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.
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.