corporations and we long to work for a start-up.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you liked this list. It all comes from experience in my life. I do think that finding work with opportunity is important. Good luck to you and your b/f on that!

  5. CJ Belle says:

    Great (!) article…I just sent this to my niece (she’s about to be 18 and off to college for pharmacy this fall). I am 30, and learning these lessons the hard way…but I’m happy to say we’re on the road to green (as opposed to red–negative net worth). We are cc debt free (20k paid off in 5 months!) as of yesterday thanks to these tips we’ve been living by. Now, off to hit those pesky student loans we (hubby and I) have, lol…3 more years and we’re completely debt free!

  6. bogofdebt says:

    This is a great list. I realy wish I could go back in time and give it to my younger self. I love it!

  7. Great tips! I wish I could redo my first few years of working full time and started budgeting. I have no idea where all that money went! Actually, I wish I could go back in time to before college and only take out the loans I actually needed – not take out every loan I received. Oh well, nothing I can do except improve going forward.

  8. I just drove to a client lunch today where my Honda sedan was the oldest and crappiest car BY FAR in the parking lot. I think I needed this post. :-)

  9. Thanks for the tips. As someone in her twenties seeing all her peers doing the opposite of that list, it’s good to hear that I’m not crazy for not buying the latest gadgets and driving an old beat up car. There’s a few things on the list that I can still definitely improve on.

    • You’re definitely not crazy for not spending money foolishly. People may think you are though, since it’s not very normal to live like that, especially when you can.

  10. The one thing I wish I had done (or even known about) was investing $1,000 each year in my 20s.

    • Well most twenty somethings know that they “should” invest in their twenties, but they don’t do anything about it. Personally, I think it’s less important to invest than it is just to save and think about your future.

  11. Great tips. Wish I could have had these with I was younger.

  12. JAMES says:

    This is quite an extensive list. I love the one about the car. A car is such a money pit. I bought my first car brand new and hated every month that I had to pay that payment. That torture lasted 4 long years.

  13. Great List! I especially agree on how a car will set you back. Resisting the urge to go out and buy a new car with your first “real” job is probably one of the best financial decisions you can make

  14. Carrie Smith says:

    I’m loving this post and I can totally relate! I just turned 28 this year too, and I definitely agree with your points. I was very eager to build credit (I even had my dad co-sign a $1,000 loan just so I could repay it over a year to build credit). I wish I had taken my time and let it build organically, that’s the best policy for a lot of things in life, I think.

    I also bought my first car with cash (half saved by me and my dad gave me the other half). But after I got into a major car accident I had to purchase a new car, which of course meant I had to get a brand new one, right?! (teenagers…) Anyway, I ended up PAYING for that car, many times over. I’m almost debt free now, and like you it’s taken blood, sweat and tears.

    I wish more young people would share your view on “Now is not the time to take it easy”. I always seem to be getting into arguments with my friends/peers because they think I’m too focused on making money, my career and getting out of debt. Guess they will change their minds when I can actually use my money to fund my dreams instead of debt.

    Awesome post Kraig! So glad I found your blog. :)

    • Hi Carrie. First of all, you have a great blog (I checked it out today). Second of all, I love your attitude on “not taking it easy” because then you get to actually use your money to fund your dreams. That’s what I’m excited about too. I’m not living below my means for no good reason. There is a good reason!

  15. Julia says:

    This is a great article! I agree that tracking your finances and setting goals are very important for moving forward financially.

  16. alex says:

    I wish I would have seen this before I bought my car. Now instead of going to college full time I’m working full time. I guess you live and you learn.

  17. Great post! I especially loved this line “The quicker you grow up and become an adult, the quicker you’ll be able to be young again.” I’m 20 years old now, and yes, I am geeking out on personal finance, but this is so I can be young again when I’m in my 30s! :) Thank you for motivating me once again! I needed this.

  18. Chelsea says:

    This was a fantastic read! I’m 20, and just finishing school next week for Massage Therapy. I drive an old car, but I love it, and I’m young enough not to be embarrassed by it. It actually amazes me how little some people know about their own finances! I’ve just recently started using different ways of saving besides saving accounts/checking accounts. Namely, CD’s. The interest sucks right now, but it feels so good to know I have money set aside. My current “rule” is that if I want to buy ANYTHING that costs over $20, I have to put that $20 towards my student loans, and if, in 3 months, I still feel that whatever the item was is necessary, THEN I can buy it. This is working really well for me so far, and I’ve passed this technique on to several friends.

    Oooh long comment so far…Totally went off my topic. But back to CD’s. I was checking a few of my different accounts in school today, and discussing the CD rates with a friend. A woman in her 30’s was nearby and asked me what in the world I was talking about. She had never heard of CD’s and was pretty much clueless to finances as far as I gathered. She actually said “oh, my husband does all that numbers-stuff” I was a bit dumbstruck. I mean, I’m terrible at math but money is such a huge part of our lives, it scares me that someone can so easily just wave it off!

    Just a note, my Dad is an accountant…so I was brought up with the hardwired idea of save and prosper. =)

  19. Great tips! All of them I really believe in especially the one about not being in a hurry to build credit. I actually think college kids should wait until their junior year of college to get one. The first two years are spent in a drunken fog anyway.

  20. I think financial responsibility can’t be emphasized enough, especially for young adults who are just starting out on their financial journeys in most cases. I certainly agree with spare use of credit cards as its what land most people in debt holes they can’t dig themselves out of.

    • Julia,

      Thanks for stopping by. Obviously, I agree with your thoughts. Let’s all do what we can to help turn things around. We can all build good foundations for ourselves to provide freedom, options and independence in our lives. It doesn’t have to be other way around, where we’re tired, stuck and out of options.

      Take care,

  21. My biggest tip to grads: Don’t get overwhelmed by the money you’re making. It’s tempting to go out and buy a new car or rent a fancy apartment just because you can, but if you can live like a broke college student a few more years and pay off loans and save up money, it’ll pay back in spades.

    • Hi James,

      Great tip. I definitely agree. Keeping your lifestyle low is HUGE! I don’t know if you need to live like you’re broke, but just keeping expenses in check and understanding where your money is going.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  22. Ryan says:

    Some financial points for us to think about are pointing out that not all college degrees are created equal. Same goes for the marginal positive effect one will get from going to a rich private versus a state public school.

    One thing to point out is that most of us are coming of age during the great recession and face weak job prospects, especially when everyone is in the same dilemma. So, kids are going to school, or going BACK to school, instead of earning $10 an hour at a job with a low ceiling. They are hoping to buy a couple of years’ time to let the job market recover, get some further education, and come back into the job market to find a career waiting.

    That’s the plan, anyways. All millenials should have personal financial goals, too. Regardless of their current level of income or employment picture. Good habits should start now, as this article lays out.

    http://trendingmillennial.com/financial-goals-that-millennials-should-set-now/

    It’s easily explained how cutting expenses or investing even $20 a month will pay off in the long run. Gen Y has what Warren Buffet and most would kill for, time. We need to be patient and let time work on our side.

    • Ryan,

      Agreed on both your first points.

      Yes, it’s kind of too bad that people are going back to school indefinitely until the “job market” recovers. What if it never does? Will they continue to go back to school forever?

      Something interesting to think about.

      Take care,

  23. Grace says:

    I’m turning 20 in September and am constantly looking up anything I can on personal financing and I must say that your list is truly fantastic! It’s a comfort to know that, if nothing else, hard work will always get you to your goal.

    • Hi Grace,

      You bet. Hard word and dedication WILL GET YOU RESULTS. I’m living proof.

      Shoot me an email if you’d like to personally discuss this stuff. I’d love to chat.

      Talk to you soon!

  24. Michael Mota says:

    Great article! Got me thinking of when I was 20 and all of the mistakes I made. I too had people telling me this stuff but I chose to ignore the advice. Now I am the one giving the advice to help others. We as humans keep repeating the cycle of debt, if only there was a way to prevent this.

    • Michael,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Oh yes, we all made some big mistakes in our young age, didn’t we? Sometimes, I think we won’t ever learn though until we experience these mistakes first hand. In the end, that’s not entirely a bad thing either.

      Best wishes to you!

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